J. G. Vos
New Horizons: June 2003
Also in this issue
by Larry Wilson
by John Blanchard
Today in our Western culture, the Bible is generally praised. It is praised by many who have not the slightest intention of living by it. It is praised by many who have never even read it, except perhaps casually. It is praised by critics who have torn it to shreds and who hold that it has only human authority. But formal commendation of the Bible as something good, and really taking the Bible seriously, are two different things.
In Christianity, the Bible has a double function. It is, first of all, the standard of truth and duty; and secondly, it is a means of grace in the Christian life. Many who admit the latter are nevertheless intent upon denying the former. The Bible as a help to right living, yes; the Bible as a revelation of absolute truth, nosuch is the common reaction to the Bible among intellectual people today.
We shall consider in this article (1) Bible breaking, or overt denial of the Bible's authority as truth; (2) Bible bending, or covert denial of the Bible's authority as truth; and (3) Bible believing, or hearty acceptance of the Bible's authority as truth.
In the tenth chapter of the gospel of John, we have the record of a dispute between Jesus and the leaders of the Jews. He made the statement, "I and my Father are one" (v. 30). This was rightly understood by the Jews as a claim to deity. Thereupon they accused him of blasphemy and were on the point of stoning him to death. In replying to them, and defending himself against their charge, Jesus appealed to Scripture. He cited a statement of Psalm 82:6, "I said, Ye are gods" (v. 34). This was spoken to the people of Israel in Old Testament times. Because, as judges, they were clothed with authority from God and were God's servants in administering justice, they could, in that sense, be called "gods" (small g).
Jesus' argument is as follows: It cannot be blasphemy to apply the term "God" to anyone to whom it can properly be applied. If it was proper to apply the terms "god" or "gods" to the Old Testament judgeswhich Jesus' opponents did not and could not denythen how much more proper it must be to apply the term "God" or "Son of God" to the One whom the Father had consecrated and sent into the world (John 10:34-36)! If the Jews did not object to the ancient judges being called "gods"and they did notthen how could they claim that it was blasphemy for Jesus to say, "I am the Son of God"?
This argument Jesus enforced by the statement, "And the scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35). This is stated as an axiomatic truth, something concerning which both Jesus and his accusers were completely in agreement. Both they and he agreed without dispute that "the scripture cannot be broken." Jesus was certainly no conformist. He disputed with the Jewish religious leadership of his day about many thingsthe right observance of the Sabbath, paying tribute to Caesar, proper support of needy parents, the length of public prayers. He accused them of formalism and hypocrisy in their religious life and even raised the question of how they could escape the damnation of hell. But there was one matter on which Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders were completely in agreement, namely, the full truth and divine authority of the Old Testament Scriptures. On this subject, Jesus was the most orthodox of the orthodox, from the standpoint of the scribes and Pharisees themselves. We can see this from the fact that in all their efforts to find something to accuse Jesus of, it seems never to have occurred to them to accuse him of a wrong attitude toward the Scriptures. On that supremely important matter, there was no dispute between him and them.
Note that Jesus cites the words of the Old Testament by saying, "Is it not written in your law ...?" (John 10:34). In the law. But the verse he cited was not from the books of the Old Testament commonly called "law." It was a verse from the Psalms. Yet Jesus referred to it as the "law," and then a moment later he spoke of it as "the scripture." It is clear that to Jesus the Old Testament was an organic unity. It was all Scripture; it was all the Word of God; it was all law, of divine truth and authority. When Jesus said that "the scripture cannot be broken," stating this as an axiomatic truth about which there could be no argument, he referred, obviously, to the Old Testament as a whole, in its completeness, and in all its details. For the statement which he quoted was of such a nature that it might almost be regarded as an incidental remark of the psalmist. Yet Jesus called it law, he called it Scripture, and he affirmed that it "cannot be broken."
When accused of blasphemy, Jesus answered by an appeal to a statement of Scripture on the ground that "the scripture cannot be broken." This is characteristic of Jesus' attitude toward the Scripture throughout his whole life on earth. Never did he indicate any other attitude toward the Scriptures. For Jesus, the verdict of the Scriptures was final. It settled the point. There could be no more arguing by godly people after the Scripture had spoken.
What has this to do with us today? Faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior is linked with faith in the Bible as a whole, in its completeness and in all its details, as the unbreakable Word of God. Many people today want to keep Christ, while at the same time they disbelieve statements of the Bible. They say that the Bible contains errors and contradictions; or that it is inspired only in its important ideas, not in its actual words; or that it is inspired only where it deals directly with religion and morals, while it contains a great deal of prescientific nonsense as well as glaring errors in matters of history.
A stream of sample textbooks comes to the teaching staff of the Bible Department of Geneva College. Many of these books are handsomely gotten up by large and well-known publishing firms and endorsed by prominent clergymen and educators, yet they are absolutely unsuitable for use as basic textbooks in a Christian college. Book after book treats the Bible as a human product containing a mixture of truth and error. Book after book casts doubt on the truth of considerable portions of both the Old Testament and the New. The authors of such books are Bible breakers. Where such books are taken seriously, people's faith will be broken down, not built up.
All forms of open unbelief, of course, are forms of Bible breaking. Under this heading we may mention atheism, agnosticism, dialectical materialism, and most forms of present-day philosophy, including especially the currently popular philosophy of existentialism. The Scripture cannot be broken, but these unbelievers try to break it. In the end, they will break themselves on it, just as the person who tries to break the force of gravity will break himself in the end.
H. G. Wells, whose very superficial Outline of History was once a very popular book, was a Bible breaker. He has aptly been called "a monolithic materialist." Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, was a Bible breaker. He once wrote a book called Religion within the Bounds of Pure Reason. The British scientist J. B. S. Haldane has said that "God serves as an excuse for refusal to think, by acting as a kind of dump for all the contradictions found in our experience." Julian Huxley, popular British biologist and lecturer, has said, "God is simply fading away, as the devil has faded before him." Again, Huxley said, "Theistic belief depends on man's projection of his own ideas and feelings into nature." And again, "God ... is a human product." And Nikita Khrushchev said that a Russian astronaut circled the earth seventeen times without seeing God, and therefore God does not exist! Needless to say, all such blatant unbelief is Bible breaking. But there are other forms also.
One form of Bible breaking is sheer neglect of the Bible, just ignoring it, making no effort to learn what it says or to apply its teachings to various areas of human life. A story is told of a minister who called on a family, and, as the parents were not at home, he talked to a little boy. "Do you know what the Bible is?" "Yes, sir." "What is it?" "It is God's Word." "Well, do you know what is in it?" "Yes." "What is in it, then?" "Grandma's spectacles are in it, and the ticket to my dad's watch, and my big sister's boyfriend's photo." Unfortunately, many adults have no better idea of what is in the Bible.
It is related that a party of American tourists in Egypt were being shown around by an Egyptian guide. He showed them the spot where, he said, the bones of the seven lean cows were buried. The tourists were duly impressed, none of them realizing that those seven cows existed only in a dream of Pharaoh. Such ignorance of the Bible is not uncommon today. Even among church members, ignorance of the simple historical contents of the Bible is often abysmal. Many a church member cannot tell whether King David lived before or after John the Baptist. Many a church member cannot find a particular book of the Bible without consulting the table of contents or index. As for the teachings of the Bible, many people's ignorance is even more abysmal.
The Bible is addressed to everyone. The Scripture cannot be broken. Its binding character cannot be canceled or nullified by people's careless indifference. When the Judgment Day comes, millions of people will go to hell, and they will say, "We never knew." But they had the Bible. They could have known; they should have known; if they did not know, it was their own sinful fault. The words of Scripture will stand, in the Day of Judgment, over against the claim of millions of selfish, easy-going, pleasure-loving, God-ignoring people who will try to claim, "We never knew."
The most fashionable form of Bible breaking today is called neo-orthodoxy, also known as the theology of crisis, dialectical theology, and other names. This holds that the Bible is a mixture of truth and error. It denies that the actual Bible, as a written book, is the Word of God. On the contrary, it is said that the Bible may become the Word of God to a person when it comes home to him or grips him in a personal encounter or crisis experience. This is certainly Bible breaking. It is nothing less than an overt denial of the Bible's authority as truth.
