Christ’s Interpretation vs. Artificial Interpretation: A Paradigm for Systematic Theology?
By Christopher Louis Lang
There are a number of ways to approach the question of inerrancy. But what I am concerned with is the Bible’s view of itself. We could look at this question from the perspective of each author or each segment of scripture and ask how the Torah views its authoritativeness, and alternately then the Prophets, the Writings, the Gospels, etc., until we put together a comprehensive view on the scripture’s attestation of its own authority.
But as this task would be far beyond the scope of this paper, I will adopt a shorter route. Probably the most fruitful and concise way to examine the Scripture’s view of itself is through the words of Christ. As he is God’s revelation, God’s Word, which has come to us in human form, he has the greatest potential to shed light on the entirety of Scripture. In Christ we have the references to God’s past revelation (still current and operative), God’s present revelation in Christ’s person and words, and what would be His future revelation through the disciples. What I am proposing is that Christ’s view on the authority of the biblical text is paradigmatic of the Scripture’s view of itself.
In taking this approach at least one potential objection may be raised against it and it is best to deal with this up front. That objection is the charge of circular reasoning, that is that we are using the Scripture’s own testimony to support itself. In other words, what Christ says about the Scripture is contained within the Scripture itself. There are no external witnesses to corroborate Christ’s words and therefore we are left with the Bible affirming its own truthfulness.
In order to deal with this criticism we need to establish the text’s reliability as a witness before proceeding to demonstrate Christ’s views regarding his authority or the authority of past or future revelation. If the text shows itself to be reliable in matters of history including statements of fact as well as geography, etc., then we may conclude that it is a reliable source regarding other matters that it affirms (See my paper entitled Doubting.doc for a more complete argument regarding the reliability of the text.) For time’s sake and to avoid duplication we can affirm that the text is indeed a reliable witness. And because it is a reliable witness we may reasonably conclude that it represents Christ’s words faithfully. Therefore, let us examine what He has said.
What is immediately apparent upon reading Jesus’ references to Scripture is that He quotes it in a variety of ways referring to the author at times or making general allusions to the past or broadly affirming its character. In all of the manners and ways in which He communicates regarding the Scripture, His high views of it are apparent. For our purposes, Christ’s handling of Scripture can be divided into three types of usage: references, quotations, and direct affirmations. In His references to Scripture He directly or indirectly lends authority to an event such as Moses’ writing of the law or the factual nature of Noah’s experiences. In quotations of Scripture, Christ submits to its authority and bestows on it His approval in numerous ways including the well known formula “it is written.” Although less frequent, though no less important, are Christ’s direct affirmations to the Scripture’s veracity. But while these are important, what is more telling as to Christ’s view of the Scripture, is His casual use of Scripture. Even without His direct attestation to it, His views regarding Scripture are apparent.
References to Scripture
Christ makes use of two kinds of references to Scripture apart from directly quoting it: references of fact and indirect references. In the former Christ assumes the historicity of the event, lending to it His authority as if to say, “this actually happened.” Examples of this kind of reference are numerous. “I tell you the truth, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment, than for that city” (Mtt 10:15). In this statement Christ lends His authority both to the factual existence of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and their judgment, as well as the biblical teaching of a judgment yet to come. Likewise, regarding Noah and the events of his life, “For the coming of the Son of Man will be just like the days of Noah. For as in those days which were before the flood they were eating and drinking they were marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered the ark . . . (Mtt 24:36ff). Christ maintains that there was a person in history named Noah who lived and whose existence follows a chronology preceding and postdating a cataclysmic earth wide flood.
Christ repeatedly refers to events, not as stories being told in order to illustrate a point (as He does with parables e.g., omoioV estin), but as factual historical events. “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah. . . . there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha. . . (Lk 4:25ff.). He refers to Jonah and the actual people of Nineveh who lived and died there. He refers to Lot and the wicked city in which he lived, as well as to many other historical persons and events. Christ affirms that Scripture is accurate as an historical document and what it teaches are not stories but historical events.
Christ lends his authority to biblical authorship as well by other references of fact. He makes statements such as, “in the book of Moses” (Mrk12:26), “David said” (Mrk 12:36), “spoken through Daniel the prophet” (Mtt 24:15). While it is certainly possible to argue that Christ lends His authority only to those passages which he actually cites, or that He spoke to accommodate Himself to the reader, to do this is to read into the text. It is to enforce an artificial interpretation on the natural reading, an interpretation which is beyond demonstration. The most natural, straightforward reading is that Christ believed and affirmed that these books were indeed written by these men.
Christ indirectly references Scripture, as well. Some of these passages give powerful insight into Christ’s beliefs for the very reason that they are not His direct teachings regarding Scriptures. What they reveal are more foundational, that is, His assumptions regarding Scripture. “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according the their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them” (Mtt 23:2,3). Christ is indicating that the law of Moses is binding regardless of who teaches it. The “chair of Moses” is authoritative for life and not subject to the attestations of men, for the very reason, as we shall see, that there is a difference between men’s teachings and traditions and God’s truth. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Mark 7:8,9. In the context of quoting an Old Testament passage Christ says, “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. . . You nicely set aside the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.” Christ draws a sharp distinction here between the words of men, presumably the Talmud and various other traditions, and the words of God. The words of men are not binding on mankind, in fact they are to be subservient to God’s commandments.
