Biblical inerrancy (the idea of an absolutely errorless Bible) found many adherents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in the North-American evangelical movement. The renewed stress on inerrancy at that time was largely a result of the spread of biblical criticism, the rise of secular science (including the theory of Darwinism), and the rapid secularization of American society. Although the belief in inerrancy was strongest among the conservative branches of North-American evangelicalism, which would soon form the so-called fundamentalist movement, the idea gained followers also among Reformed theologians, within and outside North America.
Dutch theologian Dr. Ad de Bruijne has pointed out (in Woord op Schrift, pp. 185f.), that among Reformed theologians in the Netherlands there have been two approaches to the issue in the past century or so. One group held, with American fundamentalism, that the Bible as the Word of God is by definition without errors in all its details. If errors or discrepancies are found, they must be blamed on the copyists; the original manuscripts (which we no longer possess!) were absolutely faultless. Other Reformed theologians criticized this theory as impossible of proof. They also asked why God would have allowed the perfect original manuscripts to disappear while preserving the imperfect copies with the discrepancies. These theologians continued to speak of biblical infallibility, a term that is not easy to define, but that has generally been interpreted as implying not factual inerrancy, but the Bible’s absolute trustworthiness in matters of doctrine, faith, and morals.
Although there were exceptions, the Reformed community as a whole has long continued to speak of an infallible Bible, rather than an inerrant one. This was true not only in Holland but also in Canada. In recent years, however, inerrantism is being affirmed by some Canadian Reformed churches and church leaders. We can read about this development in a paper by Tyler Vandergaag, titled “Inerrancy: A Reformed Doctrine?” (see under “collected papers” in the sidebar; direct link here). Tyler is a graduate student at Trinity Western University, where he is working on an M.A. in Biblical Studies, focusing specifically on Justin Martyr’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures. Currently, he teaches a Catechism class at the Langley Canadian Reformed Church, where he, his wife Keri and their son Jayden are members. In his paper Tyler analyzes the doctrine of inerrancy, summarizes its history, and comes with a variety of arguments to show that we would do well to abandon the term. Inerrantism, as he points out, leads to exegetical problems and is in conflict with the Reformed tradition about the place and function of Holy Scripture. Nowhere do the Reformed confessions use the word inerrancy.
Tyler’s paper is well-researched and very readable. In view of the doctrine’s spread among us, it is also timely. As Tyler points out, the term even occurs in the draft of an official church paper, namely in the preamble to the Proposed Joint Church Order (of the CanRC and the URC) that will be submitted to the Canadian Reformed Synod of 2010. It is time for a serious discussion on the matter. Tyler’s paper can serve as an excellent starting point.
While I appreciate the attempt of the author to deal with a difficult issue, this paper has some significant problems. Let me mention just three:
1) It assumes (as does the introductory post) a distinction between "facts" and a conglomerate of other Biblical details known as "doctrine, faith, and morals." This sounds suspiciously like other dubious distinctions in historical theology such as geschichte and historie. That is not the intent, I'm sure, but it would seem to be the trajectory of this position.
2) The author appreciates Craig Allert's "A High View of Scripture?" Why didn't he mention Allert's crucial assertion that verbal plenary inspiration inevitably results in inerrancy? Allert argues against understanding 2 Timothy 3:15-17 as referring to the divine origin of Scripture, insisting instead that it refers to the function of these writings. He creates a bifurcation between origin and function and this is a key plank in his polemic against inerrancy. Hence, there is more here at stake than just inerrancy -- the doctrine of inspiration is also being reconfigured in the background of the author's view. Again, I don't believe Vandergaag himself has discarded verbal plenary inspiration, but if he hasn't, according to Allert he should logically hold to inerrancy too.
3) The most problematic part of this paper is that it mentions, Allert, Stam, the Belgic Confession, and a number of others, but fails to actually engage what Scripture says about this question. Does Scripture itself teach that it is inerrant? Surely Scripture should be allowed to speak to the question.
Wes, thank you for your interaction. I will respond to each of your concerns in the order which you have raised them:
1.There can be no doubt that facts and matters of doctrine, faith, and morals are connected. Indeed, we cannot distinguish between the fact that Jesus Christ was raised from dead and how this fact relates to our doctrines, faith, and morals. Having said that, we are able to distinguish between facts that are fundamental to our doctrine, faith, and morals, and those that are not. That is, we can understand that when the biblical authors spoke about the four corners of the earth (Ezekiel 7:2; Revelation 7:1 and 20:8), they believed that the earth was flat. Yet, since the belief of a round earth is now generally affirmed, no major change has been made to various doctrines. Nor has it significantly affected our faith in Jesus Christ or changed our stance on moral issues.
