In our last letter we talked about the fact that the so-called New Hermeneutics was fundamentally a rationalistic approach to the Scriptures which had to be rejected. Setting this rationalist approach over against the approach of faith, we decided that the issue was, at bottom, a spiritual, ethical issue—an issue which involved the difference between faith and unbelief.
I want to spend a little time in this letter talking about what is meant by the approach of faith. What exactly do we mean when we say that Scripture must be approached in faith?
I think this is an extremely important question to understand. And it is important for more than one reason. It is important in your work with the people of God. We must face the fact that far and away the majority of the people of God come to Scripture without any knowledge of what the New Hermeneutics is all about. In fact, they come to the Scriptures without even knowing what Hermeneutics is all about. They do not even come with any conscious awareness of usingprinciples of interpretation. They have probably never heard the term “Hermeneutics” before. They have received no course in Hermeneutics in the Seminary. They cannot recite the various rules which must be applied to the interpretation of Scripture. They come equipped only with faith. And we must surely ask the question whether this faith is enough to give the child of God the key to Scripture’s meaning. There is, after all, such a thing as what our fathers used to call a “simple faith”. Is this adequate? That is the question.
The second reason why this matter of faith is so important is because there are those who maintain that faith is indeed indispensable to the interpretation of Scripture, but who have a sort of misconception of what faith really is. Is this faith, e.g., a blind leap into the dark? Is this faith simply a matter of blindly accepting what is fundamentally unprovable? Is this faith a sort of secret power which enables one to accept as true a number of propositions which lie beyond the realm of proof? Or, to put the matter a little differently, is faith something which stands at odds with man’s powers of reason? We who insist that Scripture must be approached by faith are often accused of this. We are said to deny the use of reason and the validity of reason. This is implicit in the charge of “unscholarliness”. We are said to commit the sin of “Bibliolatry”—the worship of a mere book. And the implicit charge is that we honor the book for its own sake and do not worship the God Who is revealed in the Bible. We are said to substitute faith for reason so that we are content with slavish adherence to the words of the Bible without even understanding what they are all about and without taking into account the nature of the book which we call the Bible.
So we shall have to look into these matters somewhat and see if we can come to any understanding of them.
I think probably the best way to get at this matter is to jump forthwith into the fray and state unequivocably that we believe the Bible is the Word of God because the Bible itself says so. This is a fact which no one can deny. If you want to read a book which, in a very beautiful and thorough way, sums up all the proof for this statement, I highly recommend Edward Young’s book: “Thy Word is Truth.” There are other good books as well. To mention but a couple, I could refer you to R. Laird Harris’s book: “Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible,” and Archibald Alexander’s book: “Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration and Canonical Authority of the Holy Scriptures.” These men show that the truth of inspiration is literally taught on every page of Holy Scripture. But the two classic passages will serve our purposes for the present. I refer, of course, to II Timothy 3:16, 17: “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” And II Peter 1:19-21: “We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.”
Now these passages, it is clear, speak of the inspiration of Scripture with the kind of language which proves that Scripture is, in its entirety and throughout, the infallibly inspired Word of God. We accept this testimony of Scripture by faith, and, on the basis of these passages, we believe that the Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God. We need no other proof. This is sufficient for us. But, you see, those whose approach is rationalistic call this simplistic not only, and unscholarly, but they also charge us with arguing in a circle. They accuse us of teaching that the Bible is the Word of God because the Bible says so; and the testimony of the Bible is true because it is the Word of God. Is not this arguing in a circle? Is not this really assuming to be true exactly the point that needs to be proved? Is not this committing an obvious logical fallacy which makes the whole argument fallacious? It would seem so. It would seem to be the same kind of argument as saying Mr. McCall is a trustworthy man. I believe that this is true because Mr. McCall himself says so. And I know that Mr. McCall speaks the truth because he is a trustworthy man. This is arguing in a circle, and no one would entrust his most cherished possession to the safe-keeping of Mr. McCall on these grounds. Would we trust the salvation of our souls to the Scriptures when the argument for the veracity of the Scriptures is the same kind of argument? The argument is reasoning in a circle. It is a false proof for the truth of the Scriptures.
But is it?
This really brings us to the heart of the matter.
And the heart of the matter is exactly the question: What is faith?
