by John M. Frame
Christ and the Bible, John W. Wenham ( London , Tyndale Press) 206 pp., 75 pence.1
Mr. Wenham has been following in the footsteps of James I. Packer, first in becoming warden of Latimer House, Oxford, and now in writing a most helpful book on biblical authority. Like Packer, Wenham is both a capable scholar and a skilful popular writer. I am amazed, for example, that Wenham chose in a popular volume to include a highly complicated discussion of textual criticism (pp. 164ff) and a lot of argument generally classed as “technical”; yet he brings it off quite beautifully, packing an enormous amount of information into a 23 page chapter, yet keeping it clear and interesting enough to be genuinely helpful (perhaps even memorable) to an intelligent non-specialist. Specialists as well as non-specialists, morever, will frequently find herein ideas which, if not exactly new, are yet phrased so strikingly as almost to compel thoughtful reflection. Some examples which I found personally helpful: P. 19 (the O.T. as the Highest law), p. 39 (the “eccentricity” of the Jesus fabricated by radical biblical critics), p. 93 (free quotation of a source as a sign of mastery of it rather than a sign of ignorance), p. 102 (defense of Paul’s use of “seed” in Gal. 3:16), p. 173 (the sense in which the over 100,000 textual variants in the N.T. are an “embarrassment of riches”).
This is the first volume of a projected tetralogy in defense of the orthodox view of Scripture. As Wenham explains, “This first book tries to show what Christ’s view of Scripture was, why we should regard his view as authoritative, and what books and texts should be regarded as Scripture. The second looks at the moral difficulties of the Bible. The third proposed book would deal with the main problems arising from Old Testament criticism. The fourth proposed book is concerned with the problem of harmonizing the Gospels.” (p. 8). As this prospectus suggests, Wenham’s approach is more exegetical in focus than Packer’s, and less concerned with broadly dogmatic and epistemological matters. Both types of emphasis are needed, but both also risk certain perils. The peril in Wenham’s approach, which because he has not escaped it is also the chief weakness of his book, is a lack of adequate epistemological self-consciousness.
To be sure, Wenham is explicit as to the presuppositions of his argument: (1) that “Jesus was God incarnate, the supreme revelation of god” and (2) that the Gospels are “substantially true” (p. 9). And he is explicit as to what he does not presuppose, namely biblical infallibility. (Ibid., cf. back cover). In this book, infallibility is to be proved; thus it must not be assumed les the argument be caught in a vicious circle. This method of avoiding the vicious circle is the one aspect of the book for which Wenham claims originality (Ibid.)
In the first place, there is nothing new about this sort of point; it is found in a host of authors including Warfield, to whom Wenham often refers (cf. Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 210-214). More important, unless this point is carefully qualified, it tends to give the impression that there is, after all, one area of the Christian life where the bible need not be taken as authoritative, i.e. when one is arguing for biblical authority! Further, this approach tends often to leave the reader up in the air, for Wenham constantly makes judgments about possibilities and probabilities – controversial judgments in the context of contemporary theology! – without telling us how he arrives at them. I think, frankly, that scripture itself plays a large role in determining what he regards as “probable”; but he doesn’t tell us this since it might seem “circular.”
In my view, circular argument of a sort is inevitable when one is arguing on behalf of an absolute authority. This is true of Christian as well as non-Christian arguments. One cannot abandon one’s basic authority in the course of arguing for it! The problems created by this circularity can be mitigated by bringing in data from various different sources; but they cannot be totally avoided.
Though space forbids any further analysis, I believe that these problems generate some difficulties in other parts of the book also: the section on canon, rather good as a historical study, contains a rather confused account of the inward work of the Spirit (125f), and presents a rather distorted picture of Warfield’s view of the N.T. canon (153-157) – I think in part because the author has failed adequately to think through the basic question “How do we know?” In this respect, Packers book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, though thinner in the exegetical and historical areas, presents a more satisfying argument, buttressed as it is by a careful and Scriptural discussion of faith and reason. Nevertheless, all things considered, Wenham’s book is a worthwhile contribution. Particularly as a layman’s introduction to questions of text and canon it isuniquely valuable.
John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary
1 This review originally appeared in Banner of Truth 118-119 (July-Aug., 1973), 39-41, http://www.banneroftruth.org/pages/magazines/magazines.php. Used here by permission.