Many people who claim to believe in the Bible, and who would not for a minute want to be classed as Bible breakers, nevertheless bend or distort the Bible by their way of dealing with it.
It is justly objected against all modern English versions of the Bible that the translators or revisers, under the plea of modernizing the English of the Bible, have as a matter of fact tampered with the theology of the Bible. This is not true of all recent versions, but it is certainly true of many. The theological bias of the translators was bound to affect their product, even though they might sincerely seek a scholarly objectivity in their work. One form in which liberal theology has influenced recent Bible translation is seen in the tendency to substitute more general concepts for particular or specific ones in the Bible. Thus, one of the latest of the new translations regularly substitutes the word deliverance for the biblical term justification. This virtually cancels the whole doctrine of justification by faith, for it lifts the concept out of its legal or judicial setting and changes it to a general term which could include any kind of rescue from any kind of situation or trouble. Deliverance is not a true equivalent of justification, any more than heart trouble is a true equivalent of coronary thrombosis, or food a true equivalent of tomato soup. The tendency exemplified by the substitution of more general for more specific terminology is a common and serious form of Bible bending.
The Bible is bent or distorted when it is interpreted in terms of some system of nonbiblical thought. The late Dr. Benjamin B. Warfield, one of America's most distinguished theological scholars, said that there can be no objection to stating Christianity in terms of modern thought. Every age, said Dr. Warfield, speaks a language of its own and can speak no other. Mischief only comes, he added, when, under the guise of restating Christianity in terms of modern thought, what is actually done is to state modern thought in terms of Christian belief. In other words, when under the guise of updating the form, what actually happens is that the content has been tampered with, then the Bible and its teachings have been bent or distorted.
According to orthodox Christian belief, the Bible is a self-interpreting book. That is, the criteria and principles needed to interpret the Bible aright are found in the Bible itself. No principles or ideologies from external sources are to be used as a key to understanding the Bible. When someone takes a nonbiblical ideologysay, socialism, for exampleand puts it in front of his eyes like a pair of tinted lenses, and then looks at the Bible, what he sees is bound to be colored by the tinted lenses. This bends or distorts the teaching of the Bible. Certainly there can (and must) be a biblical interpretation of sociology, but there cannot be a sociological interpretation of the Bible without the message of the Bible being seriously bent.
If a person starts with the dialectical philosophy of Hegel, with its thesis, antithesis, and synthesis, and holds this neat formula to be a universally valid key to the meaning of all reality, and then interprets the Bible in terms of this approach, he will inevitably bend or distort the Bible.
Many examples could be cited from real life. It is recorded that one of the czars of Russia was quite a Bible reader. However, he was not the least interested in the real message of the Bible. He approached the Bible as a believer in the divine right of absolute monarchy, and searched the Bible for texts which seemed to him to support this notion. Needless to say, the Bible does not really teach this, but a person with this ready-made approach could find some things in the Bible that could be bent to fit what he had in mind.
Frances Willard, the well-known temperance leader, was an ardent feminist or champion of "women's rights." This seems to have been a powerful drive in Frances Willard's thinking, and she approached the Bible from this point of view. She wrote a book called Woman in the Pulpit. A minister once challenged me to read this book, and after that, of course, I had to read it. It was an eye-opener. This book does violence to nearly every recognized principle of sound biblical interpretation. It seemed as if almost any statement of the Bible could be bent to fit Miss Willard's idea of "women's rights." Among other things, Miss Willard contended that since the gospel can be preached to everyone, it can be preached by everyone. She said that men have preached a creed and left people's hearts as hard as millstones, but that women will preach a life. She even advocated turning the government of the church over to women in preference to men, and much more of the same caliber. This, I submit, was a classic example of Bible bending, or distorting the Bible to make it fit a ready-made, nonbiblical concept.
