God has chosen to reveal Himself to men through written language. Even apart from the miracle of divine inspiration, written language is an amazing form of communication. To be sure, throughout history it has often been subverted into the service of the lie, from false advertising to Nazi propaganda to outright denial of the truths of the Word of God. But at the same time, it is unparalleled as a means of setting forth the truth.
Of all possible forms of communication, the written word is one of the most reliable. How often in our everyday conversations do we not insist, “If you want me to remember it, write it down. Put it black on white.” If you are forced to stop while driving in order to get directions to your destination (something we men are always inclined to do, of course), especially if the directions involve several twists and turns, it is much better to write them down than to rely on memory. If a housewife asks a friend for the recipe of the delicious meal or dessert that her friend has served up, she will want the recipe in writing, rather than to rely on her memory of the ingredients, the amount of each ingredient, and the baking instructions. Having something in writing is always preferable.
Written language is one of the best ways to communicate our thoughts, desires, ideas, plans, and purposes to others. By comparison, other forms of communication are often inadequate to convey fully what is in our minds and hearts. Written communication is far more accurate than drawing pictures. We often say that a picture is worth a thousand words. And, from a certain point of view, there is truth in that statement. But often it takes more than a thousand words accurately to reflect the meaning of a picture. People who look at the same painting often see quite different things in the painting. And even then, without the input of the artist, we can never be sure that we have accurately understood what he intended to convey by that which he has drawn, sketched, sculpted, or painted. This is one of the reasons on account of which the Heidelberg Catechism in Q&A 98 teaches that God disapproves of His people being taught by “dumb images,” as is the practice of Roman Catholicism. In contrast to every art form, the written word is a far more complete, detailed, and accurate means of communication.
That which is written is also much more enduring than the spoken word. How often does it not happen that an hour or two after someone has told us something, we wonder whether we are able accurately to recall what was said. “If only I had written it down,” we chide ourselves. If we had written it down, we would have a record of what they said, which we could then consult, often much later—long after they have said it. Especially difficult is passing down from one generation to the next what someone of a former generation is reported to have said. Often aspects of “oral tradition” are lost with the passing of time and generations. Or it happens that things are added that were not part of what was originally said. But a written record preserves much more accurately for future generations information that otherwise might be lost or mistakenly recalled. Our memories are not infallible, as we all too often discover.
Students may try this exercise at school, with the permission of their teacher, of course. It will demonstrate the weaknesses connected to the spoken word as it is passed from one human being to another. Start at one end of your classroom by whispering something into the ear of the student next to you. Begin with the phrase, “Not everything that barks is a dog, and not everything that roars is a lion.” By the time the phrase reaches the last student in the classroom, have that student say aloud what was whispered into their ear. It is quite likely that it will not be, “Not everything that barks is a dog, and not everything that roars is a lion.” Sometimes what the last person hears is not even close to the original saying. Although the spoken word is an especially powerful means of communication, it cannot preserve nearly as accurately or as permanently that which is written.
Written communication is also often easier to understand than the spoken word. Frequently the accent of the speaker, the fact that he does not clearly enunciate his words, or the fact that she tends to speak very softly is an obstacle to the clear understanding of what is said. And then there is the challenge—the older we become the greater the challenge—to remember what we heard. In the case of that which is written, many of the barriers to understanding what is communicated are removed. And because it is written communication, we can always re-read it and refer to it again.
And then there is the richness of expression that is possible by means of written language. Consider the array of genres in which written communication can be classified, as the Bible exemplifies: historical narrative, prophecy, poetry, wisdom literature, allegory, parable, and epistolary literature. Written language is often enriched by figures of speech, symbolism, and the style of the writer. Most of the readers of this magazine would be able to read the editorials found in each issue of the Standard Bearer and be able to identify which of the three editors penned the editorial.
It belongs to the wonder of the Bible that it can be read by a wide array of readers. It does not make use of technical jargon or scientific vocabulary; neither is it street jibe—crude and uncouth. Its language is exalted at the same time as it is down to earth; eloquent, but also easily understood. The Bible is written in the everyday language of the ordinary believer so that men of all different classes, learned or unlearned, university professor or factory worker, businessman or housewife, married or single, rich or poor, old or young, men or women are able to understand what is written.
