INERRANCY: A POSITION IN WHICH FAITH SEEKS UNDERSTANDING1
As should be evident, I have assumed a position of presenting the doctrine of inerrancy as being defensible. In examining the historic position of the Church, it has been documented that inerrancy, as defined by Feinberg and the ICBI, appears to be closer, if not identical, to the position held by the early Church through the middle ages and the Reformation than the position being advocated by those who deny or equivocate on the doctrine. But there are other reasons in defense of the doctrine of inerrancy as well.
1: Inerrancy is Consistent with the Character and Attributes of God.
The most common form of argument used by inerrantists to explain this position is the syllogism expressed as:
The Bible is the Word of God.
God cannot mislead or err.
Therefore the Bible cannot mislead or err.
(Geisler & Nix, 1986:55)
Sproul, however, provides what I believe to be a superior chain of reasoning by expanding the premises in the syllogism and using a different presupposition for the initial premise:
The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.
On the basis of this reliable document, we have sufficient reason to believe confidently that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
Jesus Christ, being the Son of God, is an infallible authority.
Jesus Christ teaches that Scripture is more than generally trustworthy: it is the very Word of God.
The word, in that it comes from God, is utterly trustworthy because God is utterly trustworthy.
On the basis of the infallible authority of Jesus Christ, the Church believes the Bible to be utterly trustworthy, i.e., infallible. (Sproul, 1974:248-249)2
This presents a serious challenge, because those who deny or equivocate on the doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture, still maintain that Scripture can speak to us as the authoritative written will of God, without being inerrant, or even necessarily infallible. The hurdle which those who deny or equivocate on the doctrine of inerrancy cannot clear, is that they cannot question the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture, without calling into question the authority of Christ, and by extension, His essential Deity.
This is not to say that everyone who denies the doctrine of inerrancy can or will deny the Deity of Christ. What I am saying is that those who deny the doctrine of inerrancy, while claiming that they believe in the Deity of Christ and His Lordship over them, tread on very thin ice in terms of consistency and coherency in their theology. If, as people such as Achtemeier, McKim, and Pinnock claim, Christ is indeed very God of very God, and therefore entitled to Lordship of their life, why have they rejected His Lordship over the very records which testify of that Lordship? As the old proverb says: “Jesus must be Lord of all, if He is Lord at all.”
2: Conformity with the Position of “Faith Seeking Understanding.”
The charge has been made that inerrancy elevates reason over Scripture (Achtemeier, 71). Such a charge is fallacious, if not hypocritical. Achtemeier has cited no evidence nor proven his assertion. Inerrancy, in accordance with Feinberg’s definition, requires a large dose of humility, because those who hold to it are compelled, when faced with a difficulty, seeming contradiction, or hypothetical error, to admit that there is not sufficient evidence to declare categorically that the given passage is in error. Until such time as it can be determined that all possible evidence has been taken into account, the benefit of the doubt is reserved to Scripture, not the critic.
On the other hand, those who deny inerrancy have the appearance of egregiously and arrogantly boasting that either all possible evidence has been discovered and must be decided in their favor; or, as is usually the case, have determined that the Church should bow to their superior wisdom and accept their declarations as the final word in the matter. It appears to me that the position which elevates autonomous reason over Scripture is that which denies inerrancy, not that which affirms it.
3: Conformity to the Hermeneutical Principle of Humility
As indicated in the preceding paragraphs, the doctrine of inerrancy, while allowing Christians to view Scripture with a reasonable certitude as to its trustworthiness, also requires them to yield a large measure of humility in accepting the accounts of events and persons not personally witnessed. It is the humble attitude that we are not infallible, inerrant, or omniscient and therefore do not possess the means to stand in judgment over matters concerning which we have no direct knowledge and must therefore yield proper reverence to the God who choses in His own sovereign omniscience what He will reveal about Himself and His past dealings with humanity.
