What follows is the substance of an address delivered by Prof. R.B. Kuiper before the mid-western section of the Evangelical Theological Society on April 1, 1960. The theme of the conference was Scriptural Infallibility.
My subject is the tried and true maxim Principiis Obsta!—that is, being translated, Withstand Beginnings!
“Beginnings of what?” you ask. In answering that question I suppose it behooves me to blush. I confess to having in mind the beginnings of heresy. But is not the term heresy completely outdated and outmoded? Who today talks about heresy but the heresy hunter? And who, pray, wants to be known as a heresy hunter? Some six years ago the American Association of Theological Schools made a survey of theological education in America. It was conducted under the chairmanship of H. R. Niebuhr—not Reinhold of Union but his no less able brother Richard of Yale. Questionnaires were distributed. It became my duty to fill one out for Calvin Seminary, and in my replies to certain questions concerning the possible dismissal of teachers the term heresy was employed. After some time Niebuhr prepared a summary of the completed survey. One of his observations was, if my memory serves me well. that just one school had made mention of heresy. That was, I take it, his way of complimenting me. Or do you suppose it could have been meant to be uncomplimentary?
Heresy has a way of beginning in a seemingly innocent way. Almost always it originates, not with denial of truth, but with emphasis on one truth at the expense of another.
For example, in the early church there was an extended controversy on the two natures of Christ in relation to his person. While some participants stressed his deity at the expense of his humanity. others did the reverse. Thus numerous heresies came into being. Arianism. Apollinarianism, Nestorianism and Eutychianism were a few of them.
Or let us take the familiar paradox of the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. He who stresses divine sovereignty at the expense of human responsibility is headed for such heresies as determinism and antinomianism. He who does the reverse is bound for Arminianism, to say the least, and may possibly end up as a Pelagian.
He who divorces the love of God from his justice cannot escape a despotic conception of God; he who divorces the justice of God from his love cannot help sooner or later denying both the penal atonement and the reality of eternal hell.
Again, stressing the divine factor in the authorship of Holy Writ at the expense of the human factor can hardly help resulting in a mechanical view of inspiration, whereas stressing the human factor at the expense of the divine is sure to result in violence to the infallibility and inerrancy of the Bible.
That brings me to tho brunt of my message for this occasion. The Evangelical Theological Society was organized at Cincinnati in December, 1949. Very recently it celebrated its tenth anniversary. I am proud justly so, I think of being one of its founders. Several of us who are here tonight participated in its founding. The doctrinal position of the Society was at that time formulated as follows: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the autographa.” There was a difference of opinion as to whether the members should be required to sign that statement anew each year, some of those present arguing that the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints made such signing superfluous, others -Calvinists too preferring such signing because they did not have complete confidence in the consistent and persistent orthodoxy of every saint. But significantly, on the formulation of the doctrinal basis of the Society there was perfect unanimity.
It follows that there is something beautiful and also decidedly heartening about such a gathering as this. We represent many different denominations. We differ on certain aspects of theology. Some of our theological differences are important. That is to say, at significant point.. our interpretations of the Bible vary. And yet, we stand shoulder to shoulder on a common platform. We agree on many cardinal teachings of Christianity. And on the most basic of Christian fundamentals, the infallibility and inerrancy of Holy Writ, we are in full agreement. Here is wholesome ecumenism in action.
What I wish to do this evening is to exhort you and myself to withstand the very beginnings of departure from that position.
Because of the wiles of the devil much emphasis must needs be put on beginnings. Satan has a way of undermining the authority of the Bible by subtlety. Let me illustrate. There are at least two ways of destroying a house. A man in the demolition business could likely think of more ways. But to restrict ourselves to two, blowing up the structure with dynamite is a quick and effective method, whereas breaking it down one brick or one board or even part of a board at a time is a much slower method, yet, if persisted in, just as effective. Admittedly, however, the second method has a distinct advantage over the first. It will not shock the sensibilities of the occupants of the house nearly as much as will dynamiting it. In his efforts to lead astray the elect the great deceiver wilily would destroy the authority of Holy Writ little by little.
Let us consider some four of such efforts.
WHAT OF THE SUFFICIENCY OF HOLY SCRIPTURE?
The Church of Rome confesses the infallibility of the Bible but denies its sufficiency. It lays claim to two infallibles: an infallible Bible and an infallible church. In consequence it places its traditions and its interpretation of Scripture on a par with Scripture itself. For instance, its teaching—since December 10, 1854—of the immaculate conception of the virgin Mary, and its teaching since November 1, 1950—of her assumption are said to be no less authoritative than are the Scriptural teachings of the virgin birth of Jesus and his ascension into heaven.
