The Inerrancy of Scripture

 A Review and Overview of “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy” published by Zondervan in their “Counterpoints” series in 2013.

(To gain most understanding of this review, it would be helpful to consider the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy {1978} which can be found here: http://www.etsjets.org/files/JETS-PDFs/21/21-4/21-4-pp289-296_JETS.pdf )

Books of this kind have become quite popular in theological circles. They allow a group of writers to explore the “big theme” which the editors have chosen and then to present the reasons for their own views and a criticism of the shortcomings and the strengths of the other writers’ positions.

It is a good idea in that it allows readers to gain an overview of some of the current issues in the debate regarding the chosen topic. The downside is that it tries to do too much in one volume and lets no-one reveal their own views in sufficient detail.

Biblical inerrancy a

But enough with the concept of the series, what do we find in this particular publication? The editors (J. Merrick, Stephen M. Garrett) have chosen R. Albert Mohler Jr., Peter Enns, Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and John R. Franke to explore their views on Biblical Inerrancy and in particular the way that this doctrine is captured in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (October 1978) (CSBI). They do this against the backdrop of a debate between Norman Geisler and Robert Gundry which resulted in Gundry being ousted from the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in 1983 because of his views on the Gospel of Matthew and midrash. It is not clear why this particular event is key to the book given that it happened thirty years before its publication.

So, an interesting book on a subject which I think is very important, written by a varied and accomplished group of authors against a complex backdrop. Just to add spice to the pot, each author was asked to comment on three difficult passages or groups of passages which might present a challenge to inerrancy depending on how they were handled. These were Joshua 6, the apparent discrepancy between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 and Deuteronomy 20 considered in relation to Matthew 5.

What does each writer have to say?

R. Albert Mohler Jr. sets himself squarely at the point where the framers of the CSBI were in 1978:

“Without reservation, I affirm the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I affirm the document and agree with its assertions in whole and in part. To be true to the Scriptures, I believe evangelicals must affirm its stated affirmations and join in its stated denials.”

(Five views on Biblical Inerrancy p. 46)

The second part of this paragraph is clumsily stated and leaves Mr Mohler’s position open to easy attack. It places the CSBI on something of a creedal pedestal which the framers of the document were clear that they did not want to do.

Mr Mohler quotes with approval past giants who have argued strongly for the inerrancy of Scripture. Amongst these are Carl F.H. Henry, J.I. Packer, B.B. Warfield and James Montgomery Boice. He quotes these gentlemen despite the fact that his methodology differs significantly from some of them (most noticeably Warfield). Mohler takes a very strongly a priori method at arriving at his doctrine of inerrancy. In many ways his argument can be boiled down to this: that Scripture claims to be true and therefore it must be true because it is God-inspired Scripture. Others approach the inerrancy subject from a much more induction-based method. For example, they might say, let us look at the Scriptural contents and see if, as far as we can, Scripture stands up to such tests of truthfulness as are suitable to its relevant genres. Only when we have done this, it is then assumed, can we begin to presume that Scripture’s truth claims about itself are to be regarded as true. Therefore, within this approach, there must be sufficient evidence for truthfulness before we can regard those passages which are problematic to be likely to be true based on the veracity of the rest of Scripture’s contents.

Mohler, then, addresses the three problem groups of passages but in many ways it is not necessary for him to do so within his own stated methodology. Since 2 Timothy 3:16 states that all Scripture is God-breathed and useful etc. and the whole of the book of Joshua is Scripture, it must therefore be true:

“The text makes an unambiguous historical claim. Furthermore, Joshua 6 is situated within a book that consistently makes historical claims and is included within the canon as revealed sacred history. Until recent times, there existed an unbroken consensus within the church that Joshua as a whole, certainly including chapter 6, reveals true history as written by an ancient chronicler inspired by the Holy Spirit”.

(ibid. pg. 49)

Consequently, even though Mr Mohler is gracious enough to his reader to dwell on the passage, the argument for him is settled no matter how strong the arguments from the archaeologists might become:

“… I do not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness of any text in all that the text asserts and claims”

(ibid p.51, emphasis original to text)

He does, however, seem a little inconsistent when dealing with the apparent contradiction between the two passages in Acts. Here, presumably because both are included in Scripture and therefore must be accurate, he allows that defenders of biblical inerrancy must leave some apparent contradictions unresolved and unexplained.

