Bibliology & Biography: Jason K. Allen on Reading

By Midwestern Seminary President, Jason K. Allen

Originally published in the Midwestern Magazine, Issue 37


Recently, I found myself in front of a group of Christians fielding questions about the nature of Scripture—what the Bible is and why it matters. I was struck by how many members of the crowd, though they believed and appreciated the Bible, really lacked sufficient grounding in the Holy Scriptures. They did not really grasp what the Bible is and why it matters. Do you?

While most Americans grant the Bible unique status, and most churchgoers think of it—to some degree—as a book from God, confessional evangelicals believe the Bible is much more than that. We believe it is God’s Word.

The Bible is unlike any other book—it is God’s written revelation to man. By it, we can know God and truly know ourselves. More importantly, by it we can know Christ and the way of salvation.

The sad reality is that many who serve churches and fill pulpits do not believe the Scriptures, and the sadder reality is many who sit under their ministries are not equipped to detect it.

Exactly how should we think of the Bible? In what way is it unique? How should Christians view the Bible? Let us look at five ways that helpfully describe the nature of Scripture:

The inspiration of Scripture

Drawn from II Timothy 3:16, where the apostle Paul states, “All Scripture is inspired of God,” inspiration literally means, “God breathed out the Holy Scriptures.” They come from his innermost being. Operationally, it means God superintended the authors of Scripture in such a way that the words themselves, not just the authors, were inspired.

Inspiration is the most common and historic descriptor for the Bible, but it has proven to be an insufficient one. Historically, inspiration also implied truthfulness and authority and functioned as a catchall descriptor for the Bible as God’s Word.

Liberal theologians commandeered the term and severed it from its original usage. Their practice of “using our vocabulary, but not our dictionary” left an insufficient doctrine of inspiration, where the authors—much like Shakespeare or Bach—might be inspired, but not the text itself.

“Inspiration is the most common and historic descriptor for the Bible, but it has proven to be an insufficient one.”

Confessing evangelicals understand inspiration to be both verbal and plenary. Verbal means the words—not just the author or the sentiments behind the words—are inspired, and plenary means all of the words of Scripture, not just a subset. Literally, each and every word of the Bible is fully inspired by God.

The Infallibility of Scripture

As the word inspiration became insufficiently clear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, “infallibility” entered the confessing church’s lexicon. Infallibility means the Word of God accomplishes all it intends and is incapable of error or untruth. Thus, the Bible is infallible.

By the second half of the 20th century, infallibility, like inspiration, had been weakened of its original force. This hollowed out version of infallibility meant something much more narrow—the Bible was infallible in matters of faith and practice. Thus, implying the Bible may not be true when it spoke to more technical, less spiritual matters like science, historical records, or genealogies.  Another, more forceful and unambiguous term, became necessary, hence the word “inerrancy.”    

In its original usage, infallibility meant the Bible, in theory, could have no errors. Inerrancy means that the Bible has no errors.

The Inerrancy of Scripture

Now, in the 21st century, the most robust designation for the Bible is “inerrancy.” Inerrancy asserts the original autographs were without error, real or perceived. Inerrancy applies to the entire Bible, including scientific references and historical accounts. Though the Bible is not primarily a book of science or history, when it does reference such matters it does so truthfully. In its original usage, infallibility meant the Bible, in theory, could have no errors. Inerrancy means that the Bible has no errors.

Inerrancy does not mean there are no challenging texts, apparent contradictions, or human mistakes in translation. Rather, it points all the way upstream and asserts that the Bible’s original sources and texts were error-free in every way. In fact, inerrancy holds up even in light of modern scholarship, when textual variants and other ambiguities of transmission are taken into consideration.

Inerrancy became the delineating issue in the SBC controversy in the last quarter of the 20th century and remains the most defining and clarifying referent to the nature of Scripture. Inerrancy is built on the simple logic—if the Bible is errant at any point, it may be inaccurate at any point. For a more thorough explanation of the doctrine of inerrancy, consult the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

The Authority of Scripture

As God’s revelation to man, the Bible comes with binding authority. From how to live the Christian life, to doctrines we must embrace, to how the church should order itself, Holy Scripture is an authoritative Word, requiring Christians to obey.

The Bible’s self-attestation assumes this. Throughout Scripture, those who believe and live the Bible are affirmed as wise, faithful, and genuine followers of Christ. 1Hebrews 4:!2, Psalm 19:7-11, John 8:31-32, Joshua 1:8, II Timothy 3:16-17 As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount,

Therefore, everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall. 2Matthew 7:24-27

The Sufficiency of Scripture

Finally, as the living Word of God, the Bible is sufficient for Christian ministry and living. As Paul reminded Timothy, since the Holy Scriptures are inspired by God, the Bible makes us “adequate, equipped for every good work.” 3II Timothy 3:17

Christians need not look to second blessings, mystical experiences, or other human authority. We have a more certain and more powerful word, the Word of God.

Each one of these five aspects of God’s Word are interlinked and interdependent. They form five links in the chain of God’s revelation to man. Only an inspired book can be infallible and inerrant, and a book that owns these three strengths is authoritative and sufficient.

The Bible is truly unlike any other book. It is God’s written self-disclosure to humanity. As such, we must read it, study it, teach it, and live it.


