Understanding the Human Dimension of Scripture
This post was originally published as part of Pete Enns' series on Calvinism.
In my last post we looked at Old Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield and his understanding of the “human side” of the Bible. That may not be the best way of putting it, but it reflects Warfield’s view that the Bible is fully a divine/human product. Neither can be seen as less important than the other. This has practical implications for Warfield, for it allows—better, it demands—that the implications of Scripture’s “humanity” be taken with utmost seriousness.
All biblical authors wrote from the vantage point of their particular historical contexts, and their writings throughout reflect that reality. The inspiration of Scripture is not true despite this human side. Rather, the human side is an invariable part of what “inspiration” means. The “human side” is not a problem that inspiration needs to overcome. It is God’s chosen means of speaking.
Old Princeton represented one major arm of Calvinism—the British tradition. The other arm, the Dutch Calvinist tradition, expressed (in my opinion) an even clearer idea of the theological importance of the human side of Scripture.
An “Organic” View of Scripture
In fact, when we turn to these Dutch Calvinists, we see that they were actually critical of their own tradition for failure to develop an “organic” doctrine of Scripture, i.e., one that takes account of its humanness as well as its divine authority.
We see this in the writings of two guiding lights of Dutch Calvinism, Abraham Kuyper (1837-1920) and Herman Bavinck (1854-1921).
Abraham Kuyper appreciated the defenses of divine authorship that characterized his Calvinist predecessors, but added:
It can scarcely be denied that they had established themselves too firmly in the idea of a logical theory of inspiration, to allow the animated organism of the Scripture to fully assert itself.1
Kuyper felt that philosophical arguments for inspiration ignored the human dimension which is an irreducible part of Scripture. In a similar vein, Herman Bavinck noted the overall failure of his Calvinist predecessors to develop an organic view of inspiration:
The Reformed confessions [e.g., the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith] almost all have an article on Scripture and clearly express its divine authority; and all the Reformed theologians without exception take the same position. Occasionally one can discern a feeble attempt at developing a more organic view of Scripture.2
The development of a more organic view awaited the rise of modernity, as Bavinck noted:
In general, it can be said without fear of contradiction that insight into the historical and psychological mediation of revelation … only came to full clarity in modern times and that the mechanical view of inspiration, to the extent that it existed in the past, has increasingly made way for the organic (Ibid.,431).
There is a lot to unpack in these three quotes, but let me focus on the last point. Kuyper and Bavinck were hardly liberal renegades looking to destroy people’s faith. In fact, they were quite open about warning people of liberal extremes. Nevertheless, the rise of modern biblical scholarship, whatever downside there might be to it, served the purpose of alerting us to the thoroughly human product that Scripture is—not exclusively human, but nevertheless, thoroughly human.
The Bible and the Incarnation
Furthermore, in their development of the doctrine of organic inspiration, both Bavinck and Kuyper made bold use of the incarnational analogy of Scripture (as Christ is both divine/human, so too does Scripture reflect divine and human authorship). They argued that inspiration despised no cultural form, but wove itself fully into the fabric of human life at the time.
The following from Bavinck illustrates the point beautifully:
The theory of organic inspiration alone does justice to Scripture. In the doctrine of Scripture, it is the working out and application of the central fact of revelation: the incarnation of the Word. The Word (logos) has become flesh (sarx), and the word has become Scripture; these two facts do not only run parallel but are most intimately connected. Christ became flesh, a servant, without form or comeliness, the most despised of human beings; he descended to the nethermost parts of the earth and became obedient even to death on the cross. So also the word, the revelation of God, entered the world of creatureliness, the life and history of humanity, in all the human forms of dream and vision, of investigation and reflection, right down into that which is humanly weak and despised and ignoble…. All this took place in order that the excellency of the power…of Scripture, may be God’s and not ours.3
Several pages later, Bavinck puts it this way:
The organic nature of Scripture…implies the idea that the Holy Spirit, in the inscripturation of the word of God, did not spurn anything human to serve as an organ of the divine. The revelation of God is not abstractly supernatural but has entered into the human fabric, into persons and states of beings, into forms and usages, into history and life. It does not fly high above us but descends into our situation; it has become flesh and blood, like us in all things except sin. Divine revelation is now an ineradicable constituent of this cosmos in which we live and, effecting renewal and restoration, continues its operation. The human has become an instrument of the divine; the natural has become a revelation of the supernatural; the visible has become a sign and seal of the invisible. In the process of inspiration, use has been made of all the gifts and forces resident in human nature” ("Reformed Dogmatics" 1.442–43; my emphasis).
What I find so refreshing in Bavinck is his eloquent—almost poetic—enthusiasm for the irreducible theological value of the humanity of Scripture. There is a reason why Scripture looks the way it does, with all its bumps and bruises, peaks and valleys, gaps and gashes. As counterintuitive as it might sound to, the “humiliation” of Scripture is there to exalt God’s power, not ours.
Accenting the Bible’s humanity does not mean ignoring or marginalizing the divine authorship of Scripture. Rather, to acknowledge the historical contexts in which Scripture was produced is to proclaim as good and powerful what that divine author has actually, by his wisdom, produced. The Spirit’s primary authorship is not questioned, nor does Scripture’s humiliation imply error. Bavinck’s point is simply that the “creatureliness” of Scripture is not an obstacle to be overcome, but the very means by which Scripture’s divinity can be seen.
In fact, Scripture’s divinity can only be seen because of its humanity—God’s chosen means of communication—not by looking past it. And it is not just humanity as a safe theoretical construct. It is a humanity that is “weak and despised and ignoble.” That is what points us to the divine, just as Christ does in his state of humiliation. To marginalize, or minimize, or somehow get behind the Bible’s “creatureliness” to the “real” word of God is, for Bavinck, to strip God of his glory.
And the point is…
Old Princeton and the Dutch Calvinists understood that the human dimension of Scripture—which pervades Scripture thoroughly—is not merely tolerable of a divine book, but a necessary component of what inspiration means.
These traditions have had a marked influence on contemporary Evangelicalism, and applying their general approach to Scripture to current challenges such as science and faith seems like a continuation of that trajectory.
In my next post I want to look at one example from New Testament scholarship that illustrates this “embrace of the human” in Scripture.
1. Encyclopedia of Sacred Theology: Its Principles (trans. J. Hendrik deVries; New York: Scribners, 1898), 480-81
2. Reformed Dogmatics, vol 1, Prolegomena (ed. J. Bolt; trans. J. Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 415.
3. Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume 1: Prolegomena (trans. J. Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) 434–35; my emphasis.