"Notes" to the Belgic
Confession - Rev. C. Bouwman
THE WORD OF GOD
We confess that this Word of God did not come by the impulse of man, but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God, as the apostle Peter says (2 Pet 1:21). Thereafter, in His special care for us and our salvation, God commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed Word to writing1 and He Himself wrote with His own finger the two tables of the law.2 Therefore we call such writings holy and divine Scriptures.3
1 Ex 34:27; Ps 102:18; Rev 1:11, 19. 2 Ex 31:18. 3 2 Tim 3:16.
Whereas Article 2 focussed on nature as the means of God's revelation to mankind, Article 3 focuses on God revealing Himself by means of His Word, both His spoken and His written Word (see Article 2, Figure 1). God not only moved men by the Holy Spirit to speak God's Word; He also "commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed Word to writing..."
GOD'S SPOKEN WORD
We can mention two means by which God spoke His word: 1) Theophany, and 2) Prophecy.
Theophany means 'an appearance of God.' For example, in Genesis 28:12, 13 we read that the Lord God Himself appeared to Jacob in a dream. None less than God Himself came to Jacob so that Jacob saw the Lord at the top of the ladder, and God spoke to Jacob. In Exodus 19:18-20 we read of God descending upon Mt Sinai. This too was a theophany. Although it was markedly different than His appearance to Jacob, God nevertheless came and spoke. Other examples of theophanies are God speaking to Moses in the burning bush, and God's revelation to John on the island of Patmos.
Prophecy refers to God causing people to say certain things. For example, Amos 3:7,8:"Surely the Lord God does nothing, unless He reveals His secret to His servants the prophets. A lion has roared! Who will not fear? The Lord God has spoken! Who can but prophesy?" Just as the obvious, predictable, compulsory reaction to a lion's roar is fright, so prophecy is the necessary, predictable, compulsory reaction to God urging one to speak. In Jeremiah 20:14 we read that Jeremiah is far from being happy at being alive. What is the cause of his unhappy disposition? In verse 7 we read that he was derided daily because he spoke God's Word. He wants to quit with speaking God's Word because it proves to be too problematic for him. He does not want to be a prophet. But God's Word is in him like a burning fire. God moved him so he had to say what God wanted him to say. In 2 Peter 1:21 we read that God, through the Holy Spirit, moved men to say what He wanted them to say. I don't know how God did it, I don't understand how God did it, but the fact is that God did. When God speaks, His Word is made known. God wants people to know Him.
GOD'S WRITTEN WORD
Wonderful as it is that God spoke, it is even more wonderful that He caused what He spoke to be written down.
2. A written document is also reliable in that it does not change with the passing of the years, unlike the message that is passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth. Think of the Chinese whisper. If the word God spoke so long ago had not been written down, we would have but little guarantee that the message we today have is the very same message which God spoke to Moses, to the prophets, to Paul, etc.
Long ago, God already loved us who live today. On account of that fact He caused His Word of long ago to be written down. "In His special care for us and our salvation..." By 'us' deBres meant himself and the rest of the people in the little town of Doornik in the midst of their persecution. These people held on to God's Word and believed that God had caused Moses and Paul to write what they wrote because of His special care for them in their situation in Doornik so many years later. As the apostle had written: "Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition..." (1 Corinthians 10:11). The words 'all these things' refer to those things written in the previous verses concerning Israel being led out of Egypt, being taken through the Red Sea, being fed with manna and provided with water in the wilderness (Exodus 16 & 17), refer also to the fact that many Israelites died in the wilderness (Numbers 14). Paul writes that this was recorded and written down the admonition of the Corinthians of his day. The book of Exodus was written in the days of Moses, and Paul writes in his letter to the Corinthians a thousand years later that God saw to it that Moses would record specific events for the benefit of the Corinthians. This is the thought that deBres and his followers in Doornik confessed in Article 3, when they spoke of God's special care "for us and our salvation. The same truth is valid for us today. All that God spoke so many centuries ago through Moses, Jeremiah, Amos and Paul (to mention only these) was written down because God loves me. God did this as part of His special care for me TODAY. What love, what mercy, what care!! God's care for me didn't start when I was born; it started many centuries before that. So very long ago God knew what situation I would be in today, would know my moments of anguish and moments of joy, and therefore caused His Word as He revealed it centuries ago to be written down so that I might have it today. Truly, I have a God who cares for me much!
"All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Timothy 3:16,17). 'The man of God' spoken of here refers to the believer, and so includes, among others, also myself. The God Who by His grace allowed me to be His, wants me to be thoroughly equipped for every good work in all circumstances, and therefore He has given His Word, so that I might be complete. He caused His spoken Word to be written (be a "Scripture") for my benefit today. God's care spans the centuries. Therefore it is not surprising that David says, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold, sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb," (Ps. 19:9,10) and "Oh how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day," (Ps 119:97). Likewise we can say: if that is what God does for me, namely, caused His Word to be written down for me, I not only stand in awe in Him, but I equally treasure that Bible. For my sake, sinner though I am, He shows Himself in nature plus I get to read what He said so long ago for my benefit today.
