The theme of this article expresses the earnest inquiry of many concerning the nature of Scripture. But the theme has a tremendous weakness, for it implies something about one’s approach to Scripture. The theme would leave the impression that one is in doubt concerning who it might be that was the author of Scripture. But be assured that for us the matter is settled. We believe that the Bible is in its entirety the Word of God. We hold that the Bible is the authoritative, infallibly inspired Word of God.
Thus we present a two-fold proposition or thesis: 1), If one takes the position that the Bible is either in its entirety or in part the word of men, he will inevitably discover that the Bible is for him an obscure, closed book; and the consequence will be that the individual believer will not be able to interpret this obscure book and will be cast upon the mercies of the intellectuals of the ecclesiastical community, the priests of interpretation. 2) Only if we receive the Bible in faith as the Word of God can we hold to an authoritative, perspicuous Bible, which can be read and understood by the individual believer without the aid of the self-appointed priests of the academic world. We want to show you that priestcraft is not dead.
We want to show that priestcraft and an obscure Bible are inseparably joined together; a Bible authored by men is inevitably an obscure, unintelligible Bible, which the “layman” cannot understand. In fact he will not dare attempt to interpret it. Having been intimidated by the priests of priestcraft, he will forfeit his right to interpret the Scriptures.
Priestcraft is an intolerable evil. The expression “priestcraft” is meant to characterize the position that teaches that only some in the church; either by education or by special divine illumination, are able properly to interpret the Scriptures. No one else! The ordinary layman is led to believe that he is not able to interpret the Bible. Thus the “man in the pew” is wholly dependent upon the mercies and caprices of the “priests” on the pulpit and the “priests” in the seminary. Priestcraft!
We must fight this horrible evil with all our spiritual strength. We must not yield to it even though it appeals to the flesh in the sense that by it we might be able to make ourselves believe that the responsibility to interpret the Scriptures is not ours. Priestcraft affords a “cop out,” but we must not accept this “cop out” nor the evil which offers it to us. The only way to maintain that the Bible can be read, interpreted and understood by the ordinary believer is to preach, teach and confess that the Bible is the infallible, inspired record of the revelation of God. Unless this is of faith, we will lose the perspicuous, intelligible Scriptures and with it the gospel of Christ for us and our children! Unless the words of the Bible are God’s Words, then you and I can never again read, study, interpret, and believe God’s Word! Unless the very words of Scripture are God’s Words, we do not possess His Word! Then we only possess man’s fallible, obscure word. If the Bible is man’s word, then of necessity it must be an obscure, unintelligible word and of no benefit to us. For man of himself cannot speak of spiritual, heavenly realities. God alone can speak of Himself, His Son, His Work, His love.
The question, “Is the Bible the Word of God or the word of men?” is a hotly debated subject in the church today. Most striking are the developments of the past years in the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. This Lutheran church is one of the largest Protestant denominations in this country, numbering 2.8 million members. Dr. Jacob A. O. Preus, president of Synod, led a conservative majority in this Lutheran church in the fight for an infallibly inspired Bible. Dr. John Tietjen, president of Concordia seminary (L.C.M.S.), and a liberal minority have been cast out for having depicted the Bible as a manmade, fallible book. The decisive vote in this confrontation was taken this past July, 1975 at Anaheim, California.
Nearer to home, there has been a great deal of debate in the Christian Reformed Church about the question of the infallibility, authority, and nature of Scripture. As evidence of this debate we call your attention to the fact that already in 1961 there was a report and decision on the “Infallibility of Scripture”; in 197 1 a report on the “Nature and Extent of Biblical Authority”; and again in 1972 we had Report 44 on the same subject. There were close to fifteen years of constant debate, wrangling, compromise, scholarly reports and decisions. What is the consequence of these debates and synodical edicts? Essentially nothing! The debate goes on within our mother church with more and more evidence each day of a polarization on this matter among her leaders. Our mother is deeply troubled about this most fundamental issue. She, with many others, is gradually succumbing to the tenacious attacks of rationalism. The Church of Christ in her midst needs our prayers. We do not now want to criticize these decisions, but we simply mention them as evidence that the debate about Scripture is a real thing near at home.
