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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : CHAPTER VII. INSPIRATION AND THE CANON

Companion To The Bible by E. P. Barrows


By the word inspiration, when used in a theological sense, we understand such an illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit as raises a speaker or writer above error, and thus gives to his teachings a divine authority. If we attempt to investigate the interior nature of this superhuman influence, its different degrees and modes of operation, and the relation which the human mind holds to the divine in the case of those who receive it, we find ourselves involved in many difficulties, some of which at least are to our finite minds insuperable. But if we look at it from a practical point of view, restricting our inquiries to the end proposed by God in inspiration, which is to furnish his church with an infallible and sufficient rule of faith and practice, we find no difficulty in understanding the subject so far as our duty and welfare are concerned. From such a practical position the question of inspiration will now be discussed; and the inquiry will be, at present, restricted to the writings of the New Testament. In connection with this discussion will also be considered the subject of the canon, not in its particular extent, but in the principle upon which it is formed.

1. It is necessary, first of all, to find a sure rule by which we can try the claims of a given book to be inspired, and consequently to be admitted into the canon of the New Testament. It cannot be simply the writer's own declaration. It will be shown hereafter that, in connection with other evidence, his testimony concerning himself is of the highest importance. But the point now is, that no man's inspiration is to be acknowledged simply on his own word. Nor can we decide simply from the contents of the book. Very important indeed is the question concerning the contents of any book which claims to be a revelation from God. Yet we cannot take the naked ground that a given book is inspired because its contents are of a given character. This would be virtually to set up our own reason as the supreme arbiter of divine truth, which is the very position of rationalism. Nor can we receive a book as inspired on the so-called authority of the church, whether this mean the authority of a man who claims to be its infallible head, or the authority of a general council of the churches. Admitting for a moment the Romish doctrine of the infallibility of the church, we could know this infallibility not from the declaration of any man or body of men in the church, but from Scripture alone. But this is assuming at the outset the infallibility of Scripture, and therefore its inspiration, which is the very point at issue. Looking at the question on all sides, we shall find for a given book of the New Testament no valid test of the writer's inspiration except his relation to the Lord Jesus Christ. This presupposes our Lord's divine mission and character, and his supreme authority in the church. It is necessary therefore to begin with the great central fact of the gospel, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of God, and that through him God has made to men a revelation of his own character and will for their salvation. This fact is to be first established according to the ordinary rules of human evidence, as has been attempted in the preceding chapters. After that we come naturally to the inspiration of the record, and can establish it also on a sure foundation.

2. The great fundamental truth that Jesus is the Son of God, who dwelt from eternity with the Father, knew all his counsels, and was sent by him to this fallen world on a mission of love and mercy, being established on an immovable foundation, we have a sure point of departure from which to proceed in our inquiries respecting inspiration. It becomes at once a self-evident proposition -- the great axiom of Christianity, we may call it -- that the teaching of Jesus Christ, when he was on earth, was truth unmixed with error. This he himself asserted in the most explicit terms: |The Father loveth the Son, and showeth him all things that himself doeth.| John 5:20. |I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.| John 8:12. |He that sent me is true; and I speak to the world those things which I have heard of him.| John 8:26. |I have not spoken of myself; but the Father which sent me, he gave me a commandment, what I should say, and what I should speak. And I know that his commandment is life everlasting: whatsoever I speak therefore, even as the Father said unto me, so I speak.| John 12:49, 50. Proceeding then from the position of our Lord's infallibility, let us inquire whether any of his disciples, and if so, who among them, were divinely qualified to teach, and consequently to record, without error, the facts and doctrines of his gospel. There are but two grades of relationship to Christ with which we can connect such a high endowment: that of apostles, and that of their companions and fellow-laborers. Let us consider each of these in order.

3. Early in our Lord's ministry he chose twelve apostles, |that they should be with him, and that he might send them forth to preach, and to have power to heal sicknesses, and to cast out devils.| Mark 3:14, 15. In this brief notice we have all the distinguishing marks of an apostle. He was chosen that he might be with Christ from the beginning, and thus be to the people an eye-witness of his whole public life. When an apostle was to be chosen in the place of Judas, Peter laid particular stress on this qualification: |Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection.| Acts 1:21, 22. In the case of Paul alone was this condition of apostleship wanting; and this want was made up to him by the special revelation of Jesus Christ. Gal.1:11, 12. An apostle, again, was one who received his commission to preach immediately from the Saviour, a qualification which Paul strenuously asserted in his own behalf: |Paul an apostle, not of men, neither by man, but by Jesus Christ, and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.| Gal.1:1. An apostle, once more, was one who received directly from Christ the power of working miracles. This was the seal of his apostleship before the world. In the three particulars that have been named the apostles held to Christ the nearest possible relation, and were by this relation distinguished from all other men. Have we evidence that they were divinely qualified, through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, to preach and record the facts and doctrines of the gospel without error?

