Jesus on the Inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture

Jesus and the Scripture

In his chapter, “The Attestation of Scripture,” in the  The Infallible Word, the late professor John Murray made one of the most profound and significant observations about the inerrancy and infallibility of the Old Testament from Jesus’ use of one single word out of Psalm 82. In his disputation with the Jews, Jesus proved and defended the truth of His own Deity (which was under attack) by an appeal to  the word ‘gods’ in Psalm 82:6. In doing so, He also affirmed the inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy and authority of every “jot and title” of Scripture. Our Lord taught that the truth of His Divine nature was grounded on the unbreakability of the Scripture’s witness. Murray explained it so well when he wrote:

We have had occasion to quote and discuss the passage in Matthew 5:17-19 in another context. It is relevant to our present purpose in that it provides us with one of the most striking testimonies to the estimate of the Old Testament entertained by Jesus. It is highly probable that, when Jesus says “the law or the prophets,” he denotes by these two designations the whole of the Old Testament, the law denoting what we know as the Pentateuch and the prophets the rest of the Old Testament. It is possible that by the prophets he means the specifically prophetic books of the Old Testament, and by the law he may have had in mind the law of Moses in the more specific sense of the legislative economy embodied in the Pentateuch. If he is using these terms in the more specific sense it would be wholly arbitrary, indeed casuistic and contrary to all of the evidence, to suppose that there is the least hint in such a specific use of the terms “law” and “prophets” that other parts of the Old Testament are in a different category in respect of authority. In this passage, then, Jesus gives us his estimate of at least a very large part of the Old Testament and his conception of the relation that it sustained to his messianic work. He came not to destroy the law or the prophets; he came to fulfill.

The word “destroy” (καταλύω) is peculiarly significant. It means to abrogate, to demolish, to disintegrate, to annul or, as J. A. Alexander points out, “the destruction of a whole by the complete separation of its parts, as when a house is taken down by being taken to pieces.” His emphatic denial of any such purpose in reference to either the law or the prophets means that the discharge of his messianic mission leaves the law and the prophets intact. He utters, however, not only this emphatic denial but also adds the positive purpose of his coming – he came to fulfill, to complete. And so his work with reference to both law and prophets is completory, not destructive. He who can speak in the immediately succeeding context with such solemn asseveration and imperious authority brings all that is involved in such asseveration and authority to bear upon the confirmation of the abiding validity, stability and authority of both law and prophets. And not only so, but he also grounds his own mission and task upon such permanent validity, and defines his work in terms of fulfillment of all that the law and the prophets provided.

In verse 18 Jesus proceeds to apply the general statement of verse 17 to the very minutiae of the law. It is this application of the general assertion to the minutest details that is particularly pertinent to our present topic. General statements may sometimes not cover, or provide for, certain exceptions in detail. But here Jesus precludes any possibility of discrepancy between the general and the particular. He is saying in effect, “This proposition that I came not to destroy but to fulfill applies not simply in general terms but also to the minutest particulars.” And not simply is this the case; the connection expressed by the conjunction is also that the general statement of verse 17 is grounded in the fact that not one jot or tittle, not the minutest detail, will pass from the law till all be fulfilled. To enforce and seal the veracity of this, Jesus uses the formula that combines asseveration and authority, “Verily I say unto you.”

