A little note on the freedom of the conscience

The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution.jpgWhen, in 1644, the great Baptist pastor Roger Williams defended the claim that Christ is King alone over conscience ‘was and is the summe of all true preaching of the Gospell or glad newes’ (The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution), he was articulating a basic tenet of what it means to do faith in the Free Church tradition. He was also signalling that as noble as the human conscience is, its freedom is not achieved by its being made into an idol. Rather, the conscience is free – and faith is truly voluntaristic – only insofar as it recognises the final authority of Another.

A few centuries later, another Free Churchman, one P. T. Forsyth, made the same point in his own way:

It is one of the fundamental mistakes we make about our own Protestantism to say that the authority is the conscience, and the Christian conscience in particular. Not so. The authority is nothing in us, but something in history. It is something given us. What is in us only recognises it. And the conscience which now recognises it has long been created by it. The conscience recognises the tone of injunction, but what is enjoined is given by history, and has passed into the historic consciousness. We have the inner intuition of what is really a great historic teleology. But it is not gathered up from all history by an induction, which, as history is far from finished, could never give us anything final or authoritative. It is defined in it at a fixed point by faith in the experienced revelation of final purpose within God’s act of Gospel there. The authority is not the conscience [or the Bible, or the Pope, or Magistrate, or State, or human experience, or culture, or vote, no matter how democratic] but it is offered to it. The conscience of God is not latent in our conscience, but revealed to it in history. It is history centred in Christ, it is not conscience, that is the real court of morals. And it is there accordingly that we find the authority for Christian faith and Christian theology, for faith and theology both. (The Principle of Authority)

Ratzinger on the true nature of the Petrine office

Ratzinger’s essay on the conscience, despite making some valuable observations, is not a little disappointing. (It’s also hard to see how Amazon US sellers can in all good conscience charge $66+ for an 82 page book! … especially when you can pick it up direct from the publisher for $14.95 or from Amazon UK for £3.95). That said, it includes some interesting reflections on how Ratzinger understands the authority of the papacy, something that most Protestants dinna hae a scooby about:

‘The pope cannot impose commandments on faithful Catholics because he wants to or finds it expedient. Such a modern, voluntaristic concept of authority can only distort the true theological meaning of the papacy. The true nature of the Petrine office has become so incomprehensible in the modern age no doubt because we think of authority only on terms that do not allow for bridges between subject and object, Accordingly, everything that does not come from the subject is thought to be externally imposed’. – Joseph Ratzinger, On Conscience: Two Essays (Philadelphia/San Francisco: The National Catholic Bioethics Center/Ignatius Press, 2007 [1984]), 34.

‘One can comprehend the primacy of the pope and its correlation to Christian conscience only in this connection. The true sense of the teaching authority of the pope consists in his being the advocate of Christian memory. The pope does not impose from without. Rather, he elucidates the Christian memory and defends it. For this reason the toast to conscience indeed must precede the toast to the pope, because without conscience there would not be a papacy. All power that the papacy has is power of conscience. It is service to the double memory on which the faith is based – and which again and again must be purified, expanded, and defended against the destruction of memory that is threatened by a subjectivity forgetful of its own foundation, as well as by the pressures of social and cultural conformity’. (p. 36)

If nothing else, these words ought to encourage Protestants (and not least pastors, many of whom secretly aspire to be popes) to do the same work that Ratzinger is attempting to do: to think (and to keep thinking) about the nature and source of authority, and about the relationship between the Gospel and the offices of the church.

PT Forsyth: Preaching the Centrality of the Cross

Mark Johnson has written a delightful piece on PT Forsyth: Preaching the Centrality of the Cross. It is an adaptation from his PhD Dissertation, ‘Christological Preaching for the Post-Modern Era’ (The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1994). Because of a focus on this blog regarding Forsyth and his work, I reproduce it here:

Peter Taylor Forsyth was born May 12, 1848 in Aberdeen, Scotland. The son of a postal worker and a maid, he was raised as a member of the Black-friars Street Congregational Church. His family was devout, if not affluent. In spite of his family’s modest means, he was able to attend the university where he achieved an enviable reputation as a student.