4: Conformity to the Eschatological Hope
There is, within the doctrine of inerrancy, the acknowledgment that, while we may not possess full, complete knowledge now, and that the doctrine is an embattled view under siege by enemies without and being sabotaged by supposedly friendly fire, a day will come in which inerrancy will be vindicated. Inerrancy is consistent with a view that, in the present dispensation, knowledge can never be complete. Implicit in the view that what is unexplainable now, will, following the final consummation, be known and understood by all who are claimed by Jesus as His own (1 Corinthians 13:9-10, 12; 1 John 3:2).
There is no eschatological hope for vindication within the errantist position, because it is based upon an assumption that all that can be known about Scripture can be learned apart from the fulfillment of the eschatological hope.
CRITIQUING INERRANCY: WILL IT PLAY IN PEORIA?
There is more to critique and evaluate with respect to the doctrine of inerrancy than what has been presented in the preceding pages. Critics have leveled serious charges against those who promote the doctrine which must be responded to.
Criticism 1: Inerrancy is not taught in Scripture
Expressed another way, the claim has been made that Scripture does not claim inerrancy for itself. The basic thought is that since the term “inerrancy” does not appear in Scripture, it is a concept brought to the Scripture by wrong-thinking Christians. What is inconsistent within this criticism is the inference that, for the doctrine to merit being accepted as binding and true, it must be stated plainly in Scripture—a standard which is not consistently applied for all doctrinal statements. For example, nowhere does the term “Trinity” appear in Scripture. It is a doctrine which has been derived through necessary inference. Yet, if one does not accept this inference as true and necessary, we would not accept that person as a believer. It is both logically, theologically, and morally inconsistent for people such as Beegle, Achtemeier, and McKim to be battling the doctrine of inerrancy on this basis and not apply the same standard to other areas of theology.
Criticism 2: Inerrancy is a theological novelty.
Those who deny inerrancy assert that since the doctrine of inerrancy is not explicitly taught in Scripture, or formally developed in the writings of the post-apostolic fathers or the Reformers, it is therefore a theological novelty of recent invention, having been developed in the late seventeenth – early eighteenth centuries (Achtemeier, 54). What is being implied is that if the doctrine is a theological novelty, it must therefore be untrue.
I would counter this argument with the emphasis that while the Scriptures and the post-Apostolic fathers do not formally state or develop a nuanced doctrine of inerrancy, the doctrine is everywhere assumed. The formal statements of the doctrine, like other doctrinal statements, developed in response to controversies within the Church. The doctrine of inerrancy, being an implicit doctrine, did not develop into a more nuanced expression of faith until it came under fire beginning with the Counter-Reformational council of Trent, which denied the doctrine that Scripture alone was sufficient as an infallible rule of faith and practice, and further pushed by such developments as rationalism, Unitarianism, and Wesleyanism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Therefore its development is consistent with the development of other doctrines such as those stated in the canons and creeds of the great Ecumenical Councils which began with the Council of Nicea and ended with the Council of Chalcedon.
Using the argument of theological novelty raised by those who deny inerrancy to Scripture, one could also reject such key Reformational doctrines as Salvus Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Soli Christi—that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone—since this doctrine was not formally developed as a doctrine until the early sixteenth century by an obscure German monk named Martin Luther.
Criticism 3: Inerrancy imposes an extra-biblical creedalism on Christians.
This objection is posed by Lowery as an objection to the formulation of the Statement of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (1984:791). His concern is noteworthy because he is not arguing against the concept of inerrancy. He is arguing against a legalistic position which would anathematize another believer or group of believers simply because he, she, or they do not employ the same vocabulary or terminology when speaking of the same belief.
While Lowery’s concerns are noted, I feel that he missed the entire point of the statement. The issue is not one of mere semantics or terminology, the issue is one of whether or not the Scripture, as given in the autographa, is without error in all that it affirms, and thereby can be an acceptable, reliable, and authoritative guide for faith and life.
Lowery’s claim is that we can end the debate if we simply agree to call Bible things by Bible names. Unfortunately, such a claim suffers from a rather quixotic naivete which does not square with almost twenty centuries of church history. In the debates and discussions which took place in response to the Arian controversy at the Council of Nicea, the Arians would have been very content to have let the matter rest with calling Bible things by Bible names—because they knew that such an approach would have allowed them to continue to promote a defective and heterodox Christology. In other words, they would have continued to declare that Christ was not God Incarnate, and still claim to be teaching what Scripture teaches with respect to the Person of Christ.
