INSPIRATION AND INERRANCY
From N. F. Gier, God, Reason, and the Evangelicals
(University Press of America, 1987), chapter 6.
Copyright held by author.
It is surely a strange apologetic that says faith in Christ is all you need for salvation; and then says, you have no right to your faith in Christ unless you believe that the Bible is without error.
–Francis L. Patton
When discrepancies occur in the Holy Scripture, and we cannot harmonize them, let them pass. It does not endanger the articles of the Christian faith.
Difficult though it may be to understand, God chose to make his authority relevant to his creatures by means that necessitate some element of fallibility.
–Dewey M. Beegle
They did not err in what they proclaimed, but this does not mean that they were faultless in their recording of historical data or in their world-view, which is now outdated.
–Donald G. Bloesch
It is urged…that unless we can demonstrate what is called the inerrancy of the biblical record down even to its minutest details, the whole edifice of belief in revealed religion falls to the ground. This, on the face of it, is the most suicidal position for any defender of revelation to take up.
The Bible does not give us a doctrine of its own inspiration and authority that answers all the various questions we might like to ask. Its witness on this subject is unsystematic and somewhat fragmentary and enables us to reach important but modest conclusions.
–Clark H. Pinnock
In the last analysis the inerrancy theory is a logical deduction not well supported exegetically. Those who press it hard are elevating reason over Scripture….
In common parlance the fundamentalist Christian is the person who “takes the Bible literally.” This description is not quite accurate, because we shall see that many “liberal” scholars, particularly in connection with Old Testament cosmology (see Chapter 13), take the texts much more literally than conservatives do. With regard to biblical authority the ruling axiom for evangelical rationalism is inerrancy, not literalism. James Barr has shown that evangelical exegetes generally naturalize Old Testament miracles and divine interventions, rather than taking the events literally. As Barr states: “In order to avoid imputing error to the Bible, fundamentalists twist and turn back and forward between literal and nonliteral…exegesis….The typical conservative evangelical exegesis is literal, but only up to a point: when the point is reached where literal interpretation would make the Bible appear ‘wrong,’ a sudden switch to nonliteral interpretation is made.”1 This fanatical devotion to inerrancy compromises the integrity of evangelical theology right at its roots.
Although there were protofundamentalists among Lutheran and Calvinist scholastics (Johann Gehard, Frances Turretin and J. A. Quenstedt), evangelical rationalism had its origin in the Anglo-Saxon world in Charles Hodge of Princeton Theological Seminary. At the basis of Hodge’s theology there is a pre-Kantian, empirical rationalism, shared ironically with the deists of the Enlightenment. In contrast to the latter, evangelical rationalists believe that the Bible can be vindicated by this philosophy rather than be destroyed by it. It is Barr’s thesis that a deist mode of explanation, naturalizing miracles by saying that God used secondary causes, is pervasive in conservative evangelical exegesis.
Charles Hodges’ rationalism can be clearly seen in his view that the Bible “must be interpreted in accordance with established facts”; that “reason is necessary for the reception of a revelation; that reason must judge of the credibility of a revelation”; and that reason “must judge of the evidences of a revelation.”2 Furthermore, theology must follow the model of natural science: just as the latter deals with facts and the laws of nature, the former must deal with biblical facts and principles. Hodge has unwittingly converted Christianity into the gnostic religion described in Chapter One (www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/GREchapt1.htm).
