Organic Inspiration” and the Infallibility of Scripture
Some interpreters of Bavinck’s doctrine of Scripture have argued that his view of organic inspiration allows for a broad affirmation of Scriptural infallibility, but not a strict affirmation of Scriptural inerrancy. This is the claim, for example, of Jack Rogers and Donald McKim in their controversial book, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible.1 In somewhat more moderate form, it is also the view of A.T.B. McGowan in his recent book, The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives.2 Since Bavinck places so much emphasis upon the humanity or “servant-form” of Scripture, and since he acknowledges the need to approach the challenges of biblical criticism in a careful and responsible manner, it has been suggested that Bavinck leaves the door open to a doctrine of Scripture that speaks of its truthfulness in respect to the revelation of the person and work of Christ, but not of its full truthfulness or inerrancy in respect to its historical reporting and the like. In particular, it has been argued that Bavinck’s cautious doctrine of Scripture, and even his infrequent use of the terminology of “infallibility” or “inerrancy” in his Reformed Dogmatics, distances Bavinck’s doctrine from that of the Princeton theologians who were his contemporaries.3 For example, B. B. Warfield’s strict definition of Scriptural inerrancy in the autographa or the original manuscripts, is said to differ significantly from Bavinck’s view. In order for our survey of Bavinck’s doctrine of Scriptural inspiration to be complete, we need to address this claim directly.
It is certainly true that Bavinck, in his handling of the subject of organic inspiration, does not often employ the language of Scriptural “infallibility.” Nor does he employ the language of “inerrancy,” except when he refers critically to those who would posit the presence of “errors” or distortions of the truth in the biblical writings. Does this mean, therefore, that Bavinck was open to a modified doctrine of Scriptural infallibility that limited its truthfulness in some respects, or that he regarded his doctrine to be significantly divergent from the Princetonian understanding of Scriptural inerrancy? In my reading of Bavinck’s treatment of Scriptural inspiration and authority, I do not believe this would be a faithful interpretation of his view. There are several features of Bavinck’s position that lead me to conclude that he affirms the full truthfulness of the inspired Scriptures, and that his position cannot be described as in any substantive manner divergent from that of his contemporaries at Princeton.
First, in Bavinck’s survey of the doctrine of Scripture in the history of the church, he draws a sharp distinction between those who represent the historic confession of the church and those who, under the influence of the Enlightenment and subsequent critical approaches to the Scriptures, have abandoned this confession. While Bavinck acknowledges the need for Reformed theology to engage responsibly the challenges of biblical criticism, he never concedes the propriety of abandoning the confessional view that the Scriptures are to be received as divine revelation or testimony. At a number of critical points in his treatment of this history, Bavinck cites his contemporary, B. B. Warfield, in a uniformly positive manner, encouraging his readers to read Warfield’s thorough and persuasive case for the full inspiration and authority of Scripture (RD 1:425, fn78; 1:429, fn 82).
Second, throughout his lengthy exposition of the doctrine of Scripture, Bavinck notes on a number of occasions that modern biblical scholarship often posits a divergence between the “message” and the “phenomena” of the biblical texts, or, alternatively expressed, between the “content” and the “form” of the Scriptures. Rather than abandon altogether an adherence to the authority of the Bible, modern theologians employ this distinction in order to defend a doctrine of divine revelation through the Scriptures, even though the biblical texts often betray the marks of human fallibility and weakness. In Bavinck’s estimation, this distinction represents a concerted effort on behalf of Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians to retain the “ethical-religious” truth of the Scriptures, or its testimony to Jesus Christ, while jettisoning the older conception of inspiration that spoke of the Bible in its totality and in all of its parts as the true Word of God. However, it is an approach that is bound to fail, since it separates what may not be separated. According to Bavinck, “[t]he split between ‘that which is needed for salvation’ and ‘the incidentally historical’ is impossible, since in Scripture doctrine and history are completely intertwined” (RD 1:417). When this “dualistic” approach is taken to the biblical texts, it soon becomes apparent that the so-called “imperfections” and “errors” of the biblical texts reach to the “central truth of Scripture itself” (RD 1:420). The half-way house of an errant text that carries a message of truth eventually shipwrecks as the critical deconstruction of the Scriptures is pursued to its inevitable conclusion. Furthermore, those who appeal to the Scriptures’ reliable testimony to Jesus Christ in distinction from its thoroughly human, errant servant-form, neglect to acknowledge that Christ himself “appointed his apostles as totally trustworthy witnesses who by his Spirit would guide them into truth. Surely this also includes the truth concerning Holy Scripture” (RD 1:423). If the “apostolic witness concerning Christ is not reliable, no knowledge of Christ is possible. Add to this that if Christ is authoritative he is authoritative also in the teaching concerning Scripture” (RD 1:437). The Scriptural testimony to its own inspiration, authority and reliability, simply cannot be undone by an appeal to the “so-called phenomena of Scripture” (RD 1:424).