In young adulthood, Forsyth was greatly influenced by the thought and writings of both F. D. Maurice and Albrecht Ritschl.[1] He would have opportunity to study under Ritschl for a term at Gottingen. In his early ministry, he gained notoriety for his liberal theological views and his “‘loud’ dress and unpredictable pulpit utterances.”[2]After serving in several pastorates, he was named principal of Hackney College in London in 1901, a position that allowed time for extensive writing. At least part of the reason for this move was the belief that the academic lifestyle would place less strenuous demands on his frail health than the pastorate.

I first became acquainted with Forsyth reviewing Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind during my first semester in Ph.D. studies. I delved deeper into Forsyth’s thought when writing a dissertation dealing with preaching Christ in the Postmodern era. The one contribution that sticks out above all others is his insistence that one remains relevant to his times by keeping his focus on the unchanging Christ. He urged preachers to “preach to their age without preaching their age.”In Christology he sides neither with those who quested after a historical Jesus nor with the idealists who heavily emphasized the divinity of Christ. Neither adequately expressed Christ’s dual nature as both God and Man.[3] In Forsyth’s earlier writings, he placed Christ at the center of his theology. In his later development, he sees Christ’s ministry on the cross as the central focus for theology.[4]

Perhaps it is this focus on the person and work of Christ that causes him to write with a warmth of devotion and piety, causing one writer to say in appreciation of his writings, “To read these lines is to be challenged to think theologically, but it is also to be brought into a reflective and devotional mood.”[5] That devotional style, as well as some insight into Forsyth’s reaction to modernity, can be seen in the following words of testimony:

There was a time when I was interested in the first degree with purely scientific criticism …. It also pleased God by the revelation of His holiness and grace, which the great theologians taught me to find in the Bible, to bring home to me my sin in a way that submerged all the school questions in weight, urgency, and poignancy. I was turned from a Christian to a believer, from a lover of love to an object of grace. And so, whereas I first thought that what the Churches needed was enlightened instruction and liberal theology, I came to be sure that what they needed was evangelization.[6]

Forsyth wrote sixteen books, five of which deal explicitly with Christ or christology – The Person and Place of Jesus Christ, The Cruciality of the Cross, Christ on Parnassus, The Holy Father and the Living Christ and The Work of Christ.[7]

His 1907 Beecher lectures at Yale University have been preserved in book form as Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind. He speaks of finding his true and magnetic north in Christ and dedicates the book, “Unto him who loved me and gave himself for me.” Like most of his other works, Positive Preaching was a series of lectures which were compiled into book form. Subsequently, Forsyth lays out no major systematization of his thought. Part of this lacking is attributed to Forsyth’s reluctance to over-simplify the complex. Similarly, his writing is often difficult to understand. This is perhaps by design so as not to state the complex too simply.[8]

On Preaching
Forsyth’s most significant contribution to the field of homiletics came in 1907 with his Beecher lectures at Yale. In them, he coined many phrases which are still quoted in homiletics classrooms and in preaching conferences today. He defined preaching as the “organized hallelujah of the believing community,” and he maintained, “With preaching Christianity stands or falls because it is the declaration of a gospel…. It is the Gospel prolonging and declaring itself.”[9] Maintaining that the Bible is the “greatest sermon in the world,” he urged preachers to preach expository sermons using long passages of Scripture.

Forsyth’s theological understanding of the preaching event centers in his understanding of kerygma as the Spirit of the risen Christ revealing the meaning of His death and resurrection to the apostles whose writings are then understood as revelation.[10] Such an understanding runs counter to the liberal schools of thought of his day which maintained that the apostles perverted the simple message of Jesus into a system of doctrines which he never intended.[11] According to Forsyth, the Bible should not be reduced to a casebook of sterile doctrines and regulations. Instead, one should listen for the voice of Christ Himself preaching through scripture.

