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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine hermeneutics, the principles we use to properly interpret the Bible. Dr. Spencer, last time we ended with an example of the old four-fold method of interpreting the Bible, which is called the Quadriga. Is there anything more to be said about that?

Dr. Spencer: I don’t want to spend any more time on the quadriga itself, but I do want to point out that proper biblical interpretation certainly recognizes that all four types of meaning that were sought by that method – namely, the literal, moral, allegorical, and spiritual, do exist in the Bible. We just don’t want to force every verse to have all four types of meaning. And, we want to be extremely careful with allegories because they can become quite fanciful and are sometimes a vehicle for very serious deviations from true biblical doctrine. But, we can’t do away with them entirely either because the Bible itself tells us that some things are allegorical, as we will see later.

Marc Roby: Well, if we’re done with the quadriga, then I suppose you want to get back to discussing what is meant by literal interpretation of the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right, we need to get back to that because it is very important. I gave the example last time of our American expression “it’s raining cats and dogs” and I pointed out that we all know what that means. So, in the sense we are using the term literal now, a literal interpretation of that phrase is that it is raining very hard. This example illustrates the fact that when we say we want to interpret the Bible literally, we do not mean that we ignore figures of speech, or any other form of communication that people ordinarily use. We want to be able to do what Paul commanded Timothy to do. In 2 Timothy 2:15 Paul commanded him, “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.”[1]

Marc Roby: I certainly do not want to be ashamed and to have God disapprove of my work when I appear before him.

Dr. Spencer: And neither do I, nor does any other true Christian. We all want to receive God’s approval on the Day of Judgment. To do that, we must recognize that the Bible was written by the Holy Spirit, through human authors, to communicate truth to God’s people. And it’s our job to find out what that truth is. God is perfect, and we can be confident that what he wrote can be understood correctly by us with the Holy Spirit helping us. I’m not saying that all parts of the Bible will be equally clear, but if we approach the job seriously, we can be confident that God will give us sufficient understanding of truth. If he were not able to do that, he wouldn’t be much of a God, would he?

Marc Roby: He certainly wouldn’t be the true and living God we learn about in the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: Not even close. And notice that, once again, our confidence rests in the person of God, not in ourselves. But, we must still be diligent to do the hard work necessary. The Bible was written through different human authors at different times and places and in different situations, but it is all true and it is all God’s revelation to us. In order to understand it, we need to take into account the language, culture, history, genre of writing, all normal figures of speech and so on.

But, we want to avoid looking for hidden meanings in the text or for purely subjective things that are somehow revealed to us privately as we study. As I noted last time, we need the Holy Spirit to help us, so we are not denying the role of the Holy Spirit, but we do deny that I can be given a proper understanding of some verse by the Holy Spirit that is completely inaccessible to you. If I’m understanding the verse correctly, I should be able to explain to you why it means what I think it means and you should be able to evaluate what I say without access to any private revelations that I may claim to have received.

Marc Roby: What you just said also implies that there is one, and only one, correct interpretation of a given verse. I can’t have my meaning, and you have your meaning, both of which are different, and yet somehow both correct.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. There is only one meaning, but there may be many different applications of that meaning. So, for example, we can both understand correctly from James 4:6, which says that “God opposes the proud”, that pride is sinful. And yet we can both apply that principle to ourselves in different ways because our sinful pride might manifest in very different ways. Now, given that there is only one meaning for each statement in the Bible, the question becomes, “How do we determine what that meaning is?”

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics correctly states, in Article 15, “We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”[2]

Marc Roby: Now they say that the literal, or normal, sense is the “grammatical-historical sense”, what exactly does that mean?

Dr. Spencer: That is a bit confusing, but the word grammatical is being used as a synonym for literal in this case. In his 1890 book called Biblical Hermeneutics, Milton Terry wrote that “The grammatical sense is essentially the same as the literal, the one expression being derived from the Greek, the other from the Latin.”[3] In James Boice’s book Foundations of the Christian Faith, he calls the method the historical-literal method.[4]

I wanted people to be familiar with these different terms, but, no matter what name is used, it is the normal method used by any careful reader to try and understand what an author means. It takes into account the normal rules of grammar and style, figures of speech and so on, in addition to the historical context, to try and understand what the author meant by what he wrote.

Marc Roby: Of course the ultimate author of the Bible is God the Holy Spirit.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is the ultimate author, but since he used human agents who used normal modes of human communication this technique is appropriate. We don’t need some special method for interpreting the Bible, although the fact that God is the author certainly does matter.

Marc Roby: We saw last time, for example, that our first rule of interpretation – that Scripture should be used to interpret other Scripture – is a direct result of the fact that God, who knows all things and cannot lie, is its author.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And we will see later that the fact that God is the author will have other implications as well. But, my point is that we don’t need some special “spiritual” way of interpreting the Bible. It is special, it is infallible, but it is also written, in a sense, just like any other book and should be read in much the same way. Having explicit rules to help us understand what is written, however, is especially important when we read a document that was written in a different culture, language or time than our own, as is the case with the Bible.

Even within our own culture and language we sometimes read things that are not immediately clear to us and we have to look up a word, or maybe even look up some allusion to a historical event or literary figure or whatever. And that problem becomes more serious when we are reading a translation of something originally written in a language that is foreign to us and/or something that was written at a time different from our own.

Marc Roby: I have certainly found that to be true in my own studies, and the problem is sometimes greatest with the most thoughtful and knowledgeable writers, and on the most important subjects, they often take the most work to understand deeply.

Dr. Spencer: I’ve noticed the same phenomenon, and I’m sure that our listeners have as well. So, in a sense, all we are really saying is that the Bible should be read very carefully, with the express purpose of finding out what God intended to communicate to us in each passage. And we must remember that some of the material in the Bible will be quite difficult and will require significant study for us to understand properly. But, the basic message of salvation is really very simple and clear.

Marc Roby: And so, to a very large extent, are the Bible’s commands for holy living. In Galatians 5:14, the apostle Paul wrote that “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is simple and clear in a sense or, as you put it, to a large extent. But, it also requires context to properly understand. What does it mean to love our neighbor? Even many non-Christians in our secular society would say that it is loving to confront someone when he is engaging in self-destructive behavior. Perhaps, for example, he has a serious problem with addiction. In that case, the Bible would agree that true love requires confronting him, which is never an easy thing to do.

But, the Bible would provide a much different list of self-destructive behaviors than our society would come up with! Because the Bible would have us be more concerned about his eternal state than his earthly circumstances. Therefore, anything that God has declared to be sin is eternally self-destructive. And many things that God says are sin, our society approves. As just one example, it would be loving my homosexual neighbor if I told him about God’s law, which declares homosexuality to be a sin, and the eternal consequences of unrepentant sin, which is hell. But, I doubt that many in our culture would consider that message to be loving.

Marc Roby: You make a great point. Even something that seems quite clear and simple can be misunderstood. How then, practically speaking, do we use this grammatical-historical or historical-literal method of interpretation to be sure that we properly understand a passage?

Dr. Spencer: Well, as I just demonstrated, we must understand every passage in the context of all that the Bible teaches; that is part of the principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture. But, we are going to get to context a bit later in our discussion.

