[Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a series on the general subject, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]
The Bible has always occupied the central place in the Christian faith. From the time of the writing of the first books of the Old Testament in the days of Moses until modern times the Holy Scriptures have been regarded by all Christian theologians as the unique and incomparable Word of God. According to Murray: “Christians of varied and diverse theological standpoints aver that the Bible is the Word of God, that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it occupies a unique place as the norm of Christian faith and life.”1 More books have been written and more has been said about the Bible than any other book in all the world. Though sometimes neglected and the object of constant attack, the Scriptures today continue to be read and believed more than any other writing coming from the pens of men.
Contemporary Biblical interpretation, however, makes plain that there are many problems in receiving the Bible as the Word of God. In the twentieth century more than any previous period of the Christian era there is a rising tide of unbelief and rejection of the authority of Scripture. For sincere Christians who realize that their own faith in God and their joyous hope of the future is vitally related to Scripture there is the demand to re-examine the claims of the Scriptures and to determine, at least for their own satisfaction, whether God has spoken authoritatively in His Word. Rival claims of the Roman Catholic Church for final authority in matters of faith, the beliefs of non-Christian religions, and the conclusions of various national systems of thought tend to oppose the authority of Scripture. As Bernard Ramm states in beginning his study on authority: “The concept of authority has become one of the most controversial notions of modern times.”2 In this study a careful distinction must be observed between various aspects of Biblical investigation. One of the primary questions is, What is the Bible? or the question of canonicity. The unique place of the sixty-six books of the Bible is being challenged today and the Apocryphal books formerly rejected are being included in the new edition of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible.3
Another vital question is whether the Bible is actually the inspired Word of God. In other words, when the Bible speaks can we accept the words of Scripture as having infallible, divine authority? A further question arises if it is determined that the Bible is inspired. If the Bible is indeed God’s Word, how shall it be interpreted and how shall its revelation be understood? Historically, all errors in the Christian faith and every departure from divine truth has originated in the answers to these three important questions. Obviously, the first two questions are the most vital. Is our Bible of sixty-six books the inspired Word of God? If so, what do we mean by this affirmation of faith? As Loraine Boettner writes: “The answer that we are to give to the question ‘What is Christianity?’ depends quite largely on the view we take of Scripture.”4
Much of the modern confusion about the inspiration of the Bible stems from misconceptions of the word inspiration itself. The English word inspiration, derived from the Latin word inspiratio, refers to the “act of breathing in,” specifically, “the drawing of air into the lungs.”5 As commonly used, however, it refers to the stimulus of the intellect or emotions from some experience from without and in this sense one might properly speak of an “inspiring” sunset. As used in reference to the Bible, however, inspiration has quite a different meaning. As defined by Webster, inspiration is a “supernatural divine influence on the prophets, apostles, or sacred writers, by which they were qualified to communicate truth without error; a supernatural influence which qualifies men to receive and communicate divine truth.”6 Even this definition contains only part of the full meaning of inspiration of the Scriptures.
The Bible itself seldom uses the word inspiration, the English word occurring only twice in the entire Authorized Version of the Bible (Job 32:8; 2 Tim 3:16), and it is questionable whether either of these references are correctly translated. A careful study of 2 Timothy 3:16, however, is most rewarding in introducing us to the precise teaching of the Bible on inspiration.
As translated in 2 Timothy 3:16 in the Authorized Version the statement is made: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” Though there has been some debate on the meaning of the phrase “all scripture,” the preceding verse referring as it does to “the holy scriptures,” gives us an important lead. It makes plain that verse 16 is not referring to all writings, but rather to those regarded as the Word of God, such as the Old Testament Scriptures and those portions of the New Testament which had been written at that time. Such Scriptures are declared to be given by inspiration of God.
Translators have had considerable difficulty in expressing precisely the thought of the Greek text, due partly to omission of the verb, and this is illustrated in the various ways in which this phrase is translated. The American Standard Version translates the first phrase, “every scripture inspired of God.” The Revised Standard Version and the Berkeley Version return essentially to the authorized translation and render this phrase, “All scripture is inspired by God.” Actually none of these translations capture the precise thought of the Greek New Testament and follow the Latin Vulgate instead of the Greek New Testament. What the Greek states, if the verb be supplied, is, “All Scripture is God-breathed” (Greek, theopneustos). Though this is not recognized in any popular translation, it is essentially what is suggested in Young’s Literal Translation of the Holy Bible, “Every Writing is God-breathed,” and is according to the suggestion of B. B. Warfield, “Every Scripture seeing that it is God-breathed.”7 This Scripture does not teach, then, that God breathed into the authors, but rather that the product, the Holy Scriptures, is that which God has breathed out.
As Warfield explains in supporting his translation: “The Greek term has, however, nothing to say of inspiring or of inspiration: it speaks only of a ‘spiring’ or ‘spiration.’ What it says of Scripture is, not that it is ‘breathed into by God’ or is the product of the Divine “inbreathing’ into its human authors, but that it is breathed out by God, ‘God-breathed,’ the product of the creative breath of God. In a word, what is declared by this fundamental passage is simply that the Scriptures are a Divine product, without any indication of how God has operated in producing them.”8
Second Timothy 3:16 is therefore a flat affirmation that the Bible in distinction to all other literary works is a product of divine power and intelligent will. The Bible is the “breath of God,” an Old Testament expression translated usually as equivalent to “the Word of God” (cf. Ps 33:6). It is fair to conclude that the Scriptures claim inspiration, that is, that the writings of the Bible are the product of divine power and therefore carry divine authority.
The mode of divine inspiration like many other operations of God is not precisely defined in the Bible. Though in some instances dictation is the rule, as in the Ten Commandments, in other cases Scripture is produced without direct dictation. accomplished. A brief survey of the various theories of inspiration will illustrate the extent of this problem.9
Natural inspiration. Among extreme liberal interpreters of Scripture the Bible is regarded as a purely natural book written by human authors endowed with no special gifts or supernatural ability who wrote using their normal and natural intelligence. From this point of view the Bible is regarded as no different than any other book, and is unusual but only a human product. In effect, this view denies completely any inspiration of the Scripture and of course removes any supernatural element such as would be required in direct revelation of God of any facts of the past, present, and future which are not normally open to the discovery of man. If this theory is correct, the Bible has no more authority than any other book. This view is held by non-Christians.
Mystical or dynamic inspiration. This view is one step removed from a purely natural origination of the Bible and views the author of Scripture as being especially empowered for his task by God much as any work or service for God is accomplished by divine enablement. The human authors were under this theory enabled to do their very best and possessed some measure of divine power in achieving their task. Adherents of this view are not all agreed as to the extent of this divine enablement, whether it is supernatural or whether it determined the actual text of Scripture. The Scriptures produced according to this view, however, are no more authoritative than a well-delivered sermon, and the resultant text of Scripture falls short of bearing the imprint of divine authority or infallibility.
Concept theory. In an effort to avoid the difficulties of claiming actual inspiration of the very words of Scripture, some have resorted to the concept theory, namely, that God gave to the writers of Scripture the ideas, some of them of supernatural origin which would otherwise have been unknown to human intelligence. The authors incorporated these ideas in their own words. The resulting Scripture, however, is no more than a record of their experience of this divine revelation. It may be postulated under this point of view that the revelation as received by the writer had the authority and accuracy which one would expect of divine revelation, but its embodiment in the words of the author inevitably carried with it a lack of complete comprehension and contains inevitable coloring by the author’s perspective and environment. Though the ideas are inspired, therefore, the words are not. Under this interpretation the Scriptures fall short of verbal infallibility, and the appeal to particular words and expressions as being the precise revelation of God is therefore unjustified. In the end, the Bible according to this theory is still a fallible book.