As Christ’s work of redemption is the center of faith, the center of the kerygma is the cross. Such an understanding of revelation means that the preacher stands more in the tradition of the Hebrew prophet bringing a revelation from God, than that of the Greek orator bringing inspiration. If one hears the voice of Christ speaking through scripture, it stands to reason that in the preaching act, it is Christ’s voice which should ultimately be heard as well.[12]

The point of Forsyth’s kerygmatic emphasis on biblical preaching is that a distinction should be made between the gospel and the Bible. He asserts “Biblical preaching preaches the gospel and uses the Bible, it does not preach the Bible and use the Gospel.”[13] He argues that the Bible itself is the preaching of Christ. He says:

The New Testament (the Gospels even), is a direct transcript, not of Christ, but of the preaching about Christ, or the effect produced by Christ on the first generation, a transcript of the faith that worshipped Him. It is a direct record not of Christ’s biography but of Christ’s Gospel, that is to say of Christ neither as delineated, nor as reconstructed, nor as analyzed but as preached…. The stories told are but a trifling selection, not chosen to cast light on the motives of a deep and complex character, but selected entirely from a single point of view– that of the crucified, risen, exalted, preached Saviour.[14]

Robert McAfee Brown paraphrases Forsyth by saying,” Christ did not “preach the Gospel”; he became a gospel to preach. (emphasis Brown’s)[15]

Forsyth believed that preachers should preach to their age without merely preaching the age. Preaching can keep its contemporariness by centering on God’s eternal act on the cross. In keeping the cross central, Christ works through the preacher to develop the faith of those who are already Christian. Forsyth lamented that there are many preachers who “scheme how to cover and capture the world’s mind rather than to develop that of the Church; how to commend Christ to those who are not Christian [more] than how to enrich Him for those that are.”[16]

If Forsyth views the cross of Christ as the final seat of authority, and uses the cross as the hermeneutical norm for his theology, that authority ought to be manifest through both the person and the proclamation of the preacher.[17] It is Forsyth’s contention that, “It is authority that the world chiefly needs and the preaching of the hour lacks – an authoritative Gospel in a humble personality.”[18] He decries the sentimentality with which the modern mindset tended to view the Bible and religion. He blames much of this sentimentality upon “The loss of a real positive authority, the loss of an objective grasp of the world’s moral crisis in the Christian Centre of the Cross.”[19] In sentimentalizing the cross, the Bible, and the atonement, the focus has shifted from God to humanity.

At the same time the church was sentimentalizing its religion, according to Forsyth, it ceded its authority to science. He says:

When a modern mind asks us for help to a footing we still turn to men of science, to men often who evidently never in their lives read a theological classic or an authority on moral philosophy, who indeed might scout the idea, and we ask them to assure the inquirer, with a certainty beyond ours, that things promise well for a soul…. Is it not a nervous and pusillanimous Christianity, devoid of self-respect? How can we hope to regain the influence the pulpit has lost until we come with the surest Word in all the world to the guesses of science, the maxims of ethic, and the instincts of art.[20]

One uses the Bible to preach the gospel rather than using the gospel to preach the Bible. “We do not treat the Bible aright, we do not treat it with the respect it asks for itself, when we treat it as a theologian, but only when we treat it as … the preacher in the perpetual pulpit of the church,”[21] asserts Forsyth. Neither do preachers treat the Bible with the respect it deserves when they sentimentally pay homage only to its beauty and its precepts. Instead, Forsyth encourages preachers to concentrate on the content of the Biblical message.[22]

In preaching long expository passages, Forsyth maintains, “one get(s) real preaching in the sense of preaching from the real situation of the Bible to the real situation of the time. It is thus you make history preach to history, the past to the present, and not merely a text to a soul.”[23]

He recognizes that the vital question for preaching in his context is the question of authority. He asserted, in his day, that criticism no longer allowed the Bible to hold that place. “Yet,” he says, “the gospel of the future must come with the note of authority.”[24] The Gospel itself carries this needed authority. After denying that authority comes through creeds or theology, he states, “The preacher does not call one to believe statements, but the Gospel of an urgent God.”[25] Forsyth maintained that the “one great preacher in history is the church,… And the first business of the individual preacher is to enable the church to preach.”[26] Indeed, Forsyth provides a model of one who, by focusing upon the centrality of Christ and the cross preached to his times without preaching his times.

