How to Build a Doctrine of Scripture
Lane G. Tipton
The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has commemorated the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Edward J. Young (1907–1968) by reprinting a series of lectures given just two years before his death on the doctrine of Scripture, entitled The God-Breathed Scripture. The lectures, presented in an engaging and lucid style, offer great insight on a number of topics pertaining to the doctrine of Scripture and showcase the theological competency of a top-tier Reformed Old Testament scholar.
The book consists of four chapters dealing with various facets of the biblical doctrine of inspiration. It also includes an insightful foreword by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Young's son-in-law) and a select bibliography of Young's publications.
Chapter 1, entitled "Scripture: God-Breathed and Profitable," touches on the crucial issue of bibliological methodology. And what is the proper method for constructing a doctrine of Scripture? Young is clear that "there is of course a proper method of examining the ‘phenomena' of Scripture and that is to study them in light of Scripture's doctrine of itself" (p. 15). The proper starting point in forming a doctrine of Scripture is the self-witness of Scripture (i.e., Scripture's own teaching about itself). The so-called phenomena of Scripture (i.e., everything in Scripture that is not self-witness) must be understood in terms of the biblical self-witness. The self-witness of Scripture demands that we conclude that the Bible in its entirety is divine in its origin, authority, and reliability. For example, 2 Timothy 3:16 (along with 2 Peter 1:20–21) is the classic passage that sets forth the Bible's own doctrine of Scripture and "constitutes a ringing declaration of the divine authorship of Scripture" (p. 11). Scripture is the inspired and inerrant Word of God written, and biblical phenomena in the nature of the case confirm and elaborate this foundational truth.
Chapter 2 deals with the nature of God-breathed Scripture and offers a straightforward defense of the inerrancy of the original, inspired text of canonical Scripture. Young interacts with Dewey Beegle's The Inspiration of the Bible, in which Beegle argues that the biblical phenomena render an inerrant Scripture impossible to affirm. Young effectively challenges Beegle at the methodological level, insisting that while we must not shirk the difficulties in the biblical text, we must never allow the so-called phenomena of Scripture to undermine the Bible's own teaching about itself.
Chapter 3, "The Bible and the Christian Faith," interacts with Alan Richardson's History Sacred and Profane—a work that attempts to delineate the best reasons for believing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. According to Richardson, our belief in the resurrection of Christ rests ultimately on the widespread faith of the early Christian community. The most plausible explanation for the Easter faith of the early Christian community is that Jesus actually rose from the dead.
However, building on the foundational insights from chapter 1 regarding Scripture as the Word of God written, Young observes that the Bible presents a divinely inspired and infallible interpretation of the fact of Jesus' resurrection from the dead. The fact of Jesus' resurrection must be interpreted in the authoritative light of the Word of God, which is found only in canonical Scripture. In the final analysis, this implies that inscripturated revelation is the best reason to believe that the resurrection of Jesus Christ actually took place in history. Eyewitnesses can and do err, but God's inscripturated Word is inerrant and reliable. Richardson's primary failure consists in privileging extrabiblical sources over the Word of God written—an epistemological commitment subversive of the biblical religion it seeks to defend.
Chapter 4, "A Modern View of the Bible," advances an incisive critique of the Confession of 1967—a fundamentally neo-orthodox document, notorious for its vagueness and ambiguity, which departs widely from historic Reformed orthodoxy. The Confession of 1967 assumes that "there is no final and absolute truth" (p. 80), advances imprecise doctrinal formulations, and denies the biblical doctrine of inerrancy. Having found itself "in the land of vagueness" (p. 88), the Confession of 1967 enshrines heterodoxy, not so much in what it denies, but in what it fails to affirm, specifically, that the Bible is the very Word of God written.
Young's work is as relevant in the twenty-first century as it was at the height of the modernist-fundamentalist controversy in the early to mid twentieth century.
We enthusiastically commend Young's methodological self-consciousness with respect to the proper formation of a doctrine of Scripture. Young's basic point, so critical for a Reformed bibliological method, is that the so-called phenomena of Scripture may not be summoned against the self-testimony of Scripture.
As Gaffin indicates in the foreword to the book, B. B. Warfield argued about a century ago that there are two mutually exclusive approaches to the formation of a doctrine of Scripture. The first approach begins with the explicit self-witness of Scripture regarding its own divine origin, authority, and reliability—which is impervious to change, other than by means of exegetical reconsideration of Scripture's own self-witness—and then proceeds to deal with the phenomena of Scripture (p. 8). The other approach, exemplified by Beegle, adopts the reverse procedure. Beginning instead with the so-called historical phenomena and human messiness of Scripture, this approach ultimately winds up denying Scripture's own self-witness regarding its divine origin, authority, and reliability. No greater contrast seems conceivable.
Gaffin penetrates to the methodological core of the different approaches when he observes:
The one approach begins with the divinity of Scripture, its divine authorship, and considers its humanity in that light; the other begins with the human authors, and the resulting assessment of that humanness becomes controlling for understanding whatever divine aspects may be attributed to Scripture. (pp. 8–9)
The divine and human in Scripture, therefore, are not equally ultimate, existing in some sort of parity with one another. Reformed bibliology begins with the divinity of Scripture, based on Scripture's own self-witness, and understands biblical phenomena, including human authorship, in light of Scripture as the authoritative Word of God (see the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.4–5). The implications of this methodological procedure are as important as they are numerous.
First, the biblical self-witness is foundational when it comes to establishing the doctrine of Scripture. The phenomena of Scripture can help the theologian not to draw invalid inferences from a faulty understanding of the self-witness of Scripture. They can also assist the theologian in gaining a deeper understanding of Scripture as the inerrant Word of God. But the biblical phenomena cannot in any way subvert the clear self-witness of Scripture regarding its own divinity, authority, and inerrancy. Put another way, a proper bibliological method grants that we appeal both to Scripture's self-witness and to its phenomena in constructing our doctrine of Scripture, yet the self-witness of Scripture with respect to divine authorship retains controlling importance at every point over the so-called phenomena.
Second, and building on the previous point, no extracanonical source has the authority to occasion a reassessment of the church's doctrine of Scripture. Extrabiblical evidence, whether derived from the ancient Near East or Second Temple Judaism, can certainly be informative when it comes to understanding a given passage of Scripture. For instance, Meredith Kline's pioneering work in the area of suzerain-vassal treaty structures sheds a great deal of light on the nature of biblical covenants in the Old Testament (see his The Treaty of the Great King). However, no extrabiblical evidence should ever be invoked to determine our understanding of the nature of Scripture itself. Extrabiblical evidence possesses no normative criteria by which we can reevaluate our understanding of what constitutes the essential character of Scripture. Only Scripture, particularly the biblical self-witness, contains such criteria. To assert otherwise is to forfeit any meaningful notion of biblical authority and to subvert the clear distinction between canonical Scripture and extrabiblical sources.
Young's lectures prove immensely helpful in the current climate of compromise and confusion regarding the doctrine of Scripture. He reminds us that while there may be difficulties in the text of Scripture that we will never fully understand, Scripture is "the Word of Him who is the Truth" (p. 102). May ministers of the gospel in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church continue to preach the inerrant Word of truth with humility, boldness, and confidence.
The author, a member of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pa., teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2007.