It’s hard to believe that Shepherds’ Conference is next week. For those of us who have the privilege of being around Grace Community Church all year round, it’s difficult to capture the sense of anticipation that’s been brewing over the last 15 months or so. It really is like Christmastime over here, and it’s such a privilege to witness that enthusiasm—from the leadership to the nearly 1200 volunteers (!) that will be serving the men who attend this historic event.
And historic it will be, as the 2015 Shepherds’ Conference is, more precisely, the Inerrancy Summit. Sixteen—count ‘em: sixteen—of the most trusted voices in evangelicalism will join Pastor John MacArthur for an unprecedented marathon of eighteen sessions of devotion to the inerrancy of Scripture. I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait. If you’re not able to join us next week, do make sure to watch by livestream. It’s an event you won’t want to miss.
In the spirit of next week, then, I wanted to post something today on the topic of inerrancy. Several months ago, I read the then-recently released Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, intrigued to know what the other three views (i.e., besides inerrancy and errancy) would be. Turns out there really aren’t more than two views, but such is the nature of things.
I thought the book was really helpful in singling out key issues that need to be addressed today. As you might have expected, I most appreciated Al Mohler’s contribution, in which he presents and defends the church’s historic position on the inerrancy, infallibility, authority, and sufficiency of Scripture—i.e., the view most clearly articulated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Today, I want to share some quotes and notes from that chapter, with the hope of priming the pump for next week’s Summit.
Some are just direct quotes from Mohler that are helpful and incisive. Others are my own thoughts as I spring-boarded from what I read. They’re broken down by the chapter headings and page numbers are provided. Quotes are indented, with any of my comments below, flush left.
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“In affirming that the Bible, as a whole and in its parts, contains nothing but God-breathed truth, evangelicals have simply affirmed what the church universal had affirmed for well over a millennium—when the Bible Speaks, God speaks” (29).
“I believe that the affirmation of the Bible’s inerrancy has never been more essential to evangelicalism as a movement and as a living theological and spiritual tradition” (30).
“Without inerrancy, the evangelical movement will inevitably become dissolute and indistinct in its faith and doctrines and increasingly confused about the very nature and authority of its message. . . . I will make my position plain. I do not believe that evangelicalism can survive without the explicit and complete assertion of biblical inerrancy” (30, 31).
“If we do not make these affirmations [i.e., that the Bible shares God’s perfection and truthfulness], then we have set ourselves upon a project of determining which texts of the Bible share those perfections, if any. We will use a human criterion of judgment to decide which texts bear divine authority and which texts can be trusted. We will decide, one way or another, which texts we believe to be God speaking to us” (30-31).
This point is crucial. If we decide that God’s revelation is not thoroughly true, then we will have to take it upon ourselves to use our own human reason to decide which texts in the Bible are true or false. That is the definition of setting our own reason over and above God’s revelation. It is human reason judging God’s revelation.
Mohler goes on to speak about a revelatory epistemology. Epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. A revelatory epistemology says we know what we know because it has been revealed to us by a reliable source, namely God. I see this issue as absolutely key in this whole discussion. Whence cometh authority? What is the standard by which all things are tested? Rationalists say, “Reason.” Naturalists say, “Observable facts in nature.” Empiricists say, “Observable data via the scientific method.” Christians say, “The inspired, infallible, and inerrant 66 Books of the Old and New Testaments.”
“Though many efforts have been made to suggest that the issue of inerrancy is too complex to be reduced to simple alternatives, the simple alternatives steadfastly remain: we will either affirm the total truthfulness of the Bible in whole and in part, or we will concede that at least some parts, if not the whole, are something less than totally truthful and trustworthy. There are indeed complex and complicated issues to consider, but the stark alternatives remain” (31).
This is helpful and orienting, especially in light of the fact that there are five views expressed in this book. In reality, as this quote helps to make plain, there are only two views.
Packer: “I see biblical authority as methodologically the most basic of theological issues” (32)
Of course he does. This goes back to epistemology. How do we know what we know? How do we go about discovering true things about God and His world? We must have an authoritative source of knowledge. If the Bible is not totally trustworthy—free from error—we do not have that authoritative source of knowledge. No doctrine is certain, and, because right doctrine is the foundation for right living, literally every other aspect of our Christian life is affected.
Mohler says this later: “Without the Bible as the supreme and final authority in the church, we are left in what can only be described as a debilitating epistemological crisis. Put bluntly, if the Bible is not the very Word of God, bearing his full authority and trustworthiness, we do not know what Christianity is, nor do we know how to live as followers of Christ” (43).
An Abbreviated History of the Battle (32-37)
- 1949: ETS makes the affirmation of inerrancy a requirement for membership
- 1957: Gabriel Herbert publishes Fundamentalism and the Church of God, accusing British evangelicals of bibliolatry. Packer’s ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God is published the next year in defense of Scripture.
- 1966: Wenham (Mass.) Conference on Scripture: “The failure to commit to biblical inerrancy opened the door to confessions that were, in truth, made almost inevitable by this failure” (Mohler, 33).
