Biblical Inspiration and Authority
1979 Church of the Brethren Statement
Inasmuch as some members of our constituency are raising concerns about the Brethren view of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, and because our denomination has been known for its affirmation, “We have no creed but the New Testament,” we recommend that a committee of five be appointed to prepare a paper on the historical Pietist-Anabaptist and Brethren understandings of the Bible’s inspiration and authority and report to the 1978 Annual Conference.
Furthermore, the committee should present representative positions held by the Brethren today on the nature of the Bible as our authority in matters of faith and practice. Whatever consensus the committee is able to achieve on a Brethren position today should be stated in the paper. Finally, the committee should give some guidance on how we can hold each other in love and fellowship when there exists a diversity of attitudes among us on the matter of the Biblical inspiration and authority. Special emphasis in this section of the paper should be given to publications and the official papers of Annual Conference and the General Board. The committee will consist of three persons appointed by the General Board, one person named by the Brethren Revival Fellowship, and one person named by the Bethany seminary faculty.
Action of 1977 Annual Conference: This item was presented from Standing Committee by Dean Miller. The proposal was approved.
1978 Report of the Committee
The committee has met twice since receiving the assignment proposed by the 1977 Annual Conference. These meetings have enabled us to clarify the scope of our assignment, to determine the kinds of research necessary, and to begin to carry out specific tasks related to that research. In addition to work with biblical and historical resources, we are securing exploration of the issues in a hearing at the 1978 Annual Conference in Indianapolis.
The committee has not yet completed its assignment and requests more time to do so. We envision presenting the paper requested from us at the 1979 Annual Conference.
1979 Report of the Committee
I. The Witness of the Bible Itself
How shall we speak in a biblical way about the inspiration and authority of the Bible? Very often the questions we raise are foreign to the Bible. The biblical writers display little interest in particular theories of inspiration and authority. They are far more interested in our living response to the word God makes clear through prophets and apostles.
And yet the Bible does speak to the issues before us. Not only in isolated texts, but in currents and undercurrents of its larger message, the Bible supplies a helpful framework for thinking about inspiration and authority.
(1) God speaks! The picture of God speaking the word is central to the Bible. Far from being a silent God remote from the affairs of life, God continually speaks to us of mercy and judgment. Thus it is that scripture is replete with references to “the word of the Lord,” “the word of God,” and related expressions.
Sometimes the word God speaks is viewed as the powerful source of events in history, a decree which accomplishes what God intends it to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11). Sometimes it is the interpretation of events which God supplies so that we can know what is going on (Amos 3:7). And sometimes it is a penetrating “two-edged sword” which lays bare where we ourselves are in relation to God (Hebrews 4:12-13). In these and other ways, God is a self-expressive God.
(2) God speaks to us to create a covenant with us. Of all the concepts which shed light on the purpose of God’s word, none is more instructive than the concept of covenant. The Bible does not present God as one who utters timeless truths to satisfy the speculative interests of theologians. Rather, God speaks in order to draw us into a covenant of steadfast love.
At the very beginning of God’s relationship with Israel, God invites Israel to enter into a covenant and commissions Moses to set forth the “words” which make up that covenant (Exodus 19:5-6, 24:7, 34:27-38). When this covenant fails to achieve its full intent, God announces plans to write a new covenant in the very hearts of the people (Jeremiah 31:32-34). Whether through stone tablets, books, or “living letters” (2 Corinthians 3:1-6), God speaks to us as our covenant partner.
(3) God’s Spirit equips us to speak God’s word to one another. The voices through which God speaks are human voices. Though we are inclined to set “divine” and “human” in opposition to each other, the biblical writers do not. They rejoice rather in the fact that the Spirit enables us to share God’s word in the community of believers.
So it is that we hear of a day when everyone will dream dreams, see visions, and prophesy, when the Spirit will equip all God’s people to speak (Joel 2:28-29, Acts 2:17-18). So it is that we hear of the community of believers as a place where the Spirit enables persons to understand the gifts bestowed by God and impart this in words to others (I Corinthians 2:10-16, John 16:12-15).
