Inerrancy: summing up the debate
Views about the inerrancy of Scripture and the importance to the individual, the church, evangelism and defence of the faith
Since my article on Scripture last December, several others have joined the discussion. I was pleased that in the January issue, and then in more detail last month, Dr. Alister McGrath was kind enough to pursue the discussion.
He identified the 'crucial issue' as 'the extent to which evangelicalism has been affected by rationalism'. Certainly this matter must be faced and it is right that we all re-examine our own presuppositions. An approach that reduces Scripture to propositional form only is inadequate, as I previously argued, and probably reflects the influence of rationalism. Nevertheless, a careful reading of Warfield et al, shows that they did view Scripture in at least something of the more rounded way that Dr. Packer described (February).
We must be careful here not to set up some sort of 'straw man'. However, my concern is not to defend Warfield, but to defend the same truth (God's Word) for our age. On this issue I believe I am in substantial agreement with Dr. McGrath. But let me now develop some of my concerns, not in direct relation to anything he has personally said, but rather in areas where I think we need to work harder for a vigorous defence of God's completely truthful Scriptures.
Who's being rationalistic?
First, while some re-statements of the doctrine of Scripture may appear too rationalistic, I believe the greatest effect of rationalism among evangelicals in England is seen in the wide-scale acceptance of the 'assured results of biblical criticism'. Much of this is down to theological colleges. Little could be more rationalistic than some of the methods used to get those results! Many who insist we that we talk of Scripture as 'story' or argue that 'narrative' readings of Scripture are the best, are not doing so because they consider Warfield had too 'low' a view of Scripture! Rather they have found 'narrative' to be a way of avoiding many of the questions about truth and historicity with which they have felt uncomfortable - hence my insistence in December that we must proclaim loudly and clearly in our age, as others have done in theirs, that God still speaks, and that he does that in Scripture which is true. For me, therefore, the 'crucial' issue is reaffirming in our day and age that Scripture is God's Word throughout. Of course, this will involve us in careful work with the text, but what we understand the text of Scripture to affirm (even in apparently insignificant historical detail) we shall want to proclaim as God's Word. Only by doing this will we be able properly to challenge the philosophies of our day, whether rationalistic modernism or experiential and pragmatic postmodernism.
Doctrine of God
Second, let's reaffirm the utter trustworthiness of Scripture through our doctrine of God. Dr. Packer reminded us that inerrancy can be asserted as 'integral to authentic Christianity', because it was taught by Christ and the apostles. Prior to that, though, God's Word is what it is, because God is who he is (see, for example, Westminster Confession I.3). Because God cannot lie and is perfect and holy, so his words and deeds in Scripture do not lie and are perfect and holy.
God's Word over us
Third, if the Bible is more than simply propositions, it is most certainly more than 'story'. Nowadays, we frequently hear people talking of the Bible as 'story' or 'God's narrative'. Some of those people then seem to propose something like a Barthian view of Scripture. Thus the 'story' 'contains' God's word to us or is a 'witness' to that word, or, specially, to Jesus. I continue to think this is a seriously defective definition of the Bible's authority and inspiration. Michael Peat (February) touched on this in talking of a 'functional' or an 'absolutist' understanding of inerrancy. Is the Bible the Word of God to the extent that we see Christ or come to know Christ through it? Or is the Bible the absolutely trustworthy Word of God independently of its effects? Traditional evangelicals would want to affirm the latter. In other words, we wish to submit to God's Word which stands over us and by which all will be judged, even those who have not believed. It does not just 'become' God's Word to us.
The use of the word 'story' for the Bible is, anyway, most unhelpful for it means different things. If it means, as it does for some postmodernists, what Schaeffer used to call a 'world and life view', I have no problem with it. However, in the normal non-academic world most people understand 'story' to mean 'non-historical'.
If we wish to say that what the Bible affirms historically must have happened, then the word 'story' must be avoided. Neither does the word help us in academic debates on Scripture. The word has several denotations even among theologians. I know one theologian who admits he uses the word 'story' because he believes the Bible cannot be trusted historically, while another believes that history is a vital element of the 'story'! Suggestion: avoid the term, and recognise that the word 'narrative' creature almost as great a problem.