Degrees of inspiration. Some have attempted to explain the inspiration of the Bible as being subject to degrees; that is, certain portions of the Bible, particularly moral areas, have supreme revelation, whereas others dealing with history, creation, and prophecy have only relative inspiration. Under this theory, portions of Scripture which have to do with our relationship to God are authoritative, but other portions may not be. The weakness of this point of view, of course, is its subjective character, namely, that no two will be of one mind on the degree of the inspiration of any particular passage. The ultimate judgment is transferred from the statement of Scripture to the decision of the reader. A variation of this point of view is the moral or partial-inspiration theory which holds that parts of the Bible are inspired, but others are not. Scripture from this point of view is considered authoritative in matters of morals, but not in scientific matters. Here again, the interpreter is faced with the impossible task of distinguishing what portions of Scripture are inspired and what are not, and the ultimate authority rests in the opinion of the reader and not in the Scripture itself.
The mechanical or dictation theory. The most extreme of conservative views of inspiration is the theory that all parts of the Bible were dictated by God and that the human authors were no more than stenographers. This view was held by some in the early church, is said to be the view of some of the Protestant Reformers, and is commonly represented by liberal opponents of inspiration as the view held today by orthodox and conservative Biblical interpreters. Floyd Filson for instance in analyzing the conservative point of view contends that only two possible views of inspiration can be held, that the Bible is either the subject of absolute divine dictation or is a human product.10 He further holds that the human origin makes inevitable that the Bible contains many errors. Filson states in regard to “the human factor” that “the canon so plainly exhibits this factor that any theory of inerrancy is a strained and misleading way of expressing the rich and continual effectiveness of the Bible.”11
Some of the confusion on the proper theory of inspiration stems from the strong language used by the Reformers in claiming inspiration. John Calvin, for instance, flatly affirmed the dictation of the Scripture. Kenneth Kantzer in his discussion on Calvin cites Calvin’s statement that “the Holy Spirit dictated to the prophets and apostles” and Calvin’s description of writers of Scripture as “clerks” and “penmen” as supporting this idea.12 In his other writings, however, Calvin freely admits the human element.13 What Calvin was actually affirming was infallibility rather than dictation in the absolute sense.
It is obvious from Scripture that certain portions of the Bible claim to be dictated (cf. Exod 20:1-17). On the other hand, most of the Bible could not have been dictated according to the record itself for it embodies the prayers, feelings, fears, and hopes of the individual who wrote that portion of Scripture. Such passages as Paul’s expression of his sorrow for Israel (Rom 9:1-3) or David’s prayer of confession in Psalm 51 would lose all meaning if they were dictated by another. Many of the psalms are obviously the heartcry of a psalmist in distress, in joy, or sorrow, in fear or hope.
Because of these obvious human factors in the Bible, even among orthodox Christians there is little support for the mechanical or dictation theory today. Liberals who accuse conservatives of holding this position today are either ignorant of what contemporary conservatives actually believe or are willfully misrepresenting the situation. Among evangelical Christians who believe the Bible to be the Word of God, the most accurate description of their theory of inspiration is contained in the words verbal and plenary inspiration.
The verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture. Those who uphold the infallible inspiration of the entire Scriptures as they were originally written by the human authors contend that nothing other than verbal inspiration—that is, divine guidance in the very choice of the words used—is essential to a complete and Biblical view. In terms of formal definition: “God so supernaturally directed the writers of Scripture that without excluding their human intelligence, their individuality, their literary style, their personal feelings, or any other human factor, His own complete and coherent message to man was recorded in perfect accuracy, the very words of Scripture bearing the authority of divine authorship.”14
Though human authors are recognized in the Scripture itself and their human characteristics, vocabulary, and modes of thought are often traced, the supernatural process of the inspiration of the Bible is deemed sufficiently operative so that the human author in every case uses the precise words that God intended him to choose, and the resulting product therefore contains the accuracy and infallibility of Scripture just as if God wrote it Himself. Usually added to the description of this theory of inspiration is the word plenary, meaning full, that is, that the inspiration extends equally to every portion of Scripture and that all parts therefore are equally infallible and equally auhoritative within the limitations of the context. This point of view does not regard the human element in Scripture as introducing human fallibility. Any tendency to error was overruled and the human mind influenced so that even in its human experiences there was divine preparation and sovereign arrangement to produce the desired Scripture.
Much of the difficulty expressed in the opposition of unbelieving liberals to the inspiration of the words of Scripture is caused by the fact that inspiration as a supernatural work of God is not subject to rational analysis. The Bible does not attempt to explain inspiration, but merely states the fact that, on the one hand, God or the Holy Spirit is said to be the author and, on the other hand, frequently refers to the human author in such expressions as “Isaiah said” or “Moses said.”
Lewis Sperry Chafer cites a number of instances where dual authorship, that is, both human and divine, is recognized in Scripture. Chafer writes: “The command, ‘Honor thy father and thy mother’ bears the authority of ‘God commanded’ in Matthew 15:4; but in Mark 7:10 Christ introduces the words ‘Moses said.’ In like manner Psalm 110:1 may be compared with Mark 12:36, 37; Exodus 3:6, 15 with Matthew 22:31; Luke 20:37 with Mark 12:26; Isaiah 6:9, 10 with Acts 28:25; John 12:39-41; Acts 1:16 with Acts 4:25. Certain passages, and there are many, combine a reference to both authorships in the one passage: Acts 1:16; 4:25 ; Matthew 1:22; 2:15 (R.V.). The Holy Spirit is declared to be the voice speaking through the Psalms as quoted in Hebrews 3:7-11; through the Law—Hebrews 9:8; and in the Prophets—Hebrews 10:15.”15
It is clear from many Scriptures that the Bible itself claims the words of Scripture to be inspired. Frequent quotation of Scripture as authoritative when the argument hangs upon a word (John 10:34-35) or even the singular or plural (Gal 3:16) demonstrates this claim. Though men may disbelieve if they wish, this is the theory of inspiration taught by the Bible itself. Unbelief in inspiration springs from unbelief in the Bible. Word of God, it has no more authority than an opinion of the one who claims that he has heard the voice of God.
According to the orthodox conservative opinion, the inspiration of the Scripture must extend to every word. As Lewis Sperry Chafer has stated it emphatically: “The Bible claims for itself that on the original parchments every sentence, word, line, mark, point, penstroke, jot, or tittle was placed there in complete agreement with the divine purpose and will. Thus the omnipotent and omniscient God caused the message to be formed as the precise reproduction of His Word.”19 This for centuries has been the orthodox faith. Though many particular problems remain which can be discussed only in works devoted to their detailed study, for most Christians there is transparent evidence that the Bible vindicates its claim to inspiration and that all problems have been adequately met by the voluminous writing of the great orthodox scholars of the past and the present. Apart from, textual problems, which do not vitally affect the teachings of Scripture, the reader of Scripture can be assured that he is studying the infallible Word of God, the treasure house of divine truth.
(Series to be continued in the Apr-Jun Number, 1959)
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 John Murray, “The Attestation of Scripture,” The Infallible Word, a Symposium, p. 1.
2 Bernard Ramm, The Pattern of Authority, p. 9.
3 Cf. Floyd V. Filson, Which Books Belong in the Bible?, pp. 12-13.
4 Loraine Boettner, The Inspiration of the Scriptures, p. 9.
5 S.v., “Inspiration,” Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, p. 1286.
7 B. B. Warfield, “Inspiration,” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, III, 1474. Cf. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, pp. 131ff.
9 Cf. Lewis S. Chafer, Systematic Theology, I, 68ff.
10 Filson, op. cit., pp. 30-37.
11 Ibid. This author, who is Dean and Professor of New Testament Literature and History in McCormick Theological Seminary, nevertheless continues to affirm that the Bible is the “infallible rule of faith and practice” as required of teachers in this Presbyterian seminary.
