Related Post: Inerrancy of the Bible: Defined and Defended. Part 1
II. Inerrancy was Affirmed Throughout Church History
Michael Bird refers to a recent historical thesis advocated by Jack Rogers and Donald McKim who assert that inerrancy is a recent a recent development which emerged from conservatives when they reacted defensively to the challenge of the Enlightenment. However, the truth is that the doctrine of inerrancy is not recent phenomenon as it has been affirmed throughout church history. The careful documentation and thorough study by John D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Zondervan 1982) demonstrates conclusively that Rogers and McKim’s historical thesis is flawed as it is based on skewed handling of historical sources. Woodbridge confirms that while inerrancy was not a major feature in the development of doctrines, nevertheless the Church has always affirmed inerrancy as a matter of fact.
Woodbridge reveals how Rogers and MaKim misused Professor Bruce Vawter whose actual opinion was to affirm inerrancy throughout church history. Indeed, Vawter frankly acknowledges the Fathers’ commitment to biblical infallibility extended beyond salvation truths to matters of “natural science” and history:
It would be pointless to call into question that biblical inerrancy in a rather absolute form was a common persuasion from the beginning of Christian times, and from Jewish times before that. For both the Fathers and the rabbis generally, the ascription of any error to the Bible was unthinkable;… if the word was God’s it must be true, regardless of whether it made known a mystery of divine revelation or commented on a datum of natural science, whether it derived from human observation or chronicled an event of history. [Bruce Vawter, Biblical Interpretation, pp. 132-133. Cited in John Woodbridge, Biblical Authority, p. 32). Vawter himself is not a proponent of biblical inerrancy.
I shall only give only two further examples:
1) Clement of Rome’s First Letter to the Church at Corinth (first century) lends some support to it:
You have studied Scripture [O.T.] which contains the truth and is inspired by the Holy Spirit. You realize that there is nothing wrong or misleading in it. [1Clement 45. Early Christian Fathers (ed., Cyril Richardson (Macmillan, 1970), p. 64.
2) For Augustine, the biblical writers did not write a scientific textbook, but the phenomenological language they sometimes employed, if properly interpreted, was truthful. And when they made incidental comments about the world, they wrote infallibly and were not bound by “human limitations of knowledge” in the sense of being “paradigm dependent” upon the values and beliefs of their own cultures. [Re: Gen1:16] Augustine elaborates on how one should interpret infallible Scripture in his letter to Jerome.
For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it…I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error … (Letters 82.3).
Woodbridge reaffirms his conclusion in a later publication:
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is no late imaginative creation of A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in 1881 or of twentieth-century American fundamentalism. Rather, it is an essential evangelical belief based upon a biblical warrant. It resides squarely within the Augustinian tradition regarding the Bible’s truthfulness. Both Roman Catholics and the Protestant Reformers affirmed the church doctrine.” (Woodbridge, Evangelical Self-Identity and the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy” in Andreas Kosterbenger & Robert Yarbrough, Understanding the Times: New Testament Studies in the 21st Century (Crossway, 2011), p. 133)
III. Inerrancy is not a Modern Theological Construct
Michael Bird raises a common charge that the Old Princeton doctrine of inerrancy was unduly influenced by Baconian empiricism and modern rationalism, “But Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield did not write in philosophical isolation or in a historical vacuum. Both men were shaped largely by Common Sense Realism and were thus susceptible to the failings of that epistemological system, with its view that epistemic foundations and proper method would lead to some kind of God’s-eye view of reality. Facing the challenge of religious skepticism, Hodge and Warfield were essentially apologists for Scripture, a project that was only marginally undertaken in patristic, medieval, and Reformation eras. The duo was responding largely to the critique of revealed religion in modernity, so it is inevitable that their theologies of Scripture were shaped by the philosophical currents of their time.”
However, the charge raised by Bird has already been refuted by the Paul Helseth’s careful study on the historical documents in his book, Right Reason and the Princeton Mind: An Unorthodox Proposal (Presbyterian and Reformed, 2010). Helseth writes,
In response to those who suggest that Old Princeton’s understanding of the theological enterprise was grounded in the accommodation of assumptions that find their genesis in a rather naïve form of Enlightenment rationalism, the following chapters argue that whatever Enlightenment assumptions the Princetonians did embrace altered the form rather than the substance of their theology and that despite what the consensus of critical opinion would have us believe, the religious epistemology of the Princeton theologians was principally informed by anthropological and epistemological assumptions that are consistently Reformed. (p. xxv)
Helseth concludes, “Indeed, they sought to discern the difference between truth and error not by appealing to the magisterial conclusions of the rational faculty alone, but by hearing the message of the text with ‘right reason,’ which for them was a biblically informed kind of theological aesthetic that presupposes the work of the Spirit on the whole soul of the believing theologian” (p. 221).
For Warfield, and in contrast to Common Sense Realism, “right reason” begins through the work of God in the soul of the knowing agent, not through a mere rationalistic apprehension of facts. His apologetic was not focused on rationalistic argumentation but on demonstrating the reality of God’s moral order to unbelievers so that they would be receptive to the Spirit’s work of regeneration, conviction and regeneration leading to salvation of the whole person.
