A Bibliology Grounded in Christology

The center of all theology, of the entirety of the Christian faith, is Christ himself. The Christ-event—in particular his death and resurrection—is the center of time: everything before it leads up to it; everything after it is shaped by it. If Christ were not God in the flesh, he would not have been raised from the dead. And if he were not raised from the dead, none of us would have any hope. My theology grows out from Christ, is based on Christ, and focuses on Christ.

Years ago, I would have naïvely believed that all Christians could give their hearty amens to the previous paragraph. This is no longer the case; perhaps it never was. There are many whose starting point and foundation for Christian theology is bibliology. They begin with the assumption that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I can understand that. Starting one’s doctrinal statement with the Bible gives one assurances that the primary source of theology, the scriptures, is both true and trustworthy. I don’t start there, however. I have come to believe that the incarnation is both more central than inspiration and provides a methodological imperative for historical investigation of the claims of the Bible.

Sometimes the reason why doctrinal statements begin with scripture is because the framers believe that without an inerrant Bible we can’t know anything about Jesus Christ. They often ask the question, “How can we be sure that anything in the Bible is true? How can we be sure that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, or even that he existed, if the Bible is not inerrant?”

Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches to Inerrancy

My response to the above question is twofold. First, before the New Testament was written, how did people come to faith in Christ? To assume that having a complete Bible is necessary before we can know anything about Christ is both anachronistic and counterproductive. Our epistemology has to wrestle with the spread of the gospel before the Gospels were penned. The very fact that it spread so fast—even though the apostles were not always regarded highly—is strong testimony both to the work of the Spirit and to the historical evidence that the eyewitnesses affirmed.

Second, we can know about Christ because the Bible is a historical document. (Even if one has a very low regard for the Bible’s historicity, he or she has to admit that quite a bit of it is historically accurate.) If we demand inerrancy of the Bible before we can believe that any of it is true, what are we to say about other ancient historical documents? We don’t demand that they be inerrant, yet no evangelical would be totally skeptical about all of ancient history. Why put the Bible in a different category before we can believe it at all? As one scholar wisely articulated many years ago, we treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book.

Warfield’s Two Premises

We are not asked to take a leap of faith in believing the Bible to be the word of God, or even to believe that it is historically reliable; we have evidence that this is the case. I enlist on my behalf that towering figure of Reformed biblical scholarship, Benjamin B. Warfield. In his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Warfield lays out an argument for inerrancy that has been all but forgotten by today’s evangelicals. Essentially, he makes a case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive evidence, rather than deductive reasoning. Most evangelicals today follow E. J. Young’s deductive approach toward bibliology, forgetting the great, early articulator of inerrancy. But Warfield starts with the evidencethat the Bible is a historical document, rather than with the presupposition that it is inspired. This may seem shocking to some in the evangelical camp, but one can hardly claim that Warfield was soft on bibliological convictions! Let me prove my point with a lengthy quotation from his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), p. 174:

“Now if this doctrine is to be assailed on critical grounds, it is very clear that, first of all, criticism must be required to proceed against the evidence on which it is based. This evidence, it is obvious, is twofold. First, there is the exegetical evidence that the doctrine held and taught by the Church is the doctrine held and taught by the Biblical writers themselves. And secondly, there is the whole mass of evidence—internal and external, objective and subjective, historical and philosophical, human and divine—which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides. If they are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true, and is to be accepted and acted upon as true by us all. In that case, any objections brought against the doctrine from other spheres of inquiry are inoperative; it being a settled logical principle that so long as the proper evidence by which a proposition is established remains unrefuted, all so-called objections brought against it pass out of the category of objections to its truth into the category of difficulties to be adjusted to it. If criticism is to assail this doctrine, therefore, it must proceed against and fairly overcome one or the other element of its proper proof. It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides.”

