The subject of ‘biblical inerrancy’ is still a hot topic on newsgroups and in conferences of evangelical Christians. Here’s an abridged version of my thoughts on the matter (from ‘Recent Trends Among Evangelicals’, published by John Mark Ministries, Price $10 Aust.+ postage) (Please contact me by email: simply click on the ‘Contact Us’ button top right on your screen for details)
Shalom! Rowland Croucher
Of the three ‘canons of authority’ in Christian thinking – reason, tradition and scripture – evangelicals have always affirmed that scripture is ‘God’s word in our words’ and therefore is always our primary and supreme authority for all matters of faith and conduct.
Although reason and tradition may have been illumined and guided by the Holy Spirit, they have a secondary and subordinate place to scripture. Why? Because this was Christ’s view of scripture. John Stott, for example, puts it simply in several of his books: ‘[Our] view of scripture… is [to be] Christ’s view of scripture. He endorsed the Old Testament, made provision for the New Testament, and because of Christ we accept the authority of the book.’
But to affirm the authority of holy Scripture carries with it an obligation to understand and to interpret it. And we travel this road with some fear and trepidation. If God has ‘yet more light and truth to break forth from God’s holy word’, then we must face the hard questions and continue to wrestle with them.
If the Bible is ‘God’s word in our words’, we are immediately presented with two dangers: biblical docetism, which to varying degrees denies the real humanness of the written documents; and biblical Arianism, which denies that Scripture is truly the word of God.
But if Scripture is truly the word of God, what do we mean by ‘truly’? The founder of L’Abri, Francis Schaeffer, used to ask: ‘Is the Bible “true truth”?’ The issue, he said, is whether the Bible gives propositional truth where it touches history and the cosmos… or whether it is only meaningful where it touches that which is considered religious. For Schaeffer this was the watershed issue: ‘We draw the line here with love and tears, even if evangelicals have to separate from one another.’
So for very conservative evangelicals and fundamentalists the authority of the Bible is an outcome of its inerrancy: ‘If you don’t have an inerrant Bible, you don’t have an authoritative Bible’ (Boice). Mainline evangelicals object to this elevation of inerrancy over authority as the first claim to be made for the Bible. For them, to concentrate on inerrancy as the sole decisive issue is to wage the battle on too narrow a front.
Billy Graham’s position is similar to his mentor, Carl Henry’s: He has written and said many times: ‘I believe the Bible is the inspired, authoritative word of God, but I don’t use the word “inerrant” because it’s become a brittle, divisive word.’ Graham believed that the key issue between evangelical Christians in the 1980’s and 90’s would be hermeneutics, or how to interpret scripture properly and apply it to personal and social life.
The inerrantist view assumes that unless the Bible can be shown to give trustworthy information on non-religious matters, then it can’t be trusted in the more important religious realm. The neo-orthodox view says the Bible is a witness to God’s primary revelation in Christ, but as all human words are fallible it is not helpful to speak of the Bible as being in itself the word of God. It may _become_ the word of God as we encounter God himself in Jesus Christ through its preaching.
A third model we might call ‘progressive evangelical’. We find an exposition of it in John Stott’s chapter, ‘The Authority and Power of the Bible’, in Rene Padilla (ed.), ‘The New Face of Evangelicalism’ (Hodder and Stoughton, 1976). Commenting on the Lausanne Covenant phrase ‘without error in all that it affirms’, Stott writes: ‘Not everything included in scripture is true, because not everything recorded in scripture is affirmed by scripture.’ It would be naive, he argues, to declare that ‘every word in the Bible is true’. Consider, for example, the Book of Job. Of the speeches recorded there God says, ‘You have not spoken of me what is right’ (42:7). So in declaring that the Scripture is ‘without error in all that it affirms’, we are committed to ‘the responsible work of biblical interpretation, so that we may discern the intention of each author and grasp what is being affirmed’.
Jack Rogers (Fuller Seminary) has a helpful comment on these three models. He says all three are useful inasmuch as they are seeking to answer different questions. The first model asks the question: Is the Bible an authoritative and trustworthy revelation for all of life? We can answer with the inerrantists: ‘Yes!’ The second model asks: In whom is God most fully revealed? We should answer with the neo-orthodox: ‘Jesus Christ, to whom scripture bears unique and authoritative witness.’ The third model asks yet another question: How is the Bible most helpfully to be interpreted? Answer: ‘It is a divine message given in human words which are best understood in their various historical and cultural contexts.’
Rogers goes on to illustrate the three models by analogies. The first model is like the President of the US dictating a letter to his personal secretary. Thus the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy’s Chicago Statement, Article VIII, states: ‘God, in causing these writers to use the very words that he chose… ‘, thereby asserting a notion of dictation. However, in affirming that ‘what scripture says, God says’, this declaration also denies that in choosing the words, God overrode their [the writers’] personalities.