The break in this impasse came when Athanasius proposed that Scripture teaches that Christ is of the same substance [homoousios] as the Father, not merely a like or similar substance [homoiousios], the latter being the position held by the Arians. Athanasius was accused by the Arians of using non-Biblical terminology to describe Christ. But the Council of Nicea held that what was proposed by Athanasius was the position taught in Scripture. But the same charge leveled by the Arians against Athanasius is the charge which Lowery levels against those who promote the doctrine of inerrancy today.
In the debate today, there is a tendency among those who deny inerrancy to equivocate on such terms as trustworthiness and infallibility. Those who deny inerrancy find little troubling them about the other terms, because they can recast those terms as allegory or mythology, or limit them while ignoring Scriptures which reveal God’s clearly stated intent that His word is to be regarded as more than merely “trustworthy.” So when the term “inerrancy” is introduced into the discussion, a term which cannot be redefined or neutered through equivocation, the reaction from those who deny inerrancy is the same as that of the Arians at the Council of Nicea.
CONCLUSION: A LITTLE MATTER OF AUTHORITY
In the first part of this series, I had asserted that the doctrine of inerrancy was [and is] a doctrine, which if not clearly taught in Scripture, is derived by necessary inference from the doctrine of Divine inspiration. I also asserted that if Scripture is not inerrant, it cannot be accepted as reliable and authoritative, because there no longer exists any basis for that authority.
It is to be expected that such logic is denied by those who deny inerrancy. Achtemeier (p. 36) and Beegle (1973:219-222) both assert that the guiding principle of inerrantists with regard to Scripture is “False in one, false in all.” Achtemeier adds, “. . . people do not operate in other areas of life on the principle that one mistake or error renders all other statements or acts coming from that source totally untrustworthy (p. 36).”
Achtemeier’s argument is a straw man argument which fails in two crucial respects. Firstly, he has misstated the inerrantist’s position. A proper framing of the argument raised by those who promote the doctrine of inerrancy is not, “False in one, false in all.” The proper framing of the argument is “False in one, suspect in all.” If Scripture is not completely true in those areas which can be verified empirically, such as science and history, then how can Christians have any basis for trusting in anything Scripture has to say concerning spiritual matters, since they are not empirically verifiable?
The fatal flaw for Achtemeier’s argument is when he claims, “. . . people do not operate in other areas of life” based on the premise of “False in one, false in all.” There are many areas of life where one mistake or error from a single source renders all other statements or acts from that source untrustworthy or suspect. This is especially true in the area of law, for example. If anyone remembers the criminal trial in which O. J. Simpson was acquitted on the charge of murdering his ex-wife and her lover, the prosecution’s case began to fall apart when it was demonstrated that the lead detective in the case, Mark Fuhrman, perjured himself. He had stated that he held no racist beliefs and had never used derogatory terms in reference to people of other racial backgrounds. The defense then played a tape of an interview with Furman in reference to the case, in which he repeatedly used an offensive ethnic slur in reference to Simpson. That impeachment of one single witness, was sufficient to create the reasonable doubt in the jurors’ minds that Fuhrman may well have planted the evidence the prosecution was using to try to convict Simpson.
Contrary to Achtemeier’s argument, people operate on this basis of “False in one, false [or suspect] in all” constantly. If one contracts a case of food poisoning at a restaurant, no matter how many times he had eaten there previously, he would not be likely to return there after a negative episode. When a friend or loved one lies, human nature is that the one lied to is not quick to ever trust that person again.
And so it is with Scripture, if it can be proven that the Scriptures, as originally penned, contain provable errors in matters of history or science [and we are not talking about the use of phenomenological language such as references to the sun rising or setting or other such trivial nonsense] which can be verified empirically, then how can we know or even have a reasonable certitude that Scripture is a true witness to those spiritual issues to which it speaks?
