Review of ‘Can We Trust The Gospels?’ by Peter J. Williams

A review of Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust The Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 153 pages, pbk. 

This excellent little book by the English biblical scholar Peter J. Williams (not to be confused with the apologist Peter S. Williams) is a readable and informative introduction to some of the main questions people have about the four Gospels.  In eight tightly argued but entertaining chapters Williams, who acts as principal of Tyndale House, Cambridge, dispels common myths and furnishes many enlightening facts about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, avoiding dogmatic overreach but still making a very solid case for their trustworthiness.

Williams’ first chapter surveys external sources such as Tacitus, Pliny the Younger, and Josephus to corroborate many features in the Evangelists.  Tacitus reported on the “vast multitude” of Christians in Rome in AD 64, the year of the great fire (23).  Since there is a distance of over 2,000 miles between Rome and Jerusalem, this testifies to the extent to which the new Faith had spread throughout the Roman Empire in Apostolic times.  Incidentally, such witnesses as Tacitus seem to give the lie to the more conservative estimates for the extent of Christianity in the first centuries (cf. also 27).  These non-Christian sources also confirm the execution of Jesus in the time of Pontius Pilate.

A real reature of this chapter, which continues throughout the book, is the way Williams appeals to common sense and reasonable expectations to make  his points.  For instance, on page 34 the author observes,

Skeptical readers…might naturally assume that these beliefs [i.e. about the virgin birth] arose through exaggerations over time as word of Jesus as Messiah spread.  The problem with this is finding a context in which such embellishments could spread…According to 1 Corinthians 9:5 (written ca. AD 56) not just one brother, but “brothers” of Jesus traveled with their wives, spreading the Christian message.  This suggests a situation in which the sprouting of novel beliefs about the family origins of Jesus would have been hard.

Notice here how Williams allows for the force of the unbeliever’s argument (“might naturally assume”) while giving an answer which is scriptural and provides food for thought.  This ability of the writer to converse with those dubious of the Bible’s claims provides a model for effective communication with unbelievers.

The second chapter, “What Are the Four Gospels?” identifies them as ancient biographies, early in date, and surprisingly many (four) for an ancient figure (39-41).  It deals with why the Gospel of Thomas is not on a par with the biblical Gospels, and the important matter of the the traditional authorship of the Gospels (43).

Chapter three asks whether the authors got their geographical and cultural facts right, while the next chapter explores the fascinating subject of “Undesigned Coincidences” in the four Gospels, utilizing Lydia McGrew’s recent work on the subject [Hidden in Plain View].  By this term is meant the converging of independent details in different authors which complement and reinforce one another, but without any clear signs of interaction between the sources.  Examples include the way personality traits are noted by Luke and John in separate incidents concerning the sisters Mary and Martha (88-89), or Jesus asking Philip where to buy bread (Jn. 6).  This looks like a random enquiry until we read John 1:44 and Luke 9:10, which informs us that Philip was from the town of Bethsaida, which is close to where the miracle was performed (92-93).

Chapters about whether we still have Jesus’s words; if the the text of the Gospels has been changed (a particular strength of Williams), and contradictions follow.  All are good, especially the first two, although I would have like a little more interaction with alleged contradictions; a few more examples would have helped.

The final chapter is titled “Who Would Make All This Up?”  He begins the chapter with a typically sensible statement:

There are many particulars in the Gospels that the authors would be unlikely to have invented.  Although one can usually think of complex reasons why someone might invent them, those are not the simplest explanations.  The simplest explanation is that these reports are true. (121)

In this chapter the author tackles miracles and the Resurrection, before reaching his conclusion – that the Jesus presented in the Gospels and predicted in the Old Testament is who the Gospels claim He is.  The NT does not simply say that Jesus died, but that He was buried.  Who would bury a convict who had been crucified?  Answer, Jews!  They would make sure that people were buried (133).  And then there are the resurrection appearances.  In a terrific passage Williams sums up the all the varied details of those appearances (134).

Scholarship has well established the strong links between Second Temple Jewish belief and the emergence of Christianity from its milieu (see e.g. Larry Helyer, Exploring Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period).  On the back of this Williams comments,

One can make a good argument that the concept of the bodily resurrection of one person in advance of others would have been very odd within Judaism, and therefore it is unlikely that early Christians would have invented it in an effort to continue the Jesus movement after the death of their leader. (135).

The apologetic method employed could best be described as evidentialist, but since the writer is clear that he is presenting a case for the trustworthiness of the Gospels this should not be seen as a flaw.

In summary, Can We Trust The Gospels? is a fine book which packs a lot of important information within its brief compass.  It deserves a very wide readership and would be an excellent gift for any growing Christian or non-believer with an openness to its message.

This book was provided to me by the publisher without any obligation to give a positive review.

Scripture as Propositional (Pt.2)

Part One

Objection 1: A common objection to viewing Scripture as propositional revelation is that it ends up treating the Bible as a sort of theological concordance, irrespective of the original context of the passage.

Now I agree with that, but that’s not what we’re talking about.  Propositional revelation does not necessarily involve treating the Bible as a theological concordance.

Objection 2:  The propriety of associating the ineffable God with human linguistic forms.

