The Inspiration of the Evangelists and Other New Testament Writers

Henry Alford, D.D.

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Back in the days when Ellen White was living, her staff considered the Henry Alford statement on the inspiration of the Evangelists and other New Testament writers to be of great value in that he seemed to grasp a concept of inspiration that is well supported by facts they were familiar with, as demonstrated in the work of Ellen G. White. The White Estate staff through the years in its work with the E. G. White materials has reached similar conclusions and heartily recommends Dr. Alford's statement as being helpful in understanding inspiration. Alford was an Episcopalian clergyman, Dean of Canterbury, and a contemporary of Ellen G. White.

1. The results of our inquiries hitherto may be thus stated:—That our three Gospels have arisen independently of one another, from sources of information possessed by the Evangelists:—such sources of information, for a very considerable part of their contents, being the narrative teaching of the Apostles; and, in cases where their personal testimony was out of question, oral or documentary narratives, preserved in and received by the Christian Church in the apostolic age;—that the three Gospels are not formal, complete accounts of the whole incidents of the sacred history, but each of them fragmentary, containing such portions of it as fell within the notice, or the special design, of the Evangelist.

2. The important question now comes before us, In what sense are the Evangelists to be regarded as having been inspired by the Holy Spirit of God? That they were so, in some sense, has been the concurrent belief of the Christian body in all ages. In the second, as in the nineteenth century, the ultimate appeal, in matters of fact and doctrine, has been to these venerable writings. It may be well then first to inquire on what grounds their authority has been rated so high by all Christians.

3. And I believe the answer to this question will be found to be, Because


they are regarded as authentic documents, descending from the apostolic age, and presenting to us the substance of the apostolic testimony. The Apostles being raised up for the special purpose of witnessing to the Gospel history,—and these memoirs having been universally received in the early church as embodying their testimony, I see no escape left from the inference, that they come to us with inspired authority. The Apostles themselves, and their contemporaries in the ministry of the Word, were singularly endowed with the Holy Spirit for the founding and teaching of the Church; and Christians of all ages have accepted the Gospels and other writings of the New Testament as the written result of the Pentecostal effusion. The early Church was not likely to be deceived in this matter. The reception of the Gospels was immediate and universal….

4. Upon the authenticity, i.e. the apostolicity of our Gospels, rests their claim to inspiration. Containing the substance of the Apostles' testimony, they carry with them that special power of the Holy Spirit which rested on the Apostles in virtue of their office, and also on other teachers and preachers of the first age. It may be well then to inquire of what kind that power was, and how far extending.

5. We do not find the Apostles transformed, from being men of individual character and thought and feeling, into mere channels for the transmission of infallible truth. We find them, humanly speaking, to have been still distinguished by the same characteristics as before the descent of the Holy Ghost. We see Peter still ardent and impetuous, still shrinking from the danger of human disapproval;—we see John still exhibiting the same union of deep love and burning zeal;—we find them pursuing different paths of teaching, exhibiting different styles of writing, taking hold of the truth from different sides.

6. Again, we do not find the Apostles put in possession at once of the divine counsel with regard to the Church. Though Peter and John were full of the Holy Ghost immediately after the Ascension, neither at that time, nor for many months afterwards, were they put in possession of the purpose of God regarding the Gentiles, which in due time was specially revealed to Peter, and recognized in the apostolic council at Jerusalem.

7. These considerations serve to show us in what respects the working of the Holy Spirit on the sacred writers was analogous to His influence on every believer in Christ; viz. in the retention of individual character and thought and feeling,—and in the gradual development of the ways and purposes of God to their minds.

8. But their situation and office was peculiar and unexampled. And for its fulfillment, peculiar and unexampled gifts were bestowed upon them. One of these, which bears very closely upon our present subject, was, the recalling by the Holy Spirit of those things which the Lord had said to them. This was His own formal promise, recorded in John 14:26. And if we look at our present Gospels, we see abundant evidence of its fulfillment.


What unassisted human memory could treasure up saying and parable, however deep the impression at the time, and report them in full at the distance of several years, as we find them reported, with every internal mark of truthfulness in our Gospels? What invention of man could have devised discourses which by common consent differ from all sayings of men—which possess this character unaltered notwithstanding their transmission through men of various mental organization—which contain things impossible to be understood or appreciated by their reporters at the time when they profess to have been uttered—which enwrap the seeds of all human improvement yet attained, and are evidently full of power for more? …

9. And let us pursue the matter further by analogy. Can we suppose that the light poured by the Holy Spirit upon the sayings of our Lord would be confined to such sayings, and not extend itself over the other parts of the narrative of His life on earth? Can we believe that those miracles, which though not uttered in words, were yet acted parables, would not be, under the same gracious assistance, brought back to the minds of the Apostles, so that they should be placed on record for the teaching of the Church?

