As I begin his essay, I want to clarify something in regard to this series. It is not an attempt to set forth an official Disciplined Order of Christ theology. There is no official DOC theology. The DOC is an ecumenical movement, and people from all major theological traditions are welcome in it. This series is merely an attempt to share an orthodox theology that is classically expressed in the Apostles and Nicene creeds. As I indicated in the last essay, I do write from a particular theological tradition of which I am a part, namely, the Wesleyan tradition from which the various Methodist communities sprang. However because of its orthodoxy, it will be very similar to orthodox theologies from other traditions such as the Catholic, Reformed, and Pentecostal traditions.
Now then, in this essay we are studying the sources for doing theology, the formation of the canon of scripture, and the doctrine of inspiration of the Bible. Traditionally there have been two types of sources. First is the Bible, which is the principle, authoritative source. And second there are certain secondary sources. These include creeds, the thinking of the various traditions, reason, and experience.
Of course God is the ultimate authority, and all other authority derives from him. Although we speak of the Bible as our primary authority, its authority comes from its relation to God, not from itself. It is like the authority of the policeman. A police officer’s uniform and badge are respected because they represent the authority of the government, not the authority of the individual who is wearing them. So just as the authority of police officers stems from their relationship to the governmental agency that hired them, the Bible’s authority stems from its relationship to God who inspired it.
Orthodox Christians believe that the Bible is authoritative for Christians, because it is inspired in two ways. First, God inspired the authors of the Biblical books in a special way as they wrote. And second, God inspired the Church to include the specially-inspired books in the biblical canon, the mention of which requires further explanation.
Indeed a discussion of biblical authority must include the question of the extent of the Bible. That is the question of canon. The term canon stems from the Greek word canon, which originally meant a “reed” or “rod.” That meaning developed into a figurative usage of canon as a measuring rod or rule, because a reed was a handy instrument for measuring things. That in turn developed into a meaning of “standard” or “norm.”
We English speaking people borrowed the Greek word into English simply by transliterating the Greek letters into English letters with the meaning of standard or norm. And that led to its use in religious circles as a technical term for a set of books, which comprise a standard or norm for the faith and practice of some particular group.
Since the Bible is the Christian Church’s standard or norm for faith and practice, it is the Church’s canon. If a particular book is in the Bible, it is canonical. If it is not in the Bible, it is non-canonical. For Protestant Christians the canon consists of the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments. Roman Catholic Christians include several books, which they call the deuterocanonical (second canon) books.
To begin our discussion of the canon, let us look at the Old Testament canon. Jesus himself affirmed the Old Testament as the Word of God (Mt. 5:17-20; Jn. 10:35). One statement of Jesus suggests that he affirmed the exact same Old Testament that we affirm today. The statement is found in Luke 11:51, where he stated that the blood of all the prophets, “from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah . . . shall be charged against this generation.” Jesus was alluding to the first and last martyrdoms recorded in the Old Testament. Abel’s martyrdom (Gen. 4:8) was the first, and Zechariah’s (2 Chron. 24:19-22) was the last. Thus for Jesus to say all of the martyrdoms from Able to Zechariah was the equivalent of all of the martyrdoms from one end of the Jewish Bible to the other.
When we turn to the apostles we find the same kind of belief in the authority of the Old Testament (2 Pet. 1:20-21; 2 Tim. 3:16. So we have a strong affirmation of the Old Testament canon by Jesus and the apostles. The Church followed their lead and accepted the entire Old Testament canon of Scripture as authoritative. But the issue, of which books belong in the New Testament canon, remains as a valid question.
I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this; but I do want you to understand that it was not simply a matter of church officials sitting down and making a decision about which books were in and which were out. Eventually in the fourth century AD, a church council did that. But they were merely affirming what had already been established.
By the end of the second century the New Testament canon was essentially established by what I call “usage.” That is, the church, as it used the various books that were available, discerned by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit which books were especially inspired. As Jesus had declared, the sheep hear the shepherd’s voice (Jn. 10:2). Thus the New Testament books are authoritative not because they are in the canon. Rather they are in the canon because they are authoritative.
