Inerrancy of the Bible

Written for Dr. Frank James, History of Christianity II, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, May 2003.

Historical Background of the Debate

There seem to be two lines of thought on the how the debate over inerrancy began. Not surprisingly, the two views of history appear to be divided down the lines of the parties in the debate. Both sides accuse the other of starting it!

Those who affirm infallibility, but not inerrancy claim that the first mention of an inerrant Bible appeared in the late seventeenth century in Francis Turretin’s Instituio theologiae elencticae. Turretin’s work and the concept of inerrancy became a mainstay of the Princeton Theology under Archibald Alexander during most of the nineteenth century and was further refined by Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, who affirmed inerrancy as to scientific, historical or geographical matters. Non-inerrantists contend that the influence of Scholasticism and Scottish Common Sense philosophy contributed to its move away from what they consider the traditional teaching of the church for nearly two millenia. Non-inerrantists, then, believe that inerrancy was a new idea introduced into the church by Turretin and passed down to the present day, especially in Reformed circles.

On the other hand, those who affirm inerrancy believe that the debate began in the twentieth century with G. C. Berkouwer, Herman Ridderbos, James Orr and others in reaction to pressure from those engaged in biblical criticism. When faced with a growing body of apparent contradictions in the Bible, they reasoned that these problems were due to the fallibility of the human authors. Inerrantists, then, view the concept of non- or limited inerrancy as a new idea, outside of the historic tradition of the church. They quote Augustine in support of inerrancy who wrote in the fifth century, “none of these (scriptural) authors has erred in any respect of writing.” However, limited inerrantists counter this by saying that what Augustine and his followers meant was that “it did not include any purposeful deceits. Therefore it could include technical mistakes in the areas of science and history.” So goes the debate over the history of the debate.

Definitions

Definitions abound over the meanings of the words infallibility, inerrancy and limited inerrancy. Some of the confusion arises from the fact that none of these are words found in Scripture, and therefore are more difficult to define precisely. The issue that is at stake in the debate is the authority of Scripture and in part the meaning of the Biblical word theopneustos found in 2 Tim. 3:16 translated “inspired by God,” given by inspiration of God,” or “God-breathed.”

As Evangelicals, both sides agree on the inspiration of Scripture in addition to other supernatural tenets of the faith such as the virgin birth, the incarnation, miracles and the resurrection. Davis rightly states that though infallibility is not a biblical term, it strongly sets Evangelicals apart from those who are more liberal or neo-orthodox. Liberal theologians view the Bible merely as a human text – “written, copied, translated and interpreted by fallible humans” which “contains contradictions…legend and saga, inaccuracies…not to be regarded as God’s word.” Neo-orthodox theologians present an “ambiguous view of Scripture” tending to “locate the word not in the Bible but in man’s experience of faith.” In contrast, Evangelicals on both sides of the debate at hand affirm that Scripture is God’s written word (plenary verbal inspiration) and is authoritative.

However, they are not agreed on the extent of this authority. Limited inerrantists are content to affirm that Scripture is inerrant in “matters of faith and practice,” but allow for errors in other matters, while inerrantists assert that every statement in Scripture is true, including matters of history, geography and science. On the question of infallibility, non-inerrantists follow Berkouwer who states, “the purpose of God-breathed Scripture is not at all to provide a scientific gnosis in order to convey and increase human knowledge and wisdom, but to witness of the salvation of God unto faith. Davis concurs, “The Bible is infallible but not inerrant – there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but none on matters of faith and practice.” However, inerrantists insist that infallibility entails inerrancy. To them, infallibility has to do with ability or potential. Infallibility is the inability to make mistakes or errors. An infallible Scripture is “true and reliable in the matters it addresses” and it is impossible “for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and inerrant.” Therefore, it is impossible for the Bible to contain errors. Sproul states it another way: “Scripture in its entirety is inerrant…free from all falsehood, fraud or deceit…” Inerrantists believe that inerrancy is a definitive aspect of infallibility, thus separating them from non-inerrantists.