Third, on two occasions, Bavinck explicitly links his understanding of the infallibility of the Bible with the church’s confession regarding the Person of Jesus Christ. This link is of particular importance to any evaluation of Bavinck’s doctrine of Scriptural infallibility and inerrancy, since Bavinck employs in an extensive manner the analogy between Christ’s Person as One who is fully divine and yet fully human and the manner in which God speaks through the human words of the Scriptures. On the first of these occasions, Bavinck argues that the church’s confession of the holiness and sinlessness of Christ obliges us to insist that Christ was “intellectually . . . without error, lies, or deception” (RD 1:398). Though it is certainly true that Christ was not “active in the field of science in a restricted sense,” the doctrine of Scripture, which he taught and upheld throughout his ministry, is a “religious truth” of the first order. If Christ’s teaching regarding the truthfulness of the Scriptures is in error, then he erred at a most critical point and can no longer be regarded as “our highest prophet.” On the second of these occasions, Bavinck draws a connection between the sinless humanity of Christ and the errorlessness of the Scriptures.
The incarnation of Christ demands that we trace it [the Scripture] down into the depths of its humiliation, in all its weakness and contempt. The recording of the word, of revelation, invites us to recognize that dimension of weakness and lowliness, the servant-form, also in Scripture. But just as Christ’s human nature, however weak and lowly, remained free from sin, so also Scripture is ‘conceived without defect or stain’; totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts. (RD 1:435)
Fourth, in his argument for an “organic” approach to the inspiration of Scripture, Bavinck observes that the “mechanical” approach fails to reckon adequately with “the historical and psychological mediation of revelation” that has only come “to full clarity in modern times” (RD 1:431). In this connection, Bavinck is very candid regarding the challenges to Scriptural reliability in the modern period. As he puts it, “for those who in childlike faith subject themselves to Scripture, there still remain more than enough objections. These need not be disguised. There are intellectual problems (cruces) in Scripture that cannot be ignored and that will probably never be resolved” (RD 1:442). However, in the immediate context of his candid assessment of the challenges facing the historic doctrine of Scripture in the modern period, Bavinck maintains that believers do not need to wait until all these challenges have been addressed before they arrive at faith. Conviction regarding the inspiration and authority of Scripture should not be suspended upon our ability to resolve all the problems or answer all of the critic objections. Just as there are objections and conundrums in every science, so there are in the science of theology. It would be naïve, however, to think that these objections and challenges are not often motivated by hostility toward the authority of Scripture. We should recognize, Bavinck notes, that the same opposition that Christ encountered will manifest itself in a similar hostility toward the Scriptures that bear witness to him.
And fifth, perhaps the most significant clue to Bavinck’s adherence to the full infallibility of the Scriptures is to be discerned in the way he addresses a series of common objections to the reliability of the biblical testimony. At the close of his discussion of the inspiration of the Bible, Bavinck offers several observations that answer to typical critical claims regarding the church’s confession of the truthfulness of the biblical witness. In his reply to these claims, Bavinck does not concede any ground to the critical argument that a number of traits of the biblical texts are incompatible with their trustworthiness. Rather than viewing these features of the biblical texts in a negative light, Bavinck insists that they actually enable the Scriptures to continue to speak in a fresh way to every generation.