Quotations from Scripture
And what are God’s commandments? Here we move out of Christ’s indirect references to Scripture and into direct quotations, specifically, those in which the author of Scripture is spoken of interchangeably with God. Christ continues in the very next verse of Mark, “For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and your mother. . .'” The words of God are the words of Moses, and Isaiah (quoted by Christ in the preceding verses Mark 7:6,7), and the rest of the Old Testament Scriptures. Christ does not ascribe these words to a human author as though they were human and therefore less binding. Another instance of a similar kind occurs in Matthew 19: 4-5. “The Creator said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother.” Christ attributes Moses’ words, the author of Genesis, as belonging to “the Creator.” In citing Moses’ words He ascribes them to the very words of God, their real author. Somehow God has worked through Moses and Isaiah to produce words that are God’s very own as Christ calls them “the commandment of God.” What greater attestation could we have from Christ than to equate Scripture with God’s words, to equate writings of human instrumentality with divine actuality.
Christ quotes the Scriptures in many other ways. He uses quotations to attest to His ministry, to clarify truth, to demonstrate prophetic fulfillment, as well as to demonstrate its binding nature as in the use of the phrase “it is written.” Scripture is a foundational part of Jesus’ ministry as He demonstrates by His reliance upon and usage of Scripture. In every phase of His life and ministry He showed a complete reliance on Scripture. Never correcting it or overruling it but rather clarifying Jewish interpretation of it and thereby affirming His commitment to it.
Christ also uses the Scriptures as an attestation of truth. While this may be an all too obvious usage, it is necessary to call attention to it in order to see the importance of Scriptures in Jesus’ ministry. When the Jews misunderstood something or emphasized one principle to the detriment of another Christ valued the truth of Scriptures enough to correct their misunderstanding because their use of the holy writ was not simply a religious exercise but a matter of utmost importance. Thus Christ quotes Hosea 6:6 “I desire compassion, and not sacrifice,” to correct their rigid view of the Sabbath. Had Christ not viewed this as an issue of ultimate importance and relevance, He could have overlooked it. But it was a misunderstanding that dealt with the Scriptures and their view of God and He could not overlook this. Their traditions, men’s words, had overridden the Scripture, God’s words. And therefore Jewish teachings had corrupted their understanding of who God was. And this is what Christ challenged referring them back to Scripture as the final court of appeal to correct their false views of God.
He also attests to the Scripture’s ability to provide the truth necessary for salvation. The Scriptures’ so thoroughly attest to the truth of God that they are sufficient for salvation. Christ responds to the lawyer in Luke 10:25 who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, after quoting from the law Christ responds to him, “You have answered correctly; Do this, and you will live.” If understood and applied correctly the Scriptures are necessary and adequate for salvation. It is difficult to overstate this point. That is, the Scriptures are so thoroughly God’s word, as we have previously seen, not just the words of men, and in that they are God’s word they are able to bring men to Him. They provide a right perspective of God as well as a right perspective of men and therefore dictate the terms by which one can approach the other.
The Scriptures’ ability to provide salvation find their fulfillment in Christ, for they bear witness to Him. This is another of the means by which Jesus uses the Scriptures, as they relate to fulfilled prophecy. He is careful to draw His listeners back to the authoritative word. Christ begins his ministry in the gospel of Luke by reading from Isaiah 61. Upon completing his reading of the text he declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21).
He places a great amount of emphasis on the fulfillment of Scripture in order to demonstrate and affirm its veracity. In referring to His deliverance to the authorities He claims, “But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets may be fulfilled” (Mtt 26:56). And again, “These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Lk 24:44). He affirms that the Scriptures are true and must happen as they so declare. God’s will as recorded in Scripture is not subject to the will of man. The words are true and God will intervene to bring them to pass. God is bound, not by the words of men, but by His own words, His own promises.
However, it is not just that Christ attests to Scripture’s truth in prophetic fulfillment, but that the Scriptures attest to Him. In fact he rests His authority on the veracity of prophetic Scripture. “For if you believed Moses, you would believe Me; for he wrote of Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My words?” (John 5:46ff.). Christ is willing to stake His ministry and His character on the truthfulness of Scripture.
This point cannot be overlooked. If the Scriptures are in error, how can they attest to one who is without error? If the Scriptures are fallible, then in what way can we depend on them to attest to Christ? Without question God uses fallible human means to attest to His infallibility, but never does God tie His infallibility to humans in the way in which Christ ties His truthfulness to that of the Scriptures. If the Bible is in error, then surely Christ cannot be trusted. This may not be a position we would want to place Christ in, but it is the position in which He puts Himself.