Mysticism at its best also confesses the infallibility of the Bible, but it likewise denies its sufficiency. It holds that special revelation, instead of being complete in the Bible, is continuous. That which it adds to Scripture goes by such fine names as the inner light, the Christian consciousness, religious experience, or simply guidance.
It might seem that to add to Scripture is not a serious matter so long as its infallibility is upheld. But Revelation 22:18, 19 condemn adding to that book—which, by the way, is no more holy than are the other sixty-five books of the Bible -as vigorously as subtracting from it. And does not history show that he who today places something else on a par with Scripture is in imminent peril of tomorrow placing that other thing above Scripture? I suppose the perverseness of human nature accounts for that fact. At any rate, the fact is there. And so Bellarmin, the great Roman Catholic theologian of the counter-reformation, taught that the Bible owes its existence to the church and derives its authority from the church; and in his Fundamental Christianity Francis L. Patton has aptly described the mystic as a man who receives a telegram—the telegram in this case being the Bible—glances at it and assigns it to the wastepaper-basket with the remark: “I have a radio-set of my own”—the radio-set being the inner light, the Christian consciousness, religious experience, or guidance by the Holy Spirit without regard to the written Word.
As good Protestants let us refuse to equate the authority of the church with that of Scripture and let us beware of divorcing the guidance of the Holy Spirit from the objective Word of God.
WHAT OF THE PLENARY INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE?
One of the most ancient and at once most persistent heresies within Christendom is that the Bible contains the Word of God without constituting it, or, to put the matter very plainly, that, while the Word of God is, indeed, in the Bible, it is incorrect to say that the Bible is the Word of God. Thus the plenary or full inspiration of Scripture is denied.
The older liberals embraced that heresy without the slightest pretense of subtlety. Some asserted that the New Testament is the Word of God, not the Old. Others affirmed that the words of Jesus in the New Testament are the Word of God, not those of Paul. And did not Adolf Harnack come to the conclusion that of the words of Jesus only the Sermon on the Mount is truly the Word of God? Some time ago a liberal minister told me that he found himself in substantial agreement with the teachings of Jesus, his one objection being that Jesus spoke too often of the place where “their worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched.” In short, in his enlightened opinion Jesus took hell too seriously.
Neo-orthodoxy, more accurately denominated new modernism, is guilty of the same heresy but is wont to express its adherence to it more subtly. Often one is given the impression that the neo-orthodox evaluation of the Bible is identical with Luther’s and Calvin’s. Yet, as all of us know, that is exceedingly far from being the case. A prominent American fundamentalist once interviewed Karl Barth about his view of Scripture and, believe it or not, was satisfied when Barth told him that he regarded the Bible as “the source of the Word of God,” and even as “the sole source.” Barth has often said that the Bible may ”become” the Word of God. Two men attend the same service of worship, hear the same Scripture lesson read and the same Scriptural sermon preached. One is deeply affected, the other not at all. When the Word of God has come to the former only. In his case the Bible has “become” the Word of God. It cannot be denied that Barth has also affirmed that the Bible “is” the Word of God. However, that does not keep him from insisting that there are a great many errors in the Bible. It is obvious that he thus gets himself into exceedingly deep water. By all the rules of logic he is denying the veracity of God. The only way in which he can escape that blasphemous conclusion is by the usual dialectical device of saying both “Yes” and “No”; that is to say, by taking refuge in irrational· ism. And that is precisely what he likes to do. That is the very element in which he as a theologian lives and moves and has his being. And Emil Brunner has said that reading the Bible is much like the experience of listening to a record of Caruso on a phonograph. As one is sure to hear, in addition to the voice of that great Italian tenor, at least a little scratching of the needle on the record, so he who peruses the Bible is bound to hear the infallible voice of God, to be sure, but also, however subdued, the fallible voices of the human authors.
A common mode of subscribing to the heresy under discussion is by the assertion that the Bible is, indeed, the one and only infallible rule for faith and conduct, but that some areas of its content have no bearing on faith or conduct and in those areas it is fallible. That position was taken by the arch-heretic of the second half of the sixteenth century, Faustus Socinus. To be exact, he taught that the infallibility of the Bible is restricted to its “religious teaching.” In the last decade of the nineteenth century American C. A. Briggs took a strikingly similar position and because of that heresy, among others, was suspended from the Presbyterian ministry. Unfortunately he continued to teach at Union Theological Seminary of New York, where he made many disciples and thus hastened the decadence of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. In 1923, only thirty years after the suspension of Briggs, more than twelve hundred Presbyterian ministers expressed the view in the infamous Auburn Affirmation that belief in the virgin birth of Christ, his bodily resurrection, his miracles, and the penal atonement should not be required of ministers in the denomination; and not only did they deny the inerrancy of Scripture, they brazenly branded it a harmful doctrine. Orthodox scholarship, represented, for example, by Benjamin B. Warfield, has so conclusively refuted the error under discussion that it is difficult to see how anyone who lays claim to orthodoxy and is familiar with the history of Christian doctrine can today espouse it.
