14 October 2011

Is it Legitimate to Compare the Divine/Human Nature of Scripture to the Divine/Human Nature of Christ?

The question has been hot in recent years as several men have written books on Scripture answering the above question 'yes,' often making the accompanying point that just as we do not want to play down the true humanity of Christ, neither do we want to play down the true humanity of the Bible--which compels us to concede in honesty (it is then argued) minor matters of historical error in Scripture. Bob Yarbrough wisely interacted with several of these books recently.

But the point of this post is to note that Packer had already given us marvelously clear guidance to the above question 50 years ago in his "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God. Some had been arguing that the evangelical view of Scripture, with its view of inerrancy etc, is like the Monophysite heresy, which denies the real humanness of Jesus.

Packer writes:
1. At best, the analogy between the divine-human person of the Word made flesh, who is Christ, and the divine-human product of the Word written, which is Scripture, can be only a limited one.

2. If the point of the analogy is merely that human as well as divine qualities are to be recognized in Scripture, we can only agree, and add that it should be clear from what we have already said--which is no more than Evangelicals have said constantly for over a century--that we do in fact recognize the reality of both.

3. If we are to carry the analogy further, and take it as indicating something about the character which the human element has by virtue of its conjunction with the divine, we must say that it points directly to the fact that, as our Lord, though truly man, was truly free from sin, so Scripture, though a truly human product, is truly free from error. If the critics believe that Scripture, as a human book, errs, they ought, by the force of their own analogy, to believe also that Christ, as man, sinned.

4. If we are to carry the analogy further still, and take it as indicating something about the reality of the union between the divine and the human, we must say that it is in fact the approach of Evangelicals to Scripture which corresponds to Christological orthodoxy, while that of their critics really corresponds to the Nestorian heresy. Nestorianism begins by postulating a distinction between Jesus as a man and the divine Son, whom it regards as someone distinct, indwelling the man; but then it cannot conceive of the real personal identity of the man and the Son.

The right and scriptural way in Christology is to start by recognizing the unity of our Lord's Person as divine and to view His humanity only as an aspect of His Person, existing within it and never, therefore, dissociated from it. Similarly, the right way to think of Scripture is to start from the biblical idea that the written Scriptures as such are 'the oracles of God' and to study their character as a human book only as one aspect of their character as a divine book. Those who start by postulating a distinction between the Bible as a human book and the word of God that is in it are unable, on their own premises, to recognize and exhibit the real oneness of these two things, and when they try to state their mutual relationship they lapse into an arbitrary subjectivism. This is what happens to the critics. (Incidentally, once we see this, we see why they are so ready to accuse Evangelicals of Monophysitism; for Nestorians have always regarded orthodox Christology as Monophysite.)

We must dissent, therefore, from [the] assertion that our task is to discern the divinity in Christ's humanity and the word of God in the fallible words of man, and suggest that it is rather to appreciate the true manhood of the divine Word incarnate and the authentic human character of the inerrant divine Word written.
--J. I. Packer, "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God (Eerdmans, 1958), 82-84


Anonymous said...

Dane - excellent post. I need to finally read Packer's book. This would have been an invaluable resource in engaging discussions in seminary.


Jared said...

What a great pointer to something that hits the nail on the head. Thanks Dane.

Daniel F. Wells said...

Both Herman Bavinck and John Murray appeal to the incarnational analogy, yet they do this to preserve the notion of a inerrant text, not undermine it as Enns and other 'post-conservative' evangelicals do.

Anonymous said...

I don't think that we would have to say Jesus sinned to follow the analogy on its own terms. I believe that a minor inconsistency in detail (which there are undeniably) in scripture could just as well correspond to the full humanity of Jesus in that as a human he could have experienced sickness or hit his thumb with a hammer by mistake. That accounts for him experiencing the true shortcomings of humanness without having to say that he sinned. I think that is a fine analogy to the full humanness of scripture in which all human weakness is present. And small discrepancies in the bible shouldn't shake our faith or cause us to say "well then how do we really know Jesus rose from the dead?" We accept human testimony as true and valid all the time without the presupposition that the person giving it has been rendered infallible. If a few news reporters gave accounts that conflicted in minor details about 9/11, we wouldn't then say "how do we know any of the events really happened?" You might say we have much more evidence and news reels and such but you get the point. I'm afraid that the evangelical doctrine derives authority from inerrancy. Instead, I believe we should accept scripture as authoritative by faith - that we believe and experience that the human witness to what God has done through Jesus is true, just like the disciples did.

Al Bennington

Ken Stewart said...

I am glad to see Packer's remarks given in such detail as they are masterly as well as compact.

But it is still possible to demur at points while upholding the thrust of the Packer argument. Consider this 2 sentence segment, for instance:
"The right and scriptural way in Christology is to start by recognizing the unity of our Lord's Person as divine and to view His humanity only as an aspect of His Person, existing within it and never, therefore, dissociated from it. Similarly, the right way to think of Scripture is to start from the biblical idea that the written Scriptures as such are 'the oracles of God' and to study their character as a human book only as one aspect of their character as a divine book."

The difficulty with this equation is that the literature of scripture is not consistently 'oracular' both in that it was not uniformly given in a prophetic manner (maintain this and it seems impossible to avoid a one size fits all 'dictation theory')and also in that there are many 'phenomena' of Scripture which evidently cannot be accomodated into the oracular understanding.
For example, it seems unwise to consider the Proverbs as oracular when we acknowledge the numerous mid-eastern parallels to many of the sayings. There is some kind of literary interdependency going on with at least the possibility that the biblical author borrowed, under inspiration, from pre-existing literature. The writers of the OT historical books evidently pored over pre-existing historical records -- as did Luke in writing his Gospel. NT Epistolary literature is not oracular in any plain sense of the term. The question is not whether all this Scripture is written by inspiration; the question is how -- other than in an oracular manner -- were so many of these parts composed?
Again, among the 'phenomena' of Scripture not easily explained by an appeal to an oracular process are the inclusion in the biblical text of statements made by Satan, of speeches made by Job's friends which are repudiated by God, Peter's stated oppositon to Christ's future passion (for which words he got a dressing down) and Paul's periodic appeal to statements of pagan poets.

In light of the above, while it is inappropriate to articulate Christology chiefly 'from below' and a doctrine of inspiration chiefly 'from below', a too-solitary emphasis on the 'from above' will obliterate both phenomena in Christ's life (most notably his declared ignorance of the date of the last day Mark 13.32) _and_ very 'un-oracular'occurences in the pages of the Bible -- without which our doctrinal formulations will lack necessary groundedness in what is written.

Dane Ortlund said...


There's a valid point in the first half of your comment, Al. The second half is weaker.

Ken, good thoughts. You are pushing more into a passing reference to 'oracles' than you should. And reading the broader context of the book would help, I think--as is so often the case.


Ken Stewart said...

Packer himself seems to have recognized the inadequacy of the formulation he gave in the extended quotation you provided. By the time he returned to this subject in a chapter of _Knowing God_ he moved away from the 'oracular' idea to allow that in the Scripture we have outright commands, we have promises (both from God) and we have testimonies (from humans)reporting on the faithfulness of God in human affairs. These were steps in a much-needed direction. But we should go further than to admit that the genres vary within a comprehensively inspired Scripture; it is necessary to allow that within the comprehensively inspired Scripture there are elements uncharacteristic of God himself such that He reserves the right to deny them His approbation. Job 42.7is simply the best example of many within the Bible.
If, or once we grant this to be so, it raises interesting questions about the use of the analogy between the two natures of Christ and the Bible.