Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life by J.I. Packer
They lived happily every after.” So say fairy tales of imaginary married couples, and so wrote middle-aged Winston Churchill in the closing sentence of My Early Life about his own marriage with Clementine Hosier. I take him to have been telling the world two things. The first, which is there on the surface, is that they had become consciously inseparable, and the bond between them was growing stronger all the time. The second, which human nature makes certain though it was not stated, is that they had had ups and downs, and would doubtless have more. But they had reached the point of knowing that their relationship would survive the arguments and not be destroyed by them. The fairy-tale phrase does not hint at this, nor at the inner complexity of the marriage relationship, from any standpoint at all; that knowledge is supplied only by experience.
Something similar is true of the relation between the Bible and the church.
The Bible is and always has been the book of the church, the source of its faith, thought, preaching, teaching, order, worship, praise, prayer and song. The inseparability is conscious; the church always has been, and when in its senses has tried to show itself to be, the church of the book, learning its identity, calling, mission, knowledge of God and knowledge of itself in and under God from the pages of Holy Writ. Bunyan’s pilgrim with his book in his hand could be a picture of the church no less than of the Christian. But this is not the whole story. The relation between Bible and the church has so varied in different periods and in different theologies that accusations of destroying it have often been heard within the church’s own ranks, as in some places they are heard today. Also, though the relationship may be simple and straightforward in idea, it regularly proves tense and complex in practice, because Bible and church are both intrinsically complex realities. Our first step in approaching our theme, therefore, had better be to warn ourselves against oversimplifying.
A Look at History
A glance at history gives perspective. The first major debate on Bible-church relations took place at the Reformation, when Roman and anti-Roman groups began to accuse each other of laying waste the church through misunderstanding Scripture. Up till then, Christians had been taught to assume that the church’s religion was identical with biblical faith, and any who did not agree were categorized as heretical monsters The Reformers queried this identity at a deep level. They accused Rome of contradicting Scripture over the mediation of Christ; the work of the Spirit; the way of salvation; the method of grace; the meaning of justification and faith; the doctrine and use of the sacraments, especially the Lord’s Supper; and the nature of the church itself. They also diagnosed the Roman appeal to tradition as binding and gagging the Bible so that it could not speak and be heard. For saying this the Reformers were, to be sure, categorized as heretical monsters, but they made their point at least to this extent: they compelled Rome to argue for its position and to recognize that such a position could no longer be taken for granted.
In that debate the main issues were the extent, clarity and sufficiency of Scripture. On the first issue, Rome said: The canon of Scripture is known through the church’s decision, which when conciliar is infallible (as when the Council of Trent defined the Old Testament apocrypha into the canon, something never before done). Protestants said: The authority of church use and definition, though weighty, is not final nor divine; recognition of canonical Scripture depends ultimately on the covenanted inner witness of the Spirit, whereby the divine source and authority of those books that the church has historically attested to (not, therefore, the apocrypha) is made evident to faith.
On the second issue (the clarity of Scripture), Rome said: Scripture is not self-explanatory, and the Bible reader who does not let the teaching church tell him what the book means will err to his soul’s hurt. Protestants said: Though it is true that God has appointed the preaching of the word as the prime means of Christian understanding, yet all things necessary to salvation are plain in the biblical text, so that the one who reads attentively, seeking the Spirit’s help and comparing Scripture with Scripture, will not be led astray.
On the third issue (the sufficiency of Scripture), Rome said: Scripture needs to be supplemented by traditions that the church hands down. Protestants replied: The absence of traditional items (papacy, penances, pilgrimages, what have you) from the Bible argues their nonnecessity and probable unsoundness. Urged the Reformers: The basic form of the church’s discipleship to its Lord is to echo Scripture in its confession and obey Scripture in its life, changing its present behavior in whatever way Scripture proves to require. Replied Rome: The Church serves its Lord most truly by transmitting the whole deposit of faith and moral teaching found within its tradition, of which Scripture is only part. The debate has continued.
Within Protestantism things were complicated by the progressive outworking of two Renaissance motifs: the individual’s intellectual autonomy, and man’s status as the measure of all things. These soon dissolved the frame of reference within which the Reformation debate took place.
Both Rome and the Reformers were clear that this world depends on a Creator who rules and speaks, who governs its whole course and makes miraculous redemptive intrusions into it, and that both church and Bible are products of such intrusion — the former through regeneration, the latter by inspiration. But seventeenth-century deism, eighteenth-century rationalism and nineteenth-century liberalism smudged this clarity within Protestantism, as least among its academics. Shut out of the world by deists, silenced by Kant’s critical philosophy and identified by Schleiermacher with what Lutheran pietists felt about him (a major scaling down), God so shrank in human minds that the miraculous realities of regeneration and inspiration became incredible. The church came to be seen as either a voluntary ethical association maintained by priestcraft in some cases and by state patronage in others or as the state itself striking moral attitudes. The Bible was viewed as a testament of religion, a documentary record of how God was sought and found, containing more of people’s spotty and uneven thoughts about God than of God’s true and abiding thoughts about humankind. The function of Scripture, thus conceived, was to give the church moral inspiration and emotional encouragement, rather than to rule the church for God by mediating God’s instruction and direction. In this way the Bible, which the Reformers venerated as, in Calvin’s phrase, “the sceptre of God” (in other words the instrument of divine government), came to be regarded as an instrument of human culture. Among Protestant leaders the original Protestant understanding of biblical authority was almost wholly eclipsed.
In the twentieth century the Bible-church relationship became a major theme of discussion once more. As the turn-of-the-century optimism of religious and political liberals shriveled in Europe and Britain through the impact of the First World War and in North America a decade later through the impact of the Great Depression. Protestants began to realize afresh that the church is God’s sinful, needy people living only by his word of grace, and that Scripture, which witnesses to God’s word and work for his people in the past, is the trysting place where he meets and addresses his church today. The names of Barth, Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr
call for honorable mention among exponents of this emphasis. Faith in Scripture as the record and medium of revelation revived, and faith in the living God of Scripture seemed to revive with it. In the 1940s “biblical theology” appeared, announcing itself as the discipline whereby one reads canonical Scripture “from within,” as a corporate confession of faith in the God of redemptive history. One identifies with that faith, and one then tackles all questions of truth and obedience in directly biblical terms. Roman Catholic and ecumenical theologians took up “biblical theology,” and many fine expositions of the Bible “from within” have been produced during the past fifty years. These works imparted to the church everywhere a more vivid sense of its continuity and identity with the church of the Old and New Testaments than Christian believers had known for many a long day.