The metaphor suggested by the second model, says Rogers, is that of an incumbent President running for re-election, with editorial writers who report on and interpret his sayings and doings. These biblical editorialists encourage the readers to meet the candidate in person and give him their allegiance.
The metaphor suggested by the third model is that of the President’s press secretary speaking to the public. Such a person has been with the President and knows his inmost thoughts. When the press secretary speaks, he carries the authority of the President. But he uses his own words and adapts them to the questions being asked by the public.
‘The issue’, says Rogers, ‘among evangelicals is not whether there is transcendent truth in the biblical revelation, but how that truth is incarnated in human, literary forms. The problem is not one of authority, but of interpretation’ (J. Rogers, ‘Mixed Metaphors, Misunderstood Models, and Puzzling Paradigms’, unpublished paper, Fuller Seminary, 1981).
The whole issue has become very complex. One of the problems with the inerrancy position is that it is but a short step away from validating biblical statements about the cosmos from contemporary science. Hodge and Warfield, two evangelical theologians, for example, believed that the Bible specifically predicted the results of nineteenth-century science. Very few inerrantists would now agree with them. But might not some aspects of today’s ‘creationism’ become similarly dated (foolish?) in a few years?
Some other concerns with the inerrancy position include the following:
* Inerrancy, in its modern form, is not spelt out like this in the Bible itself. It would be ironic to claim something for Scripture which it does not claim for itself. Nowhere do words like ‘infallible’ or ‘inerrant’ occur in Scripture. Indeed, such a negative, abstract form of thinking was quite alien to the biblical writers. They preferred concrete concepts like ‘inspired’ (God-breathed). Jewish rabbinical thinking in Jesus’ day was ‘inerrantist’: they viewed every word of their scriptures as equally revelatory. But Jesus rejected this position, contending that some scriptures reveal the will of God more perfectly than others (see for example Matthew 23:23, Mark 10:4-9, John 7:22).
* Historically, the major creeds of the church have not included any notion of biblical inerrancy nor, in pre-Reformation creeds, any statement at all about Scripture. Throughout most of its history, the Christian church has looked upon the Bible as a source rather than as an object of belief.
* No one has a copy of the ‘original autographs’, so any notion of these being inerrant is a matter of theory rather than reality. Certainly we have a remarkably reliable Bible in our hands today, but no one believes that the text/s from which these Scriptures are translated into English are errorless. Look at the footnotes in all our modern translations for verification of that fact! Scribes are fallible and always have been. In any case, such inerrant originals would be mostly in Hebrew and Greek; as soon as translators get on with their job, we have variations in our texts.
* For some, irreconcilable difficulties in our Bibles preclude any belief in inerrancy. However, just as we believe in the love of God as incarnated in Jesus in spite of the problem of evil, so we might also believe in the Bible as God-breathed in spite of its apparent contradictions. To suspend commitment to one or the other until all our questions are answered would be naive and faithless. And yet, even if all these problems were resolved, many argue, this would not necessarily prove inerrant originals.
There are many other issues, e.g. the pros and cons of ‘propositional revelation’, which are relevant. Let us conclude this discussion with the most important issue of all. We can only state it briefly – another book would be needed to do it justice.
In essence, I believe, the inerrancy debate is a function of two important and more fundamental issues. First, logic can be the enemy of truth. Every logical/rational human system will have its day. That’s why, as Henry Ford said, ‘History is bunk’. The problem with all our explaining the Bible – about any doctrine – is that we can be tempted to become wiser than God. One of the axioms of theological thinking, is that because God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, we will always have to live with antimony or paradox. We will never resolve all the theological riddles in our minds – nor are we meant to! This temptation to become ‘like God’ could be called the ‘A,B,C, therefore D’ approach. If the Bible is clear about A, B and C, who gives anyone a mandate to add ‘therefore D’? A case could quite easily be made to support the idea that this kind of rationalising is at the root of every issue that divides biblical Christians.
Now to the second issue. Whoever would have a vested interest in causing Christian people to fight one another, usually over partisan interpretations of our most important doctrines? A further question: Which two books of the Bible are evangelicals most prone to argue about? Genesis and Revelation – concerning the proton and the eschaton. What are these two books mainly about? The triumph of God and his Christ, and the downfall of Satan and evil. I believe there’s a clue there somewhere. Of course, in the final analysis, the practical question for Christians is not so much what we say about the Bible, but what we do with it. How committed are we to the serious study of the Bible? How regularly do we hear the Lord in a disciplined reading of and reflection upon God’s Word? How obedient are we to the Bible’s clear commands to live a godly, just and humble life? How willing are we to live _under_ the authority of God’s Word, (rather than, as critics, living solely _above_ the biblical text)?
Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, had a ‘high’ view of Scripture. So must we.