The “jot” is the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the “tittle” is the minute horn or projection that distinguishes consonants of similar form from one another. It would be impossible to think of any expression that would bespeak the thought of the meticulous more adequately than precisely this one used here by our Lord. In respect of the meticulous, our English expression “one letter or syllable” is scarcely equivalent. Could anything establish more conclusively the meticulous accuracy, validity and truth of the law than the language to which Jesus here attaches his own unique formula of asseveration? Many professing Christians recoil from the doctrine of verbal inspiration, the doctrine which means simply that the inspiration of Scripture extends to the very words as well as to the thoughts. It is difficult to understand why those who assent to inspiration should stumble at verbal inspiration. For words are the media of thought and, so far as Scripture is concerned, the written words are the only media of communication. If the thoughts are inspired, the words must be also. But whatever the case may be in the sphere of logic, the antipathy to verbal inspiration has little in common with the very obvious import of Jesus’ representation in this passage. The indissolubility of the law extends to its every jot and tittle. Such indissolubility could not be predicated of it if it were in any detail fallible, for if fallible it would some day come to nought. And this is just saying that in every detail the law was in his esteem infallible and therefore indissoluble. It is indeed strange prejudice that professes adherence to the infallibility of Christ and yet rejects the clear implications of his teaching. Nothing could be plainer than this, that in the smallest details he regards the law as incapable of being made void and that in the smallest details it is taken up by him and finds, in his fulfillment of it, its permanent embodiment and validity. By the most stringent necessity there is but one conclusion, namely, that the law is infallible and inerrant.

In our discussion of Matthew 5: 17-19, we left open the possibility that Jesus was using the terms “law” and “prophets” in a more restricted and specific sense. It is far from being certain that this interpretation of the scope of his words is justifiable. It is far more reasonable to believe that he had the whole Old Testament in mind. But we must not prejudice the argument by insisting upon this, for the argument we are now pursuing does not rest upon it. The witness of our Lord to the character of the Old Testament is so copious that what is not supplied by one passage is supplied by another. If the books other than those of Moses and the prophets are not expressly alluded to in Matthew 5:17-19 they certainly are in other 11 places. One of the most striking of these is John 10:33-36, and to this part of his witness we may now turn.

The occasion for his speaking these words was that created by the reaction of the Jews to his claim, “I and the Father are one.” The Jews rightly interpreted this claim as meaning that Jesus placed himself on an equality with God. This they regarded as blasphemy and they took up stones to stone him. Jesus’ claim was, of course, a stupendous one and there are only two alternatives. Either his claim was true or he did utter blasphemy. Here Jesus did not simply claim to be the Messiah; he claimed to be equal with the Father. The charge brought by the Jews was not a whit too severe if their conception of Jesus were correct. Quite logically on their own presuppositions their charge struck at the centre of Jesus’ claim and therefore at the basis of his mission and work. The charge denied his deity and his veracity. If validated, it would have exposed Jesus’ claim as the most iniquitous imposture.

It was a charge with such implications that Jesus had to answer. If ever the resources of effective rebuttal needed to be drawn upon, it was at such a juncture. How did he meet the charge? “Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said ye are gods? If he called them gods unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken, say ye of him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest, because I said I am the Son of God.” As we read this reply, we are amazed at what appears to be the facility and composure with which it is given as well as at what appears to be its restraint. Indeed, on superficial reading it might appear to be weak and ineffective. But the facility, composure and restraint, which we believe are real, as well as the apparent weakness, which is not real, all converge to demonstrate the significance for our present purpose of his appeal to Scripture. He staked his argument for the rebuttal of the most serious allegation that could be brought against him upon a brief statement drawn from Psalm 82:6. It is this appeal to Scripture that is the pivot of his whole defense. This cannot be explained on any other basis than that he considered the Scriptures as the unassailable instrument of defence. For “the scripture cannot be broken.”

Just as eloquent of Jesus’ use of Scripture is, what appears to us, the obscurity of the passage to which he appeals. It would seem to have no direct bearing upon the question at issue. Yet Jesus uses this apparently obscure and less important passage as his argument to answer an attack that was aimed at the very centre of his person and teaching and work. And furthermore, this passage is drawn from that part of the Old Testament that possibly, so far as our argument is concerned, did not come within his purview in Matthew 5:17. Does this not show that his attitude to every jot and tittle of the Psalms was identical with that to every jot and tittle of the law? Upon any other supposition his appeal to a brief and relatively obscure statement of the book of Psalms would be quite forceless and inconclusive.

