Is Inerrancy Still Important?

Posted: May 21, 2013 in bible, theology

Yes, at least according to Michael Horton, J. Gresham Machen Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary in California. In this excerpt from a round-table discussion posted at the Modern Reformation website, Horton offers a nuanced defense of inerrancy, arguing that the doctrine is still important for evangelicals today.

On the difference between inerrancy and literalism:

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…

On the contextual nature of all theological development:

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.

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