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The MOST Theological Collection: Free From All Error: Authorship, Inerrancy, Historicity of Scripture, Church Teaching, and Modern Scripture Scholars

"Chapter 2: Which Books Are Inspired?"


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We saw in chapter 1 that Holy Scripture has God for its author. But how do we know just which books are inspired and have God as author? If someone were to reply that we just accept the decision of the Church, the answer would not be incorrect. But there would still seem to be a danger of reasoning in a vicious circle, in which we say that we believe that these books are inspired because the Church tells us they are inspired and that we believe the Church because inspired Scripture shows that Christ gave the Church the mandate to teach.

There is a way out of this circle. To find it, it will help if we review some attempts that simply do not work.

Long ago, in 1910, Professor Gerald Birney Smith, of the University of Chicago, gave a paper to the 28th annual Baptist Congress. The next year it was published, somewhat revised, in The Biblical World 37 (pp. 19-29). Smith's frankness was really remarkable. He reviewed every way he knew to determine which books are or are not inspired. (In the first centuries, many works were circulating as Gospels, with the names of various apostles on them, yet those books are not accepted as inspired today. Hence our question.)

Professor Smith said: "The exact determination of the Canon of Scripture [list of inspired books] was never a burning issue until after the Reformation.... It was only when Luther denied the authority of the Church and appealed to the Word of God alone that there was felt to be any pressing need for defining the exact list of authoritative books." Before Luther, of course, people accepted the teaching of the Catholic Church. But once he and his associates rejected the Church's authority and tried to appeal to Scripture alone, it became necessary to ask which books are inspired.

Professor Smith then explains how Luther worked. "Luther proposed a practical test.... The distinction which he actually had in mind was between those writings which have the power to bring to men the assurance of forgiveness through Christ and those which have no such power."

Luther believed in justification-getting right with God-by faith alone. Now, St. Paul does teach justification by faith, but the key question is: What did St. Paul mean by the word faith? Luther thought it meant the confidence that the merits of Christ have been applied to one's personal account, or taking Christ as one's personal Savior. From then on, so long as a man continued to believe that point, he would be saved.

Actually, as scholarly Protestants today admit, this is not what St. Paul meant by faith. St. Paul meant by faith a total adherence of a man to God, so that if God speaks a truth, he believes; if God makes a promise, he is confident God will fulfill it; if God commands, he obeys. In this sense, the standard Protestant reference book Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, in its article "faith" in the latest supplementary volume (1976), says: "Paul uses pistis/pisteuein [Greek for "faith/believe] to mean, above all, belief in the Christ kerygma "preaching, proclamation], knowledge, obedience, trust in the Lord Jesus. It comes by hearing with faith the gospel message ... by responding with a confession about Christ ... and by the 'obedience of faith' ... 'the obedience which faith is."'

Luther thought a book that intensely preaches this doctrine was inspired, otherwise not. Of course, he never provided proof for such a standard. Nor could it be a standard, for Luther, or any good writer, could compose a book that would preach according to Luther's requirements; yet that book need not on that account be inspired.

So Luther's attempt failed. Professor Smith adds that Luther "never applied this test minutely or critically." Such an application really could not be made.

John Calvin, in his Institutes, book 1, chapter vii, as cited by Professor Smith, offers a different test: "The word will never gain credit [belief] in the hearts of men till it be confirmed by the internal testimony of the Spirit...." But Calvin's claim was too open to imagination and could never strictly prove anything. Smith's comment is devastating: "The application of this test ... would eliminate the existing distinction between canonical and noncanonical [inspired and noninspired] writings more completely than would the most radical conclusions of biblical criticism." Smith goes on to point out parts of Scripture that do not seem very spiritually uplifting to us today.

At this point, Professor Smith is about ready to give up and admit that there is no way to determine which books are inspired. "What about other tests ...?" he asks. "Can we, for example, say that the Bible is infallible, while other books are fallible? Nothing is more noticeable than the gradual disappearance of that word 'infallible' from present-day theologies." And he goes on to point out what he considers errors in Scripture.

What Professor Smith demonstrates is that for a Protestant there simply is no way to know which books are inspired. That means, in practice, that a Protestant, if he is logical, should not appeal to Scripture to prove anything; he has no sure means of knowing which books are part of Scripture!

Smith's article appeared in 1911. A much more recent Protestant attempt really ends up in a vicious circle. Gerhard Maier, in The End of the Historical-Critical Method,1 writes "only Scripture itself can say in a binding way what authority it claims and has.... We must let revelation determine its own limits. Consequently revelation defines itself.... Scripture considers itself as revelation" (pp. 61 and 63).

In other words, inspired Scripture is inspired because inspired Scripture says it is inspired Scripture.

There is really only one way to accomplish what we are asking for: let the Church decide which books are inspired. Professor Smith dismisses that approach as one that holds only if one believes in the authority of the Catholic Church. Of course, he did not.

