Recent trends in evangelicalism have sadly sought to blur the difference between the church’s illumination by the Spirit with the inspiration of Scripture. Nevertheless, revelation’s self-attesting function, purpose, and form allow the church to differentiate the Spirit’s illumination from inspiration. This distinction is vital in receiving the triune word of grace. The very manner in which Scripture comes to us as the self-authenticating Word of God is tied to the triune mission of bringing mankind into his life as the Lord uses very human means to communicate. As God accommodates to our finitude and weakness, he nevertheless speaks reliably, moving us from the kingdom of Satan into the kingdom of his beloved Son.
When the narratives of our age continually ask, “Has God really said?” our God gives us the sure pledge of himself as the guarantee of his great promises. As the Spirit attests and witnesses to God’s redemptive word, the church is enabled to speak that witness to a watching world. Inerrancy is yoked to the sufficiency of the redemptive acts of the triune God. To undermine inerrancy is ultimately to undermine inspiration. Inerrancy, like apologetics, is integrally related to a redemptive understanding of revelation.
The question of how the Bible was meant to be read (and proclaimed) is ultimately tied to the question of Scripture’s inspiration and form. The Reformation perceived that the material principle of sola fide guaranteed the formal principle of sola Scriptura. Revelation was never to stand by itself, but is always concerned either explicitly or implicitly with redemptive accomplishment, authenticating or interpreting God’s redemptive actions. And yet, it is this word of grace that sinners are morally opposed to hearing, conjuring up ways to silence it.
In humanity’s alliance with the serpent, heeding his word and promise, we need an external word, a trustworthy revelation from God, to break that treaty in promising rescue and release (Gen 3:14-16). Sinners who are under God’s judgment need to hear the good news of his rescue operation and the assurance of his favor toward us in Christ alone. Nevertheless, the voice of God does not call us away from created things (such as human language) “into the inner self,” but calls us out of our introspective existence through creaturely means to embrace a surprising Word that we could never have told ourselves.1 The Reformation emphasis on the principles of sola fide and sola Scriptura represents an event of “revocalizing the Word” of God.2 This Word calls us out of our subjectivity and renders us extrinsic, extroverted, and social creatures who hold fast to Christ in faith and, consequently, to speak that truth in love to those around us.3
In suffering from ideological persecution, the church has often lost its voice through cultural captivity. With the rise of modernity, the voice of God lost its ability to speak; or, rather, we lost the ability to differentiate it from our own voice. Taking their cue from Immanuel Kant, Protestant liberalism combined naturalism with mysticism. While working feverishly to undermine confidence in the external authority of God’s Word that announces the gospel, liberalism widened the concept of inspiration to include not simply the moral law within but just about any and every inner religious feeling that accompanies it. “What is inspiration?” asked the father of theological liberalism, Friedrich Schleiermacher. “It is simply the general expression for the feeling of true morality and freedom.”4 Through this combination of pietism and mysticism to naturalism, the Western church lost the ability to distinguish its own inner thought from the voice of God with nothing left to proclaim to a dying world.
Following Schleiermacher, Stanley Grenz has wondered why some evangelical theologians still hold to the scholastic-Calvinistic “conviction that there is a deposit of cognitive revelation given once and for all in the Bible,” together with its “combination of a material and a formal principle.”5 Scripture has come to exist alongside experience and culture, and “these sources must be held in ‘creative tension as responding in their different ways to the revelation of God.'”6 In this way, inspiration is lowered to the level of illumination and therefore broadened to include the whole history of the people of God and their experience of this interplay of Scripture, tradition, and culture.
The pendulum is swinging in the direction of the assimilation of Scripture to the church (or the “faith community”). Radical Protestant (i.e. Anabaptist) and Roman Catholic theories of the church as the mother of Scripture share surprising similarities. They are simply two ways of reducing God’s speech to human speech, whether that of the pious believer or the holy church. This approach, however, is tantamount to saying that the servant rather than the Lord is the author of the covenant.
A sound doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy requires a specifically Christian ontology (or view of reality), underscoring the redemptive-historical unfolding of biblical revelation of the triune God-who-speaks. At issue, then, in our doctrine of Scripture is the question not of what use we make of it (either communally or individually), but the use God makes of it within the economy of grace – how he uses his word to save his people.7
For all of the announcements of having entered a postmodern era, our Western culture hasn’t moved terribly far from the basic dogmas of the Enlightenment, undermining our ability to hear God afresh. Only a trustworthy Word that can break into our world and allow us to hear God’s voice again will lead us to a defense of the hope that lies within us, so we might extol his mighty deeds to those around us!
1. Oswald Bayer, Living by Faith: Justification and Sanctification (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 28.
2. Stephen H. Webb, The Divine Voice: Christian Proclamation and the Theology of Sound (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), esp. chs. 4 and 5. See also Theo Hobson, The Rhetorical Word: Protestant Theology and the Rhetoric of Authority (Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2002).
3. Westminster Larger Catechism, 155.
4. Friedrich Schleiermacher, On Religion, trans. John Oman (New York: Harper, 1958), 89.
5. Stanley Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 62.
6. Grenz, 91.
7. John Webster, Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 100.