A rejoinder to Paul Gardner
Further discussion on the nature of Scripture (see December 1996) (Bulldog forJanuary)
Last month we published a critique concerned that some evangelical scholars are departing from the traditional evangelical position that Scripture is inerrant. Here is Dr McGrath's reply . . .
I am delighted to join the helpful discussion initiated by Dr. Paul Gardner on the authority of Scripture.
Our central evangelical affirmation of the total authority and reliability of Scripture is of such importance that we must keep talking about the best ways of affirming and defending that authority in the face of the many challenges it faces today. Severe limits on space will not allow me to address the issues raised by Dr. Gardner in the full depth which they deserve. However, I hope that this brief response will be helpful.
In common with all evangelicals, I affirm the total trustworthiness and reliability of Scripture in all that it teaches. I believe that words penned by James I. Packer, affirming this unique authority of Scripture back in 1962, remain as relevant as they have ever been: 'Infallible' means 'not liable to be mistaken, or to mislead'; 'inerrant' means 'free from all falsehood'. Both words express negatively the positive idea that the Bible is entirely reliable and trustworthy in all that it asserts. To profess faith in the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is therefore to express the intention of believing all that it is found to teach, on the grounds that it is true . . . The conservative evangelical differs from his liberal brother, not by committing himself to interpret the Bible in a different way, but by committing himself in advance to believe whatever the Bible turns out to be saying'.
There is no doubt that God has spoken, and continues to speak, to his people in and through Scripture. I am puzzled that Dr. Gardner should think I have any problem affirming this, but am delighted to affirm it now to avoid any misunderstandings. Equally, I have no difficulty in affirming that Scripture is true (see the Packer quote above), although I hope that we would take care to ensure that we understand the terms 'true' and 'truth' in biblical, not rationalistic, terms.
The crucial issue is the debate over the extent to which evangelicalism has been affected by rationalism. Many evangelical scholars are now expressing anxiety about the way in which evangelicalism has been deeply influenced by the Enlightenment rationalism. I am convinced that we need a new Reformation, in which we seek to purge evangelicalism from such rationalist ideas, and return to more biblical ways of thinking. Evangelicals were affirming the inspiration and authority of Scripture long before Hodge or Warfield, and I am of the view that we need to return to pre-modern approaches to these vital issues - such as those we find in Luther and Calvin. Dr. Gardner thinks that I am 'post-modern' because I am interested in narrative. But the reality is that I am pre-modern here, wishing to return to authentic evangelical approaches which flourished before Enlightenment rationalism made it unfashionable to adopt them. Our Lord's extensive use of narrative in his parables must somehow find its way into our thinking and practice. I have never found our Lord dismissed for teaching in this manner!
As recent scholarship has made clear, the traditional interest in narrative came into conflict with the rationalism, of the Enlightenment. But now that this rationalism is passing away, we can go back to our great evangelical forebears, and recover the approaches which they adopted. I find them exciting and powerful!
I fully appreciate that many evangelicals will prefer to remain with the approach adopted by Hodge and Warfield. I respect that position, although I have misgivings about certain very specific aspects of it. My approach is simply to go back to an older evangelical position, which is just as evangelical and just as worthy of respect.
There is potentially a very helpful, fruitful and friendly discussion possible within evangelicalism over this matter. I hope that those evangelicals wishing to re-discover the great heritage of the Reformation at this point will not be portrayed as having somehow abandoned authentic evangelicalism. Our concern must always be to affirm biblical truth without (whether by accident or design) contaminating it with rationalist ideas (such as Spinoza's view of 'truth', or the view of language associated with Francis Hutcheson and Thomas Reid), or with any other extra-biblical ideas, whatever their source.
But we must not allow this important internal discussion to overshadow the common evangelical commitment to the supreme authority of Scripture. I am concerned that intra-evangelical debates often weaken our shared witness to the wonder of the gospel and the supreme claims of Jesus Christ, partly by diverting us from evangelism, and partly by souring relationships between our brothers and sisters in Christ. Dr. Gardner has not merely initiated an important discussion; he has done so with grace and love. I hope the discussion will continue in this spirit.
Dr. McGrath is the Principal of Wycliffe Hall (an Anglican theological college), Oxford.