Michael Horton recently had an engaging e-mail conversation on inerrancy with Michael Spencer, the "Internet Monk," and Donald Richmond, a presbyter and examining chaplain with the Reformed Episcopal Church. Here is what they had to say about this controversial topic.
Horton: "The Bible, in its original autographs, is without error in all that it affirms." Shaped especially by B. B. Warfield and fleshed out in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), this particular formulation was forged in response to a growing reticence to identify the Word of God directly with the words of Scripture. It also was intended to clarify the position and to distinguish it from fundamentalist views that downplay the human aspect of Scripture, such as the belief that each word was dictated by the Holy Spirit. With Warfield, I would argue that while inerrancy is not a foundational Christian doctrine, it expresses faithfully the teaching of the Scriptures themselves and the historic teaching of the church--and its denial puts us in the position of determining for ourselves the parts of Scripture we regard as canonical. What are your major objections or qualms about this formulation?
Richmond: I unreservedly affirm Holy Scripture as the written Word of God. However, while affirming the full sufficiency of Holy Scripture regarding all matters related to belief and behavior, I refuse to use the word "inerrancy." There are several reasons for my resistance to both the word and its current meaning. First, it is not a foundational doctrine. As such, to focus upon this word places us in a position of majoring on minors. Second, the word "inerrancy," at least as it is popularly understood, is entirely foreign to the apostles, Fathers, and Reformers. Third, the concept of inerrancy places a template upon the biblical text that forces the contemporary reader into a position of evaluating and applying the text anachronistically. Fourth, when we embrace inerrancy, we are invariably brought to a position of embracing plenary verbal inspiration and an unwholesome literalism. Fifth, the doctrine of inerrancy reflects a fear-based, not a faith-based, response to contemporary criticism. Finally, although it is a dangerous position in which to place ourselves, it is inescapable that we do "determine for ourselves the parts of Scripture that we regard as canonical." I welcome Scripture's authoritative rule over my life. Nevertheless, while accepting this rule, I do not think I must accept inerrancy in order to arrive at authority.
Spencer: I do not so much believe that the concept of inerrancy is untrue as that it is inefficient, unnecessary, and divisive. It is inefficient because the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy itself is a syllabus on the special definition of "error" at the heart of inerrancy, a special definition that allows literary genre, imprecision and approximation to exist alongside the curious idea of "no errors," thus necessitating a special definition of error. Further, the church has long used perfectly adequate language about the Bible, such as can be found in the Westminster Confession's article on Scripture, without the use of inerrancy and its required special definitions. Finally, the enthusiasts for the use of this term have managed to treat all kinds of brothers and sisters who accept the truthfulness and authority of Scripture as deniers of the orthodox place of Scripture in the church. Inerrancy may repair some breaches in the theological hull of evangelicalism, but I am unconvinced that strict enforcement of the term itself was necessary or the fruits beneficial. In response, why is the technical definition of Chicago-style inerrancy necessary when the Reformed confessions have a good and workable statement on Scripture?
Horton: What would be the main reason (or maybe two) you would offer for inerrancy being "untrue"?
Richmond: While I very much agree with Michael Spencer's observations, I do not believe he has gone quite far enough. Inerrancy is both "untrue" and "inefficient." The reason that inerrancy is "untrue" is primarily because it is a concept foreign to the Bible, and as such foreign to God. I do not in any way mean to suggest that God is untrue (quite to the contrary!), but rather in regard to inerrancy, the doctrine is so entirely foreign to the biblical narrative that God cannot endorse it.
Spencer: The problem for me isn't the untruthfulness of the term on some level; it's clearing out all the baggage that comes with it. We have to define "error," which apparently takes several pages of the Chicago Statement and excludes several kinds of information ordinary people call errors. Then we have to understand why "inerrancy" is a required term, when the church operated just fine without it for centuries. Finally, the use of "inerrancy" will pick an immediate fight with certain literalistic views of the Bible as a science textbook, and we will have to work through the entire young earth creationist presentation in order to preserve our definition of "inerrant" without pre-committing all of us to be creationists. My contention is not that the Bible has errors in what it teaches, but that the material in the Bible that operates in a broader sense of truth--rather than the narrow, technical sense--deserves better treatment than having to conform to this modernistic and confusing term.