Helseth’s research is confirmed by David Smith recent publication of B.B. Warfield’s Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Pickwick Press 2011). Smith observes that for Warfield the chief barrier to receiving the gospel is ideas and beliefs that do not correspond to what Scripture reveals as true,
The revelations of the Scripture do not terminate upon the intellect. They were not given to merely enlighten the mind. They were given through the intellect to beautify the life. They terminate on the heart. Again, they do not in affecting the heart, leave the intellect untouched. They cannot be fully understood by the intellect, acting alone. The natural man cannot receive the things of the Spirit of God. They must first convert the soul before they are fully comprehended by the intellect. Only as they are lived are they understood. Hence the phrase, ‘Believe that you may understand,’ has its fullest validity. No man can intellectually grasp the full meaning of the revelations of authority, save as the result of an experience of their power in life…they must be: first, revealed in an authoritative word; second, experienced in a holy heart; and third, formulated by a sanctified intellect. Only as these three unite, then, can we have a true theology.” (p. 245)
This union of doctrine and life; thinking and living, does not have its origin in, nor depend upon, Greek philosophy. (See, B.B. Warfield, “Authority, Intellect, Heart,” in SSW 2:671) The Old Princeton theologians include the objective nature of truth, subjective aesthetic sensibilities and the experiential work of the Spirit on the whole soul of the believing theologian in their theological enterprise (Helseth, pp. 284-285). This holistic epistemological framework must be given due consideration in any assessment of their doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.
IV. Consequences of Denial of Inspiration and Inerrancy
Albert Mohler is spot on when he warns about the dangerous consequences of denial of biblical inerrancy.
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. A commitment to biblical inerrancy requires a commitment to the responsible interpretation of Scripture and to the development of a mature biblical theology. The abandonment of inerrancy renders every biblical text suspect until it passes or fails some test of human reason. Those who would deny the divine inspiration of Deuteronomy 6 will not, if consistent, stop there.” (FVBI, p. 57).
Some scholars who deny inerrancy continue to identify themselves as evangelicals as they argue that the doctrine is not a necessary criterion for evangelical identity. However, it cannot be deny that for many of them the denial of inerrancy (among other reasons) leads to an abandonment of other essential doctrines of the church which include the following: (1) A denial of the historicity and Fall of Adam, (2) A denial of the historical reliability of the Pentateuchal records leading to doubts about the historicity of the Patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), the Exodus event and the conquest of Canaan. (3) The traditional authorship, unity and prophetic intent of Isaiah are questioned. (4) Daniel is regarded as pseudonymous apocalyptic fiction written centuries after the purported events. (5) Finally, a rejection of important moral teachings of the Church like sex within marriage, the sanctity of marriage. In particular, the Bible is twisted to support tolerance of homosexuality.
V. Inerrancy Essential for Vibrant Church Growth and Mission
Evangelicals should take note of F.F. Bruce’s advice that it would be a fruitless distraction to adopt a “Maginot Line mentality” in the defence of the Bible. Michael Bird forcefully asserts, “The American inerrancy tradition is not an essential facet of the faith, because most of us outside of North America get on with our mission without it, and we are none the worse for not having it! Our churches uphold Scripture as the inspired Word of God. We therefore study it, teach from it, and preach it, but without the penchant to engage in bitter divisions over which nomenclature best suits our theological disposition.” (p. 146)
However, Bird is mistaken when he judges the absence of debate on inerrancy as indicative of its non-essential nature. First, it is undeniable that inerrancy has not been a big issue in the mainline churches of Britain and Australia. But conservative evangelical scholars wonder whether this is due to the fact that these churches have already capitulated to the rationalistic attacks on the Bible. The devastating consequence of these attacks is the decline of the mainline churches in these countries. After all, why should the outside world take seriously the preaching of the church when its scholars are themselves doubtful about the veracity of its own holy scripture?
Second, inerrancy has not been a controversial issue in the third world because it has not been significantly impacted by modernity which serves as a carrier of historical criticism and philosophical skepticism. In this regard, and contrary to what Bird suggests, one may argue that the third world churches grow rapidly precisely because they continue to uphold the inerrancy of the Bible and submit to its authority. By the same token, it is well-nigh impossible to find a preacher or scholar denying inerrancy when he preaches from the pulpit of these growing churches. However, it is a matter of time when some third world scholars who are influenced by the Western rationalism will begin to question the authenticity and inerrancy of the Bible. The conservative evangelical churches in the third world will then be obliged to defend the inerrancy of Bible.
For this reason, there is no room for complacency for the third world churches despite their present vibrant church life and mission. They need to heed the warning by Martyn Lloyd Jones who observed that the undermining of biblical authority through rationalistic criticism was gradually and subtly sown in his time. The consequent erosion of belief in the truth and authority of the Bible was no less devastating, precisely because rationalistic criticism appeared harmless as it was introduced to England by a kindly and pious scholar. (“What is an Evangelical” in Knowing the Times (Banner of Truth, 1989), p. 302.)
Lloyd Jones elaborates, “Human philosophy took the place of revelation, man’s opinions were exalted and Church leaders talked about ‘the advance of knowledge and science’, and ‘the assured results’ of such knowledge. The Bible then became a book just like any other book, out of date in certain respects, wrong in other respects, and so on. It was no longer a book on which you could rely implicitly.” (“The Scripture of Truth” in Martyn Lloyd Jones, The Christian Soldier: An Exposition of Ephesians 6:10-20 (Banner of Truth, 1977), p. 210.)
Lloyd Jones describes how the whole situation became one of drift. Men’s opinion took the place of God’s truth. Society at large ‘suddenly’ had no regard for the authority of the Bible. The man in street began to ignore the message of the gospel, after all, why take seriously the bible when it has been discredited by real thinkers and scientists?
We can do no better than to take heed of the challenge by Martyn Lloyd Jones,
The issue is crystal clear. Do I accept Scripture as a revelation from God, or do I trust to speculation, human knowledge, human learning, human understanding and human reason?…The Protestant position, as was the position of the early Church in the first centuries, is that the Bible is the Word of God. Not that it ‘contains’ it, but that it is the Word of God, uniquely inspired and inerrant…God safeguarded the truth by controlling the men who wrote it by the Holy Spirit, and that He kept them from error and from blemishes and from anything that was wrong. (The Christian Soldier, p. 211)