The Assertion of Liberty of Conscience By the Independents at the Westminster Assembly of Divines. Painted by John Rogers Herbert, R.A. (1810-1890)
Comprehending Scripture can be challenging. There are scores of books, hundreds of chapters and thousands of verses in the Bible. Inevitably, within its pages, there will arise certain texts, particularly at first glance, that are perplexing, or even seemingly contradictory, and will leave us unsure how to think of it. This happens to all who read Scripture, from the most notable theologian to the newest believer. The Westminster Confession of Faith makes this consoling admission the following way:
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them. – Westminster Confession of Faith 1.7
The authors of the Confession acknowledge that some texts are difficult to understand and this has Biblical support. Peter writes,
And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. – 2 Peter 3:15-16
So, even Peter admits that some of what Paul writes is difficult. This shouldn’t dissuade us from being faithful students of Scripture. Some Christians understand Scripture better than others. We know that God gives people certain gifts and abilities, but not every Christian is called to be a teacher (Ephesians 4:11-16).
Having said that, after the Confession acknowledges that certain texts are difficult to understand there is a keen reminder: Scripture is the best and only interpreter of Scripture. When we come across a text that is difficult to understand, the best source to find that understanding is somewhere else in Scripture. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek the guidance of well-read believers, theologians and commentaries for they should point us to other places in Scripture.
In addition to this, there are many places in Scripture that clearly state what is necessary to be known for salvation. We should not think that the gospel cannot be clearly known through Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16).
This is great news for those who affirm both that Scripture is God-breathed and its authority, necessity, sufficiency and perspicuity. But what about those who deny such attributes? Is it possible to repudiate, say, Scripture’s inerrancy and do as the Confession says, let Scripture interpret Scripture? No, because if Scripture is not propositionally true then there is nowhere else to go in Scripture for interpretation.
John Frame writes the following in his Systematic Theology,
The importance of propositional truth in Scripture cannot be denied. Since its seventeenth-century beginnings, liberal theology has denied the possibility of “propositional revelation,” revelation in which God reveals words and sentences that agree with reality. The older liberalism (through the time of Wilhelm Herrmann and Adolf von Harnack) simply denied the divine authority of Scripture, treating the Bible as a collection of merely human religious writings. Thus, these thinkers were able to maintain the autonomy of their own thought, denying the need to place their scholarship under the authority of God’s Word. The neoorthodoxy of Karl Barth and Emil Brunner said much about the authority of the Word, but they conceived of God’s Word as a kind of gracious divine power that did not convey any propositional truth. So the neoorthodox, like the older liberals, justified autonomous human thought and acknowledged the freedom of Bible critics from any divine constraints.
But clearly in the Bible God reveals himself not only through personal confrontations and events in history, but also through words, which he speaks directly to his people (Ex. 20:1–17; Deut. 4:12; Matt. 3:17; 17:5) and through prophets who bear his full authority (Deut. 18:17–22;782 Jer. 1:10–12; John 16:13; 1 Cor. 14:37). [H]e also provides written words given by the Spirit. These words are among those that have the quality of divine truth. Is the Bible inerrant, then? Certainly, if inerrant means “true” in the propositional sense.
So, the dilemma for liberal theologians is multi-faceted. If Scripture is errant then it can never be used to make an appeal for anything. How will we know whether the Scripture in question is propositionally true or not? What portions of the Bible are errant? Should we trust Moses but not Paul? Can we trust the major prophets but not the minor prophets? Or perhaps we can trust Romans up to the eighth chapter but nothing beyond that?
Furthermore, if the Bible is errant then how can Jesus be quoted for anything? Scripture says that Jesus is the Word in the flesh (John 1:14), but maybe not. Perhaps that’s a part of the errant section of Scripture. Jesus said that the meek will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5), but maybe not. So, liberal theology cannot logically say that Scripture contains propositional errors and contradictions and then make appeals to it. It’s a fallacy. It’s inconsistent.
This is why there must be unwavering commitment to Scripture’s inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration. And not only should there be such commitment, but there should also be clarity as to what each of those attributes means.