2.I intentionally left out the issue of inspiration (specifically “verbal plenary”), even though Allert (as your correctly point out) believes the two are intrinsically tied together. Although you believe that I affirm a verbal plenary view of inspiration, I do not. Rather, I affirm what is sometimes called organic inspiration that takes into account both the divine and human role in writing Scripture and, as such, I have followed Allert’s logic.
3.While I understand your concern that we must look to Scripture for a view of inerrancy, I think we are asking the Scriptures to speak on an issue that it never sought to address and therefore is unfair to expect the Scriptures to speak on the issue. As I claim in my article, the purpose of the Scriptures are not to affirm historical and scientific facts, but to sufficiently make known to us who God is and what he has done for us in terms of salvation. The Belgic Confession, therefore, is right to disregard the issue of inerrancy because it was never the intention of Scripture to speak about this issue.
Thank you for taking the time to respond. I’d like to interact further with more questions and concerns.
First of all, who determines which “facts” are fundamental to doctrine, faith, and morals and which are not? I would urge a reconsideration of the distinction between “facts” and “doctrine, faith and morals.” The resurrection was mentioned – this fact is a doctrine. Doctrine = teaching, and we teach that Christ rose from the dead on the third day, victorious over sin, death and Satan – that is a historical fact. Moreover, the whole four corners/flat-earth thing is a dead end when considered in the light of Isaiah 40:22. Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius intepres est -- let Scripture interpret Scripture.
Second, there is the issue of whether verbal plenary inspiration is incompatible with organic inspiration. Are they incompatible? I know plenty of people, myself included, who hold to both. Perhaps we might benefit from a further explanation as to what is meant by “verbal plenary inspiration.” I understand it to simply mean that every word of Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit. Is that what is being denied?
Third, it appears that we have now moved from the Bible not being a guide for science to the Bible not even being a guide to its own character. The Bible does address its own character in many places and I maintain that it is regrettable that there was no interaction with these texts, nor with Reformed theologians such as Francis Turretin and Johannes a Marck who employed these texts in the development of their views of Scripture. If the Bible itself may not be used to determine its character and how we should interpret it, what shall we propose as an alternative? What shall be our standard?
Also, it was written that “the purpose of the Scriptures are not to affirm historical and scientific facts.” Was that intentionally written? Does the purpose of the Bible have nothing to do with affirming the historicity of the fall into sin, or the resurrection (just to name two historical facts)? Again we run into problems with the idea of “facts” as opposed to “doctrines.”
Finally, the response stated that the Belgic Confession was “right to disregard the issue of inerrancy...” That’s like saying the Apostles’ Creed was right to disregard penal substitutionary atonement. As indicated in the original paper, the concept and terminology of inerrancy is a later development in theology.
I am concerned about these views because similar steps taken in the history of theology have resulted in theological liberalism. Sometimes that was the intent and at other times not. At any rate, these are not peccadilloes, but ideas that have serious consequences. I would be remiss in my office not to strongly object and warn against such views.
Wes, you asked, "First of all, who determines which “facts” are fundamental to doctrine, faith, and morals and which are not?"
I hope that was a rhetorical question! It's a careful study of Scripture, written in its own context, yet speaking to us today, that needs to be considered.
Further, your mentioning the resurrection is disingenuous - nobody here is denying the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, particularly given I Corinthians 15.
Finally, I would like your opinion on Calvin's principle of accommodation, in which he clearly suggests that some parts of Scripture are not factually correct.
Under what circumstances can we allow for accommodation and when should we not?
Just a few comments:
I think what concerns me the most about this is Dr. Oosterhoff’s statement: “One group held, with American fundamentalism, that the Bible as the Word of God is by definition without errors in all its details. If errors or discrepancies are found, they must be blamed on the copyists; the original manuscripts (which we no longer possess!) were absolutely faultless.” Perhaps I misread her, but it seems that she finds this an untenable position. But if the position of the faultlessness of the original manuscripts is incorrect, then what do we make of the inspiration of Scripture? What does it mean that Scripture is “God-breathed” as 2 Tim. 3:16 puts it? If the men who committed God’s word to writing were indeed inspired, then why would we not hold to a view of inerrancy in the original manuscripts?
In the second place, why do we need, or want, to make a distinction between fact and doctrine? Tyler said in his reply to Rev. Bredenhof that, “[h]aving said that, we are able to distinguish between facts that are fundamental to our doctrine, faith, and morals, and those that are not.” I think this is a very dangerous road to take. For example, perhaps we want to interpret Gen. 1-3 differently than traditionally has been done, because we don’t feel that these are facts that “are fundamental.” Then what does this say about how the rest of Scripture interprets it? Is the fourth commandment, with its reference to God resting on the seventh day mistaken? What about the Genealogy in Luke 3, which ends with, “the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God”? What about when the NT writers, and Christ himself, quote seemingly obscure texts that we otherwise would never have thought were “fundamental to our doctrine”? This distinction that Tyler makes is unstable for another reason, namely that it is circular: our doctrine, faith, and morals are based solely upon what we find (the facts) presented to us in Scripture. Now it seems that he would allow us to disregard facts that are not “fundamental to our doctrine,” which, incidentally, has been confessed by the Church based upon what it has taken to be the facts of Scripture. How do we decide which Scriptural facts are essential to doctrine, when the doctrine has been based upon the facts taken from Scripture? This process would be arbitrary.