Among scholars, however, “biblical theology” has for quite some time been under a cloud. Its assumption of the unity of biblical teaching is on the shelf while the hypothesis of an ultimate plurality of biblical theologies is explored. The instability and incoherence that marked this newborn discipline from the start, but that its first practitioners had hoped to transcend, are frequently and mercilessly highlighted. Its defects, unfortunately, are real and go deep. As I pointed out in 1958,1 the “biblical theology” program as presented by its architects suffers from unending oscillations because it refuses a priori to identify with the uniform biblical belief in totally trustworthy Scriptures but rests on the standard type of academic biblical criticism, which treats as possibly or actually false much that the Bible presents as true. This inconsistent streak of skepticism, violating the movement’s own announced method, has, as I predicted,2 become its Achilles’ heel. From its own ranks have come scholars urging that theology must face the overall historical uncertainty of Scripture; that the overlay of interpretation in biblical narrative means we regularly cannot be sure what actually happened, that is, what we could have seen and verified had we been there; that no one “biblical way of thinking” and no unique “Hebrew mentality” (as was once rashly claimed) can be shown to exist; that since different theologies and historical approaches, brought
to Scripture, yield different interpretations of key points, biblical authority is hopelessly problematical; and that there is no good reason anyway to treat the fruits of historical exegesis and criticism as theologically normative.3
These problems of relating biblical narrative to historical fact and part to part within the Bible cannot be opened up here, but it can be said at once that they look insoluble on any other basis than that the canonical Scriptures are what the biblical writers and precritical expositors took them to be, namely, God’s witness to himself in the form of celebratory, reflective and didactic witness by those who, “moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet 1:21 RSV). One this basis, however, “biblical theology” can, I think, be put back on the road academically,4 and this is certainly desirable, for when consistently pursued, it is wholly rightminded. Plainly as an academic discipline it fell on its face through trying to go too far too fast and too unsteadily, without enough methodological reflection on what it was doing. Equally plainly, however, “biblical theology” is in essence the approach taken by the great body of theologically significant biblical expositors from Irenaeus in the second century to Calvin in the sixteenth and Barth in the twentieth. Likewise, it is the technical statement of the approach that I have already outlined as the wayfarer’s path to understanding.5 So it needs to be rehabilitated, not abandoned.
In the meantime, the new biblical interest has borne many encouraging fruits. The Council of Trent was long thought to teach that unwritten traditions and the written Scriptures were two separate sources of divine truth, but now it has been shown that this is not necessarily so,6 and Vatican II spoke of tradition as simply the church’s deepening understanding of the Scriptures.7 More and more Roman Catholic theologians, with Karl Rahner till his death the dean of them,8 are recognizing an obligation to show that each particular tradition has an adequate biblical base. Major ecumenical studies of tradition have been made,9 with Protestants showing a new interest in tradition as the initial exposition of Scripture that the church hands on to nurture each new generation. The stress
that all denominations exhibit on lay Bible study and biblical preaching in worship testifies to a widespread sense that Scripture must, and can, renew the church — a sense, be it said, no less strong among Roman Catholics than among Protestants.10 All these developments raise again the old problem: How should the proper relationship between Bible and church be formulated in theory, and how can it be realized in practice?
It will help us in discussing these questions if we first spend a little time defining our terms.
What is the Bible? On the face of it, it is a library — a collection of sixty-six separate items, written in three languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek), composed and brought together over a period of more than a thousand years, and containing material of the most varied literary types — written history, personal memoirs, sermons, letters, hymns, prayers, love poetry, philosophical poetry, family trees, visions, tales, statistics, public laws, rubrics for rituals, inventories and much else. It divides into two collections, the second dating from a single half-century (hardly more, and perhaps much less) several hundred years after the composing of the first collection ended.
You might have expected this mass of material to be classified as a compendium of Jewish and Christian classics, or something like that. But nothing of the kind! From the start the Christian church has treated the two collections with their varied contents as a unified whole. It was doing this at the end of the first century, before it had a single name for them, when what we call the Old Testament was “the Scriptures” and what we call the New Testament was “the Gospel and the Apostles.” For all the books to appear, as now they do, in one large volume called “the Holy Bible” (singular) makes explicit the view of their unity that was always implicit in the church’s use of them.
The Christian idea of Scripture as the God-given canon (measuring rod, standard, ruler, rule) came from Judaism and the Old Testament. The church, taught by the apostles, claimed the Jewish Scriptures as written
by divine inspiration to instruct Christians (compare Rom 15:4; 16:26; 1 Cor 9:9; 10:11; 1 Pet 1:10-12); bracketed with them a selection of documents containing apostolic witness to Christ (compare 2 Pet 3:16); and formed at once the habit of elucidating texts and establishing tenets by cross-reference to other parts of the whole collection, just as the rabbis, Jesus and several New Testament authors had done in handling the Old Testament. This habit proclaims the assumption that the entire collection forms a unity.
Many who have tried to read the Bible, however, have gotten lost in it and found no way to put it all together. Can the assumption of unity, then, be justified? The answer is yes, and at two distinct levels.
