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How is the Bible the Word of God

By George E. Ladd


      "I am glad that we find in the Bible the Word of God, not the words of man." This statement was made in a prayer meeting recently attended by the author; and similar affirmations are frequently sounded from evangelical pulpits. The idea that such words intend to express is sound; but the thought, as here formulated, is not true but is a misleading half-truth.

      The Bible is a compilation of the words of men. Each book of the Bible was composed by someone at a given time in a definite place, even though the author, date, and provenance are now unknown. Some books, such as the epistles of Paul, were immediately created by an individual author at a time and place which can be ascertained with relative certainty and the historical milieu and theological purpose clearly recognized. Other books, most notably the Gospels, embody the reduction to writing of a tradition which had been preserved in oral form (see chapter VI); and in some cases the facts of date, authorship and provenance cannot be ascertained with certainty. Our ignorance as to the specific background of some of the biblical books does not minimize the fact that every book has a given historical origin and from one point of view can be regarded as a purely historical, human, literary product.

      The problem facing the modern evangelical is precisely this: how can the words of men be at the same time the eternal Word of God? An unhistorical answer would be: God supernaturally inspired the writers of the Bible so that they were merely mouthpieces for the Word of God. Some medieval manuscripts of the New Testament contain beautiful illustrations picturing the apostle listening to God's voice which resounds from heaven, and writing down in a book what he hears. In such pictures, the artist portrays the inspired apostle as a mere stenographer who writes down what God dictates to him; his own personality and historical situation play no role in the protluction of his book.

      Undoubtedly, many Christians view the inspiration of the Bible in this light; but it is certainly not a modern concept. The dictation view of inspiration is already found in Second Esdras, a Jewish book written in the late first century (also called IV Ezra). The book presents Ezra in Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem complaining that the law of Moses has been burned, and praying that God "will send the Holy Spirit into me, and I will write down everything that has happened in the world from the beginning, the things which were written in Thy law, that men may be able to find the path, and that those who wish to live in the last days may live" (II Esd. 14: 22). God, in reply, tells Ezra to take five scribes or secretaries who are trained to write rapidly, and to withdraw from the people for forty days, "and I will light in your heart the lamp of understanding, which shall not be put out until what you are about to write is finished" (11 Esd. 14:25). So Ezra takes the five secretaries and withdraws to the field. On the next day Cod says, "Ezra, open your mouth and drink what I give you to drink."

      Then I opened my mouth, and hehold. a cup was offered to me: it was full of something like water, but its color was like fire. And I took it and drank; and when I had drunk it, my heart poured forth understanding, and wisdom increased in my breast, for my spirit retained its memory; and my mouth was open, and was no longer closed. And the Most High gave understanding to the five men, and by turn they wrote what was dictated, in characters which they did not know. They sat forty days, and wrote during the daytime, and ate their bread at night. As for me, I spoke in the daytime and was not silent at night. So during the forty days ninety-four books were written (II Esd. 14:39-44) .

      By this marvelous mode of inspiration, Ezra was enabled in forty days to dictate not only the entire Old Testament, but also a large group of extracanonical writings which were highly val ued by the Jews.

      If the inspiration of the biblical books were of this nature, many of our modern problems would never have been raised, for the Bible would indeed be only the Word of God, and not in any significant sense the words of men. For many centuries, the Bible was treated as though it was only the Word of God; and the modern discovery that the Bible is indeed the words of men has created a tension between the theological and the historical view of the Bible. Many critical scholars have been so enamored of the discovery that the Bible is in fact the words of men written within the historical process that they have often neglected altogether the significance of the Bible as the Word of God. The norm of modern critical study has been deceptively and appealingly simple. The Bible is an ancient book and must therefore be studied precisely like all other ancient books. The critical assumptions and methodology used in the analysis of such books as Second Esdras, the other Jewish books of the so-called Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, the recently discovered Dead Sea Scrolls, and all other ancient literature, Jewish or Greek, religious or secular, must be applied to the Bible.

      This is only partially true; but it is partially true. The purpose of this book is to illustrate the most important critical methods used in studying the Bible. These critical methods must be used because of the obvious fact that the Bible is not a magical book, but a product of history written in the words of men.