Arguments

The foregoing describes some of the over-arching issues that separate these two groups. We now turn to some of the finer details of the debate. First, we will look at some of the arguments and counter-arguments against inerrancy. Due to space considerations we will focus our attention on only a few. One of the primary accusations leveled at inerrantists is their seeming lack of concern for irregularities in the so-called “phenomena” of the Bible. Some writers use the word phenomena to refer to all the facts about the Bible. But in this debate phenomena refer to the “irregularities of grammar or spelling, phenomenal descriptions of nature, reports of false statements (e.g., the lies of Satan), or seeming discrepancies between one passage and another,” in other words, the apparent problems of the Bible for which there seem to be no plausible explanation. Such questions include the killing of innocent people in the Israelite conquest (human killing of innocent people normally is morally wrong); David’s numbering of the people (inconsistencies between the two accounts); the “mustard seed” problem (Mt.13:31, 32 – horticultural studies have shown that orchid seeds are smaller); Matthew’s quotation of Jeremiah (the words or thoughts contained in Mat. 27:9,10 are found nowhere in the extant works of Jeremiah); the “Enoch” problem (Jude 14,15 – words attributed to Enoch come from the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch ); and, the “staff” problem (inconsistent reports in Mk. 6:8; Mt. 10:9,10; Luke 9:3) to name a few. Inerrantists typically exhibit caution when dealing with these passages in hopes that future discoveries will decide these apparent contradictions. Beegle insists that this series of suspended judgments shows that the “totality of the Biblical evidence does not prove the doctrine of inerrancy to be a fact. It is still a theory that must be accepted by faith.” He believes that the true biblical view of inspiration must account for all the evidence of Scripture. Inerrantists counter that phenomenal use of language such as “sunrise” and “sunset” are still used today; approximations and non-literal quotations are understood as conventions of language; in regard to fragmentary information, absolute precision by modern standards is not required for something to be true; in regard to confusion over the dating of kings’ reigns, lack of uniformity of standards is not the same in our more scientific world; and, in regard to transcendent truths of Scripture, many paradoxes and antinomies are difficult to harmonize.

A second argument leveled against inerrantists’ is their appeal to the infallibility of the human authors and inerrant original autographs. Inerrantists reason deductively that God does not lie (Tit.1:2; 2 Tim. 2:13), God is not ignorant (Heb. 4:13; Ps. 33:13-15), and Scripture is his word (2 Tim. 3:16). Therefore, Scripture is inerrant. They believe that the texts of the original autographs contain the very words that God intended them to contain, yet without overriding the personality or literary style of the authors. However, there is no sense that God audibly “dictated” the words except in (obvious) rare cases. Rather, they wrote as they were “moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Peter 1:21b). They reason that the original autographs contained no errors as a result. Inerrantists allow for subsequent mistakes in translation and copying but insist that the science of textual criticism keeps these to a minimum so the texts we read today contain very few true errors.

Non-inerrantists counter that the source of the technical errors introduced into the text is a result of their human authorship, that in the process of God’s “accommodation” of his word by using human authors so that man could understand it, inaccuracies were inevitably introduced into the text because all humans are flawed by their fallen nature. Yet, these inaccuracies are not so serious that the message of salvation is lost. In regard to the autographs, non-inerrantists further protest that these non-existent documents are “untestable and unfalsifiable.” Non-inerrantists accuse their opponents of holding a docetic view of Scripture which obscures the humanity of its authors and say that autographs do not play a role in the question of understanding Scripture insisting that Christ and the apostles did not appeal to the autographs but to the imperfect copies available to them. Inerrantists counter that unless we can be assured that the original writers and authographs were true, we cannot know what God has said.

A third argument is that inerrantists are overly precise and take an all-or-nothing view of Scripture as though all of Christianity hangs on defending a few words. Non-inerrantists believe that their opponents are emphasizing the wrong things, focusing on minutia rather than defending the overall salvific message. Rogers and Kim say that the “purpose of Scripture is to reveal salvation truths to man, not to give information about the natural world and history.” Moreover, non-inerrantists accuse inerrantists of being overly rationalistic in defending the Bible, so that “a single flaw in the Bible nullifies the whole thing and takes on “a fortress mentality of (an) orthodoxy in decline.” Pinnock echoes this sentiment when he writes, “The peril of conservative religion today as in Jesus’ day is to bolster up unbiblical behaviour behind a cloak of impeccable orthodoxy.” Innerantists counter that unless we are assured that Scripture is true in all that it says, including history and science, we cannot have assurance that it is true in any thing it says. Some historical details are very important, since our faith is based on what God has done in history. For example, some historical matters recorded in Scripture such as the death and resurrection of Christ directly affect our “faith and practice.” On this point Sproul asks rhetorically, “How do we escape dehistoricizing the gospel and relegating it to a level of supratemporal existential “decision?”

Conclusion. What is at Stake?