To insist that the Bible is factually correct in all respects is to impose a scientific world-view on a prescientific document. Indeed, one cannot make this claim of even the best scientific documents. As Rudolf Bultmann emphasized, the Bible is the proclamation (kerygma) of God’s saving grace; it is not to be taken as an encyclopedia of empirical facts. Bultmann would have been sympathetic to Robert M. Smith’s comments about God’s Inerrant Word, an anthology of articles by fundamentalists: “The authors… are right about the Bible being a perfect book but are wrong in the way they define perfection….They are defining perfect the way a mathematician or scientist would define it; they are not defining perfect the way the cross of Jesus Christ defines it.”3 Evangelical rationalists repeatedly use extrabiblical standards to distort basic biblical meanings. Thomas Torrance of the University of Edinburgh maintains that the fundamentalists’ crucial mistake is a form of nominalism: identifying the truth with statements about the truth. Torrance contends that the Bible, like all other created things, must have an element of deficiency so that it can point beyond itself to the truth of God.4 Torrance follows Karl Barth who declared that the Bible “is not the Revelation” but “the witness to the Revelation, and this is expressed in human terms….”5
The “detailed inerrancy” of evangelical rationalism is an excellent example of religious syncretism–a very ironic instance of it. In their bitter battle against modernism, they are just as modernist as their opponents in calling the Bible a factual treatise as well as a religious one. Both modernists and these Christians accept the same criterion for truth: the scientific method. In doing so these evangelicals unwittingly forget that for Christians God is the sole standard of truth. Bible scholar George E. Mendenhall phrases the preceding point this way:
Biblical fundamentalism, whether Jewish or Christian, cannot learn from the past because in so many respects the defense of presently accepted ideas about religion is thought to be the only purpose of biblical narrative. It must, therefore, support ideas of comparatively recent origin–ones that usually have nothing to do with the original meaning or intention of biblical narrative because the context is so radically different.6
A. G. Hebert concurs: “Hence, the inerrancy of the Bible, as it is understood today, is a new doctrine, and the modern fundamentalist is asserting something that no previous age has understood in anything like the modern sense.”7
By insisting on detailed inerrancy evangelicals have in effect deified the Bible: they have made it into a divine entity. Nothing humans have ever written is without error. Granted, any person can say or write self-evident truths like “all circles are round,” or a human writer could get many historical facts right, but writing flawless history would require a divine author. To say that a thing is perfect is to say that it is divine. Evangelical rationalists have again violated the Hebraic principle: God is in heaven and humans are on God’s earth, a created world radically different from God. Every created thing, even those things created by humans, reveal God’s glory, but they are definitely not divine or godlike in any way. Perfection is a divine attribute, not a creaturely one.
Donald Bloesch confirms my point: “Ronald Nash, following the evangelical rationalism of Gordon Clark and Carl Henry, asserts that…the propositions in Scripture are identical with divine revelation…I contend that although we find the truth of revelation in Scripture, this revelation is not to be identified with the very words of Scripture, for this is to confuse the infinite with the finite.”8 Bloesch calls such a confusion “neo-Gnosticism,” which I have clarified as religious gnosticism in general, so as not to imply any substantial identity between the evangelical rationalists and the ancient Christian Gnostics. Although it is doubtful that Luther believed in detailed inerrancy, he sometimes expresses himself in ways which show the ultimate implications of such a position. Luther’s great rhetorical powers get the best of him in hyperbole such as this: “Sacred Scripture is God Incarnate” or the Word of God “is just like the Son of God.”9 If detailed inerrancy is correct, then Luther’s exaggerated words are the plain truth. One can now understand the full implication of Barth’s warnings about the dangers of bibliolatry.
The following syllogism is used frequently by advocates of detailed inerrancy:
God is perfect and cannot lie.
God revealed himself to humankind.
Therefore, the written Word of God must
be perfect, i.e., free from all error.10
The first two premises may be true; in fact, all pagan natural theologians would probably agree with them, as long as the revelation is taken as natural and not special. The conclusion, however, simply does not follow from the premises. The writers of the Bible were human beings, and there is nothing in the syllogism which demonstrates that they were infallible. The syllogism fails for lack of a proper “middle term,” one which is impossible to supply–at least on the basis of a Christian doctrine of creation.
In the epigraph from Dewey M. Beegle he implies that God could have chosen an infallible means to reveal the divine message. The logic of Christian creation prevents any such possibility. In creating something outside of the divine nature, God created something quite unlike himself. The doctrine of creatio ex deo, which was held temporarily (and probably unwittingly) by creationist Duane Gish, was declared heretical because of its pantheistic implications: viz., that the world is simply a part of God which emanated directly from the divine nature. The orthodox creatio ex nihilo was designed expressly to prevent such heresy. Augustine formulated his doctrine of creation correctly when he proposed that every created thing is imperfect and deficient because it is mixed with “nothing.” Therefore, Harold Lindsell is thoroughly heretical when he claims that “fallible men were made infallible with respect to Scripture they indited.”11 Therefore, the Bible can be a divine product only in the sense that the world is a divine product–finite, deficient, imperfect, corruptible–all the elements of what I have called “metaphysical evil,” the basic evil of the world which issued forth directly from the creator God. (See www.class.uidaho.edu/ngier/305/3dp.htm, Sec. E.)
In Roman Catholic circles the motto “inspiration without inerrancy” has gained increasing currency. Contemporary evangelicals like Donald Bloesch and Dewey Beegle appear to support a similar view, and James Barr, usually not considered an evangelical, proposes a theory of inspiration along these lines. Rather than focus on divinely inspired prophets and apostles, Barr would place inspiration within the people of Israel and the early Church. On this view the divine inspiration of the Bible is taken very seriously, but the doctrine of creation is taken with equal seriousness. This means that there is definitely divine intention behind the biblical message, but the written words must be taken as created, fallible things. One must be reminded that, as opposed to physical things, human writings are twice removed from the direct creative act of God.
