Primary Sources for the Presbyterian Masses

What Presbyterians Believe About the Bible (1935)

In Bible, Modernism on 09/06/2009 at 14:19

By Samuel G. Craig

[excerpted from Christianity Today 6.7 (December 1935): 147-148]

In its issue of October 17th, The Presbyterian Tribune has the hardihood to assert that Presbyterians do not believe in an infallible Bible. We are not concerned to deny that many connected with the Presbyterian Church regard the Bible as a fallible book. The editor of the Tribune and his fellow Auburn Affirmationists, not to mention others, make it impossible to think otherwise. Our contemporary, however, not merely asserts that certain Presbyterians do not believe in an infallible Bible, it boldly asserts that even their ordained officers do not profess such a faith. We quote:

“It is widely supposed and vigorously asserted, that Presbyterians believe that the Bible is infallible: that at least their ordained officers profess such a faith. Is this a fact? . . . Is that what Presbyterians believe? Look squarely at the terms of subscription used in setting apart ministers, elders and deacons. Do they say, ‘I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.’ The difference is clear, unmistakable to all honest minds. It is one thing to profess that a certain book is inerrant in every particular. It is quite another thing to profess that a certain book, or collection of books, is absolutely as a guide in matters of faith and conduct, and the latter, not the former, is what Presbyterians profess. The only infallible rule of faith and practice.’ Infallible in that one realm; that is all we profess to believe. We need not care, if we are wise we shall not care, whether or no the history, the science, the literary allusions, the statements of fact of the Bible are absolutely accurate . . . What our fathers meant when they framed this admirable statement in our terms of subscription, what we mean by it today, is that, when we would find the best light, the truest guidance, the one always trustworthy source of wisdom as to right belief and right conduct, we go not to a pope, or to a presbytery, or to a theologian, or to a Church Father, or to a psychoanalyst, or to anyone else, but to this Word of God, which we know will never fail us if we use it rightly.”

If inability to see any real difference between affirming that the Bible is infallible and affirming that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (of which the Bible is composed) are the Word of God is an indication of a dishonest mind, we will have to admit that our mind is of that sort. If the books that constitute the Bible are the Word of God (not merely contain the Word of God) as our standards assert, how is it possible to suppose they contain “inaccuracies, contradictions, and outworn views,” as our contemporary implies? Is God a man that He should be mistaken?

Quite apart from the question whether it is possible to regard the Bible as infallible in the realm of faith and practice if it be inaccurate in its statements of fact–we do not think it is–it ought to be clear to all that the ordination vow taken by ministers, elders and deacons is not amenable to the minimizing interpretation that our contemporary seeks to place upon it. Such an interpretation is to be rejected on both exegetical and historical grounds. The candidate for ordination does not merely afifrm that he believes the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the only infallible rule of faith and practice, he affirms that he believes it to be the Word of God. He is required to affirm, first of all, that he believes said Scripture to be the Word of God. Having done that he is required to go on and affirm faith in them as the only infallible rule of faith and practice. It would be absurd to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God and then weakly add that it is infallible only in as far as it constitutes a rule of faith and practice. And yet that is what our contemporary, in effect, says that the candidate for ordination does. If the Bible is the Word of God, we may be sure that it is altogether, not merely partly, trustworthy. However it is not absurd but eminently fitting to affirm that the Bible is the Word of God and therefore the only infallible rule of faith and practice–and that is what the sincere and intelligent candidate for ordination actually does. Moreover our contemporary is quite mistaken when he affirms that his interpretation of the ordination vow is that of its framers. To cite Dr. B.B. Warfield: “This view was not the view of the Westminster Divines. It had its origin among the Socinians and was introduced among Protestants by the Arminians. And it was only on the publication, in 1690, of the ‘Five Letters concerning the Inspiration of Holy Scriptures, translated out of the French’, which are taken from Le Clerc, that it began to make its way among English theologians” (The Westminster Assembly and its Work, p. 203).

The fullest statement of what Presbyterians believe, or at least profess to believe, concerning the Bible is to be found in the opening chapter of the Confession of Faith. There the Scriptures identified with “all the books of the Old and New Testaments” are spoken of as “the Word of God Written”, as “given by inspiration of God”, as of “authority in the Church of God”, as having “God (who is truth itself)” for their “author”, as of “infallible truth and divine authority”, as being “immediately inspired of God” and so “authentical” so that “in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them.” If the ordination vow is to be interpreted in the light of the doctrine of Scripture taught in the Confession of Faith, as of course it should be, it is clear that those who subscribe to it with any adequate understanding of its meaning profess that they believe in the infallibility of the Bible in all its length and breadth.

[Craig, Samuel G., “What Presbyterians Believe About the Bible,” Christianity Today 6.7 (December 1935): 147-148.]

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