 “The history of the world is but the biography of great men,” argued Thomas Carlyle, the proponent of what has come to be known as the “Great Man Theory of History.” This theory suggests that the broader movements and contours of history all go back to the leadership of great individuals who exerted unique influence on their times. Whether or not Carlyle’s theory proves true is debatable, but that certain individuals cast long shadows is not.

More than a cultural observation or historical phenomenon, this is biblical reality. Repeatedly in Scripture we see God providentially calling forth individuals for consequential, kingdom tasks. People like Moses, Joshua, David, and Peter dot the biblical landscape. In fact, Hebrews 2 in many ways is a biographical summation of the great lives of the Old Testament—mini-biographies, if you will.

As one who is entrusted with a leadership position, I find it profitable to read of others who have led. Wherever you find me, you will likely find a good biography nearby. Over breaks and holidays, I especially enjoy devouring a biography or two. Why is this the case?

Good biographies are fascinating.

I will occasionally read a novel, but I have never been overly drawn to fiction. Yes, I have enjoyed strolling through Wendell Berry’s Port Royal, John Grisham’s court rooms, and of course C.S. Lewis’ Narnia. But for me, a well-told biography is more intriguing—and often stranger—than fiction.

I have found myself unable to sleep while in the throes of the Battle of Britain in William Manchester’s The Last Lion. Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms is riveting in Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand. David McCullough’s recounting of Eisenhower wrestling with the D-Day invasion is gripping. For me, to forgo reading biographies—like foregoing family-time, a round of golf, or other enjoyable opportunities that add gratification and spice to life—would leave a void of pleasure in my life.

Good biographies are informative.

A good biographer tells not only the story of a person, but also of their times. Reading a good biography is like strolling through an intellectual shopping mall. The anchor store is what drew you there, but you will be pleasantly surprised along the way at what other items grab your attention.

You will find no better recounting of the British Empire at its zenith than the opening chapters of Manchester’s Visions of Glory, volume one of his The Last Lion. Robert Caro’s The Life and Times of Lyndon Baines Johnson will teach you about LBJ, but you will also be confronted with the calamitous effects of the Great Depression, the underbelly of 20th century American politics, the machinations of the United States Senate, the death of a president, and the national quagmire known as the Vietnam War. Ian Murray’s Jonathan Edwards will give you an informative look into colonial America, while Francois Wendell’s John Calvin will help you not only know the reformer, but also Reformation Europe. Strictly speaking, a biography is but a slice of history; but when well done, it opens for the reader a panoramic view into the providential unfolding of God’s cosmic plan.

A good biographer tells not only the story of a person, but also of their times.

Good biographies are relaxing.

Winston Churchill once noted a man who works with his hands should have a hobby that engages his mind, and a man who works with his mind should have a hobby that engages his hands. Another way to apply Churchill’s maxim is to supplement technical, pen-in-hand vocational reading with leisurely, feet-on-the-ottoman biographical reading. Indeed, few things are more relaxing to me than winding down the evening and entering into another world—a world of martial glory, national crisis, intrepid missionary efforts, or world-shaking preaching.

Good biographies are inspirational.

Though not prone to self-pity, like anyone I can occasionally use a good dose of perspective. Not only can a good biography bring words of consolation, it can also magnetically pull the reader to new heights of personal aspiration and self-sacrifice. I read of D.L. Moody purposing to evangelize daily; William Carey’s attempting great things for God and expecting great things from God; John Knox’s willingness to stand against Mary, Queen of Scots; or Jim Elliot’s death at the end of a native’s spear, and I cannot help but redouble my pursuit of God’s call on my life.

Beyond the Christian, ministerial realm, I have marveled at Pete Maravich, who excelled at college basketball like none other. Margaret Thatcher bucking up her own cabinet ministers in the Falkland Islands crisis. Or Churchill “mobilizing the English language and sending it into battle.” I never shot basketball with Maravich, visited prime minister’s questions with Thatcher, or plotted war strategy with Churchill, but I have enjoyed the next best thing by reading their biographies—and have been motivated in so doing.

Good biographies are sanctifying.

How can I not grow in my love for evangelism and missions while reading of Adoniram Judson in To the Golden Shore or Hudson Taylor’s Spiritual Secret? How can I not grow in my devotion to prayer while reading of A.W. Tozer putting on his praying pants in In Pursuit of God? How can I not recommit myself to meditating on Scripture and to a life of faith while reading Man of Faith, the biography of George Mueller? How can I not give more effort to sermon preparation after reading Ian Murray tell of Jonathan Edwards’ 13-hour days in the study? How can I not renew my efforts in preaching after having Arnold Dallimore describe George Whitefield preaching himself into his grave? How can I not stand for truth after reading of Spurgeon’s Downgrade Controversy; sacrifice for missionaries after reading of Lottie Moon; or resolve to live with abandon for Christ after reading of Stephen Olford’s maxim that “only one life, twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last?”

In the spirit of Hebrews 2, reading good biographies summons forth a veritable chorus of cheers, encouraging us to lay aside every encumbrance and sin that so easily entangles us and to run with endurance the race set before us.

This, and so much more, is why I love reading good biographies, and why I pity the person who neglects them. Do not be counted among their number.

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