It was not a rhetorical question. If I understand correctly, you would say that the individual Bible reader is the one who determines what parts of Scripture are to be regarded as incidental, unimportant, and possibly mistaken. If that’s the case, actually the individual Bible reader is deciding for himself what parts of Scripture are in fact the inspired Word of God. It seems to me that this trajectory leads to the Bible containing the Word of God, rather than the Bible being the Word of God. I wonder if this is what Tyler means when he apparently denies verbal plenary inspiration.
It’s not disingenuous at all to introduce the resurrection when we’re discussing historical events in Scripture. This is, after all, the most important historical event. I don’t believe anybody is denying the historicity of the resurrection. I’m glad for that. My point is that by distinguishing “facts” from “doctrine, faith, and morals,” one is opening the way for such a denial.
As for Calvin, I’m not sure about the relevance. Like the Belgic Confession, he was writing in the pre-critical era and so his concerns are different than ours. But since you asked, my opinion is that John Murray provided a helpful evaluation of Calvin’s views in his essay, “Calvin’s Doctrine of Scripture,” in Volume 4 of his Collected Writings, pages 158-175. I especially appreciate his conclusion, “In Calvin we have a mass of perspicuous statement and of lengthened argument to the effect that Scripture is impregnable and inviolable, and it would be the resort of desperation to take a few random comments, wrench them from the total effect of Calvin’s teaching, and build upon them a thesis which would run counter to his own repeated assertions respecting the inviolable character of Scripture as the oracles of God and as having nothing human mixed with it” (175). Murray is interacting with those who, like C.A. Briggs (a noted theological liberal from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries), denied that Calvin may not be appealed to in support of inerrancy.
To answer the final question, let Scripture interpret Scripture. So, for instance, Scripture reveals that God is Spirit. Yet Isaiah 53:1 says, “To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” Does God have a literal arm? Here God uses vivid, human language to draw our attention to his very real power.
As mentioned before, the deepest concern with the paper referenced in the OP is that the author does not begin with Scripture, nor does he think one should. It does not begin with the proper presuppositions and therefore it is not a Reformed approach to the issue. The critical question has to be: “Does the Bible teach its own inerrancy?” We could talk endlessly about Calvin, the Belgic Confession, and a host of others, but what does the Bible itself say? I have yet to see a satisfactory reason to ignore that question.
As Tony Jelsma points out in his comment, when dealing with the question of biblical interpretation and biblical inerrancy we should keep in mind Calvin’s theory of accommodation. If we do so we learn indeed that in Calvin’s opinion not every statement in the Bible must be taken literally and at face value. I realize that this goes against the assumption of literalists, rather than inerrantists as such, but then literalism and inerrantism are not always easily distinguishable. I do not, of course, suggest that Calvin necessarily gives us the last word in these matters; he was not inerrant. But I do believe that we can still learn from him, and that his theory of accommodation resolves problems that a literalistic reading of the Bible leaves unresolved. Because of much of his teaching in this area seems to have become unfamiliar to us, I give the following examples. They are from his Commentary on the Book of Genesis.
*About the firmament of the second day: “For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence some resort to allegory...but quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible [i.e. apparent] form of the world. He who would learn astronomy...let him go elsewhere. ...The assertion of some that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses.” Commentary, Gen. 1:6-8.
*About the “greater light”: “Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons, that... Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, can understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated... For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God.... Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit...; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser mode of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity.” Commentary, Gen 1:16.
*About the four rivers of paradise: “[Some suggest] that the surface of the globe may have been changed by the deluge; and, therefore, they imagine it might have happened that the courses of the rivers were disturbed and changed...a solution which appears to me by no means accepted. For although I acknowledge that the earth, from the time it was accursed...and afterwards was further laid waste in many places by the deluge; still, I assert, it was the same earth which had been created in the beginning. Add to this, that Moses (in my judgment) adopted his topography to the capacity of his age.”
Commentary, Gen. 2:10.
More examples could be given, not just from Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis but on other books of the Bible as well, and also from his Institutes. In fact, the approach was an essential element in his exegesis. It was followed in dealing with elements in the Bible that caused difficulties for the hearers – such as apparent discrepancies, but also military campaigns and punitive actions that were done on God’s command, and so on. In the Middle Ages theologians had tried to resolve such difficulties by resorting to allegory, but as appears from the first quote, Calvin rejected that. He did refer to the Bible’s use of metaphor, for example in explaining anthropomorphic language about God, such as his sleeping and waking up, his hands and feet, his eyes and ears. Metaphoric language was also used, Calvin taught, in the description of hell as a place of punishment by fire and sulphur and brimstone, and in the description of heaven as a place with golden streets and pearly gates. God used words and images from our earthly life to give us at least an idea of different realities. Again, it was a matter of adaptation to our “limited capacity.” Literalism, obviously, was out of the question for Calvin, who nevertheless confessed the infallibility of the Bible.