Within this larger conversation in the Spirit, God calls forth some to speak for God with special authority. So we hear of prophets who were moved by the Holy Spirit to speak from God (I Peter 2:10-12, 2 Peter 1:21, Jeremiah 1:9, Ezekiel 2:1-2, 3:4-11). We hear of particular individuals anointed by the Spirit to proclaim God’s good news (Isaiah 61:1). We hear of apostolic witnesses called to testify to God’s deeds in Christ (Luke 1:2, Acts 1:8, 21-22). Through the words that these persons speak, God’s own word is made known to God’s people.
(4) Words spoken for God in the past have a continuing life among God’s people. God’s word does not have an expiration date. When the Spirit moves someone to speak God’s word, the word declared becomes part of the memory of the people. Whether orally or in writing, words from the past are preserved for the future, and become a basis for new declarations of God’s word.
So it is that Jeremiah appeals to the Mosaic covenant in his prophetic ministry in Jerusalem (Jeremiah 11:1-8). So it is that the story of the exodus through the wilderness gives rise to a hope in a new exodus for a people in exile (Isaiah 41:17-20, 42:16-21). So it is that the early church drew on the promises of the prophets to discern the meaning of Jesus’ life (Acts 8:30-35).
(5) Different ways of speaking for God may be necessary in different generations. Neither the people of God nor the flow of history in which they live stands still. For this reason the word of God can never be a static word. What was a very appropriate word at one point might not be the appropriate word at another point. Those who speak for God in the biblical account do not hesitate to find fresh ways to address those needs which are urgent.
Jeremiah, for example, rejects the false hopes of those who used Isaiah’s promise of Jerusalem’s security as a basis for moral complacency (cf. Isaiah 31:4-5, Jeremiah 7:1-15). Jesus challenges the finality of certain parts of the law of Moses (Mark 10:1-12, Matthew 5:21-48), even as he asserts his intent to fulfill the law rather than destroy it (Matthew 5:17-20). And James takes issue with those who misused Paul’s language about justification by faith alone (James 2:14-26). In these and other ways, the Bible attests the growing character of its witness.
(6) Scripture sets forth God’s word with power and authority. Because those who speak for God in the biblical account were guided by the Holy Spirit, all scripture is attested as “inspired of God” or “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). The Bible is thus not only a great work of literature, but a canon of faith and life for the community of believers.
So it is that the psalmist can extol the words of the law as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Psalm 119:105). So it is that scripture can be acclaimed as “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). So it is that Paul can call the apostolic message the word of God, and not merely a human word (I Thessalonians 2:13). So it is that Jesus affirms in the Fourth Gospel that “scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35).
(7) Jesus Christ expresses God’s word in a complete and decisive way. The New Testament writers declare with one voice that Jesus Christ reveals the full meaning of God’s covenant with us. Though we are constantly discovering new ways to speak God’s word, God’s self-disclosure in Jesus now sets the ground rules for this language.
In many and varied ways the New Testament affirms this centrality of Jesus: He is called the mediator of a new and final covenant (Hebrews 9:15). He is the one, Paul says, in whom all the promises of God find their Yes (2 Corinthians 1:20), in whose face we behold the light of the knowledge of God’s glory (2 Corinthians 4:6). In him the eternal word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14). He reflects or images the power and purposes of God (Hebrews 1:1-3, Colossians 1:15). His words are a rock foundation for the church’s life (Matthew 7:24-27). And his example of servanthood is the final model for our lives (Philippians 2:5-11). For all these reasons, all who would speak God’s word now must speak in the light of God’s word in and through Jesus.
(8) God calls us to become a faithful community of the word. God counts on us to be responsible partners in keeping the covenant alive and healthy. Though the biblical writers never call us to believe in scripture for its own sake, they summon the church in various ways to live out of the message which the scriptures proclaim.
Jesus himself supplies the model for the faithful church here. Jesus values and respects the Old Testament as a resource for his teaching ministry (Matthew 21:33-46; Mark 12:18-37; Luke 1 1:29-32). He defines his own mission in terms of a scriptural hope in a day of salvation for the afflicted and oppressed (Luke 4:18-19). He criticizes those who have set aside the clear witness of scripture in the interest of human traditions (Mark 7:1-13). And he appeals to scripture in various ways to bring his hearers to understanding and decision (Matthew 11:20-24; Mark 2:23-28; 10:2-9).