Notice how often Warfield speaks of evidence here as the grounds for believing in inerrancy. The evidence is historical, exegetical, and doctrinal. Two statements stand out as crucial to his argument: “If they [the biblical writers] are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true…” and “If criticism is to assail this doctrine… It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides.” Warfield’s argument is one of the most profound paragraphs ever written in defense of inerrancy. If you’re reading this quickly, go back and let it sink in for awhile.

Metzger’s Challenge: The Bible Doesn’t Affirm Its Own Inerrancy

In 1992, when Bruce Metzger was on campus at Dallas Seminary for a week, delivering the Griffith Thomas lectures, students would often ask him whether he embraced inerrancy. Frankly, I thought their question was a bit uncharitable since they already knew the answer (he did not). But as one who, like Warfield before him, taught at Princeton Seminary, and as a Reformed scholar, Metzger certainly had earned the right to be heard on this issue. His response was simply that he did not believe in inerrancy because he felt it was unwise to hold to any doctrines that were not affirmed in the Bible, and he didn’t see inerrancy being affirmed in the Bible. In other words, he denied Warfield’s first argument (viz., that inerrancy was held by the biblical writers). It should be pointed out that Metzger did not disagree with Warfield’s second argument. In other words, he had a high view of the Bible, but not as high as, say, the Evangelical Theological Society, precisely because he did not think that the biblical writers held to the doctrine of inerrancy.

The Role of 2 Timothy 3.16

I felt the import of Metzger’s argument even before I had heard it from him, because I had long ago memorized the passage from Warfield quoted above. When I was working on my master’s degree in the 1970s, I was convinced that Warfield’s twofold argument needed to be examined and either affirmed or rejected. So I wrote my master’s thesis on an arcane point of Greek grammar. It was entitled, “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions in the New Testament.” I chose that particular topic because it directly affected how we should translate 2 Timothy 3.16. Should we translate this verse “every inspired scripture is also profitable” with the possible implication that some scripture is not inspired, or should we translate it “every scripture is inspired and profitable,” in which case the inspiration of scripture is directly asserted? I spent over 1200 hours on that thesis, working without the benefit of computers—in the Greek New Testament, in the Septuagint, in classical Greek, in the papyri—to determine whether adjectives in anarthrous constructions (constructions in which no definite article was present) could be predicate or whether they had to be attributive. All of this related to 2 Timothy 3.16 because the adjective “inspired” was related to the noun “scripture” in an anarthrous construction. Further, of the dozens of New Testament grammars I checked, not one gave any actual evidence that adjectives in such constructions could be predicate. A predicate adjective would be translated as an assertion (“every scripture isinspired”) while an attributive adjective would be translated as a qualification or assumption (“every inspired scripture”). I felt an obligation to the evangelical community to wrestle with this issue and see if there was indeed genuine evidence on behalf of a predicate “inspired.” I charted out over 2200 Greek constructions in the New Testament, as well as countless others in other corpora—all by hand—then checked the primary sources a second time to make sure I got the statistics right. When an ice storm hit Dallas in the winter of 1978–79, cutting down power lines in our neighborhood, I had to work by lamplight for a week to get the first draft of the thesis in on time. My conclusion was that “inspired” in 2 Timothy 3.16 was indeed a predicate adjective. And I supplied over 400 similar examples in the appendix to back it up! These 400 examples had never been discussed in any New Testament grammar before. I believed then, and I believe now, that supplying this kind of evidence is a worthy use of one’s time. The main part of the thesis ended up being the first piece of mine accepted for publication. It appeared inNovum Testamentum (one of the world’s leading biblical journals) in 1984 as a lengthy article. And the editors kept my opening comment that my motivation for the article was to help resolve some disputes about bibliology raging at the time in American evangelical circles.

I mention the above autobiographical note for two reasons. First, the question of the nature of the Bible has been, and still is, a very precious issue to me. Obviously, to spend over 1200 hours on where to put the “is” in one verse of scripture shows that I regard such a text to be rather significant! And that such a passage is a major verse on verbal inspiration should show that this doctrine is important to me. Second, the conclusion I came to is equally important: I can affirm, with Warfield, that the biblical writers do indeed embrace a high view of the text of Holy Writ. To be sure, this verse is not all there is in defense of inerrancy. But it is a crux interpretum, deserving our utmost attention. I must therefore respectfully disagree with Professor Metzger about Warfield’s first argument.

