The Question of Inerrancy: A 20th Century Invention?
A United Methodist pastor recently wrote Norman Patterson, pastor of Covenant of Grace church in New Hartford, CT questioning his use of the term "inerrancy". He submitted the exchange to Monergism.com and I thought it might prove useful to those who may be wrestling with this issue.
Here is the exchange:
Norm: Thanks for the handouts. I noticed you use the word "inerrant." What do you mean by that? "Inerrancy" is a 20th century concept popular among Reformed scholars and goes beyond what the reformers: Luther, Wesley and Calvin taught. I believe the concept and word inerrancy gets us into literary gymnastics and fostering a dead literalism the Bible does not claim for itself. For instance and perhaps a silly example: When Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest seed. In reality he was wrong. It isn't, but in that culture it was believed to be. Jesus also spoke in what is called: "oriental hyperbole." His words about cutting off one's arm or ripping out one's eye etc. As I look at the reformers, including the continental ones like Luther and Calvin and later Wesley, the only "infallibility" they claim is limited to salvation itrself. See Article of Religion V, VI, and The 1646 Westminster Confession Chapter one. What are your thoughts?
I hope you donâ€™t mind a thorough reply. Your questions gave me an opportunity to articulate some thoughts that have going through my mind for some time.
You raise some important questions. As I read your e-mail my mind went back to a book I read 20 years ago. It was the last book written by Francis Schaeffer called THE GREAT EVANGELICAL DISASTER. The great disaster according to Schaeffer is
the failure of the evangelical world to stand for truth as truth. There is only one word for this â€“ namely accommodation: the evangelical church has accommodated to the world spirit of the age. First, there has been accommodation on Scripture, so that many who call themselves evangelicals hold a weakened view of the Bible and no longer affirm the truth of all the Bible teaches â€“ truth not only in religious matters but in the areas of science and history and morality. (page 37)
He showed that the views of modern Evangelicals on inerrancy are similar, if not identical to the Liberals who, during the 1920 defrocked of J. Gresham Machen for his uncompromising stance on Scripture. Schaefferâ€™s warning was that if evangelicals take a soft stance on inerrancy, it will be a matter of time before they go down the same path as the Liberals.
At first, I thought your point that inerrancy is â€œa 20th century conceptâ€ was valid. However, as I perused various articles I found several quotes that show when the issue of errors in the Bible was raised, the Reformers and Wesley affirmed Biblical inerrancy. Their statements arenâ€™t always as pointed as we would have liked. Inerrancy was, I think, assumed in the doctrine of Inspiration. A stronger stance of inerrancy arose in the 20th century because of the high critical ideology and methodologies of the â€œEnlightenmentâ€ particularly expressed by many later German â€œtheologiansâ€. It seems to me that the very discussion of inerrancy can only be had because of the decline and deterioration of the Biblical doctrine of Inspiration. The very doctrine of inspiration assumes inerrancy.
However, just look at some quotes of the Reformers. According to an article by M. J. Sawyer, Ph.D., Professor of Theology at Western Seminary entitled The History of the Doctrine of Inspiration From the Ancient Church Through the Reformation the doctrine of inerrancy has been part of the early church up through the Reformation. Here are a few examples from his article.
If once you admit into the high sanctuary of authority one false statement. . . There will not be left a single sentence of those books which if appearing difficult or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which intentionally the author declared what was not true.
I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers has ever erred.
St. Augustine in a letter to St. Jerome, has put down a fine axiomâ€”that only the Holy Scripture is considered inerrant.
Scripture has never erred.
I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant.
John Calvin on 2 Timothy 3:16
He [Paul] commends Scripture, first on account of its authority, second on account of the utility that springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of Scripture, he declares it to be divinely inspired: for if it be so, it is beyond all controversy that men should receive it with reverence. . . Whoever then wishes to profit in the Scriptures, let him first lay down as a settled point thisâ€”that the law and the prophets are not a teaching delivered by the will of men, but dictated by the Holy Ghost. . . . Moses and the prophets did not utter at random what we have from their hand, but since they spoke by divine impulse, they confidently and fearlessly testified, as was actually the case, that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke. . . . We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it.
The full authority which they [the scriptures] obtain with the faithful proceeds from no other consideration than that they are persuaded that they proceeded for heaven, as if God had been heard giving utterance to them.