The first thing we must do to understand any passage is to decide whether it is historical narrative, poetry, prophecy, parable or what. Only then can we go on to use the normal rules of grammar and syntax to understand what is said. So, let’s begin by looking at the different genres that we encounter in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Alright, what is important for us to know about them?

Dr. Spencer: For much of the Bible its not really a problem. I think most readers are comfortable with the difference between reading poetry, like one of the psalms, and historical narrative, like something in Chronicles. The problems come in when we deal with the forms of literature found in the Bible that are less familiar to us, like prophecy.

Marc Roby: What do we need to know about prophecy?

Dr. Spencer: First of all, prophecy does not just refer to predicting something about the future. Biblical prophecy is much more than that. A prophet is a spokesman for God. He declares God’s will to the people. In fact, in Ephesians 4:11-12 Paul is writing about the different gifts given to the church and he says that Christ “gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service”. So, there are still prophets in the church today, that’s prophet with a little p. Anyone who declares the Word of God, in other words any proper minister of the gospel, can be considered a prophet in that sense of the word.

Marc Roby: But, when you use the word prophet, most people think of someone like Isaiah, or Jeremiah.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure they do, and for good reason. But my point is simply that even with those prophets, what they said was meant for the instruction of the people they spoke to, just like a modern-day minister. There is, of course, a huge difference in that Isaiah and Jeremiah were inspired prophets and could declare “the Lord says” and then give new revelation. But, when we read them we need to remember who they were writing to, when they were writing, where they were writing and what was going on at the time. In other words, we need to know the historical, political, cultural and geographical context among other things.

Marc Roby: That sounds like a lot of work.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly can be, but it is also very enjoyable and rewarding. And, as we have argued multiple times, there is nothing more important than the Word of God, and a true Christian will delight in such study.

But, getting back to interpreting biblical prophecy, we must remember that these prophets were, first and foremost, speaking to their contemporaries. Whether or not they had any knowledge that their words were going to become part of the biblical canon later doesn’t matter, because we were never their primary audience. The theologian Richard Pratt commented in a talk he gave at our church a number of years ago, that when we read the prophets we should think of ourselves as listening in on someone else’s conversation.[5] I think that can be a useful perspective to have in mind.

Marc Roby: That is an interesting way to think about it. But what about when they do predict future events?

Dr. Spencer: Let me quote from the book Interpreting the Bible by Mickelsen. He wrote that “Prophecy does have a future aspect. But the prediction of God’s doings was given to a particular historical people, to awaken and stir them. They might not grasp all the meaning of the message, but the message – with the disclosure of future things – was given to influence the present action.”[6]

Marc Roby: How should this fact affect our reading?

Dr. Spencer: It means that we should seek to understand what the passage we are reading teaches us about the nature of God, the nature of man, and God’s providential control of history. Then we should seek to apply those lessons to our own lives.

Marc Roby: I look forward to seeing an example of this next time, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to encourage our listeners to send their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, Available from http://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/ and also from http://www.alliancenet.org/the-chicago-statement-on-biblical-hermeneutics

[3] Milton S. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics, Hunt & Eaton, 1890 (available as a pdf file from file:///C:/Users/rrspe/Documents/Religion/Books%20&%20Papers/1883_terry_bib-hermeneutics.pdf)

[4] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 95

[5] Richard Pratt, Interpreting the Old Testament Prophecies, April 29, 2000, transcript available at http://www.gracevalley.org/teaching/interpreting-the-old-testament-prophecies/

[6] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pg. 287


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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by beginning to look at the proper way to interpret the Bible. Dr. Spencer, let me start by asking you a question that I suspect a number of our listeners may have. I know how to read and can think for myself, so why do I need any rules to help me understand the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: I think the answer to that question has two parts. First and foremost, because of the supreme importance of the topic, we want to be extremely careful to be sure that we understand the Bible correctly. The possible consequences for not correctly interpreting a newspaper article, or even something far more important like a medical textbook, cannot be compared with the eternal consequences of misinterpreting the Bible.

Marc Roby: But some people will point out that we are saved by faith in the person of Jesus Christ, and a true Christian has a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, so my salvation is not based on my being a great theologian, it is based on my relationship to the person of Christ.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But, you must have a relationship with the true Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 11:3-4 the apostle Paul expressed his deep concern for the church in Corinth. He wrote, “I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpent’s cunning, your minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ. For if someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough.”[1]

This warning highlights a very important point. We know Jesus only because someone came and preached to us, whether it was spoken or in writing makes no difference. The essential point is that we learn about Jesus Christ and salvation from the Bible, either directly, or indirectly. But, there are many distortions out there, what Paul calls “a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached.” All you have to do is look at all of the competing claims of people who call themselves Christians to know that is true.

Marc Roby: I don’t think anyone can dispute that there are a lot of differing views about Jesus and what he taught. And our understanding of what the Bible teaches has eternal consequences, in 2 Peter 3:16 we read that people distort the Scriptures to their own destruction.

Dr. Spencer: And that is precisely the reason we need to be very careful in this area. Not only is what we believe of supreme importance because our eternal salvation at stake – that was the first part of the answer to your initial question, but we also have a large number of different ideas being presented to us and we need to be sure that we can correctly ferret out which ones are right and which ones are wrong. So, the second part of the answer is that we need a methodical and thoughtful way to deal with what can be a complex and controversial topic.

Marc Roby: I think that answers the question. And, perhaps it would be good at this point to mention that the science of properly interpreting the Bible is called hermeneutics.

Dr. Spencer: And when we put the principles of hermeneutics into practice to do our best to determine what a particular verse or passage means, we are doing what is called exegesis, which means to draw the meaning out of the passage. This can be contrasted with eisegesis, which means to put meaning into the passage, which is an all-too-common practice that any true Christian should work very hard to avoid.

Marc Roby: Alright. So, how should we approach Bible study?

Dr. Spencer: First of all, we must study the Bible believing it to be God’s infallible Word, which is why we spent time establishing that point in past few sessions. If the bible isn’t God’s infallible Word, then we are without a sure guide and are left up to our own subjective ideas of what to believe and how to live a life pleasing to God.

Marc Roby: And, as we have noted a number of times, we must be born again in order to having real saving faith in Jesus Christ and to believe in the infallibility of God’s Word.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. We’ve quoted 1 Corinthians 2:14 before, which tells us that “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

So, that is the first thing we must do to properly approach Bible study. Secondly, we must study the Bible with prayer and diligence. In Luke 11:13 Jesus promised us that our “Father in heaven [will] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So, we must come to God in prayer and ask for the Holy Spirit to guide us as we study his Word. And we must note that we are talking about study of the Bible, not casual reading. God has made it abundantly clear in many places in his word that he will not reward those who seek him half-heartedly or according to their own ideas. In fact, he hates their so-called worship.

Marc Roby: Now, that last statement goes against much of what the modern church teaches about God. He is pictured as a loving and patient father who doesn’t hate anything or anyone.

Dr. Spencer: That is a common picture of God, but it is one that is easily shown to be false if you simply look in his word; in other words, if you properly exegete the Word of God. This is a good example of why we need the science of hermeneutics!

