When the Lord Buddha was about to enter Final Nirvana, it is said, he assembled his followers upon the Vulture Peak for a farewell. For a long while he sat before them in silence. Finally he raised one flower, held it before his disciples, and watched for some sign of comprehension. Among all his disciples, only one, Kashyapa, understood. When the Buddha saw a smile of comprehension upon the face of Kashyapa, he knew that his highest truth had been communicated in the only way it could possibly be communicated: wordlessly. That day Kashyapa became the first Zen master, and from him grew the great school of Zen Buddhism, which to this day has no patience with any spiritual truth that can be verbally taught. The true Buddhist, according to Zen, need not be overly concerned with the words of the scriptures, for he can understand their meaning only after he has ceased to rely upon them to communicate cognitive truth to him. The scriptures were given only because people of an earlier age needed them as a step toward the full truth of Zen.

All this is analogous to what happens recurrently within the Christian Church. Many argue that an interest in the very words of the Christian Scriptures, instead of leading to truth, places an obstacle in the way of grasping the true intent of the Scriptures. Granted, they say, those who first received the Scriptures, and even the Christian churches of over a thousand years thereafter, accepted the words of Scripture as divinely authoritative. But now, in a “world come of age,” we no longer need hold such a view. Biblical errors and contradictions in science, geography, and history, they say, are so patent as to make the doctrine of verbal inspiration untenable. They argue that this in no way impugns the basic reliability of the Bible, for God never intended the Bible to teach science, geography, and history. Anyway, the writers of Scripture wrote as men of their own day; those things we now know to be erroneous were “true for them.” In brief, we are told that man is now ready and able to go behind the mere words of Scripture to the “deeper truths” that reveal God’s intent in inspiring it. The teachings that flow from this position may have a distinctly orthodox ring, for some of its proponents insist that the Bible is fully authoritative in religious matters.

Those who hold this view tend to lecture more conservative Christians along the following lines: To insist that Holy Scripture is utterly inerrant, to fear that error in Scripture will endanger faith in Christ, is to substitute the Bible for the Saviour. This “bibliolatry” can only diminish the glory of Christ and point men away from him, they say, because anyone can see that the Bible does in fact contain errors and contradictions.

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The conservative believer answers: No knowledge about the Saviour is available to us other than that which the words of Holy Scripture convey. If Jesus was not born in Bethlehem of Judea (geographical truth), in the reign of Caesar Augustus (historical truth), of the Virgin Mary (biological truth), as Scripture teaches, how can one know he is the Incarnate Word of God (religious truth)?

But many theologians who question the inspiration of Scripture have an answer. They say that in discussing the authority of Holy Scripture it is wrong to bring in arguments relating to Christ’s birth as the enfleshment of Deity, or his resurrection as a true revitalizing of a dead organism. Even without accepting verbal inspiration they claim to believe in these realities and find salvation. The things in debate, say many theologians, are rather the Genesis creation story, Jonah’s sea-creature episode, and other such obvious “myths.” The uniqueness of the God-Man is not in question.

The conservative replies: If we are truly one in our adoration of and submission to the Lord Jesus Christ, can we not determine the extent of Scripture’s inspiration by asking how Jesus viewed the Bible of his day? Jesus made no distinction between one part of Scripture and another when he said, “It is they that bear witness to me” (John 5:39). Do not Genesis and Jonah also reveal Christ? For example, is not Genesis 3:15 a prophecy of Christ? Is not Jesus himself the promised seed of Abraham? Did not Christ himself use the account of Jonah to illustrate his coming resurrection (Matt. 12:40)? Even the resurrected Christ taught his doubting followers on the basis of Holy Scripture: “ ‘O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’ And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27). If, then, the risen Christ based his teachings on the words of Holy Scripture, what reason do we have to question its authority?

But the liberal Christian has a ready answer. He grants that the things Christ taught from Scripture are true—but says they are true not because they are scriptural but because Christ taught them. Inspiration, in this view, means that God gave insight into religious truth to men who then faithfully sought to communicate that truth to the best of their limited ability. They argue that Christ could use the Jonah narrative to foretell his resurrection even though he did not really believe that Jonah had lived inside a sea creature. Christ, they say, merely accommodated his teaching to his hearers’ limitations.

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Here the dialogue has arrived at the Vulture Peak of Christian theology. That is, theology has now “matured” to the point where it can consider itself no longer bound by the words of Scripture. Having been emancipated from the narrow views of Christians of former ages, the modern Christian needs no verbal revelation or inspired Scripture to establish the truth.

But was God merely twirling symbolic word-bouquets when he caused the Scripture to be “written for our learning”? And did he patiently hold these verbal flowers aloft for some seventeen centuries after Christ before men began to realize that the flower was not so important after all? Is God really pleased that so many men now believe they have found a surer, inner revelation that enables them to judge for themselves what parts of his Word are “true for them”? Are not the more recent views of inspiration rather to be ranged in the long line of heresies that grow from the magisterial use of proud reason in matters of Holy Scripture? Are not men pronouncing a rebellious judgment upon the Word that is meant to judge and save them?

Those within the Church who seek to exalt Christ while decrying a “literalist” approach to Scripture are in an untenable position. To be consistent, they must charge the Christ revealed in Scripture (the only Christ we know) with the error of literalism, if not “bibliolatry.”

Furthermore, there is not the faintest hint in Scripture that Jesus was ever jealous of attention paid to the written Word of God. There is no place for the view that to exalt Scripture detracts from the Saviour. Indeed, throughout his ministry Christ often said such things as, “Blessed are those who hear the Word of God and keep it”—statements that surely meant the written Word.

A prime motive for the move away from the historic view of Scripture is said to be the desire to be relevant in the modern world. In a world dominated by science, a miracle-working God is persona non grata, it is argued, and the Bible must therefore be purged of miracle. But if the twentieth-century man is encouraged to question and reject the Holy Scriptures in area of science, history, and geography, why not also in areas relating directly to the Gospel? Zen is one of many approaches that would urge him to play this game to the very end.

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The miracle-discarding attempt at relevance is misguided, for it is not mainly the miracles that repel modern pagans but the plan of salvation itself. It is what the Bible teaches a man about his own being and about his deeds and about his need for forgiveness that is hard to take. If a man can (by God’s grace) face up to his need for Christ, he will not be particularly affronted by the miracles Jesus performed. He will rather find in them further assurance that Christ, the One who he has come to believe loves and saves him in spite of his sin, is indeed the Lord of Lords and able to do as he wants with what he has created. The greatest miracle in Scripture is the fact that God loves us who are by nature his enemies.

Jim Elliot, who died on the spears of the Auca Indians to whom he sought to bring the Gospel, wrote in his diary that if Christ is the Word Incarnate, the Bible is Christ in print. He no doubt meant, not that we should therefore worship the Bible, but rather what Jesus meant when he said, “It is they that bear witness to me.” Can we not apply to every portion of Scripture the teaching that they are written “that you may know that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13)? If the Scriptures were given for this high purpose, who are we to demean them? God forbid that Christian pulpits and classrooms should become Vulture Peaks where men smilingly explain away the literal sense of the words of God.

Milton D. Hunnex is professor and head of the department of philosophy at Willamette University, Salem, Oregon. He received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of Redlands and the Ph.D. in the Inter-collegiate Program in Graduate Studies, Claremont, California. He is author of “Philosophies and Philosophers.”

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