Richmond: The word "inerrancy" did not fall from heaven, laden with divine patronage. Instead, when we use the word, it is infected with philosophical ideas that were a knee-jerk response to what was happening theologically and philosophically between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. If you ask me if I believe in a literal Adam and Eve, a historic Abraham, or in the physical death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord, I would heartily and happily agree. However, I oppose the concept of inerrancy because the word itself moves the argument, intentionally or not, into the arena of a philosophical system foreign to the apostles, Fathers, and Reformers. In short, if we are going to use the word, we will need to submit ourselves to the system from which it arose. On these terms, inerrancy is indefensible.
Horton: Let me respond to both of your answers--first, on the question of whether inerrancy requires investment in a whole philosophical system (modernist epistemology). Surely words such as "hypostatic," "Trinity," and, for that matter, biblical terms such as "Logos" (Word) and even "Theos" (God) don't have to be used exactly the same way that most people used them in antiquity. I'm not sure why the claim that the Bible doesn't err is wrapped up in Enlightenment philosophy, especially when the term itself was used by Augustine and many others since. Furthermore, I sympathize with your point about the qualifications that the formal statements of inerrancy often make: only the original autographs, not the copies; the distinction between discrepancies and actual errors; and so forth. However, the closer I study these qualifications, the more valid they seem. We do have access to the "original autographs" indirectly by comparing the best-attested families of manuscripts. The whole enterprise of textual criticism assumes we can reconstruct the original autographs to such an extent that the only remaining questions concern verses that do not affect any article of faith and practice. And doesn't it make sense to discriminate between discrepancies (apparent conflicts)--for which in many cases good explanations have been offered--and errors or contradictions.
Second, when we look at issues such as young earth creationism, that's a question of interpretation, not the character of the text as such. I'm as worried about the way the young earth argument handles the Scriptures as I am about the science. If they misinterpret the Scriptures, expecting it to answer questions beyond its scope and intention, then I fail to see how the inerrancy of Scripture itself is jeopardized.
Third, when Michael says that the Bible operates with a broader understanding of "truth" than modernistic assumptions (technical accuracy, like mathematics), I cannot only concur but could cite Warfield and the Chicago Statement to support that point. Fundamentalists and modernists have defended and rejected biblical truthfulness by demanding modern standards of exactitude. For example, clearly the mustard seed is not the smallest seed, but Jesus wasn't giving a lecture on botany--and since he did not know the time or hour of his return, we shouldn't assume that Jesus knew what the smallest seed was in any case during his earthly humiliation. That's why the Chicago Statement says the Bible is "without error in all that it affirms." As a fully human book, the Bible exhibits the weaknesses, limitations, and cultural locations of each writer. All of this is affirmed in such formal statements. Are you sure you're taking issue with this formulation, or is it a more fundamentalist version to which you are responding?
Richmond: Regarding Dr. Horton's comment, "As a fully human book, the Bible exhibits the weaknesses, limitations, and cultural locations of each writer," when we use the word "inerrancy," I am not sure we can enjoy the luxury of such discriminating thinking. As for his reference to St. Augustine and others, I concede their use of the word; but when they used it, they did not have between 500 and 1,500 years of baggage (such as the Enlightenment and Scientific Rationalism) with which to contend.
Spencer: Dr. Horton's answer on young earth creationism assumes that the use of the term "inerrancy" does not necessarily create the problem. I would say that my experience teaching Bible survey leads to the opposite conclusion. When the concept of "no errors" is the presiding concept, then it is the hearer who determines the definition of error that is at work. Copies of the Chicago Statement are not issued to all who hear the term. If I say "Genesis is without error" to an audience of sharp, science-minded students, they will read Genesis and say, "Then there is water above the firmament and the earth is the unmovable center of the universe." The fact that you and I have interpretative moves to make at that point doesn't deter someone taking the shortest route from seeing inerrancy in the same way they see the concept of "without error" operating in their own view of truth. It is Christians--and especially the engineers of the broad use of the term "inerrant"--who have developed a special definition to relieve the interpretative tension. When we use the term, no asterisk is necessary. When the ordinary person hears it, a whole seminar on "errors that aren't really errors" is needed.
When Dr. Horton says, "As a fully human book, the Bible exhibits the weaknesses, limitations, and cultural locations of each writer," I am wondering where it becomes apparent to the layperson that these things are true. The popular notion of inerrancy is used by literalists and young earth creationists every day to question the orthodoxy of people who believe the Bible. Inerrancy was the cry of the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention by conservatives, primarily because the term immediately raised the question of "do you really believe the Bible?" Baptist moderates may have had a neo-orthodox view of Scripture, but they believed the Bible was true. It was the inerrancy debate that determined exactly how that answer would and wouldn't hold water, and it was along the lines I discussed above: literalism.
Horton: It sounds again to me as if inerrancy is being confused with literalism, which is a category mistake. Inerrancy is a claim about the truth of the text and literalism is a way of misreading the Bible or any other text, inerrant or not. An audience of sharp, science-minded students should hopefully have had enough literature courses to be able to interpret genres other than science textbooks. Warfield labored the point that the Bible isn't a science textbook. In fact, he favored theistic evolution! Scope, purpose, and genre have to be considered. Then you have to distinguish views that finite and fallen people might have assumed in their worldview from what they actually teach. To be sure, these are complicated issues, but they aren't about inerrancy; they're about interpretation--and with or without inerrancy, everyone has to do that. Yes, there are extreme views of inspiration (such as dictation, which is basically denying the humanity of Scripture), and there are inerrantists who think of the Bible as a catalog of propositional descriptions of astronomy, geology, and math. But, again, those are interpretative flaws that lead people either to deny inerrancy or to develop extreme views of literal accuracy. Calvin spoke of Scripture as without error. Yet he also reminded us that Moses spoke not as an astronomer but that God condescended to accommodate his revelation to the finite capacity of his covenant people. It seems to me that critics of inerrancy sometimes share with fundamentalists a naive and modernistic set of assumptions about the way to read a series of covenantal documents.
Regarding your other point, would you also say, "There is no Bible itself because we cannot in any way escape the need for interpretation"? Now, this sounds very modernist to me. If that is what you're saying, I'd wonder if we have differences larger than inerrancy. Of course, texts are interpreted, but are you sure you want to collapse text into interpretation without remainder? Would this also mean that there is no qualitative difference between Scripture and tradition?
Richmond: My response about interpretation is tied specifically to the comment, "Chicago Statement itself" (my emphasis). That is, although the statement comes from and exists within a certain context, interpretation (which can be misinterpretation) is always required.
As for the Bible, of course it is objective truth as spoken by God through his apostles and prophets. Tradition, based upon councils (for example), and specifically addressed in our Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, can be and have been wrong. We base our beliefs and behaviors upon the revealed text--not outside of it. Nevertheless, there is a critical role that interpretation plays in this process and, as you know better than I, this is a weighty issue. Quite frankly, our interpretation of the text can make the determination between life and death. And, although the written Word of God, Holy Scriptures also come to us as interpreted texts--unless one subscribes to the dictation theory of how we received our Bible. You stated earlier that God's Word carries with it a certain amount of the cultural baggage. Hermeneutics and homiletics are therefore interpretational exercises.
Horton: Both of your responses seem to confuse inerrancy with interpretation. Nevertheless, you helpfully point out that this is also what a lot of preachers are doing. So are we stuck with having to jettison inerrancy simply because some misuse it? I just don't see the logical connection between "God's Word is entirely trustworthy" and "the earth is about 6,000 years old." Why don't we spend our time showing people that an inerrant Bible doesn't teach a young earth--in fact, doesn't address the age of the earth at all? Also, unless we follow Karl Barth in maintaining that error is intrinsic to humanness, is there a contradiction in your view between affirming the full involvement of the human authors (with their diverse cultural backgrounds, assumptions, and interpretations) along with the Spirit's preservation of the prophets and apostles from errors in all that they actually affirm?
Richmond: Your point is well taken. The emphasis on covenant might be a useful tool for clarifying the boundaries and purposes of inerrancy. Second Timothy 3:16-17, a text familiar to us all, highlights the scope of inerrancy--if we must use the word at all. Scripture is inspired, and I might add inerrant, to accomplish the covenantal purposes of God: teaching, reproving, correcting, training, and equipping of the people of God.