      The Bible was not written like the books reputedly dictated to Ezra, in characters which the scribes did not know, but in the common languages of the ancient world. We shall point out in a later chapter that the Greek of the New Testament was not a special language created by the Holy Spirit but was basically the vernacular tongue of everyday people. The Bible must be fnally studied in its original languages, Greek and Hebrew (with a few passages in Aramaic). The books of the Bible, written in very different literary styles, reflect the diversity of human authorship. Each book embodies the distinct human literary characteristics of its author. Some books are written in a very simple, easy style; others are more polished and difficult. Some have a limited vocabulary, others a far more extensive one. Most of the New Testament is written in relatively smooth Greek, but some books, such as Mark and II Peter, are rough or ponderous. Revelation is studded with intolerable Greek constructions. Obviously, the fact that the Bible is the Word of God does not mean that the human factor has been ignored nor the words of men bypassed. Thorough Bible study must employ all the paraphernalia of the linguistic, philological, and literary sciences. Although this obvious fact is admitted even in the most uncritical circles, its implications have not been understood.

      To admit that the Bible is written in the words of men and must be studied as an ancient literary work is not to deny that God speaks to men day by day through the Scriptures apart from any such critical study. When I read in John 3: 16, the "most beloved verse in the Bible," that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life," I do not need to ask a scholar about the meaning of the verse in order to believe, to commit myself to Christ, and to enter into the life of which the verse speaks. Furthermore, searching for and finding answers to questions of a critical kind is not the equivalent of believing and finding everlasting life. Unfortunately, critical scholarship has usually been satisfied to seek solutions to questions of this type and stops short of entering into the realitv to which the Word of God witnesses. When this happens, the Word of God has indeed become only the words of men.

      On the other hand, the fact that I have believed in Jesus Christ and have received the gift of eternal life ought never to prevent me from asking critical questions; indeed, I ought to be stimulated to determine as precisely as possible what the biblical language means. The scholar must ask such questions; and the intelligent layman ought to be eager for all the light he can gain from the scholar in understanding the exact meaning of the Word of God.

      Why, for instance, does the RSV render the Greek monogenes (which the AV translates "only begotten") as "only"? Does this reflect a change in theology? What is the precise philological meaning of the Greek word monogenes? Does it have some subtle theological meaning - "only begotten"; or is the meaning in John 3: 16 the same as in Luke 7: 12; 8:42; 9:38? What is the precise theological content of "Son"? Does it indicate merely Cod's creativity (Luke 1:35; 3:38)? Does it have only a religious content (Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1; Rom. 8:14)? Does it designate Jesus as the Davidic Son of God, the messianic King (II Sam. 7: 14; Psalms 2: 7; 89: 27, 29)? Historically considered, it is quite uncritical to assume that everywhere "Son of God" appears in the New Testament in reference to Jesus, it designates incarnate deity (see chapter VII). We believe that the use of the title in both John and the Synoptics does include more than the nativistic, religious, or messianic meanings; but this conclusion can be established only by meticulous critical study. Again, the critical student must ask about the meaning and content of everlasting (eternal) life. Is it primarily salvation in the Age to Come - the life of the resurrection, as in Daniel 12:2, Matthew 19:16, 29; 25:46? Or it it somehow a present experience, as in John 3:36? If so, how can eternal life be both present and future?

      The devotional use of the Bible and its power to bring men into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ does not depend upon an answer to these questions; but the critical scholar, i.e., the careful, thorough student must raise such questions and many others: for the Bible is indeed the words of men, written in different specific historical situations and expressing the divinely given understanding of the several authors of the meaning of God's redemptive action in Israel and in Jesus of Nazareth.

      This raises the question, In what sense is the Bible the Word of God? How can it be both the words of men and the Word of God? If the books of the Bible are given in historical situations through the words of men to meet specific historical situations, must not the Bible be studied simply as the history of human ideas about God and God's redeeming work? Is not historical criticism at the same time criticism of God's Word? To answer this question, we must consider what the Bible is, and how God revealed Himself to men.

      The Bible is first of all a book of history. It records the history of the Hebrews, the story of Jesus of Nazareth, and the rise of the Christian church. The first twelve chapters of Genesis are a collection of Hebrew traditions which describe what we must designate technically as "pre-historical" times. This is not to suggest that the events in Genesis 1.11 did not happen, but only that we have no extra canonical historical evidences that they happened. By "historical evidences" we mean records, documents, archaeological evidence, and other sources of ancient information by which the historian, as a historian, can establish objectively that these events occurred. The record of Genesis 1-11 cannot take us back much beyond five thousand years before Christ; yet Anthropology has proven beyond serious question that man, as we know him, has lived on this planet for scores of thousands of years. Anthropology has been unable to establish that all men have descended from a single pair - Adam and Eve. There are indeed archaeological evidences for a great flood in the Near East in pre-Abrahamic times, but the debate over whether this was a local or universal flood has raged heatedly. The existence of the main pre-Abrahamic characters, Adam, Eve, Enoch, Methusaleh, Noah, and so on, cannot be established by extrabiblical sources.