[1] While most scholars writing about Forsyth note the influence of F. D. Maurice, W. L. Bradley indicates that the influence of Maurice upon Forsyth is probably overestimated. See William L. Bradley, P. T. Forsyth: The Man and His Work (London: Independent Press, 1952).
[2] Samuel J. Mikolaski, “The Theology of P. T. Forsyth,” The Evangelical Quarterly, 36 (1964), 27. The use of the term “liberal” in this article is not done pejoratively but as an attempt to define a historic theological position.
[3] John H. Rodgers, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth (London: Independent Press, 1965), p. 77; see also Gwilym O. Griffith, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth (London: Lutterworth, 1948), pp. 36-60.
[4] See William Lee Bradley, The Man and His Work (London: Independent Press, 1952), p. 82. Such a shift is evidenced by such titles as “The Cross as the Final Seat of Authority” and “The Cruciality of the Cross.”
[5] John E. Steely, “Introduction,” in P. T. Forsyth, The Cruciality of the Cross (Wake Forest, North Carolina: Chanticleer Press, 1983), p. 5. Forsyth first published these lectures in 1909.
[6] P. T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1907), pp. 282, 283.
[7] P. T. Forsyth, The Person and Place of Jesus Christ (New York: Eaton and Mains, 1909); The Work of Christ, (London: Independent Press), 1st edition 1910; The Cruciality of the Cross (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1910); Christ on Parnassus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1911); The Holy Father and the Living Christ (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1898).
[8] See Bradley, The Man and His Work, p. 66.
[9] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 5.
[10] See P. T. Forsyth, The Church and the Sacraments (London: Independent Press, 1949).
[11] The liberals based their belief on their perception that the Jesus painted in the Synoptic gospels did not give much explanation to the meaning of the cross. Forsyth argued that this was because the risen Christ explained it to his apostles after the fact.
[12] Rodgers, The Theology of P. T. Forsyth, pp. 103-131.
[13] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 37.
[14] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 13.
[15] Robert McAfee Brown, P. T. Forsyth: Prophet for Today (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1952), p. 71.
[16] P. T. Forsyth, “The Soul of Christ and the Cross of Christ,” London Quarterly Review, 116 (1911), 195-196.
[17] See William Ray Rosser, “The Cross as the Hermeneutical Norm for Scriptural Interpretation in the Theology of Peter Taylor Forsyth” (Ph.D. Dissertation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1990).
[18] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 200.
[19] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 178.
[20] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 184.
[21] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 15.
[22] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 146.
[23] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 166.
[24] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 41.
[25] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 44.
[26] Forsyth, Positive Preaching, p. 79.

Kierkegaard on Protestantism

One of my brighter students recently charged the Apostle Paul with ‘self-congratulatory arrogance’. It reminded me of Kierkegaard’s biting words about the form that Protestantism is taking, and perhaps increasingly so:

‘Protestantism is the crudest and most brutal plebeianism. People will not hear of there being any difference of quality between an apostle, a witness to the truth and oneself, in spite of the fact that one’s existence is completely different from theirs, as different as eating from being eaten’. – Søren Kierkegaard, The Journals of Kierkegaard (ed. Alexander Dru; New York: Harper & Brothers, 1959), 245.

I wonder what the Dane would say if he spent a week or so with the average Protestant church today? Ouch! The fundamental issue, of course, is that of authority, coupled with a noxious and mendacious understanding of creaturely freedom. There can be no true freedom where there is no true authority. Where the latter is lost, the former disappears. So O’Donovan reminds us, ‘To be under authority is to be freer than to be independent’. – Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgment, 132.

