“We believe in the Holy Spirit . . . who has spoken through the prophets.”
Joel D. Otto
During the early centuries of the church, numerous “prophets” tried to pass off their writings as worthy of inclusion in the Bible. Some looked and sounded similar to the gospels and Paul’s letters. But they contained teachings that contradicted known apostolic and prophetic writings. Others were very fanciful in nature, claiming to record events from Jesus’ childhood or recounting the adventures of apostles and martyrs. Again, it was clear that these writings were not “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16).
By the time the Nicene Creed was completed (A.D. 381), there was general acceptance of all the books of the Old and New Testaments in all parts of the church. To affirm that these books were indeed the Word of God, these Christians confessed that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” He had given specially chosen human authors the words he wanted them to write (2 Peter 1:20,21; 1 Corinthians 2:13). Therefore, the Bible is the Word of God.
During the last several centuries, skeptics and scholars have attempted to call into question the truth that the Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” They have claimed that the Bible is nothing more than a collection of ancient human writings and therefore can contain errors. In fact, in their minds the Bible is full of errors because it recounts miracles as though they actually happened. It reveals a God who is beyond our complete human comprehension. It demands a morality that doesn’t fit with modern society. It proclaims a salvation by grace alone that is utter foolishness to the sinful mind (1 Corinthians 1:18-25).
Yet, denying that the Holy Spirit guided the prophets and apostles and gave them the words to write breeds uncertainty. If someone believes that the Bible merely contains the Word of God, then human beings become the judge of what is and what is not the Word of God. No teaching is safe from criticism and rejection. How can we be certain about anything the Bible says? The account of creation and the fall into sin? The plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea? The virgin birth of Jesus? His miracles? His resurrection? All of these have been questioned and rejected by so-called Christian theologians and churches over the past several centuries.
However, for the vast majority of history, the church has believed what we still believe. The Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets.” This confession of biblical truth brings with it certainty. What the Spirit inspired the apostles and prophets to write is divine truth (John 17:17). God keeps his promises; he does not lie to us. We can be sure that his Word is profitable and powerful (Romans 1:16; 2 Timothy 3:15,16). When we face attacks against the Christian faith or we struggle to make sense of some of the teachings of the Christian faith, we take comfort that the Holy Spirit is the author of the Bible and the Bible is reliable.
EXPLORING THE WORD
1. This teaching that the Holy Spirit “has spoken through the prophets” is called verbal inspiration. The Spirit “breathed into” the writers the exact words he wanted them to write. What implications does the teaching of verbal inspiration have on the way we interpret the Scriptures?
We approach the Scriptures with the presupposition that they are entirely God’s Word. Therefore, there can be no errors in anything (John 17:17). If there are contradictions, they are apparent only to our way of thinking. We understand that God has chosen to reveal his will in human language that we can understand. We approach the Scriptures according to the common rules of grammar and figures of speech where that is clearly apparent (e.g. the metaphors and parables of Jesus or the vision language of the prophets and Revelation). We allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. Clear, straightforward passages will shed light on those that might appear to be more obscure or difficult to understand. We study passages in their context, both the immediate context and the larger context of a book or even the entire Bible. We do not subject the teachings of Scripture to our human reason. If a teaching does not fit our human reason, in faith we recognize that the Holy Spirit is smarter than we are, and we subject our human reason to the clear Word of God (2 Corinthians 10:4,5). Finally, we recognize that all of Scripture has really one overarching purpose: to reveal Jesus’ saving work in order to bring people to faith in him (2 Timothy 3:15-17).
2. How does the teaching of verbal inspiration affect the way we proclaim and teach the truths of Scripture?
On the negative side, we do not add our own ideas, stories, or teachings to the Scriptures and claim they are equal to God’s Word (Revelation 22:18; Jeremiah 14:14; 2 Peter 2:3). We do not subtract anything from the Scriptures by leaving out what doesn’t conform to human reason or the world’s thinking (Revelation 22:19; 2 Timothy 4:3). We do not change the meaning of the clear words of Scripture or regard the Bible as a mere collection of human writings (Jude 4; 2 Peter 1:16; 3:16). On the positive side, we can proclaim and teach the truths of Scripture with the confidence that we are proclaiming the Word of God (1 Thessalonians 2:13). We are to handle the Word with care by studying it faithfully and proclaiming it in its truth and purity (2 Timothy 1:8-14; 2:15). We can proclaim it with confidence in all situations, even in the face of opposition and persecution (2 Timothy 4:2-5).
3. In what ways is this a comforting teaching?
The teaching of verbal inspiration is comforting because it means that all of God’s promises will be fulfilled. His Word is truth (John 17:17). God is always faithful, and God does not and cannot lie (Numbers 23:19; John 10:35,36). We know that what we have in the Bible is everything God wants us to know for our salvation and our Christian life (2 Timothy 3:15-17). We do not need to get bogged down in speculation. In addition, because this is God’s Word we are proclaiming, we have his promise that he is working through his Word to accomplish his good purposes, even if we can’t always see the results right away (Hebrews 4:12; Isaiah 55:10,11; Mark 4:26-29). We are not asked to convince anyone of the truthfulness of God’s Word or the faithfulness of his promises. We are just called to faithfully proclaim his Word.
Contributing editor Joel Otto, professor at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wisconsin, is a member at Salem, Milwaukee.
This is the tenth article in a 13-part series on the Nicene Creed. Find this study and answers online after Aug. 5 at www.wels.net/forwardinchrist.
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Author: Joel D. Otto
Volume 102, Number 8
Issue: August 2015
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