In his recent The Scriptural Principle former inerrantist Clark H. Pinnock exhorts Christians to reaffirm the humanity of the Bible. In the same way that an overemphasis on the deity of Christ led to docetism, inerrancy has alienated the Bible from its human authors and their fallible but creative freedom to express the mighty acts of God in their own limited ways. Clark, however, still wishes to preserve the word “inerrancy,” but I believe that this is simply the wrong word to use. If nonrationalist evangelicals want to stress the Bible’s humanity, then they must, like the courageous Stephen Davis, also affirm biblical fallibility and use words which express creaturely finitude and corruptibility.
AUTOGRAPHS, INSPIRATION, AND HERMENEUTICS
A popular defense against prima facie textual errors has been the assumption that the books of the Bible were inerrant only in their original autographs. On the face of it, this maneuver can be seen as a clever methodological tactic: the chances of finding such autographs are nil, so critical scholars will be unable to check them for errors. This is yet another ironic twist in the development of evangelical rationalism. Rationalists boast about the vindication that the biblical record receives from the sciences; but with the inerrant autograph theory, they remove the real Bible from such empirical verification. Harold Lindsell’s thesis that God did not secure the survival of the autographs out of fear of idolatry certainly does not help the credibility of this view; nor has it stopped Lindsell’s own tendency to bibliolatry.12
There are problems with this theory other than methodological integrity. Ronald Nash admits that “strictly speaking, the Bible does not teach the inerrancy of its original MSS.,” but he argues that it is a natural corollary of the biblical doctrine of inspiration.13 I have argued in the preceding section that such a corollary is not natural at all if we take the Christian doctrine of creation seriously. More importantly, as evangelical F. F. Bruce surmises, it is unlikely that autographs ever existed for many biblical books.14 For example, Bruce speculates that there was probably no signed copy of Romans; rather, Paul’s scribe probably prepared several copies for distribution–each with its own peculiar scribal errors. The Bible itself does not make any distinction between autographs, copies, and translations. Furthermore, the New Testament writers’ loose use of the Septuagint, Targum paraphrases, and their own translations demonstrates that inerrancy was simply not on their minds. As Rogers and McKim have pointed out, the very word inerrant is of recent origin, coming out of the early period of modern science. Concerns about inerrancy, therefore, are pseudoscientific, not biblical.
Even if we grant inerrant biblical texts, the main theological battle–that of hermeneutics–has only just begun. Evangelical Beegle phrases the problem well: “The adherents of inerrancy vary considerably in their interpretation of key issues. It would seem that if God was really so concerned about giving his word inherently in the autographs, he would be equally concerned to help biblical interpreters determine that inerrant meaning.”15 At this point Lindsell’s fears about idolatry turn into a very different argument. One can understand what Lindsell means about inerrant texts becoming divine relics jealously guarded by priests. But an inerrant interpretation would (or should at least) be greeted jubilantly by these evangelicals, concerned as they are about infallible knowledge as a ground for faith. Mainline Christians, who have fortunately not fallen into this gnostic trap, are quite content to have fallible texts and incomplete interpretations. They live in faith, not sure knowledge, relying as they do, and should, on the grace of God for their salvation.
There is yet another problem with verbal or plenary inspiration, the doctrine that every word of the Bible is directly inspired by God. Even though most evangelicals have given up the mechanical dictation theory, which was held by the church fathers until Reformation scholasticism, they still take seriously the proposition that God, using human instruments with their own styles and Sitz im Leben, actually wrote the Scriptures. Making God the literal author of the Bible is just as much an anthropomorphism as conceiving God’s creation as a potter molding clay, not to mention the problems this causes for human freedom and creativity. Francis Schaeffer believes that the image of God means that human beings are created as the only verbalizers, modeled of course after the divine verbalizer.16 I do not believe that God can speak, so as far as I am concerned, Schaeffer is actually making God in his own image. (Schaeffer should have been asked if deaf-mutes are created in the image of God.) Schaeffer speaks for many evangelicals when he argues that God must literally speak if God is truly God. My opinion is that any anthropomorphic theology is bad theology.
