Watchman Nee on the Inspiration of the New Testament

In perusing much Evangelical and Charismatic literature, one gets the impression that the “mantic” theory of the inspiration of the Scriptures is the “correct” theory and anything else is the product of “liberals”.

I dealt with this in the book I co-authored with Leonard Albert, Apologetics for the Rest of Us.  A very cogent presentation of a “non-mantic” concept of inspiration which retains the centrally authoritative and accurate nature of the Scriptures while at the same time deals with the human element comes from the Chinese teacher and preacher Watchman Nee in his book The Ministry of God’s Word.

Nee’s concept of inspiration of the Scriptures is of a piece with this concept of the inspiration of ministers, and is more “incarnational” that what we’re used to seeing in Protestant Christianity.

The passage below comes from the 1971 printing by CFP (I throw that in because there have been accusations that there are variant versions of the work, produced the year before the Communists came to power in China and drove most of Chinese Christianity underground).

It is a mistake to assume that there is no human element in God’s revelation or that the first necessarily destroys the second. The revelation of God does indeed contain the human element, for God’s word is manifested in it. Even with respect to Old Testament prophetic ministry, however small a place the human element occupies, we cannot say there is absolutely none of it present, since the word of God at least needs to be uttered by man’s mouth. In incarnation, the Word has become flesh, and so the entire human element of Christ is now the word of God. Today God desires that His word, delivered through New Testament ministers, should be blended with human elements.

In carefully perusing the New Testament we discover that certain words are constantly employed by Paul which were never employed by Peter or John or Matthew. Likewise, Luke has his favourite words, and so has Mark. In their writings, each maintains his peculiarity. The Gospel of Matthew is different from that of Mark, Mark from Luke, and Luke from John. Paul’s writings have their own definite tone; Peter’s are in another strain. But the Gospel of John and John’s Epistles share the same subject and are continuous in nature. For instance, the Gospel of John commences with “In the beginning…”, and his First Epistle opens with “What was from the beginning…” One refers to the very beginning, the other starts from that beginning and proceeds onward. And his Revelation joins these two together, using the same style of writing.

Pursuing this matter further, we find that each writer of the Bible possesses his own idiosyncrasies. As a physician Luke invokes certain medical terms with which to describe various sicknesses, while the other three Evangelists employ common words. Again, because the Book of Acts is also written by Luke, medical words once more appear. Each Gospel possesses its special phraseology and has its particular topics. In Mark, “immediately” is frequently found; in Matthew, “the kingdom of heaven”; in Luke, “the kingdom of God.” On each book the writer leaves his indelible mark; yet all are the word of God.

The New Testament is full of human elements; still, it is God’s word. Each writer maintains his emphasis, uses his special phrases, and retains his characteristics. Through these, God’s word is delivered without suffering any loss. Having man’s marks and possessing human characteristics, but nonetheless remaining God’s word—such is the New Testament ministry. God’s word is entrusted to man and is conveyed through that man’s elements. God does not turn man into a tape recorder-first recording every word and subsequently sending them out verbatim. He does not wish it so. Since the Lord Jesus has already come and the Holy Spirit has now entered into the believing man, God will work in man until his human elements do not damage God’s word. This is the basis of New Testament ministry. The Holy Spirit so operates in man, so controls and disciplines him, that the latter’s own elements can exist without impairing God’s word; on the contrary, they fulfil it. Were no human element involved, man would become a tape recorder. Today the human element is in God’s word, and the word is fulfilled by man.

Do we know why Paul does not stress that all believers must speak in tongues in the meeting? Yet are not tongues a gift of God? The explanation is because, in the speaking in tongues, man’s thought is not involved. In other words, human thought is not included. This makes it more like the Old Testament ministry than that of the New; because this is God putting unknown tongues on the lips of man. God’s emphasis in New Testament ministry is in bringing into play the human element in the word. Under the discipline, control and work of the Holy Spirit, all human elements can be properly engaged by God. The word of God is to be released through man. It is God’s word, yet it also involves human elements.

Let us use an illustration. Suppose a musician is capable of playing piano, organ, and violin. He may perform the same music on different instruments. Since each musical instrument possesses its unique characteristics, the sounds are distinctly unique. The various characteristics of these musical instruments help to express the feeling of the music. The ministries of the New Testament word somewhat resemble these musical instruments. Some are like pianos, others like organs or violins. The same music played produces a distinct sound according to the different instruments employed. From one minister the word of God comes through with his particular human element; from another there is a different sort of human element. Each and every one of those who are used by God has his own human element implanted in the word. Under the discipline, government and education of the Holy Spirit, this personal element of man no longer hinders the coming forth of God’s word but on the contrary renders its manifestation more glorious.

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