In answer to Tim Schouten, I want to point out that I myself did not make up the statement in question, but that I summarized the arguments of a number of respected Reformed theologians. All of them would no doubt agree with him (as do Tyler and the contributors to this blog) that something of fundamental importance is at stake in the defence of the literal and inerrant nature of the Bible. Perhaps the real problem is that those who are introducing and/or defending the terms “literal” and “inerrancy” in the CanRC have not defined their terms. Do they mean by using them that they are unwilling to account for the human element in the Bible, or that they deny that the Bible assumes the worldview and world picture of the ancient readers, and/or do they claim that Scripture instructs us in matters of science, or that discrepancies do not occur? If so, I believe that the term is unacceptable and its usage dangerous. On the other hand, if by using it they mean to say that the Bible is the infallible, trustworthy Word of God, then I have no problem agreeing. But because the term has often been interpreted in the alternative (what I will call the “radical”) sense, it is unwise to adopt it. For the rest, it amazes me that Tyler’s essay is seen as an innovation and as unorthodox when in fact his view has, as we have pointed out more than once, long been endorsed by Reformed theologians of unquestioned orthodoxy.
I could say more on what I consider the dangers of literalism and radical inerrantism, but I have written about this before and will, one of these days, post those articles under the heading “How do we read the Bible?”
Tim’s and Wes’s question as to whether we are really in a position to distinguish between “facts” will probably be answered by Tyler. I do want to refer them, however, also to my post on Calvin’s theory of accommodation, where I show that Calvin at least thought it possible to distinguish. Indeed, I think most exegetes do, including inerrantists.
In my earlier post I expressed that it “is unfair to expect the Scriptures to speak on the issue” of inerrancy. The way it is written, it seems to imply that I do not want to look at Scripture at all, but this is not what I intended and I apologize for the lack of clarity. What I was trying to say is that the Scriptures do not teach inerrancy in regards to factual errors. This is an assertion that has Scriptural basis and the case study below will help to show this.
The Baptism of Jesus:
In Mark 1:11, we are told that “a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’” (c.f. Luke 3:22).
In Matthew 3:17, we read, “a voice came from heaven: ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.’”
For our purposes, it is important to note that in Mark we are told that the voice from heaven addresses Jesus (“You are my Son”), but in Matthew it appears that someone else is addressed (“This is my Son”). Now this may seem slight and insignificant, but these texts are important for our understanding of inerrancy. For the question inerrantists are inclined to ask is, which account accurately reflects what the voice from heaven said, Mark or Matthew? A first reaction may be to harmonize the two accounts; however, if we understand well the different purposes of Mark and Matthew’s Gospels, the problem of which Gospel is more accurate no longer becomes a problem.
The overall theme of Mark to show why Jesus Christ’s message is so secretive. To the reader of Mark, the beginning of the book makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Mk. 1:1); ironically, however, nobody within the story truly figures out who Jesus is until Peter’s confession in Mk. 8:29. The teachers of the law and Pharisees think Jesus is a blasphemer (Mk. 2:6 c.f. 3:22); his own family wanted to take him away because they thought he was insane (Mk. 3:21); King Herod thought he was John the Baptist reincarnate (Mk. 6:16); his disciples could not figure out who he was (Mk. 4:41 c.f. Mk. 6:51-52; 8:17-21). The most surprising exception to this lack of recognition is found in the demons, who commonly recognize Jesus as the "Holy one of God" (Mk. 1:24; 1:33 c.f. Mk. 3:11; 5:7). To add to all this confusion, Jesus himself did not want anyone to reveal who he was (Mk. 1:33; 3:12; 5:43; 7:36; 8:30; 9:9). The reason for all this confusion only makes sense when the reader realizes that Jesus will only reveal his identity to those who have ears to hear and eyes to see (Mk. 4:9 c.f. 4:23; 7:17-18; 8:17-21).
One of the major themes of Matthew’s gospel (especially in chapters 1-4), however, is to prove that Jesus is indeed the Jewish Messiah and the fulfillment of the Scriptures. The genealogy in Matt. 1:1-17 shows the crucial importance Matthew places on the timing of Jesus’ coming in terms of biblical history. It is beyond a doubt that Jesus is “the Christ” (Matt. 1:17; c.f. 1:16). Chapters 2-4 then proceed to reveal that Jesus fulfills the Scriptures. He is the Immanuel of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:23), the one who makes Bethlehem in Micah 5:2 great (Matt. 2:3-6), the Son in Hosea 11:1 who comes out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15), and the reason for Rachel’s weeping in Jeremiah 31:15 (Matt. 2:16-18). We can keep listing the references that Matthew makes to Jesus’ fulfilling of the Scriptures, but the point has been adequately made: Matthew desires to prove that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jewish Scriptures.