12 Kenneth S. Kantzer, Inspiration and Interpretation, John F. Walvoord, editor, pp. 137-38. Cf. Calvin, Jeremiah, IV, 229; Harmony, I, 127; Psalms, III, 205.
13 Cf. ibid., pp. 139ff.
14 John F. Walvoord, The Holy Spirit, pp. 59-60.
15 Chafer, op. cit., I, 71.
19 Lewis S. Chafer, op. cit., I, 22.
[Editor’s Note: This article is the second in a series on the general subject, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]
From ancient times thinking men have searched for some explanation of the world in which they live and some key to the purpose and meaning of life. The Bible records that God revealed Himself to Adam and to some of his immediate posterity, but as the human race enlarged much of what had been revealed was forgotten. The great mass of mankind became increasingly ignorant of God and His way, though it is possible that much more was known about God in the early history of the race than has been preserved in any written form. The Book of Job, recording the thoughts of Job and his friends living centuries before Scripture was written, shows a remarkable knowledge of God, but this seems to be the exception rather than the rule.
The beginning of modern intellectual development and philosophic thought as recorded in the writings of the early Greeks is theologically far below the level of Job’s time. Even brilliant men among Greek philosophers seem to have little knowledge of God. Their writings, however, testify to the insatiable curiosity of the keenest minds in the ancient world as they searched for some explanation of the origin and nature of their world.
The problems which the Greeks attempted to solve have again occupied the center of the stage in the twentieth century. The modern mind, having discarded Scripture as an authoritative voice and retired to the somewhat agnostic position that the nature of God cannot be known with certainty, has taken a new approach. The events of the twentieth century have demonstrated the mockery of any explanation of life which is not centered in God. The pressures of fear and uncertainty and the obvious shallowness of material prosperity have triggered the desire for an explanation of the enigma of life itself. In a world which has discovered so much scientifically and so little about God there was demand for a renewed study of what man can know about God. Though much of the philosophic world is still agnostic and naturalistic, the theological world at least has come up with a new explanation of how man can know God.
That new answer, in a word, is crisis theology, the idea that man by a supernatural experience or crisis can bridge the gap between his finiteness and the infinite God. By this means man can, in effect, know God. The God thus revealed is an infinite, transcendent God who is sovereign over His creatures. Such a God cannot be known by ordinary scientific investigation. God can only be known as He reveals Himself. The renewed emphasis on the supernatural character of the divine revelation of God, with its admission of human finiteness and depravity, though bypassing the problem of Scriptural authority, has created a new orthodoxy, a neo-orthodoxy. Though only a pseudo theology as compared to the old orthodoxy, it has captured the modern mind more quickly than any previous departure from Biblical Christianity. Its elements are not new, but it is nevertheless different from any of its ancient counterparts such as mysticism, intuitive knowledge, or direct revelation from God. Neo-orthodoxy has raised new questions about the nature of divine revelation as it relates to the Bible, to human experience, and the natural world.
There was a certain legitimacy in man’s ancient attempt to know God on the basis of the created world. After all, that which is created should bear witness to the character of its Creator. Even the psalmist David bore testimony to this when he wrote: “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night showeth knowledge. There is no speech nor language; their voice is not heard. Their line is gone out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world” (Ps 19:1-4). The physical heavens do declare the infinite perfections of God. The magnitude of the mass and distances which characterize the starry world, the millions of light years which separate one portion of the universe from the other, the obvious design and adaptation to purpose, the evident uniformity in many of the physical laws, in a word the astronomical world as well as the microscopic world testifies to the power, wisdom, and personality of God.
It is for this reason that the Apostle Paul, debating the difficult subject of how the heathen world which has never heard the gospel can be justly condemned before God, states that their condemnation is based not on the rejection of what they have never heard but on the revelation of God in nature which they chose to ignore. Paul therefore writes: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hinder the truth in unrighteousness; because that which is known of God is manifest in them; for God manifested it unto them. For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse: because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened” (Rom 1:18-21). The heathen are without excuse because God’s everlasting power and deity are clearly revealed in the things that He has made. Though they had knowledge in this way of such a God, they did not worship Him or give thanks to Him.
Great as is revelation in the natural world, it is evident that this in itself has not been sufficient to end man’s quest for God. In fact, the great majority of the world has not sought God, but has fled from Him, and for this reason was blinded in its ordinary capacities to understand the meaning of the physical world. Paul in this way explains why men of ordinary intelligence worship idols patterned after the lowest beasts. The resulting immorality and depravity are seen both in history and in Scripture. It is evident that something more was needed than the revelation found in the handiwork of God. In this conclusion the neo-orthodox and orthodox agree. Natural revelation is not enough. can bear no certain voice and only through spoken or written words could God communicate to man that which was in His heart and mind for those who otherwise would grope without finding God’s perfect plan. The startling contrast between a devout student of the Scripture and his knowledge of God as compared to that of an idol worshipper in the heathen world untouched by the written Word shows at once the tremendous extent of the divine revelation in the written Bible.
The existence of the written Word of God would seem at first thought to solve the problem of how man can know God. Two immediate difficulties arose, however. The first is summed up in the word unbelief. From the beginning some have rejected the inspired Word of God and have doubted its accuracy, its authority, and its claim to being the supreme revelation of God. The sneer of Satan in the Garden of Eden concerning the spoken Word of God, “Yea, hath God said…” (Gen 3:1) has found many echoes in human unbelief. Once the false prop of the authority of the Roman Church was removed by the Protestant Reformation, the way was open for criticism to begin its whittling work on the inspiration of Scripture, and by arguments against the authenticity of Scripture to destroy for its adherents any thought of a final Word of God in the Scriptures. Lower criticism, or the study of the text of Scripture, though uncovering many problems, in the last analysis was not too damaging to orthodox Christian theology, as even the worst texts yield essentially the same doctrines as the best. It is taken for granted, however, in modern liberalism that the battle for absolute inspiration of the original Scriptures is lost and the question is no longer subject to debate by true scholars. The fact that some of the most brilliant scholars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have refuted these attacks upon inspiration is brushed aside without attempting an answer.
Among those still clinging to the inspiration of Scripture, however, another major difficulty has arisen in the field of interpretation. It is sadly true that even those who accept Scriptural authority are by no means agreed as to the content of the revelation of Scripture. Principally by use of the device of denying the literal meaning of Scripture in favor of an allegorical or so-called spiritual interpretation, many of the plain teachings of Scripture are negated. In its worst form this is illustrated in the Alexandrian school of theology in the third century which allegorized all Scripture. The modern tendency is to allegorize only portions which in their literal rendering would yield doctrine unacceptable to the interpreter, as in the case of an amillenarian dealing with prophecies of a future millennial reign of Christ. Though the doctrine of inspiration solves many of the problems, obviously interpretation can make the meaning of Scripture quite different than its actual statement.
Neo-orthodoxy has introduced another element into the picture. Though accepting the most extreme higher critical findings and thereby denying the inspiration of the Bible, neo-orthodoxy has nevertheless restored the Bible to the role of being a principal channel of revelation, i.e., that through which God speaks. The Scripture is not authoritative in itself, but in neo-orthodoxy authority is attributed to the experience of the interpreter, that is, the truth is revealed to the individual through the means of the written Word. While filling to some extent the vacuum created by denial of inspiration, it transfers authority from the Scripture to an experience of revelation which is almost completely subjective, not guided by norms or even qualified by rational examination. The authority of the experience is allowed to rest on its own self-evident character. From the standpoint of orthodoxy, this point of view is little removed from the situation before the Bible itself was written. Neo-orthodoxy is based on a spurious claim to authoritative immediate revelation of God, which actually is a substitute for the written Word.