Dr. Sawyer goes on to say
While Calvin does at times speak of mistakes in Scripture, such mistakes are limited to the transmission of the text, not the text as it was originally given.
I found some information concerning Wesley on inerrancy.
If he is a Christian, he betrays his own cause by averring that 'all Scripture is not given by inspiration of God, but the writers of it were sometimes left to themselves, and consequently made some mistakes.' Nay, if there be any mistakes in the Bible there may as well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth" (Journal, 24 July, 1776). (emphasis mine)
Wesley wrote a letter to the Bishop of Gloucester in response to the Bishop's tract "On the Office and Operations of the Holy Spirit." In it the Bishop claimed that the Holy Spirit so directed the writers that "no considerable error should fall from them." Wesley objected to this language by writing, "Nay, will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture, shake the authority of the whole?" (Works, Jackson ed., 9:150). (emphasis mine)
The general rule of interpreting Scripture is this: the literal sense of every text is to be taken, if it be not contrary to some other texts: but in that case the obscure text is to be interpreted by those which speak more plainly. Wesley, Letters, 3:129; 5:328. (emphasis mine)
canâ€™t agree with you when you say the only â€œinfallibility they (The Reformers and Wesley) claimed was for salvation itself.â€ I have a difficult time believing they would say, â€œThe Bible is infallible on matters of salvation, but you sure canâ€™t trust it when it speaks about history, science and the cosmos.â€ It is only our 20th century mindset that would see salvation as an isolated doctrine and that the corresponding context of the events, times, places of Scripture are unnecessary and/or inconsequential. It is a stretch to think they would think the Bible is filled with error except when it is talking about salvation.
Isnâ€™t the Bible a complete book telling the story of salvation? Where does the teaching of salvation end and the other â€œstuffâ€ begin? If I cannot trust the context in which the story is housed, how do I know I can trust the doctrine of salvation it contains? Wasnâ€™t it Bultmann who said we need to shed the â€œhusksâ€ surrounding â€œtruthâ€ in the Bible from its historical and cultural context? that history, story, narrative, description, culture and so forth are unnecessary when it comes to the â€œtruthâ€ contained in the Bible? Didnâ€™t he believe this because of his anti-supernatural presuppositions? It seems to me the idea that the Bible is inerrant only in matters pertaining to salvation but not in anything else comes close to his theory of demythologizing Scripture.
I was perusing the Westminster Confession chapter one. I think the concept of inerrancy is implied though not explicitly spelled out in other parts of that same chapter. It appears the Westminster divines had more than just salvation in mind.
V. We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man's salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts. (emphasis mine)
I like what they said that the â€œassurance of the infallible truthâ€ is from the â€œinward work of the Holy Spiritâ€. Should one not use the term inerrant in order to not offend an unregenerate person? And if a person is a brother and sister in the Lord, why would they object to inerrancy?
But I digress. The Confession also states
VIII. The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which at the time of the writing of it was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as in all controversies of religion the Church is finally to appeal unto them. But because these original tongues are not known to all the people of God who have right unto, and interest in, the Scriptures, and are commanded, in the fear of God, to read and search them, therefore they are to be translated into the language of every people unto which they come, that the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner, and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope. (emphasis mine)
And just a quick look at the Larger Catechism
Q. 4. How doth it appear that the Scriptures are of the Word of God?
A. The Scriptures manifest themselves to be the Word of God, by their majesty and purity; by the consent of all the parts, and the scope of the whole, which is to give all glory to God; by their light and power to convince and convert sinners, to comfort and build up believers unto salvation: but the Spirit of God bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able fully to persuade it that they are the very word of God. (emphasis mine)
The Scriptural proofs of purity in this question are
Psalm 12:6. The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.
Psalm 119:140. Thy word is very pure: therefore thy servant loveth it.
Iâ€™m not sure how the Bible can have error while at the same time be pure. To affirm inerrancy is to affirm the purity of the Bible.
I know you are aware of the Bibleâ€™s claim concerning itself besides the two quoted Psalms above
Proverbs 30:5. Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. (KJV) or in the NIV, Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. (emphasis mine)
2 Timothy 3:16. All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.
John 17:17. Thy word is truth. (NP - not error)
In fact, the Bible claims thousands of times to be the word of God. How can it be the word of God and at the same time full of error? Furthermore, if pastors back away from inerrancy, arenâ€™t they, by their silence, acquiescing to opponents of the Bible a vital doctrine? Accommodating inerrancy in order to make things easier for unbelievers and theological liberals is like accepting a program in your computer than contains a virus. Initially, the program seems harmless, but once the worm is launched, it decimates your entire computer. Accept the Bible has errors and before you know it, the entire Bible is undermined. Affirm inerrancy right from the start is to guard against this particular virus.