Finally, the force of the brief parenthetical clause, “the scripture cannot be broken,” has to be noted. It might be plausibly argued that Jesus in his reply to the Jews was simply taking advantage of an ad hominem argument. In the question, “Is it not written in your law?”, Jesus is meeting his adversaries on their own assumptions. And so, it might be said, no argument bearing upon Jesus’ own view of Scripture could be based on this passage. But Jesus’ remark, “the scripture cannot be broken,” silences any such contention. In this remark Jesus expresses not simply the attitude of the Jews to Scripture but his own view of the inviolability of Scripture. He appeals to Scripture because it is really and intrinsically a finality. And when he says the Scripture cannot be broken, he is surely using the word “Scripture” in its most comprehensive denotation as including all that the Jews of the day recognised as Scripture, to wit, all the canonical books of the Old Testament. It is of the Old Testament without any reservation or exception that he says, it “cannot be broken.” Here then there can be no question as to how much of the Old Testament came within the purview or scope of his assertion. He affirms the unbreakableness of the Scripture in its entirety and leaves no room for any such supposition as that of degrees of inspiration and fallibility. Scripture is inviolable. Nothing less than this is the testimony of our Lord. And the crucial nature of such witness is driven home by the fact that it is in answer to the most serious of charges and in the defence of his most stupendous claim that he bears this testimony.

In passages such as those with which we have just dealt, our Lord’s view of Scripture comes to explicit expression and exposition. It is not, however, in a few passages that his viewpoint is attested. There is a mass of evidence that corroborates the express teaching of the more explicit passages. Indeed, corroboration is too weak a word to do justice to the import of the mass of evidence bearing upon the question. Rather should we say that the teaching of our Lord is so steeped in the appeal to Scripture, so steeped in the use of the formula, “it is written,” so pervaded by the recognition that what Scripture says God says, so characterized by the acceptance of the finality of the word of Scripture, that the doctrine of Scripture clearly enunciated in some passages is the necessary presupposition of the correlative evidence. The inescapable fact is that the mass of direct and indirect statement leads to one conclusion that, for our Lord, the Scripture, just because it was Scripture, just because it fell within the denotation of the formula, “it is written,” was a finality. His attitude is one of meticulous acceptance and reverence. The only explanation of such an attitude is that what Scripture said, God said, that the Scripture was God’s Word, that it was God’s Word because it was Scripture and that it was or became Scripture because it was God’s Word. That he distinguished between the Word of God borne to us by Scripture and the written Word itself would be an imposition upon Jesus’ own teaching wholly alien to the identifications Jesus makes and to the reverence for the letter of Scripture so pervasive in all of his witness.

Someone might attempt to pervert this glorious truth by suggesting that we cannot know what books were canonical in the days of Christ and the apostles. However, as William Henry Green has so aptly observed, among all the charges that Jesus brought against the scribes and Pharisees for their misinterpretation of Scripture, He never once corrected them for adding to or removing from the canon of the Old Testament. There was a clear accepted canon (i.e. one and the same with that which we have today). Green explained:

What books were recognized as belonging to the Old Testament by the Lord Jesus Christ and the inspired writers of the New Testament ? They have not left us a list of these books, but they have clearly indicated their mind in this matter, so that we need be under no mistake as to their meaning. They give their infallible and authoritative sanction to the canon as it existed  among the Jews. This is done both negatively and positively. They sanction the integrity of the Scriptures of the Jews negatively, in that they never charge them with mutilating or corrupting the word of God.  Our Lord repeatedly rebukes them for making void the word of God by their traditions. At various times he corrects their false glosses and erroneous interpretations of Scripture. But while censuring them for this, he could not have passed it over in silence, if they had been guilty of excluding whole books from the canon which properly belonged there, or inserting that which was not really inspired of God.2

1. John Murray “The Attestation of Scripture” in The Infallible Word (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, Originally pulished in 1946, this is the second edition published in 1967).

2. William Henry Green General Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1898) p. 141

1 Response

  1. David Brown

    Fascinating. It brings to mind the LORD answering Job from the whirlwind. “Where were you when I laid the foundation…..? Spoken with all the authority of who he claimed to be.

    Who dares question the Word of God. Clearly the restraint Jesus showed on this occasion masked the whirlwind but it surely sent them away with tails between their legs.


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