For example, let’s look at the prophet Amos. He lived in the 8th century before Christ when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms, one in the north – usually called Israel – and one in the south – usually called Judah. This was a time of relative peace and prosperity, much like our own time in this country. And yet, God sent Amos to the northern kingdom to deliver a message of doom to the people. In Amos 5:21-23 we read that God said, “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps.”

Marc Roby: Those are pretty harsh words.

Dr. Spencer: Yes they are. And notice that the people were having religious feasts and assemblies, they were bringing burnt offerings, grain offerings and fellowship offerings as the law required, and they were singing – presumably songs of praise to God. But, they were not doing what was right. Religious activities are not all acceptable to God, they must be done with a clean heart and according to his Word.

I could mention many other passages, but I’ll refrain for now. The point is that this idea of God being like a cosmic grandfather who never gets angry with anyone and doesn’t hate anything or anyone simply cannot stand up to a careful study of his Word.

Marc Roby: Alright. So, we need to believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of God and we need to study it diligently, with prayer. What else do we need to do?

Dr. Spencer: We need to learn how to understand the Word properly, in other words, we need proper hermeneutical principles, which is what we are getting ready to study.

Marc Roby: From where do we get these rules for proper interpretation?

Dr. Spencer: In large measure we get them from the Bible itself, and the ones we don’t get from the Bible itself are part and parcel of normal human communication, which is a gift given to us by our creator God. So, all of them come from God in a sense. Let me explain this as we look at the rules.

Marc Roby: Please do.

Dr. Spencer: The first and most important rule of proper interpretation, or hermeneutics, is sometimes called the analogy of faith, although I don’t find that phrase particularly descriptive. The idea is that Scripture should always be used to interpret Scripture.

Marc Roby: I’m not convinced that statement is completely clear either.

Dr. Spencer: I suppose you’re right, it isn’t clear by itself. It needs to be explained. The idea is a direct result of the fact that the Bible comprises the very words of God. The Bible clearly teaches in Deuteronomy 32:4, Matthew 5:48 and elsewhere that God is perfect and therefore his words are perfect, which is also stated explicitly in Psalms 18:30 and 19:7. It also tells us that God cannot lie, which is stated in Titus 1:2 and Hebrews 6:18. So, given all of those facts, it must be true that God’s words will be completely consistent and truthful. As a result, the Bible cannot contradict itself. If we find one part of the Bible somewhat difficult to understand, we should look to see if the same idea is expressed more clearly or completely somewhere else. So, we use one part of Scripture to help us interpret another part of Scripture. This rule is a necessary consequence of the Bible’s own teaching about the perfection of God and his Word.

Marc Roby: Paul also implicitly used this rule when he defended his teachings to King Agrippa and Festus. In Acts 26:22-23 Paul said, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a good point – he is claiming that his own teaching has authority because it is consistent with the Old Testament teaching.

Marc Roby: Can you give us an example of how this rule works in practice?

Dr. Spencer: Certainly. Let me take a passage that is very often misused in the modern church. In Matthew 7:1 Jesus Christ said, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” Now, in the Greek, this is in the imperative mood, which means it is a command, “Do not judge”. I’ve had people quote this to me and then say that it means that we should never judge anyone under any circumstances whatsoever.

Marc Roby: I’ve heard people interpret the verse that way as well.

Dr. Spencer: But, the idea of using the Scripture to interpret Scripture means that you can’t take one verse out of context and use it to justify some doctrine. If you look in the rest of Scripture, you find that such an understanding of that verse cannot possibly be correct. For example, in 1 Corinthians Chapter 5 the apostle Paul is chastising the Corinthian church for allowing a man who was committing sexual immorality to remain in their fellowship and he writes, in Verse 12, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” This is a rhetorical question and the expected answer is “Yes, we are to judge those inside the church” as becomes completely obvious in the next verse where Paul commands them to “Expel the wicked man from among you.” Now, if Matthew 7:1 really meant that we should never judge anyone, Paul’s command to the Corinthian church would be wrong. But given that all of Scripture is the infallible Word of God we must seek to understand Matthew 7:1 in the light of other Scriptures that also speak of judging. When we do that, we find that it cannot be a blanket prohibition against judging others.

Marc Roby: I find it interesting that Jesus actually gives an implicit command for us to judge others later on in Matthew 7. In Verses 15-16 he says, “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them.” In other words, we are to judge those who claim to bring God’s word to us and we are to determine which of them are false prophets.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great point. I don’t want to get off track and dive into the topic of judging in any depth right now, but suffice it to say that when you consider what all of Scripture says on the topic you find out that what is condemned is not judging in general, but hypocritical judging of others, or judging on disputable matters, or based on human standards rather than God’s standard.

Marc Roby: That makes good sense.

Dr. Spencer: I think that James Boice gives a good alternate way of describing this same principle of interpretation. Rather than saying let Scripture interpret Scripture, he breaks the principle down into two principles: unity and noncontradiction. He writes that “Taken together [these principles] mean that … (1) the parts of the [Bible] must go together to tell one story, and (2) if two parts seem to be in opposition or in contradiction to each other, our interpretation of one or both of these parts must be in error.”[2]

Marc Roby: That is a good alternate wording of the principle. I can think of another example where this principle comes into play as well. Paul writes in Romans 3:28 that “a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” And we read in James 2:24, “that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.” Now, if someone is just out looking for contradictions, they might think that they have found one in these two verses.

Dr. Spencer: As you know, these verses were debated at the time of the reformation since the cry of the reformation is that we are saved by faith alone. The Roman Catholic church pointed to this verse in James to refute that idea. But, interpreting Scripture by Scripture will not allow us to pit one verse of Scripture against another, which is Boice’s principle of noncontradiction. Because God is the author, we must seek an understanding that removes the apparent contradiction.

In this particular example, it isn’t really that hard. Paul and James are using the word “justify” in two different senses. Paul is using it in the forensic sense, meaning to be declared just, or righteous, in God’s sight. Such justification is by faith alone. James, on the other hand, is using the word in the sense of proving something. So, by saying someone is justified by what he does, he means that what he does proves his faith to be genuine.

Marc Roby: Which is easily seen when you look at all of James Chapter 2.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. When you look at the chapter as a whole, you see what kind of faith he is talking about. He is arguing against the idea that a person can have true faith without any good deeds. James argues that such faith isn’t true faith at all. In fact, in Verse 17 he writes that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead”. So, when he says that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone, he means that the reality of his faith is proven by what he does. He is also using the word “faith” in a different sense than Paul did. A person may have a mental-assent faith, but if he has no works, he does not have true saving faith, which is trust in Jesus Christ for salvation, and that is the faith that Paul is speaking about in Romans 3:28. When we look at this more carefully, we see that Paul and James are in complete agreement.

Marc Roby: Alright. So we have our first principle of proper biblical interpretation. It can be called the analogy of faith, or we can say to let Scripture interpret Scripture, or we can say the Bible is a unity and cannot contradict itself. This also agrees with the Westminster Confession of Faith. In Chapter 1, Paragraph 9, the confessions says, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s a very good summary.

Marc Roby: What other principles do we have?