The Bible’s divine inspiration is supported by a single passage from 2 Timothy: “…from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God (theopneutos, lit. “God-breathed”) and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (3:15-17). If Paul is the author of this passage (as most evangelicals believe), no Christian could have read any of the New Testament books from childhood. Given this evangelical assumption, the inescapable conclusion is that only the Old Testament is being labeled “God-breathed.”17
Nowhere in the authentic Pauline letters is there a hint that there is other scriptural authority besides the Old Testament. For Paul the gospel of Christ is spoken, not written. For example, when Paul speaks of the divine word (logos) in 1 Thes. 2:13, it is clear that he is talking about the gospel he is proclaiming, certainly not his own writing. Indeed, it is very doubtful whether Paul intended his private letters to have scriptural status. As F. G. Bratton, states: “That this correspondence was to become…an integral part of the new Bible called the New Testament…would have been news to Paul himself. Such an idea was far from his mind. He was writing personal letters to certain people, and if he had been able to visit them in person, he would not have written them.”18
Most scholars believe that 1 and 2 Timothy were written long after Paul’s time, perhaps as late as 140 C.E. If this is the case, then it would have been possible for Christians to have read some of the Pauline epistles and gospels in their formative years. Indeed, many scholars believe that the writer of 1 Tim. 5:18 must be quoting from Luke’s gospel. For Paul to have written this, we would have to assume that he had access to the same early sources as Luke did. There is no evidence, however, that he did. By the time the so-called pastoral epistles were written, the New Testament canon was already in formation. Hence, we find that in 2 Peter 3:16 Paul’s letters are on a par with inspired scripture. This is highly unlikely if the apostle Peter was the author of this work. (Even Calvin believed that he was not.) Again, it is better, for many more reasons than this one, to place the Petrine letters in the early second century.
Even if Paul wrote 2 Tim. 3:16, there is nothing there which explicitly supports the detailed inerrancy of modern evangelicalism. Scripture is supposed “to instruct us for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus”; it says nothing about instructing us in history, geography, or the natural sciences. Following our earlier discussion of logos in Chapter One, one could say that just as logos is primarily life, divine inspiration is to be interpreted in the same way. For Christians God’s Word is not a gnostic but a life-giving gospel.
Finally, from a strictly philosophical standpoint, there is something fundamentally suspect about the argument using 2 Timothy. The Christian is essentially saying that the Bible is inspired because it says that it is inspired. The error here is both circular reasoning and the informal fallacy of irrelevance (i.e., appeal to authority). Without external support, the doctrine of divine inspiration is valid only for those believers who hold it as an article of faith. The attempt to prove inspiration by empirical verification is pseudoscientific and rationalistic in the worst way. Clark Pinnock offers an apt conclusion to this discussion on 2 Timothy 3:16: “The Bible does not give us a doctrine of its own inspiration and authority that answers all the various questions we might like to ask. Its witness on this subject is unsystematic and somewhat fragmentary and enables us to reach important but modest conclusions.”19
THE AUTHORITY OF SCRIPTURE: LUTHER AND CALVIN
The question of whether the Christian tradition has supported detailed inerrancy is a controversial one. Jack Rogers and Donald McKim’s extensive work The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, has come under heavy attack by John D. Woodbridge of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. In his Biblical Authority Woodbridge alleges that Rogers and McKim quote theologians out of historical context, rely too heavily on secondary sources, and misuse those sources on many important points. Rogers has refused to respond publicly because he believes that Woodbridge is only interested in pursuing his own evangelical ideology. In his response McKim contends that it is he and Rogers who have been sensitive to Sitz im Leben, while Woodbridge reads modern scientific notions back into the minds of historical figures.20
Woodbridge also refuses to distinguish between the terms “infallibility” and “inerrancy,” a distinction that Rogers and McKim make great efforts to maintain. I do not have the expertise to judge these historical matters, but in this section I will use some passages from Luther and Calvin which seem to me at least to demonstrate a clear difference between them and modern evangelical rationalists. Biblical infallibility was obviously an assumption of traditional Christianity, but to interpret this in a modern inerrantist way is very problematic. It is certainly not wrong of Rogers and McKim to insist that the burden of proof in this matter lies completely with Woodbridge and his colleagues.
Luther’s teachers at Erfurht were nominalists in the tradition of William of Ockham, who intensified the split between reason and faith and emphasized God’s absolute power. For them God empowers us to believe and supports us in our faith; autonomous reason has no place in theology. One of the greatest Occamists, Gabriel Biel, stressed the self-authenticating nature of scripture and made it clear that its function–following 2 Timothy 3:16–was to instruct, to console, and to exhort.21 In his Bible scholarship Luther was sensitive to the historical-critical method, which had just begun to be used. He questioned the traditional authorship of Genesis, Ecclesiastes, and Jude; he doubted the canonicity of Esther, Hebrew, James and Revelation; he talked about “error” in the prophets; and he pointed out historical discrepancies in Kings and Chronicles.
