Article 3 - The Word of God
THE WORD OF GOD
We confess that this Word of God did not come by the impulse of man, but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God, as the apostle Peter says (2 Peter 1:21). Thereafter, in His special care for us and our salvation, God commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed Word to writing and He Himself wrote with His own finger the two tables of the law. Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.
NATURE’S REVELATION INCOMPLETE
The church confessed in Article 2 that the Lord God reveals things about Himself through nature. This revelation, though, cannot reveal all there is to know about the Lord. Mountains and thunderstorms speak of His majesty and power, and flowers and birds speak of His care and wisdom. But the world of nature cannot reveal the hatred of God against sin, and cannot tell us either how He in justice and in love sent His only Son into the world to redeem sinners. Yet it is God’s thoughts about sin and redemption that show us more clearly just Who this God actually is – holy, righteous, gracious, compassionate. That is why the church treasures the Word of God. In Article 3 the church repeats after God what we have heard God say in Scripture about His revelation through the Word.
It is fitting that we reflect first on the marvel of God actually speaking to man. This God: from His Word we learn that He is so high and exalted, so infinitely glorious and holy, that in His presence the holy angels cover their faces. Yet, this wonderful God was pleased to speak to creatures on earth! More, this wonderful God was pleased to speak to fallen, sinful creatures! He even caused the words He spoke to one generation to be recorded for the benefit of future generations. How telling this is of God’s glorious identity as God! Truly, there is none like Him!
GOD’S SPOKEN WORD
The Holy Scripture we have today did not magically appear on earth, but was formed through a process. From beginning to end this process is the work of God. It began with God speaking. We can mention three means by which God spoke His word: 1) Theophany, 2) Prophecy and 3) Miracles.
The term ‘theophany’ means literally ‘an appearance of God.’ When Jacob fled from his brother Esau, the Lord God appeared to him in a dream at the top of a ladder to encourage him (Genesis 28:12,13). To mandate Moses to speak to Pharaoh, the Lord came to him in a burning bush that did not burn up (Exodus 3:2). After Israel was delivered from Egypt, the Lord God appeared to them at Mt Sinai in cloud and smoke and thunder (Exodus 19:18-20). In each of these occasions, the holy and sovereign Creator of heaven and earth condescended to come to the creature man and interact with him. What Jacob and Moses and the people of Israel were permitted to see constituted revelation from God about Himself.
God does not always come Himself to speak to man. The term ‘prophecy’ refers to God taking hold of particular persons and causing them to say certain things on His behalf. As Amos says, “Surely the LORD God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken! Who can but prophesy?” (Amos 3:7,8). Just as the obvious and inevitable reaction to a lion’s roar is fright, so prophecy is the predictable and inevitable reaction to God moving one to speak. Jeremiah decided he would no longer speak the word of the Lord because of all the derision he daily suffered from the people. “But,” he says, “His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, And I could not” (Jeremiah 20:9). The apostle Peter tells us that “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). On another occasion Peter tells the Jews that “God has spoken by the mouths of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21). We have many questions about the mechanism God used to cause people to speak His Word, and there is much here we cannot understand. The fact remains, however, that the Lord takes hold of people and compels them to speak words of His choosing. Those words spoken by the lips of man come, in fact, from heaven, and so constitute revelation from God. As the prophets repeatedly said, “Thus says the LORD.”
The Lord God also used miracles to show people something about Himself. When He opened up the Red Sea for the people of Israel, He taught them that He was a God worthy to be followed and trusted. When He rained manna on the ground for His people morning by morning, He taught them that He supplies daily bread. Sometimes miracles confirmed the validity of the spoken word (John 5:36; Acts 14:3), but always faith was needed to understand the message of the miracle. There are three clusters of miracles in the history of redemption, all at decisive turning points: 1) the period of Moses, when Israel as a nation is born and must learn to trust God, 2) the period of Elijah and Elisha, when God’s people first gave themselves officially and openly to idolatry, and 3) the period of Christ’s earthly sojourn, when the Lord worked salvation for sinners. In the context of Israel’s actual circumstances, the Lord revealed through miracles something about Himself.