- 1972: Fuller Seminary revises their doctrinal statement “in order to accommodate positions that would not affirm the total inerrancy of the Bible. Plenary verbal inspiration and inerrancy were no longer required of Fuller’s faculty” (Mohler, 34).
- 1976: Harold Lindsell, a former Fuller faculty member, criticizes Fuller, the SBC, and other institutions not affirming the full inerrancy of Scripture.
- 1978: The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy is established, and produces the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. [Read it here]
“Those five definitional points [i.e., those of the ‘Short Statement’ in CSBI] establish the classical doctrine of the Bible’s inerrancy. . . . I believe that the CSBI remains the quintessential statement of biblical inerrancy and that its clearly defined language remains essential to the health of evangelicalism and the integrity of the Christian church” (36).
The Case for Inerrancy
Inerrancy and the Bible’s Testimony to Itself
“Peter’s point is that Scripture is to be trusted at every point, and he defines its inspiration as being directly from God, through the agency of human authors, by means of the direct work of the Holy Spirit” (37).
“. . . the inerrancy of the Bible is inextricably linked to a specific understanding of its inspiration. Inerrancy requires and defines verbal inspiration” (37).
But this does not imply dictation:
“The doctrine of verbal inspiration and the affirmation of biblical inerrancy require an understanding of the concursive operation of the divine and human wills in which there is divine superintendence without any violation of the human will” (38n21). [See key texts which say things like “The Holy Spirit says . . .” (Heb 3:7; Acts 4:25; 1 Thess 2:13).]
“If the Scriptures are the very breath of God, their perfect inspiration implies and requires that they are without error” (39).
“In an unbroken sequence of direct assertions, the Bible claims to possess God’s own authority, to be directly and supernaturally inspired of God, to be unbreakable and irrefutable, and to be God’s perfectly revealed word. Inerrancy and infallibility are nothing more than summary affirmations of what Scripture claims for itself. To affirm the inerrancy of the Bible is to claim nothing more than what the Bible asserts in its consistent and pluriform attestation” (39).
Inerrancy and the Faith of the Church
“Inerrancy was the affirmation and theological reflex of the church until the most recent centuries” (39).
Mohler references the landmark work done by Rogers and McKim in questioning inerrancy, asserting that it is “a recent development that came about largely in response to the anti-supernaturalism of modernity” (40).
What’s important about that is: that’s the very claim of so many of those who would challenge inerrancy today—including Bird, Enns, and Franke in this volume. What they are bringing up is nothing but the rehashed and long-refuted arguments of Rogers and McKim. As Mohler notes, their effort “was decisively refuted by John D. Woodbridge, who demonstrated that inerrancy was not merely implied but required when the historical record of the church is thoroughly explored” (40). See John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).
The Hanson brothers rejected both inerrancy and inspiration, but themselves admitted that it is the rejection of inerrancy, not the affirmation of it, that is novel in church history:
“Only since the very end of the seventeenth century, with the rise of biblical criticism, has this belief in the inerrancy of Scripture been widely challenged among Christians” (R. P. C. Hanson and A. T. Hanson, The Bible without Illusions (London: SCM Press, 1989), 52.
Elsewhere: “The beliefs here denied [i.e., inerrancy] have been held by all Christians from the very beginning until about a hundred and fifty years ago” (ibid., 13).
Warfield: “The question is not, whether the doctrine of plenary inspiration has difficulties to face. The question is, whether these difficulties are greater than the difficulty of believing that the whole church of God from the beginning has been deceived in her estimate of the Scriptures committed to her charge—are greater than the difficulty of believing that the whole college of the apostles, ayes and Christ himself at their head, were themselves deceived as to the nature of those Scriptures which they gave the church as its precious possession, and have deceived with them twenty Christian centuries. . . ” (Inspiration and Authority of the Bible).
Inerrancy and the Needs of the Church
“Without the Bible as the supreme and final authority in the church, we are left in what can only be described as a debilitating epistemological crisis. Put bluntly, if the Bible is not the very Word of God, bearing his full authority and trustworthiness, we do not know what Christianity is, nor do we know how to live as followers of Christ” (43).
James Montgomery Boice: “If the Bible contains errors, it is not God’s Word itself, however reliable it may be. And if it is not God’s Word, it cannot be preached with authority” (in Forever Settled, 18).
“If God is trustworthy, we are saved. If he is not, we are doomed. But can God be truly trustworthy if what he presents as his own Word is not trustworthy?” (43)
“A lack of confidence in the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible reveals a lack of confidence in either God’s ability or his intention—or both—to give his people a trustworthy revelation” (44).
Truth, Trust, and Theology: Inerrancy in View
“Inerrancy affirms that language is adequate to convey truth and that the actual words of Scripture were divinely inspired” (45).
This is a key claim. Franke will reject that language is adequate to convey truth. Others will deny or downplay the verbal inspiration of Scripture (Bird seems to do this in his chapter when he speaks about the writers, and not the writings as inspired; but cf. 2 Tim 3:16 – πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος).
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
“To be true to the Scriptures, I believe, evangelicals must affirm its stated affirmations and join in its stated denials” (46).
He then walks through the articles. Read them in full here.
