William R. Cannon
The Bible is the single source of the faith and morals set forth in the Christian religion. Though biblical teaching and practices may be amplified by tradition and explicated and even justified by various systems of philosophy, their basic conceptions and original models are provided by God in sacred Scripture so that the Bible is the sole foundation on which both Christian theology and ethics are built. The doctrines of the Christian church were propounded by councils and theologians subsequent to the completion of the Bible and are developments from principles contained therein. But these doctrines in no way contradict the Scripture or infringe upon and contravene its divine oracles and commandments and its blessed promises, which give life and hope to all who believe. Rather, they are like flowers that spring from biblical seeds. The germinal ideas for all Christian doctrines are in the Bible. Thus the teaching of the church, as affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, “is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously, and explaining it faithfully by divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit; it draws from the deposit of faith everything it presents for belief as divinely revealed.”Walter M. Abbott and Joseph Gallagher, eds., “Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation” in The Documents of Vatican II 2.10 (New York: American Press, 1966), 118.
The Bible is the revelation of God to people. If we believe that there is a God who created us and endowed us with minds capable of acquiring and dispensing knowledge, of adjusting ourselves to God's creation and to a degree controlling and improving the conditions under which we live, then it is only reasonable to assume that God can communicate with us and disclose to us who he is, what he expects of us, and in turn what we can expect of him. “It would be absurd,” writes Richard Watson, the first and some would claim the greatest Methodist theologian after Wesley, “to think that he who has given us the power of communicating ideas to each other should have no means of communicating with us immediately from himself.”Richard Watson, Theological Institutes. (New York: Carlton and Phillips, 1856), 1:71. There are three distinct means of communication from God to us displayed in the Bible.
The first of these is that of action, the mighty deeds of God in history, which Holy Scripture is careful to record, for example, the call of Abraham, the blessing of Jacob, the plight of the Israelites in Egypt, the Passover and deliverance of God's people from bondage, the wilderness sojourn, the rise and fall of a nation and its restitution—all from the pages of the Old Testament. God's action reaches its climax as it is narrated in the Gospels through the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Acts of the Apostles describes Pentecost, the organization of the church, and the missionary expansion of Christianity. This is plain history. But the events of that history could not have occurred without divine intervention. It is the history of God in action among and in behalf of his people.
The second means of communication that God employs is that of speech. God spoke directly to Moses in the burning bush on Mount Horeb, and he continued to have conversation with him throughout the remainder of Moses' career as the leader of God's people. The prophets introduced their oracles with “Thus saith the Lord.” And every word Jesus ever spoke fell from the lips of the Incarnate God.
The third means of communication from God to us, as seen in the Bible, is through the experience of saints and heroes, their reflections on their relationships with God and their admonitions and counsel to us, for example, the Psalms, the Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, the apocalyptic writings, and the Epistles.
Revelation is not human discovery. God does not yield himself to the probing ingenuity of human beings. To discover something one must be superior to and more intelligent than the thing he discovers. The scientist can discover the secrets of nature because he has a mind that nature does not possess. God is uncreated, while we are creatures, and he belongs to a higher order of life than we do. If we are to know anything about him, he must disclose himself to us. And this he has done in the Bible.
The disclosure of God is to human beings. The mighty acts of God had to have witnesses. The words God spoke were to particular persons who had to give God their attention, had to understand what he said, remember his directives, and transmit them to his people. To be sure, the Bible is the disclosure of the character, the mind, the purpose, and the will of God. Revelation is a divine act in which God takes the initiative. But if God is the subject and provides the sustance of his disclosure, the object of what he says and does is some person, that is, a prophet, a seer, an apostle, perhaps a priest, or even a king. This person must be able to apprehend God's message to him. He must be able to comprehend in terms of his own understanding the revelation, or disclosure, God gives to him.
This means that God, on his part, adjusts himself to the person with whom he communicates, while the person who receives the communication does so in terms that he understands and that have relevance to the times and situation in which he lives. The Bible is a glorious display of God's gracious adaptation of himself to all sorts and conditions of people in all ages of history and in the various stages of human development. It is likewise the inspiring record of people's receiving and apperceiving God's disclosure of himself to them under most untoward conditions and often in times most primitive and even barbaric. In the childhood of the race, God dealt with simple and childlike people in ways comparable to theirs so that Adam heard his voice as he walked in the garden in the cool of the evening.