Luther called James “that epistle of straw,” and it is obvious that Luther’s antipathy to this book was because of its strong “works” doctrine. Problems like these with the biblical text did not bother Luther, because he was not a protofundamentalist. He states: “When discrepancies occur in the Holy Scripture, and we cannot harmonize them, let them pass. It does not endanger the articles of the Christian faith.”22 Rogers and McKim show that Luther’s statement “In this doctrine about the Word of God there is no falsehood”–used by some evangelicals attempting to support detailed inerrancy–is taken out of context: “When we read the statement in its context, it is evident that Luther was not talking about factual errors or lack of them.”23
John Calvin was of course profoundly influenced by the initial reforming activities of Luther, but he went on to mark out his own distinctive theological genius. Even with the effects of Renaissance humanism, Calvin continued the general view of scripture which he had inherited from the Christian tradition. As Rogers and McKim state: “Calvin’s training as a humanist rhetorician helped him to understand that the Bible’s purpose was to persuade a person to be saved. It was not necessary that the Scripture display exact, technical accuracy.”24 Woodbridge opposes this conclusion, using several respected authorities as support. Rogers and McKim list a series of passages in which it appears that Calvin is attributing errors to Scripture. Woodbridge’s general response is that if Calvin actually believed this, then Calvin would not have spent as much time as he did trying to harmonize all the discrepancies. Woodbridge claims that Calvin believed that the alleged astronomical mistakes were due to the writers’ use of phenomenological language; and that the rest of the errors were those of copyists and not in the original autographs.
Even if we grant Woodbridge’s argument here, Calvin’s general theological statements make it clear that he is definitely not an evangelical rationalist. In the Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin declares that “we seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean…”; for scripture is self-authenticating and “hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning.”25 Calvin was convinced that Christians could not prove the Bible was inspired of God. This must be taken as a basic article of faith attested to and supported by the activity of the Holy Spirit, whose “testimony…is more excellent than all reason.”26 Calvin gives a stiff rebuke to fundamentalisms of all ages: “…Those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known.”27
THE AMAZING KNOWLEDGE OF THE ANCIENTS
Because of their unorthodox, pseudoscientific view of the Bible, evangelical rationalists attempt to do something that no church father would ever have thought of: to prove the Bible divinely inspired by human criteria. Repeatedly, modern scientific evidence is used to prove the Bible true. For example, some evangelicals are fond of claiming that the Bible reveals amazing knowledge about medical matters. The Israelite tribes did in fact practice medical quarantine, but does this mean that they had a scientific view of disease? It is quite clear that they did not. All the peoples of the Bible believed that disease was caused by evil spirits and was the result of human sin. The first disease came into the world as a result of the Fall (Gen. 3:17-l9; Ro. 5:12). A common Hebrew word for disease or illness–dabar–literally means “evil matter.” A sick man cries out: “Heal me, for I have sinned against you” (Ps. 41:4); the man has had a “deadly thing (dabar)…fastened upon him” (v. 8).
The New Testament clearly continues the same view of disease. Luke describes the Apostles as healing all those who were oppressed by the devil (Acts 10:38); and the first great healing story of Jesus’ ministry (Mk. 2) definitely implies that the man was paralytic because of his sin. A woman that Jesus healed had a spirit of infirmity for l8 years, a spirit subsequently identified as Satan himself (Lk. 13:10-18). An evangelical microbiologist expresses aptly the character of biblical medical science: “It is remarkable that medical practice changed so little…and there was scarcely an element in it which could be dignified with the name of science.”28
If we want to be truly impressed by ancient medical practices, all we have to do is take a look at Chinese medicine. The practice of acupuncture goes back at least 2500 years. Its discovery is attributed to the famous Yellow Emperor who knew many medical facts–e.g., he knew the correct cause of liver spots and knew that the liver controlled the lungs. The idea of a second nervous system was scoffed at by Western medicine until a North Korean researcher verified the existence of the classical acupuncture meridians.29 In addition to acupuncture’s capacity to kill pain (stimulation of certain meridians releases endorphins in the brain), acupuncture can be used to cause the body to absorb brain tumors, to stop brain hemorrhages, and to regenerate damaged nerve cells. This is far more amazing than the quarantine practices of the ancient Hebrews. Using inerrantist reasoning, we would be forced to entertain the hypothesis that Chinese thought was also divinely inspired.