The second observation of Bavinck focuses upon the way the Scriptures make full use of what belongs to “ordinary human life and natural life” to serve the purpose of divine revelation. The Scriptures do not speak a strange language that is divorced from the fabric of the created order or the natural way in which human language functions. Rather, the Holy Spirit chooses to reveal the truth concerning Jesus Christ, who is the center of all Scripture, in the simple but eloquent form of ordinary human language. According to Bavinck, even if a book of geography were to be “inspired from cover to cover and was literally dictated word-for-word,” it would not be the inspired Word of God in the sense in which Scripture is the Word of God. For in the Scriptures, we have a wonderful interpenetration of form and content, of human words and the Word of God, of ordinary human language and the extraordinary truth as it pertains to God’s grace in Jesus Christ. The full and genuine humanity of Scripture is, accordingly, a testimony to the integrity and goodness of creation, including human language, as a suitable medium for the disclosure of God’s will and purpose in Jesus Christ. In the doctrine of Scripture, as in other areas of Christian theology, we witness the truth that grace does not oppose but rather perfects nature. The created order is placed in the service and taken up directly into God’s purposes of recreation.
The third observation that Bavinck makes regarding the biblical texts is that they must be read, interpreted and evaluated in terms of the peculiar “intent and purpose” of Scripture (RD 1:444). Whenever the Scriptures are evaluated, they must be evaluated in terms of their own testimony to their focus and message. It is a serious category mistake to approach the Scriptures as though they were “designed to be a manual for the various sciences.” Rather than speak the language of science or contribute directly to the pursuit of any one of the scientific disciplines, the Scriptures speak as a theological book whose aim is to testify to the riches of God’s grace in Jesus Christ, which are revealed throughout the course of the history of redemption that the Scriptures recount. At every point, the purpose of the Bible is to make its readers “wise unto salvation through faith in Christ.” The problem with biblical criticism, according to Bavinck, is that it neglects to reckon adequately with the implications of this peculiar focus and interest. When biblical critics impose the demands of “notarial preciseness” or “exact knowledge” upon the biblical texts, they impose a completely alien standard upon the Scriptures. These demands do not correspond to the kind of book the Bible is, or to the kind of purpose that the biblical writings aim to fulfill. Indeed, these demands would frustrate and inhibit the Scriptures’ ability to bear witness to the gospel in a way that is directed to and accessible to the whole of the human race in every age.
The final observation that Bavinck offers regarding the challenges of biblical criticism is in some respects the most important. This observation focuses upon the relation between the Scriptures and the other sciences. Though the Word of God in Scripture has a profound significance for the pursuit of all the sciences, it is not a Word that ever “intentionally concerns itself with science as such” (RD 1:445). Just as Christ himself, though he was free from all error and sin, did not speak or engage actively in the field of the sciences, so the inscripturated revelation of God does not communicate directly in the language of any specific science. The Scriptures always communicate “theologically,” in accordance with their purpose and aim to give a knowledge that is unto salvation in Christ. Rather than employ the “exact language of science and the academy,” the Scriptures employ “the language of observation and daily life.” There is an impressionistic quality in the way the biblical writers describe history and reality from the standpoint of ordinary observation and experience. In the Scriptures, the sun “rises” and “sets”; the “heart” is the seat of human thoughts and actions; the “blood” is the soul of an animal, etc. Far from limiting the authority or undermining the truthfulness of the Scriptural writings, these characteristics of observational language and description serve the authority of Scripture. Indeed, if the Scriptures spoke the language of science, they would speak with less authority and freshness to each generation of human beings.