Dr. Spencer: The second principle is that we should interpret the Bible literally. But, that needs some more explanation. The word literal is usually taken mean that something adheres to the primary meaning of the individual words. So, for example, if I were to say to you that it’s raining cats and dogs, that could not be literally true in the common sense of the word literal. What is historically meant by this term in biblical studies however, is that we should interpret the Bible as literature. In other words, we take the ordinary meaning of an expression. In that sense, you would interpret my statement that it’s raining cats and dogs to literally mean that it was raining very hard. The literal sense was stressed by Martin Luther and other reformers in contrast with the standard four-fold procedure in use at the time, called the quadriga.[3]

Marc Roby: How did that procedure work?

Dr. Spencer: The idea of the quadriga is that a verse may have four different meanings: the literal – in the same sense Luther used that term, the moral, the allegorical and the spiritual. In other words, every verse has a normal literal meaning, then it may also have a moral meaning that said something about how we are to behave, an allegorical meaning that revealed something about what we are to believe, and a spiritual meaning that said something about our future hope.

Marc Roby: And, that ladies and gentlemen, could lead to quite a mess.

Dr. Spencer: It certainly can and did. The Puritan theologian William Perkins wrote to criticize the results of using the quadriga to interpret Genesis 14:18-19, where we read that “Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram”. Our listeners need to remember that God later changed Abram’s name to Abraham. In any event, Perkins wrote the following: “The literal sense is, that the King of Salem with meat which he brought, refreshed the soldiers of Abraham being tired with travel. The allegorical is, that the Priest [does] offer up Christ in [the] mass. The [moral] is, therefore something is to be given to the poor. The [spiritual] is, that Christ in like manner being in heaven, shall be the bread of life to the faithful.”[4] (language modernized and terms made consistent with our treatment)

Marc Roby: That is a lot to supposedly draw from just that verse. I can see that there is a lot more to say about what is properly meant by interpreting the Bible literally, but we are out of time for today and will need to continue this discussion next time. I’d like to remind our listeners that we encourage them to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 91

[3] A. Berkeley Mickelsen, Interpreting the Bible, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974, pp 38-39, also R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture, 2nd Ed, InterVarsity Press, 2009, pg. 60

[4] Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, Reformation Heritage Books, 2012, pg. 33


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. We have established that the Bible itself claims to be the very “words of God” [1] to use the apostle Paul’s expression from Romans 3:2. Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by beginning to answer the question raised by the existence of some errors in the Bibles we have in our possession, and you pointed out that inerrancy does not require perfect grammar, or unreasonable precision, nor does it prevent the Bible from using normal modes of human expression like hyperbole or phenomenological expressions.

Dr. Spencer: Except I didn’t use the words hyperbole or phenomenological, so let me define those in case our listeners don’t recall what they mean. Hyperbole is simply exaggeration used for effect, rather than any attempt to deceive. If I read in the newspaper that the whole town of Davis showed up for some event, I recognize it as hyperbole. I don’t truly expect that every single person in town showed up.

Phenomenological expressions are expressions that indicate how something appears to us, they are not meant to be descriptions of what is truly going on. So, for example, when we talk about the sun rising or setting, or the earth standing still, we all understand those expressions and don’t accuse the speaker of being scientifically illiterate.

Marc Roby: Very well. What else do you want to say about supposed errors in the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: I think it will be worth our while to examine what the 19th-centuray theologian Charles Hodge said about them. In his Systematic Theology, he wrote that “The objection under consideration, namely, that the Bible contains errors, divides itself into two. The first, that the sacred writers contradict themselves, or one the other. The second, that the Bible teaches what is inconsistent with the facts of history or science.”[2]

Let’s discuss the supposed contradictions first.

Marc Roby: OK, what does Hodge say about those?

Dr. Spencer: He makes four points. First, he says that the apparent discrepancies, although numerous, are for the most part trivial. An example might be the question about whether there were one or two demon-possessed men who came to Jesus when he arrived in the region of the Gadarenes. In Matthew 8:28 it says there were two, but in the parallel accounts in Mark 5 and Luke 8 it says there was one. Some people think this is an error, but that is simply not true. There were, obviously, two demon-possessed men, but for some reason, Mark and Luke only mention one. Perhaps he was notorious and the other was unknown, we don’t know. But, whatever the reason, Mark and Luke don’t mention the other one. That can hardly be called an error however; as has been pointed out by many, where there are two demon-possessed men, there certainly is one. So, there is a rather easy way to deal with the difference.

Marc Roby: Some have also claimed there is another error in these stories because Matthew refers, as you just did, to the “region of the Gadarenes”, whereas Mark and Luke both refer to “the region of the Gerasenes”. How would answer that charge?

Dr. Spencer: First of all, Gadara and Gerasa were both prominent cities in the region to the east of the Sea of Galilee and it is likely that the area was sometimes called the region of the Gadarenes and at other times the region of the Gerasenes. This is somewhat similar to the fact that some people will refer to the town of Sunnyvale, California as being in the San Jose area, while others will refer to it as being near San Francisco, or in the south Bay Area. There are different ways of referring to the same general area. In addition, not all of the Greek manuscripts we have agree on the name used. It seems perfectly reasonable then that both names might have been used in the original documents and later copyists changed the name to try and make things uniform. We can’t know for certain of course, but this most definitely is not evidence of an error in the autographs, and is another example of the kind of trivial errors noted by Hodge.

Marc Roby: Alright, that sounds reasonable. You said Hodge makes four points, what is the second?

Dr. Spencer: His second point is that the great majority of these supposed contradictions are only apparent, and disappear after careful examination, as we’ve just seen with the story of the demon-possessed men. His third point is that many of these supposed contradictions can reasonably be ascribed to errors made by transcribers, which we also just noted in regard to the name of the region in which Jesus drove demons out of a man.

Marc Roby: And what was Hodge’s fourth point?

Dr. Spencer: I’d like to just quote him on this one, because I think he makes the point beautifully. He wrote that “The marvel and the miracle is that there are so few [apparent contradictions] of any real importance. Considering that the different books of the Bible were written not only by different authors, but by men of all degrees of culture, living in the course of fifteen hundred or two thousand years, it is altogether unaccountable that they should agree perfectly, on any other hypothesis than that the writers were under the guidance of the Spirit of God. In this respect, as in all others, the Bible stands alone. It is enough to impress any mind with awe, when it contemplates the Sacred Scriptures filled with the highest truths, speaking with authority in the name of God, and so miraculously free from the soiling touch of human fingers. The errors in matters of fact which skeptics search out bear no proportion to the whole.”[3]

Marc Roby: That is a powerful statement. After nearly 2,000 years of searching for errors, you would think that the Bible’s critics would have come up with some better objections.

Dr. Spencer: In fact, if the Bible were just a book written by men, without being miraculously guided by the Holy Spirit, I’m quite certain they would have come up with a number of very serious errors and contradictions. The fact that they haven’t is, as Hodge politely put it, unaccountable.

Nevertheless, we do have to concede that there are some problems that don’t lend themselves to quick, easy answers. In the book we’ve been using, Thy Word is Truth, E.J. Young writes that “In our doctrine of inspiration we are faced with certain perplexities, and they are real. Let us grant that freely. Nevertheless, they seem almost trifling when compared with the tremendous problems which face those who do not accept the Scriptural doctrine. Those who do not receive the Biblical witness to itself must explain the Bible. How did it come to be? Whence came the heavenly doctrine that is found within its pages? What is its origin?”[4]

Marc Roby: I really like the fact that he turns the question around on the skeptics and points out that they have far more serious questions to deal with!