Given the two different focuses of Mark and Matthews Gospels, we can begin to make sense of why they used different words in the baptism account. For remember that Mark does not want to reveal Jesus’ identity to anyone. As such, the voice from heaven does not speak to those around Jesus during his baptism, as if they had witnessed it, but instead speaks only to Jesus: “ You are my Son…with you I am well pleased.” This becomes more pointed when we understand that not even John is aware that he has just baptized Jesus, the Son of God. All Mark says is that “Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mk. 1:9). Indeed, John (according to Mark’s Gospel) shows no realization that he has just baptized the Son of God! Which leads us to assume that John thought that Jesus was just another Judean who was confessing his sin and desired to be baptized (Mk. 1:4-5).
Yet, when we turn to Matthew’s account, we find the exact opposite reaction in John. For as soon as Jesus comes to be baptized, “John tried to deter him” (Matt. 3:14) and Matthew goes on (not surprisingly) to show that this was “to fulfill all righteousness”; only then does John consent to baptize Jesus (Matt. 3:15). Furthermore, while we have no indication in Mark that anyone saw the Spirit coming down on Jesus, Matthew clearly reveals that John saw it happen: “At that moment heaven was opened, and he [John] saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him [Jesus]” (Matt. 3:16). Therefore, since John witnessed this account, Matthew reveals that the voice from heaven was not talking specifically to Jesus, but to John when he says: “This is my Son…with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17).
From this test case, we can see that although we are unsure which account is historically accurate, we have gained an immense amount of insight into the person and work of Jesus Christ. Mark forces us to question whether or not we know who Jesus is. Often we profess his name, but too often we are blind to see who he really is. On the other hand, Matthew forces us to believe with the utmost conviction that Jesus is the Messiah and has fulfilled the Scriptures in their entirety. As such, to ask whether Matthew is more historically accurate than Mark (or vice-versa) is a question that fails to see the true purpose and function of these texts.
Hopefully this case study helps to put the doctrine of inerrancy into some perspective. I have engaged with the texts honestly and have sought to understand them on their own right without being challenged or inclined to raise the issue of inerrancy. From this I have proceed to show that both Mark and Matthew offer us profound insights into who Jesus Christ is and what he has done for us. In this way, I have sought to maintain the authority of Scripture, its sufficiency and its infallibility, which leads me back to the intention of my earlier post. Instead of perceiving the differences in Mark and Matthew as historical inaccuracies that must be solved in order to maintain a doctrine of inerrancy, we must engage with the texts to see what purpose and function they have in our lives as Christians (in regards to our doctrines, morals, and faith).
Thank you for your latest response. It would seem that your position is becoming clearer. I have some further questions or questions that remain:
First, do you agree that we should give attention to what the Bible explicitly teaches about itself and its character when we consider the question of inerrancy? If not, what do you propose for an alternative starting point?
Second, could you please explain further what you meant when you wrote, “Although you believe that I affirm a verbal plenary view of inspiration, I do not”? In particular, I am interested in knowing whether you affirm that the Bible contains the Word of God, or whether it is the Word of God. I think it would set my heart at ease to at least know that you affirm the latter. You also still owe an answer to the question of whether or not verbal plenary inspiration and organic inspiration are compatible, complementary positions.
Third, your accounting of the differences between Mark 1:11 and Matthew 3:17 would lead me to believe that your real target lies outside of the Reformed world altogether. You write that the “inerrantists” would be inclined to ask, “What account accurately reflects what the voice from heaven said, Mark or Matthew?” I’m an inerrantist who has preached on Mark 1:11 and never was inclined to ask that question (though I did note the differences in my exegesis). I don’t have any significant difficulty with your approach on this and neither would the renowned Presbyterian inerrantist E.J. Young. In fact, in Thy Word is Truth (chapters 5 and 6), he deals with similar cases and takes a similar approach. So, my question: exactly what is the problem? Perhaps you could give some examples of Reformed/Presbyterian inerrantists who would seek to explain the differences between Mark 1:11 and Matthew 3:17 in a manner substantially different from what you indicated. Is it possible that the view of inerrancy found in the Canadian Reformed Churches (especially with the ministers, missionaries and professors) is more nuanced than indicated in the paper?