On the third problem text, he argues that the different instructions that God gives are not a matter of a developing understanding of who God is, but rather a matter of the different context into which they are given.

I have far more sympathy for the outcome of his reasoning on these second and third “difficult passages” but it seems to me that a majority of the weaknesses in his approach are caused by his rigid a priori method which results in nothing more than a circular argument and seems to me to be unhelpful and unnecessary.

Amongst the four other writers responses to Mr Mohler’s essay, we get revealing glimpses of what is coming up in their own contributions. Even though these responses are very short they have the result of making the rest of the book less satisfying because they telegraph their own positions so obviously! Michael F. Bird wants us to believe that the idea and term “inerrancy” is not important to anyone outside the U.S.A.. As a UK-based Christian thinker I would have to conclude that even if I am in a small minority, he is incorrect. Bird is particularly critical of the CSBI because it was framed almost entirely by American theologians. I admit that is a weakness in CSBI and that it should have been more global in those that it included in the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy consultation but we can wind back timeor truthfully know where anyone prior to its publication would have stood on all of its many clause. I agree with the CSBI statement but also with Bird when he notes:

“…there were evangelicals before the CSBI (1978), before ETS (1949) and before Old Princeton (1812-1920)…” (p.66)

And that most of the creeds of history got along quite well without using the specific word “inerrancy” or relying on a definition of Scripture that was anything like CSBI.

However, I also think that Bird has a particular hang-up against almost anything with its roots in the United States of America and it begins to show its head here.

Both Bird and the next critic Vanhoozer negatively assess Mohler’s position for seeming to insist on a Scripture that is inerrant but also a modernist interpretation of it that is inerrant too. Vanhoozer says that Mohler’s essay really focuses on a view of inerrancy which has only been around since the mid-twentieth century. He argues, for example, that Augustine in his letter to Jerome rejected any notion of errors being found in Scripture but that his mode of interpretation would lead him to a different understanding of the very same passages – and that it not the interpretations, the teaching or the doctrine that rise from the Scripture that are inerrant. It is, if anything, the Scriptures themselves and the Scriptures alone. He also helpfully points out that Mr Warfield, who is usually the whipping boy of opponents of modern day ideas about inerrancy, is not as guilty as he may seem to those who have only read a little of his writings or ill-informed secondary sources.

The response of the third of the other writers, John R. Franke begins in the same position as Mr Vanhoozer, arguing that the interpretation of errorless Scripture by, say, Origen or Augustine would look very different than it would in the hands of one of the framers of the CSBI. He, then, though goes one step further and accuses the framers of CSBI of foisting their interpretations on other evangelicals. I have read the CSBI many times and have found little or no evidence of this. Mr Franke seems to be hunting ghosts in the CSBI that are not there. Franke then lets his slip show as he begins to use worrying but depressingly familiar language as he talks of the Bible as:

“…divinely inspired and, as such, is a form of the Word of God.” (p.79)

In his response to Mohler, Peter Enns seems furthest away from the position of our initial essayist and this continues into his own essay which is the second presented in the book. A couple of quotes from quite early in the essay are illustrative of this view:

“It (the Bible) tells of God’s acts but also reports some events that either may not have happened or have been significantly reshaped and transformed by centuries of tradition”

“I do not think inerrancy can capture the Bible’s varied character and complex dynamics”

(both quotations ibid pg. 83)

It is helpful to clarify that in this Mr Enns is going beyond questions of genre and would be speaking of books, for example, that would normally in all ages of church history have been listed amongst the “historical” sections of Scripture.

Consequently, Mr Enns has no time at all for the CSBI.

More worryingly, Mr Enns like Mr Robert Gundry before him seems to have been the victim of some harsh treatment when his views changed from those which are conventionally accepted in the American evangelical colleges. This runs like an under-current in his essay and other writings in this volume as much as the “inerrancy is a bad term because it originates in America” does in Mr Bird’s.

“Arguing for a position on the basis of what you might lose if that position is not retained is not an argument but an expression of fear which when allowed to reign leads to anger, either directly or indirectly by means of manipulation, passive-aggressiveness, and – as seen above – emotional blackmail”.