Some scholars balk at the idea that God could employ what they consider to be the culture-bound norms of human language.  To these kinds of people the very thought of propositional truth is archaic nonsense; all propositions are up for grabs as our knowledge moves forward.  So relativism and subjectivism comes in (this can be seen in George Lindbeck’s work The Nature of Doctrine, especially pages 119 and 120).  People like this believe that God’s incomprehensibility makes him completely unknowable objectively, and that He is only subjectively knowable.  He reveals himself to the subject through some kind of existential declaration or disclosure.

Of course, that is not what we should mean when we speak about the incomprehensibility of God.  That doctrine is that God is utterly unknowable unless and to the degree to which He reveals himself to us; and He has revealed himself to us in the Holy Scripture. But the Holy Scripture can only be a proper and sufficient revelation of God if it has the capability of being propositional.  These scholars who speak about the “ineffable and infinite God” employing indefinite symbols of language to communicate to us, are not taking a theistic-biblical view of language.  Therefore, they cannot be taking a biblical view of God either. Continue reading “Scripture as Propositional (Pt.2)”

Scripture as Propositional (Pt.1)

The Bible depicts man as specially equipped by God for the express purposes of knowing God’s rational verbal revelation, of communicating with God in praise and prayer, and of discoursing with fellow men about God and his will. – Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, Volume 3, 389

Because of the theistic view of language described above we ought not to be surprised when we turn to Scripture and look upon it as information that has been given to us by God.  Information which discloses a cognitive content; things we are to know.

The penalty for neglecting rational criteria in respect to revelational considerations is the constant danger of ascribing subjective impressions and personal decisions to some divine disclosure and demand.” – Ibid, 433

What Henry is speaking about there is the fact that we must approach the Bible, if we approach it as it is…that is the word of God – a revelation of God to man, in an objective way and as an objective disclosure.  It certainly has subjective meaning and makes a subjective impression upon us, but it is objectively true whether we feel anything or are moved one way or another and the objectivity is to be found in the amenability of Scripture to be worded in propositions; evangelical scholars have generally spoken about Scripture as propositional revelation. Holy Scripture is the faithful written testimony of God’s special revelation to man. ‘God has spoken!’  Those three words make all the difference, and the Bible is, by virtue of its inspired nature, the sole source of special revelation. In written form, the Bible is propositional in character; therefore special revelation is propositional in character.

Proposition – an objective disclosure in contradistinction to a purely personal subjective impression.

The Bible depicts God’s very revelation as meaningful, objectively-intelligible disclosure. We mean by propositional revelation that God supernaturally communicated his revelation to chosen spokesmen in the express form of cognitive truths and that the inspired, prophetic, apostolic proclamation reliably articulates these truths in sentences that are not internally contradictory. –  Carl F. H. Henry, Ibid, 456-457

The reason that we are devoting a whole lecture to this issue of propositional revelation is because this is where the battleground is, at least for the next few years, maybe a decade or more. The postmodern ethos challenges propositional revelation and the influence of postmodernism upon evangelical hermeneutics challenges propositionalism and if we don’t have propositional revelation then we don’t have objective truth from God and therefore we have to defend this crucial issue.

The Unsettling Notion of Propositionalism

The kind of definition that I’ve just read from Carl Henry is being challenged even within evangelical circles by theologians who’ve drunk too deeply from the cup of postmodernism and as a result, have over-applied the objections to classical foundationalism; that is that classical or Cartesian foundationalism just deals with certain undeniable truths and as a result leaves everything else up to scientific inductive experimentation. As we have discovered, that idea has been overthrown now and few people hold it. Unfortunately what has happened is that in evangelicalism people like Stanley Grenz, John Franke, Roger Olson, and others have thrown out foundationalism altogether and they have moved on to a different kind all epistemology. Now, we don’t need to throw at foundationalism; we can speak of ‘soft foundationalism’ as many evangelical scholars do today.  Or we can even prefer the kind of transcendental work of Cornelius Van Til which is better than even ‘soft foundationalism’ for an epistemological base.

These writers are attacking the idea of propositional revelation because they claim that to refer to the Bible as propositional turns it into a rationalistic concordance for theology. One writer of the evangelical left has recently objected that this leads to,

…viewing Scripture as a source of information for systematic theology, as such, it is viewed as a rather loose and relatively disorganized collection of factual, propositional statements.” John R. Franke, The Character of Theology, 88 [in a footnote on the same page Franke notices that Carl Henry develops his definition of theology based on biblical propositions in the first volume of his God, Revelation, and Authority.  But interestingly, Franke neglects to refer his readers to Henry’s thorough examination of the pros and cons of propositional revelation in volume 3 of his magnum opus, pages 403-487]

“A Repository of Proof Texts”

Now this idea of propositional revelation necessitating a concordance view of theology, where we just reduce everything down to certain statements to use at the behest of systematic theology, reveals a reaction to certain statements made by men like Charles Hodge in the 19th century which seemed to imply that the Bible was simply a repository of proof texts to be sorted out into the respective corpora of systematics.

This concordance view was not what Hodge intended. Besides whatever definitional failings may be found in Hodge the same cannot be said of Carl Henry; indeed that author offers one of the clearest and best definitions of propositional revelation available when he writes: Continue reading “Scripture as Propositional (Pt.1)”

The Phenomena of Scripture

This piece is based on transcripts of a lecture I gave on the subject.