      For that matter, both Abraham himself and the patriarchs are known to us in ancient sources only from the Genesis record. A generation ago strict historians were inclined to discount the historicity of the patriarchal narratives (Gen. 12-50) and to view the history of Israel as beginning with the Exodus or later. However, modern archaeology has shed an unexpected new light on the patriarchal period, for the discoveries at Ugarit (1928) and Mari (1933) have now given us an accurate understanding of the sociological and economic situation in the patriarchal period which corresponds remarkably with the book of Genesis. Therefore, while the historian cannot say that the existence of Abraham and the patriarchs has been objectively established, he now knows that the biblical record of the patriarchal period is in agreement with what is historically known of the times.

      The Bible goes on to record the birth of the nation Israel and its history. Moses was an able leader who brought the Hebrew people out of Egypt into Palestine where they settled, first as shepherd nomads, and later as a monarchy under David, Solomon, and their successors. The main outlines of Israel's interaction with the neighboring nations - Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia have been established as historical facts. Archaeology has established that there was constant tension between the Israelitic worship of their God, Jahweh, and the worship of the Canaanite deities, Baal and Ashtaroth. The division of the nation into two parts - the northern (Israel) and southern (Judah) kingdoms - the overthrow of Israel by Assyria, the conquest of Judah by Babylon, and the restoration of a remnant of Judah in the times of Ezra and Nehemiah are established history.

      The Old Testament, then, is largely a book of the traditions and history of Israel. Added to it is a collection of poetical books (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon),and a collection of prophetic writings identifIed with the names of prophets who preached to both Israel and Judah the will of God from the pre-exilic times of Amos (ca. 775 B.C.) to the post-exilic period of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.

      If the Old Testament records Israel's traditions, history, poetry, and prophecy, how is it also the Word of God? Are we perhaps to conclude that the "Word of God is to be found only in the prophetic words, and not in the historical record? What does history have to do with the divine self-revelation? At this point we are confronted by the central feature of the biblical truth of revelation and of the role of the Bible in this divine self,revelation: God has revealed Himself to men not only in words, but first of all in acts, in deeds, in historical events. History is the vehicle of the divine self-revelation.

      When God called Moses and commissioned him to lead Israel out of Egypt into Palestine, the purpose was not only the deliverance of God's people; it was also divine self-revelation. Israel would know that Jahweh is God because of His mighty acts in delivering them from bondage. "I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. . . and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians" (Ex. 6:6-7). Israel would come to know God not because He had appeared to Moses, or spoken to Moses, or given Moses a personal revelation which he in turn conveyed to the people. Israel would know God because of what He had done -- His mighty acts -- His saving deeds in history. The deliverance from Egypt was not accomplished by some wise plan devised by the Israelites, nor by the skillful leadership of Moses, nor by the decision of the Pharaoh; it was an act of God, a divine salvation, through which God revealed Himself to be God -- the God who delivers and saves His people.

      However, the revealing event was not a bare event. That is, God did not accomplish the deliverance and leave Israel to assume that He was the actor. God's works did not speak for themselves; along with the event, He gave a divine word of interpretation. God acted, and God spoke; and His word explained the event.

      God told Moses what He would do; and Moses conveyed to Israel the "Word of God, both before the event (Ex. 4:28,31), and after it. Moses did not try to convince the people that they were powerful, that Pharaoh was weak, or that he -- Moses -- had carefully worked out a plan which would set them free. On the contrary, Moses was afraid that the people would not be able to hear the Word of God in his own words (Ex. 4:1), because of his lack of eloquence or fluency of speech (Ex. 1:10) . Thus the "Word of God came through human words, but through a man inspired to be a prophet, who received and spoke the Word of God.

      Here is the biblical mode of revelation: the revealing acts of God in history, accompanied by the interpreting prophetic word which explains the divine source and characte of the divine acts. Deeds -- words; God acts -- God speaks; and the words explain the deeds. The deeds could not be understood unless accompanied by the divine word; and the word would seem powerless unlesss accompanied by the mights works. Both the acts and the words are divine events, coming from God. In fact, it would be better to speak of the revealing deed-word event, for the two belong together and form an inseparable unity. (This approach was expounded by the present author in an essay, "The Saving Acts of God," Basic Christian Doctrines, ed. C. F, H. Henry (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. 1962).

      This pattern of deed-word event is illustrated not only by the Exodus; it provides the basic structure of the biblical reality of revelation. A further illustration may suffice to reinforce this point. Both the fall of Israel before Assyria and the captivity of Judah in Babylon were historical events which the secular historian can chronicle; but in biblical history, they are viewed as judicial acts of God in history by which He revealed Himself as God, acting in righteousness and justice. Amos announced the impending historical Destruction of the northern kingdom (Amos 2:6 ff.) not as the result of irresistible historical forces but as the acting of God. As God had called Israel into being as a nation (3: 1-2), so God would bring down destruction upon a sinful, disobedient people at the hands of Assyria (3:9ff.). Behind the historical tragedy stands God. "Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel!" (4:12). This "day of the Lord" (5: 18-20) means exile beyond Damascus (5:27). This judgment will happen historically because God has spoken (3:8). Even in judgment Israel is to realize through the prophetic word that "the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!" (4: 13).

      In like manner Ezekiel, speaking the Word of God after the overthrow of Judah at the hands of Babylon, laments that Judah's sins had profaned the holy name of God. His righteousness and justice had of necessity brought destruction and captivity upon His people for their evil ways and apostasy. However, the overthrow of God's people had resulted in the pagan nations' mocking of Judah and her God, for it seemed that the triumph of Babylon had proved that pagan gods were mightier than the God of Judah. Thus God's name was profaned (Ezek. 36:20-21). However, it was neither Babylon nor her gods which had dispersed the people of God, but God Himself (36: 19) .

      If the prophets proclaimed to both Israel and Judah the redemptive and judicial character of God's acts in history, the so-called historical books are no less prophetic in character. They are not interested in Israel's history as such, but only in Israel's history as the theatre of God's activity. The books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles not only record history; they also interpret history in terms of God's redemptive and judicial activity. When Israel rejected God, God rejected Israel and removed Israel from the land into Assyria so that they no longer appeared before His sight (II Kings 17:19-23). The later captivity of the southern kingdom was due to the fierceness of God's wrath in reaction to the apostasy and rebellion of His people (II Kings 23:26).

      If God revealed Himself in redemptive power through the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and their establishment in Palestine, and in judicial power through the overthrow and captivity of both Israel and Judah, the prophets promise a further revelation of God in the future appearance of a Deliverer and messianic King. God will one day raise up a child who will be a mighty ruler, who will establish joy and peace in the world, who will crush evil and purge the earth of wickedness, who will rule with righteousness and justice (Isa. 9:2-7; 11:1-9). As a result of the coming of this messianic Ruler, "the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea" (Isa. 11: 9). God's Word promises the coming of a new shepherd for His people who will feed them (Ezek. 34:23-24) and bring to them cleansing and conversion from their evil apostate ways (Ezek. 36:25-26). God will one day reveal Himself in a new dimension of salvation, not merely for the sake of His people but to make Himself known in the world. "And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations. . . and the nations will know that I am the LORD, says the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes" (Ezek. 36:23).

      This is the repeated pattern of revelation: a prophetic word from God telling what God will do and how He will reveal Himself in His saving and judicial acts; the acts of God themselves in history; and a prophetic word from God explaining the meaning of what God has done, and bringing further promises of what He will do.

      The prophetic Word of God was of course first of all a spoken word. The prophets spoke to the people the contemporary word which they had received from God, interpreting what God was about to do and what He would finally do to judge and save His people. They also, however, looked to the past, to recall how God had revealed Himself in earlier times, particularly in the deliverance from Egypt and the subsequent visitation at Mount Sinai. "When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son" (Hos. 11:1). "The LORD came from Sinai, and dawned from Seir upon us; he shone forth from Mount Paran, he came from the ten thousands of holy ones, with flaming fire at his right hand. . . . Thus the LORD became king in Jeshurun" (Deut. 33:2, 5). The past deliverances and judgments of God provided the revelation that He is God and that He will continue to deal with His people (Amos 3: 1-2). God's controversy with an apostate people is grounded in the fact that they had forgotten this self-revelation in "the saving acts of the LORD" (Mic. 6:5) -- what God had done for them in Egypt, how He had raised up the prophets, how He had led them through the years.

      This provides us with the clue for understanding the Bible both as a record of history and as the Word of God. The Bible is both the account of God's redeeming acts, and the prophetic Word of God interpreting these acts. Its record of history is not neutral, "objective" history of the sort that a modern critical uncommitted historian would write. A historian can deal only with observable human events; he cannot, as a historian, talk about God. The biblical writers are concerned with history, but even more with the God who acts in history. Therefore the Bible is interpreted history -- history understood as the vehicle of God's self-revelation and saving acts.