Though the extensive and detailed revelation given in the Scriptures would seem to be a completely adequate answer to man’s quest to know God for those who accept inspiration, it obviously has not brought light to a great majority of the world’s population even though the Bible has been printed and distributed on a scale never achieved by any other literature. Readers of Scripture first of all become aware of the language barrier, the fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The necessity of translation into their given language interposes to some extent the human hand of the translators and gives rise to the question as to whether the precise thought has been reproduced. The background of a given portion of Scripture as provided in the customs of the people and the geography of the land are often quite strange to the reader, and, unless he is instructed by information gained from other sources, the Scripture in itself is not clear.
Often a given Scripture has a historical and Biblical setting which is unknown to the reader, and, until he becomes a thorough student of the entire context, a particular Scripture might communicate little to him by way of knowledge of the true God. Take, for instance, the lot of a novice stumbling through the Book of Ezekiel or trying to read Ecclesiastes or the Song of Solomon. The visions of Zechariah and the revelations given to John on Patmos do not easily engage the modern mind and transmit the intended sense.
These obvious barriers are made insuperable when it is realized that natural man, untouched by the grace of God and without any God-given insight into the meaning of Scripture, is unable to arrive at the true sense even with determined application and research on a high scholarly level. As Paul expressed it succinctly: “The natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him; and he cannot know them, because they are spiritually judged” (1 Cor 2:14). The Scriptures are an unsolvable enigma to the natural man attempting to find the true God. Obviously something more is needed to satisfy the desire of the human heart to know God than either the revelation of God in nature or the written Word of God itself.
Just as God provided the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Savior of men through His work on the cross and thereby made it possible for a righteous and holy God to manifest His love and forgiveness to the sinner, so in the human situation where man could not know God by his best efforts God has provided one to open his eyes and make him understand in the person of the Holy Spirit. This provision of God of course is not an isolated or unrelated aspect of God’s divine purpose, but it is part of the gracious plan of God by which sinners estranged from God and ignorant of His person and works could come to know Him in a wonderful intimacy which anticipates the eternal fellowship of the soul with God. The qualifications for entering into such a relationship are made clear in Scripture. Those who receive the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and recognize Him as their Lord and their God are made new creatures in Christ. They are given eternal life, joined to the large company of those who share eternal life with them, and are given the personal presence of the Holy Spirit of God who makes their bodies His temple and by His presence constitutes the seal of God which assures them eternal redemption. As physical life is necessary for ordinary human consciousness and capacity to see and know, so eternal life opens a new vista, a new capacity to know God and to receive divine revelation. Those who were blind now see. Those who were dead are now alive. Those who considered the gospel foolishness, now find it the power of God.
In a profound passage in 1 Corinthians 2, the Apostle Paul unfolds this tremendous work of God. The truth of God which has been hidden, which was unknown by even the great men of this world who in ignorance crucified the Lord of glory, is now revealed. As Paul states it: “But as it is written, things which eye saw not, and ear heard not, and which entered not into the heart of man, whatsoever things God prepared for them that love him. But unto us God revealed them through the Spirit” (1 Cor 2:9-10). Here is an epistemology that transcends the human senses. God is known by a process that does not involve the eye or the ear, nor does it originate in the heart, or human consciousness. Here is a frontal denial of empiricism, the idea that all knowledge comes through the senses. Knowledge comes through the ministry of the Holy Spirit,of God.
He goes on to explain: “We received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which is from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God” (1 Cor 2:12). The new revelation is contained and transmitted “not in words which man’s wisdom teaeheth, but which the Spirit teacheth” (1 Cor 2:13). Though Paul and the apostles undoubtedly experienced direct revelation from God, the norm of experience for the ordinary Christian is given, namely, revelation through the “words” used by the Holy Spirit, i.e., the Scriptures themselves. The Holy Spirit makes known the truth of God to the child of God through the written Word.
The full experience of this, however, according to Paul is dependent upon the believer being “spiritual.” The Corinthian Christians did not qualify and Paul calls them “carnal” (1 Cor 3:1). It is evident then that even the tremendous work of God in salvation and making the individual believer the temple of the Holy Spirit is not in itself enough so that every believer will understand the Word of God.
The classic utterance of Paul in the inspired Epistle to the Romans, chapter 12, verses one and two , answers the question as to the qualifications of an intelligent and Spirit-directed interpreter of Scripture. In this familiar passage Paul beseeches the Christian brethren at Rome: “Present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service. And be not fashioned according to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” It is understood from this utterance that the revelation of God both in nature and in the written Scriptures and the provision of God in the salvation of the individual believer are all to no avail in transmitting to his mind that which God would have him to know about Himself. In order to enter in and comprehend the intimate revelation of the mind and will of God, it is necessary for the believer to present or yield his entire life to the Lord. In this act, on the one hand, he will be delivered from conformity to a wicked and ignorant world. On the other hand, he will be delivered from the depraved mind by being transformed by the power of God and renewed to such an extent that the mind can contemplate and recognize that which is “the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”
The answer to the question as to how man can know God is therefore embodied in the Scriptures themselves. Man can know something of God from nature, namely, His power, His wisdom, and His personality. From the written Scriptures those who put their trust in Christ can find in God One who is their Savior, who though He is righteous, sovereign, and almighty can nevertheless manifest His love and grace to those who will accept the person and work of His blessed Son. A deeper understanding, however, of God, His plans and purposes, His revelation of Himself, and His perfect will can only be known through the ultimate step of complete dedication in which the transforming work of grace achieves its goal and brings to the ultimate limits the experience of the knowledge of God such as is within man’s capacity in this present world.
That there is a contemporary revelation of God in human experience, orthodoxy will affirm as well as neo-orthodoxy. The true doctrine, however, is not a divine revelation which is something more than the written Word, but is rather a divine illumination, a divinely given insight into that truth which was in the written Word from the time it was inscribed. The process, although supernatural, is subject to the test of harmony with the entire Bible rightly interpreted. New applications of truth may be given to a particular human problem. God will guide and direct His own in their use of the Scriptures. The truth thus embraced, however, is no greater in its circumference than the truth once for all delivered to the saints in the Holy Scriptures. Man cannot truly know God except as He is revealed in the written Word.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
[Editor’s Note: This article is the third in a series on the general subject, “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]
Except for the question of inspiration of Scripture and its infallibility, few theological doctrines are of more direct concern to the individual believer than the basis for assurance of salvation. Here the fundamental issues of the deity of Christ, the work of redemption, and the experience of divine grace meet. The rise of neo-orthodoxy has introduced a new context in the discussion of the historic doctrine of assurance of salvation. Neo-orthodox theology has raised many questions. In almost every aspect of important Biblical truth neo-orthodoxy has provided a strange blending of the old liberalism and the old orthodoxy, and has provided its own explanation of the basic concepts of systematic theology.
In the doctrine of assurance of salvation neo-orthodoxy has also provided a new approach. Like the old liberalism, neo-orthodoxy has delivered itself from dependence upon the ipsa verba of the Scriptures and has transferred the authority for assurance from the exact wording of Scripture to the experience of the believer.1 Like the old orthodoxy, the neoorthodox view has given to spiritual experience a supernatural quality in which the natural and the supernatural meet and combine in creating a valid experience of knowledge in the believer. The resultant doctrine of assurance of salvation, however, raises grave doubts, at least among conservative scholars, as to the validity of this new assurance. There is good cause for questioning whether the neo-orthodox doctrine of assurance is a solid ground on which the believer can trust the certainty of his eternal salvation.
