God, the Infallible Author of the Old Testament

The most recent issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society features an article by Vern Poythress who questions whether something is truly lost when conservative biblical scholars place their emphasis upon the divine author of Scripture rather than the human authors. Though critical scholarship claims that study of the human authors is more controlled and objective, Poythress demonstrates that this is not actually the case. The article is definitely worth reading:

Vern S. Poythress, “Dispensing with Merely Human Meaning: Gains and Losses from Focusing on the Human Author, Illustrated by Zephaniah 1:2-3,” JETS 57/3 (2014): 481-99.

After being impressed with Poythress’ article, I came upon the following quote from Edward J. Young’s contribution to the book The Infallible Word, which likewise struck me as an excellent reminder of the fact that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are authored primarily by God himself:

The Old Testament is the Word of the living and true God. It is not merely the national or religious literature of the ancient Hebrews. It is rather the life-giving oracles of God. It speaks of God the Creator, the Almighty One, who by the Word of his power, brought all things into existence. It speaks of man’s creation and transgression whereby he was brought into an estate of sin and misery. It speaks of God’s promise of deliverance through a Redeemer. it points forward, in its entirety and in its individual parts, to the coming of that one who said, “Search the Scriptures, for in them ye think ye have everlasting life, for they are they which testify of me.”

The fact that certain critical scholars choose to refuse to discuss the theological questions involved in the formation of the Old Testament canon need not deter us from so doing. When men endeavor to account for the Old Testament canon upon the basis of historical considerations alone, how unsatisfactory their attempts are! In reality they create more problems than they solve.

The devout Christian need not hesitate boldly to declare his belief in the Old Testament as the inspired Word of God. He need not fear to believe that the authority of these Scriptures resides in the fact that God is their author. True, there is difficulty in adopting this position but, apart from it, the Old Testament must ever remain a mystery. Why it has been preserved we can then never know. One man’s suggestion is as good as another’s. We are left in the hopeless abyss of agnosticism.

E.J. Young, “The Authority of the Old Testament,” in The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. Eds. N.B. Stonehouse and Paul Wooley (2d ed.; Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 90-91.

As he notes, not all will be satisfied with this assertion. But for  those of us who have heard God’s voice speaking in the Old Testament Scriptures, we find great comfort indeed, knowing that these words of promise, description, and instruction are the infallible words of God himself, not the error laden attempts of fallible humans.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

9 Replies to “God, the Infallible Author of the Old Testament”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Now I’ll have to read the Poythress article. I agree that God is the final author and think that such a presupposition offers an appropriately Christian reading posture. I will say, however, that I’m not quite convinced that in our circles the Divine authority and origin of Scripture is in jeopardy. (I realize that you’re not necessarily making that claim.) I find that most people in the Reformed tradition struggle more with the Bible’s “human” side and get very antsy whenever one talks about the historical nuts and bolts of textual transmission, authorship, redactions, etc. Ironically, I think it is a strong doctrine of Divine providence that can allow for the Bible to be a thoroughly human document while also confessing it to be holy, God-breathed, infallible scripture.

    To be sure, it’s always a balancing act. One can also so emphasize the human side that God’s ultimate authority gets lost in the shuffle. (James KA Smith made some cogent suggestions in this review: http://www.colossianforum.org/2012/04/24/book-review-the-evolution-of-adam-what-the-bible-does-and-doesnt-say-about-human-origins/ )

    Anyway… My two cents :-)


    1. I think Poythress’ article is so interesting because of how he sees God’s wisdom as taking “into account social and historical circumstances when he communicates to people in particular circumstances” (pg. 485). Thus there is a robust place for studying the context(s) of a given text, but that is because God is more thorough in considering the surrounding cultural contexts than is even the human author. (By the way, contexts is plural because of some of the distinctions between orality and textuality he’s discussing on pgs. 483-84.) As he puts it: “So an appreciation for the wisdom of God actually leads us to a hermeneutical stance very similar to the stance we take in focusing on a human author. The main difference is that God is superior in his knowledge and skill. That additional fact actually increases our confidence in our use of information from social and historical circumstances. So focusing on divine authorship increases our accuracy annd skill in interpretation” (485).