First, the sixty-six books have a demonstrable unity of subject matter and standpoint. This unity links Genesis, Judges, Job and Jeremiah with Matthew, Acts, Romans and Revelation and all that lies between. Each book proves on inspection to be recounting or anticipating or reflecting on or giving thanks for part or all of the work of the Creator, who is also the Redeemer and who acts to set up his kingdom of grace in and over human lives. This work of God in both the space-time continuum of world history and in his personal dealings with individuals is the story line of the Bible. The story has one here (the triune Yahweh: Father, Son and Holy Spirit), one theme (life for sinful humankind through Jesus Christ by faith) and a unified plot. Opening with tragedy (humankind pitchforked into ruin: the Fall and the flood), the plot moves to a long episodic buildup (the call of Abraham and the career of his descendants; two captivities, one in Egypt and one in Babylon; two exoduses; an earthly kingdom that rises and wanes; and hope of an eternal kingdom that grows steadily stronger as human prospects wither). The climax comes with a catastrophic reversal of apparent disaster (the Son of God arrives and is killed, but he rises to reign, sends the Spirit and pledges his return; through his atoning death sinners are saved, the kingdom of grace is fully revealed and the woman’s seed triumphs). The story locates our lives between Christ’s two comings and directs us to trust him as our Savior, Lord and deliverer from the wrath to come (compare 1 Thess 1:10); it is thus
kerygma (proclamation), the sum and substance of the gospel message. The story is also the reference point for books mainly of doctrine (for example, Romans), mainly of ethics (for example, Proverbs, Hosea, James), and mainly of devotion (for example, the Psalms); you cannot understand these books properly until you slot them into their place in the history, on which in fact they are all in one way or another responsive comments, interpretive, celebratory and applicatory. Read the Bible with something other than the ongoing story as your key, and you may well feel lost and wonder how it all hangs together. But read it in terms of the story, and amazement at its inner unity is likely to overwhelm you.
It was Irenaeus, reacting against Marcion and other Gnostics when they denied that the God of the Old Testament is identical with the God of the New, who in the second century pioneered the highlighting of the Bible’s unity of plot. In our day “biblical theology,” reacting against denials of redemptive continuity between the two Testaments, has highlighted the point again. As a result, presentations of the Bible as narrative (how God has worked) as drama (how our redemption was won), and as witness to the God who loves, seeks and saves has effectively displaced the older liberal account of it as a treasury of religious experience, the viewpoint embodied in such books as E. F. Scott’s Varieties of New Testament Religion (1943). Whereas the first half of the twentieth century saw such publications as The Bible Designed to Be Read as Literature (a title which G.B. Bently described as a gravestone for the word of God).11 Popular accounts of the Bible for the post-World War II generation had titles like The Book of the Acts of God (G. Ernest Wright and Reginal Fuller).12 The change reflected a great recovery of understanding.
Nor is this all. In elucidating the unity of the Bible there is, second, the fact of inspiration to be reckoned with. Scripture is God’s own teaching! That was Paul’s meaning when he wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16 that all Scripture (he meant our Old Testament) is theopneustos (God-breathed, a product of the creative breath that, according to Ps 33:6, made the heavens; in other words, a work of the Holy Spirit, just as the specific Old Testament quotations in Mk 12:36; Acts 4:25-26; 28:25-27; Heb 3:7-11; 10:15-17
are said to be).13 To this conviction New Testament writers testify every time they cite an Old Testament passage as bringing Christians God’s message.14 Hereby they show their certainty that God gave these Scriptures by a special exercise of his providence in order to instruct “for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” and equip for every good work generations unborn at the time of writing (compare 2 Tim 3:15-17). That the books are fully human is not now nor ever was in question; the point is that they are profitable for Christians because they have ultimately a divine origin and carry a divine message for Christians, having been given by God with Christians in mind. So what Peter says of the prophets — “men they were, but, impelled by the Holy Spirit, they spoke the words of God,” (2 Pet 1:21 NEB; “what came from God” would be closer to the Greek than “the words of God,” though the thought as paraphrased is right) — should be said of all Old Testament writers, whatever the literary type of their work and however it was composed.
It is clear that the psychological dimensions and phenomena of the process of divine inspiration varied from one writer to another, and from time to time for the same writer. Thus, the inspiration of the prophets delivering (and also recording or dictating, compare Jer 36) God’s oracles was psychologically dualistic, in the sense that they knew themselves to be simply relaying what they had received, with no admixture of their own thoughts (whatever they might have contributed to the material’s poetic form). The inspiration of the historians was psychologically didactic, in the sense that they evidently wrote on the basis of research into facts and traditions and reflection on the most instructive shape to give their material. Something similar should be said about the wisdom writers and about the anonymous editors and redactors who worked to give the prophetic and historical books their final form. The inspiration of the psalmists and poets was psychologically responsive and creative, in the sense that they crafted into shape the praises and prayers and celebratory declarations that welled up within them as they looked toward God, just as do secular poets and song writers in working up their ideas for secular lyrics.
Here, then, were three quite different states of mind. The prophet would say, “God speaks through me, as his sounding board”; the historian and wisdom teacher would say, “I speak for God, as one who knows what he is talking about”; the psalmist and poet would say, “I speak in God’s presence, as one who has felt the force of his truth and his touch.” But the point to note is that whatever the psychological mode of inspiration, the theological reality of it was the same throughout. The books, like their authors, are fully human, but their message is also, and equally divine.
New Testament inspiration is of the same three types: dualistic (Revelation), didactic (the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles) and lyric (hymns and doxologies), each type corresponding closely to its Old Testament counterpart.
The inspiration of Scripture, as defined, is commonly regarded today as dubious and problematical, not to say incredible, but for New Testament Christians, teachers and taught alike, it was axiomatic. Why this difference? It is not enough to say that we are aware of critical questions about the truth of the Old Testament of which New Testament Christians were not aware; had they known of them, it would not have affected their attitude. For they had a compelling positive reason for accepting Scripture as instruction direct from their God. Not only was this view of Scripture basic to the Jewish faith out of which Christianity came, it was basic also to the ministry of Jesus himself. Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mat 5:17). With this claim, which is in truth the hinge on which the whole New Testament view of Christianity turns, Jesus explicitly took his stand under the authority of Scripture; while differing from others on its interpretation at certain key points, he endorsed completely the received view of its nature and normative force, as torah (authoritative instruction) from the Creator, his Father. The apostles did not fail to follow their Master here. As I wrote elsewhere:
Christ and his apostles quote Old Testament texts not merely as what, for example, Moses, David or Isaiah said (see Mk 7:10, 12:36, 7:6; Rom 10:5,
11:9, 10:20, etc.), but also as what God said through these men (see Acts 4:25, 28:25, etc.), or sometimes simply what “he” (God) says (for example, 2 Cor 6:16; Heb 8:5, 8), or what the Holy Spirit says (Heb 3:7, 10:15). Furthermore, Old Testament statements, not made by God in their contexts, are quoted as utterances of God (Mt 19:4 f.; Heb 3:7; Acts 13:34 f.; citing Gen 2:24; Ps 95:7; Is 55:2 respectively). Also, Paul refers to God’s promise to Abraham and his threat to Pharaoh, both spoken long before the biblical record of them was written, as words which Scripture spoke to these two men (Gal 3:8; Rom 9:17); which shows how completely he equated the statements of Scripture with the utterance of God.15
Clearly it was as much part of New Testament Christianity to receive as divine teaching the Old Testament, which witnessed to Christ and which he fulfilled, as it was to receive as divine teaching the message of Jesus and his apostles.