I think, however, that you may give far too much credit to the general population if you think they are aware of the practical implications of genre. I have two good friends, well educated and decidedly Christian, who recently told me that if I was not a biblical literalist, I was not a real Christian. Most people, both friends and enemies of the faith, have a similar perspective about inerrancy. As such, would we not be better served if we were to abandon this word altogether? I would far prefer proclaiming God's good news than having to educate others on the hair-splitting minutia of inerrancy.
Spencer: You give too much credit in the area of interpreting genre. Do you really believe that the popular cry for inerrancy--which is heard in thousands of sermons in churches, youth groups, and conferences--is interpreted to mean, "You can even believe in evolution and be an inerrantist"? The problem may be fundamentalist literalism, but 90 percent of the people who use the term "inerrancy" in my denomination mean exactly that: literalism in every way possible. This is my complaint about its inefficiency and misuse. I agree with you completely about genre and interpretation, and I agree with you completely about all the diverse interpretation possible in the Chicago Statement. There may be room for a broad and safe use of the word in the academy; but here where evangelicalism rules the landscape, "inerrancy" is a test for "Do you believe the Bible literally, oppose evolution, oppose women in ministry?" and so on. The word is a lot of trouble. More trouble than it's worth, in my view.
Richmond: I do apologize if I confuse inerrancy with interpretation. However, even if we assume the viability of inerrancy, we must also assume that the apostles and prophets, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit, engaged in some form of interpretational actions in their choice of words. Inerrancy does not necessarily assume dictation. We do not jettison inerrancy simply because of the possibility of misinterpretation. If that were the case, we might as well dispense with the word "Trinity" as well. We must discard the word "inerrancy" for a number of reasons, all of which were stated in my initial argument. You are, of course, correct: there is no logical connection between inerrancy and a 6,000-year-old earth. This, however, is how the general and even fairly educated population views it.
I find absolutely no contradiction in affirming human authorship and divine inspiration. When we use the term "inerrant," however, many evangelicals play up the divine elements and play down the human elements. If we are to use the word "inerrancy," we must at all costs avoid overemphasizing or underemphasizing either the human or the divine nature of God's revealed Word. God did not superintend error; rather, by our insistence upon using the word "inerrant," we set the text up for misunderstanding, misinterpretation, and (within the context of the word "inerrant" itself) charges of being inaccurate.
Horton: You both have helped to frame up some of the complications involved with maintaining inerrancy in the present situation. However, I'm still left wondering how there's any real connection between the claim that the Bible is without error in all that it affirms and the commitment to post-Enlightenment epistemology and particular interpretations of the age of the earth. I don't find Arminianism a plausible interpretation of the relevant passages. Nevertheless, it would be ridiculous to say that an Arminian brother or sister denies inerrancy because we interpret the passages differently. So what if a lot of folks out there are confusing inerrancy with disputed interpretations of the text? Aren't you rejecting inerrancy for the same reasons? I haven't yet heard an argument (exegetical, theological, or historical) for why you think inerrancy is a flawed formula.
Spencer: Of course, the assumption here is that I would have something to prove beyond the language of the Westminster Confession's chapter on Scripture. It was the Chicago Statement creators who took upon themselves the burden of mounting an exegetical, theological, and historical argument that previous confessions regarding Scripture were inadequate without this additional confessional document--a document that functions in a very different way from any church-sanctioned confession such as the WCF. So you are correct: I have no desire to be the two-millionth person to undertake an examination of passages discussing inspiration and authority, knowing those discussions have yielded nothing new. No, it is those who have run up the flag of inerrancy who owe the rest of the body of Christ an explanation for why previous formulations of Scripture's authority were not adequate and why an insistence on inerrancy reflects the meaning of Scripture's own teaching and the church's own confession better than the language of those upon whose shoulders we stand.
Horton: I'm sure you would agree that confessions are historically conditioned. From the earliest days, the church was implicitly trinitarian in its baptism, prayers, liturgies, and hymns. The heretics pushed the church to formulate the dogma of the Trinity in clearer terms. Same with the christological debates, the Pelagian heresy, and on we could go. Yet even heretics either quoted Scripture as authoritative or (as in the case of the Gnostics) appealed to their own secret texts.
