I can remember taking classes about thirty years ago at a small Christian college and hearing a lecture endorsing Old Testament source criticism of the classic variety (the idea that the Bible is made up of many edited sources). I can remember some professors questioning miracles described in the Bible. As an undergraduate at a major university in the Pacific Northwest, I can even remember a talk at a local church next to the university, given by a lawyer (who was a Unitarian), that made me indignant as a relatively young Christian. The topic was how cohabitating couples (not married) might avoid tax liabilities through certain loopholes in the legal code. This was happening under the roof of the church, and it was very unsettling. I felt as though my relatively new-found faith had just been parachuted into a hostile environment behind enemy lines. What was a young man to do?
I began to comb the stacks in the library and I stumbled upon some works of immense help from an Old Princeton professor: B. B. Warfield. One of the first chapters I read was a very important article by Professor Warfield (“God-Inspired Scripture”) that talked about 2 Timothy 3:16. Professor Warfield argued that the verse teaches that Scripture is “breathed out” by God; it is the production of God. It has its origin and source in God Himself, and it is nothing less than the authoritative out-breathing of the Holy Spirit. He argued elsewhere for the “organic inspiration” of Holy Scripture, meaning that God used the personalities, education (or lack thereof), cultural background, and experiences of biblical authors to write Scripture; nevertheless, what they wrote is exactly what the Holy Spirit intended they write, and although their final words are human words, they are very much divine words at one and the same time. In other words, there is an identity between God’s words and the author’s words such that the final product is nothing less than an inspired, God-ordained product, but it does not bypass the human side of the equation in the process. This wonderful doctrine mesmerized my mind and fueled my enthusiasm for Holy Scripture. Once I realized how utterly beautiful the doctrine of biblical inspiration was, God gave me an even greater appetite to read and study Scripture. If this is truly God’s Word, inspired and written through human agency, why wouldn’t someone want to spend time reading it, meditating upon it, and studying it?
Later I came to realize just how important it is to learn to read Scripture with a view to its coherent story, its inner organization, and its organic wholeness. By reading authors like Geerhardus Vos, I came to realize how important it is to understand the unfolding progress of biblical revelation. The real danger of the critical theories to which I was being exposed was their tendency to disorganize the integral relationship between one part of Scripture and another. This leads me to my next point: the importance of finding a good church.
Find a Church
During those university years, my fiancée and I stumbled into a little church there in the Pacific Northwest. I can still remember the day. As we walked through the front door, we could hear the congregation singing, “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing,” and my heart soared. Helpful books were there in the foyer addressing concerns and issues that were common to university students. I heard preaching from believing pastors that seemed to embody the kind of doctrine of inspiration I had just read about in Professor Warfield’s books. The pastors preached with conviction and authority. We were suddenly surrounded by saints, young and old, who showed us tremendous love and concern. They took the fact that we were soon to get married seriously, and we received immeasurable support and encouragement. To this day, I owe a great debt of gratitude to Oak Hill Presbyterian Church, a local congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Sonora, California.
It was at that church that I learned the biographies of some great saints. Some had already run their course and died. For example, I learned of Dr. J. Gresham Machen’s great struggles against liberalism in the last century. Not only was he a lover of mountains, which immediately won me over, but he was a great biblical scholar who wrestled with the central issues of our faith. Indeed, he had his faith greatly challenged when he himself was a student and went to Germany. Even so, he returned to his Bible and heard God’s voice there speaking through the human authors of Scripture. By God’s grace, he recognized the truth of it all. He was confirmed in his faith and strengthened in his soul. I came to admire his courage even in the midst of intellectual and spiritual challenges to his faith, both in Germany and back home in America. He would not relinquish those things he had been taught since childhood. I became one of Machen’s admirers—one of his children, so to speak—in those days, and I’m not ashamed of it to this day.
During those university days, I became a participant in a living community of Bible-believing, God-fearing saints. You have to understand why this is so important. Let me explain. As I read the sociologist Peter Berger, I learned of the importance of the sociology of knowledge and “plausibility structures.” Plausibility structures, simply stated, are the institutional contexts and milieu in which we exist, the social processes in which we move, breathe, and have our being. Berger argued that these plausibility structures have a way of either maintaining or threatening the reality of our religious world. These social processes are as influential on us and our thinking as the content of the learned lectures we receive in the classroom. My personal experience demonstrates the truth of Berger’s ideas. On the negative side of the ledger, many friends at the university (who had come into college professing faith) were jettisoning their moral and religious convictions not only because of what they were hearing in the classrooms but because of what they were seeing and experiencing all around them. On the positive side of the ledger, many of us who were vitally connected to a good local church were finding an unbreakable mooring for our souls, answers for our questions, and a vital communion with the church of God that was seeing us through the stormy waters of university life.
What was it that provided such a powerful force to keep us afloat during these gales and storms? First, it was the Word of God preached and the sacraments rightly administered. I heard the Word preached in such a way that I grew to have a great appreciation for the organic unity of Scripture. I can’t overemphasize how important this is. Scripture is a whole, and I began to develop an awareness of and cordial attachment to the unfolding interconnected story conveyed in Holy Scripture. I smelled and saw the elements of bread and wine as they were rightly administered in worship in the sacrament of communion. Sadly, I saw a few people disciplined by the church who did not repent, but I also observed some saints disciplined even unto reconciliation to their Lord. I was later to learn that this is the true mission of the church, the marks of the church that I would come to love: the right preaching of God’s Word, the true administration of the sacraments, and the disciplining of God’s saints.
But I also was seeing robust faith lived and worked out in the lives of the saints in that church. How they prayed! By grace, how they soldiered through their diseases and losses, their doubts, their betrayals, and their experiences of being betrayed. It was a marvelous sight to behold for a young Christian man.
Can the Bible be trusted? Well, very much hinges on the answer to that question. The fact of the matter is that many of the older higher-critical theories of the Bible are now undergoing intense scrutiny and revision. But there are other significant questions and issues that are challenging not only university students but all Christians in our world. For example, there are issues about biblical history, the relationship between science and Scripture, the Bible’s use of the concepts and language of the literature of other ancient writings, and the role of miracles and the supernatural, just to name a few. Even so, thoughtful answers to those issues can be discovered in the writings of erudite, Bible-believing scholars and teachers. Moreover, strength and support can be found in the bosom of the church, and wise university students will find themselves present there.