      The New Testament is bound together by this same prophetic motif: the self-revelation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and the divinely given interpretation of the meaning of this great historical event. The New Testament records first the ministry of Jesus, providing brief sketches of His person, mission, message, and death. However, the Gospels were not written by "neutral" or unbelieving observers, but by men who understood that the Old Testament prophetic Word of God promising a Deliverer and messianic Saviour had been fulfilled in Jesus. Uncommitted people thought that Jesus' amazing conduct indicated that He was abnormal and out of His mind (Mark 3:21) or in league with demonic power (3:22). The Gospels are both reports of events in history and also prophetic interpretations explaining who Jesus really was -- the messianic Redeemer, the incarnate Son of God. They record many facts that history cannot understand or explain, for example, that Jesus was born by God's creative act in the body of Mary, that the crucified Jesus was raised from the dead.

      The modern critical rnethod of studying history, outlined in the next chapter, has assumed that all historical events must be explained by natural historical causes. From this perspective such alleged facts as the birth of a child from a virgin or a resurrection from death are simply incredible and hence excluded ipso facto from serious consideration. The historian tries only to explain historically, that is, humanly, how such ideas arose; he docs not accept the reality and objectivity of such "supra-historical" events. However, the authors of the Gospels were convinced that the events really occurred in time and space; for here in the person of Jesus of Nazareth not only was God redemptively active among men, but God had Himself become incarnate in the person of His Son to redeem men.

      The Acts of the Apostles records some of the events in the history of the men who responded to this divine revelation; the epistles, written to various churches, explain further the meaning of the person and redeeming mission of Christ, and draw implications for Christian conduct. The last book of the New Testament stands in this same stream of interpreted history and looks forward to the consummation of what God had done in Jesus, promising the final destruction of evil and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth when the entire history of God's self-revelation will achieve its divinely intended goal of a perfect human society dwelling in undisturbed fellowship with God.

      The New Testament books are, like the Old Testament, both history and revelation. They record the mission of Jesus Christ and what happened as a result of His life, death, and resurrection. But they embody also the divinely givenWord of God, interpreting His future coming to establish the eternal Kingdom of God. Thus the entire Bible is both history and interpretation, deed and word.

      The evangelical accepts the Bible's view of revelation. He accepts the Bible as a trustworthy record of redemptive history. He believes that such wonderful events as the incarnation, virgin birth, and resurrection of Jesus really happened in time and space. He recognizes that a secular historiography cannot explain these events; and he can understand how a rationalistic critical-historical method is offended by them. But he believes that they stand at the heart of revelation. If such events are without historical explanation or analogy, it is because in this stream of redemptive history (the Germans call it Heilsgeschichte), God has been pleased to be uniquely active in self-revelation.

      Furthermore, the evangelical accepts the Bible's view of itself as the inspired, normative, authoritative Word of God (I Tim. 3: 16; II Pet. 1:21). Revelation occurred in specific concrete events, particularly in Jesus Christ; but essential to the event are the divinely inspired words of the prophets -- including the words of Jesus Himself -- setting forth to their contemporaries the revelatory meaning of these events. Men were not left to guess, to speculate, to infer what the events might mean: God spoke His Word.

      These events are uow in the past, and the prophets are long since dead. But God in His good providence has given to men both the record of redeeming events and the corpus of the prophetic interpretation, which together constitute the Word of God, whether spoken or written. God has also given to the church the Holy Spirit, one of whose ministries is to make the events of the past revelatory and redeeming history contemporaneous with every age, to make the prophetic words written long ago living words to the modern reader. Although revelation was accomplished in past history and the prophetic word given long ago, both the redemptive events and the Word of God may become contemporary living words and events today. The death of Christ is not merely an event of ancient history; it is the place of my redemption, and even becomes my death to my old life (Rom. 6:3-4). His resurrection is not only an event of the past which transcends the bounds of all secular historical understanding; it becomes my resurrection into newness of life (Eph. 2:6). The Bible is not only a historical record and the report of the divinely given Word of God interpreting the meaning of God's redemptive events to its ancient contemporaries; it becomes contemporary with me as the Word of God, telling me who God is, how He has revealed Himself, what He has done in Jesus Christ for my salvation, and bringing me into fellowship with Him. The Bible both as history and interpretation is God's Word relating how God revealed Himself in history; and because it is God's inspired Word, it can become a living, inspiring word to me, bringing me into a personal experience of that to which it testifies.

      Because it is history, the Bible must be studied critically and historically; but because it is revelatory history, the critical method must make room for this supra-historical dimension of the divine activity in revelation and redemption. A methodology which recognizes both the historical and the revelatory aspects of the Bible is what we mean by an evangelical criticism, which we shall attempt to illustrate in the chapters which follow.

      From: The New Testament and Criticism. George Eldon Ladd. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Grand Rapids, Michigan. 1967. Pages 19-33.

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