Žižek on transcendent meaning, authority and freedom

Commenting on Job’s three theological friends, Slavoj Žižek contends that ‘God is the only true materialist … [God] comes and says there is no transcendent meaning, everything is a miracle … there is no transcendent master, which is why I think we have to read Christ as a repetition of Job. What dies on the cross with Christ? What dies is not an earthly representative of a transcendent. What dies is precisely God as this transcendent master of the universe. What dies on the cross for me is the idea of God as the ultimate guarantee of meaning … The lesson of Christianity … of Christ … [is that] we cannot afford this withdrawal. When we are confronted with horrible things … holocaust, concentration camps or other similar catastrophes it is a little bit vulgar to say, “This only appears to us as a catastrophe because of your limited perspective, withdrawal back and you will see how it contributes to harmony, or whatever”. There is no big other! This is why I think this would be a kind of more materialist reading why Christ truly sacrificed himself. The message is “All we can do is here”; there is no father up there who takes care of it … It is not “Trust God”. No. God trusts us. All that can be done, we should do it. In this sense, with this incomplete notion of reality, … it opens up the space for freedom. There is freedom only in an ontologically unfinished reality’.

While I generally do find Žižek to be a really stimulating thinker, what I find most disturbing here in this particular presentation is his notion of authority and freedom. To be sure, he never seems to challenge the relative need of authority in the area of sociality. However, if I have heard him correctly (and it’s a genuine ‘if’ on my part) when he comes to the purlieus of belief, of faith, the assumption is that we must abandon authority. It is at this point (though not at this point alone) that he so clearly betrays a failure to understand what constitutes a Christian notion of authority. For Žižek, authority is not a power but a force, a coercive burden to be shaken off rather than a love and true freedom to live in. Employing Forsyth here, I want to suggest that Žižek’s notion of authority is not ‘the source of liberty, but its load. It is something which sooner or later must produce impatience and not bring peace. It is something to be renounced as men pass to spiritual maturity. The more spiritual they consider themselves, the less they like to feel, think, or speak of authority’. There is no sense in Žižek’s notion of authority of one who employs his authority to set people – indeed his enemies – free.

Truly, ‘God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God’ (1 Cor 1:28). This one who though he was in the form of God became the ‘low and despised’ one taught us that ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Mark 10:43-45).

In this alone is true creaturely freedom. To assert, a Žižek does, that freedom exists ‘only in an ontologically unfinished reality’ is to deny the incarnation of God into our world, and the (cruci)-form that such authority takes. There is no greater freedom than to live under true authority. This is our gifted freedom. If God is creator, not merely in the sense of being the one who began all things but also in the decisive sense of being one who sustains all things from moment to moment by his gracious will then we must confess that no freedom exists apart from him. As C. Stephen Evans notes in his delightful book, Kierkegaard’s Fragments and Postscript: The Religious Philosophy of Johannes Climacus, ‘Because of God man is something; he is in fact a nobel something, created for eternal life with God. But his nobility lies precisely in his ability freely to recognize or fail to recognize his dependence on God. This freedom means that man is to an extent independent of God. But even his independence is itself dependent upon God’s creative power, most properly used when man recognizes – freely – his dependence’. (p. 170)

(If I have read Žižek incorrectly here, I apologise. Please take this as an invitation to help me try and understand this important thinker rightly on this point.)

Forsyth on the Bible and authority

Ben Myers, over at Faith and Theology, has posted a great post by Kim Fabricus on preaching. Well worth checking out. On a related note, here’s a list of points that Forsyth makes about the authority over (or source of) the Bible.

1. There is something authoritative for the Bible itself.

2. It is not something which comes up to it from without like the scientific methods of the Higher Criticism. To make that supreme would be rationalism.

3. It is something which is in the Bible itself, provided by it, and provided nowhere else. We must go back to the Bible with modern scholarship to find what the Bible goes back to.

4. It is not truths extracted from the Bible and guaranteed by prophecy and miracle. That is the antiquated supernaturalism with its doctrinaire orthodoxy.

