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A brief examination of prevalent opinions of the inspiration of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments

by John Muir

Excerpt:

AN EXAMINATION OF THE ARGUMENTS URGED IN DEFENCE OF THE INFALLIBILITY OF THE HOLY SCRIPTURES.

The plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures has been long received in this country by a large majority both of clergy and laity, as an incontrovertible truth. Most persons take the infallibility of the Bible for granted, -without attempting to define, or even seeking to understand, the conditions on which that infallibility depends. Systematic theologians again, who are prepared to support the doctrine by argument, are not exactly agreed in their statement of the doctrine itself. Some consider that not only the thoughts, but the words, of the Bible are divinely inspired, the writers being looked upon as nothing more than passive instruments of the Holy Ghost. Others admit that there is a human element alongside of the divine, and that while the ideas have, in some sense or other, resulted entirely from supernatural influence, the words and style must be regarded as the product of the writer's own mind. This latter opinion is, no doubt, more common than the former. Inspiration is also considered by many as being of different kinds, or as being variously modified, according to the exigencies of the case. Thus it is supposed to have been sometimes confined to the direction of the sacred writers in the selection of the materials (historical data, for example), which were available for their purpose; at other times, to extend to the supernatural communication of facts, which they would not otherwise have known, or of doctrines which they could not by their unaided faculties have correctly conceived : but in all cases it is assumed to have secured them from error in respect of the entire contents of their compositions, and to have rendered their works essentially infallible. The Bible is, in short, regarded as being from beginning to end the Word of God.

It appears to me that a fair and candid examination of the Scriptures must lead to a considerable modification of this opinion.

Before, however, I proceed to exhibit the grounds on which this conclusion is based, it will be advisable to inquire what the primd facie arguments are which may be adduced with some appearance of reason in support of the prevalent theory.

These arguments I imagine to be twofold,—first, of an d, priori character, such as seem to be deducible from the nature of the case ; and, secondly, such as are supposed to be furnished by the Scriptures themselves. A few words must be said in regard to each of these classes.

§ 1. Brief Examination of the d priori argument for the Infallibility of

the Bible.

First, then, it may be argued with some show of plausibility, that if we admit that a revelation of God's will has been accorded to men, we are also compelled to suppose that all the details necessary for the correct understanding of the divine message, or the divinely revealed system, must have been committed to writing, and that whatever written record has been thus composed must be in all respects authentic and infallible; for, it is urged, it would be a thing altogether inconceivable that God should first reveal his will to mankind, and then permit his all-important message to be either conveyed in an imperfect manner to the persons contemporary with its original promulgation, or handed down by the uncertain medium of oral tradition to succeeding generations.

A little consideration will show the precariousness of these assumptions. This cannot be placed in a clearer light than by the following extract from the " Analogy" of Bishop Butler, part ii., chap. iii.:—

" These observations, relating to the whole of Christianity, are applicable to inspiration in particular. As we are in no sort judges beforehand by what laws or rules, in what degree, or by what means, it were to have been expected that God would naturally instruct us, so, upon supposition of his affording us light and instruction by revelation, additional to what he has afforded us by reason and experience, we are in no sort judges by what methods, and in what proportion, it were to be expected that this supernatural light and instruction would be afforded us. We know not beforehand what degree or kind of natural information it were to be expected God would afford men, each by his own reason and experience; nor how far he would enable, and effectually dispose, them to communicate it, whatever it should be, to each other; nor whether the evidence of it would be certain, highly probable, or doubtful; nor whether it would be given with equal clearness and conviction to all; nor could we guess, upon any good ground I mean, whether natural knowledge, or even the faculty itself by which we are capable of attaining it—reason—would be given us at once, or gradually. In like manner we are wholly ignorant what degree of new knowledge it were to be expected God would give mankind by revelation, upon supposition of his affording one; or how far, or in what way, he would interpose miraculously to qualify them, to whom he should originally make the revelation, for communicating the knowledge given by it; and to secure their doing it to the age in which they should live; and to secure its being transmitted to posterity. We are equally ignorant whether the evidence of it would be certain, or highly probable, or doubtful (see chap, vi.); or whether all who should have any degree of instruction from it, and any degree of evidence of its truth, would have the same; or whether tbe scheme would be revealed at once, or unfolded gradually. Nay, we are not in any sort able to judge whether it were to have been expected that the revelation should have been committed to writing, or left to be handed down, and consequently corrupted, by verbal tradition, and at length sunk under it, if mankind so pleased, and during such time as they are permitted, in the degree they evidently are, to act as they will.


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