Only with the advent of Socinianism and the Enlightenment did professing Christians begin to question whether divine inspiration preserved the scriptural canon from error. Clement of Rome, who died toward the end of the first century, wrote that in "the Holy Scriptures which are given through the Holy Spirit nothing iniquitous or falsified is written." Augustine added, "The evangelists are free from all falsehood, both from that which proceeds from deliberate deceit and that which is the result of forgetfulness." Luther declared, "I am profoundly convinced that none of the writers have erred." Same with Calvin, although he noted in detail apparent discrepancies, difficulties, and open questions concerning textual criticism. In modern times, papal encyclicals have insisted upon inerrancy, sometimes even falling into the exaggerated position of a dictation theory (which evangelical statements like the Chicago Statement reject), and both Vatican I and Vatican II affirm that the Bible is inerrant. So, further reflection on the nature of Scripture was precipitated by modernist criticism--and by a concern to distinguish the view from fundamentalism. To say, however, that inerrancy arose Phoenix-like from the ooze of modern epistemology is wide of the mark.
While I affirm the Westminster Confession's statement on Scripture (viz., that it is "the only infallible rule for faith and life"), I also affirm inerrancy as a tragically necessary "further report." Infallible used to mean not only inerrant but incapable of erring. It was a stronger word than inerrancy. As we know, however, in the 1970s "infallible" became a weaker alternative to "inerrant." Sadly, we need to clarify what would in other centuries have been a perfectly obvious confession for believers. I wish we didn't need inerrancy, but we do. I wish we didn't need to qualify what we mean and don't mean by affirming the trustworthiness of Scripture, but we do. Things are a lot more complicated now, but it is not because inerrantists have too much time on their hands. It is because we are more aware than ever both of the challenges to scriptural authority and the necessity of defending it. With Warfield, I don't believe that denying inerrancy is a heresy, but I don't see how we can adjudicate truth and error at all when it is up to us to determine what in Scripture we will receive as divinely revealed canon.
Richmond: You are correct that "confessions are historically conditioned." And yet it seems to me that you have a bit of difficulty acknowledging--in practice--that the word "inerrancy" is a minefield of historic conditioning. I fully embrace the three catholic creeds as far as they correspond with Holy Scripture. But, in spite of your historic quotes, I cannot afford the doctrine of inerrancy the same latitude. Socinianism and the Enlightenment have forever changed how we understand and discuss inspiration and inerrancy. I am pleased you listed Clement of Rome, St. Augustine, Luther, and Calvin. They communicate historically important information relevant to this discussion--although both Luther and Calvin, as you pointed out regarding Calvin, "noted in detail apparent discrepancies, difficulties, and open questions." There are "discrepancies, difficulties, and open questions"--and all of the books on how to reconcile these apparent difficulties do very little to resolve the conflicts arising from the great philosophical shifts to which you make mention, or our evangelical response to them. Inerrancy in no way "arose Phoenix-like from the ooze of modern epistemology," as you have pointed out. This has been my point throughout this discussion. My concern is, in part, that in our seeking to mount a defense against the critics, we are appealing to the very system of thought we seek to combat. That is, as stated earlier, we have abandoned proclamation for proofs. The classic creeds sought to prove nothing, only to state what God has revealed in his written Word and to assert our belief in what God said: "I believe...we believe."
You have written, "But I don't see how we can adjudicate truth and error at all when it is up to us to determine what in Scripture we will receive as divinely revealed canon." How very unfortunate that the apostles, prophets, Fathers, and Reformers did not have the doctrine of inerrancy to bolster their wavering faith in what God has said in Holy Scripture. You quote Clement, Augustine, and others, but fail to demonstrate how they understood their words regarding Scripture correlates with how we understand and apply the word "inerrancy." To say that, according to Luther, "none of the writers have erred" is not to say the same thing as the text is "inerrant." Five hundred years divide us from such a luxury.
Along with your Westminster Confession, our Thirty-nine Articles of Religion assert, "Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation." This statement is found in Article VI, "Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation." I affirm, embrace, and seek to conduct my life according to the full sufficiency of Holy Scripture. Holy Scripture is true, trustworthy, and authoritative--and I do not need inerrancy to help me arrive at these positions. What is my "answer"? Pray, preach, and teach the good news of Jesus Christ. If we do these things and use the creeds as interpretational arbiters, we will be far better off than if we use the word "inerrant."