Some have asked if the matter of inerrancy will become a “test of Evangelical authenticity” and whether it might eventually lead to the excommunication of dissenters from certain institutions. I agree with Nichole who asserts that “important as this tenet is, we should say that it is not strictly either a sufficient or necessary standard of evangelical truth. It is not sufficient because there are many other tenets that need to be maintained if a person is to be seen as clearly evangelical. What is supremely at stake in this whole discussion is the recognition of the authority of God in Scripture. Are we going to submit unconditionally to the voice of God who has spoken? Or are we going to insist on screening the message….” Pinnock a non-inerrantist, insists that what is at stake is “maintaining equally the humanity and divinity of Scripture.” And he assures us that any hesitancy to embrace inerrancy does not correspond to a decline in respect for Scripture. I agree that it is important to maintain the human element in Scripture, just as it is important to maintain the human aspect of Christ, lest we fall into the sin of Docetism, denying the goodness of God’s creation. Both Scripture and God’s Word (logos) are given to us in part through humanity. But Christ’s humanity did not entail error. In like manner, God’s written word penned by the authors of Scripture does not necessarily entail error. In fact, Scripture tells us that it is “God-breathed,” not unlike what was written by the “finger of God” on Sinai, and therefore cannot be in error. I conclude that what is at stake is the authority of Scripture. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Innerancy affirms, the result of moving away from the total truth of the Bible which God gave causes it to lose its authority, and “what has authority instead is a Bible reduced in content according to the demands of one’s critical reasonings and in principle reducible still further once one has started…to an unstable subjectivism…We affirm that what Scripture says, God says.”

Works Cited

Beegle, Dewey. “Inerrancy and the Phenomena of Scripture.” In The Living God: Readings in Christian Theology, ed. Millard J. Erickson. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1978.

Berkouwer, G. C. Holy Scripture, trans. and ed. Jack B. Rogers. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans,1975.

Davis, Stephen. The Debate About the Bible. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977.

Frame, John M. Doctrine of the Word of God class outline, 2003.

__________. Is the Bible Inerrant? http://www.thirdmill.org.files/english/theology/51039~9 12 9911-37-35 PM~TH.Frame.Inerrancy.pdf.

Geisler, Norman, L. ed., Innerancy. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

Nichole, Roger. “The Nature of Inerrancy” In Inerrancy and Common Sense, ed. N. L. Geisler. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980.

Pinnock, Clark. “Three Views of the Bible in Contemporary Theology.” In Biblical Authority,” ed. Jack Rogers. Waco: Word, 1977.

Rogers, Jack. “The Church Doctrine of Biblical Authority.” Biblical Authority. Waco: Word, 1977.

Sproul, R. C. Explaining Inerrancy: A Commentary. Oakland, Calif.: International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, 1980.

__________. “Sola Scriptura: Crucial to Evangelicalism,” In The Foundation of Biblical Authority, ed. J. M. Boice. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.

Woodbridge, J. D. “Recent Interpretations of Biblical Authority, pt. 2: The Rogers and Kim Proposal in the Balance.” Biblioteca Sacra. v.142, 1985.

Footnotes to be added.

Open Theism

By Daniel L. Sonnenberg, 2003.

Open theism, as propounded by Sanders, Rice, Pinnock and others seems to be a hearty attempt to make God more palatable for the modern mind and to solve some long standing theological mysteries. However, Frame, Piper, Ware and others show that this system of thought is, in the end, untenable according to Scripture and potentially dangerous to the church. An evaluation of these two systems will demonstrate the present author’s agreement with the latter view.

At the outset, Open theists must be given credit, as classmate Rod Miles did in his presentation, for causing Traditional Theists to rethink their arguments on a number of issues and to consider how these arguments might be strengthened. It seems historically that some of our best theology results from challenges such as these. A concise summary of the views of the Traditional Theists and Open Theists as characterized by Rice is found in Frame. These lists do not include every aspect of the theology of each group, but rather the issues in dispute between the two groups. Frame summarizes what Rice calls the Traditional view and, in contrast, the main contentions of Open Theism. I will begin by arranging them contrasting pairs. However, in some cases, there will be an overlap of ideas. Again, these are some of the principle issues Open Theists raise against the Traditional model.