GOD’S WRITTEN WORD
Wonderful as it is that God spoke and acted amongst men, it is even more wonderful that He caused what He spoke (or did) to be written down. The Lord did not have to cause His spoken Word to be recorded. His act of causing the spoken Word to be written down, however, reveals again something of His care (and hence His love) for His people. For:
- What is written down is more durable. It lasts over the span of many years, despite the death of the writer.
- A written document is also reliable in that it does not change with the passing of the years, unlike the message that is passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. Think of the Chinese whisper. If the word God spoke so long ago had not been written down, we would have but little guarantee that the message we today have is the very same message which God spoke to Moses, to the prophets, to Paul, etc.
- What is written down can be correctly spread more easily to more people than a spoken word.
Long ago, God already loved us who live today, and so caused His Word to be written down. Paul tells the Corinthians: “Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The words ‘all these things’ refer to the matter Paul wrote about in previous verses – about Israel’s exodus from Egypt through the Red Sea (Exodus 14), Israel being fed with manna and supplied with water in the wilderness (Exodus 16 & 17), Israel’s disobedience in the desert and God’s righteous penalty (Numbers 14). When Moses wrote the books of Exodus and Numbers, he certainly was not aware that one day there would be a congregation of believers in far off Corinth. Yet Paul writes to the Corinthians that Moses recorded these specific events for the benefit of the Corinthians so many years later. How deeply that speaks of God’s care for the Christians of Corinth! This is the thought that deBres and his follow believers in Doornik confessed in Article 3, when they spoke of God’s “special care for us and our salvation.” By ‘us’ deBres meant himself and the rest of the believers in the little town of Doornik in the midst of their persecution. From passages as 1 Corinthians 10 deBres learned that God had him and his congregation in mind when He caused Moses to write the book of Exodus, and so deBres repeated after God the glorious truth he learned from Scripture. What comfort that God thought of them so long ago already!
The same truth is valid for us today. God had us in mind when He caused Moses, Jeremiah, Amos and Paul (to mention only these) to put pen to paper so many centuries ago! He wanted us, people of the 21st century, to know what He was like, to know what He did for us in Jesus Christ, and so to serve Him in gratitude. What love, what mercy, what special care!! With what eagerness, then, shall I pick up the Bible and meditate on its gospel in the midst of life’s questions and struggles! If my God was preparing hundreds of years ago already for my needs today, I can do little else!
The apostle and the psalmist develop this theme further. Paul tells Timothy that “all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16,17). ‘The man of God’ spoken of here is not just Timothy as preacher, but refers to the believer – and so includes even you and me today. The God Who by His grace allowed us to be His wants us to be thoroughly equipped for every good work in any circumstance life may present, and so has caused His spoken Word to be written (be a “Scripture”) for our benefit today. David understood the wealth of that, and so exults, “The judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, Yea, than fine gold; Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:9,10) and “Oh, how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). Being eager to pick up the Bible and reflect on its message is not a new sentiment!
What, then, is the Bible? It is Father’s letter to His child, a letter that expresses His love, His mercy. Given what the Bible is, I do not leave it unopened on the shelf, but I treasure it, I read it. I find the thought stimulating: God has given me the Bible so that He may speak to me in my circumstances!
THE INSPIRATION OF THE BIBLE
Scripture teaches that the Word of God is inspired (see above quoted text from 2 Timothy 3:16,17). Peter refers to the same notion of inspiration when he writes that “prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). The ‘speaking’ part as well as the ‘writing’ part come from God Himself, are ‘inspired’. The Greek word translated for us as ‘inspiration’ means literally “God-breathed.” The point of the term is that God sovereignly worked upon human authors so that they wrote what He wanted them to write. DeBres catches this teaching of Scripture in Article 3: “We confess that this Word of God did not come by the impulse of man, but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” So all Scripture has the stamp of God upon it.
In an attempt to explain how this inspiration actually worked, a number of theories have been formulated over the centuries:
The Mechanical Theory of Inspiration
This theory, promoted especially in the days following the Great Reformation of the sixteenth century, claimed that human authors were merely ‘machines,’ ‘typewriters’ moved by God to put to paper what He desired to have on paper. In this view, people were thoughtless agents so that the Bible is void of any active human thought or feelings.
