The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures

Written by D. A. Carson, ed. Reviewed By Paul Wells

The mailman had to take a week off after delivering this hefty tome, and I have been laboring under its weight for some time, for a different reason. It is more of an encyclopaedia than your garden variety collected essays on biblical authority, and I imagine that many readers will use it thus, rather than reading it right through. Which is what I did, unashamedly, dipping randomly into articles here and there to get a feel of the whole, an entirely unsatisfactory procedure for a reviewer, I admit, but it allows me to offer a good tip to potential readers—one way into this complex map is to read the introduction, then the concluding FAQs, and you have the freedom of the highway.

Before specifics, some initial comments. Excepting a couple of foreign nationals active in North America, the book is an expression of the state of the authority of Scripture in the anglo-saxon evangelical world, six contributions coming from the UK, three from Australia, one from continental Europe, and the remainder of the thirty seven from North America, that is, over 70%. Perhaps this explains why one reviewer said that the collection was more about inerrancy than the authority of Scripture, an exaggerated claim. To be sure, the “dragon inerrancy” rears its head, but it is hardly the focus of the book, which shows the amazing pluridisciplinary vitality of evangelicalism in that catchment area (and also the influence of the Gospel Coalition). However, the above statistic betrays a certain cultural focus, and points to the need for nurturing top evangelical scholarship and institutions in the Majority World. This rider does not mean, of course, that the impact of the book will be limited to the First World and our hope is that the authority of Scripture will “keep showing up in many lands” (p. 33) and arm evangelicals in their struggle when they are a minority. The authority of Scripture self-asserts at different historical moments, in diverse cultures, and against the background of a variety of methodical approaches.

The preface indicates house and lineage, which explains somewhat the selection of contributors: The Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and the setting from a generation ago, when some of the writers, particularly Carson and Woodbridge, worked to produce Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) and Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986); so this volume is a reprise and enlargement of that context and those projects. It is interesting to note that the present volume was the object of a week’s peer review by the authors in situ in 2010, which is doubtless an important factor for overall quality and broad complementarity, and also that it has been a good time cooking before publication. There are, however, some absentees who have made important recent contributions in this field: G. K. Beale, John Frame, and Vern Poythress (mentioned for their publications), for example.

A classic Carsonian wide-angled Introduction sets the scene, with a survey of the state of play and an apéritif to what follows: sections on topics historical, biblical and theological, philosophical and epistemological, and comparative-religions, followed by a further Carsonian bouquet answering common questions about the nature of Scripture, with flashbacks to the preceding chapters. This is rather novel, but highly useful because anyone short of time can get a quick overview by reading the introduction (which itself would merit separate publication) and the concluding FAQs. The breadth of Don Carson’s knowledge on the subject and his ability for synthesis demonstrated in these sections leave lesser mortals at the starting gate.

One of the useful features of the collection is that it makes available information on rather specialized and controversed subjects, which are often confined to specialised publications. Here responses to current theological mainstream flagships are brought into action: for example, the “Bauer thesis” that rises perennially from the ashes (cf. Bart Ehrman), regarding orthodoxy and heresy in harmony like ebony and ivory in the early church; the alleged pseudonymity of many of the texts of the NT; or the recent “invention” of inerrancy (should it not be 150 years ago and not 250, as on p. 22?). This collection gives academics who have written doctoral theses, or who have done detailed research in crucial areas, to take stage in a broader forum. This is certainly most valuable for reinforcing the dyke of evangelical theology against the strong tides running counter to orthodoxy.