The widespread claim that the Bible anticipates scientific cosmology is dismissed in Chapter Thirteen. Suffice it to say that the ancient world was filled with far better astronomers than the Hebrews. The protoscience involved in Stonehenge is far superior to anything in the Bible. In contrast to the Hebrews, the Persians and Tibetans knew that the earth was spherical, and the Tibetans somehow knew that the earth’s diameter was 7,000 miles. The people who made the most astronomical contributions were the Babylonians, who were routinely predicting solar and lunar eclipses in the 8th Century B.C.E. As Cyrus Gordon states: “Details of this sort reflect the sophistication and scientific superiority of the Babylonians as against the Hebrews who were satisfied with less astronomical data.”30 The Greeks, Hindus, and Arabs were superior in mathematics–with the Greeks making impressive geometrical discoveries and the Hindus inventing the all-important concept of zero. The Hindus also excelled in psychology, anticipating some of the ideas of Freud and the distinction between deep sleep and dream sleep (i.e., sleep with rapid eye movement), only recently discovered by modern scientists.
Without sounding too offensive, we have to conclude that the ancient Hebrews were in fact culturally and scientifically inferior to their neighbors–Egyptians, Babylonians, Canaanites, Phoenicians, and Persians. Their greatest achievements came in literature, the prophets’ concern for justice, and theology, where we can point to the concept of divine transcendence with its strict distinction between God and the world. (Even here Zoroaster probably preempted the Hebrews.) I have called this discovery the Hebraic principle, which unfortunately has been seriously compromised by the reintroduction of the pagan idea of the man-God in the Christian doctrine of Incarnation and the idea of human immortality. Hebrew theological genius is also severely compromised by making the Bible a perfect thing. A rabbinic story that Yahweh deliberately tore the parchment of the Decalogue on Sinai is a colorful confirmation of the Hebraic principle.
THE CONTEMPORARY DEBATE AMONG EVANGELICALS
Even with the theological axiom of scripture’s inspiration, contemporary evangelicals cannot agree on what this really means. In his frank and honest book, Evangelicals at an Impasse, evangelical Robert K. Johnston states: “That evangelicals, all claiming a common biblical norm, are reaching contradictory theological formulations on many of the major issues they are addressing suggests the problematic nature of their present understanding of theological interpretation. To argue that the Bible is authoritative, but to be unable to come to anything like agreement on what it says…is self-defeating.”31
Popular opinion holds that all evangelicals believe that divine inspiration means detailed inerrancy. But, as Johnston shows, this is only one of at least four contemporary evangelical positions on the authority of the Bible; and he makes it clear that of the four alternatives, “detailed inerrancy” is by the far the weakest and least defensible. It is also of course the most divisive, for the shrill exclusivistic language of the inerrantists threatens evangelical as well as general Christian unity. Evangelicals like Jack Rogers and Stephen Davis were deeply troubled by Harold Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible and his declaration of “excommunication,” viz., no one can be an evangelical without believing that the Bible is literally true in everything that it affirms. Rogers, Davis, and many others wished to preserve their evangelical identity so they began to speak out against this unfortunate extremism. In this section I will let these courageous dissenting evangelicals speak for themselves.
The logic of inerrancy leads Lindsell and Schaeffer to make statements about the Bible which embarrass many fellow evangelicals. Johnston criticizes Lindsell for his interpretation of the morning stars which “sing” in Job 38:7. Lindsell wants us to believe that this passage is scientifically verified because astrophysicists now know that heavenly bodies emit radio signals.32 Johnston claims that this is a blatant confusion of poetry and factual assertion. The pseudoscience of the detailed inerrantists has another troublesome aspect. Although these people are willing to take the findings of astrophysics as a guide when they believe it suits their purposes, they feel free to reject its other findings and assumptions. For example, Lindsell’s use of the idea of radio stars would require that he also accept another fundamental assumption: that the information from these stars is millions of years old. Lindsell and other inerrantists are also “fiat” creationists who hold to the so-called “young universe” (10,000 years old or less) hypothesis.
