An Evaluation of “The Wheaton Position on Inspiration”

The question of the inspiration of the Bible may well be called the most basic issue confronting the church today. What one thinks about the Scriptures ultimately determines one’s theology all the way down the line. Historic Christianity has always been based on, belief in the Bible as the infallibly inspired Word of God. In our day, however, the infallibility of Scripture is not just being attacked; it is simply laughed out of court as a view which intelligent men have once and for all abandoned. In view of this situation it is heartening to note that the Bible and Philosophy Departments of Wheaton College have unequivocally affirmed their commitment to the infallible inspiration of the Bible in the document which immediately precedes this article.


This document is, in many ways, an excellent brief statement of the orthodox doctrine of inspiration. All orthodox Christians will rejoice in this strong testimony to the verbal inspiration of the Bible. We appreciate likewise the grounding of this doctrine in the testimony of Christ and the apostles; although the paragraph (11) dealing with this testimony is very brief, the passages cited are to the point. We are thankful for the statement that “the written words of Scripture convey the thoughts which God wished to communicate”—a clear repudiation of the view that the Bible is only man’s search for God, or man’s fallible attempt to witness to God’s revelation. We of Reformed persuasion are, of course, happy to note that inspiration is conceived of not mechanically but organically: “God’s guidance worked through the free exercise of the authors’ historical and theological capabilities.” We gratefully recognize the fact that the Wheaton paper takes a firm stand not only against modernism but also against neo-orthodoxy. We are heartened by the statement, “Neo-orthodoxy forgets that in Scripture God not only speaks; He has spoken.” We appreciate the assertion that the Bible is “the immutable foundation of theology.” We would certainly underscore the affirmation that the doctrine of the divine authority of Scripture is “the only possible foundation for clear and effective thinking about God and man’s relationship to God.”


An evaluation, however, should take into account points on which we might differ as well as points on which agree. If more space is devoted to the former than to the latter in this article, the reader should not conclude that the Wheaton document should be more condemned than praised. The comments which are submitted below are rather intended to be helpful, to supplement the Wheaton statement, and to make suggestions toward a possible improvement of its formulation.


My first comment concerns a very minor point. In paragraph thirteen of the report the following sentence occurs: “Such a view of the inspiration of the Bible fosters textual and historical criticism, and philological research.” I have no objection to the expression, “textual criticism.” But the next expression, “historical criticism,” is perhaps not too wisely chosen. It suggests, in fact, the type of Scriptural investigation which the authors of the report are most eager to avoid. This point is made clear in the paragraph which follows the above-quoted sentence. But would it not have been better to use the expression “historical research” in the first of these two paragraphs as well as in the second?


A second comment concerns the evaluation of neo-orthodoxy made by the authors of this report. As has aiready been said, the firm stand taken by the Wheaton report against the neo-orthodox view of Scripture is certainly to be appreciated. It must be granted, too, that the evaluation of neo-orthodoxy made in this report (17) had to be extremely brief. Yet it seems to me that one most important element was lacking in this brief evaluation—an element vitally germane to the subject under discussion. That element is this: neo-orthodoxy views Scripture as containing legends, myths, and sagas, and as full of mistakes and contradictions. Karl Barth, for example, contends that there are no infallible sections in the Bible, but that the entire Bible is fallible from Genesis to Revelation; the authors of the Scriptures, he asserts, have erred in every word they wrote.1

Barth even claims to believe in verbal inspiration; but note what he means by it: “It [verbal inspiration] means that the fallible and faulty human word is as such used by God and has to be received and heard in spite of its human infallibility.”2 Surely even a brief appraisal of the neo-orthodox view of Scripture ought to take into account this radical divergence from the conception of the Bible common to historic Christianity!



