Reflections by Randy Nelson
Professor of New Testament Studies
When writing a devotional, it is customary to focus on contemporary application. But, as we teach our students: a good hermeneutic builds application upon careful exegesis. So, let’s first consider the historical meaning of the University of Northwestern doctrinal statement on Scripture.
To begin with, it is common for Christian churches and schools to have doctrinal statements. These statements delineate the shared beliefs of the community and provide theological unity for the fellowship of believers. On the doctrine of Scripture, the University of Northwestern statement affirms: We believe that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are verbally and plenarily inspired by God, are inerrant in the original writings, and are the infallible authority in all matters of faith and conduct (II Tim. 3:16). The "we believe" here confirms that this is community statement of shared beliefs. Our first belief is that Scripture consists only of the 39 writings of the Old Testament and the 27 writings of the New Testament. These alone do we consider to be "inspired by God."
The word "inspired" here is not being used in the popular sense "to affect with emotion." In Christian theology, the term inspiration is applied only to Scripture because we believe that only these writings were produced under the direct guidance of the Holy Spirit. The reference to II Timothy 3:16 in our doctrinal statement is fitting: "All Scripture is God-breathed." Another Bible verse used to support the belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture is II Peter 1:21: "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
But, how exactly were the biblical authors "carried along?" Although neither this text nor others describe the process of inspiration, we can draw some conclusions from the evidence of Scripture. For example, it does not appear that the Bible dropped from heaven in some angelic language. Nor does it appear that the Holy Spirit bypassed the literary conventions or literary abilities of the human author. While the Old Testament writers wrote in Hebrew in the literary genres of their day, the New Testament writers wrote in Greek in the literary genres of their day. Moreover, the authors’ distinctive literary styles can be seen in their writings. From this evidence, we can conclude that divine inspiration was a cooperative effort between human authors and the Holy Spirit. Nonetheless, the result was the "very words of God" (Romans 3:2). The word "verbally" means that each word of Scripture was inspired and the word "plenarily" means that all of Scripture is inspired. The UNW doctrinal statement affirms that every word of every book of the Bible is divinely inspired.
One result of divine inspiration is that we can be confident that the Bible is "inerrant in the original writings." The word "inerrant" means just what it implies: the Bible is without error. The affirmation of inerrancy is qualified by the phrase, "in the original writings." This qualification means that inerrancy does not apply to manuscript copies or translations; only the original writings of Scripture are without error.
Another result of divine inspiration is that the Bible is our “infallible authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” At Northwestern, we believe that the Bible is our unfailing standard for all that we believe and do. This has tremendous implications for our academic pursuits. This can be seen in our Philosophy of Education: “Our pursuit of truth begins with the assumption that the Bible is the ‘governing discipline’—the foundation from which all other disciplines emerge, and the ultimate judge of all fields of inquiry.”
On a personal level I am able to live by the clear teachings of Scripture knowing that I am living a life that is true and pleasing to God. Proverbs 16:9 has long guided my decision-making: "The mind of man plans his ways, but the Lord directs his steps." I work hard to plan my life but I always try to submit those plans to the Lord. I have learned to say, as it says in James 4:15, "If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that."
It is no coincidence that the first shared belief in the University of Northwestern doctrinal statement affirms that the Bible is uniquely inspired, inerrant, and authoritative. This community belief is foundational for all that we do at Northwestern. We can take great comfort in the reliability and authority of Scripture.