Volume 10 - Issue 1
Scripture and truthBy David Wenham
Theological studies can be an intensely uncomfortable experience. Many Christians take up the study of theology because of their keen Christian commitment and because they want to serve the Lord and Saviour that they love. But they find that their studies, far from strengthening their faith, seem to undermine it, and that things that were once precious and exciting to them, such as prayer and Bible study, become difficult and dry. They find that their old confidences, for example in the Bible as the Word of God, seem to be replaced by intellectual doubts.
Some such discomfort in theological studies is no bad thing. It is good, but not always pleasant, to have one’s mistaken ideas challenged and changed. It is good to go beyond a superficial understanding of the Christian faith and to have to struggle honestly with the questions and doubts of unbelievers. It is good to learn to trust God when things are not easy. But it is not good if theological study has the effect of turning enthusiastic believers into mixed-up agnostics. It is not good if theological study turns us from being true ministers of the Word of God into false or muted prophets.
How can we prevent this happening in ourselves and in others? The most vital thing is to be fully aware of the dangers and prayerfully dependent on God for his protection and guidance. Theological studies are often made out to be a ‘historical’ or ‘scientific’ subject which can be approached with detached neutrality. In fact we need to be aware that in our theological studies, no less than in other areas of our Christian life, we are engaged in a deadly struggle against superhuman powers of evil, and that one of the devil’s most effective methods of attacking Christ’s church is by subtly weaning potential Christian leaders away from Christ in the course of their theological training.
That does not mean that we should treat every theologian who questions a cherished belief as a devil in disguise and refuse honestly to examine his ideas. It does mean that we must examine ideas presented to us critically and carefully, being aware that some ideas are certainly devils in disguise!
Take the question of the Bible. It is easy for the theological student who has to read a lot of critical studies of Old and New Testaments to get the impression that the Bible is a purely human work, containing numerous historical errors and plenty of theological imperfections and contradictions; sometimes it seems academically impossible to hold to the traditional Christian view of the Bible as the true and authoritative Word of God. But such a conclusion, despite its plausibility, is theologically disastrous and academically unjustified. It is theologically disastrous, first, because it puts in question the authority of Jesus, since he regarded the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God: it thus cuts at the heart of the Christian faith. It is disastrous, secondly, because it leaves the Christian preacher and prophet with no authoritative message to preach: Christianity is essentially a religion of revelation, but without an inspired Bible we have no sure access to God’s revelation, and we are left to pick and choose those bits of the Bible we think to be true. The view is also academically unjustified, since there are good reasons for believing the Bible to be the Word of God, which outweigh the possible contrary arguments. For example, there is the fact that Jesus—whom we have good reason to trust—saw it as such; there is also the Christian experience of the power and relevance of the Bible’s teaching. On the other side, the critical problems are not as weighty objections to the authority of the Bible as they sometimes seem.
The academic argument for the authority of the Bible is restated in two recent books. Professor Howard Marshall’s Biblical Inspiration is reviewed elsewhere in this Themelios, and here we simply quote one significant comment of Professor Marshall: ‘Nothing that I have discovered in close study of the New Testament over a quarter of a century has caused me to have any serious doubts about its entire trustworthiness for the purposes for which God has given it’ (p. 91). The other book Scripture and Truth1 is a collection of essays related to biblical authority. As interesting as any is Paul Helm’s essay considering how and why the Christian is convinced that the Bible is the Word of God. It is not just that the Bible makes that claim for itself, nor is it just an intuition inspired by the Holy Spirit; it is rather that the contents and message of Scripture (which includes teaching about Scripture) prove convincing to the believer. There are also historical essays showing that the idea of an inerrant Bible is not the invention of modern evangelicalism, but goes right back through church history. There are essays on the New Testament use of the Old Testament (by Moises Silva) and on hermeneutics (by James Packer), and Don Carson contributes two useful essays on questions of New Testament criticism, one on redaction criticism and one on unity and diversity in the New Testament, showing that common critical ideas about the New Testament are not above criticism.
The authors of the books mentioned have differing opinions about how exactly biblical authority or inerrancy is to be understood, and it is helpful to be reminded that scholars who accept the Bible as the authoritative Word of God can and do hold differing views on plenty of issues of criticism and interpretation; if scholars are still actively wrestling with issues, it is not surprising if theological students find the same issues perplexing. But more significant than their disagreements is their agreement that the Bible, although it is very clearly the words of men, is also the authoritative and reliable Word of God, which can be confidently proclaimed and which our world needs to hear.
Many parts of the Christian church are being starved through the ministry of clergy and teachers who do not know where the Word of God is to be found and who as a result have no gospel to preach. It is vitally important for the future of the church that today’s theological students beware of being turned into muddled agnostics, and that instead we hold fast to the gospel and to the truth of God in Scripture.
1 D. A. Carson and J. D. Woodbridge (eds.) (Grand Rapids: Zondervan/Leicester: IVP, 1983), 446 pp. £6.50 pb. On the authority of Jesus and his view of Scripture see J. W. Wenham, Christ and the Bible(Leicester/Downers Grove: IVP, 21984).