Q&A: God's Flawless Word

God's Flawless Word

Question

In light of the difficulties in solidifying the Canon, can we really call the Bible "God's flawless Word"? I believe that God used and spoke through men, but he didn't "possess" them. So it doesn't seem right to call it "God's Word."

Answer

You've raised at least three significant issues: inspiration, inerrancy/infallibility, and Canon.

On the first issue, many Evangelicals hold to what we might call "mechanical" inspiration, which is the idea that God "possessed" them, taking over their persons so that the original writers were little more than puppets. A step down from there is what is sometimes called "dictation," where God did not possess the writers, but told them every word to write. A more liberal doctrine, sometime called "romantic" inspiration, considers that God moved peopel to write, but did not so govern their writing that they were incapable of making errors, misrepresenting doctrine, judging wrongly, etc. This is one way to arrive at the idea that the Bible "contains" the Word of God (some of the things in the Bible are the Word of God, others are not). The most liberal view, of course, is that the Bible is purely a work of man. None of these positions has been affirmed by Reformed theology.

Reformed theology affirms what we call "organic inspiration." This is the view that the Holy Spirit inspired men to write, and so guided their writing that their original meaning was infallible. However, the Holy Spirit did this through the personalities of the authors. They were not possessed, and God did not tell them what to write word-for-word. Nevertheless, through their own personalities and words, under the inspiration of the Spirit, they wrote words that God affirmed completely. Moreover, because they were covenant emissaries, their words were not only true but, more importantly, authoritative. The Bible is the Word of God because it carries his delegated authority, not because the words themselves originated with him (cf. WCF 1.4).

Your may have a reasonable objection against those who believe that the Bible is God's Word because it records the words God's spoke, dictated, or wrote himself. However, this is not the Reformed argument, or the opinion of a great many others in the Evangelical camp. The Reformed argument for the Bible being "God's Word" is not based on the idea that God came up with the words, but that God's authority backs up the words.

Regarding the second issue, most Evangelicals do not claim that the extant manuscripts of the Bible are inerrant and/or infallible and/or flawless. Rather, they claim that the original manuscripts (i.e. autographa) were inerrant and/or infallible and/or flawless. But even in saying this, many restrict the flawlessness to the doctrines and intended authorial meanings rather than ascribing this perfection across the board to every minute detail.

In any event, almost every Evangelical scholar will admit that there are errors in the texts as they now exist due to imperfect "transmission" (copying errors, scribal editing, etc.). We have manuscripts with variant readings, manuscripts with passages that report different numbers from the same passages in other manuscripts, manuscripts with missing or extra passages, etc. We don't affirm that we know perfectly what the autographa said. We do affirm that we know enough to be assured that the copies we do have accurately represent the teaching of the Bible in every important area.

Third, the formation of the Canon was a human process. Evangelical doctrine does not ascribe infallibility, inerrancy or flawlessness to this process. The Protestant stance has long been that the Canon is a "fallible collection of infallible books." Although there are many who believe that God so superintended the formation of the Canon that it contains no books that should not be there, this is a far cry from calling it "infallible" or "inerrant." To say that the compilers did not err is very different from saying that they could not err. You might want to check out the Q&A I did on Inerrancy and Canonicity.

Personally, I have no problem calling the Bible "God's flawless Word," even though I think there have been errors in the transmission of the manuscripts, and even though I don't believe the process of canonization was infallible (see the Q&A linked above). The Bible is flawless insofar as it carries God's perfect and flawless authority, and insofar as its doctrinal teachings are true. It is flawless insofar as it met the expected literary and reporting standards of accuracy, etc. in the day in which it was written. The Word that God inspired and which the autographa recorded was flawless. So, even though I might complain that we have some bad translations, or some questionable passages, the idea of the inherent flawlessness of Scripture is not challenged in my mind.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.