It has been said that the Bible is infallible in “what it means to teach.” But that statement is open to more than one interpretation. Per· haps the most charitable interpretation is that it would call attention to the familiar and altogether valid distinction between normative and historical authority. For example, the Bible informs us that both Abraham, the father of the faithful, and David, the man after God’s heart, practiced polygamy. 111at information is, of course, reliable and so has historical authority. But the Bible most certainly does not mean to teach that this conduct of these saints had the divine approval and therefore is to be considered normative. It may also be that the aforesaid statement is meant to indicate such an obvious truth as, for one example, that, when mention is made in the Bible of the rising and setting of the sun, the Bible does not mean to teach that as a scientific fact the sun revolves about the earth. However, the statement that the Bible is infallible in what it means to teach lies wide open to a much less favorable interpretation. It is that the Bible contains divine revelation but stops short of being divine revelation, contains truth without being truth. But that is merely a repetition of the old heresy that the Word of God is in the Bible although the Bible is not the Word of God. It savors strongly of the Barthian distinction between the trustworthy kerugma (message) of Scripture and the less trustworthy incidental elements in Scripture. It is also a patent contradiction of our Lord’s dictum: “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17) and of inspired Paul’s declaration: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (II Timothy 3:16).
WHAT OF THE HISTORICITY OF SCRIPTURAL NARRATIVES?
The Christian religion is based on historical events. Prominent among them are the creation of the universe, the fall of man, the virgin birth of Jesus, his bodily resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and the out· pouring of the Holy Spirit upon the church. If that foundation should be destroyed, the entire structure of Christianity would crash into ruins. That makes important the question what those who tamper with the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture have done and are doing about such events.
The older theological liberalism which, by the way, is by no means extinct -denies most of them blatantly. Denial of the supernatural be· ing one of its most outstanding characteristics, it rejects most emphatically those biblical narratives in which the supernatural looms large. It was for good reason that the late J. Gresham Machen, that scholarly and valiant defender of the faith, chose to write his opus magnum on The Virgin Birth of Christ.
The neo-orthodox attitude to those events is quite different from that of classic liberalism. It is more respectful but for that very reason also more deceptive. The dialectical theology by and large insists that the Scriptural accounts of those events are true in the sense that they convey Significant truth. And yet it warns men not to be so naive as to accept those narratives as actual history in the generally accepted sense of that term. They are not history, we are told, in the sense in which it is history that Charlemagne was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas day of the year 800 after Christ or that the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock in what is now known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the twenty-first day of December, 1620. Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich assign them to the realm of “mythology,” John Knox and others prefer to speak of them as “symbols,” and Karl Barth by his subtle distinction between “Historie” and “Geschichte” has convinced some evangelicals that he believes in Christ’s virgin birth.
Here I must call attention to an alarming fact. So historically orthodox a communion as de Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland has begun to weaken in its interpretation of, to say the very least, one of the Scriptural narratives under consideration. Several decades ago it deposed Dr. Geelkerken from its ministry, not because he denied the historicity of the biblical account of the fall of man in the garden of Eden, but because he called its histOricity into question. In personal contact with several teachers and preachers of de Gereformeerde Kerken I have in recent years been assured that, if a second Geelkerken should now arise, his deposition would be unlikely. It can be said advisedly that not every leader in that church today believes the existence of the historical Adam. Time was when that denomination enjoyed the leadership of such men as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck. Those theological giants upheld the orthodox faith heroically and uncompromisingly. Today they are not as highly regarded as once they were. Nor are their convictions. Sad to say, the bright light which once they shed by their unqualified adherence to the Word of God and their bold proclamation of that Word, its histOrical portions included, is being eclipsed.
A few samples of Scripture’s insistence on the historicity of the events in question may be cited.
Said Paul: “Therefore, as by the offense of one, judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous” (Romans 5:18, 19). The reference is, of course, to Adam and Christ. Obviously, the inspired apostle regarded one as well as the other as a historical person. It is quite inconceivable that he would have ascribed the universality of sin and death among men to the mythical transgression of a mythical ancestor. And may I suggest that, if it is not important to hold to the historicity of the first Adam, it may be less than important to hold to the historicity of the second or last Adam.