This lecture on the so-called phenomena of Scripture is necessary because in the modern and postmodern eras it has become more and more common not only to refer to the inspiration of Scripture, which is clearly a biblical doctrine, but to bolster this claim with the assertion of biblical inerrancy; it is perfectly justifiable to think and speak in these terms.  Inspiration includes inerrancy and authority requires inerrancy. 

Evangelicals Against Inerrancy

There are some though who do not take this position, who we would yet call evangelical in most other respects. Contemporaries whom we might identify as non-inerrantists are A.T.B. McGowan, William Lane Craig, and Craig Blomberg.  Older representatives would be James Orr, and Francis L. Patton.  Patton, for example, said this:

To say that the Bible is trustworthy because of its accuracy is by implication to say that we have the right and power to discern between truth and error. You cannot license reason to seek truth and deny her right to see error. It is a hazardous thing to say that being inspired the Bible must be free from error, for then the discovery of a single error would destroy its inspiration. Nor have we any right to substitute the word inerrancy for inspiration in our discussion of the Bible, unless we are prepared to show from the teaching of the Bible that inspiration means inerrancy and that I think would be a difficult thing to do…  

Suppose that scientific proofs should compel you to put another interpretation upon the program of creation as it has compelled you to give another meaning to the word ‘day’. Would you give up the whole of the New Testament?  Without pertaining to any special scientific knowledge, it seems to me remarkable that the biblical account of creation, which so wonderfully taught the essential truth of creation to man ages before science was born, still teaches it to scientific men if their prosaic science has not caused their imagination to suffer atrophy.  But how foolish it would be to give up the Gospel simply because of a dead literalism of interpretation would find no support in a modern textbook on biology. – Francis L. Patton [President of Princeton Seminary, 1902-1913], Fundamental Christianity, 163-165

We see from that quotation from Patton’s book, which was written in 1925, reveals a man who certainly is very clearly evangelical and yet who strongly hesitates to equate inerrancy with the doctrine of inspiration. In fact, that whole chapter has to do with the seat of authority in Christianity and therefore he does not believe either that the doctrine of inerrancy is necessary for the Scriptures to be authoritative.

Now these objections to inerrancy are from a clearly evidentialist perspective, that is from the perspective of someone who is concerned with matching the assertions of Scripture with the ‘facts’ of science.  They serve to show us that this subject of the actual contents of the Bible as we have it, is an important subject for evangelicals to get straight.

A Way to Proceed

I am concerned to answer the objections of those who have claimed to find errors in the text of Scripture as it has come down to us; thus, we are dealing with what has become known as the phenomena of Scripture.

Here is the NT scholar Everett Harrison:

If a person has become convinced by the study of the word that its majesty and perfection can only be accounted for on the basis that the text was free from error as originally given, such a person ought not to be charged with intellectual dishonesty if he refuses to let perplexing problems in the sacred record move him from his solid conviction. He may feel bound to seek explanation for the problems and perhaps be dissatisfied with the explanations he receives, yet he continues to rest in his conviction less the abandonment of his position mean the forsaking of Scripture as the word of God. – Everett F. Harrison, Revelation and the Bible, edited by Carl F. H. Henry [1958], 238

Now what he’s saying here is, as all evangelicals have basically said – including the drafters of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, the Bible in its original manuscripts, in its autographs, is inerrant.  There is a possibility that you may find certain problematical errors which you cannot explain, but you do not have to admit them as errors.  If you have a poor translation you may very well find some errors within it, but those are translation errors not textual errors or errors in the text that has been providentially given to us.  Of course, the word “errors” has to be defined.

What does an ‘error’ mean?

Here is a basic definition of an error:

If the statements that it contains, that is the Bible, concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extra-biblical records, by ancient documents recovered through the archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. – Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 23

In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. As a witness for God, the Bible would be discredited as untrustworthy. Continue reading “The Phenomena of Scripture”

The Use of the Term “Scripture”

The Inspiration of Scripture – Part Three

N.B. This is a companion piece to the articles on Inspiration

“Scripture” usually translates the Greek term graphe.  Sometimes, as in 2 Timothy 3:15 one finds hieros grammata, but it is clear that in the context grammata is referring to the Scriptures of verse 16.  In other words it is just a synonym.  Also, Paul is referring to the Old Testament as a unit – as a whole, and not to the different books of the Old Testament.  This is important because when the translators rendered those words as “Scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:15-15, that is, grammata and graphe respectively, they understood that Paul here was referring to the whole of the Old Testament, the whole of the inspired Scriptures together as God’s word.  That is why they translated the article pas not as ‘every’ but as ‘all’ in verse 16.  So the correct reading here is ‘all’ Scripture, not ‘every’ Scripture, is inspired.

This becomes important when you want a doctrine of inspired Scripture which covers the whole of Scripture; the whole and not just the parts; which is to say, a plenary version of inspiration.  Translating pas as ‘all’ avoids any ambiguities and stops liberals to picking and choosing what passages within the Bible they will designate as Scripture and what passages they will say aren’t God-breathed.  (For more on this argument look at Warfield’s article on the term “‘Scripture’ and ‘Scriptures'” in The Inspiration of Authority of the Bible, especially pages 233 – 238, etc.