The problem with this theory is that human feelings are in fact quite evident in the Bible. The Psalms of David, for example, clearly speak of his struggles, emotions and problems. Luke also testifies that he made a conscious effort of doing the research needed to know what to write in his gospel (Luke 1:1-4; see below).
The Dualistic Theory of Inspiration
This theory was a reaction to the Mechanical Theory, and was embraced by rationalists, for example, the Remonstrants, at the time of the Synod of Dort. This theory claims that the Holy Spirit is the actual author of those parts of Scripture dealing with salvation itself. Those pages of Scripture dealing with history, geography, human emotions, culture, etc, are then said to be simply human writings. As a result, the Bible actually consists of two parts: writings from God and writings from people.
Who, though, is to determine which writings in the Bible are of the Spirit and which writings are of human origin? If people are to make this judgment, we will invariably write off as mere human work those portions of Scripture requiring, say, more self-denial than one is willing to practice. One may think of the Bible’s teaching that the woman is to submit to her husband, or the Bible’s insistence that homosexuality is evil. We will retain as divine only those portions of Scripture we appreciate, and deem to be fitting words from God.
The Dynamic Theory of Inspiration
This theory claims that the Bible was written by human authors who lived very close to God, who knew God very well and consequently wrote down their thoughts of God. People as David, Jeremiah and Habakkuk loved God, but struggled much in their daily lives with questions about God’s nearness, how God works in history, how evil can happen to good people, etc, and recorded their conclusions and struggles in the Bible. We for our part can benefit from their thoughts and insights as we battle with similar struggles.
The problem with this theory is that the Bible is then essentially a collection of books written by man, a collection of human thoughts about God. There is then really no essential difference between the poetry of David and that of, for example, Helen Steiner Rice.
The Actualistic Theory of Inspiration
According to this theory the Bible is not the Word of God, but can become the Word of God when one reads it and is taken in by what one reads. Only when the written word does something to the reader, touches him, is one able to say of that portion that it is the Word of God.
The problem with this theory is that the work of the Holy Spirit is moved from the time the author wrote the Bible book to the time the reader reads that Bible book. The various books of the Bible are then simply human products, essentially no different from any other human book, and they become the Word of God today when the Holy Spirit touches the reader through his reading the Bible. One can then never lay one’s hand on the Bible and say, “This is the Word of God.”
The Organic Theory of Inspiration
This theory maintains that the living God used human authors, each with their own particular talents, struggles, feelings and circumstances, to write down His Word. The Lord sovereignly directed the circumstances of the human author in such a way that birth, education, gifts, research, memories, experiences, etc, were such that in and through and with the author writing his thoughts and recollections onto paper God’s thoughts were put onto paper. The result is that peoples of any race or age are able to understand God’s words. One cannot, then, separate God’s Word and man’s word in the Bible.
This theory is distinctly the most Scriptural of the above theories. As the almighty Creator of the world saw to it that His Word appear in printed text, He sovereignly moved people to write what He wished them to write. At the same time the human authors of Scripture put into their writing the results of their own research, expressed their own thoughts and feelings, reflected the culture of their times. The Holy Spirit formed every word appearing on the pages of the Bible, and at the same time each word and phrase bears the stamp of the very real human writer living with his feet on the ground in a specific context. So the Scripture is divine, and it is human at the same time. One cannot comprehend how these two can co-exist and co-operate to form one faultless product – no more than one can comprehend how Jesus Christ can be true God and true man at the same time. Yet given that none less than the Creator of the world is the Author of Scripture, it is satisfactory to creatures not to have to understand.