What is the real issue today in this debate about the nature of the Bible? Is the Bible a book by man about God? Or an infallibly inspired book by God about Himself as revealed in Jesus Christ to men? How are we to know? The real issue confronting the Church today is, “Will, the Bible be allowed to tell us what kind of book it is or not?” That is the issue. Listen to the late Dr. Edward J. Young, who was since 1936 till his recent death professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary:
When we have once grasped the idea that we must derive our doctrine of inspiration from the Bible we may begin to understand what the real issue before the Church is. The real issue is not whether we are to substitute one doctrine of inspiration for another. That is at the most a somewhat secondary question. The real issue before the Church today, and for that matter before every individual Christian, is whether the Bible is any longer to be regarded and accepted as a trustworthy teacher of doctrine. In other words, when the Bible testifies as to its own nature, are we to pay heed to what it has to say? When the Bible tells us clearly what kind of a Book it is, are we to reject its testimony as unworthy of belief? That is the real issue which faces us today.¹
Secondly, the church ought to consider the consequences of this issue by asking itself the question, “What is there to be lost by denying the inerrancy of Scripture?” We do not want to worship a book and become guilty of a so-called “Bibliolatry,” an aspersion which the liberal theologians cast upon those who maintain that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. But we do want to keep the gospel of Christ, for us and our children. If we deny that the Bible, in its entirety, is the infallible Word of God, we lose Christ. For without the infallible Word there is no Christ!
The issue debated by the Church today is a matter, ultimately, of obedience or disobedience, life or death, heaven or hell.
In considering our subject, let us do so in the light of history. Let us journey back to the years prior to 1517 and the early life of Martin Luther. Luther’s early opinions of Scripture had been taught him by the church of Rome. Luther, especially in his youth was a “child of his times.” He was trained by the Roman Catholic church to believe certain things about the Bible and about himself. Rome taught, among other things about Scripture, that the Bible was an obscure book of dark sayings. Thus Rome taught that the laity could not read and understand these obscure Scriptures. Rome feared that, if the laity were told that they were able to interpret Scripture and that if they were placed in the responsible position to do so, then all kinds of heresies and endless wrangling would be fostered. Rome taught, secondly, however, that there was no real need for the laity to read and interpret Scripture. For God in Christ’s vicar, the Pope, had provided the infallible interpreter of Scripture. The Church, i.e., the Pope and the clergy inclusive of the bishops, cardinals, and priests, had by virtue of the sacrament of ordination and apostolic succession the right, the ability, and the sole responsibility to interpret Scripture. They alone! This position has been dubbed “priestcraft.” Consequently, what the Church (that is the Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests) taught was divine truth. The individual believer, the layman, was not able, need not and did not have the right to interpret the obscure Bible. The laity (technically the laity were the non-clergy and thus non-Church) was simply obligated to submit and accept uncritically the teaching of the Romish Church. No one was allowed, upon the penalty of death, to declare that what the church taught was indeed contrary to the Word of God. John Huss tried to do that, and for his courageous attempt was burned at the stake in 1415. Martin Luther himself had to be “imprisoned” by friends for his own safe keeping.
Rome for centuries taught that the Bible was the obscure, unintelligible Word. Rome flatly denied the perspicuity of Scripture, i.e., that it is the clear, transparent Word of God, which can be understood by the simplest child of God. By implication Rome was denying that the Scriptures were the infallible record of the revelation of God. For revelation is that which reveals what was at one time hidden; it shows and makes visible to those who have eyes to see. The Bible as the Book of God’s revelation and the truth of perspicuity are inseparably joined. Though Rome’s position was not crystallized in the 15th century, it implicitly taught that the murky character of the Bible was, in part at least, due to the fact that it was the word of man. This is the only conclusion, for revelation is by definition clear and easily understood, as it makes visible that which God wills to make known to man.
Luther in 1509-11 began unconsciously a struggle for freedom from priestcraft. Luther had been fettered spiritually by the mighty chains of priestcraft. He had been denied spiritual freedom and peace before the face of the holy God by the church’s teaching (priestcraft) of righteousness by works. Luther was chained by the decisions of councils and popes to their exegesis of the obscure Scriptures. Tradition established by the priests of priestcraft enslaved Luther and his contemporaries. Thus Luther, as a spiritually sensitive young man, felt fettered, encumbered, and threatened by priestcraft i.e., the teachings of those who claimed to have the sole right, ability and responsibility to interpret the Bible.