A third comment has to do with a statement made in paragraph fifteen of the Wheaton document: “Belief in verbal inspiration, of course, is not essential to the salvation of a man’s soul.” To this statement I feel constrained to reply: that all depends on how far away from verbal inspiration (in the orthodox, not the Barthian sense) one has drifted! There are, undoubtedly, many Christians in the world today who do not hold as strict a view of inspiration as we of Reformed persuasion do. There are probably believers who would be ready to admit the presence of historical or scientific mistakes in the Bible, and would thus deny its infallibility, but who nevertheless embrace the cardinal doctrines of historic Christianity. Such believers we would accuse of inconsistency, but we would not feel compelled to say that they could not be saved. To this extent, then, we could agree with the statement quoted above.

But what if the case were different? Here is another man, let us say, who likewise denies the infallibility of Scripture. Far from holding the cardinal doctrines of historic Christianity, however, this man denies the historicity of Adam, the deity and sinlessness of Jesus of Nazareth, the literal bodily resurrection of Christ, and the actual second coming of Christ as a definite future event. For him Adam, Christ, the resurrection, and the second coming are just Biblical “symbols” which are by no means to be believed literally. Can such a man be saved, while clinging to such views? Can a man be saved by believing in a Christ who was just a super-historical myth imposed on a fallible and sinful historical Jesus a Jesus who is still dead? To ask this question is to answer it.


Though the structures made above are of a somewhat secondary nature, the remainder of this article will be devoted to the discussion of a matter of more basic importance for the understanding and evaluation of the Wheaton report. I refer to paragraph twelve, which deals with the question of what our belief in verbal inspiration rests on;

Some have rejected this appeal to the teaching of Christ and His apostles as circular reasoning. Our Lord, however, has expressly told us to follow His teaching…and certainly no circle is involved unless the authority of Christ and His apostles rests in turn upon an acceptance of verbal inspiration. Such is not the case, for our faith in the deity of Christ is grounded rather upon the sum of historical. logical and experiential evidence for the truth of the Christian faith and in particular upon the immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit to our own spirits that we arc truly children of God through faith in Him. Belief in verbal inspiration, therefore, rests ultimately upon these evidences which prove that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God and that the apostles are trustworthy teachers of doctrine.

It is a bit difficult to understand exactly what the authors of the Wheaton report are trying to say here. Precisely what is it which “the sum of historical, logical and experiential evidences” is supposed to prove? At least three possibilities are suggested by the context of the sentence: (1) The authority of Christ and the apostles; (2) the deity of Christ; and (3) the truth of the Christian faith. Though these three concepts are related to each other, they are by no means identical. One is therefore puzzled to know exactly what the authors claim to be establishing by these evidences.

To the sum of these evidences the authors add the immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit, as the additional ground for the above-mentioned verities. It seems strange, however, that the testimony of the Spirit which they adduce in this connection is the one which assures us “that we are truly children of God,” rather than the one which assures us that the Bible is the Word of God. Although these two testimonies are certainly related to each other and inseparable from each other, it is the latter of these two testimonies which has usually been alluded to by Reformed theologians when discussing the question of the inspiration of Scripture.


So we have now two “grounds” for the three spiritual verities mentioned above: (1) “the sum of historical, logical and experiential evidences for the truth of the Christian faith,” and (2) “the immediate testimony of the Holy Spirit to our own spirits that we are truly children of God.” These grounds, in turn, are basic to the acceptance of verbal inspiration. The reader is constrained to ask further, however, how these two grounds are related to each other. Are they simply on a par, each of them being of equal value? Or is one ground of greater value than the other? At first reading one is tempted to think that the second ground is of greater value than the first, since it is introduced by the words, “and in particular.” But the concluding sentence of the paragraph seems to reverse this relationship, for it asserts that belief in verbal inspiration “rests ultimately upon these evidences which prove that Jesus Christ is truly the Son of God, and that the apostles are trustworthy teachers of doctrine.” Do the “evidences” here mentioned include the testimony of the Holy Spirit? That is a possibility, but not a likely one, since the testimony of the Holy Spirit is not usually considered an “evidence” which “proves” something. It seems more likely that the “evidences” referred to in the last sentence are the first ground listed above, in distinction from (though not separate from) the testimony of the Holy Spirit. It would then seem that, according to the authors of the Wheaton report, Our belief in verbal inspiration rests ultimately upon “the sum of historical, logical and experiential evidences for the truth of the Christian faith.”