That they must have been thus qualified, we have, in the first place, a strong presumption from the necessity of the case. Though our Lord finished the work which the Father gave him to do on earth, he did not finish the revelation of his gospel. On the contrary, he said to his disciples just before his crucifixion, |I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth is come, he will guide you into all truth.| John 16:12, 13. Let us look at some of these things which were reserved for future revelation. The purely spiritual nature of Christ's kingdom was not understood by the apostles till after the day of Pentecost, for we find them asking, just before his ascension, |Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?| a question which he did not answer, but referred them to the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. Acts 1:6-8. Another of the things which they could not bear was the abolition, through Christ's propitiatory sacrifice, of the Mosaic law, and with it, of the middle wall of partition between Jews and Gentiles. This great truth was reserved to be revealed practically in the progress of the gospel, as recorded in the book of Acts, and doctrinally in the epistles of Paul. Then what a rich unfolding we have in the apostolic epistles of the meaning of our Lord's death on Calvary, and in connection with this, of the doctrine of justification by faith -- faith not simply in Christ, but in Christ crucified. Faith in Christ's person the disciples had before his death; but faith in him as crucified for the sins of the world they could not have till after his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. The abovenamed truths -- not to specify others, as, for example, what Paul says of the resurrection, 1 Cor., ch.15; 1. Thess.4:13-18 -- enter into the very substance of the gospel. They are, in fact, integral parts of it. Can we suppose that our Lord began the revelation of his gospel by his own infallible wisdom, and then left it to be completed by the fallible wisdom of men? If Augustine and Jerome in the latter period of the Roman empire, if Anselm and Bernard in the middle ages, if Luther and Calvin at the era of the Reformation, if Wesley and Edwards in later days, commit errors, the mischief is comparatively small; for, upon the supposition that the apostles were qualified by the Holy Ghost to teach and write without error, we have in their writings an infallible standard by which to try the doctrines of later uninspired men. But if the apostles whom Christ himself appointed to finish the revelation which he had begun, and whom he endowed with miraculous powers, as the seal of their commission, had been left without a sure guarantee against error, then there would be no standard of truth to which the church in later ages could appeal. No man who believes that Jesus is the Son of God, and that he came into the world to make to men a perfect revelation of the way of life, can admit such an absurd supposition.

In the second place, we have Christ's express promises to his apostles that they should be divinely qualified for their work through the gift of the Holy Ghost: |But when they deliver you up, take no thought| -- be not solicitous, as the original signifies -- |how or what ye shall speak, for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak. For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.| Matt.10:19, 20. |But when they shall lead you, and deliver you up, take no thought beforehand what ye shall speak, neither do ye premeditate: but whatsoever shall be given you in that hour, that speak ye: for it is not ye that speak, but the Holy Ghost.| Mark 13:11. |And when they bring you unto the synagogues, and unto magistrates, and powers, take ye no thought how or what thing ye shall answer, or what ye shall say: for the Holy Ghost shall teach you in the same hour what ye ought to say.| Luke 12:11, 12. |Settle it therefore in your hearts not to meditate before what ye shall answer: for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist.| Luke 21:14, 15. The above promises are perfectly explicit; and although they refer primarily to a particular emergency, in which the apostles would especially feel their need of divine guidance, they cover, in their spirit, all other emergencies. We cannot read them without the conviction that they contain the promise to the apostles of all needed help and guidance in the work committed to them. If they were divinely qualified to defend the gospel before their adversaries without error -- |I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries shall not be able to gainsay nor resist| -- so were they also to record the facts of the gospel, and to unfold in their epistles its doctrines.

