June 25, 2017

Remembering the Difference between Doctrine and Preference

Kevin Schaal

The Bible is a Divine Revelation given of God to men, and is a complete and infallible guide and standard of authority in all matters of religion and morals; whatever it teaches is to be believed, and whatever it commands is to be obeyed; whatever it commends is to be accepted as both right and useful; whatever it condemns is to be avoided as both wrong and hurtful; but what it neither commands nor teaches is not to be imposed on the conscience as of religious obligation.[1]

The most important Baptist distinctive is the authority of the Bible for all faith and practice. That is why Hiscox, in the definitive manual for Baptist churches, opens chapter one with the statement above. Baptists believe this so strongly that if we were convinced that the Bible told us not to be Baptists, we would not be Baptists. While doctrinal statements, confessions, and creeds are helpful in clarifying and defining what we believe, our only authority for faith and practice is the Bible itself. All churches as institutions, confessions, creeds, traditions, and practices must be subject to it. We must make sure that we maintain this same core distinctive regarding the subjects of the inspiration, preservation, and translation of the Scriptures.

Hiscox’s last line also applies in this area. We cannot hold as doctrine something that the Bible does not teach. If believers in Heaven can be grieved over what happens on earth, Mary—the earthly mother of our Lord—might be the most grieved of all. She would be grieved at worship and prominence given to her that should rightly belong to her beloved Son. We do no person or document any favors by ascribing to it more than it claims for itself. Therefore, we must not claim a position for the Bible that it does not claim for itself. We should leave the manufacture of extrabiblical doctrines to the Roman Catholics and Mormons.

Inspiration

As applied to the Bible text and version debate, the key areas of concern are inspiration, preservation, and translation. The Bible asserts its own inspiration and authority. All Scripture is inspired (literally, God-breathed) (2 Tim. 3:16). It is inspired not just as to its general theological message but as to the words used to convey its message, including the forms of the words such as the distinctions of singulars and plurals (Gal. 3:16) and the tenses of verbs (Matt. 22:32; Mark 12:26, 27). It is plenarily inspired in that the whole of the Bible is God’s book. It is inspired in its original writings. Second Peter 1:21 states that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” These prophets spoke the Word, but they also wrote it, and it is the written revelation that is in view in Peter’s discussion (“no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation”). The New Testament term translated “scripture” or “writings” clearly identifies the Word of God with the writings of the prophets. Because it is inspired, it is also without error. The nature of the book cannot be separated from the Source of the book. Since God directly controlled the writing of the Scriptures, and since He is perfect, then the book that He produced must also be perfect. God is not a man who is generally accurate but gets mixed up on the details. He knows all things, remembers all things, communicates perfectly, and speaks only truth (John 17:17). The process of inspiration applies to the original product. Peter said, “The prophecy came not in old time by the will of men: but holy men of God spake [or wrote] as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:20, 21, emphasis added). What Moses, Isaiah, Paul, Peter, and the other authors wrote was perfect in content and detail.

Preservation

The Bible also claims that God will preserve His book (Ps. 119:152; Isa. 40:8; Matt. 5:17, 18; 24:35; and others). Individuals may exegete these passages differently, but most if not all Bible believers affirm the fact of the providential preservation of Scripture. Nevertheless, the Bible makes no statement about the particular method of its preservation; neither does it give guidelines for its transcription. There are no Scriptural promises concerning any future method of textual approval that would eliminate questions concerning variations that exist between copies. Opinions will necessarily vary on how God chose to preserve His Word. In our zeal to defend or promote a particular view, we must remember that we do not have a right to raise our opinion to the level of Bible doctrine.

The debate over New Testament and Old Testament texts is beneficial as we seek to identify the most accurate texts. But in the process of that debate we should never dogmatize beyond the bounds of the clear teaching of Scripture. Participants in the debate may have strongly held views and are entitled and encouraged to express them. We should all be willing to let iron sharpen iron. But without a solid Scriptural case, differing views cannot be criteria for separating from brothers.

Translation

The practice of translation is clearly intended in Scripture. The idea that the Word of God should be in the generally spoken language of the people is affirmed by Christ’s quoting from a Greek translation of the Old Testament. The inspiration and inscription of the New Testament in languages commonly spoken by the original recipients (Hebrew and Aramaic in the Old Testament and koine [common] Greek in the New Testament) indicate God’s intent to put Scripture within the reach and understanding of people who receive it. The history of the Church includes the history of the translation of the Bible into many languages so that the greatest number of people could read and understand it. We believe in and commend the practice of the translation of Scripture as a noble and Biblical part of the Great Commission.

However, the Bible itself makes no claim and gives no specific instructions concerning the method of translation or the nature of future translations. It makes no claim concerning the extension of the gift of inspiration to future translators. For us to claim inspiration for translators would be to commit the grave error of adding human teachings to the Scripture.

Some aspects of the translation debate will inevitably continue. It is very difficult to accurately translate a message from one language and culture to another. It is more art than science. There are important factors to consider in the process of translation in discerning both the original intent of the writers and the context of the translation’s intended audience. A poor translation can do violence to the text. We must hold translations and translators accountable to accurately reflect both the general and specific message of each Biblical text. The Word is not a moldable document that can be freely changed by the whims of a society that objects to its real content, and we have every right to demand that a translation be faithful and accurate. But the methods and style of translation are still things that are not dictated by Scripture itself. There will be times when differing views on translation philosophy make working together impractical. But those differences do not rise to the level of disobedience and therefore do not demand separation as from disobedient brothers.

Our most pressing spiritual concern is not the debate over small sections of text or nuances of translation. Our most important obligation is to do what the Bible clearly commands and over which there is absolutely no debate. God has so preserved His Word that if we do this, we will lack nothing of New Testament Christianity. We must obey it as our rule of life. It would be wrong to quibble over minor variants in ancient texts while denying the plain teachings of Scripture in our daily actions. We understand that Fundamentalists will disagree on some applications of Biblical principles, but we must be united in our commitment to submit ourselves to the commands of the Word of God in every sphere of life.


Dr. Kevin Schaal pastors Northwest Valley Baptist Church in Glendale, Arizona.

(Originally published in FrontLineSeptember/October 2014. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Edward T Hiscox, Principles and Practices for Baptist Churches (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1980), p. 11 (emphasis added). []


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