There seem to be six major points of contrast. First, TT (Traditional Theism) emphasizes the sovereignty of God while OT (Open Theism) emphasizes the love of God. A further distinction arises in regard to God’s love between what they call “care and commitment” (found in TT) in contrast to the added dimensions of “sensitivity and responsiveness” found in OT. Second, in TT, God’s decretive will is the ultimate explanation of everything, while in OT God’s will does not determine everything that takes place in the world. Rather, what takes place is a combination of what God and his creatures choose to do. Third, in TT God’s will is irresistible, while in OT creatures can influence God. Man is free in the libertarian sense. Fourth, in TT God is above or outside of time, knowing the past, present and future equally well, while in OT, God dwells in time and knows the past and the present, but learns about the future as it occurs. Fifth, in TT God is “essentially unaffected” by events in the world that impinge on human beings and their feelings about those events, while in OT God is in some ways dependent on the world. That is, he is contingent or dependent in some ways on the decisions of man. Sixth, in TT God is equally glorified by his benevolence toward the world and his destruction of the wicked, while in OT God is not held culpable for evil since it is attributed solely to man’s sinfulness. As you can see, there is some overlap in these pairings. But hopefully, they present these two views in summary fashion as antitheses.

Now, let’s look at some of these arguments individually from both sides. It seems best at this point to group some of these arguments together since they are somewhat interdependent. Open Theists reject the Reformed view of the sovereignty of God. This view entails, in Pinnock’s words, “meticulous providence, compatibilist freedom and exhaustive foreknowledge (a truly frozen project).” In contrast, he and others prefer what they call a more “open” view that entails “general providence, libertarian freedom, and a partly unsettled future (a truly dynamic world order).” Notice the emotionally loaded language he uses, eg., “frozen” vs “dynamic.” Another common term these writers employ for specific sovereignty is “static.” Open Theists prefer such metaphors for God as “Risk-taker” or “Gambler” even though they do not appear in Scripture. In the Traditional view, God is sovereign over his creation. Frame affirms Scripture’s thousand-fold attestation that God is both King and Lord over the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. As Lord, God controls everything that happens in the natural world (Ps. 65: 9), in history (Acts 17.26), including human decisions (Gen. 45:5-7), even sins (Ps. 105:24), faith and salvation (Rom. 8.29), and all things both good and evil (Lam. 3:37). So in this view, God is the ultimate cause of everything in detail, though some (such as the WCF) prefer to say that in the case of evil he is not its “author.” In contrast, within the “open” view, some things fall outside of God’s plan. He has a general providential plan that will prevail because he is omnipotent, but because he allows libertarian freedom, he gives over a measure of control to human agents.

In libertarian freedom, according to William Hasker, “an agent is free with respect to a given action at a given time if at that time it is within the agent’s power to perform the action and also in the agent’s power to refrain from the action.” Libertarian freedom is said by Open Theists to provide a more satisfactory motivation for prayer since man can actually influence God who is said to be “receptive” and engaged in a “give-and-take” with man in creating the future. Ascol argues, however, that this view actually undermines prayer. He says that if God does not know the future, then he cannot be trusted to accomplish what he has promised on our behalf. Why should we ask him for guidance or to do anything for us if he lacks knowledge of the future? Another arena of Christian life is affected by the Open Theist view: salvation. They propose a “relational model” of salvation in which sin represents a “broken relationship” with God that must be restored as opposed to sin as a “state of corruption” that must be changed in what they call the “no-risk” model of Traditional Theism. In the relational model, God is contingent on man. That is, he makes certain decisions and actions contingent on our actions because of libertarian freedom. However, Frame points out that though faith and salvation entail an aspect of man’s choice to repent and believe (Jn. 1:12), that God chose us first even before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4-5). Moreover, if salvation is based on a work of man (choosing), then we have reason to boast. However, since Eph. 2:8-9 tells us that it is a gift of God, not from ourselves, this cannot be true.

For Open Theists, this tenet is fundamental. If true, libertarian freedom would be beneficial in solving some of the mysteries to be mentioned shortly. However, it is unfounded in Scripture according to Traditional Theists. According to Frame, the biblical data noted above refute it; Scripture does not explicitly teach it; Scripture grounds human responsibility in God’s creation of man, not in this or any other type of freedom; Scripture does not indicate that God places any positive value on it; Scripture teaches that in heaven we will not be free to sin, so man’s highest state of existence will be a state without libertarian freedom; Scripture never judges anyone’s conduct with regard to it; Scripture contradicts the concept that only uncaused decisions are morally responsible (Gen. 50:20); and, Scripture denies we have any such independence (Luke 6:43). In contrast, Traditional Theists embrace compatibilist freedom, that is, freedom within the boundaries outlined by God’s decretive will. Man is not free to choose contrary to God’s foreordained plan. However, he is morally responsible for the choices he makes that they be in conformity to God’s Word. Here they make a distinction between God’s decretive and his preceptive will that Open Theists will not accept. This is one of the mysteries the Open Theists claim to answer: how man can be morally responsible when God decrees sin. Traditional Theists have learned to be content to live in the tension prescribed by Scripture. Another of these mysteries is the problem of evil, which attempts to explain how God can be both good and allow evil in the world at the same time. In contrast to the view of Sanders that there is “pointless evil” and Boyd who says one cannot find the “purpose of God in evil,” Piper points out that Scripture instructs us regarding the purpose of inflicting pain: the salvation of God’s people through the suffering of Jesus, and their sanctification through our own suffering.