A great deal of present-day agitation for the abolition of capital punishment as the penalty for first-degree murder amounts to bending the Bible. The Bible, of course, prescribes the death penalty for murder on the ground of justicenot because it will deter others from committing murder, but because the murderer deserves to die. The opponents of capital punishment usually ignore completely the whole biblical concept of justice, and assume that the interests of society are the thing that counts. Then they take certain texts of the Bible as arguments, while completely ignoring others which categorically command that the murderer be put to death. This disregards the organic structure of the Bible and makes selected isolated texts normative for the interpretation of the whole, even when this interpretation contradicts explicit biblical commands. This is Bible bending. What a person likes in the Bible he calls "the spirit of Christ," and then bends everything else to fit this.
Suppose I receive a letter from the bank in which I have a modest checking account. This letter informs me that I have overdrawn my account. The bank, it continues, is forbidden by law to carry overdrafts. The bank asks me to attend to this matter immediately. But instead of going to the bank and making a deposit to cover the overdraft, I read the letter again. I am impressed by the courteous, friendly tone of the introduction and conclusion. It starts by addressing me as "Dear Dr. Vos," and continues by stating that the bank "regrets" having to send me this letter. It closes with a heart-warming phrase, "Very cordially yours." Now, I say to myself, the body of the letter cannot really mean that my account is overdrawn and I must immediately attend to the overdraft. That would be merely going by the literal interpretation. The overall tone of the letter is distinctly friendly. I decide that the spirit of the letter is what really counts. How could the bank really mean that I am in the wrong and must do something about it, when the spirit of the letter is so warm and friendly? So I interpret the letter as meaning that I have not overdrawn my account, and need not do anything in particular. The bank could rightly charge me with bending their communication. And similarly the person who uses the so-called "spirit" of the Bible to nullify explicit statements or commands of the Bible is guilty of bending the Bible.
A minister in a meeting which I attended reviewed a book about Christ, and in doing so cited with approval a statement of the author to the effect that we should not accept all the teachings of Jesus Christ, but only that part of his teachings which we find to be true. This, of course, is covert rationalism, and it is extreme Bible bending. If I must decide which of the teachings of Christ are true and which are untrue, then neither Christ nor the Bible is my authorityI am going by my own human reason. Such Bible benders may claim to accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God, yet really they deny its authority by their attitude to its contents. Their real authority is their own reason or their own emotions, not the statements of Scripture. They pick and choose among the statements of the Bible, taking what appeals to their prejudiced, sin-darkened minds and bypassing the rest. This "pick and choose" attitude to the Bible is very sinful. It amounts to canceling the authority of a large part of the Bible. Even the part not canceled is held, not because it is the Word of God, but only because it happens to fit a ready-made idea of the reader.
Dishonest interpretation, whether consciously or subconsciously perpetrated, is a form of Bible bending. This thrives today in multitudes of people who have diverged from the well-marked pathway of truth. Satan blinds their eyes and then they begin to twist and bend the Bible to make it mean what they want it to mean. In Lewis Carroll's book, Alice in Wonderland, the character Humpty Dumpty says in a scornful tone, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean, neither more nor less." There are many people like Humpty Dumpty today. They use words to mean, not what the words really mean, but what they choose to have them mean. The Communists are not the only people who use double-talkit is also used by many religious people to bend the Bible to their ideas and prejudices.
A man says, "I believe in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement," but it soon becomes evident that he does not believe in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, but only in one of the miserable false theories of the atonement, such as the well-known "moral influence" theory. Words are the currency of thought, as money is the currency of business. The words of the Bible have a meaning, which can be ascertained by careful study. They mean what they mean, not just what the reader of the Bible would like to have them mean. A well-known writer of religious education materials said that Jesus Christ was the first man who ever dared to be divine. Surely this is an instance of Bible bending, a covert denial of the authority of the Bible as truth.
The Bible believer recognizes and does justice to both parts of the double function of the Bible. He accepts it, not only as a means of grace in the Christian life, but as the infallible and absolute standard of truth and duty. And he realizes that the former depends for its vitality upon the latter: just because the Bible is the absolute standard of truth and duty, it is also an effective means of grace in the Christian life.