In summary, biblically, the word "inerrant" (or related terms) is not found in Holy Scripture. We find the word "inspired," and I am more than willing to embrace this. We also find phrases such as "the word of the Lord" and "Scripture," both of which I have no hesitation about using. I assume you abide by, or seek to abide by, the "regulative principle." Those of us who are orthodox Anglicans also seek to abide by such a guideline when we read in the Sixth Article of Religion, "Nobody should be required to believe as an article of the Christian faith...anything that is not found in Scripture or cannot be proved from Scripture" (An Anglican Prayer Book, Anglican Mission in America; emphasis mine). While I concede that you can extrapolate from Scripture the doctrine of inerrancy, it is not central to it.
Philosophically, inerrancy is tainted by the doctrines of the world. When we use the word "inerrant," we shift the balance of discussion and debate from proclamation to proof. When we examine, as two examples, the sermons of Peter or of Steven, we find no hint of trying to prove (as we use the term) what God has said. They proclaimed what they knew and had experienced. The proof, so to speak, was in the proclamation--lived in and among the community of God. Although the Fathers and Reformers used terms such as "without error," the term or statement cannot be the same as when we use the term "inerrant." One could say that when it is communicated that "St. George slew the dragon," both we and the ancients clearly understand what this means. Not so! We know there never were dragons. We understand the word, but the content has changed. The philosophical shifts you identified have forever limited how we can use the term (if we use it at all) "inerrant." Did St. George slay a dinosaur? Maybe. Was there ever a St. George?
Literarily, the story of St. George is not lessened in its impact by appreciating that it may not be historic. Inerrancy, in spite of what anyone says, lends itself to a literal understanding of the text, especially in its general lay-level use.
Psychologically, the use of the term sets up a certain game plan in many minds. "Inerrant" is a word that the world--and many in the church--understand literally as "without error." The word "literally" is crucial here. As you pointed out and cited Calvin in this regard, the Bible is full of difficulties and inconsistencies, but they could easily be navigated if we abandoned the term "inerrant."
Emotionally, the tension between our insistence upon the word "inerrant" and the obvious inconsistencies found in the sacred text create a cognitive dissonance that in some cases leads to both criticisms from the world and crises of faith among our weaker brothers and sisters. I am sure you are aware that to some degree "post-evangelicalism" arose from the inerrancy debate. On the other side of this are my well-educated friends whose militancy about inerrancy makes me wonder whether this doctrine is for them little more than a crutch for a wavering faith in a fearful world. Those who shout the loudest are usually those who are most fearful. Inerrancy is a fear-based, not a faith-based, doctrine.
Socially, the doctrine is divisive. As a "nonessential," we are majoring in a minor that divides faithful believers. Note Baxter's wisdom: "In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Horton: Once again I fail to see why the claim that "the Bible in its original autographs is without error in all that it affirms" is inextricably bound up with weird science and Descartes. Inerrancy isn't a proof; it's a claim. Yet why are proofs inherently a bad business? Do you mean a certain kind of Cartesian proof that dreams the impossible dream of finite and sinful creatures having invincible, incorrigible certainty? The idea that there is absolute truth (in God) Christians can affirm, but on theological grounds we cannot say that we have absolute truth. Our knowledge is ectypal, accommodated to our finite capacity as creatures, while God's is archetypal.
Of course, "Jesus is Lord" is a claim, not a proof. Regardless of how Christians of different apologetic persuasions have gone on to argue (or not argue) for that claim, we shouldn't give up the claim because it's a historically conditioned minefield. I'm not equating inerrancy with "Jesus is Lord," just using it to make a point.
I don't question at all that inerrancy is a minefield of historic conditioning, like any term in our Christian grammar such as the more central words: Trinity, hypostatic union, Word, and so forth. "This present age," whether pre-modern, modern, or postmodern, is a minefield through which Christians must always navigate, trying in their limited and fallen (but hopefully faithful) way to articulate clearly that to which (and to whom) they are giving testimony. It isn't "proofs" over "proclamation" simply to give reasons for the hope that we have (1 Pet. 3:15), answering objections and opponents (2 Tim. 2:24-25), and reasoning with people in the synagogues and markets (Acts 17:1-34). In fact, the refusal to stand over the Scriptures in judgment was the very thing that Enlightenment rationalists scorned.
