Bavinck the Dogmatician (4) The Doctrine of Inscripturated Special Revelation

After his extended treatment of the doctrine of revelation and the distinction between general and special revelation, Bavinck concludes his introductory volume in Reformed dogmatics with a consideration of the doctrine of Scripture. The inscripturation of special revelation represents the provision within God’s providence of a permanent and fixed form of revelation. Just as the whole of special revelation finds its focus and fulfillment in the event of the incarnation of the Son of God, so the entire history of special revelation and the meaning of this great event find their climax in the written form of holy Scripture. According to Bavinck, there is a broad analogy between the history of redemption, which reaches its climax in the event of God’s Son taking the form of a servant, and the history of special revelation, which reaches its apex in the Word assuming the “servant form” of Scripture.

The importance of the doctrine of Scripture to dogmatics is not difficult to discern. Since we have access to God’s special revelation, which makes known his work of salvation in Jesus Christ, through the inscripturated Word, the Scriptures are the primary source and norm for Christian theology. Contrary to the tendency in modern theology to drive a wedge between the knowledge of Jesus Christ and submission to the authority of the Scriptures, Bavinck insists that all knowledge of the person and work of Christ is mediated by God’s design through the revelation that is given to us in the Scriptures. Therefore, we conclude our review of Bavinck’s introductory volume with a consideration of his doctrine of Scripture.

The Inspiration of Scripture

Bavinck begins his treatment of the doctrine of Scripture with the subject of inspiration. Testimony to the inspiration of Scripture is already provided in the Old Testament. For example, the prophets of the old covenant were deeply conscious that they were called by the Lord and that the Word they spoke was not their own but was given to them by God. The prophetic word did not arise from within the heart of the prophet, but was communicated by dreams and visions and represented the Word that the Lord desired to be communicated to his covenant people. Furthermore, all the historical books of the Old Testament were written by the prophets and record history in a “prophetic” manner (RD 1:393). The interest of the authors of these historical books is not like that of modern historiography, which aims to offer a kind of detailed and “objective” report of what transpired. Rather, the historical books of the Bible offer a kind of inspired “commentary” or interpretation upon the course of history under the superintendence of the Lord of the covenant, who was preparing the way for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ in the fullness of time.

Not only do we find a considerable body of testimony to the divine origin of the Word in the books of the Old Testament, but we also find a comprehensive testimony to the inspiration of the Old Testament in the New Testament. Everywhere throughout the New Testament writings, we find a uniform witness to the truth that the Old Testament canon was not of human origin but ultimately of divine origin. Bavinck cites several kinds of New Testament evidence that confirm the divine inspiration of the Old Testament. First, the formulas used in the New Testament when quoting the Old Testament vary (e.g., “it is written,” “God says,” “Scripture says”), but they always express the conviction that what the Old Testament says is equivalent to what God says. Second, Jesus Christ and his apostles often directly affirmed the divine authority of the Old Testament Scriptures (e.g. Matt. 5:17; John 10:35; 2 Pet. 1:19, 21; 2 Tim. 3:16). Third, there are no instances in the New Testament where Jesus or the apostles takes a critical stance toward what is written in the Old Testament. And fourth, for “Jesus and the apostles the OT is the foundation of doctrine, the source of solutions, the end of all argument” (RD 1:395). The cumulative weight of these lines of evidence, according to Bavinck, can only yield the conclusion that the Old Testament writings were regarded to be of divine origin and therefore fully authoritative.

In addition to the evidence for the inspiration of the Old Testament, Bavinck also observes that there are several lines of evidence in the New Testament for the inspiration of the teaching of Jesus and his apostles. Jesus Christ, who is the last and chief of the prophets, is the Word become flesh, and his witness is regarded in its totality as having the authority of God himself. In an important statement, which has implications for Bavinck’s understanding of the infallibility of the Word of God, Bavinck notes that Jesus was not only “holy and without sin in an ethical sense but also intellectually he is without error, lies, or deception” (RD 1:398). Were Jesus to have erred in any respect, his teaching would not have full authority, including his teaching that the inscripturated Word is of divine origin. After noting the divine inspiration of Jesus’ teaching, Bavinck further observes that our access to Jesus’ teaching is by means of his appointed apostles and servants. In order to ensure the preservation and propagation of Jesus’ witness, it was necessary that provision be made for the inscripturation of the message of the New Testament apostles and prophets. The apostles of Jesus Christ were authorized by Christ and uniquely indwelt of the Holy Spirit in order that they might fulfill the particular commission as authoritative witnesses to the person and work of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of the church’s existence, the unique authority and significance of this witness concerning Jesus Christ was recognized. For this reason, the writings of the New Testament apostles were widely circulated in the churches and carefully preserved. The historical process by which the church came to acknowledge the New Testament Scriptures involved a gradual recognition of the divine inspiration and authority of these New Testament writings. Rather than this recognition being constitutive of their divine authority, it was an acknowledgement of what had been true from the beginning, namely, that Christ was pleased to make himself known and build his church upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets of the new covenant (Eph. 2:20).