Now then, we want to take up the doctrine of inspiration, which is the key to inclusion in the canon. I will begin with a definition. “Biblical inspiration is the empowering energy of the Holy Spirit in or on a person, whereby that person is able to experience and communicate God’s special revelation of himself.” Thus when we orthodox Christians speak about the inspiration of the Bible, we are referring to the supernatural influence of the Holy Spirit on the authors of Scripture which caused their writings to become the Word of God.
Now the passages in the New Testament that we referred to when discussing the canon also give witness to the inspiration of Scripture. For example Jesus spoke of the authority and permanence of Scripture when he said, “scripture cannot be broken” (Jn. 10:35), and when he proclaimed, “For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Mt. 5:18).
Similarly Paul, when writing to Timothy, reminded Timothy that he was familiar with “the sacred writings,” meaning of course the Old Testament (2 Tim. 3:15). And Paul continued, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
Likewise the apostle Peter declared: “First of all you must understand this, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:20-21).
On another occasion, Peter was speaking about how the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was prophesied in the Old Testament. And just before quoting two passages from the psalms, he said: “Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before hand by the mouth of David concerning Judas” (Acts 1:16). Now the thing we need to note here is that Peter not only considers the words of David in the Old Testament to be authoritative, he also attributes them to the Holy Spirit.
All right, our next step is to talk about how God did it. That is, it is one thing to decide that God inspired the Bible; and it is another thing to explain how he did it. There are four basic theories about the inspiration of the Bible.
The first is the dictation or mechanical theory. This theory suggests that the authors of scripture were completely controlled by the Holy Spirit as they wrote. They did not write as normal human beings, but rather as mechanical men. They wrote only that which God wanted written, word for word. They were like human computers, writing only what was punched out on their mental and physical key boards.
There is an insurmountable problem with this theory, however. It isn’t biblical. It places all of its emphasis on the idea that it is the writings that are inspired, rather than on the writers being inspired as persons. That is, the people who actually did the writing were (in this view) mere instruments in the hand of God. They didn’t function as persons at all, but rather as non-persons, with their human personalities blocked out. In this view, the Bible is a totally divine book, being human in form only.
But this does not square with the witness of scripture itself. For example, in Luke 1:1-4 we see from Luke’s own pen that when he wrote his Gospel, he used sources, including written sources, which were available to him. He also had other sources of information that had been “delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” In other words, Luke did not experience a vision, a dream, or a trance, wherein God revealed exactly what to write word for word. Rather, as a normal functioning human being, he took the material available to him, and inspired by the Holy Spirit wrote the best Gospel of which he was capable.
Now then, if the mechanical view of inspiration doesn’t hold up, what are the alternatives? Well, on the opposite end of the spectrum is the complete denial of divine inspiration. This view is called the intuition theory. This is the position taken by non-believers, who say that the Bible is no different from any other book. In this view, the Bible is totally human, and there is no divine factor involved, no revelation.
Those who hold to this theory do not deny that inspiration exists. Rather they simply insist that God is not involved. Inspiration of the scriptures comes from elevated human ability, that is, the authors were inspired in a humanistic way. There may even have been great genius involved, but there is no revelation, no divine communication.
One step towards the more conservative views is the so-called illumination theory. Those who hold this theory would admit that there is a divine factor involved in the inspiration of scripture. In this theory both divine and human factors were at work. But they would identify the divine factor as that spiritual illumination that every believer receives from the Holy Spirit; i.e. it is a very ordinary divine inspiration. They would deny that the illumination of the biblical writers was any different from that received by other Christians, except perhaps for some difference of degree of intensity.
The difference, then, between the intuition and illumination theories is clear. In the intuition theory, there is no divine communication; in the illumination theory there is some, ordinary divine communication, that is, revelation.
Now this brings us to the theory, which is most commonly accepted by orthodox Christians, the so-called dynamic theory. The dynamic theory, like the dictation insists on extraordinary divine inspiration. The result of that is extraordinary revelation.
But unlike the dictation theory, the dynamic theory also insists on genuine human involvement. That is what distinguishes the two theories. The unity of divine and human action in the dynamic theory results in a book that is uniquely inspired and gives the world the Word of God. But the human authors did the writing.