Christological Grounds for a High Bibliology

Where does this leave us with reference to inerrancy? I arrive at inerrancy through an inductive process, rather than by starting with it deductively. My epistemological method may therefore be different from others, but the resultant doctrine is not necessarily so. At bottom, the reason I hold to a high bibliology is because I hold to a high Christology. Jesus often spoke of the Bible in terms that went beyond the reverence that the Pharisees and Sadducees had for the text. They added traditions to the Bible, or truncated the canon, or otherwise failed to handle scripture appropriately. Jesus had a high view of the text, and it strikes me that I would be unwise to have a view different from his. Indeed, I believe I would be on dangerous ground if I were to take a different view of the text than Jesus did. Thus, my starting point for a high bibliology is Christ himself.

Some may argue that we can’t even know what Jesus said unless we start with a high bibliology. But that approach is circular. Making a pronouncement that scripture is inerrant does not guarantee the truth of such an utterance. If I said the moon is made of green cheese, that doesn’t make it so. At most, what such pronouncements can do is give one assurance. But this is not the same as knowledge. And if the method for arriving at such assurance is wrongheaded, then even the assurance needs to be called into question. A web of issues brings about the deepest kinds of theological assurance: evidence (historical, exegetical, hermeneutical, etc.), affirmations, the role of the Spirit, etc. One does not have the deepest assurance about inerrancy simply by convincing himself or herself that it must be true. Indeed, I would argue that such a presuppositional approach often caves in on itself. Now if inerrancy is true, what harm is there in examining the data of the text?

Now, someone may say, “But how do you know that Jesus actually held to a high bibliology unless you start with that presupposition? How do you know that the Gospel writers got the words of Jesus right in the first place?” I think that’s an excellent question. I would use the criteria of authenticity to argue that he did indeed hold to a high view of the text. The criteria of authenticity, when used properly, are criteria that Gospels scholars use to affirm whether Jesus said or did something. Notice that I did not say, “Gospels scholars use to deny whether Jesus said or did something.” The criteria of authenticity should normally be used only for positive results. To take one illustration: The criterion of dissimilarity is the criterion that says if Jesus said something that was unlike what any rabbi before him said and unlike what the church later said, then surely such a saying is authentic. I think this is good as far as it goes. It certainly works for “theSon of Man” sayings in the Gospels. The problem is that the Jesus Seminar used this criterion to make negative assessments of Jesus’ sayings. Thus, if Jesus said something that was said in contemporary Judaism, its authenticity is discounted. But surely that would create an eccentric Jesus if it were applied across the board! Indeed, Jesus said things that were already said in the Judaism of his day, and surely the early church learned from him and repeated him.

How does this apply to Jesus’ bibliology? Since his statements about scripture are decidedly more reverential than those of the Pharisees or Sadducees, the criterion of dissimilarity requires us to see that Jesus did, indeed, hold to a high bibliology. Of course, I am not arguing that the average Christian for the past two thousand years needed to think about whether Jesus said something. But I am arguing that even the evidence from a historical-critical perspective points in the same direction. And I am arguing that in the modern world, and even postmodern world, for evangelicals to ignore evidence is tantamount to a leap of faith.

I must confess that I did not at first embrace a high bibliology because of applying the criteria of authenticity to the sayings of Jesus. No, I initially embraced a high bibliology because I believed that the Bible’s testimony about itself was sufficiently clear and certainly true. But when I came to grips with Warfield’s inductive approach and Metzger’s denial of Warfield’s first argument, I realized that, for those engaged in serious biblical studies, historical evidence needed to be assessed before dialogue with those of a different perspective could begin. The fact that many evangelical students abandon inerrancy may in part be due to them not wrestling with more than a fideistic claim. What harm is there in adding historical evidence to one’s arguments for a doctrinal position? Why are so many afraid, or unprepared, to do so? The impression this gives to many students is that such views are defenseless.