The designation ‘all Scripture is God breathed’ is passive in form, not active; it is designating what the Scriptures are in fact, not what they are when they are actively employed, or what they are in some continuing dynamic way.  (elsewhere it’s called ‘living and active’, but that is not what Paul is trying to get across here).

Texts from the New Testament that Employ the Term ‘Scripture’

Have you not read this Scripture: “‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone”. – Mark 12:10

Jesus is quoting from the Old Testament while questioning the Jewish religious leaders.  He is using the designation ‘Scripture’ to speak to what he is about to quote.  However, the inference is that everything in the Old Testament makes up Scripture and therefore is from God.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. – John 5:39

Again ‘the Scriptures’ are a group or body of writings that are holy and are from God.  In Berea the Scriptures were being read and searched. (Acts 17:11).  According to Romans 15:4 the Scriptures have an ongoing effect and influence and relevance for us today.

They were also prophetic:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. – I Corinthians 15:3-4

Because the Scriptures are the Word of God you would expect to find in them the prediction of Christ’s suffering and death in the OT which were in accord with what the circumstances were surrounding the death and resurrection of Christ.  That is Paul’s argument there…the basis for his Gospel.

Theopneustos and the Autographs

Now the Scriptures Paul is talking about in 2 Tim. 3:16 are obviously the ones Timothy knew and read.  That being the case we have an interesting usage of the term theopneustos.  The Scriptures that Timothy was reading were God breathed, at least Paul. In context, Paul is not, first and foremost, dealing with the original autographs.  This is important because evangelicals and fundamentalists have usually said that only the originals were inspired.  The Bible seems to throw a spanner in the works.  We tend to speak of inspiration in the past tense when we are trying to be accurate.  But the Apostle doesn’t.  What is one to do with this?

A former acquaintance of mine who teaches Comparative Religion at Berkeley, certainly no Christian, was amazed that I held to biblical inspiration.  She pointed out to me that we have so many variants among the extant manuscripts that it is entirely indefensible to hold to the conservative evangelical position.

Replying to this, I said two things:

First – if we adopt a provenance view of the origination of the Books of the Bible I think we can only speak meaningfully of inspired autographs, so we’re certainly not disagreeing with the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy or any other statement like that.

Second – such is the wonderful overall agreement of the manuscripts, Hebrew and Greek, plus other ancient witnesses, that we can refer to the Scriptures we possess as God breathed because they have so much of the content and character of the autographs. Indeed this is how Paul referred to the copies which Timothy read growing up.

I like what Geisler and Nix say in this regard:

A good copy or translation of the autographs is, for all practical purposes, the inspired word of God. – Norman Geisler and William Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible, 44

In fact, most of the passages where the word Scripture is used, do not allude to the original autographs either.  Furthermore, let us suppose that Timothy read a Greek translation of the Old Testament, as is likely.  This translation Paul says is inspired in someway.

Again, let me be clear what I am saying.  I’m not denying inspiration to the originals.  I am facing a fact that is all too often left unconsidered in discussions of this doctrine.


To show you that I’m not completely around the bend here, let me quote from the great 17th century English theologian John Owen and his view of inspiration.  Firstly, his work On the Divine Original of the Scripture, which is in his Collected Works , Volume 16.  Owen says,

The whole authority of the Scripture in itself depends solely on its divine original is confessed by all who acknowledge its authority.” 297

I certainly agree with that view.  If the originals were not inspired then it is useless to speak about inspiration at all.

Owen says in another place,

Sacred Scripture claims this name for itself.  It has its origin from God, so that what God wants said to the church through the medium of the prophets, apostles, and other inspired writers, was still spoken directly by God and that not only in the primary sense to those whom he delegated his task of reducing his revealed will to written form, but also no less so in a secondary sense. He speaks to is now in his written word, as in days past he spoke through the mouths of his holy prophets. – “A Defense of Holy Scripture”, reprinted in Biblical Theology, 788

According to Owen the modern-day recipients of those original writings are still receiving the Word of God.  This is because of what Owen believed:

It is true we have not the autographa [the originals], but the apographa [or copies] which we have contain every iota that was in them. – The Divine Original of the Scriptures, 301


Another great theologian of the past shares Owen’s opinion:

By original texts we do not mean the autographs which we certainly do not now exist, we mean their apographs, which are so-called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit. – Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Volume 1, 106

Now Turretin is a great scholar, as of course is Owen; they know what they’re talking about, they know that the manuscripts have errors in them.  Owen grants this fact:

For the first transcribers of the original copies and those who have done light work from them, it is known, it is granted, that failings have been amongst them and that various lections [i.e. variants] are from thence risen. – John Owen, Of the Integrity and Purity of the Hebrew and Greek Text of Scripture – Works, Volume 16, 355

So Owen certainly knew that the manuscripts had variants, still for all that he could say that the apographs; the copies, were inspired.  He believed this, although not exactly in the same way as the autographs (which is why Turretin talks about those that wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit).  But both men certainly believe we have good enough copies of the originals to call what we have inspired.  Hence, it seems to these men that Paul is not so much bothered with the autographa, as with the state of the extant copies,which if they accurately reflect their originals, may be designated, at least by extension, as inspired.