Luther gradually escaped from the fetters and spiritual prison of priestcraft. It was a gradual process under the leading and guiding of the Holy Spirit. As Luther read and studied Scripture as a professor at Wittenberg university (beginning in 1511), the chains of priestcraft, which chained him to the theology of the middle ages, began to break under the heavy hammer blows of the Word of God. By the time of his debate with Dr. John Eck at Leipzig (July, 1519), Luther had broken principally with the authority of Rome and its priestcraft. Note how Luther unequivocally and fearlessly addresses Dr. Eck on this point:
Let it be understood that. when I say the authority of the Rome pontiff rests on a human decree I am not counseling disobedience. But we cannot admit that all the sheep of Christ were committed to Peter. What, then, was given to Paul? When Christ said to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” he did not mean, did he, that no one else can feed them without Peter’s permission? Nor can I agree that the Roman pontiffs cannot err or that they alone can Interpret Scripture. The papal decretal by a new grammar turns the words of Christ, “Thou art Peter,” into “Thou art the primate.” By the decretals the gospel is extinguished. I can hardly restrain myself against, the most impious and perverse blasphemy of this decretal.²
This break with Rome and priestcraft grew month by month and year by year till Luther had matured in his faith as the Reformer of the church of Christ. The Reformation took place first in Luther’s heart and then inevitably in the Church.
Luther was delivered from the chains of priestcraft. Luther. began to understand more and more clearly that the Bible was God’s Word, God’s clear speech which the simplest child of God can understand. Allow me to quote Luther about his view of the Bible; “When you read the words of Holy Scripture you must understand that God is speaking . . .”³ Concerning the important truth of perspicuity of Scripture, which truth is vital in the fight to escape priestcraft, Luther had this to say when he rebuked the humanist Erasmus for inclining to:
. . . that impudent and blasphemous saying, “the Scriptures are obscure.” They . . . who deny the all-clearness and all-plainness of the Scriptures leave us nothing else but darkness . . . Moreover I declare against you concerning the whole of Scripture that I will have no one part of it obscure, . . . and to support me stands that which I have brought forth out of Peter, that the Word of God is to us a “lamp shining in a dark place.”
But if any part of this lamp does not’ shine, it is rather a part of dark place than the lamp itself.4
In answer to our question, “Is the Bible the Word of God or the word of men?” Luther taught: “As the Holy Spirit is the divine author of Scripture, so also He is the divine interpreter. The Bible is the Holy Spirit’s book.”5 Strong, unambiguous language Luther chose to express his faith. How weak and insecure by comparison sounds the voice and language of many preachers today when they speak on this subject. Luther accepted the whole of Scripture. Every part and word of the Bible is God’s Word of revelation. To accept one part of Scripture as God’s Word and not another part of Scripture was, for Luther, the same as pulling God apart . . . limb by limb. To mutilate the Word was to mutilate God! Note what Skevington Wood tells us about Luther’s teaching:
When Luther thus spoke of Scripture as the medium of revelation, he included its totality. He allowed no license to select or reject. To dispute any one item is to impugn the whole. “My friend,” Luther said, “God’s Word is God’s Word—this point does not require much haggling! When one blasphemously gives the lie to God in a single Word, or says it is of minor importance if God is blasphemed, or called a liar, one blasphemes the entire God and makes light of blasphemy. There is only one God who does not permit Himself to be divided, praised at one place and chided at another, glorified in one word and scorned hi another . . . Why is it any wonder, then, if fickle fanatics juggle and play and clown with the word. . . Just as if God must yield to men, and let the authority of the Word depend on whether men are at one or at odds over if.”6
God had delivered Luther from the deadly hold of priestcraft fastened upon him by the church of Rome. God has delivered his people from priestcraft through Luther. Protestants have long enjoyed the truth that the Bible is the perspicuous Word of God in its entirety arid that it is the right and privilege of every believer to read and interpret, Scripture under the leading of the Holy Spirit—a precious truth and one too dear to relinquish.
¹ Young, Edward J. Thy Word Is Truth, P. 28, W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan (1957)
² Bainton, Roland Here I Stand, p. 108, Abington Press, Nashville
³ Wood, A. Skevington Captive To The Word, p. 140, Wm. B. Eerdmans, (1969)
4 Ibid, p. 135
5 Ibid, p. 137
6 Ibid, p. 136