10. And, going yet further, to those parts of the Gospels which were wholly out of the cycle of the Apostles' own testimony,—can we imagine that the divine discrimination which enabled them to detect the “lie to the Holy Ghost,” should have forsaken them in judging of the records of our Lord's birth and infancy,—so that they should have taught or sanctioned an apocryphal, fabulous, or mythical account of such matters? Some account of them must have been current in the apostolic circle; for Mary the mother of Jesus survived the Ascension, and would be fully capable of giving undoubted testimony to the facts. (See notes on Luke 1:2.) Can we conceive then that, with her among them, the Apostles should have delivered other than a true history of these things? Can we suppose that St. Luke's account, which he includes among the things delivered by those who were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word from the first, is other than the true one, and stamped with the authority of the witnessing and discriminating Spirit dwelling in the Apostles? …

11. But if it be inquired, how far such divine superintendence has extended in the framing of our Gospels as we at present find them, the answer must be furnished by no preconceived idea of what ought to have been, but by the contents of the Gospels themselves. That those contents are various, and variously arranged, is token enough, that in their selection and disposition we have human agency presented to us, under no more direct divine guidance, in this respect, than that general leading, which in main and essential points should ensure entire accordance. Such leading admits of much variety in points of minor consequence. Two men may be equally led by the Holy Spirit to record the events of our Lord's life for


our edification, though one may believe and record, that the visit to the Gadarenes took place before the calling of Matthew, while the other places it after that event; though one in narrating it speaks of two demoniacs,—the other, only of one.

12. And it is observable, that in the only place in the three Gospels where an Evangelist speaks of himself, he expressly lays claim, not to any supernatural guidance in the arrangement of his subject-matter, but to a diligent tracing down of all things from the first; in other words, to the care and accuracy of a faithful and honest compiler. After such an avowal on the part of the editor himself, to assert an immediate revelation to him of the arrangement to be adopted and the chronological notices to be given, is clearly not justified, according to his own showing and assertion. The value of such arrangement and chronological connection must depend on various circumstances in each case:—on their definiteness and consistency,—on their agreement or disagreement with the other extant records; the preference being in each case given to that one whose account is the most minute in details, and whose notes of sequence are the most distinct.

13. In thus speaking, I am doing no more than even the most scrupulous of our Harmonizers have in fact done. In the case alluded to in paragraph 11, there is not one of them who has not altered the arrangement, either of Matthew, or of Mark, and Luke, so as to bring the visit to the Gadarenes into the same part of the Evangelic history. But, if the arrangement itself were matter of divine inspiration, then have we no right to vary it in the slightest degree, but must maintain (as the Harmonists have done in other cases, but never, that I am aware, in this), two distinct visits to have been made at different times, and nearly the same events to have occurred at both. I need hardly add that a similar method of proceeding with all the variations in the Gospels, which would on this supposition be necessary, would render the Scripture narrative a heap of improbabilities; and strengthen, instead of weakening, the cause of the enemies of our faith.

14. And not only of the arrangement of the Evangelic history are these remarks to be understood. There are certain minor points of accuracy or inaccuracy, of which human research suffices to inform men, and on which, from want of that research, it is often the practice to speak vaguely and inexactly. Such are sometimes the conventionally received distances from place to place; such are the common accounts of phenomena in natural history, etc. Now in matters of this kind, the Evangelists and Apostles were not supernaturally informed, but left, in common with others, to the guidance of their natural faculties.

15. The same may be said of citations and dates from history. In the last apology of Stephen, in which he spoke, being full of the Holy Ghost, and with divine influence beaming from his countenance, we have at least two demonstrable inaccuracies in points of minor detail. And the occurrence


of similar ones in the Gospels would not in any way affect the inspiration or the veracity of the Evangelists.

16. It may be well to mention one notable illustration of the principles upheld in this section. What can be more undoubted and unanimous than the testimony of the Evangelists to the resurrection of the Lord? If there be one fact rather than another of which the Apostles were witnesses, it was this: and in the concurrent narrative of all four Evangelists it stands related beyond all cavil or question. Yet of all the events which they have described, none is so variously put forth in detail, or with so many minor discrepancies. And this was just what might have been expected, on the principles above laid down. The great fact that the Lord was risen,—set forth by the ocular witness of the Apostles, who had seen Him,—became from that day first in importance in the delivery of their testimony. The precise order of His appearances would naturally, from the overwhelming nature of their present emotions, be a matter of minor consequence, and perhaps not even of accurate enquiry till some time had passed. Then, with the utmost desire on the part of the women and Apostles to collect the events in their exact order of time, some confusion would be apparent in the history, and some discrepancies in versions of it which were the results of separate and independent enquiries; the traces of which pervade our present accounts. But what fair-judging student of the Gospels ever made these variations or discrepancies a ground for doubting the veracity of the Evangelists as to the fact of the Resurrection, or the principal details of the Lord's appearances after it?