In the contemporary situation as well as in the historic church many false bases for assurance may be observed. Among those uninstructed in Biblical truth the tendency to trust in a relative morality sometimes expressed in the standard of “doing the best one can” is frequently observed. This has been encouraged by affirmations of the more learned that God always deals in love and that this is a supreme principle overruling any standard of absolute righteousness. In like manner, the tendency to trust in religious works or in religion itself as embodied in acts of ritual, morality, or worship is another common area for false assurance of salvation. Many rely on church membership, acts of benevolence, or other good works as a ground for their eternal salvation. This common misapprehension was embodied formerly in Jewish orthodoxy where salvation consists of having more good works than bad. To these general areas of false assurance of salvation may be added confidence in the worship of Mary as a Mediatrix, in the value of prayers for the dead, and the general approach of modern liberalism that moral reformation and character transformation constitute the real basis for assurance for salvation. Some have found assurance in the denial that man is spiritually lost and view the problem of salvation as relative rather than absolute.
Into this milieu of conflicting opinions as to the ground of assurance of salvation, neo-orthodoxy interposes a new context. Unlike the old liberalism which questioned the evil nature of man, neo-orthodoxy emphasizes his sinfulness and depravity, viewing man as finite and God as infinite with a chasm between them humanly impossible to bridge.2 Salvation from the neo-orthodox point of view is made possible only by the experience of crisis which is defined as the meeting of the finite and the infinite in a supernatural revelation of God to the darkened heart of man. In this revelation God reveals Himself as Redeemer and Savior. As to the exact character of the way of salvation, however, neo-orthodoxy gives a variety of opinions which are difficult to reduce to a norm. On the right is Karl Barth, approximating in many ways the definition of redemption as found in the creeds of the historic church.3 On the left is Paul Tillich whose definition of salvation is vague and abstract, quite removed from the definitive terms of Biblical theology.4 On one point, however, all truly neo-orthodox theologians agree, that is, that the absolute authority for divine truth and therefore the ground for assurance of salvation is not the precise words of the Bible but is rather the divine revelation of truth experienced by the believer as he reads the Scripture. The authority or ground of assurance is transferred from the Bible itself to the experience of the one seeking assurance. It is this faulty basis for assurance which raises grave questions as to the effect of modern neo-orthodoxy as it relates to the efficacy of gospel preaching. It suggests that neo-orthodoxy has no more valid ground for assurance than the old liberalism which it tends to supplant. What are then the proper grounds for assurance of salvation?
The promise of God: The authoritative Word. It should be evident that assurance of salvation just as assurance of any other fact can be no more sure than the authority upon which it rests. Just as ownership of a given piece of property depends upon the precise wording of its title deed and the recognition of that title by a proper human government, so the title deed for salvation rests upon the promise of God. Because of widespread confusion in contemporary theology on the precise definition of the inspiration of the Scriptures and the character of the authority which is based upon it, there is a tendency observable, particularly in liberal and neo-orthodox theology, to by-pass the question of authority and transfer the basis of assurance to human experience.5
The dangers of building doctrine upon human experience have been often pointed out and are demonstrable by the variety of opinions which human experience has engendered. The difficulty is that human experience may be far from a norm, may be inaccurately analyzed, and may be made the basis of an induction which in the last analysis is based only on fragmentary evidence.
The fact that a person has assurance of salvation therefore is not in itself an infallible evidence that he is truly saved in the Biblical sense. The only sure basis for salvation is the promise of God in the inspired Word of God which properly accepted by faith gives validity to assurance. One clear promise sustained by “Thus saith the Lord” is better than a thousand testimonies of human conviction without a specific ground. A proper doctrine of assurance of salvation is therefore inseparable from a belief in the inspired Word of God. This is not to say necessarily that no one can be saved apart from acceptance of plenary and verbal inspiration of Scripture, but it is rather that assurance based on anything less is open to serious question.
The work of God in the act of redemption. The assurance of salvation is not only based on the promise of God that He will bestow salvation on those who qualify, but it is sustained by the act of redemption of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. As stated in orthodox theology, this consists in the work of Christ in dying on the cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for sinful man. This work of Christ is represented in Scripture as first of all an act of redemption, or purchase, in which Christ by His death on the cross pays the price demanded by divine justice for the sin of the human race. It is defined in Romans 3:24 as “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Because of the death of Christ, the sinner who participants in its benefit is declared righteous or justified by God without any payment on the sinner’s part. This transaction is made possible by the grace of God released through the act of purchase accomplished in the death of Christ. The Greek terminology expressing the action of redemption includes not only the basic idea of purchase (Gal 3:13; 1 Tim 2:6; 1 Pet 1:18), but embraces also the idea of deliverance from slavery and bondage in that the sinner is set free (Gal 4:4-5; 5:13 ; Rom 8:21).
The redemptive act of Christ is also revealed as constituting a propitiation or satisfaction of God meaning that the death of Christ fulfills the righteous demands of God for judgment upon the sinner. Accordingly, in connection with divine redemption Jesus Christ is referred to as the One “whom God set forth to be a propitiation, through faith, in his blood, to show his righteousness because of the passing over of the sins done aforetime, in the forbearance of God” (Rom 3:25). This satisfaction of the righteousness of God is described as satisfying the principle of divine justice in the forgiveness of sin in the Old Testament as well as sins committed subsequent in time to the act of redemption. The act of propitiation therefore is “for the showing, I say, of his righteousness at this present season: that he might himself be just, and the justifier of him that hath faith in Jesus” (Rom 3:26). The work of Christ on the cross according to Scripture provides a solid basis of assurance of salvation in that the redemptive act has satisfied the righteous demands of a holy God as it relates to judgment upon a sinner.
The work of Christ in salvation is further described as a reconciliation of the sinner to God. This has reference to the effect of the death of Christ upon the sinner himself in removing him from his former state and condition of condemnation to his new estate in Christ. It is therefore especially related to the work of God in the believer based upon the death of Christ and describes the complete change that is thereby wrought. This is described in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20 in these words: “Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new. But all things are of God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and gave unto us the ministry of reconciliation; to wit, that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not reckoning unto them their trespasses, and having committed unto us the word of reconciliation. We are ambassadors therefore on behalf of Christ, as though God were entreating by us: we beseech you on behalf of Christ, be ye reconciled to God” (cf. Rom 5:10; 11:15 ; Col 1:21). The work of God in the act of redemption, propitiation, and reconciliation as provided in the death of Christ and applied to the true believer is a solid basis for assurance for salvation. Apart from this work of God there can be no sure ground of assurance of salvation. The confidence of the modern liberal in the attribute of divine love as being sufficient in itself or the assurance of the neo-orthodox believer who rests in his own experience is inadequate ground for true Biblical assurance.
The terms of salvation. Though such passages as 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 seem to justify the conclusion that God has provided salvation for all, nothing is plainer in Scripture than the conclusion that all are not saved. The death of Christ in itself saves no one except as it is applied to the particular individual according to the terms of salvation provided in the Word of God. Scripture revelation makes clear that there are both human and divine conditions which must be met before a lost soul comes into the place of safety in Christ. On the divine side, there is the convicting work of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7-11) and the gift of divine grace which enables one spiritually dead, enslaved by sin, and opposed by Satan to understand the terms of salvation and believe. The human terms of salvation are summed up in the word believe as defined in the Scripture. The Philippian jailer, desperately seeking to know the way of salvation, was informed in words of beautiful simplicity by Paul and Silas: “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved, thou and thy house” (Acts 16:31). Such belief is not described as mere intellectual assent nor as an emotional response, but an act of the whole man involving intellect, will, and sensibility or emotion. The terms of salvation are limited to faith in Christ because of the inadequacy and insufficiency of any other approach. Salvation is pictured therefore as a gift (Rom 6:23), as obtained by those “dead through…trespasses and sins” (Eph 2:1). Salvation is therefore not a work of man for God or a work of God assisted by man, but rather a work of divine salvation effective on those who are willing to receive Jesus Christ as Savior. Assurance of salvation, then, comprehends both the authoritative promise of God and the effective work of redemption. As far as the individual believer is concerned, the certainty of assurance is also dependent upon his own decision in meeting the terms of salvation.