It is indeed scarcely possible to account for the staggering unity of standpoint and subject matter on which I commented above without positing inspiration. Four centuries ago John Calvin appealed to the “beautiful harmony of all its parts”16 as confirming belief in the Bible’s divine origin and authority, and in this as in so much else Calvin’s judgment was sound. There is no doubt that Calvin, who always treated biblical teaching as God’s instruction and affirmed that all believers knew it to be so through the inner witness of the Spirit, held the view of inspiration outlined above.17 It is ironic that in our time Reformed churches generally should have been so overawed by the supposedly sure results of biblical criticism (which, being loaded from the start with skeptical assumptions, could not but come up with skeptical conclusions) as largely to give up Calvin’s view; doubly ironic when one observes that the most recent ecclesiastical witness to it of any standing has been borne by the Church of Rome! The statement of Vatican II on biblical inspiration merits quotation in full.
11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-21; 3:15-16),
holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.
Therefore since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17)…..
13. In sacred Scripture, therefore, while the truth and holiness of God always remains intact, the marvelous “condescension” of eternal wisdom is clearly shown, “that we may learn the gentle kindness of God, which words cannot express, and how far He has gone in adopting His language with thoughtful concern for our weak human nature”. For the words of God, expressed in human language, have been made like human discourse, just as the word of the eternal Father, when He took Himself the flesh of human weakness, was in every way made like other men.18
Sadly, some Roman Catholic theologians twist the second of these paragraphs (#13) to mean “limited inerrancy,” that is, that not everything in Scripture is “truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation,” and that what does not come in that category cannot always be trusted.19 Yet in itself, naturally understood, this is as fine a statement of what Protestants and Roman Catholics once held in common as one could wish for. It will be a happy day when Protestants again confess the truth about Scripture in terms like these, grounding its unity of subject matter in the unity of God, its primary author.
Such is the Bible. What, now do we mean when we speak of the church?
In the New Testament the church is a many-sided reality that is spoken of from various points of view. In this chapter, however, the viewpoint is precise and constant. By the church I mean not “the whole number of the elect” (to quote the Westminster Confession, xxv.i) nor the organized regional or denominational federations (the Church of South India, the Anglican church, the Assemblies of God or whatever) but the pilgrim people of God on earth as such. The church is that historically continuous society that races its lineage back to the apostles and the day of Pentecost, and behind that to Abraham, father of the faithful, whose “seed” the church is through faith in and union with Abraham’s primary see, Jesus Christ (compare Rom 4:16; Gal 3:7-20). It is God’s adopted family of children and heirs, bound to him as he is bound to it in the bonds of his gracious covenant. It is also the body and bride of Jesus Christ, the “company of faithful men” (coetus fidelium: the phrase comes from Anglican Article 19) who enjoy union and communion with the Mediator through the Holy Spirit. As Luther rightly said, the church is essentially invisible, an object of faith rather than of sight, for the realities that constitute it — the glorified Christ who is its head, the faith that embraces him, and the Spirit who unites us with him and communicates his gifts to us — are not open to observation nor detectable by any physical test at present, whatever may become the case when Christ returns. But the church becomes visible in its local assemblies, each of which is the body of Christ in manifestation, an outcrop, specimen, sample and microcosm of the church as a whole. It becomes visible by its association, fellowship, discipline and witness, by the preaching and sharing of God’s Word that it sponsors, by its administering of the sacraments of entry and continuance according to Christ’s command and by its commitment to the work that the Master gave it to do.
Now it is the nature of the church to live under the authority of Jesus Christ
as its teacher no less than as its king and its priest. The church depends on the Lord Jesus for instruction in spiritual things, and looks to the Spirit of Jesus to teach it these things in the Savior’s name. This is true of both “Catholic” and “Protestant” outlooks. The standard Roman Catholic claim is that the church (defined, of course, in terms of communion with the pope), being the extension of the incarnation, the prolonging in space and time of Christ’s presence in this world, actually partakes of the divine infallibility and teaching authority that belong to the Lord himself. These qualities, according to the theory, find definitive expression when the pope speaking ex cathedra (that is, in his official character as the teacher of Christendom exercising his magisterium, or teaching office) confirms the declarations of councils or in his own person defines convictions that the Holy Spirit is held to have established in the church’s corporate mind. Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism, while rejecting the doctrine of the papacy, appeal similarly to the authority of the church’s corporate mind down the ages (“holy Tradition”).
It is important to see that these appeals to the church for doctrine, which to Protestants might look like ways of manufacturing truths and facts (lineal apostolic succession, localized eucharistic presence, the papal office itself, the Immaculate Conception, the Assumption of Mary, and so on) contrary to the Spirit’s teaching from Scripture, are actually expressions, however mistaken, of the same concern to be taught by Jesus Christ that makes Protestants pore over the Bible. That “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4, citing Deut 8:3 RSV) is common ground; the difference is over how God teaches.
There can be no disputing that churchmanship means discipleship, and discipleship means learning, and learning means listening to the word of the Lord. Luther defined the church in a way that, he claimed, a child of seven could grasp. He defined it as “those who hear the shepherd’s voice” (an echo, of course, of John 10:27). Concern to hear Christ’s voice and be taught by him is basic to the identity of both the Christian and the church.
The Bible is the book of the church; the church is the people of the book. What, now, is the proper relation between the Bible and the church?
In answer, I offer these two propositions: first, it is for the Bible to form and reform the church; second, it is for the church to keep, and to keep to, the Bible. Let us explore them in order in what follows.
The Bible over the Church
It is for the Bible to form and reform the church. This assertion breaks down into four.