To summarize, the context of 2 Timothy 3:15-16, and the use of the term “Scripture” to elsewhere in the New Testament, speak about copies, but copies which are reliable enough, preserved enough, and used by God enough to be called theopneustos.

They are not inspired in the way that Peter is referring to in his First Epistle, and they are not the work therefore of the direct concursive influence of the Holy Spirit on the original writers.  But they are, in Paul’s thought, and in Owen’s and Turretin’s, inspired. Continue reading “The Use of the Term “Scripture””

The Inspiration of Scripture (Pt.3)

Part Two

Let us reproduce the Pache definition:

Inspiration is the determining influence exercised by the Holy Spirit on the writers of the Old and New Testament in order that they might proclaim and set down in an exact and authentic way the message as received from God. – Rene Pache, The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture, 45

When one is dealing with Pache’s definition, it is vital to notice that he was speaking very much about the writers, so let’s get back to the writers.

Knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 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. – 2 Peter 1:20-21

This passage is the most important text dealing with the writers of Scripture.  It refers to the origin of prophecy, which we take to include not just the predictions, but all the words of the true prophets.  The prophecy uttered by these men of God was not of any private interpretation, they did not think up their prophecies (unlike the false prophets that you read opining Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 13, or Micah 3), nor did they reinterpret or paraphrase what God had told them.  This is the first thing that Peter wants his reader to understand. We are to know this – the term is ginoskontai – in the sense of apprehending it.  These men were ‘moved’ or ‘born along’ (pheromenoi) by the Holy Spirit.  They were His human instruments, although in saying this we do not want to leave the impression that these men were entirely passive agents, they certainly were not; clearly they employed their own idioms and styles.  Nevertheless they spoke and later wrote under the supervision of the Blessed Spirit.  Maier is assuredly right when he observes:

None of them, curiously enough, spoke from the standpoint of men, but from God; that is ‘sent from him’, empowered, proceeding from his vantage point, and bringing across a message from him that is no less than a divine message. – Gerhard Maier, Biblical Hermeneutics, 102

What Maier has said is terribly important to grasp.  Truly Scripture is God’s Word.  It is God’s Scripture, it is then not a human word, other than the obvious fact that it is given through human instrumentality.  Men conveyed it, their personalities were not obstructed or overcome in order to bring it about.  Rather by what Warfield and others have called a ‘concursive’ working of the Holy Spirit with the personalities of the individual writers, what materialized was what the Holy Spirit Himself wanted written through them.  Because it was the Holy Spirit who was in control of the process what was created is an infallible Book.  In my opinion, we should look at the process of inspiration as just an intensification of the normal providential working of the Spirit in all the world.

The Word of God: A Designation used in the Bible to show Inspiration as its inherent Property

The most important term for our subject doctrinally speaking is undoubtedly ‘the Word of God’, which is used often, particularly in the New Testament.  Jesus objected to the religious leaders’ confusing tradition with inspiration.

Thus making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And many such things you do. – Mark 7:13

Jesus upbraids the Jews when he says that they make the Word of God of no effect through their tradition which they have handed down.  The point is that if you nullify Scripture as the Word of God then its authority to speak for God is stifled.

And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone.'” – Luke 4:4

Man needs a divine revelation, he needs a word from outside to sustain him and to guide him.  Any position on the Bible that does not recognize it as being that word from outside, that word from God, is a false and heretical position.

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. – Luke 8:11

Then in the Parable of the Sower, the seed that is sown is the Word of God.

Take care then how you hear, for to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away. – John 8:18

This means that the way that we use the Word of God when we hear it, the way we respond to it, and the way that we do it, will have an effect on how we end up at the end of this life.

But he answered them, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” – Luke 8:21

Because the connotation is that there are people, many people, most people in the world, who do not hear and do the Word of God; they hear and do the Word of man. Continue reading “The Inspiration of Scripture (Pt.3)”

The Inspiration of Scripture (Pt.2)

Part One

The Divine over the Human

What all this does is that it causes us to conclude that as evangelical Christians we should emphasize the divine aspect of the Bible more than the human element, though not neglecting the human aspect.  This is the biblical pattern:

Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the LORD said to me, “Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. – Jeremiah 1:4-9

O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. Therefore thus says the LORD: “If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me. If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth. They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. – Jeremiah 15:15-16, 19


There is much in Jeremiah 15 which is somewhat obscure and which we don’t have the time here to exegete, but the emphasis of Jeremiah, especially in 15:19, was on the fact that his predictions, his prophecies, were God’s words first and foremost not his own. Therefore the Divine element is far greater and far more important than the human element, in a Doctrine of Inspiration.

I will take my stand at my watchpost and station myself on the tower, and look out to see what he will say to me, and what I will answer concerning my complaint. And the LORD answered me: “Write the vision; make it plain on tablets, so he may run who reads it. – Habakkuk 2:1-2  

Again the emphasis falls on the divinity of Scripture and the person who reads it will act upon it because it is from God, not just from Habakkuk.

I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. – John 17:6, 17

Now just look at the implications of that verse: man is not the fount of truth, therefore man cannot be the source of the truth that is in the Word.  Ergo, the humanity of Scripture, which would have to mean fallibility, has to be overcome by the divinity of Scripture which is infallible. I believe a great deal of harm has been done within evangelicalism, and particularly in the realm of hermeneutics, by over-emphasizing the humanity of Scripture.  The humanity of Scripture would, if left to itself, tend towards some truth and a lot of falsehood and certainly no definitive truth, but the divinity of truth, coming from the source of all truth, makes the whole Word, even when it is written by human agents, the truth, because it witnesses to its divine author.