A third tenet of Open Theists is used to assist in their attempt to explain this. They deny that God has exhaustive knowledge of the future. He knows the past and the present because he has participated in them, but because the future has not yet occurred it does not exist. God can therefore still be considered omniscient since he knows everything there is to know about that which exists. In so doing, they claim that since God does not know for certain what will happen in the future, he is not responsible for any evil that may occur in it. Further, because men are free to choose contrary to God’s general providence via libertarian freedom, all sin and evil can be attributed to man. This is very tidy. However, once again, Scripture amply attests to the validity of Traditional Theists’ claim to God’s exhaustive foreknowledge. Many instances in the prophets can be given. Also, in Acts 2:23 God’s knowledge of the future is attested explicitly: “This man was handed over to you by God’s set purpose and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross.” This is similar to Ephesians 1:11, “ In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will…” (italics added). Moreover, in John 13:19 Christ predicted his own death when he said, “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He.” In doing so, he attested to his own divinity by stating that he knew the outcome of future events. By denying exhaustive foreknowledge Open Theists hope to reduce the “crisis of faith” in times of catastrophe, for example, by telling a mother whose child is killed accidentally that God did not foresee its occurrence. However, as Piper says, better counsel comes from the testimony of the saints of the past: believing that God knew from all eternity that it would occur, and therefore foresees our pain, “strengthens us for it, joins us in it, and designs good by it is comforting – and biblical.”

Another means Open Theists use to deny exhaustive foreknowledge is the so-called “straight-forward” reading of texts such as Gen. 22:12 that might appear to attribute “growth-in-knowledge” to God: “Do not lay a hand on the boy,” he said. “Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son” (italics added). Another type of text that Open Theists use to deny exhaustive foreknowledge is the “straight-forward” reading of divine repentance texts such as Ex. 32:14: “Then the LORD relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened”(italics added). They use this and other texts to show that when God met a situation he was previously unaware of, he changed his plans about what we was going to do. However, Ascol points out that in doing so, the Open Theists ignore a long standing principle of hermeneutics declaring that “passages which clearly assert a doctrine or principle are to be used to shed light on narrative passages.” By this principle, Traditional Theists can show that these are instances of anthropomorphism. Ware defines anthropomorphism: “A given ascription to God may rightly be understood as anthropomorphic when Scripture clearly presents God as transcending the very human or finite features it elsewhere attributes to him.” In contrast, if we used the “straight-forward” method prescribed by Open Theists to interpret these texts we could show that God has neither exhaustive knowledge of the past or the present and is not omnipresent. Obviously, this method does not produce the intended or correct meaning in such cases.

Space does not permit further discussion regarding other unconstructive aspects of the OT view including its view of the primacy of God’s attribute of love , its dependence on modern culture, Greek thought and Socianianism. Suffice it to say that Open Theism, for all its well-articulated and thought-provoking definition is not a viable option, let alone an improvement over the Traditional view. What it demonstrates in creativity, it lacks in conformity to Scripture. In fact, because it undermines confidence in Scripture, confidence in God, faith in Christ, prayer, and confident living, it should be considered anathema by the evangelical church because of its potential for harm among the flock. Pastors should warn their people to steer clear of these teachings.

Bibliography

Ascol, Thomas K. “Pastoral Implications of Open Theism.” In Bound Only Once: The Failure of Open Theism, edited by Douglas Wilson. Moscow, Ida.: Canon. 2001.

Frame, John M. No Other God: A Response to Open Theism. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2001.

Pinnock, Clark et al. The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994.

Rice, Richard. The Openness of God: The Relationship of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Free Will. Nashville: Review and Herald, 1980.

Sanders, John. The God Who Risks: A Theology of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998.

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See this article with full footnotes on my website.

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Originally written for Dr. Frank James, History of Christianity II, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, May 2003.