On the Reliability of Scripture

berkouwer2Gerrit C. Berkouwer reflects on the reliability of Scripture in light of its dual nature as ‘the Word of God and the word of man.’ No theory of inspiration is adequate which does not “agree with the ‘phenomena’ of Scripture” (Berkouwer, Holy Scripture, 242). Still, the reliability of Scripture is a critical religious matter, correlated with trust. “The reliability of God is the unshakable foundation of such a trust; … However, one should not think that he enters into an entirely different sector of trust when considering the reliability of Scripture” (241).

Yet the kind of reliability Berkouwer has in mind is not that of the precision, accuracy or exactness of, for example, modern historiography; modern concepts of reliability are foreign to Scripture. He is not concerned by “innocent inaccuracies” (245). Nor is Scripture intended to instruct us concerning the composition of the cosmos or of the human person. “The purpose of Scripture is directly aimed at the revelation of God in this world and to man” (245, original emphasis).

As Ridderbos writes, the evangelists did not intend to give “an historical narrative of Jesus’s words and works but a portrayal of Jesus as the Christ.” This is the character of our gospel, or, expressed in other terms, not report but witness (247, original emphasis).

If absolute preciseness and exactness is seen as the ideal, excluding all interpretive subjectivity, in order to render ‘facts’ as objectively as possible, we must conclude that the Gospels do not coincide with this ideal and therefore are not reliable (248).

The reliability of Scripture, therefore, is in accordance with its purpose, not the character of its precision or otherwise.

Thus, various emphases on witness, truth, and reliability are clearly evident (Jn. 19:35; 21:24). But these are not in opposition to a freedom in composing and expressing the mystery of Christ; their purpose is rather to point in their testimony to that great light. … For the aim of the portrayal was not to mislead and to deceive; it was not even a ‘pious fraud,’ for it was wholly focused on the great mystery. This explains why the church through the ages was scarcely troubled by the differences pointed out long before, and by the inexact, non-notarial portrayal. A problem was created only as a result of attempts at harmonization and the criticism that followed (252).

That is, the church has long recognised—and been unconcerned about—discrepancies of detail in the gospels. The problem arose as a result of harmonisation and historical criticism and led subsequently to anxiety about inspiration on the one hand, or a conviction that the gospels were unreliable on the other. Both concerns are invalid because they ground the reliability of Scripture on its verbal precision rather than on the content and reliability of the witness to Jesus Christ, and the use made of that witness by the Holy Spirit to guide us to salvation (254, 263).

If Scripture is truly what the church confessed it to be in its creed, we should continually be reminded of the prayer during all reading of Scripture: “Come, Creator Spirit!” … The message of Scripture alone, convincing and overwhelming as it is through the power of the Spirit, clearly can lead us quietly to trust this reliability (264).