(ibid. pg. 89)

Given that Mr Enns is clearly hurt by the way he feels that his academic writings have caused him to be treated, I am not sure that inviting him to be one of the contributors to this book was the best decision from a pastoral viewpoint. His own view on inerrancy seems to be that there is no such thing however it is understood. Whilst this seems to me to be a legitimate position, there will be those readers who will question whether his essay is within the boundaries of the book and setting up a system where four authors who were formerly stable-mates of Enns in a particular type of theology, are then invited to disagree with him, does not seem particularly constructive.

Enns’ viewpoint on the three test cases, is what you might expect from the sketch that I have drawn of his wider views on inerrancy. Firstly, he says, no-one seriously contests that the battle of Jericho happened in the way that the Bible tells it (unless because they are biased by a belief in a priori Biblical inerrancy). Secondly, no one should be surprised that Luke recorded the two accounts of the “voice” in Acts 9 and 22 in the way he does, They are twisted for theological reasons and changing things for theological reasons is what the biblical writers did. Thirdly, the Deuteronomistic accounts of God’s instruction to destroy the Canaanite nations reveal nothing more than the cultural idea of God at the time they were written and have little or nothing in common with the view of God that Jesus held when he was teaching the Sermon on the Mount.

The responses of the four other authors I will not dwell on for two long for the reasons I have mentioned above. Mohler thanks him for his candidness. Others say that they are glad he was chosen to take part although none make it clear why this advanced the central purpose of the book. Bird finds most to agree with but only because he thinks that in him there is a suppressed Marcionite trying to get out. Again, I’m not sure that is helpful!

The third essay is “Inerrancy in International Perspective – Inerrancy is not necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA”. Here, Michael Bird continues with the theme which he has developed in his response to the other essays. He argues that the CSBI is unhelpful because it reflects only a U.S. mindset and insists on a particular style of hermeneutic. As an example of this he cites that CSBI ties those who sign up to it to a literal seven-day creation and a young earth. Again, like Enns, he seems to see ghosts in CSBI which are not there. Indeed some of the original framers who were in agreement with the CSBI document in its final form do not or did not at that time subscribe to such a view.

He then moves onto some minor matters which he deals with accurately before returning to his bugbear about America. He criticises the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, again, because it wasn’t international. This as already noted is largely true but there is only so often you can play on one string and keep it interesting and Mr Bird seems to have little else to say. The truth is that many Christians in other parts of the world are conservative evangelical to a degree that would make America blush and that whilst it would have been good for a broader base of scholars to be included, it is unlikely that the outcome would have looked much different.

He then deals with the three problem passages very briefly and in a very conservative way before moving onto his conclusion where he returns to his tired old theme:

“To insist on inerrancy as the singular doctrinal device for global evangelicalism’s affirmation of scriptural authority makes about as much sense as insisting that African, Asian, or Australian sports fans abandon their enthusiasm for local sports and start following American Football instead”.

(ibid. pg. 172)

In the responses, Mohler says that he finds Bird “frustrating”, Enns disagrees with Bird on the Deuteronomy passage which Bird sees as part of a progressive revelation and Enns sees as simply wrong-headed. Vanhoozer sympathises with Bird about the difficulties attached to the actual word “inerrancy” but is glad that Bird does not deny its content whilst acknowledging that Bird would prefer that he didn’t have to use it. Franke points out that this book which Bird is taking part in is just as limited in its international scope as the CSBI’s framers and suggest that the book should be called “Five White Guys Talk About Inerrancy”.

Next to the plate (sorry for the American inspired sporting image) is Kevin J. Vanhoozer. His essay has, for me, the most useful things to say in the whole book:

“If exegesis without presuppositions is not possible then inerrancy is one of the right presuppositions”

(ibid. pg. 202)

But also wastes some paper –

He quotes Stephen Holmes who affirmed that the church tradition had always accepted the truthfulness of Scripture’s propositions but said “this is not an especially interesting or important claim”. I didn’t really understand why this spectacularly mundane statement helped or hindered Vanhoozer’s position. He notes that “even” Warfield would not say that inerrancy is the essence of Christianity as if anyone who had really read Warfield would think that he would!