First, the church’s corporate life must be shaped by the gospel. By “gospel” (literally, “the good news”) I mean here the whole “word of God” that the apostles preached and taught, embodying the “word of God” that came from Jesus (compare Lk 5:1; 8:11, 21; 11:28; Acts 4:31; 8:14; 11:1; 13:7, 44,46; Col 1:25; 1 Thess 2:13; 1 Tim 2:9). In other words, the gospel is the whole Christian message: the facts of Jesus’ life, death, rising, reign and future return, his missionary commission, institution of the sacraments and sending of the Spirit (for which see the Gospels and Acts), plus Old Testament facts forming the background (as recounted in, for example, Gal 3 & 4; Rom 4, 9, & 11; Hebrews), plus theological analysis, with ethical corollaries, of God’s eternal plan of grace, his “whole counsel” that has Christ and the church at its heart (Acts 20:27 RSV; see the church Epistles).
By responding to the Bible’s message with faith, that is, credence and commitment, the church comes to exist in God’s presence as a company of believers and to take form locally as a visibly organized fellowship. Anglican Article 19 defines the visible church as “a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.” It is thus specifying that the New Testament message must shape the faith, life and order of God’s pilgrim people at all points.
Protestants have differed as to how far New Testament descriptions of early church life have prescriptive force for church life now in such matters as
liturgy, ministerial order and synods. What is at issue here, however, is interpretation, not authority. On the decisiveness of biblical principles there has been agreement. The debate has had to do only with what those principles are — whether the New Testament should be read as setting forth by precept and precedent a universally required church order, as some Presbyterians, Baptists and Christian Brethren have thought, or as leaving the church freedom (and so imposing on it responsibility) to implement general principles about church fellowship and ministry in the way that seems best in our situation, which is how other Presbyterians, with Anglicans and Lutherans and Methodists, have seen the matter and how the New Testament Christians seemed to see it. But all Protestants agree that neither their own church order nor any other can be justified except as a direct response to New Testament teaching. Responsive conformity to Christ and his gospel is acknowledged by all, as was said above, to be the very foundation and essence of the church’s identity.
Second, our only access to the gospel is through the Scriptures. This is first a historical point: the New Testament books are the prime witnesses to what Christ and the apostles taught. They are authentic and responsible sources, contemporary or near-contemporary with the events recorded,20 and no other independent sources of any significance are available.21 But it is also a theological point: the New Testament, as we saw, is Spirit-inspired apostolic witness, and Christ meant this witness to fix the church’s faith for all time. That is implied, as we saw earlier, by his prayer “I do not pray for these only, but also for all those who will believe in me through their word (Jn 17:20, emphasis added).
Historically, as Protestant apologists have urged against Rome, no one can tell if postapostolic traditions, allegedly apostolic in origin, really are so. Theologically, says Oscar Cullmann, the mid-second-century recognition of apostolic writings as canonical — that is, as the decisive rule for faith and life — shows clear awareness that postapostolic tradition and apostolic tradition are not on a par but that the latter must control and correct the former. Here are Cullmann’s words:
By establishing the principle of a Canon the Church . . . drew a line under the apostolic tradition. She declared implicitly that from that very moment every subsequent tradition must be submitted to the control of the apostolic tradition. In other terms, she declared: here is the tradition which constituted the Church, which imposed itself on her . . . To establish a Canon is equivalent to recognizing: henceforth our ecclesiastical tradition needs to be controlled; with the help of the Holy Spirit it will be controlled by the apostolic tradition fixed in writing . . . To fix a canon was to say: henceforth we renounce the right to consider as a norm other traditions that are not fixed by the Apostles in writing . . . To say that the writings brought together in a Canon should be considered as norm was to say that they should be considered as sufficient. The teaching office of the Church was not abdicated by this final act of fixing the Canon, but its future activity was made to depend on a norm that was superior.22
To feel the full force of Cullmann’s point, we should note that the early church’s concern in thus affirming the authority of apostolic tradition stemmed from its concerns for the gospel and salvation rather than for church organization and law. In other words, the concern was not just for an official orthodoxy but for the personal knowledge of salvation in Christ to which “sound words” (1 Tim 6;3 RSV; 2 Tim 1:13; compare Rom 6:17) lead. By setting apostolic writings above all other tradition, the early church was consciously guarding the gospel against its perverters. In ascribing to those writings divine authority, it was both bracketing them with the Old Testament as “able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 3:15 RSV) and aligning itself with the New Testament congregations whose obedience to the apostolic message had actually brought them salvation.
To see the canonizing process, as some seem to do, as the postapostolic church meeting its own felt need of a court of appeal, and to consider on that basis how providence, the Spirit, study and church authority combined to give us the books we now have, is to miss the essence of what went on. Essentially, what was happening was this: the apostolic message about redemption, which was and is part of the saving fact of Christ, was authenticating itself from God in its written form, just as it had authenticated itself
when first preached in Jerusalem, Samaria, Corinth and Rome. Christ had authorized the apostles to declare this message with his authority, and so by the Spirit they did, both orally and in writing. The church’s historic recognition of written apostolic witness as the New Testament canon means essentially that the church acknowledges it to be God’s word of salvation. Inquiry into the pedigree, use and contents of particular books can make it seem reasonable to accept them as authentic and unreasonable not to, but ultimately the church’s acceptance of them in each generation is because they impose themselves — because, that is, the church hears in them the saving word of God.
Ridderbos focuses this by distinguishing between the canon viewed qualitatively (as the authentic, authoritative presentation of Christ) and quantitatively (as a fixed collection of books).23 The “quantitive” question, which books should be in the collection, has prompted debate, on and off, since the second century. But the “qualitative” question, whether written apostolic witness to Christ and salvation should be a norm for all Christians, was never disputed till modern times (when all first principles, it seems, are disputed by someone or other!) No felt uncertainties or scholars’ disputes about the extent of the canon, therefore, should be thought to invalidate the principle that the church’s knowledge of the gospel comes ultimately through the Scriptures alone.24
In saying this, I do not suggest for one moment that traditions of teaching, worship and order in the church are unimportant. On the contrary, they should be gratefully received and respectfully handled, for they are the fruit of much past effort to think and live biblically, and much of their content is plainly the result of the Spirit’s teaching and application of Scripture (the ecumenical creeds, for instance, and a great deal of the local confessions, liturgies, hymns, and theological and devotional writing that particular parts of the church have produced). to say that “tradition represents the worldliness of the Church”25 is one-sided; tradition is not always worldly and wrong. Yet the statement has a point: tradition is not always godly and right either. This is what you would expect where the Spirit is really at work among sinners who are not yet perfectly sanctified in either head or heart.