I hope I have been charitable and fair in analyzing the paragraph under discussion. If I have been mistaken in my understanding of the paragraph, then what I am about to say will be beside the point, and then I trust I will be forgiven for an honest misunderstanding. If, however, I have correctly analyzed what was in the minds of the authors, or have at least reproduced their thought with approximate correctness, I should like to make the following comments, not in a spirit of carping criticism but in a spirit of Christian helpfulness, never forgetting that we rejoice to recognize the men at Wheaton as our brothers in Christ.


Is it true that “our faith in the deity of Christ is grounded…upon the sum of historical, logical and experiential evidences for the truth of the Christian faith”? Can we ground our faith in either the deity of Christ or the truth of the Christian faith on historical evidences? Can we find objective, historical proof that Christ was the unique Son of God proof which will demonstrate that truth beyond the shadow of a doubt to the most radical unbeliever? Can the doctrine of creation be demonstrated to be true by a logical syllogism? Do the experiences of ChriStian believers prove to an unbeliever that Christianity is more true than, let us say, Buddhism (whose adherents also have religious experiences)? Furthermore, is it possible to prove that Christ and the apostles are trustworthy teachers of doctrine by any of the above·mentioned methods? The authors of the Wheaton report speak of the sum of these various types of evidence, But does it really strengthen their case to add up these various types of apologetic procedures into a slim?


It is, of course, true that the types of evidence adduced by the Wheaton report have some value. But their value is definitely secondary. Our faith in the Bible as the infallible Word of God rests ultimately, it seems to me, not on “historical, logical and experiential evidences for the truth of the Christian faith,” but on the testimony of the Holy Spirit that the Scriptures are God’s Word.


I should like to prove this point, if I can, by reference to the Scriptures, to the Reformed Confessions, and to certain Reformed theologians. To begin with the Bible itself, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 2:14,

Now 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.

Paul would, of course, include in this indictment the natural man armed with a full panoply of “historical, logical and experiential evidences.” More than such evidences will be required to change the “natural man” into a “spiritual man.”

Paul tells us in this same chapter how we are enabled to receive spiritual truth:

But unto us God revealed them [the things which God prepared for them that Spirit searcheth all things, yea, the deep thing of God. For who among men knoweth the things of a man save the spirit of man, which is in him? Even so the things of God none knoweth, save the Spirit of God. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit from God; that we might know the things that were freely given to us of God (vss. 10–12).

Here is clear proof from the words of Scripture itself that not any sum of evidences but only the sovereign working of God’s Holy Spirit can convince a man of the truth of those spiritual verities of which the Bible speaks.


Let us next note what our Reformed standards have to say about this point. The Belgic Confession has are very brief statement:

We receive all these books [the books of the Bible]…as holy and canonical…believing without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves…(Art. 5)

The Westminster Confession states the matter more fully:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scriptures; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole…the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Chap. I, Sec. 5).


John Calvin had some pointed words to say about the question of how we are convinced of the truth that the Scriptures are the Word of God,

The principal proof, therefore, of the Scriptures is every where derived from the character of the Divine Speaker…This persuasion [that God is the author of Scripture] must be sought from a higher source than human reasons, or judgments, or conjectures—even from the secret testimony of the Spirit.3

Let is be considered, then, as an undeniable truth, that they who have been inwardly taught by the Spirit, feel an entire acquiescence in the Scripture, and that it is self-authenticated, carrying with it its own evidence, and ought not to be made the subject of demonstration and arguments from reason; but it obtains the credit which it deserves with us by the testimony of the Spirit.4

Calvin follows the chapter from which the above quotations were taken with a discussion of the so-called “rational proofs” to establish faith in the Scriptures. At the end of this discussion, however, he again alludes to the priority of the testimony of the Holy Spirit, adding these words:

Thus those human testimonies, which contribute to its [the Bible’s] confirmation, will not be useless, if they follow that first and principal proof [namely, the testimony of the Holy Spirit), as secondary aids to our imbecility.5

It is clear that both for Calvin and for the framers of the Westminster Confession, any “evidences” such as the Wheaton report mentions would have only secondary and never primary value for the grounding of our faith in the inspiration of the Bible.