There is another issue which which then rears its head, how can we have close fellowship with anyone who denies the doctrine of inerrancy, yet claims to be a fellow Christian? Wallace, in an article posted on the web, suggests the following list of priorities in application of doctrines:
1: What doctrines are essential for the life of the church?
2: What doctrines are important for the health of the church?
3: What doctrines are distinctives that are necessary for the practice of the local church?
4: What doctrines belong to the speculative realm or should never divide the church?
(Wallace, “My Take on Inerrancy”)
Jack Cottrell, places doctrines in concentric circles–like a target. Moving from the bulls-eye out, he ranks doctrine as follows in terms of their “essential-ness”:
1: Those essential for salvation;
2: Those essential for Christian growth and maturity;
3: Those essential for Christian joy and assurance;
4: Essential for Church leadership;
5: Essential to qualify as a congregation representing the true, visible Church;
6: Mere opinion or speculation. (2002:20)
The problem with either of these criteria is in recognizing and agreeing on where the line should be drawn. Moreover, the terminology used in defining the categories [especially as delineated by Wallace], seems vague and open to highly subjective and idiosyncratic interpretation. For example, Wallace, of necessity, must provide an operational distinction between a living church and a healthy church which is objectively verifiable, and he has not done so. Those who deny inerrancy assert that those defending inerrancy are introducing an arbitrary division into the body of Christ on the basis of speculation and opinion. Those who defend inerrancy agree that the doctrine is essential, but cannot agree on the degree to which it is essential: Can one be a Christian without accepting the doctrine of inerrancy? While it is conceivable, it stretches credulity and logic to believe that one can acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior while at the same time asserting a view of the Bible which is diametrically opposed to that which was held by the Lord. Such a bifurcated view borders on spiritual schizophrenia.
1 Unless noted otherwise, all Bible references are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
2 It should be noted at this point in the discussion that those who argue for infallible Scripture without accepting it as being inerrant are engaging in a rather specious sophistic logic. Standard dictionaries such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (10th Edition) treat the two terms as being synonymous.
Achtemeier, Paul J. The Inspiration of Scripture: Problems and Proposals. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980.
Beegle, Dewey M. Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973.
Cottrell, Jack. Faith’s Fundamentals. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2002.
Geisler, Norman L., and Nix, William E. A General Introduction to the Bible, Revised and expanded. Chicago: Moody Press, 1986.
Lowery, Robert. “Acknowledging The Authoritativeness of Scripture (Part 1).” Christian Standard (2 September 1984): 790-792.
Sproul, R. C. “The Case for Inerrancy: A Methodological Analysis.” In God’s Inerrant Word: An International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture, pp. 242-261. Ed. By John Warwick Montgomery. Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974.
Wallace, Daniel D. “My Take on Inerrancy.”
FOR FURTHER READING [IF NOT CITED ABOVE]
Brown, Harold O. J. “The Arian Connection: Presuppositions of Errancy.” In Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response, pp. 383-401. Ed. By Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Chicago: Moody Press, 1984.
Enns, Paul. The Moody Handbook of Theology, Revised and expanded. Chicago: Moody Press, 2008.
Geisler, Norman L. ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.
Keathley, Hampton L. III. “Bibliology: The Doctrine of the Written Word.”
Lightner, Robert P. A Biblical Case for Total Inerrancy: How Jesus Viewed the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1978.
Lindsell, Harold. The Battle for the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
________. The Bible in the Balance. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979.
Sawyer, M. James. “The History of the Doctrine of Inspiration from the Ancient Church Through the Reformation.” <http://www.bible.org/docs/theology/biblio/histdoc.htm>
________. “Inspiration and Inerrancy.” <http://bible.org/docs/theology/biblio/inspdoct.htm>
________. “Theories of Inspiration.” <http://bible.org/docs/theology/biblio/theorins.htm>
Wallace, Daniel B. “The Relation of Theopneustos to Graphe in 2 Timothy 3:16.”
Wenham, John W. Christ and the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1972.
Youngblood, Ronald, ed. Evangelicals and Inerrancy: Selections from the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984.