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”– these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. – I Corinthians 2:6-13

The whole basis of Paul’s argument here is rooted in the Word of God, he even quotes the Word of God in verse 9 and continues to do so throughout his letters. In other words, his truth is based on Scripture’s truth.  And he is also superintended by the Spirit himself.

I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet saying, ‘Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.’ – Revelation 1:10-11

What we see here is the Lord himself giving the revelation, also giving the commandment, and the ability through the Spirit for John to write down this inspired book.

Now it is because of the relationship between the Scriptures and God himself, because of their God-breathed character even though using human instruments, that we have some rather startling sayings about the Bible.

And 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.” – Galatians 3:8

Now here, what Paul is arguing is that the Scripture itself, because of what is written in Genesis 12:3, foresaw the importance of justification by faith.

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” Romans 9:17

Paul doesn’t say ‘God said to Pharaoh’ he says ‘the Scripture said to Pharaoh’. Why does he say that? Because what God said to Pharaoh through Moses is what Scripture says; the words are the same…they are God’s words.

This is why the writer of Hebrews can write:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. – Hebrews 4:12-13

The Word of God, because it is living, discerns our thoughts and intents – what’s going on in our hearts, in our minds, and in our thinking. Now the “him” in verse 13 is not the Scriptures, it is God himself. Because the Word of God searches us out and discerns where we are in relation to God himself, the relationship between God and his Word is such that in verses like this, they actually coalesce; the writer having no problem going from the One – the Scripture, to the other – the person of God himself. Continue reading “The Inspiration of Scripture (Pt.2)”

The Primacy of Revelation (3)

Part Two

In our present “postmodern” ethos, laden as it is with deconstructionism and hermeneutical suspicion, Christians have to ask how the primacy of biblical revelation does in such an environment.  Does it struggle for air or does it flourish?  Maybe it is better to ask, can it flourish as an idea among ideas?

The biblical outlook has set against it three formidable foes. These enemies of God’s Word are constantly at work chipping away at the foundations upon which Christian theology, and therefore Christian truth, rests.  Often working surreptitiously, these three foes are well-known.

First – the system of anti-Christian thought that pervades any society; the cosmos as John calls it or the world.

Second – the unregenerate heart and mind; the sin nature of the individual

Third – the god of this age and his cohorts

In biblical shorthand they are the world, the flesh, and the devil.

For all that is in the world–the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions–is not from the Father but is from the world.  – I John 2:16

Any theology worth its salt will constantly engage these powers, correcting and seeking to undermine their challenges and influence. True theology is a corrective to false ideas wherever it is found.

This is inevitably the case because the revelation of God, in the Word of God particularly, is the only authority that contains the power to realign man to the divine intention; that is the intention of God for man in the first place.

There is no more significant question in the whole of theology, and in the whole of human life, than that of the nature and reality of revelation. – G.C. Berkouwer, General Revelation, 17

He’s absolutely right! We live in a revelatory environment; that’s what this world is. Because it is made and upheld by God.

Therefore, Bible doctrine, which is the main reason that the Bible says itself it was given in 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness

The theology of revelation is not a subject to be learned; it is the disclosure of truth. If we know what it is then we will treat it appropriately.  We will prize it, and we will work it out and apply it to all areas of life.

Now, one cannot ignore the clear message of the Bible to the effect that “there is a way that seems right to a man” (Proverbs 14:12).  This fact must be taken under consideration when we expound our faith because our default setting, even as Christians, is independence from God.  Because we either do things God’s way or we do it our way. There are ways of doing theology, ways of thinking about theology, which do theology a great disservice.  They all tend to treat the Bible as a subject.

But man is a dependent creature.  Here is how he ought to think:

As man’s existence is dependent upon an act of voluntary creation on the part of God, so man’s knowledge is dependent upon an act of voluntary revelation of God to man.  Even the voluntary creation of man is already a revelation of God to man. Thus every bit of knowledge on the part of man is derivative and reinterpretative. Now, if every fact in the universe is created by God, and if the mind of man and whatever the mind of man knows is created by God, it goes without saying that the whole fabric of human knowledge would dash in pieces if God did not exist and if all finite existence were not revelational of God.  In any Christian pursuit therefore, the mirage of free and unhindered reasoning must be stopped at the outset. What we’re about here is to find out what God says. God has spoken, now what has he said? – Cornelius Van Til, Introduction to Systematic Theology, 12-14

Van Til taught that God has flooded the creation with clear revelation of His Divine nature (theotes), and that man, as the image of God, is both revelatory to himself and is equipped – at least as he came from the hand of the Maker – to interpret the revelation which God puts forth.  Only we do not interpret autonomously, that is, outside our God-intended parameters.  We were made for exalted communion with Yahweh, the “I Am” (Exod. 3:14; Jn. 8:58), and this communion is predicated upon our sustained worshipful dependence on Him.

