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Archive: The Authority of Scripture

by G. W. Bromily, M.A., Ph.D., D.Litt.
Rector, St. Thomas’ English Episcopal Church, Edinburg, Scotland
Condensed from the New Bible Dictionary
Published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
Grand Rapids, Michigan
Used by permission

The second of two articles

The first portion, dealing with Roman Catholicism, is omitted for reasons of space.

An unorthodox teaching is that that of liberal Protestantism. This is a modern movement in every sense, for, though there are historical parallels, its development has been largely during the post-Reformation period. It has provided a view of the Bible which, allowing for varieties of presentation, is still that of many Protestant theologians, ministers, and laymen. Rome weakens the authority of the Bible, not by denying its divine origin and unique position, but by adding to it other authorities which rob it of its power. Historical Liberalism knows nothing of these subtle methods of peaceful penetration. It attacks the Bible frontally, denying the absoluteness or divine nature of its authority, willing to grant it authority—a limited and relative authority—only on the human level.

A full analysis of this complex liberal movement, in which so many different forms of thought coalesced, is unfortunately quite impossible in this context. All that can be done is to outline the various thought forms and to indicate the points at which they come into conflict with the orthodox doctrine. Five main movements combined generally speaking, to produce this modern view of the Bible:

  1. Rationalism, which at its best as with the German Neology, sought to reduce revealed Christianity to the level of a religion of reason. And at its worst, as with Voltaire [it] sought to laugh Christianity out of court as contrary to reason.
  2. Empiricism, or Historicism which had as its main aim the stud; of Christianity and all its phenomena along the strict lines of historical observation.
  3. Poeticism, which, as with Herder and many of the early critics, approached the Bible as a primitive poetry book, in which religious truths-partly emotional, partly religious truths—partly emotional, partly rational—are set out in aesthetic forms.
  4. Emotional Pietism, the special and most important contribution of Schleiermacher, by which the doctrines of Christianity (including that of Holy Scripture) are reinterpreted in terms, not now of reason or history, or poetry, but of emotional religious experience.
  5. Philosophical Idealism, which, in its final form in Hegel, gave a new rational interpretation upon a different philosophical basis: a basis which has as its starting point the individual thinking ego.

It is not to be supposed, of course, that there are not opposing tendencies in these movements, or that all of them are necessarily present, or present in equal proportions, in every liberal theologian. But generally speaking-and making full allowance for the many points of divergence—these are the movements which together constitute the liberal and humanistic challenge to the orthodox doctrine of Bible authority.

In what does that challenge consist? It consists first in the rejection of a transcendent Deity and of supernatural acts of God. This means that the Bible has to be explained as reason, or history, or poetry, or religion, but not as the Word of God. The Bible is reduced to the level of a human book, outstanding perhaps of its kind, but not above all other books. The Bible has to be studied comparatively, with other books of religion, poetry, history, or rational truth. It is inspired, but only in the same way as all other books are inspired, i.e. by the God immanent in all things. It is liable to error, because it is human, and all things human are equally liable to error. Thus the Bible ceases to be studied as a divine message, a Word of salvation.

Instead it comes to be studied as a product of human spirit. In its investigation, questions of authorship, date, circumstances, style, and development of thought replace the first and fundamental question, the question as to the content of the revelation of the Creator—Lord and Saviour.

The challenge of liberal Humanism to the orthodox view of the Bible consists also in the comprehension of the Bible within a world-scheme of human progress, although this scheme is, in actual fact, quite contrary to the teaching of the Bible itself … According to this doctrine, the thought of the Bible, the history which it records and the culture which it represents, are all approached from the human standpoint and forced into the universal humanistic scheme.

At two points this has serious consequences. First, it means that the sequence of the Bible history, as the Bible gives it, has to be rejected, because unfortunately it does not fit the evolutionary interpretation. The facts have to be sifted from the so-called additions of religious fancy and worked up into a new scheme. Second, it means that the message of the Bible has similarly to be treated and amended in order that a neat progression of religious thought may be observed. Even if it is granted that in the teaching of Jesus Christ the highest point of all religious thinking is reached, this teaching is still part of the development of the religious instincts and faculties of the race. The Bible has no superior authority as such, only the authority of the highest human achievement in religion thus far. …

The challenge of liberal Humanism consists again in the individualistic subjectivism[1] which it opposes to the objectivism[2] of the orthodox doctrine of the Word of God. Outward authority is cast off and is replaced by the inward authority of the individual thought or experience. Reason here, emotion there, usurps the place of God. The thought or experience is valid and valuable, not because it accords with an external standard of divine truth, but because it is individual, a single manifestation of the divine spirit immanent in and working through all things. The thoughts and feelings of the great Biblical figures have of course the same validity and value, possibly even the highest value—but only as similar manifestations of the same spirit. This means not only that the basic authority of the Bible is rejected, not only that all religion is approached comparatively and judged relatively, but that every individual becomes a law unto himself in religious matters. God is dethroned, humanity reigns, and in practice humanity means little more than individual man, the thinking or feeling self.