So too we are to guard and follow the truth that has been entrusted to us by the Holy Spirit (2 Timothy 1:13-14). We are to give first importance to the message which was of first importance to the early church (I Corinthians 15:1-5). We are to guard against twisting God’s word with our private misinterpretations (2 Peter 1:20). We are to allow scripture to serve its intended purpose of leading others to life in Christ (John 5:39-40). We are to handle the word of God with integrity and openness rather than play games with it (2 Corinthians 4:1-2). And we are to declare anew the wonderful deeds of the God who called us out of darkness into light (I Peter 2:9).
A Further Concern of Some Members:
One of the most convincing aspects of the Bible’s message concerning itself is found in the testimony of Jesus. The Sadducees (Matthew 22:24-32) tried to trap Jesus and referred to Deuteronomy 25:5. Jesus answered by quoting Exodus 3:6, and said that what Moses wrote was “spoken to you by God” (Matthew 22:31). In fact, Jesus’ view of scripture was so high that in two instances (Matthew 22:43-45 and John 10:34-35), his whole argument rested upon a single word in the Old Testament. Jesus viewed the Old Testament scriptures as verbally inspired and entirely trustworthy.
Furthermore, Jesus spoke of the creation of Adam and Eve (Matthew 19:4), the flood that destroyed the world in Noah’s time (Luke 17:27), the miracles performed by Elijah (Luke 4:25), the whale that swallowed Jonah (Matthew 12:40), the life of David (Matthew 12:3), the glory of Solomon (Matthew 6:29), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Luke 17:28-30), the provision of manna from heaven in the wilderness (John 6:31), etc. And in all this record of Jesus’ words there is not even the slightest intimation at any time, that the scriptures may be inaccurate at any point.
Also, Jesus pre-authenticated the New Testament. In John 16:12, Jesus expressly declared that he was leaving “many things” unrevealed; in John 16:13, Jesus promised that this revelation would be completed after the Spirit came; in John 17:20, Jesus expected that this new revelation would be recorded for future generations. It is true that the apostles might forget what Jesus had said, but Jesus assured them that they would not be left to their own fallible memories, but that the Holy Spirit would bring to mind all that he had said to them (John 14:26). One cannot understand Christ’s attitude toward the scriptures, apart from believing that it was his conviction that they were without error. And when we discover what Jesus thought about the scriptures, that is what we are to think about them.
II. The Church’s Understanding Throughout History
Historians agree generally that the Spirit-filled birth, dynamic growth, and struggles of the early church were soon accompanied by a movement toward more structure, order and authority. They point to the development of a more official ministry, the formulation of creeds, and the process of choosing the canon. The canon, which literally means a ruler by which to keep things straight, refers to the collection of books which were eventually approved by the church to be a part of the scriptures. The struggle over the canon took place in the second century as Christians on the one hand opposed the desire of some to repudiate the Old Testament, while on the other hand they rejected the tendency of others to deny the uniqueness of a new covenant or testament. By the year AD 200 the church had an authoritative collection of New Testament books, in the main like our own. The collection represented a desire to be inclusive of different views and groups of Christians while excluding the worst errors.
Though the canon was not closed for another two centuries, from the beginning of the third century on the major debates in the church did not focus on opinions about the Bible. None of the creedal struggles of the great ecumenical councils involved a debate about the scriptures. The early creeds do not include the Bible as an article of faith. Many of our contemporary questions about inerrancy and literalism do not represent the concerns of those who lived before the age of science and reason. It may be for this reason that the early church fathers can be quoted to support arguments both for biblical infallibility and against biblical literalism. Roman Catholics and Protestants alike have been able to find support in Augustine and other early thinkers for their views on the nature of biblical authority.
Brethren views and use of the Bible did not emerge in a vacuum. The Bible had already been the focus in defining authority in various traditions of the church. The following options provided the primary context for the attitudes of the early Brethren.