What, then, is the Bible? It is Father's letter to His child, a letter which expresses His love, His mercy. I do not just shelve this letter unopened, but I treasure it, I read it. God has given me the Bible so that He may speak to me in my circumstances.
THE INSPIRATION OF THE BIBLE
Article 3 tells us that the Word of God is inspired: "We confess that this Word of God did not come by the impulse of man, but that men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God." The word 'inspiration' in 2 Timothy 3:16 means literally "God-breathed." The point here is that God prompted human authors in such a way that they wrote what He wanted them to write. In 2 Peter 1:21 we find a reference to speaking as a result of having been moved by the Holy Spirit: "for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." In 2 Timothy 3:16 we read that the same principle is applied to the written word, for it is stated that "all Scripture is given by inspiration of God." So all Scripture has the stamp of God upon it.In an attempt to explain how this inspiration actually worked, a number of theories have been formulated over the centuries:
1. The Mechanical Theory of InspirationThis theory, promoted especially in the days following the Great Reformation, claimed that human authors were merely 'machines,' 'typewriters' moved by God to put down on paper what He desired to have on paper. Every sentence, every word, every comma comes then directly from God and God alone. Men were thoughtless agents putting to paper what God prompted so that the Bible is a book void of any active human thought or feelings.
The problem with this theory is that human feelings are in fact quite evident in the Bible: e.g. the Psalms of David which so clearly speak of his struggles, emotions, problems. See also Luke 1:1-4, where Luke tells his readers that he made a conscious effort of doing the research needed to know what to write in his gospel (see below).
2. The Dualistic Theory of Inspiration
This theory was a reaction to the Mechanical Theory, and was embraced by rationalists, for example, the Remonstrants, at the time of the Synod of Dort. This theory claims that the Holy Spirit is the actual author of those parts of Scripture dealing with religion per se. Human authors wrote those parts of Scripture dealing with history, geography, human emotions, etc. Hence the Bible consists of two parts: writings from God and writings from people. The problem with this theory is the question of who is going to determine which writings are of the Spirit and which writings are of human origin? If each person is to judge that for himself, the consequence will be that anything in the Bible requiring, say, more self-denial than I am will to will be written off as mere human writing, with no divine authority.
3. The Dynamic Theory of Inspiration
This theory claims that the Bible was written by human authors who lived very close to God, who knew God very well and consequently wrote down their thoughts of God. It is said, then, that David and Habbakuk lived close to God, loved God, struggled much in their daily lives with questions about God's nearness, how God works in history, etc, and they recorded their thoughts and emotions in what is known to us as the Bible. We for our part can benefit from their thoughts and insights.
The problem with this theory is that the Bible is then essentially a collection of books written by man, a collection of human thoughts. Hence there is then really no essential difference between the poetry of David and that of, for example, Helen Steiner Rice.
4. The Actualistic Theory of Inspiration
According to this theory the Bible is not the Word of God, but can become the Word of God when one reads it and is taken in by what is read. Only when the written word does something to the reader, touches him, is one able to say of that portion that it is the Word of God. The problem with this theory is that the work of the Holy Spirit is moved from the time the author wrote the Bible book to the time the reader reads that Bible book. The various books of the Bible are then simply human products, essentially no different from any other human book, and becomes the Word of God today when the Holy Spirit touches the reader through his reading the Bible. One can then never lay one's hand on the Bible and say, "This is the Word of God."
5. The Organic Theory of Inspiration
This theory maintains that God used human authors, each with their own particular talents, struggles, feelings and circumstances, to write down His Word. The Lord sovereignly directed the circumstances of the human author in such a way that birth, education, gifts, research, memories, experiences, etc, were such that in and through and with the author writing his thoughts and recollections onto paper God's thoughts were put onto paper. The result is that peoples of any race or age are able to understand God's words. One cannot, then, separate God's Word and man's word in the Bible. How am I to understand this? How can the Psalms be God's Word and David's word simultaneously? The only answer to these very human questions is "I can't grasp it all, it's beyond our understanding." We don't have to know or understand either, because we are but human and God is God. As one cannot understand how Jesus is both God and man at the same time, so one cannot understand that the Bible is both God's Word and man's word at the same time.Luke 1:1-4 shows us something of the factors involved in the writing of the Bible. What should be noted here is what Luke says to Theophilus: "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed." Luke writes that he "followed all things closely", meaning that he did his homework; Luke went and interviewed people. For example, he went to Zechariah and Elizabeth to hear from them first hand what exactly took place in the temple; he went to Jericho to interview Zaccheaus. He then recorded what he learned. Understandably, he gave special attention to items that caught his special attention. Luke was a doctor, and hence in his gospel we read various details of the ailments from which people were healed, details we don't find in parallel accounts in Matthew and Mark. Here we have an example of organic inspiration: a man at work, using his gifts of research, recording his thoughts, placing his personal stamp on his product. Here the man Luke did his work as any of us would if we were to write an article. Yet the result is God's Word, for God sovereignly caused to write what He wanted him to write.