If the infallibility of the Scriptures is defined as being trustworthy and reliable (i.e. without error in their teachings about faith and the good news that we have in Jesus Christ), then why do we need to add the term inerrancy? I agree with Tyler Vandergaag that it is problematic and unnecessary. First of all it is problematic because when we ‘compare Scripture with Scripture’ we discover all kinds of historical discrepancies. For example, the gospel writers report many events in the life of Jesus differently. Tyler described one regarding Jesus’ baptism. Many more can be cited. I will mention only two. How do you reconcile the two different accounts of Judas Iscariot and the purchase of the “Field of Blood” (Matt 27:3-10 and Acts 1:18, 19)? And, did Jesus instruct his disciples to carry nothing but a staff and sandals (Mark 6:8,9), or did he tell them not to take a staff and sandals (Luke 9:3; Matt 10:10)? To the inerrantist these “errors” threaten the integrity of the whole Bible. But what is the basis of our faith? Is our faith contingent upon the historical and scientific accuracy of Scripture and our ability to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together? It has been mentioned that if we accept that Scripture contains such inaccuracies then we might end up doubting the resurrection of Jesus. If we carefully read the resurrection narratives as reported by the four Gospel writers, we again encounter discrepancies. Are these minor differences cause for rejecting the resurrection? Not at all. Rather, it adds to the credibility of the resurrection as an historical event. These slight differences show that the narratives were written independently yet they all agree on critical doctrinal points. Is this the basis of my faith? No. We confess that faith is worked in by the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Gospel. And this brings me to my final point – inerrancy and preaching. Tyler did and excellent job explaining the two accounts of Jesus’ baptism. However, I find that sometimes preaching takes the approach of: “This particular word in the text was placed here for such and such reasons”. There is an over-analysis of word for word details while the Gospel message is left in the background. Is this the influence of taking an inerrantist approach? If so, then insisting on inerrancy is not only problematic and unnecessary, but it also detracts from getting the true Message out.
Harold Lindsell is sometimes cited when defending inerrancy (for example here). Edwin K.P. Chong [“Detailed Inerrancy and the Gospel Accounts of Peter’s Denials”, American Journal of Biblical Theology, v. 7, n. 28 (2006), available online here] exposes the serious problems with Lindsell’s approach which requires that in order for the gospel accounts to all be true, Peter must have in fact denied Christ six times. Instead of forcing such a reinterpretation of Scripture to save detailed inerrancy, Chong takes the same position as Tyler has argued: it is best to abandon the term inerrancy.
Chong’s article is short and well worth reading. It also coheres with our desire on Reformed Academic to be true to the historic Reformed confessions for the sake of the gospel.
Forgive me for my lack of sagacity, but Pastor Wes Bredenhof made a statement earlier that I am unsure how to interpret. Pastor Wes said, "...the whole four corners/flat-earth thing is a dead end when considered in the light of Isaiah 40:22. Sacra Scriptura sui ipsius intepres est -- let Scripture interpret Scripture."
The "dead end" is not obvious to me, so I was hoping Pastor Wes could elaborate.
Tim Schouten, in arguing for Biblical inerrancy, states, "What about the Genealogy in Luke 3, which ends with, “the son of Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God”?"
I don't know about you, but I would have a hard time taking this literally.
This topic is important to any discussion concerning theological topics. One of the first questions in a theological or exegetical discussion that needs to be answered is "What do you believe the Bible to be?" Too often conversations are derailed when some time into the dialogue the participants discover that they don't believe the same things about the nature and character of Bible.
I think that what we need to do is to turn to the Belgic Confession and there discover what some have called the "Perfections of Scripture."
Tyler V cites two "authority" and "sufficiency." Classic Reformed theology develops more than two perfections, however. Louis Berkof in his Systematic Theology (pgs 162 ff) lists two more: the Necessity and the Perspicuity (clarity) of scripture. Some others add the "Unity" of scripture as a fifth.
I teach this doctrine using the acronym CAN US. Clarity, Authority, Necessity, Unity, and Sufficiency. (You can find these as confessed by the church in BC 2,3,4,5,6,7)
Out of these 5 (or 4) perfections we can reason to the plenary verbal inspiration of scripture, meaning that every word is inspired by the Holy Spirit (2 Tim 3:16).
I find that if we stick to these five --- and the BC's assertion that "We receive [the Word of God] as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation and confirmation of our faith. We believe without any doubt all the things contained in them...because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God...." ... --- if we stick to these five as confessed in the BC, we have the foundation for a well rounded and comprehensive basis for discussion.
Further, in an attempt to understand the relationship between God and the Prophets or Apostles through whom he spoke, several models of inspiration were developed.
A mechanical model with the human author but a word processor receiving input from God. An organic model with the human author part of the process. A dynamical model with the human author most of the process. (And then there are the nuanced positions between these three.)
(to be continued)
In 1989 in his final lecture, Dr. Jelle Faber put forth another model. He suggested, modestly, that perhaps we should understand the authorship of the Bible with a covenantal model. When my good friend John Barach (in April of 2001) sought out the published lecture in order to study this matter he posted a request for further information on RefNet. He received the following response from Dr. Faber to explain his thoughts, and which he asked Br. Barach to post publicly. (In his modest voice, Dr. Faber refers to himself in the third person through-out the following paragraphs).