Directly opposed to Lindsell and Schaeffer are evangelicals like Dewey Beegle and Stephen Davis who believe that there are errors in the Bible, even errors in the various authors’ intentions, but none of these errors compromise the fundamentals of the Christian faith. As we have seen, the writer of 2 Timothy did not say that inspiration implied inerrancy, but that it was “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Johnston summarizes Beegle’s criticism of the inerrantists: “They are overly rationalistic, obscurantist in fixing upon the ‘autographs’ of Scripture, naive linguistically in thinking language can be precise, misguided in their use of proof-texting, docetic in their denial of Scripture’s humanness, and wrong in their commitment to a domino theory regarding inspiration.”33 Stephen Davis, who would gain the sympathy of philosophical ethicists, admits that the Old Testament writers err badly when they use God to justify the genocide of the Canaanites. With regard to the New Testament Davis concedes that Mark was probably wrong in his account of Peter’s denial of Christ.34
As we have seen, Clark Pinnock has chosen to keep, unwisely I believe, the term inerrancy; but as Carl Henry has said in an ad for The Scriptural Principle, it is a “flexible and permissive” or “irenic” inerrancy. Pinnock’s motto is that though the Bible “contains errors” it “teaches none.” “Inerrancy,” as Pinnock states, is “a good deal more flexible than is supposed, and does not suspend the truth of the gospel upon a single detail, as is so often charged.”35 Lindsell’s and Schaeffer’s overbelief about the Bible ignores that it, although directly inspired by God, was written by human beings. Most of the errors then can be attributed to an author’s time and place. For example, Paul Jewett claims that Paul’s sexist stance was the result of his rabbinic past and at odds with God’s true intention of full equality between the sexes.36
The position of Jack Rogers and David Hubbard is called “complete infallibility.” As the seminary’s president, Hubbard participated in a controversial change in the Fuller’s Statement of Faith which eliminated the phrase “free from error in the whole and in the part” from an earlier reference to the Bible. Hubbard believes strongly in the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of scripture, but he believes that the word “inerrancy” and phrases which imply it are unfortunate. Hubbard believes that the word misleads in at least four ways: (1) it assumes a scientific attitude which was foreign to the minds of the biblical authors; (2) it distracts the Christian’s focus from the central soteriological concerns to secondary matters; (3) it encourages the superficial and pseudoscientific investigations we find in Lindsell and Schaeffer; and (4) inerrancy is a modern philosophical concept incompatible with the nature of religious scripture.
Johnston’s own position is closest to Hubbard’s. He believes that modern evangelicals have lost sight of a crucial Reformation assumption about the Bible–that it is self-evidencing and self-validating. As Calvin said: “It comes with its own credentials and hence is not to be accredited by our critical judgment of external evidence.”37 Johnston’s stand against evangelical rationalism is clear: “The question is this: do we need convincing objective reasons prior to our faith, or can we rely on the Holy Spirit’s witness to Christ heard through the Biblical evidence? No longer admitting that the witness of the Holy Spirit in and through the Word is sufficient, certain evangelicals have attempted to develop rationalistic supports for their faith.”38
The faculty of conservative Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary have recently put together a book of articles entitled Inerrancy and Common Sense. The authors follow the standard evangelical approach in attempting to harmonize biblical accounts with modern science. J. Ramsey Michaels’ article, “Inerrancy or Verbal Inspiration? An Evangelical Dilemma,” is the refreshing exception. Michaels believes that the term “inerrancy” should be dropped in favor of “verbal inspiration” unless it can be purged of its misleading implications. First, Michaels believes that the term “inerrancy” blurs the distinction between error and falsehood. For example, a Gnostic gospel may contain perfectly the words of a spirit who has spoken to the Gnostic devotee, but a Christian may still reply that the spirit is of Satan and declare that the text therefore contains lies. Second, the term “inerrancy” does not do justice to various types of biblical literature. For example, it does not make any sense to speak of an inerrant psalm or an inerrant parable.
The main problem with the word “inerrancy” is of course its alien, cognitive implications. According to Michaels, the detailed inerrantist “imposes on the Bible a standard of truth or facticity external to God himself, by which God’s Word may (indeed must) be judged….In his attempts to ‘defend the Bible’ he will find himself actually defending a unified, logical, self-consistent structure of his own making….” Michaels is completely in line with the Reformers when he declares that “the role of faith is to accept God’s revelation on His terms, not ours.”39 Johnston’s and Michaels’ return to the Reformers’ main theological axiom leaves one crucial problem: other scriptures of the world claim to be similarly self-evidencing and self-validating. How is one then to decide among them? It is clear that Johnston’s fideistic position can give no satisfactory answer to this question.
Figure III Figure IV
To be supplied later
The figures above are from Gabriel Fackre’s Religious Right and Christian Faith.40 They serve as an excellent graphic illustration of the basic errors of evangelical rationalism. Figure III represents traditional Christianity with saving truth (T) emanating directly from a self-authenticating Bible. Figure IV represents evangelical rationalism, where the Bible is “proved” true by external evidence from the secular world. The dark circle segment on the right side of Figure IV symbolizes both the selective and ad hoc use of secular data and also the sectarian nature of most evangelicalism. This sectarian focus is absent in Figure III, because evangelicals like Fackre and Bloesch are catholic in their acceptance of all Christians who accept the Gospel.