Dr. Spencer: I like that too. Whenever someone attacks Christianity, we should not feel defensive in any way. People sometimes seem to think that we should have the answer to every possible question. But, that is simply unrealistic and irrational. Why are we supposed to know everything? God hasn’t revealed everything to us, and I’m quite confident we wouldn’t be able to understand it all even if he did, so it doesn’t bother me at all that I can’t answer every question that might be asked.

Marc Roby: I want to return to the concession that you made though, that there are problems that don’t lend themselves to quick, easy answers. Can you give any examples of this?

Dr. Spencer: Sure, in his book Young gives the example of Matthew 27:9-10, where we read “Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.’” And he notes that the quotation is actually from Zechariah 11:13. So, we must ask, was Matthew in error when he ascribed it to Jeremiah? He was, after all, a fallible human being, maybe he just got mixed up and remembered incorrectly which prophet made the statement.

Marc Roby: That would seem to be an impossibility if he was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” as 2 Peter 1:21 tells us and if the promise Jesus made to his apostles in John 16:13 was true, where he said that when “the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth”.

Dr. Spencer: You’re right, it is impossible. This may not seem very important to someone if they haven’t thought it through carefully, but if you conclude that Matthew made an error in ascribing this Old Testament quote to Jeremiah, then the doctrine of infallibility goes out the window and we are left with the insurmountable problem of having to decide which things in the Bible to believe. In other words, we are back to subjectivism.

Marc Roby: So how do we handle this problem?

Dr. Spencer: Young discusses this question at some length and I’m not going into all that he says, but I will note that there have been several attempts to explain the reference. I’ll briefly mention one as an example. In the Babylonian Talmud Jeremiah is placed at the head of the prophets, and this tradition may be much older than the Talmud, which is from hundreds of years after Christ, so it is possible that Jeremiah’s name may have been used to refer to the entire section of the Hebrew Bible that contains Zechariah.

Now, I must say that I don’t find that explanation very satisfying, and it is less problematic than the other possibilities Young presents. At the end of the discussion it is clear that none of the proposed solutions are satisfying to Young either because he says that he “inclines” toward the view that there was a copyist’s error early on and he gives an idea of what might have happened.[5] I’ll let the interested listener consult Young directly for the details. But, whatever the solution, Young is correct when he states that “One thing, however, is clear. There is no warrant for the assertion that Matthew has made a mistake.”[6]

Marc Roby: That is a difficult passage to explain, but I also agree with Young’s conclusion that we have no warrant for saying that Matthew made a mistake. This example reminds me of an objection that is sometimes raised to the doctrine of infallibility though. How can an infallible book be written by fallible men? Doesn’t their fallibility guarantee that there are errors, even if only in detailed matters having to do with history or geography, or maybe even getting an Old Testament quote wrong? There are people who would say that such errors are not that important, it is only the larger truths in the Bible that are important. How would you respond to that?

Dr. Spencer: As we have attempted to make clear a few times, you can’t pick and choose. If the authors of the Bible were wrong about details of history or geography, then how can we possibly know that we can trust them on more important issues? Errors of any kind would make it clear that the Bible had not been written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If it is only a fallible human record of what Jesus did and said, then we have no solid basis for our faith.

This is a very important point because it is common view in the modern church. And it goes back to the 19th century. Young quotes from something written by the 19th-century Scottish theologian A.B. Bruce, where he criticized those who try to find ways to harmonize the gospels in the sense of trying to explain apparent contradictions. He wrote, “To the harmonists busy at their petty task we are inclined to say, Sirs, we would see Jesus. … To paint the image of the Great Master successfully, one must be set free from slavish solicitude about harmonistic problems, and feel at liberty to handle the materials with a fearless breadth of treatment.”[7]

Marc Roby: I don’t like the idea of treating any part of the Word of God in a so-called fearless way!

Dr. Spencer: Neither do I, but Young’s response to this view is very important. He wrote that “One wonders how it is possible for a man so completely to miss the point. … Dr. Bruce would cry, ‘Sirs, we would see Jesus’. Very good, but how is Jesus to be seen? Are we to find Him in a record that is filled with blemishes?”[8]

Young’s point is precisely the one we have been laboring to make. If the Bible is not the infallible Word of God, we have no objective basis for knowing Jesus Christ. And if we don’t know Jesus Christ, we are not saved, we are still subject to the wrath of God.

Marc Roby: That is a terrifying thought. But, before we finish for today, I want to tie up one loose end. You said that Hodge divided the supposed errors in the Bible into two groups. We’ve dealt briefly with the supposed contradictions. You said that the second group is that the Bible teaches what is inconsistent with the facts of history or science.  What do you want to say about that?

Dr. Spencer: Nothing. We handled that issue at great length when we discussed external evidence that corroborates the Bible in Sessions 7 through 11.

Marc Roby: That was quick! Are we done discussing the infallibility of the Bible?

Dr. Spencer: I think we are, at least for now.

Marc Roby: Well then, that wraps up this session. I’d like to remind our listeners that we encourage them to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Eerdmans, 1997, Vol. 1, pg. 169

[3] Ibid, pp 169-170

[4] E.J. Young, Thy Word is Truth, the Banner of Truth Trust, 2012, pg. 59

[5] Ibid, pg. 172

[6] Ibid, pg. 173

[7] Ibid, pg. 127

[8] Ibid, pg. 127


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. In our previous sessions we have shown that the Bible is infallible because God is its author, and that this is a critically important doctrine, which was central to the reformation. We also showed that Jesus himself used the Bible as his ultimate authority. Dr. Spencer, what else do we want say about this doctrine?

Dr. Spencer: I first want to point out that, as with every other doctrine, we should turn to God’s Word itself to see what it says. And, when we turn to the Bible, we find that it clearly claims to be the authoritative Word of God as we documented extensively in Sessions 4 and 27. I don’t want to repeat all of that here. But, let me quickly summarize what we said. The Old Testament clearly claims to be the very words of God in many places. In fact, phrases like “God said”, and “The Lord says” are used over 3.800 times. There is also an implicit claim to being the Word of God when the Old Testament tells us things about creation, or things said in heaven that cannot possibly be known by any human being except by divine revelation. In addition, as we saw with a couple of examples in our previous session, Jesus Christ treated the Old Testament as the authoritative Word of God, as did all of the apostles. We have quoted the famous statement in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (ESV) several times.

Then, with regard to the New Testament, we previously cited 2 Peter 3:16 where he calls the apostle Paul’s writings “Scripture”. We have also noted that in John 14:25-26 Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would guide them and remind them of everything he said. Paul then explicitly mentions this guidance in 1 Corinthians 2:13, and he claims to speak the very words of God in 1Thessalonians 2:13. I will let interested listeners go back and listen to Sessions 4 and 27 for more details.

Marc Roby: And in that connection we should remind our listeners that all of the old sessions are available in the archive on our website, whatdoesthewordsay.org. So, we have made the case that the Bible itself clearly claims to be the Word of God. What else is there to say about infallibility then?