Necessity and sufficiency
Fourth, we must reaffirm loudly the necessity of Scripture. Ranald Macaulay and Michael Peat took up my point about Scripture and epistemology. Ranald rightly asserted the necessity of Scripture for all true and full knowledge of God and his world. It is interesting that, as some evangelicals have lost confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, so they have found themselves unable to assert other related doctrines like the sufficiency, or even clarity of Scripture.
Fifth, let's beware of a new and subtle reduction of Scripture's authority which takes place when people suggest that the Bible is only fully authoritative for 'Faith and Practice'. For some this has become and excuse to ignore what they see as discrepancies or inaccuracies of history, etc. These are not important, they say, because the purpose of the Bible is to speak of salvation and how to live. However, this will never do justice to the Bible's own claims about itself, or to Jesus' use of the Bible. The apostle Paul clearly affirms his belief in everything found in the law or written in the prophets (Acts 24.14). Indeed, whatever was written (in the Old Testament) 'was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of Scripture we might have hope' (Romans 15.4).
Does it matter?
The problem with this discussion for many is simply this: 'If we trust in Jesus and receive forgiveness, does our view of Scripture matter?' Let me begin by saying that belief in the inerrancy of Scripture is not required for salvation. We are saved by God's grace and through faith in Christ crucified. It is important, then, that we do not doubt others' salvation because they hold a different view of Scripture. Nevertheless it does matter.
1. It matters for the individual. We need to know that the person we commit our lives to, really is who we believe his is, and really did do what we believe he did. Our long-term assurance and knowledge of God must depend on more than feelings or experiences. What happens when our feelings suggest God is no longer there, or when we face death and no longer feel certain about Christ? What happens when theologians tell us that God could never have demanded his own Son as a sacrifice for sin? Well, God has given us his fully trustworthy Word so that we can know he is there, that he speaks, that he died a substitute for us, and so on.
Deeply practical issues like this are significantly affected by our view of the inspiration and authority of the whole of Scripture. The challenge to the truth of God's Word is as acute today as it was for Eve when Satan said: 'Did God really say . . .? (Gen.3.1). Without confidence in the total trustworthiness of Scripture our confidence in Christ suffers, Christian assurance and joy are diminished, and obedience to God is determined by the parts of Scripture we choose to accept.
2. It matters for the church. The loss of confidence in Scripture has had a terrible impact on both national and local churches. If the Bible can't be trusted in such basic things as recounting history, then it certainly can't be trusted to say anything of great value across cultures and generations to our society. no wonder the church is rarely ever seriously 'prophetic', thinking and speaking out God's Word with authority to our nation.
A lack of commitment to Scripture has also demeaned our worship. people no longer judge the appropriateness of worship by Scripture. Experience and 'feeling good' about what we do guides decisions about worship. We have ample testimony in Scripture to those who did not treat God's Word as finally trustworthy on matters of worship.
3. It matters for evangelism and the defence of the faith. We live in a world where vast amounts of 'knowledge' and 'facts' are available to us at the touch of a button and yet in which people feel nothing is certain. It is a world where the whole concept of 'truth' has changed. I can now have 'my truth' and you can have 'your truth' and both can be mutually contradictory, and most people have no problem with that! We must assert with love and care, but with firmness, that the one true God has spoken and, in his great mercy, we have access to his truth.
Yes, belief in the unerring nature of the Bible as God speaking does matter. If 'inerrancy' sounds too negative a description, then talk of 'utter trustworthiness' or of 'the holly truthful Word of God' or some such. But let's not miss the point. This is the watershed. If, under God's blessing, we live to see revival, I am sure it will be preceded by a renewed confidence that God's Word is utterly true, even in the detail, and can be preached, discussed and lived-out without embarrassment.
Paul Gardner received his PhD from Cambridge for work on 2 Corinthians and taught New Testament at Oak Hill College for seven years. He is minister in an Anglican church in Hartford, Cheshire and also Rural Dean of Middlewich.