This is why all traditions must be submitted to the corrective judgment of the Scriptures that they seek to expound and apply and subserve. And this is why, in particular, postapostolic traditions must be brought under the control of apostolic tradition in the New Testament. As Paul in Christ’s name challenged the Jerusalem church tradition that called for the circumcision of Gentile converts in Galatia and the “human tradition” that was corrupting the doctrine, worship and service of God through Christ at Colossae (Col 2:8); as also our Lord in his Father’s name challenged the rabbinic expository tradition as corrupting and evading the divine law (compare Mt 5:20-48; Mk 7:5-13); so Paul and his fellow witnesses who wrote the New Testament, and Christ himself speaking in and through them, must be allowed to challenge our own latter-day traditions. Only that which is demonstrably rooted in Scripture, and which therefore we can be sure the apostles would have endorsed, can be held to belong to the gospel or to be needed for personal spiritual health or the church’s corporate pleasing of God.
Third, the Scriptures interpret themselves clearly to the people of God through the Holy Spirit. It is sad to find a Protestant author declaring that “as the Roman Church has clearly and consistently taught, the Bible needs an interpreter; it does not bear its plain meaning on its face.”26 The statement is not even half true. The testimony both of Protestant history over four and a half centuries and also of the ecumenical biblical movement till very recently 27 is that those who will read the Bible “from within,” letting it speak for itself in its own terms, reach remarkable unanimity as to its meaning.28 Nor should this surprise us, for the inspired books were written not to mystify but to be understood, and the Spirit who gave them is with the church to interpret them, by enabling us to grasp their message in its application to ourselves. The Reformers spoke in this connection of the clarity or perspicuity of Scripture. They were not denying that Scripture sometimes alludes to things of which we have insufficient knowledge fully to explain the reference (for example, baptism for the dead at Corinth, 1 Cor 15:29; the “man of lawlessness” in 2 Thess 2:3; and so on); nor were they denying that secondary and incidental matters in Scripture are
sometimes less than clear. Their point was that the main things, the things that the writers themselves were concerned to stress, are so fully and plainly presented that none who bring to the Bible an honest willingness to meet and know God, and to be changed by him, will miss them. The discovery that on the essentials Scripture can speak for itself was one mainspring of the Reformation, and it has animated evangelical religion ever since. To allege at this stage of history that the Bible “does not bear its plain meaning on its face” is rather like complaining that television sets do not work. Millions can testify that they work very well if you know how to switch them on.
Fourth, the church, once formed, needs constantly to be reformed by the Bible. We have already reminded ourselves that the believers who make the church are a community of imperfectly sanctified sinners; now we should link with that the New Testament vision of the church as under constant attack from “principalities . . . powers . . . world rulers of this present darkness . . . spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph 6:12 RSV), and we should face the certainty that the church in this and every age will have cause to acknowledge that it has slipped and failed. Lapses into the deformity of misbelief and unbelief, ethical error and compromise, apathy and superstition, formality and dead routine, must be expected. So reformation, not only in the negative sense of purging abuses (for man cannot live on disinfectant alone) but also in the positive sense of re-forming, or reshaping, through the giving of new scriptural substance to faith and life, will be our chronic need. The old slogan ecclesia reformata semper reformanda (the reformed church always needs to be reformed) bears true witness to this.
The deforming of the church is a constant problem, and a much bigger one than is sometimes recognized. It is not just a matter of doctrine, though where (for instance) the divinity of Jesus or the objectivity of his atoning sacrifice or his bodily resurrection or Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith or John’s idea of regeneration are denied, the revised version of Christianity that results will be a grievous distortion. Nor is it just a matter of ethics, though where (for instance) husbands are encouraged to
treat their wives as horses to be broken in or doormats to be trodden on, or homosexual partnerships are treated as the equivalent of Christian marriage, lives will end up very much damaged and out of shape, within the church no less than outside it. But a congregation may be entirely orthodox in faith and correct in its moral code and still lack missionary and evangelistic passion, ardor in worship, a corporate concern for holiness, a social conscience, a caring heart and a loving focus on the glory of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These are as truly disfigurements and disorders as outright heresy and immorality would be. Sin and Satan keep combining to deform the life of the church, and reformation — the reshaping of what is out of shape and the reinvigorating of what has gone dead — is a continual need.
Today’s words for what I have called reformation are renewal and revival, and “reformation” is widely thought of as a less vital process, having to do with externals only. But “reformation” on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century lips meant all that these terms mean and more, and I will stay with the word in making my present point.
Can Scripture in these days reform and revitalize moribund churches — which means first and foremost the moribund individuals who make them up? It may be a sufficient answer to point out that by the Spirit’s power Scripture has certainly done this in the past. Think for instance of some of the movements sparked off by the Spirit’s application — first to individuals, then through them to communities — of just one book, filling between fifteen and twenty pages in most Bibles, Paul’s letter to the Romans. Calvin described it as “a sure road . . . to the understanding of the whole Scripture,” and surely he was right.
Augustine, troubled but uncommitted, read in a friend’s Bible Romans 13:14: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh” (RSV). He tells us that then “a clear light flooded my heart, and all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”29 A thoroughgoing Christian from that moment on, he became the foremost champion of God’s free grace and the most influential teacher, bar none, in Western Christian history to date.
Then, eleven centuries later, there came Martin Luther, a monk and academic theologian, but a man without peace. He had found Romans baffling because he took “the righteousness of God” (rom 1:17 RSV) to be God’s retributive righteousness judging sin (compare Rom 1:32; 2:5). Then he came to see that in Paul’s usage in Romans this phrase really means “that righteousness whereby, through grace and sheer mercy, he justifies us by faith” — and at once, he reports, “I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”30 From this discovery came the teaching that triggered all the Reformation.