Luke 1:1-4 shows us something of the factors involved in the writing of the Bible. What should be noted here is what Luke says to Theophilus: “Inasmuch as many have taken in hand to set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write to you an orderly account, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the certainty of those things in which you were instructed.” Luke, then, did his research before he set pen to paper. For example, he went to Zechariah and Elizabeth to hear from them first hand what exactly took place in the temple; he investigated what happened in the fields of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth; he interviewed Mary to discern her thoughts and actions. Once his research was complete, he recorded what he learned. Understandably, he gave special attention to items that caught his special attention. Luke was a doctor, and so it is not surprising to find in his gospel various details of the ailments from which people were healed, details we don’t find in parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark. Here we have an example of organic inspiration: a man at work, using his gifts of research, recording his thoughts, placing his personal stamp on his product – yet all of it under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The result is a word from heaven that relates very well to the realities of this earthly life.
RULES FOR READING
Appreciating how the Bible came to be has consequences for how one reads the Bible. Rules that apply to any human writing are valid also for reading Scripture. That is, one ought to bear in mind who the author is, what his situation was (eg, the political climate of his time), what his purpose was for writing, who his audience was. God used human people who lived in very human circumstances, and so very human and common rules for reading are necessary for reading and understanding the Word of God. The following come to mind:
- Scripture must be interpreted literally. That is: read what the passage says, in its natural, straightforward sense. Of course, ‘literal’ does not mean ‘literalistic’. The passage of Scripture that says that “the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth” (II Chronicles 16:9) do not teach that a pair of celestial eyes dash around the globe. This is something we understand too from the normal rules for reading any book or article.
- The nature of the writing must be considered. Poetry is different from prophecy, and history is different again. So is a letter. This is something we realize very well for our daily reading, for we intuitively read a newspaper article differently than advertisements, and advertisements differently than insurance papers. And a book is different again.
- The time when the Bible book in question was written, and its historical context must be considered. This, too, we find so self-evident in secular literature. A speech from Adolf Hitler would be totally misunderstood if we assumed it was written yesterday by our newspaper delivery boy. If we are to understand the prophesies of Amos, we shall need to investigate who Amos was, in what circumstances (national and international) he wrote, what had God revealed beforehand, etc.
- Scripture must be interpreted with Scripture. That is: read a verse not as a lone statement, but in its context, be it the paragraph where the verse appears, the chapter in which the verse appears, the bible book in which it appears (written by the same author as a complete unity), the Bible as a whole (written by the same Author –God– as a complete unity).
At the same time we are to bear in mind that Scripture can be understood only by the working of the Holy Spirit. Since we are dead of ourselves (see Article 14), and the Bible is the Word of the living God, we do well to pray that the Lord open our hearts and minds to understand what He was pleased to say to us.
A good Bible dictionary or the introductory pages to Bible books, as can be found in the New Geneva Study Bible or the Reformation Study Bible, make worthwhile reading when trying to ascertain the background of a Bible book studied at Bible study societies. Further, the student of Scripture is referred to the excellent series of ten volumes by Cornelis vanderWaal, entitled Search the Scriptures (published by Paideia Press, 1978).
Bible criticism is the product of those theories of inspiration mentioned above which claim that the Bible is not fully the Word of God. There is a logic to it: if the Bible is not fully God’s Word, a human is free to criticize it (or parts of it). One can, then, claim Genesis 1 to be nothing more than man’s impressions and feelings concerning how the creation of the world took place, and therefore not an accurate account of what actually happened in the days of earth’s beginnings. So one can embrace the evolution theory at the same time as one claims to be a Christian believer. Similarly, Paul’s word about a woman being silent in the churches is then understood to reflect simply Paul’s time, or perhaps Paul’s preference. We, in turn, with our ‘greater insights’ about the nature of man and woman, and living as we do in modern times, cannot insist that women may not be office bearers.
The result of Bible criticism is that the Scripture is robbed of its power. If I cannot be sure that Genesis 1 actually gives me an accurate account of what happened in the beginning, why shall I believe that Matthew 27 gives me an accurate account of how Jesus Christ atoned for sin? If I cannot embrace what the Bible says about my past, why shall I embrace what the Bible says about my future, specifically my impending death? Shall I meet God then or not? Shall I be justified or condemned? If I cannot accept what Paul says about the woman not teaching in church, why shall I accept what James says about coveting being the cause of fighting? You see, Bible criticism robs the Scripture of its power, and leaves me rudderless and without comfort.