      I don’t think everyone will agree with what he’s suggesting, but I found it to be a very stimulating article that scratched where I’ve been itching. I’m done with trying assign purported layers or redactions to probable historical contexts, but I’m equally unimpressed with simplistic kinds of literary approaches, what Poythress describes as promoting “over-sensitivity”: “It might picture the editor/redactor as a super-genius in literary sensitivity, who was aware, perhaps even consciously aware, of every possible nuance and the resonant effects of every turn of phrase” (495). (As an example, I like Fokkelman a lot, but his treatment of David and Goliath in his narrative intro volume falls into this in a few places.) I think Poythress is carving out a new way of going about this, one that is better suited to talk about historical backgrounds because it is rooted not in a quest for redactional or editorial contexts which aren’t verifiable, but in a wise God who has revealed himself using human language in particular contexts.

      In some circles, conservatives are trying really hard to nab as much as they can from the critics. And while a good insight is a good insight, I think it is pretty evident that many evangelical scholars are biting off way more than they ought.

      Anyway, it’s definitely worth a read!



      1. Hi Andrew,
        If you don’t mind me asking: who are these “conservatives…trying really hard to nab as much as they can from the critics?” I’m curious. Are you thinking of Hays and Ansberry’s book “Evangelical Faith and the Challenge of Historical Criticism?” Are you thinking Pete Enns? Who exactly are you thinking of?

        Just curious… (No malice, as you know…)



        1. I could name some names, but my main referent here is to face to face conversations with people who have shared their “aha” moment with higher-criticism and now look with disdain upon anyone who has decided to violate the canons of the guild and claim such views as a unified authorship to Isaiah or that Moses may have authored and compiled the Pentateuch with only some minor exceptions. And honestly, it’s not that I’ve had many conversations with people in that liminal zone; the conversations were with people who once read scripture with a view toward its divine authorship, and now think such an approach is naive at best. I’ve met very few people with whom I’ve had these conversations who had sought to critically use critical methods, but instead took the methods and presuppositions hook, line, and sinker. They’re the ones who have denied the possibility or benefit of dogmatics and indicated this with their disparaging remarks toward those who still do systematics and/or who believe the methods and conclusions of dogmatic theologians (especially the conservative ones like Berkhof, Raymond, Spykman, etc.) to be wrong-headed. Those are the ones I’ve got in mind. -Andrew


  2. This article is available at http://www.frame-poythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2014DispensingJETS_57-3_481-99.pdf

    I think evangelical (i.e., believing) scholars (= servants of the word) need to make clear that they do not see critical (= unbelieving) scholars as on par with themselves (Eph 4:11; 1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). God spoke to his people (Rom 4:23-24; 1 Pet 1:12; 1 Cor 2:13) and has given his word to the church (1 Tim 3:15; 2 Tim 1:13-14; 3:16-17). Unbelievers cannot really understand what God has said because they are devoid of the Spirit who teaches the truth (Jn 6:44-45; 1 Jn 2:27); they are spiritually dead. The wisdom of the cross is received only by those whom God has chosen and called (1 Cor 1:18 – 2:16). Critical scholarship can make contributions in areas such as languages and archaeology (which belong to the realm of common grace), but they can never actually think God’s thoughts after him which is the point of biblical revelation (saving grace, Jn 8:47).

    It’s not that evangelicals need to prove themselves worthy of “a place at the table,” but that they should show liberals they are only picking up crumbs, often inedible, under the table.


    1. Thanks for sharing the article, Dante.

      And yep, I agree with your sentiment. There are places where unbelievers get it right in their study of the Bible simply by being attentive readers of the text, but unless we see a text as given by the Triune God as part of his self-disclosure of his redemptive plan, then we get a shallow and deficient reading at best, or a completely mistaken reading at worst.

      I think you’re right on with your comments about common grace in scholarship – Kuyper says as much in his Holy Spirit book – although I’m struck that the antithesis still cuts through linguistics and archaeology as much as anywhere else. An archaeologist who is a naturalist and who doubts the historical reliability of a given OT account will not necessarily feel that the biblical text is a relevant part of the data to consider when trying to understand a historical reconstruction. Critics may feel that the attempt to identify Ai with Khirbet el-Maqatir is laughable since they believe that the military component to the settlement of the promised land is fiction, but that is a conclusion based on anti-biblical assumptions. Of course if there is poor methodology or a denial of some problematic data in making such an identification, then that would be a good reason for criticizing the work at Kh. el-Maqatir. But in my conversations, this kind of criticism is offered simply because speaking of an organized military component to the settlement is just off limits.

      It just goes to show that the war over God’s good creation and the knowledge it contains continues on. There is no neutral square inch. – Andrew


      1. In response to commenter Dante above I say: Amen, Brother. Sadly so many “scholars” will never comprehend this fact.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: