God’s Infallible Word (1)

The late Dr. Edward J. Young taught Old Testament Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Following is the first installment of an address Dr. Young delivered at Oak Glen, Illinois, under the auspices of the Laymen’s League of Illiana as it appeared in the April 1960 issue of TORCH AND TRUMPET. This address has lost none of its timeliness since then and is especially relevant now that the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church is about to come to grips once again with “The Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority.”

In the second part of the Age of Reason Thomas Paine gave the following summary of the work which he believed he had accomplished: “I have now gone through the Bible, as a man would go through a wood with an axe, and felled trees. Here they lie, and the priests may replant them, but they will never make them grow.”

One reads such words with some amazement; they are words of braggadocio jf ever there were such. Can one man really believe that he has separated the so-called “chaff” from the “wheat” in the Bible? Attempts have been made, I believe, to reestablish the writings of Thomas Paine, but such attempts have not met with much success. How many people today have ever read anything written by Paine? How many even know of his existence? We may be sure that his boastful words have not harmed the Bible. A mosquito might as well try to sting the Matterhorn.

Paine was not the first who thought that he could go through the Bible and dispose of what he believed should be disposed of. But his example may serve to remind us of the need for true humility in approaching the Scriptures.

Our concern is with the question of the infallibility of the Bible. If something is infallible, it is free from error. It is absolutely trustworthy and sure. When we apply this term to the Bible we mean that the Bible has an indefectible authority. In all that it says and teaches it possesses absolute authority, for it is the very Word of God. This is simply the position of our Lord Jesus Christ who said of the Scripture that it cannot be broken.

Clearing the Atmosphere – At the outset it is necessary to guard our usage of terms carefully. It is sometimes asserted that evangelical Christians all believe in the infallibility of the Bible but that they believe in it in different ways. Some think that the entire Bible is infallible, true in all of its statements. containing no error. Others, it is said, believe in a general infallibility of the Bible. In matters of faith and practice the Bible is infallible, they say, but in minor matters of historical detail it is not necessarily infallible. They tell us that we need merely believe that the Bible is generally infallible.

For the sake of clearing the atmosphere we must protest against such loose usage of language. Either the Scriptures are infallible, as the Lord Jesus Christ said they were, or they are not infallible. We may say that there are certain statements in the Bible which in themselves are infallible, and we may say that there are certain utterances which in themselves are not infallible. If we say that, we shall be saying something which is not true to fact, but at least we shall be saying something that makes sense. And if we believe that there are statements in the Bible which are not infallible statements, let us cease talking about a general infallibility of the Bible. A Bible that is only generally infallible is a Bible which is not infallible at all.

The question with which we arc concerned, then, is not whether the Bible is generally infallible, but rather whether the Bible is infallible or not. Is the Bible the infallible Word of God, or is it not? Those who hold that the Scriptures contain error embrace the position that the Bible is not infallible. They do not believe in the infallibility of the Bible at all, and to say that they believe in the infallibility of the Bible, but not in the orthodox sense, is to becloud the question. If a man thinks that there arc errors in the Bible, he simply does not believe in an infallible Bible. There is no escaping this conclusion. And it would be a boon to discussions of the nature of the Bible, if men would cease saying: we all hold to the infallibility of the Bible, only we differ as to how we believe in infallibility. That is not the question. The question which we must face is rather: Is the Bible infallible or is it not? That, and that alone is the issue.

How to proceed – But how shall we proceed in determining whether the Bible is infallible or not? There is only one thing that we can do. We must go to the Bible itself and hear what it has to say. It is the Bible which tells us what we are to believe concerning God and what duty he requires of us. It is the Bible which is to tell us what we arc to believe, for example, concerning God, predestination, the Person of Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and every other article of our faith. And it is the Bible which alone can tell us what we are to believe concerning itself. Any doctrine of Scripture that is not taught in the Bible itself is one that must be rejected. Would we know what kind of book the Bible is, we must listen to the Scripture. The Bible. and the Bible alone, can tell us what we are to hold with respect to its infallibility.

But how are we going to find out what the Bible teaches us about itself? It is sometimes said that we must appeal to the phenomena or data of the Scripture if we are to arrive at a proper answer to this question. Now, I find myself in agreement with this claim, if we clearly understand what is involved. The data or phenomena of Scripture are usually considered to mean the facts of Scripture apart from its express didactic statements [Statements that teach]. The fact that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, for example, is one of the phenomena of Scripture. But to assert that, in answering the question what the Bible has to say concerning itself, we must take into account the phenomena of the Bible, simply means that we must consider all that we can learn from the Scriptures.

To the best of my knowledge no Reformed theologian has ever really denied that obvious fact. But it would be a grave mistake to think that we can interpret the didactic statements of Scripture in the light of the so-called phenomena of the Bible. Bather, we must always interpret everything ill the light of the express statements and. teaching of tile Bible. The framers of the Westminster Confession of Faith were very wise when they wrote: “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true anti full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.” We must therefore first listen to what the Bible has to say in its express didactic statements, and only then may we examine the phenomena of the Bible and in the light of the clear statements of Scripture learn from the phenomena what we can. That is the only legitimate manner in which we may proceed. If we do not so proceed, we may very easily find that we are setting up the human mind as judge over the Bible.

To take a specific example, if there are didactic statements in the Bible to the effect that the Bible is without error (and there are) it would be the height of folly to ignore these statements and by an examination of its phenomena to conclude that there actually were errors in the Bible. Such a method of procedure could hardly be called Christian. It could never bring us to the truth.

On this point, then, let us be perfectly clear. To discover what we must believe about the Bible, let us first listen to what it says concerning itself. Then, having ascertained from the statements of the Bible what the Scriptural doctrine truly is, let us in the light of this doctrine examine what the phenomena of the Bible may have to teach us. Any other procedure can lead only to error. Were we to place the data of Scripture on a par with its explicit statements, we should fail in our task. And it goes without saying that if we place the phenomena of the Bible above the didactic teaching of the same, we shall never arrive at a proper conception of the Bible.

Why is this so? Why should we place the didactic statements of the Bible above the data or phenomena? The answer to this question is really not difficult. The Bible is God’s Word; it tells us what we are to believe about God and what duty God has demanded of us. This information we learn from the teaching of the Scriptures. In other words, it is the contents of the Bible which tell us what we are to believe, even concerning the Bible itself. The so-called didactic statements are the teaching of the Bible; they constitute the message which God would have us hear. We must, therefore, first of all, tum to the Scriptures to see what they have to say about themselves, and when once we have ascertained what they have to say concerning themselves, we must be guided by their statements. The phenomena of the Scriptures may enable us to understand better what the Scriptures have to say, but they can never be permitted to conflict with or to modify what the Scriptures explicitly teach concerning themselves.

Errors in the Bible? We may illustrate this matter by a consideration of the all-important passage II Timothy 3:16. This verse makes the direct and explicit statement that all Scripture, or every Script me, is God-breathed. But what has this to do with infallibility? It might be argued that to assert the infallibility of the Bible on the basis of this statement that all Scripture is God-breathed is to engage in making a deduction, drawing a conclusion, and to go beyond what is explicitly taught in the verse itself. “The passage says that Scripture is God-breathed,” so it might be argued: “it does not explicitly state that Scripture is infallible. Possibly Scripture is infallible, but if so, we must ascertain that fact, not by an appeal to this present passage. but rather by a consideration of the phenomena of Scripture. Possibly the phrase ‘God-breathed’ permits us to deduce that Scripture is infallible; possibly it does not. We must really go to the data of Scripture and learn from them whether or not the Scriptures are infallible.”

There are several remarks which need to be made at this point. The procedure which we have just been discussing assumes that the mind of man is capable of judging, apart from didactic statements, and only upon the basis of the so-called data of Scripture, whether or not there are errors in the Bible. One can, for example, compare Matthew 20 with Mark 10 and conclude that because they speak of a different number of blind men at Jericho, therefore the Bible at this point is in error. He has been examining the phenomena of the Bible, and upon the basis of an examination of these phenomena he concludes that there is error in the Bible.