Some specific instances of Old Testament and New Testament criticism might serve as illustrations. In the Old Testament the first and most persistent theme was that Moses could not have been the author of the Pentateuch[3] or the founder (under God) of the institutions and practices recorded therein. Instead, a theory of gradual literary and religious development was propounded which, instituted by Eichhorn, finally took shape in the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis of the later 19th century.

The heart of this view is that Old Testament religion comes by evolution from below rather than by revelation from above. The documents are analyzed, dissected, regrouped and redated (J, E, D, and P in the Pentateuch) to provide the historical sequence of evidence for this view. More recently the documentary hypothesis has had to be considerably modified, but it has been replaced by similar concepts.

In the New Testament field the triadic,[4] Hegelian concept of historical development, which regarded conflict as the mark of authenticity and harmony as the sign of a postapostolic age, produced the wild excesses of the Tubingen school, so that only a few Epistles remained to Paul. Strauss’s Life of Jesus, with its attempt to sift the genuinely biographical material from legendary accretions, brought a first wave of demythologizing.

Not unrelated was the Jesus-of-History school, which might lead on the one side to Harnack’s reduction of the Gospel to divine fatherhood and human brotherhood, and on the other side to Reitzenstein’s derivation of Paul’s Christology, not from revelation, but from Hellenistic[5] myth and mystery.

Sweitzer made an important contribution early in the 20th century with his appreciation of the eschatological[6] character of Jesus’ teaching, though he himself, regarding it as mistaken, substituted a not very Biblical mysticism, while others, such as Dodd, evaded the issue by putting all the emphasis on realized eschatology.

The impasse reached in synoptic source-criticism[7] combined with other factors to produce the form-critical theory that the Gospels are made up of oral traditions[8] which evolved in the church according to set patterns and on the basis of widely-varying authenticity.

An even more developed historical skepticism reappears in Bultmann’s demythologizing, which presupposes a mythological form for an essentially existential kerygma.[9] Linguistic statistics might seem to bring back a refreshing objectivity on questions of authorship. Unfortunately, however, the use of computers is no safeguard against controlling presuppositions, at least in the New Testament field. Nor can findings based on implicit rejection of Biblical authority be expected to prove anything about this authority either one way or the other. The ultimate problem lies, not in the data, but in the positive or negative response to the self-understanding which is in its way a primary datum.

This, then, is the liberal Protestant challenge to the authority of Holy Scripture. Apart from the detailed work which it necessitates in Biblical theology and religion, and in relation to the individual writings, it also raises fundamental issues on which careful thought, definition, and statement are demanded. The whole question of an absolute and authoritative revelation has to be considered, the question of that revelation in its relation to history, to Israel, to Jesus Christ, to the Bible itself as a literary product; the question of that revelation in its relation to the world religions, or to so-called natural religion. Again, there is the question of the inspiration of the Bible; the question of that inspiration in its relation to the ordinary poetic inspiration of which literature speaks; the question of special working of the Holy Spirit of God in its relation to the general working in those activities which can be considered as products of common grace.

These matters have been dealt with in the past, but the new challenge carries with it a call, not for the abandonment of the old doctrine, not for its amendment, but for a new, careful, and solidly-grounded statement of it. In one respect, too, it may be asked whether there is not something to be learned from liberal Protestantism even though its presuppositions are unhesitatingly rejected. … The Bible is first of all God’s book, as Jesus Christ is first of all Son of God; but it is a human book too, God’s book in the world, as Jesus is the Son of man, the Word made flesh. Naturally, no one who truly accepts the Bible’s authority as the Word of God will wish to study the historical setting at the expense of the revealed message. But may he not wish to investigate the historical setting as the means to a better understanding of that message?

Another unorthodox teaching, which has grown up in recent years, largely as a reaction against contemporary Humanism, is that associated with the theology of Karl Barth, or at any rate with the development which that theology has undergone at the hands of many of his looser disciples. It is not easy to make definite pronouncements with regard to this movement, for Barth himself in his definitive Church Dogmatics both disowns much of his dialectical stage and also differs plainly from what has commonly come to be called Neo-orthodoxy. Indeed, his discussion of the precise question of the authority of Scripture brings him very close to Biblical and Reformed teaching. Hence the wisest course will be to take a broad view of the Neo-orthodox movement and to discuss the tendencies within it which are obvious deviations from the orthodox doctrine of Holy Scripture.

These deviations fall into two distinct classes: the one relating to the form of Scriptural revelation, the Bible as a book; the other to the content of Scriptural revelation, the Bible as the Word of God.

As concerns the form, Neo-orthodoxy is at pains to emphasize that the Bible is, outwardly considered, one human book among others. This means that the principle of errancy is accepted. If some theologians, such as Barth, hesitate to list specific errors, others, such as Bultmann, regard the whole scientific and historical side of Scripture as unreliable. God is not the Author of Scripture in the sense that He bears responsibility for its detailed words and phrases or backs its information. The Bible is truth in so far as God works through it in self-revelation. It is not truth, however, in the sense that all its statements are true. If God works only through the Bible, as some among the Neo-orthodox allow, it is by the sovereign choice of God, not because there is anything different about the Bible itself. If God uses a fallible book as the agent of revealing grace, this is no contradiction; it is the putting of divine treasure in earthen vessels, the mystery of divine grace, which forces us, as Bultmann puts it, to believe even though we cannot see. Lawful mystery is thus replaced by sheer irrationality, for while it is no doubt a mystery that eternal truth is revealed in temporal events and presented in human words, it is sheer unreason to say that this truth is revealed in and through that which is erroneous.

