|Jesus and the Inspiration of Scripture
Gary R. Habermas
Originally published in the Areopagus Journal / January 2002
This is an electronic copy of the entire article.
Table of Contents:
Central to a Christian world view is the conviction that Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, comprises God's word to us. What sort of basis can be produced to back this tenet? In this article, we will produce a major argument in favor of this doctrine. Then we will mention another avenue of defense that might be pursued. Interestingly, the latter might actually turn out to be the strongest argument.
Before we begin, we must state a few crucial foundational truths that cannot be argued here and thus must be assumed for the purposes of this article. But they are well-established, as shown elsewhere in a host of publications.1 It must be stated simply that Jesus was raised from the dead.2 As a result, a strong case can be made in favor of the principle that God thereby verified Jesus' message.3 Therefore, if Jesus taught the inspiration of the Scripture, then this would be a powerful argument for believers to do the same.4 Further, the Gospel texts, in particular, are at least generally reliable documents when they relate Jesus' teachings.5 We will now move on from here, outlining a couple of paths toward such a case for the inspiration of Scripture.
JESUS' TEACHINGS ON THE INSPIRATION OF SCRIPTURE
Jesus' Teachings on the Old Testament
If God verified Jesus' message by raising Him from the dead, then perhaps the chief issue concerns whether Jesus taught the inspiration of Scripture. And certainly the Gospels agree on a variety of fronts that Jesus had total confidence in the text of the Old Testament. Assuming the reliability of the texts, as we just mentioned, we are told that Jesus made many statements regarding the trustworthiness and even the inspiration of Scripture. An inductive examination of Jesus' teachings provides a clear indication of this.
One of Jesus' strongest statements concerning the Old Testament Law was His affirmation that heaven and earth would pass away before even the smallest portion of a letter (Matt. 5:17-18). Jesus also taught that these fractions of letters would never fail (Luke 16:17). Further, after citing a particular text in Psalm 82:6, Jesus stated that Scripture could not be nullified (John 10:35). These comments are striking reminders regarding the extent to which Jesus thought Scripture spoke the truth.
Regularly, Jesus also demonstrated His trust in the Old Testament by utilizing it as His source for solving theological disputes. On more than one occasion, His argument turned chiefly on the significance of a single word in the text. In Mark 12:35-37, Jesus based an important theological point on the second usage of the word "Lord," arguing that the Messiah was more than just the son of David. In the English text of Matthew 22:31-32, Jesus built His case against the Sadducees on the word "am" in order to teach the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which they rejected. Such confidence in the very words of Scripture is a crucial indication of Jesus' high view of their truth.6
On many other occasions, Jesus cited Scripture as a "proof text" while debating His adversaries. During the wilderness temptation, Jesus quoted Old Testament texts in opposition to Satan (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10). Elsewhere, Jesus responded to His detractors by asking them, "Have you not read. . . ?"7 "It is written. ...", or a similar comment, also served to refute an opposing view.8 In Matthew 22:29, Jesus remarked that an ignorance of Scripture caused the Sadducees to a make a theological error. It seems clear from these uses of Scripture that Jesus considered its contents to be the definitive authority in solving theological issues.
In yet another debate with Jewish leaders, after citing portions of the Law and prophets, Jesus appears to refer to the entire Old Testament as the "commandment of God" and "the word of God" (Mk. 7:8-13). Such descriptions indicate that Jesus thought that God was the Authority behind Scripture. It was an inspired text, written for our edification. As such, these writings must be fulfilled (Matt. 26:54; Luke 4:21; John 7:38). Jesus used the Old Testament as a proof text that serves as God's blueprint for correct theology and behavior. It disproved contrary positions. Jesus did not doubt this authority.
Jesus referred to the entire Old Testament both as the Law and the prophets (Matt. 5:17), as well as adding the Psalms (Luke 24:44). By either designation, Jesus indicated that each section was the Word of God. Moses, the author of the Law (Luke 16:31; 24:44), spoke God's words in Exodus 3:6 (Mk. 12:26). David wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in Psalm 110:1 (Mark 12:36). The prophets also spoke God's words because their prophecies of the Christ had to be fulfilled (Luke 24:27, 44).