When Pearl Buck was serving in China as a Presbyterian missionary, she said in effect that, if the bodily resurrection of Christ should be con~ elusively disproved, that would not matter, for the spiritual values of Christianity would persist. In the words of a popular but confused hymn, in that case Christ would still be living in our hearts. The apostle Paul said something quite different. Referring to the bodily resurrection of Jesus, he declared: “If Christ be not raised, your faith is in vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished” (I Corinthians 15:17, 18). Christianity—the whole of it–stands or falls with the historicity of the Scriptural story of the empty tomb in the garden of Joseph of Arimathea.
WHAT OF THE WRITTEN IN RELATION TO THE PERSONAL WORD?
It is not unusual for deniers of the inerrancy of Scripture to charge adherents of that doctrine with bibliolatry. Whether there is ever ground for that accusation is questionable. Certainly no member of the Evangelical Theological Society ever kneels before the Bible in prayer. Yet it may be admitted that there are other conceivable ways of worshipping the Book. And it must most certainly be granted that to worship the Bible in whatever way is to commit idolatry. It is, indeed, God’s infallible self-revelation, but it is not God himself.
Not infrequently the accusation alluded to comes in the following form: “Infallibility being a divine attribute, it is properly ascribed to the Son of God, the personal Word, but its ascription to the written Word is idolatry.”
In answer let it first be said that to ascribe a divine attribute to something or somebody is not necessarily to make that thing or person equal to God. Although the ark of the covenant was holy and was to be kept in the holiest place of all, it was not intended to be an object of worship. Scripture tells us that the law of God, being an expression of the nature of God, is “holy and just and good” (Romans 7:12). Those are divine attributes. But Scripture certainly does not equate the law with God. Man, created in the image of God, also possesses, albeit on a creatural level, certain divine attributes commonly called “communicable,” but that fact most certainly docs not make him God.
That having been said, I should like to pursue a bit further the matter of the relationship, in point of infallibility, of the inscripturated and the personal Word. I shall propose two questions.
First, what would we know about the personal Word if it were not for the written Word? Obviously, we are dependent on the written Word for our knowledge of the personal Word. Jesus said of the Scriptures: “They arc they which testify of me” (John 5:39). And only if they are infallible can our knowledge of him be altogether sure.
My second question is; What did the personal Word testify concerning the written Word? Did he not say: “The scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:38)? And did he not solemnly declare, “Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled” (Matthew 5,18)?
The conclusion is inescapable that the inscripturated and the personal Word stand or fall together. To deny the infallibility of the one is to deny the infallibility of the other. Either both are infallible, or neither is. If the Bible is fallible, Christ is fallible, for he said that the Bible is infallible.
Small wonder, indeed, that many who deny the infallibility of the Bible have also come to deny the infallibility of the Christ and have ceased worshipping him. What else could be expected? Sound logic demanded it. Harry Emerson Fosdick was wholly wrong but completely consistent when, in a sermon preached in the Riverside Church of New York City, he warned his audience of “the peril of Jesus-worship.”
Once upon a time a little-known evangelical, William C. Wilkinson by name, taught at the University of Chicago. In 1914 he wrote a volume entitled Paul and the Revolt Against Him. In those days it was all the vogue to pit Jesus and Paul against each other. That book was a serious warning a g a ins t the beginnings of theological liberalism. Wilkinson argued that he who today, under the spell of unbelieving criticism, discredits one or more teachings of the Bible will sooner or later lose, the whole of it He illustrated that point in a rather telling way. An army had been defeated in battle and was now in flight. The victorious army in pursuit kept shooting down one soldier after another. But at last the vanquished army arrived at a place of safe retreat, the one difficulty being that, when it got there, not a single soldier remained. Everyone of them had been killed. In much the same way, Wilkinson contended, he who begins to yield to the critics will eventually have nothing left of his Bible but the two covers.
Admittedly, that illustration proves nothing. Illustrations are not intended to prove anything. But does this illustration strike you as an exaggeration of the peril of minor departures from the doctrine of Scriptural infallibility and inerrancy? Then I am compelled to observe that the illustration suffers rather from weakness. It is in fact a serious understatement. He who sets up himself as judge as to what in the Bible is the authoritative Word of God and what is not, is not going to lose the Bible; he has already lost it. The very act of mere mans sitting in judgment on the Word of God constitutes rejection of the Word of God.
And so I plead with you:
Principiis obstemus! Let us withstand beginnings!
Principiis diligenter obstemus! Let us diligently withstand beginnings!
Principiis diligentissime obstemus!
Let us most diligently withstand beginnings!
Remembering that “the word of our God shall stand for ever” (Isaiah 40:8) let us abide uncompromisingly by the position we took a decade ago: “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the autographa.”
In short, let us have done once and for all with autonomous man and bow before the sovereign God. And when he speaks, let us humbly hear and believe. His Son said: “I thank thee, O Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because thou hast hid these things from the wise and prudent, and hast revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father; for so it seemed good in thy sight” (Matthew 11:25, 26).