In his observation about the non-scientific nature of the biblical writings, Bavinck also notes that none of the biblical writers appears to have surpassed his contemporaries in scientific knowledge or expertise. However, he resists the critical argument that this implies that the “historiography” of the biblical writers might include the giving of a “false impression” of what took place or the use of “myth” or “legend” in recounting the history of redemption. If the biblical authors present their accounts as a recounting of what took place in history, the interpreter of Scripture is not at liberty to treat the story as myth. Admittedly, we must interpret the biblical record of history from the standpoint of the Bible itself, and not require the biblical authors to meet the standards of contemporary biblical critics.
Considered from the viewpoint and by the standards of secular history, Scripture is often incomplete, full of gaps and certainly not written by the rules of contemporary historical criticism. From this it surely does not follow that the historiography of Scriptures is untrue and unreliable. (RD 1:447)
In the same way that a person may present a logical argument without being a student of the discipline of formal logic, the biblical writer presents an accurate historical account without following the dictates of the science of historiography. Here as elsewhere the Bible is a unique book with a unique purpose. Though the form in which the story is cast by the biblical author may be distinguished from the events that took place, this in no way compromises the truthfulness of the biblical account. In this area, there is room for ongoing study of the biblical writings and specialized studies of aspects of the biblical record, including the free citation of sources and the like. We should not view the humanity of the Scriptures to be in any sense inimical to their full trustworthiness. Rather, the humanity of Scripture accounts for their continued vitality and freshness.
[The Bible] always speaks of the highest and holiest things, of eternal and invisible matters, in a human way. Like Christ, it does not consider anything human alien to itself. But for that reason it is a book for humanity and lasts till the end of time. It is old without ever becoming obsolete. It always remains young and fresh; it is the word of life. The word of God endures forever. (RD 1:448)
The significance of these considerations for an evaluation of Bavinck’s view of the reliability of the Scriptures cannot be overstated. Bavinck does not offer them in order to concede the historic view of the Scriptures’ inspiration. Nor does he offer them in the interest of separating between the imperfect form and the true content of the biblical texts. He offers them in defense of the full truthfulness and reliability of the biblical writings in the face of the hostility of modern biblical criticism. The implication of Bavinck’s observations regarding the challenges of such criticism is that there is a responsible manner in which they can be answered without abandoning the ancient dogma of the church regarding Scripture as the Word of God. In this area, we are obliged to proceed from the settled conviction that the Scriptures are the Word of God and they are to be measured by no standard that does not itself correspond to the Scripture’s own witness concerning itself.
1. (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), pp. 388–93. Rogers/McKim argue that Bavinck, like his contemporary Kuyper, distinguishes the “saving content” or “center” of Scripture from its “form” or “periphery.” They also maintain that Bavinck did not share his contemporary, B.B. Warfield’s, doctrine of Scriptural “inerrancy” in the original autographa. For an excellent assessment and refutation of these claims, see Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., “Old Amsterdam and Inerrancy? Westminster Theological Journal 45 (1983): 219–72.
2. (Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2007), pp. 139–161. McGowan goes so far as to speak of a “fundamental contradiction” between Warfield’s view of the “inerrant autographa” of Scripture and Bavinck’s view of the “infallibility” of Scripture so far as its function to achieve the purposes for which God gave it (pp. 211–12). In my judgment, Gaffin’s argument is more compelling for the view that there is no substantive difference in position between Bavinck and Warfield. McGowan’s argument suffers from a serious absence of clear and consistent definition regarding such terms as “infallible” and “inerrant.” At no point in his discussion of Scripture’s inspiration and authority does Bavinck embrace the view that McGowan ascribes to him, namely, the Scriptures are infallibly effective in fulfilling their purpose, though in the strict sense comprised of texts that may be, in some sense, errant or inaccurate.
3. However, Gaffin, “Old Amsterdam and Inerrancy?,” p. 269, cites an important passage where Bavinck does explicitly contrast the “infallibility” of the Bible with the position of some who speak of its “fallible elements.” In this passage, Bavinck opposes those who claim that “the Holy Scriptures are not the infallible Word of God, but contain the Word of God; and side by side with its divine elements, the Bible has also its human and fallible elements” (“The Future of Calvinism,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review 5 : 17).
Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.