Dr. Spencer: There are even more references in Scripture that we have not previously adduced, and I think it would be worthwhile to go through some of them because this doctrine is so frequently denied in the modern church. For example, when the Sadducees tried to trick Jesus by asking him about marriage in heaven, Jesus rebuked them saying, in Matthew 22:29, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”[1] Which clearly holds up the Scriptures as the ultimate authoritative standard for us.

In addition, Jesus frequently noted that what the Scriptures say will happen, not only will happen, but must happen. For example, in Mark 14:21 he said “The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him.” And in Mark 14:27 he told his disciples, “You will all fall away, … for it is written: ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’” Then again, in Mark 14:49 he said, “But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.” And, in Matthew 26:53-54 he asked the rhetorical question, “how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”, with the clear point being that it must happen this way because that is what the authoritative Scriptures have declared.

Marc Roby: It is compelling when you consider all of the references, and these are just ones that we had not mentioned in the previous sessions.

Dr. Spencer: It is very compelling. And it is also clear that it wasn’t just general ideas or principles that came from God, but the very words themselves; Christ said, in Matthew 5:17-18, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” In other words, every single word is infallible.

I don’t believe it is possible for a born-again person to carefully read the entire Bible, or even just the New Testament and come away with any view other than that the Bible is, in its entirety, the very words of our infallible God. And if it is his words, then it is itself infallible.

Marc Roby: And yet, there have been and still are many professing Christians who deny the doctrine.

Dr. Spencer: There have indeed been many, and are still many. And I think they must fall into one of two camps; either they are not truly born again, or they have had bad teaching and have not yet looked into this issue and carefully thought it through for themselves. You can be saved without believing this doctrine, as Article XIX of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states[2], but it is an extremely important doctrine, and not believing it will stunt your growth and life as a Christian and, as I said last time, not agreeing with this doctrine is a serious warning sign that you may not be born again at all, you may be believing in a false gospel – so you should take it very seriously indeed. What is extremely sad is the number of ministers who have given up on this doctrine. But, that isn’t really all that surprising when you consider that many modern ministers are trained more as social workers than ministers of the gospel.

Marc Roby: That’s a pretty strong statement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it is. But it isn’t hard to back up. Just listen to the sermons that are preached, look at the counsel that is given – if, in fact, any counsel is given, read modern supposedly Christian books and so on. So much of it is completely dominated by an anthropocentric, or man-centered, outlook, rather than a theocentric, or God-centered, outlook. Much of it is simply social work done in the context of the church. Human psychology, rather than the Bible, dominate.

In his book No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, David Wells tells a story about when he was a seminary professor teaching theology. He says that after giving an introduction to the class on the first day an “obviously agitated student” came up and told him that he “had had a mighty struggle with his conscience about” whether it was right “to spend so much money on a course of study that was so irrelevant to his desire to minister to people in the Church.”[3]

Marc Roby: It’s amazing to think that someone could consider theology to be irrelevant to being a minister of the gospel!

Dr. Spencer: I agree. This man’s view of a minister was obviously that he is basically a social worker. But, even given that view what he said was wrong. Theology is not irrelevant to anyone. Every person alive is a theologian in one sense; they have all decided whether or not they think God exists, and if they think he exists, they have some idea of what they think he is like and what he requires of them. So, the question isn’t whether or not you will be a theologian, the only question is whether your theology will be biblical or not. This young man probably thought the only theology needed for a minister was to say that Jesus was a good example for us to follow and that God loves us and has a plan to bless us, or something along those lines. But, such a view of theology is not even close to biblical, and it can’t save anyone. In fact, with the anthropocentric view of most churches today, there is really nothing for us to be saved from because we aren’t really all that bad in the first place, and hell doesn’t really exist. So, the whole concept of salvation is missing.

Marc Roby: At that point you might as well join the Elks Lodge.

Dr. Spencer: Or spend your Sundays fishing, or golfing, or watching television and doing yard work, or whatever. And your morning quiet times in private meditation, rather than prayer and reading the Word of God.

Marc Roby: Very true. But we have digressed again, so let’s get back to the infallibility of the Bible. What other biblical evidence do we have that it claims to be the infallible Word of God?

Dr. Spencer: Let me cite some more examples. But, we must realize that when the New Testament speaks of the Scriptures – the Greek word used is γραφή – it is usually speaking of the Old Testament. Therefore, we understandably have more evidence for the Old Testament being the very Word of God than we do for the New. Although, as we saw a few minutes ago, there is compelling evidence for the New Testament as well. In any event, in Romans 1:2, Paul says the Scriptures are holy – he says this because he knows they come from the thrice-holy God. And, in Romans 3:2, Paul calls the Scriptures the “very words of God”.

There also a number of places where the words of Scripture are equated with the words of God, for example, in Romans 9:17 Paul wrote that “the Scripture says to Pharaoh: ‘I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.’” But, this quotation is from Exodus 9:16 where the words are attributed to God himself, so we see that to say “Scripture says” is equivalent to saying “God says”.

Marc Roby: Are there other similar examples you want to cite?

Dr. Spencer: Yes, there are other examples as well. In Galatians 3:8 Paul wrote that “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’” So, Paul tells us that Scripture said something, but he was quoting from Genesis 22:18, and when we look there we see that these words are again attributed to God himself.

And this isn’t just the apostle Paul. In Acts 4:25, we read that after Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin, they returned to the other disciples and prayed to God, saying, in part, “You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: ‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?’” They were quoting from Psalm 2 when they said in prayer to God that he “spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of” David.

Marc Roby: That is a pretty clear statement that they considered the Old Testament to have been written by God through the agency of the Holy Spirit working in the human authors.

Dr. Spencer: And there are more examples as well. In Acts 28:25-26, the apostle Paul was speaking in Rome and said “The Holy Spirit spoke the truth to your forefathers when he said through Isaiah the prophet: ‘Go to this people and say, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.”’”.  Notice that Paul says that God the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophet, in this case Isaiah, words that are recorded for us in Scripture.

Marc Roby: Yes, another very clear statement that God the Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible.

Dr. Spencer: Yes it is. We’ve already gone over a number of instances in previous sessions of Jesus himself treating the Old Testament as the infallible Word of God. But, we also have a very interesting statement from Jesus about how important it is to receive the Bible as the Word of God. In John 5:46-47, Jesus is rebuking the people for not believing him and he said, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

Jesus is saying explicitly that if you fail to believe what the Old Testament says, you are not going to believe what he says either. This puts the lie to the idea that I can have some private relationship with Jesus apart from the Bible.

Marc Roby: That reminds me of Jesus talking to the men on the road to Emmaus after his resurrection. We are told in Luke 24:27 that “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a good passage to mention. Jesus often spoke of the Old Testament prophecies concerning himself and used them as evidence that he was the promised Messiah. He clearly believed the entire Old Testament to be the infallible Word of God and we have given many more biblical references in earlier podcasts to show that.

Marc Roby: Alright, I think we have presented enough evidence today, and in previous sessions, to clearly demonstrate that the Bible is the infallible Word of God.

Dr. Spencer: I agree. The doctrine we have been advocating by the way, is often called the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible. The word plenary just means all, and the word verbal refers to the individual words. So, to speak of the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible just means that every individual word was breathed out by God himself.