I am not saying that you stand over the Scriptures in judgment. At the same time, I don't know how you or I or anybody else can justify submission to Scripture while having to pick out the bits that one does find useful for faith and practice and therefore inspired. I have frequently lamented the fact that some conservative evangelical approaches share with their liberal nemeses a deep commitment to modern foundationalism. However, it's anachronistic to saddle pre-modern Christians such as Clement and Augustine with all of this baggage simply because they said the Bible is inerrant.
May I say something in agreement though? Inerrancy in theory doesn't secure a high view of Scripture in practice. One should lead to the other, but often it does not. There is a lot of "hot air" preaching out there. Preachers say what they want to say and, waving their Bible, find a few verses to adorn their opinions and exhortations. The way the Bible is handled today by conservatives is often appalling. It's no wonder that especially younger generations are cynical about the power of Scripture and preaching when too often they encounter only the dogmatic assertions or moralism of their pastors rather than clear proclamation of the law and the gospel.
I've been impressed with the way the Reformers and their successors argued that the inspiration and authority of Scripture depended not only on its form (as inspired) but also on its content. They thought about this in very trinitarian terms: Scripture is authoritative because it comes from the Father, with the Son as its content, and the Spirit as the one who not only inspires the text but illumines our hearts and minds to understand and receive it. Fundamentalists too easily reduce inspiration to the Father's act of speaking; progressives too easily reduce it to the Son as its content (a canon-within-a-canon), and enthusiasts too easily reduce inspiration to illumination or raise illumination to inspiration (separating the Spirit from the Word).
Having said all of this, I don't think the answer is to put up with the inconsistency of fundamentalists, progressives, or enthusiasts, but to submit ourselves to the inerrant canon of our Covenant Lord. Inerrancy invites challenges, qualifications, and further explanation. But so does every other view on the spectrum. There's no way of evading this question simply because it is abused and misunderstood.
Jesus regarded the words of Scripture as his Father's own Word (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10; 5:17-20; 19:4-6; 26:31, 52-54; Luke 4:16-21; 16:17; 18:31-33; 22:37; 24:25-27, 45-47; John 10:35). Peter insisted that the prophets did not speak from themselves but as they "were carried along by the Spirit" (2 Pet. 1:21) and in 3:15-16 refers to Paul's letters as "Scriptures" (graphas). Similarly, Paul refers to Luke's Gospel as "Scripture" in 1 Timothy 5:18 (cf. Luke 10:7). Paul calls Scripture "the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus," and adds, "All Scripture is breathed out by God [theopneustos] and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:15-17). The Scriptures accomplish what they do (making you wise for salvation/equipping ministers) not only insofar as they speak of Christ or insofar as the Spirit speaks through them, but because of what they are: namely, the Word of God.
As early as his temptation in the desert, Jesus was quoting Scripture against Satan and the religious rulers, answering not with his own words but with the Scriptures, "It is written" (Matt. 4:1-11). Throughout his ministry, as John's Gospel especially emphasizes, Jesus claimed the Father as the source of his teaching. He was not bringing his own words. The Father always speaks in the Son and by the Spirit. It is the Father's word and work that he was bringing to the world. It's no wonder, then, that Jesus spoke as one having authority, unlike the scribes and Pharisees. He not only spoke the Father's words, he is the Father's Word. And yet, even he refused to turn inward and evaluate truth and error by his own lights. Even Jesus refused the path of autonomy--knowing good and evil apart from the Father's authority. He submitted to the Scriptures.
This same Jesus spoke of the words of the prophets as the very word of God. He believed there was a historical Adam whose son Abel was slain by his brother Cain (Matt. 23:35). Jesus affirmed the historical events of Noah and the flood (Luke 17:26), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, including Lot's wife being turned into a pillar of salt (vv. 28-32), and Jonah's having been swallowed by a whale (Matt. 12:40-41). Let fundamentalists and liberals fight over whether the mustard seed is the smallest seed; Jesus wasn't giving a lecture on botany but a sermon on his kingdom for people who were familiar with mustard trees. If indeed all authority in heaven and on earth is given to Jesus Christ, demonstrated by his resurrection from the dead, then it seems hardly appropriate for us to stand over the authoritative Word to which he, though God incarnate, so joyfully submitted.