Herman Bavinck, one of the out· standing Reformed theologians of the preceding generation, discusses the question under consideration in thorough and competent fashion in a section of his Dogmatics entitled, “The Ground of Faith” (“De Grand des Geloofs”).6 He shows that Christian theology throughout its history has recognized that not a single intellectual or historical proof for the truth of revelation has the power of demonstrative compulsion.7 The Apologists of the second century, who made so much of these rational considerations, already realized that these so-called proofs cannot move anyone to believe.8 He even quotes Thomas Aquinas to the effect that “rational proofs” for the truths of the Christian religion will rather confirm unbelievers in their errors, since it will seem to them that we have been led to embrace the truths of our faith by weak reasons.9 He maintains that if we accept the contents of revelation on the basis of “proofs,” the ground for our faith has become human and fallible, and our faith is then no longer purely religious—it is then, in fact, robbed of its certainty.10 After expounding Calvin’s position on the Testimony of the Holy Spirit as the ultimate ground for our faith in the inspired Scriptures, and showing how other theologians, both Reformed and Lutheran, followed Calvin in this, he affirms that, in subsequent years, this doctrine was first weakened and then gradually abandoned in favor of rational and historical “proofs” for the authority of Scripture. This shift in emphasis, Bavinck observes, was one of the symptoms of the rise of rationalism.11

Bavinck, therefore, like Calvin, maintains that the ultimate ground for our faith is the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit that the Bible is God’s Word. He describes this testimony in striking words:

What actually causes us to believe is neither insight of our understanding nor a decision of our will; it is a power which is above us, which bends our will, which illumines our understanding, which without violence and yet powerfully brings all our thoughts and deliberations into captivity unto the obedience of Christ.12


Edward J. Young, whose competent study of the Biblical doctrine of inspiration, Thy Word is Truth, has just been published, has this to say about the question we are discussing:

If God is the Creator, and man a creature, there is no way in which man can set himself up as a judge of what God has revealed. There is no independent standard which man can drag in by which he can pass judgment upon the “reasonableness’ of God’s revelation.13

The Christian is persuaded and assured of both the infallible truth and the divine authority of the Bible by this inward work of the Spirit within his heart [the testimony of the Holy Spirit], who opens his mind to perceive the true nature of Scripture and who applies the Word with force and conviction…14

Professor Young takes up the precise problem which, in the Wheaton report, is the occasion for the statement about the “evidences”;

Another objection to the plenary view of inspiration is that it causes one to reason in a circle…In reply we may answer that, in the nature of the case, if we are but creatures, and God is the Creator, this is the only way in which it is possible to reason. If God has actually created us, it follows that all we know we must receive from Him. If, therefore, He tells us, as He does in the work of the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit, that the Scripture are His Word, we must obey His voice.15

Dr. Young here makes the same point which is made by Professor John Murray in The Infallible Word (pp. 9 f.). We may as well admit that, to the unbeliever, we shall always seem to be reasoning in a circle when we say that we believe the Bible to be God’s infallible Word because the Scriptures so teach us. When we attempt to evade this charge by affirming that our faith in verbal inspiration is primarily grounded on “the sum of historical, logical and experiential evidences for the truth of the Christian faith,” we are, it seems to me, setting our feet on slippery ground. We are then, in the final analysis, trying to build the superstructure of our faith on a foundation of human reason, instead of on the absolute and final authority of God.

1. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2 (English translation), p. 530 (the German text here reads: “haben…auch in jedem Word gefehlt”).

2. Ibid., p. 533. Note how Barth here uses a traditional expression but gives it a radically different meaning—a practice rather common with him.

3. Institutes (Allen’s translation), I, 7, 4.

4. Ibid., I, 7, 5.

5. Ibid., I, 8, 13.

6. H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, 3rd ed., I, 621–647.

7. Ibid., p 621.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 622, n. 3.

10. Ibid., p. 623.

11. Ibid., pp. 626–628.