Our dependence on God is achieved when we realize that God has not created us to ‘go our own way and do our own thing.’  No, He has spoken to us.  Even in the Garden of Eden, God spoke to Adam and Eve, and they were to live together with Him in joyous subordination to the revealed verbal revelation they received.  We don’t respond as well-trained pets, but as responsible and free persons whose job it is to (as I believe Kepler put it), “think God’s thoughts after Him.”  This phrase pops up again and again in Van Til’s writings and summarizes much of his approach.

Hence, for us to think anything without reference to God’s Word is to cross into prohibited territory.  It is the prelude to sin, since it prepares us to “size things up” independently of God and to come to conclusions about God’s works which are out of sync with the Divine intention.  This is the position that Satan got Eve into in Genesis 3:6.  She was tricked, but Adam opted for the autonomous lifestyle knowingly and willingly (1 Tim. 2:14).  So, when God asks the man “who told you you were naked?” (Gen. 3:11), he is getting to the heart of the matter.  Did God tell them they were naked?  Did Satan tell them that?  No.  Well, who did then?  They told themselves!

From this stark truth comes all of our trouble.  Hence, the priority of revelation.  We will never know reality aright until we “think God’s thoughts after Him.” Even when we, like Eve, state true propositions about the world (see again Gen. 3:6), we will go awry because we will not relate them to their Creator and Interpreter and His purposes.  If we do that then we will lose our significance and, in so doing, we will lose ourselves.

The Primacy of Revelation (2)

Part One

The Importance of a Prolegomena, and the Importance of Having a Christian Philosophy

There are all kinds of philosophies which the Christian should avoid.  The Apostle warns,

See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. – Colossians 2:8

The reference here is probably generic, referring to the various ideas floating around in Asia Minor in the day: eclecticism, syncretism, idolatry, superstition, and neo-platonic moralism.  In the midst of it all there was and is a true Christian philosophy.  In fact, anyone who is a lover of real sophia (wisdom), is going to love the philosophy of Jesus Christ, the Logos of God, the one who discloses God par excellence.  Mature Christians become such, in part, by thinking biblically.

In one of his earlier books Francis Schaeffer made this pertinent remark about the reticence of Christians to think with their theology:

Christians have tended to despise the concept of philosophy; this has been one of the weaknesses of evangelical orthodox Christianity. We have been proud in despising philosophy and we have been exceedingly proud in despising the intellect. Our theological seminaries hardly ever relate their theology to philosophy and specifically to the current philosophy. Thus, students go out from theological seminaries not knowing how to relate Christianity to the surrounding worldview. – Francis A. Schaeffer, He is There and He is not Silent, 297

Schaeffer was certainly not recommending philosophy above theology.  What he was drawing attention to was the serious lack of critical reflection by evangelicals and fundamentalists on a whole host of important intellectual matters to which theology ought to deliver the answers. The problem, as he saw it, was that theologians – and evangelical theologians more than most – were just not equipped to address these weighty matters, nor in many cases, were they even interested in them. Philosophy needs theology for its basic justification and proper direction.  And theology depends upon revelation.

Theology also needs a collaborative philosophy to unearth the kinds of questions that theology should meet. Otherwise theology becomes an exclusive discipline cordoned off from the rest of intellectual life, when it should in fact be guiding it. Theology needs a philosophy; therefore, theology needs to study first principles (prolegomena).

Schaeffer also mentions that in many seminaries the current philosophies of the day are not studied, or not related to theology. But we have to relate the truths that we are espousing in our statements of faith to the real world.  We have to use revelation to its full extent to cover all truths.

If Jesus Christ has indeed come into this world and died on the Cross in real time for fallen man, and if the Cross of Christ and the Resurrection of Christ indicate that Christ is coming back to rule the world, then there is a big story to be embraced.  It leaves nothing untouched.  This world will be transformed, and God’s people will be transformed and glorified to live in it.  So Cross and Crown impact a Christian view of history, the meaning of history, and therefore the meaning of human life.  And the content is revealed.

If God has created this world then we’re not here by cosmic accident, we’re here by divine purpose, and there is a teleology, a purpose or an aim, that is built into this world and into its forward trajectory.

Therefore, as saved human beings we need to find out what that purpose is and we need to be pursuing it in this fallen world. We can hardly shine like lights in this world if we do not think in a different way than this world, and our lives do not even slightly remind the world to a different way of thinking.

When New Testament Christianity met the non-Christian world, whether Jewish or Gentile, its characteristic response was not to collaborate but to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ as Lord and thereby to see a change in its hearer’s allegiance. – Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God, 33

Revelation, Theology and the Christian Mind

This really is what theology and the theological mind enables us to do. It doesn’t just do to preach the Gospel as an independent truth, just some other piece of information that we’re to add on to what we already know.  If we do that then the Gospel just doesn’t fit. Because the Gospel demands the transformation of our thinking about the world and our thinking about ourselves, and our thinking about our dependence upon the Sovereign God.  For most of the thinking of the people in the world it’s been built on an independent foundation, not one that depends on Scripture.  Therefore, this whole message, which demands humility and repentance and dependence….just doesn’t fit in with that framework.

So, there needs to be a theological setting, a theological framework or explanation, in which the Gospel is set, as a painting is set in a good frame, enhancing and deepening the encounter.