Marc Roby: Having established the biblical doctrine, let me ask you the question that I’m sure many of our listeners have in mind. What do you say about all of the supposed errors in the Bible? We are saying that it is infallible, but can an infallible book have errors in it?

Dr. Spencer: That depends on what you mean by an error. Everything the Bible teaches us is true. But, when we say the Bible is inerrant, we do not mean, for example, that the grammar is perfect or that every number is precisely correct. James Boice notes that this is one reason some people don’t like the term inerrant.[4] But it would be silly, I think, to say that the Bible is in error if something in it is ungrammatical, or if when the it says 300 people did something the number was actually 302. The rules of grammar are violated by great writers all the time, the purpose of language is communication and the rules of grammar, while useful, are not absolute laws. And when I say 300 people did something, I think every reasonable person recognizes that I’m giving a round number. They wouldn’t say I was wrong if the precise number was 298, or 303.

Also, the Bible uses every kind of normal human expression to communicate truth. So, for example, if I read a newspaper report that says something like “all of the fans in the stands jumped to their feet when the ball was hit”, do I accuse the newspaper of being factually incorrect if, in fact, a few people stayed seated, or slowly stood up rather than jumping up? Of course not. We all recognize hyperbole as a normal mode of communication. So, the word “all” does not always mean “all”. You have to use the context to judge the true meaning. Also, if I look on the calendar on my cellphone or computer, it tells me the time of the sunrise and the sunset for today. Should I conclude that whoever chose those words actually thinks the earth stands still and the sun rotates around us? Of course not! I understand that is a common expression that refers to what we normally see.

Marc Roby: I sense that we are getting ready to launch into an entirely different discussion at this point, so this is probably a good place to finish for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that we invite them to email their comments and questions to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Available from http://defendinginerrancy.com/chicago-statements/ and also from http://www.alliancenet.org/the-chicago-statement-on-biblical-inerrancy

[3] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth: Or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology?, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1993, pg. 4

[4] James Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, Revised in One Volume, InterVarsity Press, 1986, pg. 71


[Download PDF Transcript]

Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. In our previous sessions we have made several points: First, the Bible is infallible because God is its author, and he is infallible. Second, that this is a critically important doctrine because without it our faith is, ultimately, based on subjectivism. And, third, the idea that Scripture alone is to be our authority was the formal cause of the reformation, which further emphasizes the importance of this issue. Dr. Spencer, how do you want to begin today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to start by saying that in holding up the Bible as the ultimate authority for life, we are not in any way opposing science, history, or any other human endeavor to gain knowledge; in fact, we encourage them. God created us with the ability and desire to understand the world around us. We just need to remember that the Bible is our only infallible source of information. But, we should certainly try to understand as much of the world around us as we can and to put that information to good use in fulfilling what is sometimes called the creation mandate.

Marc Roby: For those listeners who may not be familiar with that term, let me explain that the creation mandate refers to God’s command to Adam and Even in Genesis 1:28, where we read that God, “blessed them and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.’” [1]

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. The theologian John Murray, in his book Principles of Conduct, speaks even more generally of the creation ordinances, which include filling and subduing the earth, labor, the weekly sabbath, marriage and more. He wrote, “The whole earth is full of God’s glory. The chief incentive in subduing the earth and the chief end to be promoted by it would have been the discovery and exhibition of the manifold wisdom and power of God.”[2] He says it “would have been” because this command was given before the fall. But, he then goes on to show that the creation ordinances did not cease with the fall, so making God’s manifold glory manifest should still be our main goal.

Marc Roby: Which agrees with the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The answer to the first question of the catechism says, “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.”[3]

Dr. Spencer: The catechism and Murray agree because both are biblical. But, in addition, there are other secondary purposes for man to learn how to properly manage and use the earth’s resources. For example, as the population grows it is necessary for our technology to get better in order to be able to feed everyone.

The current population of the earth could not possibly be supported if we had not greatly increased our ability to grow food. Modern farms are dramatically more efficient in producing food than they were just 50 years ago, let alone a thousand years ago. That’s a good part of the reason why the dire predictions of mass starvation by Paul Ehrlich in his 1968 book The Population Bomb didn’t come true.

Marc Roby: So, fulfilling the creation mandate is a good thing. But, of course, the Bible also tells us that studying creation should drive us to God himself.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. Studying creation should definitely drive us to God. How can you look at the beauty, immensity, and complexity manifest in nature without finding yourself in awe of the God who created it all? Psalm 19 famously begins, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” (Ps 19:1-3)

Marc Roby: I love that psalm. And it goes on, after discussing creation in Verses 1-6, to talk about God’s revelation in his Word.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Verse 7 begins “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul.” The “law” here really refers to all of Scripture. And, in the King James Version, it says “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul”. It is speaking about the use of the Word of God in bringing about new birth and salvation, in other words conversion, through the work of the Holy Spirit.

We can learn a great deal about God from creation itself, but as we argued in Session 22, that knowledge is only sufficient to leave us without excuse. It should cause us to recognize that there is a God and to give him glory, thank him for life and all blessings, and seek to know and please him. But, the Bible is absolutely necessary for salvation and to live a life pleasing to God as we explained in Session 24.

Marc Roby: The central importance of the Word of God was emphasized by Christ himself as well. When Satan tempted him to turn stones into bread after 40 days of fasting in the desert Jesus replied, in Matthew 4:4, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Dr. Spencer: That is a great verse, and of course Jesus answered Satan’s other temptations the same way, by quoting the Bible. So, his answers affirm that our Lord himself considered the Bible to be the infallible Word of God.

In addition, we should notice that Christ was quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3, where Moses explained to the people that God had allowed them to experience hunger during the exodus so that they might learn that the Word of God is every bit as important for life as food. You can have physical life without the Word of God, but you cannot have spiritual life without it. And when you deny the infallibility of the Bible, you deprive yourself of the Word of God because you are now the authority who must decide which parts of the Bible are his word.

Marc Roby: You have argued that the Bible is authoritative and infallible because it is the Word of God. But, in doing so, you assumed that God exists and that the Bible is his word. But, you often hear people say that we should read the Bible from a neutral point of view to see if it is true. How would you respond to that charge?

Dr. Spencer: I would respond as the great Old Testament Scholar E.J. Young did in his book Thy Word is Truth. He wrote that “There can be no neutral position. We believe that either God is our Creator and the One who alone gives meaning to all aspects of life, or that we are faced with the dismal gloom of relying upon the human mind as the ultimate point of reference and predication.”[4]

His language is a bit old fashioned here. To rely on “the human mind as the ultimate point of reference and predication” means to use our minds as the ultimate judge of what is true. Predication means to make a statement of fact about something.

Marc Roby: We all remember from grade-school grammar that a sentence has a subject and a predicate, and the predicate tells us something about the subject.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, and it’s the same root word. And Young’s point is very important. There is no neutral position. As we have argued many times before, there are only two possible ultimate authorities; either God’s revelation, or man’s reason. A Christian’s ultimate authority must be God’s revelation, which is only found in the Bible.

Marc Roby: Which, it is important to point out, is not opposed to reason in any way.