“The affirmation of inerrancy is necessary for evangelical consistency” (48)
Contested Issues: Test Cases
Each contributor to the Five Views book was asked to work out their doctrine of inerrancy in three practical instances: (1) the historicity of the conquest of Jericho, (2) an apparent contradiction in Luke’s record of Paul’s report of his conversion, and (3) the apparent contradiction between God’s commands to kill pagans in the Old Testament and Jesus’ command to love our enemies.
The Question of Historical Accuracy (Josh. 6)
“To assert the ultimate authority of the Bible is to affirm, a priori, the truthfulness of the texts in part and in whole and all that the Bible affirms. . . . This is an inescapably supernatural claim that is consistent with a scriptural a priori” (50).
“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. That statement may appear radical to some readers, but it is the only position that is fully compatible with the claim that every word of Scripture is fully inspired and thus fully true and trustworthy” (51).
“Any theological or hermeneutical method that allows extrabiblical sources of knowledge to nullify the truthfulness of any biblical text assumes, a priori, that the Bible is something less than the oracular Word of God” (51).
This is an important claim. The objection to Mohler’s view is that he assumes what he must prove. But he shifts the burden onto the objector when he asserts that to not hold that view is to assume, just as much in an a priori fashion, what the objector is trying to prove. The Bible is either the Word of God, and therefore must be true no matter what other apparent “evidence” may say; or it is not the Word of God, and thus can be proven wrong by so-called evidence. You must make a choice between those two worldviews / epistemologies before you enter this discussion. Whichever one you make will determine your outcome. The question is: Which presuppositional foundation is warranted?
The Question of Intracanonical Accuracy (Acts 9:7; 22:9)
“In Acts 9:7, Paul’s associates are said to hear the voice but to see no one. In Acts 22:9, they see the light but do not understand the voice. Given the point of both passages, these texts are perfectly complementary. … Paul’s associates heard the voice without understanding and saw the light without seeing the appearance of Christ” (53).
The Question of Theological Plurality (Deut. 20:16–17; Matt. 5:43–48)
Kenton Sparks gives us a view into what kind of cavils the denial of inerrancy leads us: We are “to take a theological step beyond the written word by listening to God’s living voice, which includes not only Scripture but also the voices of creation, tradition, and the Spirit” (Kenton L. Sparks, God’s Word in Human Words [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008], 301).
One quickly observes how a low view of Scripture’s trustworthiness walks hand-in-hand with a low view of Scripture’s sufficiency and finality.
Further, when Sparks speaks of listening to God’s living voice in the voices of creation, tradition, and the Spirit, what that practically works out to meaning is: the voices that Sparks hears. And those voices, of course, are not God’s voice, but his own. As Mohler argues earlier in the chapter, when God’s Word is no longer the authority, the only authority left is ourselves. Sparks is a living illustration of this point.
“Once an interpreter of Scripture begins to use human standards of moral judgment to evaluate the truth status and authority of the Bible, in whole or in part, the authority of the Bible is immediately denied. The real standard of judgment is now to be human moral reason and sensitivity. . . . The abandonments of inerrancy renders every biblical text suspect until it passes or fails some test of human reason” (57)
In Conclusion: When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks
In his conclusion, Mohler makes an outstanding statement that speaks to our epistemological foundation and theological method as we enter this discussion:
The Bible is not inerrant, and thus the Word of God; it is the Word of God, and thus inerrant. (58)
Here he instructs us that we do not reason inductively to conclude that the Bible is the Word of God. To do so would be to subject the Bible to our own standard of reasonableness and thus subordinate divine revelation to human reason. Rather, we reason deductively. Having been taught from Scripture that the Bible is the Word of God, and that God Himself is totally truthful and without error, we conclude that His Word is totally truthful and without error. This is what the historic Christian Church has always confessed.
Now, it’s true that we as inerrantists need to deal with the actual facts—the actual phenomena of Scripture. It does no good to hold to a doctrine of inerrancy axiomatically if it doesn’t actually comport with the data (i.e., if there actually are errors in Scripture). But we interact with those facts not in order to arrive at our doctrine of Scripture. We interact with those facts in order to test the doctrine of Scripture we have arrived at (by believing what Scripture’s own testimony about itself), even though we’ve arrived at that belief by deduction. We must already be committed to a revelatory epistemology—a worldview in which we believe Scripture is true based on the deductive argument that God cannot lie and Scripture is God’s Word. And then, and only then, we must grapple with the facts.
Contrary to many even conservative evangelicals who would profess to subscribe to inerrancy, it is methodologically sound to subscribe to inerrancy as a result of deductive argument. I agree that we must not do so while ignoring actual historical facts. But I disagree with the very popular idea that says we must arrive at inerrancy by induction only. And the reason for that is because we are not to derive our doctrines from contemporary interpretations of archaeological or scientific data. Why? Because according to Luke 16:31 and 2 Peter 1:19, Scripture teaches that revelation is a surer epistemological foundation than empiricism.
Mohler concludes where the discussion ought to end: The affirmation of biblical inerrancy means nothing more, and nothing less, than this: When the Bible speaks, God speaks.