Two centuries after that, John Wesley, a failed missionary, heard Luther’s Preface to Romans read at a meeting in London and tells us: “I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for my salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken my sins away, even mine; and saved me from the law of sin and death.”31 From this experience of assurance sprang the momentous ministry that produced world Methodism.
Again in 1816 Robert Haldane expounded Romans to students in Geneva, and revival (reformation!) came to the Reformed churches of Switzerland and France; and in 1918 Karl Barth published an exposition of Romans that changed the course of theology. “There is no telling what may happen,” wrote F.F. Bruce, “when people begin to study the Epistle to the Romans.”32 Nor is there any reason to think that the power of Romans, with the other Scriptures, to reform and revitalize Christians and churches is any less today than it was — which means that a challenge confronts us here and now to seek in order that we may find. When you have finished reading this book, what is the next thing you will set yourself to do?
This leads to my second proposition. As it is for the Bible to form and reform the church, so it is for the church to keep, and to keep to, the Bible. Consider the two points involved.
The Church Under the Bible
First, the church must keep the Bible. This is a Reformation point. As we
saw, the Bible is our only sure link with apostolic Christianity and the only sure means whereby God’s word comes to us today. It is the handiwork, gift and textbook of the Holy Spirit, and the instrument of our Lord’s royal authority. Just as the Jews were entrusted with “the oracles of God” in Old Testament times (Rom 3:2 RSV), so the Christian church is called to be, in the words of Anglican Article 20, “a keeper of Holy Writ.” We have already noted that God, not the church, created the canon of Scripture. He inspired the books and moved the church to receive them for what they are. The church no more created the canon than Newton created the law of gravity; recognition is not creation. Barth’s dictum states, “The Bible constitutes itself the Canon . . . because it imposed itself upon the church as such, and continually does so.” This has been criticized as an oversimplification,33 but it has the same sort of clarifying thrust as does the definition of engineers as a class of individuals whose task it is to stop trains in scheduled places at scheduled times. The church must see itself, therefore, as neither author nor lord of Scripture but as steward of it, serving God both by observing in its own life his written requirements and also by spreading Bible truth as widely as possible as that all may learn “this message of salvation” (Acts 13:26).
So Holy Writ is to be kept not under a bushel but under people’s noses. Its message is to be held forth as diligently as it is held fast. Churches must use all means to promote individual and corporate attention to the Bible; to recover the Bible-proclaiming, Bible-teaching ethos that was one secret of all the strength they ever had; to foster group and family Bible study; to sponsor good, clear translations and expositions; and to bring the Bible to bear on theoretical problems and practical decisions alike. The church serves its master best by keeping the Bible not in store on the shelf as a relic of the past but in use in each congregation as the ever-relevant handbook of authentic discipleship, received in effect from the Master himself as his means of fulfilling the divine promise and purpose of “teaching . . . reproof . . . correction and . . . training in righteousness.” So any congregation in which Bibles are not in worshipers’ hands at services nor used as the focus of attention in sermons nor studied
as a main activity has cause to be ashamed of the poor quality of its discipleship.
Second, the church must keep to the Bible. “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves,” wrote James. “Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror . . . and . . . goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (Jas 1:22-25). Only doers are blessed. “Doing the word” then — “living by the truth,” “obeying his commands,” “obeying his word” in John’s phrases (1 Jn 1:6; 2:3, 5) — is the church’s calling. Nothing less — no amount of idle and empty talk, however orthodox — will please God or bring us good. There must be obedience.
Here, however, a painful problem emerges. To “do the word” we must first understand it, and on biblical interpretation today the church is agonizingly divided. Hence what some see as “doing the word” in fields of sexual, medical, industrial and political ethics is to others blatant and destructive disobedience to the word, just as what some today regard as biblical faith strikes others as antibiblical unbelief. The bewildering theological confusion, the anarchic intellectual individualism, that plagues the modern church, both Protestant and Catholic, springs directly from disagreement about the way to interpret Scripture — that is, about the way to get at not just its historical meaning but what it means for us. Why this chaos of claims and counterclaims? asks the bemused observer. What’s going on? In a nutshell, the answer is as follows.
As long as the belief in inspiration spelled out earlier in this essay was the basis of interpretive endeavor, only three divergences of principle and method were found among biblical expositors.
1. Most church fathers and medievals thought that God’s message to each generation in and through the words of Scripture was sometimes if no always cast into a code of allegorical equivalents, which it was their task to crack. But the Reformers and their followers have insisted that God’s message is always found in some application of the natural meaning that the human writer’s first readers would have gleaned from his words. So, for instance, Protestant interpreters urge that Jesus’ Good Samaritan
story is simply a lesson about neighbor-love and reject the long-entrenched idea that it is the Catholic version of the gospel in disguise, the Jew being the sinner, the Samaritan being Jesus, the inn being the church, the two coins being the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, and in some versions the innkeeper being the pope.
2. Roman Catholics held that we may read into Scripture from tradition meanings that the biblical words are capable of bearing in themselves (in relation, for instance, to the papacy or the Eucharist). But Protestants maintained that we must always confine ourselves to reading out of Scripture the meaning that the words demonstrably bear in their context. So, for example, they decline to read “on this rock I will build my church” (Mt 16:18) as Christ’s sanctioning of papal primacy. They point out, first, that the “rock” may well be faith and not Peter at all and, second, that even if it is Peter, Jesus says nothing about Petrine succession.
3. Some Presbyterians, Puritans and Christian (Plymouth) Brethren thought that all New Testament references to acceptable action taken in the apostolic churches have the force of command to later churches to do the same as part of their own church order. But other Protestants have not thought so. The former see Scripture as the “regulative” principle that by not envisaging, for instance, the diocesan (that is, area) bishop in effect forbade him to exist; the latter see Scripture as a normative principle giving the theology that all the church’s managerial and ministerial arrangements must ever express.
All particular differences of understanding used to be located within the parameters that these three divergences set. But since biblical criticism got into its stride and Protestants started reading Scripture as relaying human thoughts rather than God’s teaching, the possibilities of interpretive difference have greatly multiplied, and the task of discerning what each such difference implies has become far harder. In terms of approach and method there are nowadays, broadly speaking, three main types of interpreters.