You will find this quotation nowhere. If I remember well, he ended his teaching in December 1989 with a lecture on Holy Scripture within the framework of the sophomore course 2419 Dogmatics. He was not fond of the term "organic inspiration" and indeed suggested to use the expression "covenantal inspiration." He did so for the reason you indicated with the words "God's covenant involves both divine sovereignty and human responsibility."
It could be that at the same time he thought of the fact that Reformed theologians saw the inspiration of Holy Scripture as a very special act of God's providence. Within the chapter on providence they used a distinction not only between preservation and government but also mentioned concurrence.
I understood that the lecturer did not like the term concurrence either and therefore suggested the expression "covenantal inspiration" for the miracle by which God wrote his letter of love in Christ to us through the ministry of prophets and apostles (see e.g. 2 Peter 1:20,21).
God sovereignly established the dipleuric covenant in which man is responsible. Within the covenant of grace, faith is for 100 % God's sovereign gift and at the same time for 100% a human responsible activity. It is a characteristic of the work of the Holy Spirit that He renews the activity of man. Could we then not say that also in His sovereign work of inspiring the book of God's covenant He did so in a covenantal manner and thus speak of "covenantal inspiration"?
It could be that he never published his farewell lecture, since he stood in awe for this miracle of grace and did not think that even the expression "covenantal inspiration" was adequate.
The answer to your question therefore is to be sought in the oral tradition: John Barach says that John van Popta said that Dick Wynia said that Jelle Faber said....
As a listener I still remember that the professor ended his lecture in his beloved Latin : Verbum Dei manet in aeternum (Is. 40:8, 1 Peter 1:25). Let me follow his example and conclude with a Christian greeting in Latin,
totus tuus in Christo,
Louis Berkhof writes about the extent of inspiration, "The Bible is verbally inspired. It should be noted particularly that this is not the same as saying that it is mechanically inspired, though opponents frequently insist on identifying the two. The doctrine of verbal inspiration does not assume that God dictated the words of the Bible, but that he guided the writers of the Biblical books in the choice of their words and expressions so as to keep them from errors, without in any way disregarding their vocabulary or suppressing their individuality of style and expression. Some prefer to call it plenary inspiration in order to guard against the danger of identifying it with mechanical inspiration."
So I wonder if it is helpful for Reformed confessors to deny the "verbal plenary inspiration" of the Bible without countering that with an affirmation that all the words of the Bible have their origin in God. I wonder if it is helpful to deny the inerrancy of the Bible without affirming that the Holy Spirit had the prophets and Apostles write down exactly what he wanted written. I also wonder if it is helpful to deny "verbal plenary inspiration" and "inerrancy" without fleshing out exactly what it is that is being denied. Is this an attempt to refute mechanistic views of inspiration, or is this an attempt to open the door to doubt about the divine veracity of the whole Bible?
I have found over the years that when in Catechism class I point to scripture the students all accept that as the final arbiter of truth. We are all on the same page about what the Bible is. But just so that here also we can all agree, here are some texts that can help us (from a Mars Hill Seattle Curriculum).
If Scripture itself does not claim to be from God, without error, or helpful, then it is foolish for us to do so. Scripture states that it is:
• Complete; nothing is to be taken from or added to it (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:6)
• Effective (Isa. 55:11)
• Pure (Ps. 12:6; 19:8; 119:140)
• Perfect (Ps.19:7)
• Precious (Ps. 19:10)
• Life guide (Ps. 119:105)
• Soul food (Jer. 15:16)
• A fire that purifies and a hammer that breaks us (Jer. 23:29)
• True (Ps.119:160; John 17:17)
• Helpful (Prov. 6:23)
• Flawless (Prov. 30:5)
• To be obeyed (Luke 8:21; James 1:22)
• All we need to know God (Luke 16:29, 31)
• The standard by which all teaching is to be tested (Acts 17:11)
• Faith-building (Rom. 10:17)
• For everyone (Rom. 16:26)
• Sin-cleansing (Eph. 5:26; James 1:21)
• A sword for spiritual battle (Eph. 6:17; Heb. 4:12)
• The very words of God (1 Thess. 2:13)
• Divinely inspired (2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19–21)
• Life-changing (Heb. 4:12)
• Life-giving (James 1:18)
• Spiritual nourishment (1 Peter 2:2)
Tyler has done us all a great service in illustrating (in a comment above) how the category of inerrancy runs into difficulty when considering the authors’ intent in describing John’s baptism of Jesus. (Similar examples regarding accounts of the resurrection and of Peter’s denials have also been raised in the comments.) Some versions of inerrancy require significant gymnastics to rescue the truth of Scripture, but Tyler shows how a single event can be depicted differently for different purposes by different authors, without having to be subject to the charge of error. The gospel writers were not mere journalists charged with getting the ‘facts’ right. All authors at Reformed Academic pledge to remain true to the Reformed confessions, which notably do not include references to inerrancy. One’s denial of inerrancy does not mean one is attacking Scripture, or suggesting Scripture contains errors. Instead it is a suggestion that much of the current use of concepts of ‘error’ and ‘fact’ is strongly influenced by scientism, modernism, and rationalism, which thankfully did not reign during the time of writing of the Reformed confessions, or during the time of the Biblical authors for that matter.