Strange but true: I looked for a chapter presenting a biblico-theological definition of the authority of Scripture per se, and had to conclude that all the chapters are supposed to deal with it. Then I looked for, and failed to find, a working definition of what it is as such, the indexed entry under “Authority, God’s Word” sending me mainly to a three page discussion on classical Christian orthodoxy as background to the “Old Princetonians.” However, I was compensated by the Introduction, where a definition is built up in an indirect and cumulative way. Revelation (divine self-disclosure) was central to the patristic Fathers and the Reformers, assuring the truthfulness of the inspired Word and grounding its authority (p. 18), with the existence of a canon as a corollary of inspired special revelation. Rejection of revisionist views of biblical history is not incidental, because they undermine the Christian faith in a destined-to-fail attempt to establish a latter day “orthodoxy”: “What saves us is not a set of ideas that fire the imagination, and call us to share a similarly imagined world, but the extra-textual realities to which the text points … the ideas are about Jesus Christ, and he reconciles us to God.… Prove that Jesus never lived, never died, and never rose from the dead, or declare that historical details are unimportant … and you have utterly destroyed Christianity” (pp. 28–29).

I found some omissions rather surprising in a book this size. Although many of the contributions refer to historical criticism (cf. pp. 4–9), an article about what it is, its presuppositions, and what it does to Scripture and Church would have been pertinent, particularly in the light of Michael Legaspi’s “Enlightenment Bible.” After all, with Islam, historical criticism remains the big challenge in spite of the harbingers of doom. It has undermined the Church in Europe, and with its various masks it remains perennially alluring for young evangelical Icaruses. It has not ended, but simply broadened its appeal by annexing new autonomous approaches to Scripture, as illustrated by David R. Law’s 2012 apology The Historical-Critical Method A Guide for the Perplexed (London: T&T Clark). Another thorn in the side of evangelicalism is the present discussion around the status given to Ancient Near Eastern influences on the OT, which is of course touched on in Bruce Waltke’s chapter on “Myth, History, and the Bible” (pp. 549–53, 567–73) and elsewhere, but is the conclusion that the “difference is so great that it points to the Bible’s heavenly inspiration” (p. 576) methodologically satisfying, when many would deem the Bible’s ethics not to be superior? The sticky issue of the autographs, referred to several times (pp. 396–400) in Peter Williams’s fine analysis of Bart Ehrman and A. T. B. McGowan, might have merited a more detailed discussion in a context independent of these recent critics, although the final proposals (p. 406) and particularly the suggestion to speak of “authorial wording” rather than “original text” merit reflection. Similar remarks could be made regarding issues of dating, the increasingly vexed questions of the authority of Scripture in relation to the historical Adam and evolution/genetics (the chapter on “Science and Scripture” makes one realize how fast things are moving), the use of the LXX in NT quotation (apart from pp. 739–45), pantheistic new-ageism, and gender issues. These might be sideshows at the fair, but they are important to people around us, believers or not, and are subjects of recurrent objections against biblical authority … which brings me to a further point.

The issues in this book are mainly intra-theological ones, which is as it should be. However, the questions that call for examination concerning biblical authority are also ones we theologians are not always asking, the extra-theological ones raised by popular culture, viz., why and what is authority at all, why God chose a book, this book and this history as a means of revelation (in the light of Jacques Ellul’s reflections on The Humiliation of the Word [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), the sheer pastness and fixity of it, however could that foreign picture fit “me”, and a whole slew of challenges today about the choices and acts of (an inhospitable, masculine) God that were not raised in previous generations, when people generally had more formal respect for Scripture. Does anyone think it is “the Good Book” any more, as in Chariots of Fire? Why not? Many of these new issues are touched upon lightly in various places, but from an apologetic perspective, questions about authority are most fraught where the currents of hypermodernity run fastest in “the age of authenticity” (pp. 38–39), whereas evangelical theology, wary of changing horses in midstream, seems to remain tethered to its academic saloons and intramural dialogue. What does the absence from this volume of the great Christian apologists of the 20th century (apart from one reference to Francis Schaeffer) signify about the ethos of our evangelical way of doing theology?

Cruising this vast theological ocean is better than selecting one island, but some ports of call are compelling to the journey. A coherent view of the authority of Scripture today has some “musts”: God and Scripture, Christ and Scripture, and God and man in revelation and inspiration. Do the articles on these subjects cut the mustard?