Incarnation as Methodological Imperative

Permit me to address one other issue. If Christ is at the core of our beliefs, then the incarnation has to loom large in our thinking about the faith. When God became man and invaded space-time history, this served notice that we dare not treat the Bible with kid gloves. The incarnation not only invites us to examine the evidence, it requires us to do so. The fact that our religion is the only major religion in the world that is subject to historical verification is no accident: it’s part of God’s design. Jesus performed miracles and healings in specific towns, at specific times, on specific people. The Gospels don’t often speak in generalities. And Paul mentioned that 500 believers saw the risen Christ at one time, then added that most of these folks were still alive. These kinds of statements are the stuff of history; they beg the reader to investigate. Too often modern evangelicals take a hands-off attitude toward the Bible because of a prior commitment to inerrancy. But it is precisely because I ground my bibliology in Christology rather than the other way around that I cannot do that. I believe it is disrespectful to my Lord to not ask the Bible the tough questions that every thinking non-Christian is already asking it.

26 Responses to “A Bibliology Grounded in Christology”

  1. Thank you for posting this Dan. I will be using your insight in my apologetic approach.

  2. amen

  3. This is good stuff. In fact, I believe I have read it before. I think this (or perhaps a longer form of it?) was published by Wallace before (around 2005 or 2006?). At any rate, it’s worth posting again and again. I appreciate his approach, which seems to be good for evangelism and apologetics.

  4. Dan, great post, in my Evangelical Theology, I argue similarly for the priority of Christology over Bibliology. So amen from me.

  5. Wenham takes this approach in his under-appreciated Christ and the Bible.

    I agree that Christ is central, though I note that something can be foundational without being central. For example Genesis is probably more foundational to eschatology than Revelation, though the latter may be more central? My ability to reason and confidence that my reasoning is sensible (logical) is more foundational than Scripture, else how would I understand it? But Scripture is certainly more central than bethyada’s sanity.

    I think approaches taken depend on who one is dialoguing with. A more deductive approach when talking with believers may be useful (save their presuppositions are theological over biblical); and an inductive one when convincing men of Christ. Of course much of our reasoning comes from both.

  6. Dan: I am wondering what scriptures were available when 2 Timothy was written. I believe that the only scriptures available at the time this letter was written (by Paul or ?) were the Hebrew scriptures which weren’t even decided upon for another 150 years of debate between the rabbis. I do believe that the New Testament writings are usually reliable but I am not willing to say that every word in the Greek versions (which I can read) are dictated by the Spirit of God. And I am surprised that you didn’t really mention what it means for a writing to be “inspired.”

  7. You have clearly articulated a network of crucial issues. Bravo on all counts! I see that your summary regarding 1 Tim 3:16 in your Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics pages 313-314 also highlights the significance of the KAI linking “God-breathed” and “profitable for….” Since “profitable” is clearly a predicate adjective, its grammatically parallel “God-breathed” is most naturally also understood as a predicate adjective. Page 314 also notes that the PAS (“every”) before “Scripture” give strong confirmation that “God-breathed” is a predicate adjective: “All Scripture [is] God-breathed.” In other words, the entire structure of this verse and its context supports that “God-breathed” is a predicate adjective.

  8. Folowing your challenge that we should investigate the claims found in the New Testament especially as they relate to the Resurrection, the reference by Paul to the 500 to whom Jesus appeared raises a question. What kind of an appearance is this thought to be? Is this a receiving line where Jesus shakes hands? What kind of a view do these people get of the Resurrected Jesus? After all, five hundred people is a significant number. We’re not talking of a small room here. I would like to know your thoughts. Just investigating, mind you. Thanks.