An accurate demonstration of Christ’s reliance upon Scripture is given in each of the synoptic gospels upon Christ’s death. According to the synoptic gospels, the last words out of Jesus’ mouth before His death are words from the Scripture. Mark and Matthew show Him quoting Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why Hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mtt 27:46, Mrk 15:34). Luke demonstrates the same idea, “Into Thy hands I commit my spirit” (Lk 23:56). With Matthew and Mark, and possibly Luke, the Scriptures He quotes are prophetic. Until His last breath Jesus is pointing to the truthfulness of the Scriptures to demonstrate that His character and ministry are from God and not from man just as the Scriptures are God’s words and not man’s.
Another way in which God’s word is quoted by Christ as such is in the use of the formula “it is written.” This formula appears 39 times in the gospels, 26 of those are from the mouth of Christ. He uses this phrase as an ultimate appeal to authority. When the Jews could not believe that their “vineyard” might be given to another, Christ appeals to the Scripture: “What then is this that is written, ‘The stone which the builders rejected, this became the chief corner stone?'” (Lk 20:17). Jesus shows that He accepts as authoritative everything that “is written,” including His own suffering. “For I tell you, that which is written must be fulfilled in Me, ‘And he was numbered with transgressors’; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment” (Lk 22:37).
Of the “it is written” formulaic passages probably the most important are those occurring in the beginning of Matthew and Luke in the temptation narratives. While Christ is being tempted by the devil in the wilderness a battle takes place and the weapons of warfare used by Christ, and the devil, are the Scriptures. Jesus is shown as being tempted three times: to satisfy His needs, to prove His identity, and to gain power. In all three situations he responds by quoting Scripture beginning with the formula “it is written.” What is significant here is that instead of battling Satan based on His own authority, which He could have done, He rests His authority on the biblical writings. Jesus demonstrates His utter dependence on the truthfulness of the written word. “It is written” is the ultimate appeal to authority. Its equivalent is “God said” or “thus saith the Lord.” This is the power Christ rests on and this is the power that silences His adversary. For Christ, and even Satan, “it is written” is the last word for it demonstrates the authority of God.
Direct Affirmations of Scripture
The last aspect of Christ’s teaching to be examined is His direct affirmations of Scripture. In this section I am including His attestations to the Old Testament as well as His attestation of His own words. In Luke 16:17 we hear Christ speak these words, “But it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail.” God’s truthfulness in the written word will last longer than the heavens and earth. This remarkable statement certainly appears to indicate that Christ valued every detail of written Scripture as true. Notice that Christ does not appeal to the “word of God” language that might have protected Him from affirming the authority of potentially corrupted written texts. He affirms that not one “stroke of a letter” will fail. He immediately applies this by adding that divorce is wrong. Man’s traditions cannot override God’s written word from the minutest to the most essential issues.
Matthew witnesses to Christ’s unbending commitment to the written word in the same manner. “Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished” (Mtt 5:17,18). Later in Matthew’s gospel Jesus demonstrates just how seriously He takes this statement. In correcting the Sadducees’ view of the resurrection, Jesus bases His argument on the tense of one verb, “‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead but of the living” (Mtt 22:32). Christ affirms the Scriptures as accurate down to the verb tenses.
As with the written word of God, Christ maintains that His words are good for salvation, they will not pass away, and they are equal to the Father’s words. While His words were not canonical at the time that He spoke them, it is worth briefly noting their relationship to His teaching on the canonical Scriptures. “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words shall not pass away” (Mtt 24:35, Lk 21:33). In saying this Christ maintains that His words will survive, presumably also in written form, and that they are virtually the same as the rest of the written Scriptures. This view is buttressed by John 14:23, 24. “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him, and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.” God’s words are recorded in the Old Testament scriptures and they are also spoken through Jesus.
The question as to the truthfulness, infallibility, inerrancy of the Scriptures comes to rest on the person of Jesus Christ. Who is Christ? Who we decide Christ to be will determine what we decide about the Scriptures. If Christ is God, all knowing and all loving then we can come to no other conclusion than His own. The written word is truthful in every stroke of every letter. If however Christ is not God or not loving and truthful, then we can believe what we will regarding the Scriptures. What we cannot do, in order to remain true to Christ and the Bible, is to mingle these views. We cannot legitimately hold to Christ’s divinity and veracity while holding to fallible Scriptures. The authority of both are intimately tied together, not by our logic but by Christ’s own words. One basing His authority on the other, the other attesting to the authority of the One. We cannot hold for a fallible Scripture and an infallible Christ, just as it would be ludicrous to hold for an infallible Scripture and a fallible Christ. Each attests to the other and we must decide what to do with them both, for they present themselves as a package.
Erickson, Millard J. “The Dependability of God’s Word: Inerrancy.” Chapter in Christian Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985.
Grudem, Wayne. Chapter in “Four Characteristics of Scripture: Clarity.” In Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: IVP and Zondervan, 1994.
Nicole, Roger. “The Biblical Concept of Truth.” In Scripture and Truth. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Packer, J.I. “Infallible Scripture and the Role of Hermeneutics.” In Scripture and Truth. D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983.
Wenham, John W. “Christ’s View of Scripture.” In Inerrancy. Norman L. Geisler, ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.
Article from http:// http://www.xenos.org