Let us pursue this method, taking great pains lest we, too, find ourselves in the vicious circle of proving the authority of the Church by inspired Scripture, and proving the inspiration of Scripture by the Church.

Let us use the method of looking upon the Gospels, not as inspired books, but simply as documents from ancient times, works on a par with those of writers such as Caesar, Tacitus, Thucydides, and others.

First, with the help of the science of textual criticism, we check to see if our copies are at least substantially the same as the originals. This is needed since our oldest manuscripts are separated from the originals by about three centuries. But that is no great problem. There is a gap of nine hundred to a thousand years between Caesar's original and our earliest manuscripts. Further, we can partly bridge the gap in the case of the Gospels by using translations that go back to within about a hundred years of the originals. These translations were made independently of each other, into several languages, in different parts of the Mediterranean world. Still further, the variants-differences in readings in different manuscripts-that we find are mostly trifling, and do not affect at all the six points that will be discussed shortly.

What literary pattern did the Gospel writers intend to use? It is clear that they intended to give facts about Jesus as a basis for faith. They had access to the facts, even if we take the latest dates proposed today for the first three Gospels 80-90 A.D. Many people in their sixties who had seen and heard Jesus himself would have been alive at that time. And Quadratus, an early apologist writing about 123 A.D., tells us that in his day there were still persons around who had been cured or raised from the dead by Jesus-prime witnesses!2

The Gospel writers had the opportunity to get the facts. And we know that they would be careful and honest, for their own eternity depended on facts, not on fancy. As St. Paul told the Corinthians, "If Christ is not risen, your faith is vain" (1, 15:17). Or think of St. Ignatius of Antioch, who was eaten alive by beasts in Rome in about 107 A.D. He wanted to be eaten, to be more like Christ! If anyone thinks that he was indulging in fancies, let him take a copy of the letter of Ignatius to the Romans and stand by the lion cage in a zoo and read it!

We need to examine the first three Gospels, the Synoptics, for just six facts-facts that are not entangled with ancient cultural patterns, which would make it necessary for us to reconstruct those patterns. No, what we need are things the original onlookers could easily observe and accurately report.

FACT 1: There was a man called Jesus.
FACT 2: He claimed to be a messenger sent by God.
FACT 3: He did enough to prove that He was such a messenger.
Now the mere fact of working miracles would not prove that Jesus was a messenger sent from God. It is probable that God at times worked miracles even for good pagans. But Jesus often appealed to His miracles as proof of His mission and teaching (see, among these, Matthew 11:2-5, Luke 7:20-22, Mark 2:9-11). Now God is the ultimate source of the miraculous power; but He, being Truth, cannot provide such power as proof of a falsehood. So Jesus' claims were proved true. In fact, He proved that He could even forgive sins. A most remarkable messenger!

Many of Jesus' miracles could not be explained away as being the result of suggestion. No suggestion will multiply loaves and fishes or cure a man who was born blind. There is a hysterical kind of blindness that can come on later in life, which can be cured by suggestion. Nor would suggestion call out from the tomb a man dead for four days. And there have been many modern miracles, for example at Lourdes, that have been checked to the hilt by science. These miracles are in continuity with His miracles. Often they occur during the procession of the Blessed Sacrament, thus showing His Real Presence there. The Real Presence is proclaimed only by the Catholic Church, through continuity of ordination, going all the way back to Jesus Himself.

FACT 4: Crowds followed Christ. But He had an inner circle to whom He spoke more intimately. This is merely what we would expect.
FACT 5: He told His followers to continue His teaching.
FACT 6: Jesus gave the message that God would protect that teaching: "He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me" (Luke 10:16).

In summary then, we see a group that is commissioned to teach by a messenger sent by God, and promised God's protection for that teaching. These observations are made without treating the Scriptures as inspired. Now we not only intellectually may but are intellectually driven to believe what the body teaches. That body can then assure us that those ancient documents, used without knowing they are inspired, really have God as their author. And that body, the Church, can also tell us that the messenger sent by God is really God Himself. And, of course, it can guarantee countless other truths for us.

It is true, the Gospels seldom use the word church. But the reality is important, not the word. We have seen that there is a body commissioned to teach, and that is all we need.

We should add this: As we will see in chapters 20-23, many critics think there is a gap between what Jesus was (Jesus of history) and what the early Church said He was (Christ of faith). They say it is not possible to know much on the early side of that gap. We reply: First, they ignore the fact that information was available on Jesus, as we saw in the above sketch, and that getting the basic facts right was vital to the eternity of each one. Hence the assumption of neither care nor knowledge is false. Secondly, we have a bypass in the six facts we have just sketched. We need to establish only the above six points, all very simple and obvious. Then we can let that body, commissioned by God's messenger, tell us all we need to know about who Jesus really was.

So now we can fulfill what the First Epistle of St. Peter asks of us (I Peter 3:15): "Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you."


1 Translated by E. W. Leverenz and R. Norden, published by the major Lutheran house Concordia in 1977.
2 Eusebius, Church History, 4.3, 1.2.

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