With only a few exceptions, the OT and NT writings were immediately, from the time of their origin and in toto, accepted without doubt or protest as holy, divine writings. The place and time at which they were first recognized as authoritative cannot be indicated. The canonicity of the Bible books is rooted in their existence. They have authority of themselves, by their own right, because they exist. It is the Spirit of the Lord who guided the authors in writing them and the church in acknowledging them. (RD 1:401).

Before treating more directly the nature of the inspiration of Scripture, Bavinck follows his summary of the biblical testimony to its own inspiration with a survey of the testimony of the church throughout its history. From the beginning, the Christian church has universally received and acknowledged the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God. The early church immediately recognized the authority of the Old Testament, and from its inception the writings of the New Testament apostles and prophets were placed on a par with the books of the Old Testament. Though the patristic period did not give much attention to the nature of inspiration, there are frequent instances where the church fathers described the event of inspiration “as an act of driving or leading but especially as an act of dictation by the Holy Spirit” (RD 1:404). Even though the language of dictation might suggest a mechanical view of inspiration, the writings of the church fathers exhibit familiarity with the diversity of the language and style of the biblical authors. Therefore, the use of the terminology of “dictation” ought not to be pressed literally, as though the fathers viewed the human authors as merely passive in the production of Scripture.

According to Bavinck, little advance in the doctrine of inspiration occurred during the period of the medieval Christian church. However, at the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth-century, the Roman Catholic Church did set forth an explicit doctrine of Scripture at the Council of Trent. In response to the Reformation’s insistence upon the supreme authority of Scripture (sola Scriptura), Tridentine Catholicism extended the doctrine of inspiration to include the unwritten tradition of the church, which was subject to the church’s teaching authority and interpretation. In later eighteenth and nineteenth century Catholicism, there was a tendency to limit inspiration to a “passive or negative assistance that preserved the [biblical] authors from error” (RD 1:410). With the rise of biblical criticism, many Roman Catholic scholars tended to restrict the inspiration of the Scriptures to the religious-ethical content of the Bible, and acknowledged a greater or lesser degree of fallibility to the remainder of its content. Even though the Roman Catholic Church continues to affirm formally a doctrine of Scriptural inspiration, the emphasis upon the church’s teaching authority (magisterium) and infallibility allowed many Roman Catholic theologians to embrace a kind of “concessionism.” So long as the infallibility of the church’s dogmas is acknowledged, it is possible within the Roman Catholic Church to concede much to biblical criticism.

In his survey of the church’s testimony to the inspiration of Scripture, Bavinck devotes considerable attention to what he regards as the most important development in recent times, namely, the rise of biblical criticism within Protestantism.  In the modern period, the historic doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration has suffered a series of attacks. At the time of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the content of Scripture was subjected to sifting in accord with what conformed to the dictates of human reason. In the nineteenth-century, the tendency was to call into question the authenticity of the Scriptural writings and their historical veracity. When judged by the standards of modern historiography, biblical criticism has concluded that the Scriptures fall short of full truthfulness and accuracy. For biblical criticism, the Bible is a thoroughly human book and exhibits few, if any, traces of its divine authorship. According to Bavinck, the consequences of modern biblical criticism for the doctrine of Scripture are evident in a new definition of what is meant by inspiration. Rather than viewing the Scriptures in their entirety as the Word of God, biblical critics have tended to distinguish between the religious-ethical content of the Bible and its “incidentally historical” form. Though the kernel of religious truth that is communicated through Scripture bears evidence of divine authorship, the husk of the actual writings of Scripture bears evidence of the thoroughly human and errant form in which this kernel is contained. In the theology of Schleiermacher, a new doctrine of inspiration emerged to resolve the problems generated by biblical criticism. In Schleiermacher’s conception of inspiration, there is a general divine influence upon the biblical authors, a “dynamic” empowerment that enables them to express the highest truth, even though it is cast in an undeniably fallible form. In this understanding of inspiration, the biblical authors differ from other believers only in the degree of God’s influence upon them. Rather than affirm the inspiration of the biblical writings themselves, this view emphasizes the subjective influence that inspires the biblical writers to express divine truth in a form that it is undeniably errant and imperfect.


Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.

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