Much of Christianity today has embraced this Bible criticism. Many pulpits in the country offer ‘stones’ to the people in the pew because the preacher doesn’t see the Bible as the real and living Word of the real and living God. So the people of the pew are not nourished and instructed in the way of the Lord. Similarly, many of today’s commentaries do not take seriously the inspiration of Scripture, and so cannot apply Paul’s writing (or Jeremiah’s or David’s) to today’s people. As we reach for a commentary, then, we do well to consider whether or not the author indeed respects the Bible as the actual and living Word of God.
Text criticism is a different matter than Bible criticism and, unlike the latter, is a necessary part of Bible studies. Take for example the letter of Paul to the Church at Galatia. Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote this letter and sent it to the churches of Galatia. The churches of Galatia therefore treasured it. Those wishing for a copy of Paul’s letter could not reach for the photocopier, but had to physically write out a copy for themselves (or pay another to do it for them). But copying a (lengthy) letter word for word has its dangers. Human copiers invariably make mistakes, be it by omitting a word (or line), repeating a word (or line), misspelling a word, reading a word different (though similar) to the original, etc. When a third party now also wants a copy of Paul’s letter, and you offer him your copy as a source for his (for someone else
has borrowed the original to make his copy), what happens with the mistakes in your copy? The word you omitted is omitted in the new copy – or perhaps the copier takes a stab at what he thinks the missing word was…. The spelling error gets repeated too or perhaps corrected – maybe with the right word or maybe with a similar word that makes sense in the context…. To compound matters further, the copier will invariably make his own range of mistakes, in spelling, in omitting a word, in repeating a line, etc. And what will happen when a fourth party wants a copy of Paul’s letter and uses the third party’s work as his source?? It takes but little imagination to understand that various versions of Paul’s letter to the Galatians could arise, all very similar, and yet having distinct differences. One can also understand that an expert could easily enough group the various copies into different families, where the one copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy obviously belongs to family A, while another copy-of-a-copy-of-a-copy does not.
Does this all mean that we don’t really know what Paul actually wrote to the Galatians? Here we do well to take note of what deBres wrote in Article 3. “In His special care for us and our salvation, God commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed Word to writing.” This special care did not stop when Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. DeBres speaks of God’s special care for us, and the reference is to deBres himself and the fellow believers of Doornik in 1561. In His special care for deBres and those with him, God saw to it that deBres still had Paul’s letter to the Galatians, be it by means of many copies having been made over the generations and the centuries. Though one would expect that Paul’s letter had deteriorated greatly due to so many people making copies of copies of it countless times, God graciously saw to it that this deterioration did not happen. We live today nearly twenty centuries after Paul wrote his letter. Yet between the numerous copies remaining to us today of Paul’s original letter to the Galatians there is 95-97% agreement! And the 3-5% where there is some difference does not in any case place a point of doctrine in uncertainty! This can only be attributed to God’s special care for His church over the centuries. He saw to it that human error did not destroy His Word to man!
Text criticism concerns itself with the 3-5% of words where copies of Paul’s letters (and Jeremiah’s prophecies, etc) have differences. Text criticism is the science of determining how these differences may have come about, and consequently tries to decide which copy has correctly transmitted the words Paul used. It is a very legitimate science, and requires some very specialist work. As we discuss the matter of underlying manuscripts to the various translations used in the churches today, we do well to focus our attention not on the small degree of uncertainty, but instead on the marvel of God’s preservation of His Word for us over the centuries. It is the reality of His special care for us and our salvation as demonstrated (for example) through His preservation of His Word that encourages us in the challenges of our lives today.
Points for Discussion:
- Discuss how the Word of God came from God to us. How does this compare with the Muslim explanation of how the Koran came from Allah to mankind?
- The Bible dates from many centuries ago, and was addressed to peoples of different culture than ours. How, then, is the Bible relevant for us? In your answer, consider 1 Corinthians 10:11.
- How does the fact that we have Bibles today reflect “His special care for us and our salvation”?
- Is it fitting for a child of God to criticize the Bible? In your answer consider both “Bible criticism” and “text criticism”.