So we have seen that Jesus based arguments on specific words of the Old Testament text. He indicated His trust of even the letters themselves, in that not even a portion could fail. Both the whole, as well as the individual sections, received His positive endorsements, as well. Jesus referred to the Old Testament not simply as a time-honored human document. Rather, He called it the very command and words of God. True, humans like Moses and David penned the text, but God still spoke through them. In citing the Scriptures, Jesus believed that He was reporting the very message of God. The Word of God was the expression of God's truth. Seen from various angles, this is indeed a high view of inspiration. We conclude that Jesus definitely accepted the inspiration of the Old Testament. It is very difficult to do otherwise.9
Jesus' Teaching on the New Testament
A case for the inspiration of the New Testament must be made differently than that of the Old Testament, since the former was not written until after Jesus' death. Thus, whereas Jesus approved the already-written Old Testament, He provided for the as yet unwritten New Testament. We will address this subject by arguing four particular points. Here again, we are making the same assumptions that we enumerated above. Jesus' resurrection provided the major indication that God approved His teachings. By raising Him from the dead, God placed His stamp of approval on Jesus. Incidentally, similar messages are found in various New Testament texts (Acts 2:22-24; 17:31; Rom. 1:3-4). Further, the text of Jesus' teachings is generally reliable.
First, Jesus taught His disciples that they were His designated witnesses and spokesmen (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8; John 15:27). As His students, they learned His teachings so that they, in turn, might impart these principles to others. This was even true to the extent that those who believed and obeyed the disciples' words would actually be receiving Jesus Christ Himself (Matt. 10:14-15, 40; John 13:20).
Second, Jesus also promised His disciples the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. He would teach them additional matters (John 16:12-13), causing them to remember Jesus' words (John 14:26), and revealing to them the future (John 16:13b). Perhaps the key item is that, in all these matters, the Holy Spirit would lead the disciples to truth (John 16:13a).
So the disciples were taught by Jesus. Then He designated them as His spokesmen. Jesus additionally promised that the Holy Spirit would assist His students in their teaching. This twofold promise paved the way for the inspiration of the New Testament.
Third, as the New Testament writers penned their words, they recognized that they were inspired. They claimed Jesus' twofold promise. The apostles' teachings were based on the foundation that Jesus provided (Eph. 2:20; 2 Pet. 3:2; Heb. 2:3-4). They believed their words were inspired (1 Peter l:12b). This is especially evident in Paul's epistles.10 They were convinced that the Holy Spirit empowered both their teaching and their writing.
Fourth, the New Testament writers recognized that Jesus' promise of inspiration also extended to other writers, as well. For instance, I Timothy 5:18 notes two citations, referring to both as Scripture. The first is obviously drawn from Deuteronomy 25:4. Although the second is similar to certain Old Testament texts, it is nowhere quoted. Actually, this saying is the same as that in Luke 10:7 (cf. Matt. 10:10), spoken by Jesus. Comparing a quote from the Law to one found in the teachings of Jesus, and calling them both Scripture, is certainly significant, and for more than one reason. It shows some conviction that the existing canon of inspired texts, consisting only of Old Testament writings, is not the end of the matter. After all, if any writings are considered to be inspired, the words of Jesus should be included! Moreover, Jesus' saying is even placed on a par with the Law itself. Further, New Testament texts by other authors were also recognized.
Another example is found in 2 Peter 3:15-16, where Paul's epistles are placed alongside other Scripture, thereby being given the same status. Additionally, Jude 17-18 seems to cite 2 Peter 3:3 (or a common text) as the words of an apostle.
It is true that we cannot move from a few examples to an entire theory. But by recognizing the sayings of Jesus and the words and writings of apostles as being on a par with Old Testament Scriptures, we do glimpse a growing conceptualization that the Old Testament is not the end of God's revelation. Inspiration actually extended to other writings! The canon was not closed. Other works needed to be included, as well.