The Eastern Church has a high view of the authority of the Bible, venerating it in worship as a verbal icon of Christ. In every church it has a place of honor; the faithful kiss it and prostrate themselves before it. As a book of the people and the church, however, the Bible must never be something set up over the church. The apostolic tradition of the church is not only older than the New Testament, but its source. Holy scripture is the special written form of the apostolic tradition. The creeds and major decisions of the seven great ecumenical councils are highly regarded forms of the same tradition. Though in many ways the mystical East focuses on worship by seeing rather than hearing, the Bible is featured and read as an integral part of the liturgy. Personal interpretations, however, cannot be trusted. They must be placed under the guidance of the church. When received into the church, a convert promises: “I will accept and understand Holy Scripture in accordance with the interpretation which was and is held by the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, our Mother.”
One can find no stronger affirmations of scriptural infallibility than those in the documents of Roman Catholicism. This is true in spite of the fact that Roman Catholics do not rely on the sole authority of the Bible, and include within their Bible the writings of the Apocrypha which most Protestants do not view as authoritative. The difference with Protestantism lies not as much in questions dealing with authority as with those dealing with the source of that authority. Protestants generally hold the authority to be a part of the nature of the Bible itself. Like the Eastern Church, Roman Catholicism has held that the authority is derived from the church. Since the scriptures originated in the church, the church remains the guardian and infallible interpreter of the Bible. Increasingly, however, Roman Catholics are pointing to the unity of the living word (tradition) with the written word (the Bible). This has been a part of the genuine biblical revival, found in both biblical circles and popular usage, which has been prevalent among Roman Catholics since Vatican II.
In the heat of battle the father of the Protestant Reformation formulated the slogan, sola Scriptura. Scripture alone, rather than popes and councils, was declared to be the source of truth and normative for life and doctrine. Nothing was to be allowed which contradicted scripture. With Calvin, Luther held to the close association of word and Spirit. It is the Spirit which validates, brings alive, and unifies our interpretation of the written word. The biblical writers were so inspired as to become the tongue, the pipe, or the channel of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, Luther did not maintain complete identity between scripture and the “Word” of God. For Luther “the Word was Christ.” “The Word” comes alive through the spoken word in preaching, the written word in the Bible, and the visible word in the sacraments. He referred to the Bible as the manger in which Christ was laid. It was this distinction which allowed Luther to make many critical judgments. He wondered whether Moses had written all the Pentateuch, believed the book of Kings to be more reliable than Chronicles, preferred the Fourth Gospel to others, and questioned the value of the epistle of James and the book of Revelation.
Calvin gave the Bible a clearer and more authoritative status than Luther. According to Calvin, the scriptures ought to have with believers the same complete authority as though they were able to hear the voice of God from his own mouth. This emphasis, along with Calvin’s stress on the moral law of the Old Testament and its continuity with the New, placed the Bible at the center of Protestant life. Calvin’s doctrine of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit defined the role of the Spirit almost exclusively as an aid in confirming the word in the heart and mind of the believer. Though many have found in Calvin the origin of fundamentalist stances in reference to the Bible, others point to passages in which Calvin accented human authorship and defined revelation as something not to be identified completely with the Bible. In suggesting that biblical authors give a testimony to revelation rather than revelation itself, Calvin approached Luther’s position of maintaining that authority of scriptures lies outside themselves, in Christ.
The radical contemporaries of Luther and Calvin represented a wide diversity of beliefs. One major group, often labeled evangelical Anabaptists (rebaptizers), the spiritual forerunners of contemporary Mennonites, were cohesive enough to present their views more clearly. They certainly desired to be people of the book. It is true that they were often charged with exalting the Spirit at the expense of the written word, but the fact that they were often attacked as literalists substantiates their reliance on the Bible. The earliest confessions of faith reveal that they took for granted the inspiration and authority of the Bible. They possessed an amazing knowledge of scripture. In a personal letter one sixteenth-century Anabaptist shared the hope of being able to learn one hundred chapters of the New Testament by heart. Representative of their attitude is this statement by Menno Simons:
The whole scriptures, both Old and New Testament, were written for our instruction, admonition, and correction… they are the true scepter and rule by which the congregation must be governed. All doctrine and practice must be measured by this infallible rule.
Because of the Anabaptist identity of the early Brethren, it will be helpful to list some of the ingredients in the Anabaptist attitude toward the scriptures.