But he has far more good things to say than empty things. He argues with great detail that we must not presume what kind of Perfect Book a Perfect God would have produced and shows that “while the term inerrant or the concept of inerrancy may be new, the underlying judgment is not”. All of this is fair and good but I find something in Vanhoozer’s conclusions about the difficult passages uncomfortable and impossible to swallow:

“The three case studies above are indeed difficult and, in each case, what generates the difficulty is the doctrine of inerrancy” (pg. 234)

He then goes further down that particular road:

“If it were not for (the doctrine of) inerrancy, we could simply remove the difficulty by pronouncing the text to be in error…”

This seems to me to be fatuous and in error itself. If the doctrine of inerrancy is the thing which is keeping us from accepting the truth then we must remove that doctrine. If Vanhoozer is right then the doctrine should be dumped because it is not biblical. Rather these passages are not easy and this is the reason why a group of accomplished scholars have spent three hundred pages discussing them without agreeing whether they are truthful or not. Inerrancy doesn’t depend on whether we can show every passage to be true (Vanhoozer is not saying that it does) but the doctrine of inerrancy cannot precede our consideration of the overall book or letter that it is part of and force us to conclude that something is true when it is not. We must first consider whether the letter or book shows signs of truthfulness which would lead us to conclude that it is inspired and therefore to conclude that those difficult segments are most likely to be true based on the character of the rest of the document and the Author who inspired them and the author who wrote the actual words.

Mohler highlights two other areas of concern with Vanhoozer’s view. He says that whilst agreeing with Vanhoozer that inerrancy is not a doctrine “by which the church stands or falls”, he argues that in Vanhoozer’s view “inerrancy is not exactly essential… it is expedient” which does rather chime in with my thoughts above. We keep inerrancy around because it is useful.

He also critiques Vanhoozer for seeming to assert that inerrancy pertains to propositions, and to propositions only. In these days when we are so used to talking about genres and literary models in Scripture, if Vanhoozer’s view is truly headed in that direction and I am unsure it is, it would reduce its usefulness.

Peter Enns says that Vanhoozer repeats common but erroneous arguments. Michael Bird says that Vanhoozer has not addressed any one of his concerns about the CSBI. John Franke applauds Vanhoozer for wanting us to see that it takes a plurality of canonical perspectives to render theological truth but wants us to also see that this plurality of perspectives comes from within and without Scripture – a view that he will expand on in his own essay.

It does seem that Mr Vanhoozer is damned with faint praise. Everyone admires him and admires his contribution but no-one seems to like the detail or the style in which it is written. Contrary to this, I find Mr Vanhoozer’s contribution to the book to be most helpful. He separates out the difference between the inerrant nature of the text and the interpretation:

“Evangelical exegetes must make every effort to hear what God is saying in the biblical text rather than what we would like God to be saying” (pg.75)

Whilst as I have shown above I have some disagreements with the direction that Vanhoozer seem to be heading in and share some of the concerns that Mr Mohler raises, I think his viewpoint is the one that is most encouraging and most likely to give us a vehicle for expressing inerrancy in the twenty-first century.

The last of the five essays is by John R. Franke and also looks at recasting inerrancy doctrines for the modern era but in a very different way to Mr Vanhoozer.

Franke wants to argue that the CSBI is rooted in a model of epistemology that he regards as strong foundationalism and which he regards as being out-moded and set aside in modern academic discussions. He then goes on to say that he doesn’t think the framers of the CSBI set out to conform to strong or classic foundationalism but ended up doing that anyway. I am not sure how he thinks they missed this target so badly especially since he thinks that most modern evangelicals are weak foundationalists who sometimes behave like strong foundationalists. Confused? I was.

Franke is at heart Barthian in his view of Scripture. He tells us:

“…the Word of God is always an act which God performs or an event in which God has spoken, speaks and will speak.”

(ibid. p. 270, emphasis original to the text)

He tells us that the Protestant tradition has always been concerned to hold Word and Spirit together and uses John Calvin to illustrate this but talks in a manner which would have been a million miles away from Calvin’s mindset. Barth’s influence is regarded as revolutionary for a reason. It was! Protestants before his day did not think in that manner and to suggest that they did is just as anachronistic as suggesting that Augustine would have signed up for the CSBI (something that Franke is confident that he would not have done).

After that Franke returns to his favourite term in this volume: plurality. Here, Scripture is only the Word of God in missional contexts and only really true when voiced in the midst of the church and its work.