5. In a word, that is over the Bible which is over the Church and the Creeds. It is the Gospel of Grace, which produced Bible, Creed, and Church alike. And by the Gospel is meant primarily God’s act of pure Grace for men, and only secondarily the act of men witnessing it for God in a Bible or a Church.

6. The Gospel was an experienced fact, a free, living, preached Word long before it was a fixed and written Word – as was the case also with the prophets.

7. It is not enough to say the authority in the Bible is Christ unless you are clear whether you mean the character of Christ or His Gospel. All admit Christ’s character to be a product of God’s action; is the same true of Christ’s Gospel?

8. To apply the Gospel of Grace as the standard of the Bible is to go higher than the Higher Criticism. It is the highest. The Gospel is not merely the final test of the Bible, but its supreme source; and the Bible is its humble vassal to be treated in any way that best obeys and serves it. The security of the Gospel gives us our critical freedom.

9. The Bible is not merely a record of the revelation. It is part of it. It is more true that God’s great Word contains the Bible than that the Bible contains the Word. The Word in Christ needed exposition by the Bible. The Gospels find their only central interpretation in the Epistles.

10. The Bible is not so much a document as a sacrament. It is not primarily a voucher for the historian but a preacher for the soul. The Christ of the Gospels even is not a biographical

Christ, so much as a preached Christ. The Bible is not so much a record of Christ as a record and a part of the preaching about Christ, which was the work of the Spirit and the apostles. There is no real collision between the Christ of the Gospels and the Christ of the Epistles. The apostles, and especially Paul, moved by the heavenly Christ, form an essential part of Christ’s revelation of God’s grace.

11. It was a theological Gospel, though not authoritative as dogma but as living, personal revelation. The Christian experience must cast itself more or less in the forms of its historic origin, and not merely in those of human relations and affections. E.g., Christian sonship is not natural, or even spiritual, but evangelical; it is the sonship of adoption. So conversely with the Fatherhood of God.

12. This subordination of the Bible to the Gospel was the relation felt by Jesus Himself. He used His Bible for its Gospel, not for its information – as a means of grace, and not as a manual of Hebrew history. That is, He read His Bible as a whole. He commits us not to the whole Bible but to the Bible as a whole. The Bible is not a compendium of facts, historic or theological, but the channel of redeeming grace. Faith is something more than the historic sense dealing with documents. It is the moral and spiritual sense dealing with revelation as Redemption.

13. The appeal of the Bible is not to the faith of the individual but to that of the whole Church, which is the other great product of the Gospel. My dullness or disbelief does not affect the witness of the saints, classic or common, in every Church and age.

14. In the Church the Bible becomes more than a product of the Word. It is a producer of it in turn. It generates the faith that generated it. As the greatest of preachers it produces preachers. And it is at home only in a Church whose first duty to men is to preach.

15. The detachment of faith from the Bible and from its daily use marks both Romanism and the religiosity of the modern mind.

16. The disuse of the Bible by Christians is due to a vague sense of insecurity rising from critical work on it, and to the extravagant claims made for it which criticism prunes.

17. The Christian creed has really but one article, great with all the rest. It is the Gospel of God’s redeeming Grace in Christ. The charter of the Church is not the Bible, but Redemption. Those words of Christ are prime revelation to us, and of first obligation, which carry home to us the redeeming grace incarnate in His person and mission.

18. The Higher Criticism has been a great blessing, but it has gone too far alone, i.e., without final reference to the highest, the synthetic standard of the Bible – the Gospel of Grace. What we need, to give us the real historic contents of the Bible, is not a history of the Religion of Israel, but of Redemption – with all the light the Higher Criticism can shed on it, and much more that it cannot.

19. Christianity will not stand or fall by its attitude to its documents, but by its attitude to its Gospel and to the soul.

20. The Free Churches have yet to face the spiritual problem created for them by the collapse of an inerrant Bible and the failure of an authoritative Church. And the only key lies in the authority of that grace which called them into being as the true heirs of the Reformation, the trustees of the Evangelical tradition, and the chief witnesses of the Holy Spirit of our Redemption.