Peter Jensen ticks the box with “God and the Bible,” replying to some of the issues raised in the previous paragraph. Since the Enlightenment, the tables have been turned on the hitherto accepted classic doctrine of inspiration, because of perceived theological problems (the old view is a danger to religion and public morals, quoting C. H. Dodd, and it is a bonus not to identify God too closely with this text) and anthropological ones (the authority of the Bible inspires coercion rather than freedom, terror rather than joy, p. 479). These problems motivate anti-abstractionist efforts that zero in on Christ as the personal Word (the Brunnerian encounter), without the straightjacket of the written word, and also on pneumatology with man as God’s junior partner in community (and consequently open theology). Jensen argues in reply that to uncouple the word of God from Scripture undermines the gospel, because the NT gospel itself has three propositions: “first, that Scripture is the word of God; second, that this inscripturated word is indispensable for true faith; and third, that this inscripturated word is indispensable for true obedience” (p. 481). Each of these three is demonstrated to be a sine qua non if we wish to take Scripture itself seriously, and to avoid falling into the ravine of contradicting the rock on which we are supposed to be standing. In fact, reducing Scripture to a witness to the Word not only contradicts Scripture’s own witness to its plenary inspiration, but canonizes the idea that “the Spirit” today inspires unscriptural teachings, particularly unethical ones in biblical terms, and that “it becomes a duty to disobey Scripture rather than obey it” (p. 494). So the church falls prey to “the human tendency to idolatry and our determination to be free of God, whose own freedom has been put at the service of our salvation” (p. 496). Arius and Pelagius look on from the wings and wink.

Secondly, Craig Blomberg’s “Reflections of Jesus’ View of the Old Testament” begins with reference to B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture and John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible (3rd ed. [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994]). However, both assumed the authenticity of Jesus’ teachings and took it as established, which has its problems because of broadside attacks from form and redaction criticism and widespread scepticism, and recently almost nothing “has addressed in any detail the question of the authenticity of the texts needed to establish the historical Jesus’ perspective on the inspiration or authority of the Bible of his world” (pp. 271–72). Blomberg examines, in a finely documented presentation, the quest for the plausibility of Jesus, the continuities and discontinuities with Judaism and early Christianity, and finds the criteria of dissimilarity and similarity for establishing authenticity adequate. He concludes that Warfield’s and Wenham’s syllogism still stands: Jesus’s view of the trustworthiness of Scripture must be that followed by his disciples. However, the hermeneutical question remains, a search for an appropriation of Scripture with “balanced, creative, sensitive, contexualized, Spirit-filled applications of all parts of Scripture,” demarcated from the positions of both Walt Kaiser and Richard Longenecker (pp. 699–700). Nor can Blomberg resist a parting shot against pharisaical leadership and a certain evangelical smugness: “Could it be that if Jesus walked on earth with us today, he would happily applaud this ‘Scripture project’ but then ask why we were not at least three times more involved in projects of more overt mission and mercy at home and worldwide?” (p. 701). From Europe we can only reply Amen, and look at our feet.