1. Barr, James, The Bible and the Modern World (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1973). Barr observes that conservative evangelicals are willing to use any argument, however contrary to their religious convictions and however religiously trivial, to support biblical inerrancy, (Fundamentalism, p. 259).
2. Barr, James, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1977).
3. Smith, Robert H., Lutheran Forum (May, 1975), p. 38; quoted in Bloesch, Donald G., Essentials of Evangelical Theory (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978).
4. Torrance, Thomas, Zygon Newsletter (Summer, 1980), p. 5.
5. Bloesch, Donald, G., Essentials of Evangelical Theory (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1978).
6. Mendenhall, George E., The Tenth Generation (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973).
7. Hebert, A.G., The Authority of the Old Testament, quoted in Beegle, Dewey M., Scripture, Authority, and Infallibility (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed. 1973).
8. Bloesch, Donald G., The Future of Evangelical Christianity (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1983). Jack Rogers believes that the root problem for Hodge, Warfield, Clark, Henry, and Nash is their univocal theory of language in which God’s thoughts become our thoughts (“Mixed Metaphors, Misunderstood Models, and Puzzling Paradigms…,” p. 23).
9. Rogers, Jack B. and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979).
10. Beegle, Dewey M., Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1973).
11. Lindsell, Harold, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
12. Ibid., p. 36.
13. Nash, Ronald H., The New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1963).
14. Beegle, Dewey M., Scripture, Authority, and Infallibility (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rev. ed., 1973).
15. Ibid., p. 263.
16. Schaeffer, Francis, He is There and He is Not Silent (Wheaton: Tundale, 1972).
17. A surprising number of leading evangelicals actually concede this point. See Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 160 and John Wenham, Christ and the Bible, p. 109, both quoted in Barr, James, Fundamentalism, (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1984); Geisler, Norman, Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1976); and Clark Pinnock, op. cit., p. 45. An alternative RSV reading “Every scripture inspired by God…” even might imply that some Old Testament writings (parts of Ezekiel, Ecclesiastes?) were not God-breathed.
18. Bratton, F. G., The History of the Bible (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1959). Barr concurs: “Paul’s letters were not written…in order to produce written ‘scripture’ but in order to communicate by letter” (Beyond Fundamentalism, p. 14).
19. Pinnock, Clark, The Scriptural Principle (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1984).
20. McKim, Donald K., “An Evaluation of an Evaluation,” Theological Students Bulletin (April, 1981).
21. Rogers, Jack B., and Donald K. McKim The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979).
22. Quoted in ibid., p. 87.
23. Ibid., p. 88
24. Ibid., p. 109.
25. Institutes, bk. 1. chap. 7, sec. 5.
27. Rogers, Jack B., and Donald K. McKim The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979).
28. The New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1962, 1982).
29. Holbrook, Bruce, The Stone Monkey (New York, NY: Morrow, 1981).
30. Gordon, Cyrus, The Ancient Near East (New York, NY: Doubleday, 3rd ed. rev., 1965).
31. Johnston, Robert K., Evangelicals at an Impasse (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1979).
32. Lindsell, Harold, Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976).
33. Johnson, Marshall D., The Purpose of the Biblical Genealogies, New Testament Mongraph Series, volume 8 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1969); op. cit., p. 23. On the front cover of Dewey M. Beegle’s book, Scripture, Tradition, and Infallibility, respected conservative F. F. Bruce also rejects the “domino” theory and writes that he endorses “as emphatically as I can Beegle’s deprecating of a Maginot-line mentality where the doctrine of Scripture is concerned.”
34. Davis, Stephen T., The Debate about the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1977).
35. Johnston, Robert K., Evangelicals at an Impasse (Atlanta, GA: John Knox Press, 1979).
36. See ibid., p. 44.
37. Quoted in ibid., p. 41
38. Ibid., p. 40
39. Michaels, J. Ramsey, “Inerrancy or Verbal Inspiration”, Inerrancy and Common Sense, eds. Nicole and Michaels, pp. 52, 65, 63.
40. Fackre, Gabriel, Religious Right and Christian Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1982).
“The finite CANNOT contain the infinite!”
THAT is a load of horse dung and it makes our God into a pretty small god.
That is (the finite containing the infinite) exactly how God does operate.
“Ah…yes…but NOT when it comes to the Bible”
That just sounds, and is, ridiculous.
My 2 cents.