(Taken from PT Forsyth, The Church, the Gospel and Society (London: Independent Press, 1962): 67-70)

The error of inerrancy

Some of you may have been following the postings by Chris Tilling on Biblical inerrancy here and here. Not wanting to leave this debate entirely in the hands of the biblical commentators, and wanting to say something in response, I wish here to offer a (not the only, nor indeed a particularly full) theological perspective on this vitally important question. ‘I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics, in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration. The Bible is the one enchiridion of the preacher still, the one manual of eternal life, the one page that glows as all life grows dark, and the one book whose wealth rebukes us more the older we grow because we knew and loved it so late’ (Preaching, 26). So said PT Forsyth to his American audience in his Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind. It seems to me the debate concerning infallibility is at core one about the nature and object of authority and where that authority for faith and life is to be found.

Notwithstanding the debates about terminology used, to my mind it is of great concern that people of faith should consider the ground of their faith a book, rather than in what that book testifies to. In some schools, this amounts to no less than bibliolatry. The Bible is not the Koran! An infallible book implies that our primary need is revelation, and that contained and conveyed in words. Whereas our greatest need is not intellectual but moral, not truth but grace, not revelation but redemption. I, for one, do not see a necessity for belief in the inerrancy of the Scriptures but, with Forsyth, I believe it should be difficult for us to not believe in verbal inspiration. I believe in that which creates the Bible, i.e. the gospel to which the Scriptures perfectly bear witness. And I believe that we must believe in the Bible’s finality, authority and inspiration.

Donald Bloesch’s definition of inspiration is helpful here: ‘. . . inspiration is the divine election and superintendence of particular writers and writings in order to ensure a trustworthy and potent witness to the truth’ (Holy Scripture, 119). The authority of the Scriptures lies in the same place that the authority for life and the Church exists: in the gospel itself. What, then, is the authority in the church? The church itself? The ex cathedra statements? The magisterium? Existential experience? The authority is where it always has been, in the apostolic testimony to Christ. The authority is carried by the apostolic word, but that word itself is not the authority. What we have is the apostolic message as it has been committed to writing by the apostles, in what we know as the New Testament.

So the question remains, do we believe what the apostles taught or not? The fact that we learn shape of the gospel from the Bible does not make the Bible an infallible witness, but a completely faithful one. (As an aside, why is it that so many of those who trumpet the inerrancy of scripture from pulpits either fail to use the Bible in their preaching or misuse it so severely? A wise preacher once said to me that you can tell what one’s view of Scripture is not from what one says about them, but rather from how one uses them.) The Scriptures are the authority, for no other reason than they are the definitive testimony to Christ. That would not imply that there is no further communication from God to us, simply that in what is written we have the certain word. All else is to be tested against that (1 Thess. 5:20-22; 1 John 4:1). So, ‘nothing beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6); ‘To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isa. 8:20).

As PT Forsyth put it: ‘Inspiration and Revelation are two very different things, and one mistake we have made has been to treat them as being co-extensive, if not identical. The first mistake, of course, was in applying such words to a book. It is said the Bible is a revelation from God, or the Bible is inspired. The statement is loose. The Bible contains God’s revelation (though in no dissectible way); what is the revelation is the Gospel, as some put it, or, as others would say, Christ, or the line of historic redemption. And, as to Inspiration, it is not, strictly speaking, the Bible that was inspired, but the souls of the men whose writings fill it. The more we dwell on this, the more we may feel what important consequences flow from the correction. The verbal, literal infallibility of Scripture goes down at once, for example, and with it so many of the doubts, or attacks, it has roused’ (Parnassus, 243).

And again: ‘”Who shall tell me surely what to believe about Christ?” None can. No Church can. No book can; no saint, no theologian. None can but Christ Himself in actual presence-it may be without a word that I could report, or a theme I could frame-by overwhelming my soul with its greatness and its evil, its judgment and its salvation, in His invincible word of death, resurrection, and glory’ (Authority, 63).