The second deviation relates to the content of Scriptural revelation, the Bible as Word of God. The essential point of Neo-orthodoxy is that the Bible becomes God’s Word as the Holy Spirit illumines and applies it to the individual soul. Inspiration is thus identified with what the Reformers call illumination. The authority of the Bible is the authority, not of the abiding text, but of the living voice of Scripture in the here and now of a given situation. Revelation in or through the Bible is revelation as the act of God, God’s present revealing of Himself, not the given objective reality of what God has already said and done.

It is along these lines that Barth makes an important distinction between revelation or inspiration as an active present on the one side and revealedness or inspiredness as a past passive on the other side. The former is endorsed as the genuine Biblical and Reformed view, whereas the latter is rejected. It is interesting that Barth, as distinct from the majority of the Neo-orthodox, displays an awareness that the objective historical reality of the Bible’s testimony must be given its due and proper weight. Nevertheless, he does not withdraw the fundamental distinction.

Now within the limits that there can be no objective Word of God without also the application to individual souls, there is truth in this distinction. But beyond those limits it leads in a dangerous direction. Pressed too far it means that the Bible can be authoritative, not as an outward word, but only as the Bible in the individual ego, as an inward experience. Thus, even with insistence upon the fact that Christianity rests upon unique historical events, even with stress upon the transcendence of God, in the last analysis we may easily be left with a faith which depends upon a subjective experience, and with the substantial autonomy of the individual ego. It is only a step from the anthropocentricity [human-centeredness] of Schleiermacher to the existentialism of Bultmann which is the complement of his demythologizing.

The questions raised by this theology are, of course, the central questions of all thinking upon the authority of Holy Scripture. They bring us to the very heart of the problem. Neo-orthodoxy has at least performed a service by showing that the categories of a dead (as opposed to a living) orthodoxy simply will not do.

Ought we to think that the Bible is trustworthy merely because we can demonstrate its historical accuracy? Ought we to think it authoritative merely because we have come to know the truth of its message through the Holy Spirit, and irrespective of its historical reliability? Ought we not to seek the authority of the Bible in the balanced relationship of the history (the objective Word) and the preaching (the Word applied subjectively by the Holy Ghost)—the history as that which is preached, the preaching as the application of this history?

It may be suggested, in closing, that a true doctrine of history and revelation in the Bible will be formulated only when the problem is studied in the light of the similar problem of the incarnation.[10] Christ, the Word revealed, is both God and man, the eternal Son historically incarnate, two natures, one Person. Neither if one denies the deity nor if one ignores the humanity is the true Christ perceived and believed. The man Jesus, very man, is known, confessed, and obeyed as the Lord Christ, very God. As there is no incongruity in the Person, for He was conceived of the Holy Spirit, so there is no irrationality in the confession, for it is made in and by the Holy Spirit. This Man has the authority of the Lord.

Similarly Holy Scripture, the Word written, which bears witness to Christ, is both divine revelation and human record, the divine message historically written, of twofold origin, yet one book. To ignore either the divine or the human authorship is to miss the true reality of the Bible and the full profit of its teaching and direction.

The parallel must not be pressed too far. For Jesus Christ is Himself God, the Creator, Lord, Revealer, and Reconciler, whereas Holy Scripture, even though what is read therein may be read with full persuasion of its authenticity and truth, is still the creature and instrument of God. Nevertheless, the incarnational analogy, properly apprehended and developed as such, may well be the best guide to an understanding which is fully Biblical and orthodox and which safeguards the authority and integrity of Scripture both as message and also history.

[1] Individual subjectivism: the tendency to see everything only, or largely, in terms of one’s own experience, thoughts, and feelings, with little or no attention paid to truth that lies beyond one’s experience.

[2] Objectivism: emphasis on truth/reality which exists outside of one’s personal experience or perception.

[3] Pentateuch: first five books of the Old Testament.

[4] Triadic: a trinity of three closely related persons or entities. Here it refers to the Hegelian principles of thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

[5] Hellenistic: relating to Greek history, culture, or art after Alexander the Great.

[6] Eschatological: concerning the final events in human history.

[7] Synoptic source-criticism: seeking to learn about the various literary sources supposedly comprising the synoptic, or first three, Gospels of the New Testament.

[8] Oral tradition: wisdom passed orally from one generation to the next. Some critics believe some Scriptures were written from oral traditions rather than by the authors identified in Scripture itself.

[9] Kerygma: the essence of the Gospel as preached in the early Church—Christ died for our sins according to the Scripture and has risen from the dead to reign in glory.

[10] Incarnation: the eternal Son of God coming to earth as a human being, fully human but at the same time fully God.


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