Dr. Spencer: That is important. And Young addresses that issue. He writes[5] that when compared with the “crude polytheism of the Babylonian documents”, and the “pseudo-creation accounts of the ancient world, … the Bible stands out like a fair flower in a dreary, barren desert.” And that when you look at man’s attempts to find some way to atone for his sins and then look to the Bible you see “How unspeakably grand is the doctrine of salvation by grace!”

Marc Roby: In other words, the Bible is its own best evidence once the Holy Spirit changes our hearts so that we receive it.

Dr. Spencer: The Bible is definitely its own best evidence. We spent a number of sessions looking at external evidence that corroborates the Bible, which is of great use to a Christian to bolster our faith. But, that is not the basis for our faith as we noted a number of times. If we have determined that the Bible is true because it conforms to some external standard, then the Bible itself is not be the ultimate standard, human reason is. You simply cannot escape from this choice.

Nevertheless, to believe the Bible is absolutely not belief without warrant, it is not a leap in the dark, it is belief that is entirely consistent with all evidence and logic. But, it is a belief that cannot be attained without new birth – sin blinds the unbeliever and prevents him from accepting what he knows to be true. So, as you said, the Holy Spirit must change our hearts so that we can receive the Word of God. Which is why the apostle Paul thanked God for doing this work in the Thessalonian church. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 he wrote, “we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God”.

Marc Roby: But, we recognize that there are many professing Christians who do not agree that the Bible is the infallible Word of God. What would you say to them?

Dr. Spencer: I would say that we must be very careful about our salvation. It is the most important thing there is for us to consider because our eternal destiny is at stake. Perhaps you have been taught that the Bible is not God’s Word, but that it only contains God’s Word, or that it becomes God’s Word as you interact with it, or whatever. But you need to think that through very carefully. As we have been laboring to demonstrate, if you don’t believe that the Bible is entirely the infallible Word of God, then your faith is based on subjectivism. And, if that is the case, you may not have a biblical Christianity. You may be believing in a man-made substitute, which will not save you.

Marc Roby: That warning is very serious. In our last session you quote the theologian John Murray who wrote that one aspect of biblical faith is “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority of Scripture as the Word of God.” [6]  And that this “is inseparable from a state of salvation.” [7]

Dr. Spencer: I understand that this may be a hard word for some people to hear, but Murray is exactly right. But, I also said that these statements are an expression of a mature faith that has been thought through. It is my hope that our listeners will think this through carefully, recognizing the extreme importance of the issue. If they do not find themselves agreeing with the Bible’s own declarations that it is the infallible Word of God, that is a strong indication that they may not be born again.

Marc Roby: That immediately brings Paul’s letter to the Galatians to mind, where he warned them, in Galatians 1:6-7, saying, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very serious warning. But, there are many people today who are not turning away from the true gospel to a different gospel, they have simply never known anything but a different gospel because they go to a church that doesn’t preach the true gospel found in the Bible. And that is a very dangerous thing.

Marc Roby: Jesus Christ himself gave us a frightening warning in Matthew 7. In Verses 21-23 Jesus told the people that “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’”

Dr. Spencer: What a frightening passage. And doing the will of God certainly includes believing the gospel as it is presented to us in the Bible, not as it is distorted by some men. It is always important for us to remember that calling ourselves Christians will not save us. The only way I will be saved is if Jesus Christ owns me as his on that day.

So, one of our chief reasons for doing this podcast is to lay before people what the Bible itself says so that they can trust in the true gospel of grace.

Marc Roby: And there are many ways of twisting and perverting that gospel of grace and, thereby, turning it into a damnable man-made religion.

Dr. Spencer: And there are ditches on both sides of the road. On the one side of the road is the ditch of lawlessness. This is the common idea that because we are saved by grace our own works don’t matter at all and we can go on living however we want to live so long as we once said “Jesus Christ is Lord.” But this idea is completely foreign to the Bible. I am saved by grace alone; my own works are in no way at all meritorious and do not earn my salvation. But, if I have truly been saved, then I am, as Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17, a new creation and, as he wrote in Ephesians 2:10, I have been “created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for [me] to do.”

Marc Roby: I love the way Paul puts it in Romans 1:5. In the Greek it says we have been called into the obedience of faith. Which makes it clear that true saving faith has obedience as a necessary concomitant.

Dr. Spencer: That is a great way to put it. Our works are necessary to prove that we are, in fact, new creations. So, our works are the evidence that we are truly born again, not the cause of our being born again. But, there is a also ditch on the other side of the road, and that is legalism; the idea that I can somehow earn my salvation by fulfilling the law. I think this view is also common today, but with a very defective sense of what it means to fulfill the law.

There are many professing Christians out there who think that they will be saved because they are, quote-unquote, good people who try to be kind to everyone and keep the Golden Rule. These people need to see their sin in all of its ugliness and, therefore, their true need for Christ and the biblical, gospel of grace.

Marc Roby: Which brings us back to the infallible Word of God.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. We need to understand what God has revealed in his Word about our sinful condition and what we must do to be saved. No plan conceived by man can save us, which is why the infallibility of the Bible is so important. If it isn’t infallible, then we have no way to avoid the ditches on either side of the narrow path, we are bound to listen to the ideas of men instead of to God.

Marc Roby: Let me take a stab at stating your argument in a different way. If the Bible is not infallible, then the Bible is not the word of God; and if we do not have God’s words, then we have nothing solid on which to base our supposed understanding of God, salvation, or anything else for that matter. To rule out an infallible Bible is to rule out the God of the Bible, which of course is what unbelieving man wants to do. Once we’ve ‘X’d out God, then we can listen to and follow our own opinions and thoughts. But, we are warned twice in the book of Proverbs, in 14:12 and 16:25, that “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”

Dr. Spencer: That is a very clear way to state the argument. E.J. Young wrote about this question of listening to God or man in Thy Word is Truth. He wrote, “Having their vision obscured by the dense fog that modern theology is casting over the way, many do not realize that there is a crossroad. They are not aware that they must decide which road they will follow. Unless something is done, they will travel on, taking the wrong turning, until the road leads them at last into the valley of lost hope and eternal death.

“Pray God that He will awaken His people from their slumber. Pray that He will warn them of the dangers that lie ahead in the forsaking of His Word.”[8]

Marc Roby: And part of the dense cloud that modern theology produces is the misconstruing of what it means to be saved by grace as we just illustrated. We are praying that all of our listeners will choose the right path, meaning to trust the infallible Word of God as their ultimate standard for truth.

Dr. Spencer: Absolutely. And, we have already shown that Jesus Christ himself considered the Bible to be the infallible Word of God. So, it seems obvious that anyone who calls himself a Christian must do the same.

Marc Roby: That does seem reasonable. I look forward to getting into more biblical evidence for the infallibility of God’s Word, but we are out of time for today. I’d like to remind our listeners that we would very much like to hear from them, and they can email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org.

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, The Principles of Conduct, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1957, pp 37-38

[3] WSC, Q1

[4] E.J. Young, Thy Word is Truth, the Banner of Truth Trust, 2012, pg. 32

[5] Ibid, pg. 33

[6] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, pg. 241

[7] Ibid, pg. 254

[8] Ibid, pg. 35