1. There are those, Protestant and Catholic, who uphold the church’s historic belief in biblical inspiration. Beyond that, they divide among
themselves along the old lines. These conservatives mean by interpretation applying to ourselves the doctrinal and moral instruction of the Bible, read as a historically structured, self-authenticating and self-interpreting organism of revealed truth. Patristic expositor-theologians like Chrysostom and Augustine, and Protestant expositor-theologians like John Calvin, John Owen, Matthew Henry, Charles Hodge, William Hendriksen and the great if strange Karl Barth, have gone this way. It is essentially the approach that Childs calls “canonical,” and defends as such. (Childs, like Barth, declines to ground the instrumentality of Scripture in mediating God’s word to his people on an inspiration that entails the inerrancy of Scripture as given. But Barth, at least, always treated Scripture as inerrant in every aspect of its witness to God’s facts and their meanings, and he who does this cleaves in practice to the method we are describing here, even if his theoretical account of it falls short and his theology raises other problems.)
2. There are those, Protestant and Catholic, who view Scripture as witness to God by godly men who, though they thought wrongly of him at some points, thought rightly and profoundly of him at others. The fallibility of the witnesses, which some highlight and others play down, is universally allowed for, and arguments are constantly being mounted from the coherence of this or that assertion as true. The (curious?) basis of the reasoning is that the Bible as a whole can’t be wrong, through individual contributors to it can. However, tracing out the historical growth and coherence of biblical testimony is an important exercise in its own right, and it is all gain that expositors of this school work so hard at it, however little the skepticism that sets them going may seem justifiable.
These moderns mean by interpretation the distinguishing of true views of God and life from the rest of what is in the bible — isolating its core, essence, overall thrust or central witness, as they would say — and applying to us what they have selected. Their canon of truth and wisdom is thus narrower than the canon of Scripture, and their decisions as to which biblical assertions to discard and which biblical absolutes to relativize are
bound to seem arbitrary both to colleagues who operating on the same principle make different decisions and to those who allow weight to the claim that all Scripture is God-breathed. The approach I am describing is essentially that of the temporarily derailed “biblical theology” movement, of which Childs wrote: “One of the major factors in the breakdown . . . was its total failure to come to grips with the inspiration of Scripture. The strain of using orthodox Biblical language for the constructive part of theology, but at the same time approaching the Bible with all the assumptions of liberalism, proved in the end to cause an impossible tension.”34 Sadly, the large ecumenical community of scholars who still follow this method seem not to see the intrinsic oddity of what they are doing when they pick and choose within the Bible; it is of course always hard to discern oddity in an accepted communal activity.
3. There are those, mainly through not invariably Protestant, for whom the New Testament (the Old is a separate problem) is a culturally determined verbalization of ineffable existential encounters with God. These interpreters make two assumptions: The first is that God does not communicate with us through language; the second is that biblical thoughts about relations with him are “mythological” constructs in the sense that they function not as windows through which we watch God at work and so learn his ways but as mirrors in which we see reflected the minds of the men whose encounters with God the myths objectify. What we learn from this is precisely their “self-understanding” — which indeed we may then come to share as our living though voiceless Creator similarly encounters us. This is the theme of Bultmannian hermeneutics, on which busy scholars have rung many changes in our time. The exponents of this “new hermeneutic,” as it has been called, see interpretation as the task of so explicating the biblical verbal matrix by historical exegesis and so manipulating it in sermons as to promote in folk at the receiving end the same sort of subjective events that first produced it. They insist that one can only witness to encounter with God by mythology which expresses and may spark off a new self-understanding but which tells nothing about God except that he produced the self-understanding.
My line of argument in this book implies that the church can only in principle keep to the Bible as it interprets Scripture by method one (see pp. 70-71). Methods two and three embody grains of truth that exponents of method one must never forget — that Scripture is no less human for being inspired, for instance, and that its verbal form is culturally conditioned everywhere — but as alternatives to method one, they fail. Those who espouse them do so in good faith subjectively, but that does not alter the fact that they cannot yield good faith objectively. Where they dominate, truth and power fail, churchgoers live in the dark spiritually, neither the triune God nor the gospel nor God’s moral will are clearly known, and deadening and destructive confusion reigns, both in beliefs and in morals. We see this around us today. Both faithfulness and fruitfulness depend on adhering to method one.
This is a sad conclusion, for much of the church today is effectively committed to these more or less mistaken methods, and a great part of the academic theological community lines up to stop people embracing method one as God-wrought spiritual instinct would lead them to do, lest they lapse into some form of obscurantism. To be sure, there has sometimes been obscurantism among simple adherents of method one, just as there has been among sophisticated exponents of methods two and three. But to blackball method one on this account is like forbidding us to go out and walk in the sunshine for fear that while doing so we might fall and break a leg, as someone we know once did. The truth is that if the church is ever again going to live happily and fruitfully with the Bible — which means, happily and fruitfully with its Lord, who rules by means of the Bible — it must stop retreating from the ghost of an untheological inerrancy, and once more embrace the whole Bible as the written word of God and interpret it on the basis that it neither misinforms nor misleads.
When Harold Lindsell put his finger on teaching institutions in the U.S. that had recently given up their corporate commitment to method one,35 he touched only the tip of the iceberg. Most centers where the church’s future salaried instructors are trained gave up any such commitment long ago. Lindsell was right to focus on seminaries; what they are
today the whole church is likely to be tomorrow. Seminaries and theological colleges are strategic places. The church will not learn to handle Scripture aright while budding clergy are taught to handle it wrongly.
Only by the grace of God through the Bible does the church ever learn to keep to the Bible. It is plain that the church needs much of that grace today. Whether Scripture will effectively reestablish its authority over the modern church remains to be seen. Vindicating the principle of “canonical” inerrancy, that is, an inerrancy shaped by exegesis and theology rather than by secular preoccupations, is a beginning but no more.36 The vagaries of current critical and hermeneutical opinion are desperately daunting, yet it is clear that desire to hear the word of God from Scripture, and to know its enlivening power, burns strong in Christian hearts all around the world, and this is a hopeful sign. Perhaps the present pages may do something under God to deepen and direct that desire. Certainly, they could fulfill no higher ministry in the church at this time.