We conclude that the chief impetus for believing in the inspiration of New Testament texts rests on the approved teachings of Jesus. He promised His disciples both that they were His special witnesses and that they would be inspired and guided to all truth by the leading of the Holy Spirit. We also have many instances where New Testament authors claimed this promise personally for their own writings, as well as a few examples where they extended this promise to other qualified authors. Lastly, although we cannot pursue the issue here, we also have a plethora of New Testament texts that recognize the inspiration of various Old Testament figures and passages.11
Accommodation or Limitation?
Occasionally it is asked whether Jesus may have promoted a concept of inspiration that He, personally, did not accept. Perhaps He merely accommodated Himself to the views of His contemporaries. On this view, Jesus did not accept the doctrine of inspiration, but spoke as if He did in order to avoid upsetting or undermining His listeners' religious beliefs.
It is sometimes also charged that Jesus' knowledge was limited. Perhaps He genuinely thought that Scripture was inspired, but simply was mistaken. However, there are several major reasons to reject each of these suggestions.
It will be helpful to recall our earlier assumption that Jesus' resurrection indicated that God approved of Jesus' teachings. But for God to do so either on the assumption that Jesus accommodated His hearers' mistaken beliefs, or that Jesus was mistaken Himself, would be highly problematical. In either case, God would have approved Jesus' incorrect teachings! Then why did God not raise others from the dead, in spite of their own errors? Therefore, God raising Jesus in order to approve of His teachings is an exceptionally difficult hurdle for either the accommodation or limitation theories to overcome.
Further, the Gospels indicate that Jesus never accommodated His hearers with any of His teachings. To the contrary, often He did precisely the opposite: He undermined the incorrect views held by those who heard Him. This is obvious, for instance, in His Sermon on the Mount, where in Matthew 5:21-48 He repeatedly challenged the beliefs of His contemporaries and corrected their understanding of the Old Testament. Also, Jesus often spoke against false prophets (such as Mark 13:21-23; Matt 7:15; 24:11). Other examples of correction abound in the records of Jesus' teachings.12
So Jesus did not accommodate His message to His hearers, but challenged incorrect beliefs. It should also be mentioned that the repeated ways in which Jesus emphasized the nature of Scripture and wielded its authority is much more compatible with His total trust in its contents.
Regarding the view that Jesus' knowledge was limited and that He was simply mistaken when He taught that the Scripture was inspired, this approach is also laden with severe difficulties. As we said, a strong refutation is that the resurrection would then seem to indicate that God affirmed Jesus' false and misleading teachings. This alone favors the view that Jesus' testimony was not in error due to any limitation. Rather, His resurrection indicates that Jesus' teachings were authoritative and truthful, since the best way to understand this event is that it was God's stamp of approval.
Another refutation of the limitation thesis is that even after Jesus' resurrection, just before ascending to heaven, He presumably would have largely overcome any human limitations. Yet, in Luke 24:25-27, 44-48, Jesus still taught the same view of Scripture as before His death. Further, even before His death, we are told that Jesus exercised supernatural knowledge on many occasions,13 which also militates against such a limitation. So it would seem that the limitation thesis is also highly problematic.
Therefore, using either accommodation or limitation theories to explain Jesus' teachings on inspiration, we are confronted by a number of serious obstacles. God's approval of Jesus' teachings as shown by His resurrection would strongly oppose both hypotheses. Further, the Gospel texts provide many other reasons for rejecting both suppositions The many ways Jesus used the Old Testament strongly indicates His firm approval, rather than either appeasement or ignorance.
CRITICAL SCHOLARSHIP AND INSPIRATION
Strangely enough, addressing another potential objection actually points us to what is probably an even stronger argument for the inspiration of Scripture than the path we have so far pursued. Some may ask how we know that all the Gospel references we have used here are the exact words of Jesus. Could it be that, whatever the Gospel authors thought, Jesus never held such a view, and thus He never taught it? Maybe these reports of what Jesus believed on this subject are simply inaccurate. Asked another way, how do we know that our entire argument is not simply a case of circular reasoning that assumes that Jesus really taught the inspiration of Scripture, as the Gospels report, without knowing that He did so?