The promises recorded in the gospel of John are more general and comprehensive in their character. It will be sufficient to adduce two of them: |These things have I spoken unto you being yet present with you. But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.| John 14:25, 26. |I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now. Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: for he shall not speak of himself; but whatsoever he shall hear, that shall he speak: and he will show you things to come. He shall glorify me: for he shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you. All things that the Father hath are mine: therefore said I that he shall take of mine, and shall show it unto you.| John 16:12-15. In the former of these passages the special promise is that the Holy Spirit shall bring to the remembrance of the apostles and unfold to their understanding all Christ's personal teachings; so that they shall thus have a fuller apprehension of their meaning than they could while he was yet with them. The second promise is introduced with the declaration that the Saviour has yet many things to say to his apostles which they cannot now bear. Of course these things are reserved for the ministration of the Spirit, as he immediately proceeds to show: |When he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth.| The Spirit shall glorify Christ; for he shall take of the things which are Christ's, and reveal them to the apostles. And what are the things which are Christ's? |All that the Father hath;| for the Father has given all things into the hands of the Son. John 13:3. Among these |all things| are included all the Father's counsels pertaining to the way of salvation through the Son. These are given to the Son; and the Holy Ghost shall take of them and reveal to the church, through the apostles, as much as it is needful for the church to know. In these remarkable words we have at once a proof of our Lord's deity, and a sure guarantee to the apostles of supernatural illumination and guidance in the work committed to them -- all the illumination and guidance which they needed, that they might be qualified to finish without error the revelation of the gospel which Christ had begun.

The question is often asked: Were these promises given to the apostles alone, or through them to the church at large? The answer is at hand. They were given primarily and in a special sense to the apostles; for they had reference to a special work committed to them, which required for its performance special divine illumination and guidance. They were also given, in an important sense, to the church at large; since all believers enjoy, through the teaching of the apostles, the benefit of these revelations of the Holy Spirit. They are not, however, made to all believers personally; but were given, once for all, through the apostles to the church. The gift of the Holy Spirit is indeed made to all believers personally: through his enlightening and sanctifying power they have all needed help and guidance. But they are not called, as were the apostles, to lay the foundations of the Christian faith, and have therefore no promise of new revelations from the Spirit or of elevation above all error, any more than they have of miraculous gifts.

We are now prepared to consider, in the third place, the claims which the apostles themselves made to speak and write with divine authority. Although their simple word as men could avail nothing, yet this same word, taken in connection with their known relation to Christ, with the work committed to them, and with the promises made to them, is of the most weighty import. It was not indeed their custom to assert gratuitously their superhuman guidance and authority. Yet when occasions arose, from the nature of the subject under discussion, or from the opposition of false teachers, they did so in unambiguous terms. Thus the apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, says, |Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth; comparing spiritual things with spiritual,| 1 Cor.2:12, 13: and writing to the Thessalonians concerning the resurrection, |For this we say unto you by the word of the Lord, that we which are alive and remain unto the coming of the Lord shall not prevent them which are asleep,| etc.1 Thess.4:15. And again, in writing to the Galatians, among whom his apostolic standing had been called in question by certain Judaizing teachers, he says, |I certify you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached of me is not after man: for I neither received it of man, neither was I taught it, but by the revelation of Jesus Christ.| Gal.1:11, 12. This language is explicit enough. It could have been used only by one who was conscious of having been divinely qualified to teach the gospel without error. Accordingly, in the same epistle, he opposes his apostolic authority to these false teachers: |Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised Christ shall profit you nothing.| Gal.5:2. In the memorable letter of the apostles and elders to the Gentile churches, Acts 15:23-29, they say, |It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.| |To the Holy Ghost and to us| can mean only, to us under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. Besides such explicit assertions as the above, there is a tone of authority running through the apostolic writings which can be explained only from their claim to speak with divine authority. They assert the weightiest truths and make the weightiest revelations concerning the future, as men who know that they have a right to be implicitly believed and obeyed. What majesty of authority, for example, shines through Paul's discussion of the doctrine of the resurrection, 1 Cor., ch.15, where he announces truths that lie wholly beyond the ken of human reason. |Behold,| says he, |I show you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed,| as one who has perfect assurance that he speaks from God. The same tone of certainty runs through all the remarks which the apostle John interweaves into his gospel, as well as through his epistles, and through the other apostolic writings.

To sum up in a single sentence what has been said respecting the apostles: When we consider the strong presumption, arising from the necessity of the case, that they must have been divinely qualified to teach and write without error, the explicit promises of Christ that they should be thus qualified, and their explicit claims under these promises, we have full evidence that they wrote, as well as spoke, under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, and consequently that their writings are of divine authority.