Therefore, the geography, the cosmology, and the scientific information that the Bible provides is inadequate and out of date; only an ignoramus would assume otherwise. It did not lie within the scope of divine providence to provide general knowledge through revelation. In ordinary affairs God left people to fend for themselves. In making his will and purpose known to them, God came down to their level, knowing that it was impossible for them to rise up to his. “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the Lord” (Isa 55:8).
The correlative of revelation is inspiration, which may be thought of as the human means of receiving the divine disclosure in whatever form that disclosure takes, and more especially in translating it into writing and thereby preserving it for the use of posterity. The person to whom the revelation was given was not always the one who wrote about it, and there was often a long lapse of time between the divine disclosure and the written account of it. For example, the book of Genesis, which gives us the account of the flood and the narrative of the patriarchs, has to have been written hundreds of years aftr these events took place. And even the four Gospels are not contemporary with the life of Jesus, which they portray. In order, therefore, to guarantee the validity of the written accounts of his revelations, God had to inspire the biblical writers by endowing them with his Spirit so that what they wrote would be faithful and true.
The old theory of verbal inspiration is that God used the sacred writers as his secretaries to whom he dictated the Holy Scriptures word by word so that they are altogether without error. This presumably was the view of the early church. Saint Augustine puts it succinctly: “Since they wrote the things which he showed and uttered to them, it cannot be pretended that He is not the writer....”Augustine, De Consensus Evangel, 1. But to hold to this view, the Patristic writers had to resort to what appears to us a farfetched and imaginary method of interpretation, namely, the allegorical, in which the divine writers say one thing but mean another. Origen, for example, thought the first chapter of Genesis, taken at face value, was absurd. It is impossible, he said, for the first, second, and third days of creation to have existed with a morning and evening and yet without sun, moon, and stars. The first day did not even have a sky above it. He could not imagine God planting a vineyard as a farmer would do.Origen, De Principis 4.1.16. To him all this is written figuratively to lay bare some mystical meaning. Augustine follows suit, saying that Eden signifies the church: its four rivers, the Gospels; its fruit trees, the saints; and the tree of life, Jesus Christ.Augustine, The City of God 13.21.3. By this method one can read into the Bible anything one wants to put there. Indeed, any form of biblical literalism suffers great intellectual strains when the contents of the Bible are minutely scrutinized and subjected to a comparison with what science has discovered and with a contemporary understanding of the world and its history. If God had dictated it, he certainly would have known as much and more than we do, and the style and content of his book would be of the same quality and character throughout.
This is not the case. The Bible is a library of sixty-six books written over a period of many centuries and displaying the styles and talents of many different authors. God took what he had and used those who were willing to be used, with their limitations and deficiencies, to his own appointed ends. The purpose of the Bible is simply to present God's plan of salvation, and those who wrote it were inspired by the Holy Spirit to convey to humankind the story of redemption, and in this regard their work is perfect and without fault or blemish. “I want to know one thing,” writes John Wesley, “the way to heaven—how to land safe on that happy shore. God himself has condescended to teach the way; for this very end he came from heaven. He hath written it down in a book. O, give me that book! At any price give me the Book of God! I have it. Here is knowledge enough for me.”Albert C. Outler, ed., Sermons I, Vol. 1 of The Works of John Wesley (Nashville: Abingdon, 1984), 105. Rather than speak of the inerrancy of Scripture or verbal inspiration, it is much better to speak of the indefectibility of the Bible or its infallibility, the breathing of the Holy Spirit on its authors to assure their accuracy in presenting God's plan of salvation in its perfection.
The zenith of the Bible is Jesus Christ. The Old Testament is preparation for his coming. The Gospels are the good news of the salvation that is given through his life, death, and resurrection. The Acts of the Apostles describes his church—the New Israel abrogating and superseding the Old. The Epistles are explanations of his person and ministry, and the Revelation is a vision of his kingdom. The Bible ends with Jesus, and revelation ceases; for when that which is perfect is come, nothing more can be said.
This commentary is a careful exegesis of the entire Bible, explaining its contents, book by book, in terms of the intentions of the authors who composed it and addressed it to the peoples of their own time. At the same time, it is an inspiring exposition of the Bible's message for us and the peoples of all times. For in these writings of human beings, we find the eternal Word of God, which is the means of our salvation.
We should, affirms Pope Pius XII, “feel filial gratitide towards God who has sent us these books—as the letters of a Father to his own children.”Pope Pius XII, Encyclical Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943), quoted by Jean Levie, The Bible, Word of God in Words of Man, S. H. Treman, trans. (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1961), 153.