Initially, we have assumed that there are good arguments for the reliability of Scripture. If this is indeed the case, and especially if some of the particular texts regarding Jesus' view of inspiration are well-attested on such grounds, then one response to this objection would be to argue that this provides a strong basis for the claim that Jesus at least really said what the Gospel texts report. Then, if God raised Jesus from the dead, we also need to remember that Jesus' teachings on this subject would still be confirmed. But apart from such an initial response, are there any other grounds for addressing this objection?
Intriguingly, even critical scholars generally acknowledge that Jesus believed that Scripture was God's Word. Why should they agree when these same scholars do not think that the text is inspired in the first place? In fact, they frequently even reject the reliability of Scripture. Since their responses definitely do not assume either the inspiration or the general reliability of the Gospel texts, to learn their reasons may actually provide additional grounds for accepting Jesus' belief in inspiration. For example, Rudolf Bultmann asserts concerning Jesus' r of die Old Testament, that "Its authority stands just as fast for him as for the scribes. . ." Bultmann points out that Jesus believed that God spoke and made known His will through the Oki Testament writings, which were the believer's sources for faith and practice. It was Jesus' text for both answering questions and challenging the errors of those who opposed Him. Besides, that Jesus accepted the authority of Scripture "is proven by the course later taken by his Church." Interestingly, Bultmann lists texts like some of those mentioned above to support his position.14
More recently, Bart Ehrman provides some additional specifics regarding Jesus' view of Scripture. Not surprisingly, Jesus shared with fellow Jews many religious ideas and theological doctrines, including the belief that the Old Testament Law was the special revelation of God's will. Actually, the majority of Jesus' teachings are drawn from these sacred texts. They were the basis that grounded Jesus' religious contentions.15
Then Ehrman addresses how critical scholars ascertain that this actually was Jesus' teaching. Even though Ehrman's "point is not that each and every one of these accounts must be historically accurate exactly as it is reported" regarding the authority of Scripture, he still thinks we can arrive at Jesus' teachings on this subject. How is that possible? Ehrman argues that Jesus' position can be obtained from the "multiple layers of our traditions, scattered throughout a range of independent traditions." Ehrman finds Jesus' key teachings on the Law in what critical scholars think are four of the major Gospel sources: Mark, Q, M, and John. So our knowledge that Jesus did hold this view of Scripture "is thoroughly rooted in our tradition. It is therefore to be trusted as historical."16 This multiple testimony is strong evidence that Jesus held firmly to a high view concerning Scripture.
We may actually strengthen Ehrman's points here. According to critical scholars, perhaps the two most evidential of the independent Gospel traditions are Mark and the so-called Q material (Jesus' sayings found in Matthew and Luke, but not hi Mark). In each of these, there is a wealth of citations which indicate that Jesus held to the inspiration of the Old Testament. Perhaps the more crucial comments are found in Mark,17 while the so-called Q texts include numerous instances where Jesus clearly showed His trust of many Old Testament passages.18
So critical scholars like Bultmann and Ehrman frequently argue something like this: Jesus was clearly a Jew, so it is no surprise that he agreed with the common Jewish view regarding the nature and authority of the Old Testament as God's Word. That the early church continued this same view further confirms this idea. But the strongest argument is that, even though critics do not know for sure which specific Gospel statements Jesus really made and which ones he did not, it is still firmly established by the presence of many such comments across multiple, independent source traditions that he taught the authority of Scripture.
Why is this potentially the strongest argument indicating that Jesus taught the inspiration of Scripture? The conclusion rests on a minimal amount of well-attested data, and is therefore generally granted by critical scholars.19 Further, it does not require a lengthy argument for the reliability of Scripture, or for these texts in particular. So, as an apologetic tool, using what the critics allow both builds on what are perhaps the best arguments, as well as requiring far less argumentation.
So critical scholars have produced some additional, powerful considerations for holding that Jesus did teach the authority and inspiration of Scripture. What makes this all the more intriguing is that these scholars are rarely committed to the doctrine of inspiration, and frequently even deny the general reliability of Scripture. Yet, they still think that there is a solid foundation to assert that Jesus believed these doctrines.