And again: ‘The inspiration is not infallible in the sense that every event is certain or every statement final. You may agree with what I say without agreeing with all I say. The Bible’s inspiration, and its infallibility, are such as pertain to redemption and not theology, to salvation and not mere history. It is as infallible as a Gospel requires, not as a system. Remember that Christ did not come to bring a Bible but to bring a Gospel. The Bible arose afterwards from the Gospel to serve the Gospel. We do not treat the Bible aright, we do not treat it with the respect it asks for itself, when we treat it as a theologian, but only when we treat it as an apostle, as a preacher, as the preacher in the perpetual pulpit of the Church. It is saturated with dogma, but its writers were not dogmatists; and it concerns a Church, but they were not ecclesiastics. The Bible, the preacher, and the Church are all made by the same thing-the Gospel. The Gospel was there before the Bible, and it created the Bible, as it creates the true preacher and the true sermon everywhere. And it is for the sake and service of the Gospel that both Bible and preacher exist. We are bound to use both, at any cost to tradition, in the way that gives freest course to the Gospel in which they arose. The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the Gospel. It was created by faith in the Gospel. And in turn it creates faith among men. It is at once the expression of faith and its source. It is a nation’s sermon to the race. It is the wonder-working relic of a saint-nation which was the living organ of living revelation. What made the inspiration of the book? It was the prior inspiration of the people and of the men by the revelation. Revelation does not consist of communications about God. It never did. If it had it might have come by an inspired book dictated to one in a dream. But revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God, His self-limitation in the interest of grace. It is the living God in the act of imparting Himself to living souls. It is God Himself drawing ever more near and arrived at last. And a living God can only come to men by living men. Inspiration is the state of a soul, not of a book-of a book only in so far as the book is a transcript of a soul inspired. It was by men that God gave Himself to men, till, in the fullness of time, He came, for good and all, in the God-man Christ, the living Word; in whom God was present, reconciling the world unto Himself, not merely acting through Him but present in Him, reconciling and not speaking of reconciliation, or merely offering it to us.’ (Preaching, 9-11).

I remember once attending a packed wee (that means ‘little’ for those non-Scots) church to hear a preacher. I was at the back and could not see him, so I created a stack of Bible’s to stand on, that I might better see the preacher and hear the Word. I remember being told off for engaging in such ‘disrespectful’ activity. I complied, more out of embarrassment than anything else, but over the years I have reflected on what was happening here and the message that was given to me as a young Christian. They are many of course. But what was my reproofer saying about the Bible? Was it simply that I should respect it, and the church’s property? Or was it more? I’ve often wondered if the reaction would have been the same had I stood on a stack of hymnbooks. I’m afraid that in some places this may be even considered the ‘greater sin’. I know that standing on the word enabled me to hear the Word more clearly.

Finally, I love the Scriptures… all of them. I was converted reading the Scriptures. Sometimes I feel that I am reconverted when I read them. In them is where I discover their God-breathed nature and so their profit for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that people may be competent, equipped for every good work.’ And for that I thank the Lord for the Scriptures. I have devoted my life to their study. With the psalmist, I say ‘Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day and night’ (119:97). I love the Scriptures for in them is where I find life, where I hear the word of Christ in such a way that I cannot argue back. In this sense, they are final. Although more than happy to be convinced otherwise, why this requires, or even demands, a belief in inerrancy remains a mystery to me. Luther once said, ‘Christ is the Master; the Scriptures are only the servant. The true way to test all the Books is to see whether they work the will of Christ or not. No Book which does not preach Christ can be apostolic, though Peter or Paul were its author. And no Book which does preach Christ can fail to be apostolic though Judas, Ananias, Pilate or Herod were its author’ and that ‘The Bible is the cradle wherein Christ is laid.’ Not bad for a guy who (wrongly) called James an ‘epistle of straw!’ (NB. For those who wish to throw stones, or cans of fruit, may they please be well polished and, if fruit, I like peaches.)