I don't doubt that much of what I have said here can be affirmed without endorsing inerrancy, but not without contradiction. Inerrancy is a lot of trouble, but given the alternatives, it's worth it.
Richmond: Dr. Horton suggests that "inerrancy is not a proof; it is a claim." This may be true, but inevitably and invariably the assertion of inerrancy leads to proofs. If this is not the case, why are all of the books by inerrantists trying to reconcile texts? Proofs are, indeed, not bad business; it is entirely a matter of what platform we seek to establish and communicate those proofs upon. Inerrancy is the wrong platform in our current context. I fully endorse 1 Peter 3: 15, 2 Timothy 2: 24-25, and Acts 17: 1-34. I have an active coffeehouse ministry where I am able to share Christ's good news--and oddly with very little, if any, from the inerrantist position.
I understand the reasoning from your perspective, about how abandoning inerrancy may appear to be picking out the "bits and pieces" of "faith and practice." It is a danger to us all, even for those who do embrace the inerrantist position. But again, it is a pitfall for every one of us. Are you willing to concede the full authority and inerrancy of Holy Scripture when our Lord said, "This is my body, this is my blood" as the real and viable presence of Christ in the Sacrament?
In no way do I "saddle" Clement and Augustine and others with the baggage of foundationalism or any other modern or postmodern philosophy. What I do assert is that, although they used words similar to inerrant, they did not nor could not use the word in the same way we do. This is because they were entirely unfamiliar with such philosophical systems. My position is that inerrantists must interpret the Fathers and Reformers anachronistically if they are going to correlate the statements of the Fathers and Reformers with how we understand and use and apply the word "inerrant."
Yes, a high view of Scripture is worth upholding. We are agreed. "Scripture is authoritative because it comes from [God.]" Well said. I'm good with this.
Spencer: My initial observation upon the invitation to address this subject was that my grievance with inerrancy is relatively small and I am not in any way qualified to put forward a third position in the debate. I do represent, in my own theological training and in my ministry among Southern Baptists, an observer and a practitioner of the concept of biblical authority as it works out in teaching, in preaching, and most importantly in the development of disciples.
The authority of the Bible does not reside in the words we use about it. All of us who are teachers and communicators are aware that any term or concept will be illustrated and tried in the real world of Christian practice and spiritual formation. How does the Bible affect, shape, and influence those who read and believe it? How does its proclamation communicate its relationship to God? How do individual Christians experience the authority, inerrancy, and divine nature of Scripture?
Much of my current ministry is with international students. I learned long ago that a single concept, such as inspiration, could not be trusted to communicate completely across the cultural divide. Practice, reverence, and application spoke much more deeply to my students about the inspiration of the Bible than simply the acquisition of a word they hear in English classes and even in motivational talks. Understanding inspiration ultimately depends on connecting the Bible as we read it with the God we are reverencing, worshiping, and seeking to know. The concept of inspiration required me to relate more than a theological or historical sense of how the Bible is viewed. It required me to demonstrate, in practice, what it meant to hear Holy Scripture as the words of men carried along by the Holy Spirit so that they wrote the words of God.
Again, it is my own practice in using the Bible that will speak to these internationals most clearly about the truthfulness of Scripture. Many of them come from cultures where the prosperity gospel uses biblical literalism and poor interpretation to distort the gospel. Others will see the Scriptures as a manual for spiritual warfare based upon their view of the truthfulness of texts. I do not wish to discourage their confidence in the truth of the Bible, but I do wish to center their concepts of the Bible's inspiration and authority in Jesus, in good interpretative practices, in listening to the wisdom of the larger church, and in avoiding extremes that "prove" the Bible's truthfulness at the expense of its gospel.
Michael Horton is co-host of the White Horse Inn and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation. Michael Spencer is a writer (www.InternetMonk.com) living in southeastern Kentucky. His first book is scheduled for publication in late 2010 by Waterbrook Press. The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a presbyter and examining chaplain with the Reformed Episcopal Church, is author of multiple books, articles, poetry, and art. His most recent book is A Short Season in Hell: Meditations on Dante (Episcopal Recorder Publications, 2010).
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Issue: "Inspiration and Inerrancy" March/April 2010 Vol. 19 No. 2 Page number(s): 33-40
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