Although the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is usually rejected by critical theologians in spite of Jesus' view, we now have some solid grounds on which to reassert it. Using both traditional and critical paths to determine that Jesus firmly taught inspiration, we may reassert our earlier assumption that if God raised Jesus from the dead, then the most likely reason was to confirm the truthfulness of Jesus' teachings.20 If we are correct in this, then the inspiration of Scripture follows as a verified doctrine, affirmed by God Himself when He raised Jesus from the dead.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE DOCTRINE OF INSPIRATION
What remains are some practical comments concerning our topic hi this article. What follows from the recognition that Jesus taught the inspiration of Scripture, especially if His views have been confirmed by evidences such as His resurrection, miracles, and fulfillment of prophecy? What difference should it make for us today, especially in ministry situations, or when discussing Christianity with unbelievers, and so on?
We have argued that Jesus accepted the reliability, authority, and inspiration of the Old Testament. He affirmed the veracity of the very words of the text and even the letters themselves. He also taught that Scripture can keep us from doctrinal error. In short, He approved the Old Testament. Further, He provided a basis for the inspiration of the New Testament. He made a twofold promise to the disciples that He had chosen them as His personal witnesses and that, later, they would be inspired by the Holy Spirit Who would lead them into all truth. Jesus' followers claimed the promise of inspiration for themselves, and also recognized that the same promise had been extended to other authors, as well.
But the case for the inspiration of the Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, does not stop after an examination of Jesus' teaching on this subject. The chief foundation that establishes Jesus' teachings is His resurrection from the dead. This event provides God's confirmation of Jesus' teachings, since God would not raise from the dead a heretic or false teacher. Even though we could not pursue here this portion of the argument, we pointed out that there are some exceptionally strong arguments that can be made for this assumption. We also remarked that similar paths of argumentation are found in Scripture.
How can such truths be applied today? First, this conclusion should strengthen the faith and assurance of Christians. In spite of contemporary challenges to the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, the foundation can be established firmly. So how should we handle the challenges? As pointed out long ago by Benjamin B. Warfield, the evidence for inspiration is unrefuted, and claimed discrepancies in Scripture should only be viewed as difficulties to be addressed and answered.21 In other words, since our foundation remains firmly established, based on the teachings and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can expect that there are answers to the proposed difficulties, even if we are not immediately aware of those answers.22 Other religious doubts can also be addressed.23
Second, even as Jesus' testimony concerning Scripture combined with His resurrection can provide a firm foundation for our belief in the doctrine of inspiration, so the inspiration of Scripture in turn provides the necessary groundwork for Christian theology. The benefits of having such an underpinning are tremendous. Given a firm foundation, believers are free to build a Christian world view, being careful to base their ideas on the same footing laid by Jesus Himself.24
Third, Jesus frequently used the Scripture as the proof text from which He both substantiated His view, as well as refuted the improper views held by others. He relied on Scripture for what it was--the very Word of God. While it is true that Christians do not have the same Divine authority as the Son of God, and while we often overstep our authority here (unfortunately, even grossly so at times), this benefit is also extended to us. Based on Jesus' example, we can likewise build our position on the truth of Scripture, and use it as our Guide for evaluating other positions. A key aspect here, as already emphasized, is that this approach allows us to show the truth of Christian theism to unbelievers, even when using critical methods.
Fourth, Scripture also supplies believers with an inspired Guide for the pursuit of growth and holiness. We can rest on our foundation and should take the prescribed biblical steps for growing closer to God. This includes practicing the Christian disciplines that are grounded in Scripture.25 As C. S. Lewis reminds us, "one must train the habit of Faith. . . . Neither this belief nor any other will automatically remain alive in the mind. It must be fed."26
In short, the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture is anchored to the teaching of Jesus Christ, and grounded in His resurrection. Scripture, in turn, serves as the grounds for our assurance, provides our theological primer, along with a basis for speaking to others who may not share our beliefs, as well as being a guide for living the Christian life.
Gary R. Habermas is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at Liberty University. He has authored several books related to this articles' topic including The Historical Jesus and Did Jesus Rise from the Dead? The Resurrection Debate (with Antony Flew).
1 I would like to emphasize that the foundation truths that
are being assumed for our purposes in this article are heavily
evidenced, as some of the sources directly below will
indicate. By no means are they simply "givens" without any
basis. But establishing such arguments here is simply beyond
our present purposes.