Three Varied Approaches to Bibliology
The Purpose of Bibliology
When reading Scripture, we encounter statements like those the apostle Paul enjoins to all ministers of the gospel: “preach the word” (2 Tim 4:2). What word? Whose word? Where can one find this word? The task of bibliology is to systematically provide an answer to these sorts of questions and many others: What is the text? What is it like? What does it accomplish? Does it cohere in its constituent parts? Can it be trusted?
What is bibliology? Bibliology is a theme of systematic theology that deals with issues related to the nature and character of the Bible. The purpose of bibliology is to understand what kind of book the Bible is, discover its veracity, how it is authoritative for Christians, to know to what extent it is divine revelation, and what are the limits of this revelation.
Bibliology (bibliou logos, i.e., a word or discourse about the Bible) includes all the topics relating to the written revelation of God, namely, the inspiration, authenticity, credibility, and canonicity of the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.… [T]his division is not so strictly necessary as are the others to the integrity of a theological system, yet since theological science depends for its validity and credibility upon the contents of the Bible, it is requisite in order to comprehensiveness to devote some preliminary attention to the authority of these contents. The subject of inspiration, in particular, cannot well be omitted (William G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 85).
In one sense, every discipline of theological training is an expression of our bibliology. It is foundational to the entire theological enterprise of the Church. If we defect here, we defect everywhere and churches will be spiritually impoverished. Conversely, if our bibliology is healthy then churches will not be easily swayed by false currents and ministries will be firmly rooted in the unalterable realities of the life-changing word of Christ (Col 3:16).
The Procedure of Bibliology
There are three general approaches to systematic method (or “how shall we approach bibliology?”):
1. “Confessional Method” (Barth, Berkouwer)
Summary—The Bible is “confessed” to be the Word of God by faith alone. It likely contains errors and inaccuracies. The humanness of Scripture is viewed as an insurmountable obstacle to believing the truthfulness of the Bible.
Response—It is true, God’s people are to believe His Word by faith but such faith is rooted, in His transcendent character but also in the immanent way in which He has revealed himself (i.e., the living Word and the written word through human instruments). Berkouwer, and to a greater degree Barth before him, made an unnecessary distinction between the character of God and the written word of God.
2. “Classical Method” (Geisler, Sproul)
Summary—The Bible is considered from both external and internal evidences, incorporating both inductive and deductive approaches. The basic argument is from (reason, evidence, premise) to (i.e., the Bible).
Response—This method attempts to weigh all the evidences so that rational arguments can be used to substantiate biblical claims. While there are some helpful observations with this method, it falls short because it falsely assumes rational neutrality with various lines of evidence. The classical method is often driven by apologetic concerns and how Scripture is perceived by the unbeliever.
Apologetics, though important, cannot be the driving concern of systematic methodology. The purpose of bibliology is not first served as a rebutting task of apologetics; rather it is “the primary theological task of giving an account of God and his work in creation and redemption” (Mark D. Thompson, “The Generous Gift of a Gracious Father,” 615).
3. “Presuppositional Method” (Calvin, Owen, Packer, Frame)
Summary—The Bible is “self-attesting,” or more plainly, allowed to speak for itself without prior judgements. The basic argument is from (the Bible) to (reason, evidence, premise, prior commitments). “Whatever the Bible says, in a sense, it says about itself” (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 443).
Response—This method allows the Bible to speak for itself, taking at face value its claims, attributes, and history. Succinctly stated: “Scripture itself is alone competent to judge our doctrine of Scripture” (J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, 76. While the classical argument rebuts this with claims of “circularity,” it is admitted that this stands as an a priori commitment to an ultimate authority (in this case God’s revelation of His Word). In this sense, all truth claims argue from a position of assumed authority.
So, Packer is correct that our approach to bibliology is foundationally rooted at this point:
[W]e shall ask Scripture to give account of itself, and test human ideas about it by its own teaching…. Our aim is to formulate a biblical doctrine; we are to appeal to Scripture for information about itself, just as we should appeal to it for information on any other doctrinal topic (ibid., 75).
Our Bible is “self-attesting,” “self-evidencing,” and “self-authenticating.”
a. Self-attesting—the Bible declares its own merits, character, and integrity. “Whatever the Bible says, in a sense, it says about itself” (Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 443).
b. Self-evidencing—the bible proves its own trustworthiness and is verified by no other evidential source or authority. “[I]t hath its authority in itself and towards us by being the word of God—and hath its power of manifesting itself so to be from its own innate light” (John Owen, The Divine Original of the Scripture, 322).
c. Self-authenticating—the bible validates its own assertions, and is the standard for all claims of knowledge and truth. “If the question be, whether the doctrines proposed to be believed are truths of God, or ‘cunningly devised fables,’ we are sent to the Scriptures itself, and that alone, to give the determination” (ibid., 318).
In a future post, we will explore how these three aspects are rooted in God’s self-witness in the Scriptures.
Paul Lamey is one of our seven TES campus pastors, having served as pastor of preaching and leadership development at Grace Community Church in Huntsville, AL since 2002.