What makes the Bible a still greater wonder is that God preserved all the human writers of Holy Scripture so that what they wrote was without error. What they wrote was the Word of God—the Word of God in the words of men. God preserved the human writers so that what they wrote was completely free from intentional error, as well as from inadvertent mistakes. As individuals, apart from the Holy Spirit’s moving of them to write the Bible, they may have been ignorant of many things and mistaken about others. David was likely ignorant of the place of the earth in our solar system. Paul was ignorant of many of the laws of physics and thermodynamics. But their ignorance did not carry over into their writings that became part of Holy Scripture. The Holy Spirit kept the human writers of the Bible from errors of every sort. This did not prevent them from writing as ordinary human beings, in ordinary human language, which other ordinary people like themselves could understand. Not at all. But it guaranteed the infallibility and inerrancy of all that they wrote that became part of sacred Scripture.
One of the reasons, often the main reason, given by those who deny the Bible’s infallibility is that the Bible contains contradictions. There are mistakes, they allege, in God’s written communication to His people. They point to discrepancies (differences) in Scripture and suppose that these discrepancies indicate that there are contradictions in God’s Word. Obviously, if the Bible contains contradictions, it cannot be the Word of God.
I am not referring to apparent contradictions between science and Scripture. Such contradictions are often alleged. According to the “findings” of science, it is alleged that the proponents of a “young earth” cannot be correct. The earth cannot be approximately 6,000 years old. The findings of science indicate that the earth is billions of years old. According to the findings of science, the earth could not have been created in six literal, consecutive, 24-hour days. The findings of science indicate that the universe and all life forms evolved from the simpler to the more complex, from inorganic matter into living organisms over great spans of time. I am not referring to these sorts of apparent contradictions.
Rather, I am referring to the discrepancies and apparent contradictions within the Bible itself. Such discrepancies often concern numbers, or apparent contradictions between two parallel accounts of the same event in two or more places in Scripture. How can Christians claim that the Bible is infallible, when there are these obvious discrepancies and contradictions within its pages? Some even scoff at the absurdity of an infallible and inerrant Bible. This is true sadly in some Reformed churches, seminaries, universities, and high schools. This was already the case nearly fifty years ago when I was a student in a Reformed college.
In the course of only one or two articles in the Standard Bearer, it is not possible to list all the apparent contradictions that are found in Scripture and provide a reasonable explanation for them. I do intend, the Lord willing, to provide a few examples in my next article, to show how it is possible often to harmonize apparent contradictions. There are books that attempt to explain the apparent contradictions in the Bible. Two of the best are Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, by Gleason L. Archer and A Handbook of Biblical Difficulties, by Robert Tuck. Both books are currently in print. They can also be consulted in the library of the Protestant Reformed Theological Seminary, if there is a biblical discrepancy to which you would like a possible solution.
At the outset, however, we must affirm what I refer to in my teaching in the seminary as the presupposition of faith. The presupposition of faith is that there are no real contradictions in the Bible. There are discrepancies and apparent contradictions, but there are no real contradictions in Scripture. Faith presumes that there is an explanation for every apparent contradiction, even if we do not for the moment know what that explanation is. Since the Bible is the Word of God, it cannot contain any real contradictions. God cannot contradict Himself. If the Bible were the word of men, even if only in part, it would almost certainly contain real contradictions. Because of man’s weaknesses, compounded by his sin, he is prone to halt and stumble, to use the language of a well-known Psalter number. Because man is weak and fallible, there would certainly be mistakes and contradictions in the pages of Scripture. But the Bible is not the word of man, not even in part. It is not the Word of God and the word of man. Rather, it is the Word of God in the words of men. And that is entirely different.
The presupposition of faith is that as the Word of God, Scripture contains no errors. It contains no errors of doctrine, no errors of facts, no errors of history, no contradictions. As the seamless robe of our Lord Jesus Christ, a part cannot be torn from the whole without ruining the entire garment. To pluck one thread is to cause the whole to unravel. So is Scripture the one Word of God to men, infallible and authoritative in its entirety and in every part.