Volume 7 - Issue 2

Battling for the Bible—then and now

By David Wenham

‘God has spoken’ (Heb. 1:1): this exciting affirmation stands at the heart of Christian faith. God is not an unknown and unknowable being, but has graciously made himself and his will known in history, above all in Jesus Christ.

But how do we today know what God revealed of himself in history? Traditionally Christians have answered: God ensured that his historical self-revelation was preserved for us by the inspired authors of the Bible. Jesus himself certainly regarded the Old Testament as God-given witness to God-given revelation; and his appointment of apostles to be his authoritative witnesses led ultimately to the formation and canonization of the New Testament. So through Old and New Testaments the light of God’s revelation continues to shine.

That traditional view has, of course, been under attack in theological circles for many years. Over a century ago Dean Burgon, whose ideas are explained in a historical study in this edition of Themelios, was battling for the recognition of the Bible as God’s infallible Word against the then up-and-coming critical movement, which treated the Bible ‘like any other book’. The battle has continued, and the view of the Bible as God’s wholly reliable Word has often been given up, even recently in scholarly Roman Catholic circles that were once so conservative; thus the brilliant Hans Küng, subject of another article, combines his affirmation of justification by faith with his denial of papal and scriptural infallibility.

Looking back on Burgon’s views a century later, we may feel that his position was inadequate in certain ways. Thus his suspicion of biblical criticism may seem to us too extreme, since we know that the critical movement, for all its faults, has helped us to understand new things about the Bible and its interpretation. Also he does not consider, let alone answer, some of the important modern questions about the intention of the biblical authors and about the nature of their writings.

But to blame Burgon for not considering modern questions is perhaps hardly fair. On the other side we believe that Burgon was quite right to see that we must maintain our faith in the Bible as the true Word of God if we are to maintain Christian faith at all—that is, if we are to have any meaningful understanding of God having revealed himself in history. Without a true Bible, where do we go to find out God’s revelation? To the church? Protestants have long recognized what Küng has recognized: that the church is fallible. Individual judgment and conscience are even less reliable: different Christians may think that they have the Spirit of God, but come up with widely differing opinions. Unless there is some Spirit-given norm outside of us, we will have no court of appeal for deciding what is truly Christian and what is not. Of course, even given an agreed biblical norm, Christians will differ in their interpretation of parts of it, just as lawyers differ in their interpretation of legal documents; but such differences are nothing compared to the basic and unresolvable differences that we will have if we have no agreement on where the Word of God is to be found.

Endorsing Burgon’s concern to battle for the Bible does not mean that we will necessarily agree with all of his ‘battle positions’; we may feel that he—and indeed some modern evangelical apologists—have failed to answer satisfactorily some of the questions thrown up by critical scholarship. On the other hand, we see no reason to believe that criticism has undermined his basic position; and we today can and should stand with him in our concern to guard the revealed gospel of Christ and to work out satisfactory answers to difficult questions.

To end an editorial on the Bible on an intellectual note about belief would be to leave something vital unsaid. The only reason for battling for the Bible is in order that the Word of God may be heard and obeyed. If one of the devil’s ways of preventing us hearing God’s Word is to undermine our confidence in the Bible, another of his potent devices is to blind us—even the most orthodox of us—to what God wants to say to us through the Bible. Evangelical Christians, who battle enthusiastically for the Bible’s truth, must be the first to search out and to apply what it has to say to their own beliefs, traditions and lives.

Much of the material in this issue of Themelios was passed on to the editor by his predecessor, Dr Robert Norris. Our sincere thanks go to Dr Norris for all his work.

David Wenham

Wycliffe Hall