The application of salvation. The ground of assurance as stated in Scripture is something more than an intellectual comprehension of the theology of salvation and more than a conviction that the terms of salvation have been met. Scriptures make plain that there is a corresponding experience of transformation which attends the work of salvation in a believer. Some aspects of this are nonexperimental, but the new life in Christ is manifested in many ways. The believer in Christ possesses eternal life and a new divine nature which tends to change his whole viewpoint. He is indeed “a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new” (2 Cor 5:17). The believer in Christ is indwelt by the Spirit of God, which opens a whole new field of spiritual experience. He now knows what it is to have fellowship with his heavenly Father and with His Savior the Lord Jesus Christ. His eyes are opened to spiritual truth, and the Scriptures take on a true living character as the Spirit of God illuminates the written Word. He experiences a new relationship to other believers as he is bound to theme by ties of love and common faith and life. The believer is relieved from the load of condemnation for sin and experiences hope and peace such as is impossible for the unbeliever. His experiences include deliverance from the power of sin and from opposition of Satan. He enters into the joy of intercessory prayer and experiences, answers to prayer. The new life in Christ, therefore, provides a satisfying and Biblical new experience which is a confirming evidence of the fact of his salvation and a vital and true basis for assurance. Unlike the faulty basis of experience as contained in liberal and neo-orthodox theology, the true spiritual experience of a believer in Christ is according to the Biblical pattern confirmed by Biblical promises and in keeping with the whole work of God for the newborn child of God.
The Biblical ground of assurance therefore rests first in the promise of God in the authoritative and inspired Word of God; second, in the work of God in the act of redemption in that Christ died for the sinner upon the cross; third, in the meeting of the terms of salvation as revealed in the Scripture; and fourth, in the experience of the fruits of salvation, the new life that is in Christ Jesus. Apart from this solid basis for assurance of salvation there can be no human certainty in respect to eternal salvation. Properly understood and apprehended, however, the believer in Christ need not remain in agonizing uncertainty as to this all-important question, but may have quiet assurance and confidence that God has saved his soul and has begun a good work which will be consummated in eternity.
In the practical outworking of the doctrine of assurance in the life of a believer in Christ many problems exist. These, however, are all clearly related in one way or another to the four major grounds for assurance as outlined in the preceding section. Failure to apprehend the promise of God, the work of God, or to enter fully into the meaning of the terms of salvation or to experience the fullness of life in Christ Jesus frequently breed uncertainty in the matter of assurance of salvation.
Resting in the promise of God. Much of the confusion that exists in the matter of assurance of salvation may be traced to a failure to rest in the written promises of the Word of God. Those who tend to introspection, to examination of feelings, and are unwilling to take the promises of God at their face value have a corresponding loss in their experience of assurance of salvation. Just as assurance rests upon God’s promise, so lack of assurance inevitably stems from a failure in this area. Ultimately the question is not what a person feels, but what the Word of God states.
Misunderstanding of the work of God in salvation. Another area of confusion in the matter of assurance of salvation is the failure to understand that salvation is a work of grace based on the work of Christ for man, not on supposed acts of righteousness of men before men. As Ephesians 2:8-9 states clearly: “For by grace have ye been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not of works, that no man should glory.” Assurance of salvation that is based upon ritual, administration of sacraments, membership in a local church, acts of benevolence or worship, or any other supposedly good work reveals a basic failure to comprehend that God’s work of salvation is sufficient in itself and cannot be supplemented by human works of any kind or character. Those who are trying to be good enough to be saved will never achieve a true Biblical assurance and in fact may miss the way of salvation completely. The assurance of salvation can be no more certain than the confidence that is derived from a comprehension of the complete work of Christ on the cross in our salvation.
The experience of belief. Another intricate problem in the doctrine of assurance is the question as to what constitutes true faith in Jesus Christ. The Scriptures make clear that a mere intellectual faith or assent to the theological proposition is not what is meant in the Scriptures when we are exhorted to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Those given to introspection and to psychological analysis of their own emotions and mental attitudes may often have difficulty in achieving assurance of salvation. The problems inherent in the question of whether one has met the terms of salvation, however, can be dissolved by a frank facing of the issues. One who has any question as to whether he has actually received Christ should decisively settle this issue before God. Often the indecision that is reflected in such an attitude is born of an unwillingness to accept all the implications of the deity and lordship of Christ. There is a corresponding holding back from a true resting in the divine promise and the divine work. Such individuals need thorough grounding in the doctrine of salvation as revealed in the Scripture and careful teaching as to the extent and implications of salvation in Christ. Some have found relief from nagging doubt by following the simple formula of offering the prayer: “If I have never trusted in Christ before, I do it now.” Ultimately the rest of faith embodied in assurance of salvation does not come from self-analysis or introspection, but from full confidence in the plan of God for the salvation of those who will put their trust in Christ.
Experience as a ground of assurance. Though a faulty assurance of salvation sometimes results from dependence upon experience, the Scriptures make clear that the true child of God may expect certain confirming experiences. The child of God who is filled with the Spirit and manifesting the fruit and normal experiences of the Spirit-filled life has little difficulty with the question of assurance. Christians, however, who are unyielded to God and in whose life there is sin grieving the Spirit of God may often come under a cloud in which their assurance of salvation is subject to question. Often a lack of assurance is an indication not of an unsaved condition but rather the evidence that the believer is out of fellowship with God. There is no ground of assurance more satisfying than that of intimate fellowship with the triune God which is the supreme fruit of Biblical salvation. The God who intends that every believer should rejoice in His presence throughout all eternity in glory intends also that the child of God even in a sinful world should know the joy of constantly beholding the Father’s face. The assurance of salvation is therefore not only the result of meeting the theological conditions, but is the normal and joyous estate of the child of God walking in the will of God.
This article was taken from the Theological Journal Library CD and posted with permission of Galaxie Software.
1 According to Barth, revelation “takes place as an event, when and where the word of the Bible becomes God’s Word, i.e. when and where the word of the Bible functions as the word of a witness, when and where John’s finger points not in vain but really pointedly, when and where by means of its word we also succeed in seeing and hearing what he saw and heard” (Karl Barth, The Doctrine of the Word of God-Prolegomena to Church Dogmatics, Vol. I, Part I, p. 127; cf. also pp. 111-35; Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason pp. 3-57).
2 According to Emil Brunner, “sin has not destroyed all freedom, but the central freedom, the freedom to answer God as He wills it. Therefore before God everyone is a sinner, and all that one does, says, or thinks is sinful” (Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, Dogmatics, II, 39; cf. also Emil Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 50-57).
3 Barth, op. cit., pp. 457-533; Dogmatics in Outline, pp. 101-7.
4 Paul Tillich, The New Being, pp. 92-100, 175-79; Systematic Theology, I, 168-82.
5 Brunner, Revelation and Reason, pp. 10-11.
[Editor’s Note: This article is the final in a series on the general subject “Contemporary Problems in Biblical Interpretation.”]
Any intelligent observer of modern Christianity soon becomes aware of the widespread confusion that exists concerning the nature of the church. If it is true that the church is the present divine undertaking, a lack of understanding on this important subject will blur not only the theological perspective, but will make impossible a practical approach to the present task of the church.
The student of church history early discovers the major trends of development from the early apostolic church, where local congregations seemed to have been linked chiefly by the presence of apostolic authority. The unfolding scene portrays the church, first as persecuted and hated by the world, then under Constantine combined with the world and its pagan religions, and emerging into its two major divisions of the Roman and the Greek churches. Out of the decadent church of the Middle Ages the Protestant Reformation was born and with it a new division of the organized church as well as a new theological approach. Out of Protestantism in succeeding centuries arose many diverse movements which crystallized into modern denominations. The diversity of the modern church both in its government and its theological convictions is apparent. In such a context has been born, particularly in our generation, the desire to unify these diverse elements and ecumenicalism has become a substantial movement in the twentieth century.