Is faith a sort of blind acceptance of basic presuppositions which, in their very nature, are unproved? This is the way faith is often explained. I recall, e.g., that when I was taking a science course in my college years that the professor spent a great deal of time in the introduction to the course making plain that the approach of the Christian scientist was indeed the approach of faith. Never mind the fact for the moment that he was a man who believed in the “period theory” as a way of interpreting Genesis 1. He claimed that our approach was one of faith, that indeed we were compelled to this approach by the very fact that we were Christians. And he said that this meant primarily that we accepted as true a number of propositions which were not susceptible to proof. The very nature of the propositions made proof impossible. We accepted as true, e.g., the fact that there is a God, that in some fashion God created all things, that He rules over all things in His providence. He insisted these were unprovable, but that faith accepted them without proof. He sternly cautioned us not to be ashamed that we did this, for he insisted that the unbeliever does exactly the same thing. We are not the only ones who build a science on faith; the unbeliever is guilty of the same thing. He too builds his science on faith because he too builds his science on the basis of presuppositions. The only difference then is that the presuppositions which the believer and the unbeliever accept by faith are different. The difference is not a lack of faith and the presence of faith. The difference is in the content of faith.
I am convinced that this distinction has done a lot of damage. I suspect, in fact, that it is this distinction which is really at the bottom of a lot of the trouble. Quite obviously, if we all have faith, believers and unbelievers alike, and differ only in what we accept by faith, then there is a lot of common ground between us, and it is very easy to reduce the argument once more to a rationalistic argument: Who has the better presuppositions? Who has the best “proof’ for the position which he holds?
This is surely not the meaning of Scripture when Hebrews 11:3 tells us: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the Word of God . . .” The faith spoken of here is not a blind acceptance of certain unprovable assumptions. This faith is “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
We must always remember above all that faith is the bond that unites the believer to Christ. I do not want to get into a theological discussion of this. I refer you to the beautiful description of this faith as it is given in our own Heidelberg Catechism in Lord’s Day VII. But the truth of this assertion cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Faith is the means whereby the life of Jesus Christ becomes the possession of the elect child of God. And, insofar as this has implications for our present discussion, faith is the means whereby we are put into contact with Christ and with all that belongs to Christ’s kingdom and, truth.
Faith is an altogether wonderful gift. The greatness of it can hardly be fully appreciated by us. It is a gift. Ephesians 2:8 is clear enough on that score. YOU cannot acquire it through learning. It does not come along with a Ph. D. degree. You cannot buy it on the open market or from your friend. All the money in the world will not purchase it. You cannot share it once you have it. You cannot give it to the man with whom you are arguing about the truths of Scripture. You either have it, or you don’t. And he either has it or he does not. And once it is yours, no one can ever take it from you, nor can you, through your carelessness, lose it. It is yours for all time and into eternity. It is yours because God has given it to you.
But the power of faith is a tremendous something which is unexplainable. It is a power to change and to shape the whole life of a man. It is a power to alter everything he does not only in his outward conduct, but also in his inner life of thinking and willing and feeling. It is a power so great and so wonderful that it defies description, is beyond explanation, needs never give an account of itself, cannot be accounted for even by the one who possesses it, and gives to a man so completely a different direction in the whole of his life that he is not and cannot be the same kind of a man which he was before that faith was his.
I want to talk a little bit more about this matter of faith—and its wonderful power. But the hour is late and the pages of this letter are full; and so we shall have to wait with this till another time.
But, in the meantime, there really is not anything which can be called “a simple faith”. There are people of God whose knowledge is somewhat meager and whose understanding of the profundities of the Christian religion is limited. There are people of God who do not have the capacity for profound theological endeavor and for deep theological penetration into the mysteries of the truth. There are little children who stand at the very beginning of the road of salvation. There are “dying thieves” who come to the faith shortly before death. There are people who have never had the opportunity to learn a lot of the riches of the truth in Jesus Christ. From this point of view, their faith may be a simple faith. But faith itself can never be simple. Their faith is not simple. It is, even in them, a mighty power. And indeed, sometimes the power of their faith is so staggering that it puts the learned man and the professor of theology to shame. Do not despise faith wherever and in whomever it may appear. It is a gift of God.
With Christian greetings,