  9. Hi Dr. Wallace, this is a great post and I have thought about this many times before and totally agree with your point. I think also that sometimes our intense focus on Bibliology can distract us from Christ, I have studied the Bible to learn about theological systems and concepts and I have learned much, but I had to back off from this and simply read the Gospels as narratives on the life of Christ, to read it as though I was part of the story or observing the story unfold. I think this is what the Gospel writers aimed to accomplish, especially Luke.

  10. I agree. And I would put it this way:

    Reading the Scriptures as mere ancient documents (no more inerrant than any other ancient documents) one can get to Jesus is Lord. Then, given that Jesus is Lord and that He considered the Scriptures to be the word of God, you can arrive quickly at inerrancy.

    We must believe that the Bible is the word of God because Jesus is Lord. For if we believe that Jesus is Lord because the Bible is the word of God, then, as it was with Bart Ehrman, the collapse of inerrancy leads to the collapse of faith in Christ.

  11. Interesting. A Christology to posit the inerrancy of Scripture and leaving out the the process the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth [1 Tim. 3:15 NIV]. Jesus did not come to write a book but to found a Church. Leave out the authority of the Church and you throw out the baby with the bath water. When are we Protestants going to quit being a magisterium of one?

  12. Cryptocatholic,

    I take it from your reference to 1 Timothy 3:15 that you ascribe at least some authority to the Bible. Given what you went on to say, does this mean that Matthew 4:4 in your Bible says, “Man shall not live on bread alone but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of the Magisterium”?

    Assuming it doesn’t, I point out to you that when you use 1 Timothy 3:15 to outsource your responsibility for hearing and obeying the word of God to the RCC, you are making the same decision as a Protestant does when he retains that responsibiliity.

    Those who hear the word of God are responsible to heed it. This is a responsibility you can neither delegate nor abdicate.

  13. Well said, Dan. I’ve always said that our faith is based first-and-foremost on events that happened in space-time history. At NT Wright so powerfully argues, what happened on Easter morning literally changed everything.

  14. Mike, “a bibliology grounded in Christology(?)” Yes, but one that is channeled through a church not an individual; otherwise, as I mentioned previously, “Hello, Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy, Judge Rutherford and Mr. Joseph Smith.” Pray tell me if you honestly believe if any of your colleagues, including yourself, is single handedly willing to assume the role of infallibility in regards to this issue?

    A magisterium is not the Pope! It all depends on what magisterium you are talking about. I for one as a Protestant (Yes, a Protestant, if you consider not bowing to Rome as being a protester) am still searching for that magisterium. Luther and Calvin had the same struggle, so I cannot see for the life of me how “a bibliopoly grounded in Christology” is the decisive choice. Who’s Christ? The Baptist Christ? Methodist? Catholic [Orthodox or Roman]? Pray tell me which Christ?

    As a professor of the psychology of religion, I will remind you–although, you probably already know–that just feeling good about one of these Christs is not enough. The JW that just knocked at my door, following the 2 bight eyed Mormon kids, and the Roman Catholic neighbor just across the way all feel good about their Christology. Is that enough? Certainly not.

    So, back to square one. Who is more reliable, a church filled with enthusiasm or a body of believers that have consistently had a magisterium of anointed elders that help us in our choice. Surely Christ did not leave us out here to just dangle in the wind.

    Now, you can consider this that I have just written as a polemic or you can consider it an honest question seeking an honest answer. I trust you choose the latter.

  15. Cryptocatholic,

    Why the pursuit of a magisterium? Who told you that you need one?

    A magisterium just helps you fall into error faster than you could fall into it on your own, as practically all the examples you just gave demonstrate.

  16. If it looks as if I have already said that, why can I not read what I have already said? Enquiring minds want to know.

  17. Cryptocatholic,

    Please explain. You’re being too cryptic for me.

  18. Mike, sorry but I have answered your #13 comment several times but can not get the blog to accept it. Thus my comment in #14.

  19. This blog site doesn’t like me any more, it will not allow me to reply except for the short little comments above. :-(

  20. Cryptocatholic,

    You can continue this dialogue on my blog, if you like.


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