When we read the Bible, then, we need to apply rules that are true for the reading and understanding of any book. That is, one ought to analyse who the author is, what his situation was (eg, the political climate of his time), what his purpose was for writing, who his audience was. God used human people who lived in very human circumstances, and so very human and common rules for reading are necessary for reading and understanding the Word of God. The following come to mind:1. Scripture must be interpreted literally. That is: read what the passage says, in its natural, straightforward sense. Of course, 'literal' does not mean 'literalistic'. The passage of Scripture that says that "they eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth" (II Chronicles 16:9) to not teach that a pair of celestial eyes dash around the globe. This is something we understand too from the normal rules for reading any book or article.
2. Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. That is: read a verse not as a lone statement, but in its context, be it the paragraph where the verse appears, the chapter in which the verse appears, the bible book in which it appears (written by the same author as a complete unity), the Bible as a whole (written by the same Author -God- as a complete unity).
3. Scripture can be understood only by the Holy Spirit. Since we are dead of ourselves, and the Bible is the Word of the living God, we do well to pray that the Lord open our hearts and minds to understand what He was pleased to say to us.
A good Bible dictionary or the introductory pages to Bible books, as can be found in the New Geneva Study Bible or the NIV Study Bible, make worthwhile reading when trying to ascertain the background of a Bible book studied at Bible study clubs. Further, the student of Scripture is referred to the excellent series of ten volumes by C vanderWaal, entitled Search the Scriptures (published by Paideia Press, 1978).
Bible criticism is the product of those theories of inspiration mentioned above which claim that the Bible is not fully the Word of God. For if the Bible is not fully God's Word, a human is free to criticise it (or parts of it). One can, then, claim Genesis 1 to be nothing more than man's impressions and feelings concerning how the creation of the world took place, and hence not factually accurate. So one can embrace the evolution theory at the same time as one claims to be a believer. Similarly, since archaeologists have found no evidence to prove the collapse of Jericho's walls as historical fact, it can be concluded that the record of this event in the Bible is merely man's way of explaining and illustrating God's power. Likewise one can deny that the waters of the Red Sea actually stood in a heap while the Israelites crossed on a dry path, and say instead that the account of that crossing is simply some person's way of trying to say that he considers God to be strong and almighty.
Bible critics encourage one to accept all that is written in the Bible 'with a pinch of salt.' One shouldn't accept too literally what one reads in the Bible, one should instead peel away the layers of hyperbole, and try to uncover the heart of the stories of Scripture. The result of this is that the Bible is emptied of its power. Why, after all, should I let the Bible determine my life, what I may or may not do, if it is essentially nothing other than a record of people's experiences so many years ago? Truly, such reasoning robs the Bible of its power and authority.
Much of Christianity today has embraced this Bible criticism. Many pulpits in the country offer stones to the people in the pew because the preacher doesn't see the Bible as the real and living Word of God. No wonder the people are not nourished. Similarly, so many commentaries available today are written without proper regard for the Bible as God's Word. It is for us, then, as we consult a commentary, to be alert for whether or not the author indeed respects the Bible as the actual and living Word of God.
Text criticism is quite different than Bible criticism, and unlike the latter, is a necessary part of Bible studies. Take for example the letter of Paul to the Church at Galatia. Paul, moved by the Holy Spirit, wrote this letter and sent it to the churches of Galatia. The churches of Galatia therefore treasured it, and for lack of the convenience of modern means of duplicating this letter, individuals desiring a copy obtained one by transcribing it. One logically expects that transcription errors would have been made, each copier making his own errors, and passing these on to the next person who would not only have copied the errors, but probably made additional errors. Through such multiple copying one would expect the letter of Paul to have undergone a process of deterioration to such an extent that many years later one would scarcely be able to recognise Paul's original letter. (See Figure 1)
All four individuals A, B, C, D copied Paul's letter and each passed on their copies to others for copying. TEXT CRITICISM is the science of determining which group of manuscripts to use in order to arrive at the most accurate Bible Translation.
Here we do well to take note of what we read in Article 3, that "in His special care for us and our salvation, God commanded His servants, the prophets and apostles, to commit His revealed Word to writing ..." This special care did not stop when Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians. DeBres speaks of God's special care for us, and the reference is to deBres himself and the fellow believers of Doornik in 1561. In His special care for deBres and those with him, God saw to it that deBres still had Paul's letter to the Galatians, be it by means of many copies having been made over the generations and the centuries. Though one would expect that Paul's letter had deteriorated greatly due to so many people making copies of copies of it countless times, God graciously saw to it that this deterioration did not happen. Between the numerous copies remaining to us today of Paul's original letter there is 95-97% agreement! That so little of the letter is in discussion despite so many copies made can only be attributed to God's special care for His church over the centuries, including today.
Text criticism concerns itself with the 3-5% of words in the copies of Paul's letters where copies have differences. Text criticism is the science of determining how these differences may have come about, and consequently tries to decide which copy has correctly transmitted the words Paul used. As we discuss the matter of underlying manuscripts to the various translations considered in the churches today, we do well to focus our attention not on the small degree of uncertainty, but instead on the marvel of God's preservation of His Word for us over the centuries. It's the reality of His special care for us and our salvation as demonstrated (for example) through His preservation of His Word that encourages us in the challenges of our lives today.