The Bible believer has an attitude of humble receptivity to the teachings of Scripture. John Calvin said: "They who have been inwardly taught by the Spirit feel an entire acquiescence in the Scripture." The Bible believer does not approach the Bible asking, "What do I say about this book?" Rather, he approaches the Bible asking, "What does this book say about me?" Jesus said that unless we become as little children, we cannot enter into the kingdom of heaven. This statement of our Lord is not a reference to any supposed innocence or sinlessness of little children. It certainly refers to the humble, trusting attitude of little childrentheir dependence upon and receptive attitude toward their parents. The real Bible believer has this attitude of a little child in his approach to the Bible. He is not a Bible breaker nor a Bible bender. He believes the Bible and wants to learn its lessons and practice its requirements.
A sign of genuine conversion is the willing and complete renunciation of objections and cavils against anything in the written Word of God. When the miracle of regeneration has taken place, doubts and objections against the Scripture melt away like snow in the spring sunshine.
The rationalistic unbeliever who says he simply cannot believe in miracles or predictive prophecy is a Bible breaker. But when the hand of God is laid on him, as it was on Saul on the Damascus road, he will become a Bible believer. The man who said he didn't care whether predestination is taught in the Bible or nothe would never believe it, even if taught in the Bibleneeded to be born again. The woman who said about a certain one of the Old Testament psalms, "I simply hate that psalm," needed to be born again. Every Bible breaker needs to be born again. It would perhaps be extreme to say that every Bible bender needs to be born againthere are degrees of Bible bending and degrees of awareness of one's sin in the matterbut certainly many do, and others need more of the Holy Spirit's work in their lives to make them humble and receptive of the Word of God.
The Bible believer not only believes but also confesses the truths of Scripture. He is not only a believer but also a witness. Martin Luther said: "If I contend faithfully for every point of divine truth, except that one little point which the world and the devil are attacking at the moment, I am not confessing Christ, however loudly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be faithful in all the field besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that one point." It takes little courage to witness for the truth among the friends of the truth. But the real Bible believer confesses the truth, when occasion calls for it, among the enemies of the truth.
The Bible believer is also, when occasion requires, a defender of the truth of the Bible. He is not impressed by that old half-truth which says that "the Bible can defend itself." He knows that God works through people, and that it is through people's witnessing and confession that God has defended his Word in past times. The Bible believer is therefore ready and willing to stand up and be counted. He is not trying to avoid the reproach of Christ by lying low and saying nothing when the Word of God is being broken or bent.
This is a hearty love for the truth of God. This is not the attenuated, anemic, "Yes, but ..." theology which is so common today, as when somebody says, "The Bible is the infallible Word of God, but ..." Instead of this weak-kneed attitude, the Bible believer will say: "The Bible is the infallible Word of God, period."
The Bible believer also adorns his witness for the Bible by a godly life. He lives a consistently godly life. We are commanded to have deeds, not mere wordsto be doers of the Word, not hearers only. This means straightforward honesty, ethical living, love for God and man, separation from iniquity. It means that the teacher who is a Christian will strive to do a better academic job than the one who is not a Christian is doing. It means that the student who is a Christian will do his honest best in using the academic opportunities that God has given him. He or she will be ashamed to come to class unprepared by reason of laziness or neglect. The student who is a Christian and who is adorning his testimony will not only avoid cheatinghe or she will regard academic performance as a service to the Lord, and will seek by academic excellence to commend the Word of God to others.
Adorning our witness also involves Christian compassion toward those who are without Christ or who have stumbled and fallen into sin. We are to be like the Lord Jesus Christ, not like the self-righteous Pharisees, in our attitudes. Realizing that it is only by grace that we differ from others, we will remain humble in ourselves and compassionate toward others.
Dear reader, where do you stand? Are you a Bible breaker, a Bible bender, or a Bible believer?
Johannes G. Vos was a minister in the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America and taught Bible at Geneva College for many years. This article (quoting the KJV) first appeared in Blue Banner Faith and Life (October 1964), which he established and edited. Although written in 1964, this article is just as relevant to today's church as it has ever been. Reprinted from New Horizons, June 2003.
New Horizons: June 2003
Also in this issue
by Larry Wilson
by John Blanchard
© 2022 The Orthodox Presbyterian Church