(1) The Bible is best understood as the community of faith gathers around the word. The locus of infallibility shifts from the text itself and the technically qualified theological expert to the committed and listening congregation. The unique authority of the revelation of God in Christ which is found in the Bible becomes apparent in the covenant relationships of the responding community.
(2) There is an insistence on the presence of the Spirit, the inner word. This did not mean that the Spirit was claimed as a source of new revelation but that the outer word, the scriptures, must be tested and appropriated in life. Biblical knowledge apart from the loving obedience of the community of faith is idolatrous. The focus on the Spirit also signaled that the congregation must not be bound by tradition, creeds, or government authority in any fresh examination of the scriptures.
(3) Without denying its authority, it was held that the Old Testament was not to be regarded as the final standard for Christian obedience. Nevertheless, this did not mean that the relationship of the New Testament to the Old was one of rejection, but rather one of fulfillment. The relation was like that of the groundwork of a building to the building itself. This ability to differentiate between the two covenants supported the two most distinctive ethical emphases of the Anabaptists, nonswearing and the refusal to participate in warfare and bloodshed, both of which had been permitted in the Old Testament. The comparison between the Testaments also undermined the Protestant focus on the continuity between Jewish circumcision and infant baptism.
In the century following the outburst of the Reformation, there developed a rigid orthodoxy which is sometimes called by that name and sometimes labeled as Protestant Scholasticism. In the battle of words which accompanied the battle of swords, scripture itself tended to be regarded as an external authority legalistically conceived. The distinction between scripture and the word of God, and between scripture and doctrine, became blurred. Rather than relying on justification by faith, Aristotle and reason came back in vogue. Christianity became increasingly intellectualized. In reference to the Bible inspiration meant verbal infallibility. J. A. Quenstedt in 1715 stated the position without equivocation:
The holy canonical scriptures in their original text are the infallible truth and free from every error, that is to say, in the sacred canonical scriptures there is no lie, no deceit, no error, even the slightest, either in content or words, but every single word which is handed down in scriptures is most true, whether it pertains to doctrine, ethics, history, chronology, typography or names….
In spite of such exaltation of scripture, when reason dominated, creeds came to define scripture rather than the other way around.
It was partly in reaction against strong exponents of scholastic orthodoxy that the Pietist reformation emerged in the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first decades of the next. Avowing to remain within the Protestant tradition with its insistence on biblical authority, Philipp Spener and August Francke, leaders of churchly Pietism, nevertheless felt that the Bible would best come alive if freed from dogmatic formulations. They desired to shift the focus from finding in the Bible what had been formulated in the creeds to one of testing the creeds by the Bible. They pleaded that biblical truths be presented with tolerance, love, and persuasion instead of the use of texts to attack others in bitter controversies. They advocated the reading and use of the Bible by all the people, encouraging small group meetings and the devotional use of the scriptures. Both leaders felt that biblical study should take precedence over theology in theological training. Through their own example, the importance of utilizing the original biblical languages was stressed. Consistent with their plea that Luther’s reformation of doctrine be translated into a reformation of life. Pietism shifted the focus from the Bible as an end in itself to being a means for repentance, mutual edification, and a life of holiness. In terms of method, greater freedom was exercised in terms of investigating the meaning of texts. Similar to the Anabaptists, Pietists regarded the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Old. And Christ was seen to be the sum and substance of all scripture.
The more separatist and radical wing of Pietism was the one which constituted the immediate environment of the early Brethren. This movement has been designated as Radical Pietism. In reference to scripture, it is characterized by a more spiritualist view which looks to immediate direct inspiration more than to written words. Inner baptism is regarded to be more important than external practices. Jacob Boehme, one of the seminal Radical Pietist thinkers, was purported to have taught: “The entire Bible lies within me.” Louis Gruber, Inspirationalist leader and neighbor at Schwarzenau, espoused a direct call from God made manifest in signs, miracles, and specially inspired prophets.