Out of the study of the history of the church and the problems causing its diversity have come many questions concerning the nature of the church. Is there any underlying unity which binds together its diverse elements? Is division within its organization contrary to the unity which should characterize it as an undertaking of God? Is schism within the organized church a heresy, or is it an act of obedience on the part of the individual to the Word of God? Many answers have been given to these questions and few of them have been categorical. The problem is very difficult, but it all stems from the major question, What is the nature of the church?
In attempting to answer such a question, much more is needed than an analysis of contemporary Christianity and a series of propositions as to what the church ought to do. The early church does not seem to have occupied itself with the study of the nature of the church. As Dillistone points out, “No systematic treatment of the doctrine of the Church can be found in the Christian writings of the second century A.D.”1 He then cites Professor Bethune-Baker in support of the idea that the unity of the church “is implied from the first.”2 Something more is needed, however, than implication. The root of the problem lies in the Biblical doctrine of the church, and then the attempt must be made to apply this doetrine to the contemporary situation. It should be clear that the Bible does not cover all the contingencies of the modern problem, but the principles laid down in the early church as contained in the Scriptures are sufficient in their guidance to enable an intelligent believer to arrive at some solid conclusions.
Much of the modern confusion on the doctrine of the church comes from a failure to understand the Scriptural revelation of the church as the body of Christ. Though there is a large area of agreement among evangelical scholarship that the church fundamentally is the work of God rather than an institution of men, one is soon lost in difference of opinion as to the exact nature of that unity. One of the large causes for this is the failure to distinguish the church from the nation Israel. The idea that Israel and the church are essentially the same divine undertaking is a common error which arose principally in postmillennialism and amillennialism. Howard Hanke, for instance, writes: “There is ample evidence in Scripture to show that the Church of the Living God has been in existence from the days of Eden, when righteous Abel became its first member. This institution, the Church, made up of ‘God Believers’ is referred to by many different names and designations, but in substance the Church has always been the same.”3
Some are not as careful as Hanke to limit the church in the Old Testament as being coextensive with Israel. Oswald Allis, for instance, labels as extreme literalism the concept that Israel must mean Israel and not mean or represent the church.4
Gabriel Hebert in his sharp criticism of fundamentalism argues against any division in the organized church. His argument is based on the faulty identification of Israel, the organized church, and the church as the body of Christ. He states: “The Unity which God has made does not depend on our faith or our faithfulness; it has been set up in spite of our sins. Christ is the Ground of Unity, the Foundation-stone which God has laid.”5 He then argues that the visible church is part of the gospel. He writes, “Nothing could be plainer than this in Holy Scripture. From the beginning, the Purpose of God for man’s salvation has been worked out through the believing and worshipping community, Israel the People of God.”6 That there is an underlying unity between all truly redeemed people is accepted by all. That this involves or necessitates one organized church embracing Israel and Christendom in the New Testament is based on confusion of the unity of the body of Christ with the supposed unity in the organized church and Israel.
In the New Testament the church as the body of Christ, however, is represented as a new undertaking of God quite distinct from God’s plan and purpose for the nation Israel. The confusion of Israel and the church has not only confused the two programs relating to the divine undertakings of God, but has also introduced a blurring of distinction between those that are truly saved and those who are not. One who belonged to the nation Israel was not necessarily a saint, and, though a bona fide member of the nation both in its religious and national characteristics, he could in no sense claim the blessings of salvation from sin or the promises of the future grace of God.
The body of Christ as it is presented in the New Testament is that which is joined to Christ in a living union. This union is effected by the baptism of the Spirit as stated in 1 Corinthians 12:13: “For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.” The body of Christ is therefore not a superficial unity effected by geographic association or an organizational fellowship, but is rather a union of life in which the various members of the body are joined one to another. It is an organism rather than an organization. This is implied in the discussion of the one body in Ephesians chapter 4:15-16 , where Christians are exhorted to “grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: from whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.”
The church as the body of Christ, therefore, is composed of every individual believer in this present age and is not constituted by membership in a local fellowship nor by subscribing to some creed or organizational arrangement. It is constituted by a work of God in grace in which the individual is taken out of his estate in Adam and placed in Christ, given eternal life, and made one not only with Christ but with all other believers. This unity therefore is not something to be attained, but is that which is already effected. Paul states this dogmatically in Ephesians 4:4: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.” The body of Christ is therefore entirely a divine undertaking and not a matter of human attainment. It should also be apparent that the diversity and difficulty seen in the church of Jesus Christ today, though it may obscure the manifestation of this unity, does not in any wise contradict it. To some extent there is agreement on this point and most commentators on the doctrine of the church, whether conservative in their theology or subscribing to neo-orthodox or liberal concepts, recognize this basic unity, even though they may not always define it in precisely the same terms.
In the New Testament presentation of the doctrine of the church, in addition to the revelation concerning the church as the body of Christ, there is frequent reference to local churches embodying in their existence and government the concept of the organized church. Passages which deal with this subject should not be confused with those which belong to the church as the body of Christ. One of the principal causes for confusion in the nature of the church is the application of passages which belong to the body of Christ to the local church.
In the New Testament many local churches arose as a result of the missionary activities of the apostles. In some cases it consisted in no more than a group of believers meeting at one place. As the church grew, however, the New Testament records that a certain amount of organization evolved. Elders or bishops were recognized in the local church, and deacons were appointed, each office with its respective duties. These local congregations were called churches, not because of their organizational character, nor because they constituted a segment of the body of Christ, but because they were a geniune ecclesia, an assembly of believers in one geographic location. Almost fifty references in the New Testament refer to the local church. Such phrases as “the church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), “the church which is at Cenchrea” (Rom 16:1), and “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess 1:1), and many similar references give witness to this concept. The reference to churches in the plural as, for instance, in the statement that Paul and Silas “went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches” (Acts 15:41), makes plain that each of the local assemblies was regarded as a separate church.
A sharp distinction is maintained between the nature of these local churches and the body of Christ. This is evident in the messages of Christ to the seven churches of Asia in Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 . The church of Laodiceans, the seventh of the churches addressed, is recognized as a local church, but from the words of Christ to them it is clear that they are not regarded as members of the body of Christ. Christ declares of them, “I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev 3:16), a statement which would not be addressed to true believers. From this it becomes evident that the local church in contrast to the concept of the body of Christ is a group of professed believers including some who may not actually be true followers of the Lord Jesus. Further, the concept of a local church has a geographic character which is not true of the body of Christ whose members are both in heaven and on earth. The concept of a professing church is sometimes offered in Scripture without reference to locality, e.g., Romans 16:16, where Paul says “the churches of Christ salute you.” He has in mind local churches regardless of their locality.
Though it is customary in some circles to assume the unity of the apostolic church as Dillistone does,7 a liberal scholar, John Knox of Union Seminary, New York, takes the opposite viewpoint. He begins his study of early church order with the affirmation: “We have seen that there was no single comprehensive organization of the churches; nor can a universal pattern of organization be traced among all the churches severally…. Not only was there no such thing as ‘organic union’; there was a great amount of regional, even local, independence, and conflicts and divisions among the churches were not infrequent.”8 The idea that the early church had organizational unity from which the church subsequently strayed is without factual foundation. The unity which did exist was spiritual, not organizational.
In the Scriptures themselves two major concepts emerge: (1) the church as the body of Christ formed as a work of God uniting all true believers in Christ in an organic union of life and fellowship; (2) the local or professing church not organizationally related to other local churches. It was composed of all those who were outwardly believers in Christ and who assembled in one place to worship. It inevitably included some who were only superficial followers of the Lord Jesus. This basic bifurcation of the concept of the church is essential to any contemporary understanding of the nature of the church as it relates to modern Christianity.