Now, from one point of view that is Systematic Theology come to its own, but using other language, but sticking to the truths of theology, it is really a Christian philosophy or worldview.  Therefore we have to be aware of the fact that the revelation of God demands that kind of treatment.

Unless Christian education publicly expounds its way of knowing God, strenuously proclaims universally valid truths, and clearly identifies the criteria for testing and verifying the knowledge claims we make, then the Christian view of God and the world will survive as but a fading oddity in an academic world that questions its legitimacy and appropriateness. – Carl F. H. Henry, Gods of this Age or God of the Ages, 93

When Henry talks about testing and verifying the knowledge claims that we make, he’s using language that goes back to a kind of verifiability criterion of his mentor Gordon Clark and people like E.J. Carnell.  I would disagree with that approach because it tends to be too rationalistic.

But from another point of view there are proper ways of testing and verifying our knowledge claims as long as the appeal is to our ultimate authority (the Bible), and that ultimate authority is demonstrated to be the only public authority that can actually make sense of any universally valid truth claim; this is where the great work of Cornelius Van Til and others comes in.


The Primacy of Revelation (1)

I thought I would adapt some of my lecture notes on Systematic Theology for my blog.  I am continuing to work on my book of Biblical Theology, and I thought it would do me good to change things up a bit.  The first group of posts will be on the Doctrine of Revelation. 

That God has spoken is the most important thing that can be said by a human being in this world.  Ontologically speaking, God must come first, and God must have priority. God is before all things, even before the Scriptures, which are given in time as a disclosure of God to man.  Not a full disclosure, but a sufficient one.

There are all kinds of epistemological, that is knowledge-based questions that arise when we deal with God’s disclosing of Himself, about the world, and about ourselves.  This epistemological triad comes to us from two sources; Nature and Scripture.

If we’re going to take a truly biblical approach to knowledge, we must understand the ramifications of stating the fact that God has spoken to us; and that therefore there are ways of operating, ways of thinking, ways of conducting ourselves, ways of doing theology, that are either commensurate with that great fact or in opposition to it.

Another way of putting it is that we will either respond to the truth that God has spoken and fall in line with that truth – position ourselves underneath it, depend upon it, and look to it to find truth, or we look down upon this fact from a perspective that is still independent of it; that analyzes it, judges it from the outside.  Even some theologies have done this.  Doing the latter simply encourages and promotes the big problem with mankind – our penchant for being independent of God.

The doctrine of revelation does not promote autonomy but dependence on God; dependence on God not just for our everyday needs, but also for our everyday thinking.  This outlook is inextricably bound to the Bible and our faith in it.

In the first part of these lectures I’m going to be setting the foundations for the way that we need to think about the Scriptures, and about the world we live in, and therefore about the God who has created us, saved us, and whom we serve.  This begins with a right approach to authority.  As one has stated it,

The Christian theological framework is not created by a masterful human imagination; in fact, it is not fundamentally a human construct at all. It is in the first instance discovered in the divine initiative of God’s own self-disclosure. If theology is the science concerning God, it is a science with its roots in God’s manifestation of himself. Thus, genuine theology listens before it talks. – Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology, 64

We should always place the Scriptures in such a position in our minds.

The Final Authority?

Now, it is very common for evangelicals to say that the Bible is their final authority.  Many of us subscribe to statements of faith which say that very thing. However, saying that the Bible is your final authority, and actually making it your final authority in all matters, are two very different things.  For many people the Bible is their ultimate authority when it comes to ‘spiritual things’. However, when it comes to the way they do their jobs, the way that they pursue certain hobbies or ambitions, the way that they transact business, the way they go shopping, pay their bills, interact with people, the kind of decisions that they make, the way that they interpret the world, or the way that they allow the ideas of the world to penetrate their thinking, one often finds that the Bible is not only not the final authority in all matters, it is not any kind of authority at all!  It is used only for church, for church activities, Bible studies, maybe personal devotions, and when it is put down, the cogs start clicking and the mind changes its frame of reference, moving from a biblical mindset back to a worldly mindset, going about its daily duties without much reference at all to what God thinks and what God says.

What we want is a view of the Bible as the ultimate authority, to be consulted first.  Christians should let the Scriptures hold such a comprehensive claim on the mind and heart that they won’t be able to go shopping, drive their car, plan a vacation, or do anything else without thinking about what God, through His Scripture, says about how they should be approaching these things.  We are to bring all our thoughts into captivity to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).  We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Therefore, if we’re to do that we need to take seriously the fact that we must always, and in everything, be dependent upon the revelation of God so we can live a life of faith in this world.  Remember, without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).

The Demands of Revelation

The fact that God has not left Himself without witness (Acts 14:17) but has revealed Himself in the world by His Word, is such a stupendous thought that it pulls everything into its orbit; nothing is left unaffected by it.  Hence Systematic Theology might well be seen as the Christian worldview set out and unpacked. Systematic Theology therefore, is only at home in a truly Christian environment.

What this entails is an exclusivist approach to theology from a believing viewpoint, which requires a biblical viewpoint.  For a Christian to adopt a method of theology that is at odds with his duty towards his Lord, is for that person to deny what is said to him, and to mix incongruent conceptions of reality together in his mind.  There is only one reality and that is God’s reality. Other realities are made-up realities and we as Christians can make up realities as well as the next man, and we do that when we step outside of what God requires in his Word.