Most of the first Brethren had been nurtured in the Reformed tradition. Breaking with it, they then imbibed both an emphasis on Bible study and an enthusiastic doctrine of the Spirit in Radical Pietist circles. Their study of the scriptures led them to again change their identity by consciously adopting the discipleship and gathered church views of Anabaptism. One cannot read the writings of Alexander Mack without noting his strong dependence on the scriptures. Repeatedly he introduces his arguments with sentences like this one: “Note well; I will explain this to you from the holy scriptures.” Central to the historic Brethren approach to the Bible are the following emphases or characteristics:
(1) The Inward and Outward Word
Awakened through the strong inner convictions of the Radical Pietists, the first eight began to search the scriptures together. It became obvious that they could only take seriously such passages as Matthew 18 through a visible church. To their inner experience they now realized the necessity of adding outward obedience. They did not wish to dispense with the emphasis on the Holy Spirit. Rather they wanted to combine this with a focus on the outward word. In the context of Mack’s discussion of the inward and outward word, we find one of the best early summary statements about the scriptures: “This law which is inwardly written by the Spirit of God is completely identical with that which is outwardly written in the New Testament.” Though not rejecting special revelations of the Spirit as would have been the case with the major Reformers, Mack did affirm that such inner witness must be tested with what is found in scripture. At its best the heritage from Mack attempts to guide a course between shackling legalism on the one hand and formless inspirationalism on the other.
(2) Shift from I to the We
In addition to the shift to the outward word, a second major shift in authority can be seen in the dialogue of the early Brethren with Radical Pietism. This is the shift from Hochmann’s “I” to the “we” of the Brethren. Ernest Christopher Hochmann, an outstanding radical Pietist preacher and teacher, had been a friend and spiritual guide to Mack and the early Brethren. In writing about the first baptisms the early Brethren shifted to the more biblical plural pronouns. In fact their entire approach represented the Anabaptist way of biblical interpretation, that of the community gathering around the scriptures. Thus, any new revelation or light has to be tested not only by the outward word but with brothers and sisters.
(3) The Mind of Christ
Mack’s admonition of “look alone to Jesus your Redeemer and Saviour” parallels the christological approach of Spener and Francke as well as the focus on the teaching and example of Jesus so central to the Anabaptists. For Brethren the inward word came to be translated by the “mind of Christ” (I Cor. 2:16; Phil. 2:5). Brethren have emphasized that the Old Testament must be interpreted in the light of the New and the New by the mind of Christ. Before it was named as such, Brethren knew a Christ-centered hermeneutic (style of biblical interpretation).
(4) No Creed but the New Testament
Since the Brethren have been even more reluctant to adopt statements of faith than the Mennonites, their noncreedal stance no doubt represents an inheritance from Pietism. Reacting to the belligerent spirit of their day, they advocated patience and understanding in dealing with differing interpretations. Mack, Jr. indicates that should he come on elders who did not share his understanding about the order of feetwashing, he “would participate quite simply in love and peace and would nevertheless explain it to them according to the scriptures. I would wait in love and have patience with them until they too gained this insight….” Such openness to new light in seeking the mind of Christ, however, does not represent an openness without any rootage in authority. Rather, it is an openness in the context of seeking new light as it breaks forth from the word. Historically, for the Brethren, it has not been “we have no creed,” but rather “we have no creed but the New Testament.”
(5) The New Prefigured in the Old
The Brethren followed both Anabaptism and Pietism in believing that the New Testament represents the fulfillment of the Old in the context of continuity. Mack quoted profusely from the Old Testament. He stated, for example, that baptism is prefigured in many stories from the Old Testament such as the exodus event. There is a unity between circumcision and baptism. There is no penalty in either case if a child dies before the eighth day. But in the New Testament the eighth day is figuratively interpreted as the day of maturity. Such interpretation involves interpreting the Old in the light of the New without denying the authority of the Old and the unity of the scriptures. The Brethren have regarded themselves as a New Testament church, but like the early church, this has not meant a repudiation of the Old Testament.
(6) Rule of Faith and Practice
The Brethren adopted an oft-repeated phrase from the Anabaptists which illuminates their biblical stance. Mack, Jr., in commenting on the changing practices in reference to feetwashing, concluded: “Indeed, we do not intend to rest upon the old practice but the word of the Lord alone is to be our rule and guideline.” In the few times one finds the word infallible in early Anabaptist thought, the word is associated with faith and life. For Anabaptism and the early Brethren, the Bible is the rule or infallible authority for faith and life. The priority is in giving willing and cheerful obedience to the plain