In the apostolic church some of the problems which face the modern church existed only in elementary form. In each locality there seems to have been only one church, in some cases very large as at Antioch with a number of teachers and pastors, and in other cases very small, meeting in a house and probably numbering only a dozen or two. The multiplied divisions of our modern day had not yet come into existence.
With the growth of the church however there was not only an increase in numbers but questions arose as to the extent of authority of the local church. The inroads of paganism and departure from the faith which plagued the church in the Middle Ages created problems which were not common in the early church. If it be assumed that the unity of all true believers is just as valid today as it was in apostolic times, the question still arises as to whether all believers should be in the same church organization.
A survey of Scriptural revelation as it pertains to this problem should make evident that there should be no needless division within the organized church. There is constant exhortation to preserve a unity of fellowship in the instructions of Christ to the seven churches of Asia. Even though some of them had departed from the faith, it is significant that those who formed a part of these local congregations are not given any mandate to withdraw from that fellowship but rather are commanded to preserve their own testimony and do what they can to alleviate the situation. They were to accept persecution that would result from their faithfulness to the Lord and they were under no circumstances to compromise their testimony.
Alongside this evident intention that the unity of the church should be preserved as much as possible, there is however clear-cut testimony in Scripture to the principle of separation from those who are unsaved or from those who are grossly immoral. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Cor 6:14-15). The Corinthian believers were forbidden to have any organic relationship with the pagan religions which were about them and they were to withdraw themselves from such unbelievers as far as organic or organizational relationship was concerned. This did not mean that they were to have no contact with unbelievers in such matters as preaching the gospel to them, but it meant that they should not participate in their idolatrous feasts. The exhortation, therefore, is given: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you” (2 Cor 6:17).
Some have attempted to prove on the basis of this passage that this justifies separation of believers from other believers whenever there is a theological conflict. In fairness to the context, it should be observed that this passage does not teach separation from fellow Christians, but rather from unbelievers and from pagan religions. It would seem evident, however, that the principle of separation from unbelievers and not having union with them would apply at such time as a church organization departed from the fundamentals of the faith.
Pertinent to this problem is the exhortation in Revelation 18:4 where instruction is given to the believers in the time of the tribulation to have no part in the apostate church of that day. John writes: “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, Come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not her plagues.” From this Scripture as compared to others, it would seem evident that a Christian should have no part in a church organization which is in fact apostate, even though it claims the name of Christ. On the other hand, separation should not be on trivial grounds, whether theological or moral. There were indeed separations in the early church of a lesser character, as, for example, the separation of Paul and Barnabas and their resulting separate missionary journeys. But this is not given the approbation of the Word of God. Moreover, the Scriptures do not teach a blind and unreasoning loyalty to an organized church that has ceased to fulfill the Scriptural definition. In a word, the modern problem as it exists today is not treated specifically in the Word of God and this has occasioned much of the discussion.
Throughout the history of the church, many schisms in the unity of church organization can be observed even in the early days of the Roman Church. There is evidence that at least a segment of the church always maintained its independence of Rome. A major division occurred in the separation of the Greek from the Roman churches. The principle was recognized that basic theological difference made impossible organizational unity. A further major division took place in the separation of the Protestants from the Roman Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Subsequently, divisions have multiplied, sometimes on trivial grounds, sometimes on basic difference in theological point of view. Most observers would agree that schism would be wrong if everyone interpreted the teaching of Scripture in the same way. The problem remains whether there should be organizational relationship between Christians who are, in some cases at least, in radical disagreement.
The Dutch theologian Gerrit C. Berkouwer, in his illuminating chapter on “The Guilt of the Church,” points out that the justification for the Protestant movement as originating in Calvin and Luther was not based on evils within the Roman Church alone, but on the principle that the Roman Church had departed so far from the truth as no longer to have the power to recover and reform itself. Even the Council of Trent did not alter this fundamental conviction. From real apostasy there is no recovery.
As Berkouwer expresses it: “…It will have to be admitted that Rome did not allow the light of the gospel of grace to shine on the decay of the church. This was the cause of the definitive conflict…. Distress and decay in themselves never justify ‘rebellion’ in the church. But there will inevitably be an irrevocable breach in the church when it is no longer possible in such distress and decay to fall back upon the full, unobscured gospel. It is here that the harmony in Luther’s action is to be found which is unintelligible to Rome; the harmony between his sorrow and his deed, his rejection of perfectionism and his reformation. Here also are found the deepest causes of the Reformation and its unshakable right.”9
Berkouwer makes the additional incisive judgment that the contemporary controversy between modernism and Reformed Protestantism is the same in kind as the Roman and Reformed controversy and requires similar schisms: “It is, and will remain, the enormous task of the Reformed Confession constantly to reflect on the conflict with Rome and on the modernist confusion of the Reformation of the sixteenth century. The two fronts are closely connected insofar as the Reformed confession will be able to resist the temptation and the attack of Rome only if by a living faith it succeeds in keeping at a distance from the modernist, Neo-Protestant religion.”10
The strenuous efforts of some to provide a unity for the church in the ecumenical movement of our day is evidence of the desire to bring together the diverse elements in Christendom. There is still as much basic theological difference among individuals and churches now as formerly, however, and there is bona fide reason for believing that the ecumenical movement is not based upon sound Scriptural or theological consideration. Within the ecumenical movement itself there is the widest kind of theological difference of opinion, not simply on incidentals, but on such basics as the precise definition of the deity of Christ, the character of redemption, and the authority and inspiration of the Scriptures. It is questionable whether some of the leaders of the ecumenical movement actually qualify as genuine Christians in the Scriptural definition of one who is born again and who has become a child of God. The unity being sought is therefore far from the Scriptural unity which would seem desirable for true children of God. The basic problems which have caused schism in the church are not going to be solved by denial of them and an attempt to form a unity without theological conviction or agreement.
In view of the fact that there seems little likelihood that there will ever be theological agreement among the diverse elements that now exist within the professing church and in view of the express command of Scripture that a believer should not have fellowship with unbelievers, it would seem that a practical program is called for quite different from that suggested by the ecumenical movement. Such a practical program would involve, first, the principle that believers should not be in organic relationship with an ecclesiastical organization which is predominately non-Biblical and non-Christian in its actual belief. Second, needless divisions and conflicts within the church should be avoided and minor differences and doctrines should be submerged in the interest of the common task. Third, it is better for organizations having differing theological convictions to carry on their ministry separately than to attempt to work together with no sound theological agreement.
There does not seem to be any prohibition in Scripture of local churches joining in a denominational relationship in which a specific system of doctrine is recognized as the teachings of the Scripture. On the other hand, there is nothing to prohibit the independent church from continuing its ministry without affiliation in any organizational way with other churches. Any program of action should recognize the fact that a true believer in Christ is a member of the body of Christ and therefore a Christian brother. He is entitled to be treated in this way. On the other hand, because one is a Christian brother, it does not mean that other Christians should necessarily support a program which he advocates or join hands with him in some task which God may have committed to him. The nature of the church, including not only diversity of gift but difference in point of view and difference in geographic and political situation, makes it possible for Christ, who is the true Head of the church, to direct individual believers as well as groups of believers in the path of His appointed will. The idea of a superchurch, organizing all churches into one authoritative body, is not authorized in Scripture, nor is it essential to the consummation of the purpose of the church in the world.
1 F. W. Dillistone, The Structure of the Divine Society, p. 87.
3 Howard Hanke, Christ And The Church In The Old Testament, p. 23.
4 Oswald T. Allis, Prophecy and the Church, p. 19.
5 Gabriel Hebert, Fundamentalism and The Church, p. 120.
6 Ibid., p. 121.
7 Dillistone, ibid.
8 John Knox, The Early Church and the Coming Great Church, p. 83.
9 Gerrit C. Berkouwer, The Conflict with Rome, p. 70.
10 Ibid., p. 71.