17. It will be well to state the bearing of the opinions advanced in this section on two terms in common use, viz., verbal and plenary inspiration.

18. With regard to verbal inspiration, I take the sense of it, as explained by its most strenuous advocates, to be, that every word and phrase of the Scriptures is absolutely and separately true,—and, whether narrative, or discourse, took place, or was said, in every most exact particular as set down. Much might be said of the a priori unworthiness of such a theory, as applied to a Gospel whose character is the freedom of the Spirit, not the bondage of the letter; but it belongs more to my present work to try it by applying it to the Gospels as we have them. And I do not hesitate to say, that being thus applied, its effect will be to destroy altogether the credibility of our Evangelists. Hardly a single instance of parallelism between them arises, where they do not relate the same thing indeed in substance, but expressed in terms which if literally taken are incompatible with each other. To cite only one obvious instance. The Title over the Cross was written in Greek, and being reported in Greek by the Evangelists, must represent not the Latin or Hebrew forms, but the Greek form, of the inscription. According then to the verbal-inspiration theory, each Evangelist has recorded the exact words of the


inscription; not the general sense, but the inscription itself,—not a letter less or more. This is absolutely necessary to the theory. Its advocates must not be allowed, with convenient inconsistency, to take refuge in a common-sense view of the matter wherever their theory fails them, and still to uphold it in the main. And how it will here apply, the following comparison will show:

Matthew, This is Jesus the King of the Jews.

Mark, The King of the Jews.

Luke, This is the King of the Jews.

John, Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.

Of course it must be understood, that I regard the above variations in the form of the inscription as in fact no discrepancies at all. They entirely prevent our saying with perfect precision what was the form of the inscription, but they leave us the spirit and substance of it. In all such cases I hold with the great Augustine, whose words I have cited in my note on Matt. XIV, when treating of the varying reports of the words spoken by the Apostles to our Lord during the storm on the lake of Galilee,—and cannot forbear citing here again: “The sense of the Disciples waking the Lord and seeking to be saved, is one and the same: nor is it worth while to enquire, which of these three was really said to Christ. For whether they said any one of these three, or other words, which no one of the Evangelists has mentioned, but of similar import as to the truth of the sense, what matters it?”

19. Another objection to the theory is, that if it be so, the Christian world is left in uncertainty what her Scriptures are, as long as the sacred text is full of various readings. Some one manuscript must be pointed out to us, which carries the weight of verbal inspiration, or some text whose authority shall be undoubted, must be promulgated. But manifestly neither of these things can ever happen. To the latest age, the reading of some important passages will be matter of doubt in the Church; and, which is equally subversive of the theory, though not of equal importance in itself, there is hardly a sentence in the whole of the Gospels in which there are not varieties of diction in our principal MSS., baffling all attempts to decide which was its original form.

20. The fact is, that this theory uniformly gives way before intelligent study of the Scriptures themselves; and is only held, consistently and thoroughly, by those who have never undertaken that study. When put forth by those who have, it is never carried fairly through; but while broadly asserted, is in detail abandoned.

21. If I understand plenary inspiration rightly, I hold it to the utmost, as entirely consistent with the opinions expressed in this section. The inspiration of the sacred writers I believe to have consisted in the fulness of the influence of the Holy Spirit especially raising them to, and enabling them for, their work,—in a manner which distinguishes them from all other writers in the world, and their work from all other works. The men were full


of the Holy Ghost—the books are the pouring out of that fulness through the men,—the conservation of the treasure in earthen vessels. The treasure is ours, in all its richness: but it is ours as only it can be ours,—in the imperfections of human speech, in the limitations of human thought, in the variety incident first to individual character, and then to manifold transcription and the lapse of ages.

22. Two things, in concluding this section, I would earnestly impress on my readers. First, that we must take our views of inspiration not, as is too often done, from a priori considerations, but entirely from the evidence furnished by the Scriptures themselves: and secondly, that the men were inspired, the books are the results of that inspiration. This latter consideration, if all that it implies be duly weighed, will furnish us with the key to the whole question.

The New Testament for English Readers,
Vol. 1, Chapter 1, Section 6, pp. 20-27.
From the Deanery, Canterbury, May 4, 1863.

Alford's Footnote to Paragraph 12: To suppose St. Luke to have written “It seemed good to me also,” if he were under the conscious inspiration of the Holy Spirit, superseding all his own mental powers and faculties, would be to charge him with ascribing to his own diligence and selection that which was furnished to him independently of both. Yet to this are the asserters of verbal inspiration committed.

Alford's Footnote to Paragraph 18: This has been done, as far as I have seen, in all remarks of verbal-inspirationists on this part of my Introduction to the Greek Testament. A most curious idea has been propounded on the example above given, viz., that by forcing into accord the words of the title in Mark and Luke, and believing it to represent a translation from the Latin inscription, we may suppose those in Matthew and John to have been, the one the original Greek; the other, a translation from the Hebrew (!)

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