Scripture as a Divine and Human Book
As we approach the Bible as God’s Word and a collection of writings from the hand of men, we must rightly appreciate both the divine and human element of Scripture and understand how they relate.
The Bible portrays itself as God’s Word, so that Scripture is stamped with divine authority, speaks without error, and a presents an organic unity. At the same time, the Bible was produced through human instruments, giving it great variety in terms of the types and styles of writing and fully connecting Scripture to the human experience. Despite the fallibility and varied perspectives of its human writers, the Bible was produced under God’s full control so that Scripture achieves God’s purpose in revealing himself to men and women. Human authors were able to convey God’s Word because of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who superintended the process by which the Bible was written, just as God sovereignly created and shaped the human instruments for this purpose. While we acknowledge and profit from the human character of Scripture, the controlling idea remains that Scripture is the Word of God, so that it must be approached reverently and received in obedience.
The Bible as the Word of God
The Bible declares itself to be the Word of God; the prophets declare: “The word of the Lord came to me” (Jer. 1:4). This means that the primary author of the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture, and whose message it is to mankind, is God himself. We can see this divine authorship in the direct statements of the biblical writers, who uniformly declare their message as coming from God. Hebrews 1:1 confirms this understanding, stating: “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.”
The Bible’s self-identification as the Word of God includes the manner in which later biblical writers refer to earlier portions of Scripture. As an example, Galatians 3:8 states: “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’” It was, of course, God who foresaw his justification of the Gentiles, and God who preached to Abraham. B. B. Warfied concludes: “These acts could be attributed to ‘Scripture’ only as the result of such a habitual identification, in the mind of the writer, of the text of Scripture with God as speaking.”1 Similarly, Hebrews 3:7, before quoting Psalm 95:7-11 says: “Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says.” Hence, the writer of Hebrews sees the message of Psalm 95 as having originated not from David but from God’s Holy Spirit.
When we consider the nature of what the Bible reveals, it can only have come to us from God. Holy Scripture is not a catalogue of human thoughts regarding God and eternity, but the record and explanation of God’s redemptive acts in history. The Bible tells the story of how God created the world, how mankind fell into sin, and then what God has done in history to redeem a people for himself. Given the redemptive-historical nature of this material, who else could have authored the Scriptures but the God whose actions are recorded in it?
Despite its clear statements to divine authorship, full conviction that Scripture is God’s Word can be given only by God himself. The Westminster Confession of Faith points out that there are numerous reasons to accept the Bible as God’s Word, including its majesty, unity, and power (to which we might add the fulfillment of prophecy). Yet “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (WCF 1:5). As Paul states concerning the truths of God’s Word: “these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit” (1Cor. 2:10).
Implications of Divine Authorship
The first implication of the Bible’s divine authorship is that Scripture speaks with the authority of God himself. We see this authority when Jesus answered a question about divorce by citing Genesis 2: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” (Matt. 24:4-5). On the basis of God’s authority in his Word, Jesus concluded: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matt. 24:6). This principle must be applied to the entirety of the Bible. John Calvin concluded: “We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone.”2
Joined to the Bible’s divine authority is Scriptural inerrancy. Inerrancy means that all that the Bible claims and states is true, for the simple reason that it is the Word of God. Geerhardus Vos explains: “If God be personal and conscious, then the inference is inevitable that in every mode of self-disclosure He will make a faultless expression of His nature and purpose.”3 Psalm 19 extols God’s Word as “perfect,” “sure,” “right,” “pure,” and “true” (Psa. 19:7-9). Faithful Christians are therefore obliged to receive whatever Scripture teaches – properly interpreted – as binding on the conscience.
A third implication of divine authorship is the unity of Scripture. Since the ultimate author of every biblical book is God, we expect and find a fundamental unity in terms of doctrine, outlook, and moral teaching. This is not to deny that there is development within Scripture, as different themes redemptively progress through successive covenant eras. Yet, for all the development of ideas in the unfolding of revelation, there is an organic connection that is rooted in God himself. James Montgomery Boice writes: “Behind the efforts of the more than forty human authors is the one perfect, sovereign and guiding mind of God.”4 For this reason, the great principle of Bible interpretation is that Scripture interprets Scripture: where the reader lacks clarity his or her chief resource is the Bible’s teaching elsewhere. Despite surface appearances to the contrary, Scripture cannot and does not contradict itself; knowing the unity of Scripture as the Word of God, the discovery of apparent contradictions issues a call for more careful and reverent thought in submission to all that the Bible says.
The Humanity of Scripture
No less clear than the Bible’s divine origin is the human character of Holy Scripture, since it was conveyed through human writers. As Hebrews 1:1 attests, “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets.” Second Peter 1:21 adds: “men spoke from God.” This reality accounts for the exciting diversity found in the Bible, which includes narrative history, poetry, prophetic oracles, carefully researched history (see Luke 1:1-4), and apostolic letters, among other literary styles.
Moreover, the human element of Scripture incorporates the experiences, perspectives, and even feelings of the various authors. In Lamentations, Jeremiah is grieving the fall of Jerusalem, just as the Paul of 2 Timothy is triumphant in facing death, yet troubled by false teachers and needing a cloak to ward off the cold. The Book of Psalms, especially, connects with the entire range of human experience and pathos. The human element also means that different writers record the same event, they provide differing details and complimentary accounts, just as we would normally expect.