“It is the event itself, the very presence of God, to which Scripture bears witness… Scripture is always an instrument in the process of that event, not its end”

(ibid. pg. 287)

Mr Mohler is evidentally used to dealing with arguments of this kind and rounds on them with ease. They may be new in evangelical circles but he knows they are only neo-liberalism dressed up in sharp-looking clothes. Clothes perhaps fit for an Emperor:

“He would have us abandon the Bible as epistemic authority for evangelical theology in favour of the church as the authority…”

(ibid. pg. 288)

Even Peter Enns notes that Mr Franke’s argument for some form of inerrancy operates out of a low view of Scripture – a coupling which for the last two hundred years at least would be seen as quite remarkable.

Michael Bird is, of course, glad that Mr Franke moves the discussion outside the American Inerrancy Tradition, a term which Mr Bird is, of course, very fond of but which now, as Mr Franke is an American, seems to mean nothing.

Kevin Vanhoozer wonders in what sense Mr Franke’s truth is actually true if the words do not need to be true in the traditional (i.e. correspondence) sense. I’m glad he said that. It was my first thought.

So there we have it. Five essays and varied responses. What are we to make of it?

Well, three of the essays tell us much more about the author’s own broader theology and bugbears than would have been required to be explained in a volume sole on the doctrine of inerrancy.

Peter Enns has issues connected to his transition from a theologian at a recognised evangelical academic establishment to his current situation and these colour everything he says. He doesn’t think inerrancy is a valid or helpful doctrine and has set it aside,

Michael F. Bird is concerned about the degree to which American theologians dominate discussions and debates. This is a valid complaint but applies to a much wider range of theological issues as well as the inerrancy one.

John R. Franke is concerned about how the Bible / Scripture becomes the Word of God in mission situations and in the community of believers. Again, this is part of a wider debate than the inerrancy one and must be won on those wider fields before it can be applied here. Personally, I think it is an argument that carries much more persuasiveness in academic circles than it does in the very churches and missions it wants to see as the carriers of the Word of God.

This leaves us with Kevin J. Vanhoozer and R. Albert Mohler Jr. who have very similar conclusions to draw but with different methodology and for different reasons. As I have said several times during this essay I think Vanhoozer’s essay is the most helpful for Today.

Reading Mohler is like reading one of many essays that were in the volume “Inerrancy” which was edited by Norman Geisler, “The Foundation of Biblical Authority” edited by James Montgomery Boice or either of the single volume books “Biblical Authority:A Critique of the Rogers/ McKim Proposal” by John D. Woodbridge or Harold Lindsell’s “Battle for the Bible”. These works were written at the time of the so-called Battle For the Bible triggered by the Rogers / McKim controversy and are very much of their time. They were valuable contributions in that moment but it is obvious that they were written in that era and have not aged particularly. Even then the volume of essays “Inerrancy and the Church” (edited by John D. Hannah) was more significant because it sought to answer whether something like inerrancy (not in that word or the CBSI formulation) would have been held to be true in the different eras of the church and this was much closer to the heart of the debate between Jack Rogers & Donald McKim and the other Presbyterians of that era.

In many ways “Five views on Biblical Inerrancy” is like having the Rogers / McKim proposals and the views of their opponents gathered under one umbrella and in one volume in that it captures the spirit of the current debate about inerrancy – not as it was in the late nineteen seventies and early eighties but as it is in the 2010s. Its strongest asset is that it helps us to understand where the debate is now and that the Rogers/ McKim proposal has not stood the test of time as no-one here seriously believes that something akin to inerrancy hasn’t been around in the eras of the church prior to the publication of “The Fundamentals” (1910-1915).

However, aside from the glimmer of movement in what Kevin Vanhoozer as to say I do not perceive a re-statement of Inerrancy as a doctrine which moves us forward or says it in a more timeless way than what we have heard before.

For this we must look back beyond the writings included in this volume (as informative about current debates as they are), back beyond the “Battle For the Bible” which is somewhat bound by culture and a particular time to the magisterial work of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield on the subject (By this I mean the essays that he wrote on his own and not simply the essay he wrote with A.A. Hodge on “Inspiration” which is helpful but not nearly as instructive and perhaps displays a less clear view of his methodology than his other writings on the subject). These writings are the clearest, and most readable on the subject and remain extremely relevant and cover all the bases (oops, another American sports image) in helping us understand the subject.

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