To the present writer it has always been a source of amazement that any man could dare to speak in such a vein. He is surely a bold man indeed who dares to make the positive statement that there are actual errors in the Bible. Not only is he bold; he is reckless. One might be pardoned for questioning whether he had ever studied the many, many instances where archaeology, for example, has shown that so-called “errors” in the Bible were not errors at all. Let us consider a few of these.

1. Not so long ago, the mention of the Horites in Genesis was considered by men who were perfectly sure (just as sure in fact as the neo-evangelicals of our day) to be a mistake. These men had studied the phenomena of the Bible—they didn’t seem to be particularly concerned with the Bible’s didactic statements -and as a result of their study of the phenomena of the Scriptures they were sure that here was an error. The Barites didn’t exist. Today such an opinion seems laughable; we possibly know more today about some phases of Horite life (the Horites were the ancient Hurrians) than we do about some phases of early American history.

2. Then again, as we were once told, the book of Daniel had made a mistake in mentioning Belshazzar. But now the name of Belshazzar has occurred on the cuneiform tablets. And Daniel, it is said, surely made a mistake in mentioning Darius the Medel Here, if ever, the data of the Bible were in conflict with secular history, and so the data were in error. And yet, during the past year, two excellent Bible-believing scholars have come forth with proposals for a solution of the problem, each of which can command approval. It is now perfectly possible to fit Darius the Mede into the scheme of history. The Bible had not been in error, but the men who thought that in their unaided strength they could interpret the phenomena of the Bible had been in grievous error.

3. Let us consider one or two further examples. In Judges 20:40 we read, “But when the flame began to arise lip out of the city with a pillar of smoke, the Benjamites looked behind them, and, behold, the flame of the city ascended lip to heaven.” The historicity of this statement has often been doubted. After all, it is a minor matter; what could it possibly have to do with our faith? Thus one might erroneously reason. But when excavation was undertaken at Gibeah of Benjamin, the modern Tell el-Full, it was found that the first stratum of the tell had been burned, just as the Bible says was the case.

4. Again, we read in the Bible that Shalmanezer the king of Assyria came up against Hoshea and apparently took Samaria. But Sargon, the successor of Shalmanezer, claims on his own inscription that he took Samaria. Here the data of the Bible were in conflict with the express claims of the Assyrian monuments. Hence, some were perfectly ready to assert that the data of the Bible showed that the Bible was in error; therefore it could he not infallible. The only trouble with all this is that further study has shown that the error was not in the statements of the Bible but that it was made by those who declared that there was here a mistake in the Bible. For, as a matter of fact, the one who took Samaria was not Sargon but Shalmanezer.

5. Again, we find in the Bible that Tiglath-pileser III is called by another name, Pui. But surely this is an error, according to some. Here the phenomena of the Bible must show us that the Bible is no infallible book. Surely, the name Pui is simply the invention of the Biblical writer. We will grant that the Assyrian king had the name Tiglath-pileser, but not the name Pul. But again it has been shown that the opinion of men on this matter had to be revised. The name Pul has now been found on the Babylonian documents. The statements of the Bible were correct; the phenomena of the Bible were in perfect accord with the didactic statements of Scripture. Once again the error was not in the Bible but in those individuals who thought that they knew enough to declare positively that there were mistakes in the Bible.

And this brings us to the heart of the matter. Anyone who believes that he is competent to make the judgment that there is actual error in the original manuscripts of the Bible—and that is the question which concerns us now—is setting himself up in the position of God. He is flying in the face of express statements of the Bible which assert the contrary. Jesus Christ says, “The Scripture cannot be broken”; a sinful man says, “The Scripture is broken.” This is to elevate the human mind to the position of judge; it means that we substitute the human mind for the Word of God. It is to assume that the human mind knows so much that it can say with assurance that there is actual error in the original manuscripts of the Bible. It is rationalism of the worst kind. Serious indeed is this charge, but there is no escaping it. If the Bible is the Word of God, He alone can tell us what we are to believe about the Bible. God has so told us; in statement after statement He has spoken to us about His Word. If we think that we can disregard these clear statements and by simply examining the phenomena of the Bible conclude what the true nature of the Bible is, we have simply set our minds up as higher than God himself. We have fallen into the worst kind of unbelief.