It is important, however, to realize that the limitations and fallibility of the human writers does not affect the integrity and truthfulness of what they wrote, since it was God who spoke through them. For instance, the lack of modern scientific knowledge does not prevent Genesis 1 from speaking with historical truth about creation. Likewise, the negative cultural views of his time concerning women does not taint the apostle Paul’s teaching about men and women. In some cases, such as Daniel 10-12, the human author may not understand the message he conveys. Yet the Scripture that he writes is nonetheless true and finds its explanation elsewhere in the Bible. Noel Weeks summarizes that in God’s revelatory work, “Scripture does not see man as an impediment to the achievement of the divine purpose. Even man’s sin and blindness cannot prevent God from achieving his purpose.”5
Men Spoke from God
If we ask how men, with all their limitations, could have recorded the Word of God, the primary answer is the biblical doctrine of inspiration. Paul explains in 2 Timothy 3:16: “All Scripture is breathed out by God.” The expression “breathed out” conveys the idea of the Bible originating from God’s mouth, even though it is conveyed by men (see also Isa. 55:11). The idea is not that the human authors had inspiring thoughts, but God expired his Word to and through them. Peter further explains that “that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2Pet. 1:20). The context shows that Peter refers to all of Scripture with the word “prophecy,” denying that the biblical message originated in the mind of the human author. He adds: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2Pet. 1:21). This statement identifies the Holy Spirit as the active agent in the process of inspiration, working through and moving the human authors so that what they wrote was God’s very Word.
In the inspiration of Scripture, we may see an analogy with the incarnation of Jesus, as one Person with a divine and a human nature. This analogy is imperfect, since the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures cannot be ascribed to Scripture. But like the humble humanity of Christ, which presented a scandal to those who wished to deny his deity, the servant form of Scripture communicates God’s Word in a manner that is accessible to all men and women. The biblical writings are fully human in their production, requiring parchment and ink, and a human mind to write the message. Yet, in the mystery of the Spirit’s inspiration, the Bible is at the same time the very Word of God. For all of the humanity that connects the Scriptures to it readers, J. Gresham Machen explains that “the Holy Spirit so informed the minds of the Biblical writers that they were kept from falling into the errors that mar all other books…. [A]ccording to the doctrine of inspiration, the account is as a matter of fact a true account; the Bible is an ‘infallible rule of faith and practice.’”6
Skeptics of the Bible sometimes object that the human element makes direct revelation from God impossible. The analogy is used of a grand cathedral with many-colored stained-glass windows. While the sunlight is shining down on the building, it is argued, the light that is seen inside is only that which is changed by the colored panes of the human personalities. All we can see in Scripture, they argue, is the way God’s Word influenced and shaped the human authors, so that God’s true message is found only by getting behind the human authors through various scholarly means. What they forget is that the cathedral had a Builder. Warfield writes: “What if the colors of the stained-glass window have been designed by the architect for the express purpose of giving to the light that floods the cathedral precisely the tone and quality it receives from them?”7 He applies the same principle to the men who wrote Scripture: “[W]hat if this personality has itself been formed by God into precisely the personality it is, for the express purpose of communing to the word given through it just the coloring which it gives it?”8 Warfield’s illustration reminds us that God’s employment of human writers extends beyond the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but includes every factor of the human contribution, including character, personality, experience, and long preparation. Thus we see that the divine and human contributions are not equal, but that the divine factor always controls, just as Hebrews 1:1 asserts: “God spoke … by the prophets.”
The Divine Book
Because of the Holy Spirit’s sovereign role in the inspiration of Scripture, although we recognize and treasure its human element, the Bible is primary identified as the Word of God. The Scripture is not the message of its human authors but the revelation of God the Creator and Redeemer. Here, the analogy to the incarnation of Jesus is instructive. While Jesus’ humanity is clearly displayed and is necessarily inferred from the Scripture, he is called the Son of God. Likewise, while our interpretation of the Bible will be influenced by our awareness of the author, setting, and literary style, our controlling idea must always be the authority, inerrancy, and unity that reflects divine authorship. In our reverence for God’s Word, approaching with submissive minds that reflect the removing of Moses’ sandals before the burning bush (Exod. 3:5), our primary aim must be faithfulness to what God has written so that his glory may displayed through his Word. According to the Bible, the teacher of Scripture is a steward, setting forth the provision of our Master so that his people are soundly fed and that his household is managed in keeping with his sovereign will.
Though a book written through men and interpreted by human readers and teachers today, the assertion of B. B. Warfield remains our guiding conviction: “The Scriptures are throughout a Divine book, created by the Divine energy and speaking in their every part with Divine authority directory to the heart of the readers.”9 (B.B. Warfield, in Calhoun, Princeton Seminary, 2:402). Therefore, while we find interest in the human dimensions of prophets like Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel, and all the rest, we join them in reverently asserting of Holy Scripture: “Thus says the Lord.”
- D. A. Carson, ed., The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2016). See Author Interview here.
- Harvey Conn, ed., Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, a Challenge, a Debate (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1988). J. I. Packer, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978.
- Vern S. Poythress, “Divine Meaning of Scripture,” Westminster Theological Journal48 (1986): 241-279.
- Vern S. Poythress, “Ten Things to Remember When Reading the Bible,” 2016.
- Lane G. Tipton, “Incarnation, Inspiration, and Pneumatology: A Reformed Incarnational Analogy,” Ordained Servant On-line, 2008.
- Benjamin B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1948). Noel Weeks, The Sufficiency of Scripture (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1988).
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