Thirdly, it is impossible to miss out of the cruise itinerary Henri Blocher’s “God and the Scripture Writers: The Question of Double Authorship.” Starting out from the present tendency to hermeneutical diversity and not forgetting that different literary forms or speech-acts (virtually indistinguishable from literary genres), are part of the Scriptures’ perfections, but have often been overshadowed by the paradigm of the divine author (cf. Kevin Vanhoozer, p. 498), Blocher’s quest is to explore “whether and, if so, how generic and illocutionary diversity affect the core affirmations of the doctrine of Scripture with reference to … its ‘double authorship’… or, in other terms, its ‘divine inspiration’” (p. 499). We must certainly not be hoodwinked by Paul Ricoeur’s caricature of orthodox bibliology, unworthy of a great thinker, as being “the authors repeating a word that was whispered into their ears”! (p. 513) With Nicolas Wolterstorff as a punctual ally (he takes critical distance later, as also with John Goldingay, for good reason, pp. 517–21), Blocher proposes that the ordinary biblical meaning of the word of God is divine discourse, and inspiration is a work that joins the divine and human authors. Leaving aside the classical analysis of the concursus of the divine Spirit and the human mind (because he has nothing original to add, p. 501n25), Blocher finely examines the evidence as to whether one dominant biblical genre, the prophetic one of classical theology, has not flattened the diversity of Scripture’s genres, and with it, human agency. He concludes that there is warrant to extend this model to the whole Bible without this “degenerating into blind submission”, because among other factors, “one can hardly doubt that the prophetic word in 2 Peter 1 is the entire collection of holy writings” (p. 513). From that standpoint the notion of prophecy is extended to the former prophets, to Moses, and then to the apostles. It is found that a structural relationship exists between the prophetic and apostolic ministries, the christological association being latent in the former and patent in the latter by remembrance and extension. The christological perspective, which comes to the fore in discussions concerning incarnation and inspiration, suits both the structure of salvation history, promised and fulfilled, and the role of the writers as human instruments: “they are attached to Christ’s humanity since he is speaking as the God-Man, and it helps clarify the notion of authority. The Lord is speaking.” Against the current distaste for “formal authority” (cf. G. C. Berkouwer/John Webster) Blocher boldly maintains that “the authority of Scripture is the Lord’s authority as he exercises it over us, and therefore it remains sovereign and prior to whatever effects the contents of the discourse may have on or in us” (p. 533). After a brief account of “the wise” and “the singers,” a fine conclusion is reached in the memorable affirmation that “God is indeed the author in the sense of originator and fully efficient guide, overseer, signatory. The speech-act of the text should be counted as unreservedly his, and he is himself present in his word … always making (men and women) more fully human than they would be apart from inspiration. The Holy Ghost is no ‘ghost writer’” (p. 539). God theopneusts the discourse of human authors as his own.

This is a fine contribution. By his theological acumen, finesse of analysis and erudition, Blocher is a worthy successor of the great classical theologians, not least the more recent ones he has mined, Kuyper, Bavinck and Warfield. Two brief comments may be added. Firstly, it would be possible to strengthen this argument even further by a consideration of what false prophets are, as they have more than a cameo appearance in both testaments. Blocher refers to this (p. 502, cf. 527, 990). All that the false prophet is and does, the true prophet is not, which includes the question of discourse origin, truth, and the covenant breaking relation of the false prophet, an extremely serious matter. Secondly, and circumstantially, has Blocher done enough with the variety of expressions of the character and the formative nature of the contribution of the human authors of Scripture? Perhaps not, particularly for those who wish only to see Scripture as human witness, the exclusive human side of concursus. How might providential divine action relate to the human authors, how does God guide them, what could be said about their preparation, and the notion of suggestion, even if Alonso Schökel’s rather crude “character creation” is rightly criticized? Are there variations of human input in the different genres of Scripture? No doubt Blocher has answers to these questions, and so much is already packed into his article that it is almost gourmandise to ask for more.

Finally, the indexes both of ancient and modern names and subjects and biblical references (without Apocrypha) are valuable tools. I am tempted to make a further remark about sources, as to who is referenced in these excellent indexes. A random check of the modern names gives the impression that the older stalwarts of the evangelical tradition are slipping rather rapidly over the horizon (Warfield excepted), whereas recent contributors to academic debate occupy center frame. Are we evangelicals also obsessed with the newest and the latest? Are the current trends the real questions? Is there not more to the evangelical heritage than the last fifteen years? It would be much better, or so it seems to me, that young evangelical theologians plough through Herman Bavinck, rather than surfing on Grenz, given of course that one should not exclude the other. But as Henri Blocher frankly remarks, “conformist pressures are high in the academic microcosm” (p. 501).

Let’s hope then that the excellent stuff in this book is not shelf-bound fifteen years down the line, it deserves a lot more than that, and it should get it if another Donald Carson is raised up in the next generation to remind us that it is not all old hat.

Paul Wells

Paul Wells
Faculté Jean Calvin
Aix-en-Provence, France

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