Because the inspiration of the Scripture has been attacked, modern Reformed scholars took up the challenge and had to defend the Bible on the very place it was being attacked, i.e. that there are mistakes, inconsistencies, cultural anomalies, and so forth. I think the purpose of raising the question of whether the Bible is inerrant or not is a ruse by liberals, modernist and, the neo-pagans in the church. The real target is inspiration itself. It is an old tactic first used by the father of lies who said â€œYea, hath God saidâ€ (Genesis 3:1). If Bible critics can get evangelicals to concede inerrancy, inspiration becomes a moot point and hence, the authority of the Bible in all areas is undermined.
In my opinion, to deny inerrancy and to not articulate the purity of the Bible (without error), is to concede the enemies of the Bible a point that does not have to be given.
I think your illustration about the mustard seed is very appropriate. Why let the liberals define the terms of the argument? They would say inerrancy and literalism are one and the same thing. They are not. Inerrancy does not assume literalism. Inerrancy affirms sound hermeneutics and exegesis. While there may be those who believe inerrancy means that â€œif the Bible says the trees of the field clap their hands, by golly, they must have hands and they must be clappingâ€, those with any sense know Biblical principles of sound exegesis, which include literary context, must be practiced. The modern Reformed scholars, if I understand them right, would agree to a literal interpretation of the Bible unless context demands other wise. If I may appeal to the WCF again, it says
IX. The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.
I agree with you that Jesus was using hyperbole both with the seed and the â€œself-mutilationâ€. Context and the principle given in IX (the infallible rule) would show that Jesus is not speaking error. Of course, we obviously know Jesus wasnâ€™t referring to every seed in the world when he called the mustard seed the smallest seed. He obviously was referring to the seeds known to that culture or maybe a set of seeds He had in His hand. If the Bible is assumed and affirmed as inerrant, it is a simple logical deduction that He could not have meant every seed in the world. No mental gymnastics are required. It does take cognition and simple logic. There is no problem here for inerrancy as you yourself have proven. Jesus' illustration, in context, does not mean He spoke error. The skeptics may baulk at Jesus saying, but the skeptics are not interested in truth, they are interested in finding fault. For them, the Bible is guilty unless proven innocent. For Bible believing Christians the Bible is innocent (inerrant) until proven guilty.
Some evangelicals try to say that they donâ€™t believe in inerrancy but they believe in infallibility. What is infallibility? Is it not the belief that the Bible CANNOT make a mistake? If the Bible cannot make a mistake (infallibility), then logically, there are no mistakes as well (inerrancy).
Here are some questions I have for you? If you do not affirm inerrancy, then what standard do you use to determine what is error and what is not error? If you do not affirm the Bible as the ultimate standard by claiming inerrancy, what then do you use to determine truth? Reason? Tradition? Experience? Aren't each of those are man-centered and therefore humanistic? It seems to me not affirming inerrancy sets you up for many more problems and the need for far more compromises and mental gymnastics. What term would you suggest besides inerrant? And what term would affirm both the purity of the Bible along with its claim of divine inspiration and infalliblity?
Why would we not use the term inerrancy? I guess, in the end, I am not worried on convincing or offending a skeptic of the faith by trying to accommodate my terminology so that it becomes more palatable or respectable to him. In their faith, the Bible is errant and they will not believe otherwise, no matter what terminology, proofs, explanations, or interpretations one gives.
To summarize, I use the term inerrancy because it is assumed, implied, and affirmed throughout the Bible itself. This is enough. The Reformers, Wesley, and the Westminster Confession affirmed either directly or through implication inerrancy. Inerrancy is not the same thing as literalism. Finally, to not affirm inerrancy is to aquience a vital pillar of Biblical faith to enemies of the Scripture. To do anything less is to perpetuate the â€œgreat evangelical disaster.â€
I welcome your thoughts on what I wrote. I donâ€™t expect you to take as much time but any comments you make are welcomed.
Pastor Norman Patterson