4. In the second grade of relationship to Christ stand men who, like Mark and Luke, were not themselves apostles, but were the companions of apostles, and their associates in the work of preaching the gospel. We are not authorized to place them in the same rank with the apostles. Yet they had the gift of the Holy Spirit, which was always given in connection with ordination at the hands of the apostles. If, in addition to this, their connection with some of the apostles was of such an intimate nature that we cannot suppose them to have written without their knowledge and approbation, we have for their writings all the apostolic authority that is needed. The intimate relation of Luke to the apostle Paul has been already sufficiently shown. We have good ground for believing that he was with him when he wrote both the gospel and the book of Acts. The intimate connection of Mark with the apostle Peter is shown by the unanimous testimony of the primitive churches, and is confirmed, moreover, by an examination of the peculiarities of his gospel. In entire harmony with the position of these two evangelists is the character of their writings. They never assume the office of independent teachers, but restrict themselves to a careful record of the works and words of Christ and his apostles.

5. A final argument for the inspiration of the books of the New Testament, whether written by apostles or their companions, may be drawn from their general character, as contrasted with that of the writings which remain to us from the age next succeeding that of the apostles. The more one studies the two classes of writings in connection, the deeper will be his conviction of the distance by which they are separated from each other. The descent from the majesty and power of the apostolic writings to the best of those which belong to the following age is sudden and very great. Only by a slow process did Christian literature afterwards rise to a higher position through the leavening influence of the gospel upon Christian society, and especially upon Christian education. The contrast now under consideration is particularly important in our judgment of those books which, like the second epistle of Peter, are sustained by a less amount of external evidence. Though we cannot decide on the inspiration of a book simply from the character of its contents, we may be helped in our judgment by comparing these, on the one hand, with writings acknowledged to be apostolic, and on the other, with writings which we know to be of the following age.

6. The inspiration of the sacred writers was plenary in the sense that they received from the Holy Spirit all the illumination and guidance which they needed to preserve them from error in the work committed to them. With regard to the degree and mode of this influence in the case of different books, it is not necessary to raise any abstract questions. That Paul might make to the Galatians a statement of his visits to Jerusalem and the discussions connected with them, Galatians, chaps.1, 2, or might give an account of his conversion before king Agrippa, Acts, ch.26, it was not necessary that he should receive the same kind and measure of divine help as when he unfolded to the Corinthians the doctrine of the resurrection, 1 Cor., ch.15. And so in regard to the other inspired penmen. Whatever assistance each of them needed, he received. If his judgment needed divine illumination for the selection of his materials, it was given him. If he needed to be raised above narrowness and prejudice, or to have the Saviour's instructions unfolded to his understanding, or to receive new revelations concerning the way of salvation or the future history of Christ's kingdom -- whatever divine aid was necessary in all these cases, was granted. Thus the books of the New Testament, being written under the guidance of the Holy Ghost, become to the Christian church an infallible rule of faith and practice.

If there be any limitation connected with the inspiration of the sacred writers, it is one of which the Holy Spirit is himself the author, and which cannot therefore injuriously affect their testimony. It did not please God, for example, that the exact order of time should always be kept in the gospel narratives; nor that the identical forms of expression employed by the Saviour on given occasions should always be preserved; nor that the accompanying circumstances should in all cases be fully stated; for in all these respects the evangelists frequently differ among themselves. Had the wisdom of God judged it best, minute accuracy in these particulars might have been secured. But the result would probably have been injurious, by leading men to exalt the letter above the spirit of the gospel. We should be glad to know with certainty which, if any, of the different ways that have been proposed for reconciling John's narrative with those of the other evangelists in respect to the day of the month on which our Lord ate his last passover with his disciples, is the true one. It would give us pleasure were we able to arrange all the incidents connected with our Lord's resurrection, as recorded by the four evangelists, in the exact order of their occurrence. Had we a full record of all the circumstances pertaining to these two transactions, this might be accomplished. But it would not make any essential addition to our knowledge of the gospel. We should have, in every jot and tittle, the same way of salvation that we have now, and the same duties in respect to it. To all who, on grounds like these, find difficulty with the doctrine of plenary inspiration, we may say, in the words of the apostle, |Brethren, be not children in understanding; howbeit, in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.|

7. The extent of the canon is determined by the extent of inspiration. The question to be settled respecting each book of the New Testament is, Was it written under the guidance of the Holy Spirit? or, which amounts to the same thing, Has it apostolic authority? If it has, it is to be received; if not, it is to be rejected. There is no middle ground -- no division of the canon into books of primary and of secondary authority.

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