Thanks, John, for posting Dr. Jelle Faber’s remarks on covenantal inspiration. Nearly anything with the word “covenantal” has my vote as being a candidate Reformed approach! Does anyone know what Faber thought of “inerrancy”?
If the debate so far has shown anything, it is that we should define our terms. In his paper Tyler does that. He admits that the term “inerrancy” means different things to different people, but that in his opinion the most common definition of the concept is “to think of the Bible as being without error in matters of history, science, and whatever else the Bible states (what we may call ‘factual inerrancy’).” It is that definition of inerrancy, he tells us, that he is going to critique. His correspondents should keep that in mind and not criticize him with reference to different and less “radical” usages of the term. For it has been used, perhaps also by Reformed theologians, as simply the equivalent of infallibility. But again, that’s not the “inerrancy” that the paper is dealing with.
I believe that Tyler’s is indeed the most common definition. It explains why many Reformed theologians shy away from the word and prefer to speak of infallibility instead. Let me give one example. It is from a statement by Dr. C. Trimp, a theologian in our Dutch sister churches, who wrote:
Infallibility means that God does not deceive us in his promises of salvation… Inerrancy speaks of a Bible without errors. But that is a concept that places us in a world of correct writing, faultless information and thinking… Inerrancy thinking is a thinking that, for apologetic purposes, seeks its strength in objectivity and logical precision, and as such asks for our consent. But receiving the promise in faith is different from and more important than accepting some information because of its logical correctness… Initially, we may have thought that in the issue between fundamentalism and the Reformed view of Scripture the authority of Holy Scripture is at stake, but precisely the inerrancy-concept makes clear that the conflict is about the nature of Scripture. Inerrancy refers to factual information; infallibility to the proclamation of the promise (C. Trimp, Woord op Schrift, p. 36).
It is also good to keep in mind the role that radical inerrantism plays in fundamentalist theology and in the fundamentalist view of science, especially (but certainly not only) on the North-American continent. The American inerrancy movement has from the beginning attracted leaders of newly formed churches and movements such as Pentecostalism, Premillennialism, Dispensationalism, Seventh-Day Adventism and similar cults, as well as various Holiness Movements (see on this my “Young-Earth Creationism: A History” – under “Collected Papers”). Practically all these churches and movements insist on a “plain” or “literal” reading of the Bible. Most influential are the dispensationalist movements, which attempt to explain political developments with reference to biblical prophecy and so prove biblical “inerrancy.” For them a literalist reading of the Old Testament is essential. The same applies, of course, to the “Scientific-Creationist” movement. Neither of these would be credible without the concept of inerrancy as defined above. I believe that this usage should serve us as a warning. The emphasis is all too often on proving one’s specific ideology, while the Gospel message is largely ignored. (See on this also Ed Baartman’s comment.)
I do not believe that everyone who confesses inerrancy defines the term in the way suggested above. I think it possible that in the Proposed Joint Church Order, for example, the adjective “inerrant” was simply meant to strengthen the word “infallible,” and that it was not intended to bear the implications the term in fact has for many. To include it is nevertheless dangerous, for these implications, which are far from innocent, would in the end inevitably come to the fore. The inclusion of the concept in the new church order could also be seen as the propagation of an extra-confessional statement. And that would be a regrettable step. Nor would it remove problems. On the contrary: Inerrantism not only necessitates endless and often hopeless attempts at harmonization, it also inspires unbelievers to ridicule the faith. For that reason it has been qualified as “suicidal,” in that inerrantists tend to become victims of the sword which, as in the case of Goliath, they have themselves provided (C. Trimp, Ibid., p. 37).
Another term that needs to be defined, incidentally, is “verbal plenary inspiration.” A Google search shows that it can be defined in the sense of radical inerrantism. To suggest that it is compatible with organic inspiration, as one of Tyler’s critics does, can hardly be judged correct or incorrect in the absence of a definition.
Arnold asks “Does anyone know what Faber thought of “inerrancy”?” Since I brought the late Dr. J. Faber to the discussion, I thought it best for me to attempt an answer.
I only had Dr. Faber for one semester: I entered the CanRC Theological College on his departure, so I never heard any of his Dogmatics lectures on “Scripture.” But we can turn to his Essays in Reformed Dogmatics [online here ] to discover many things about what this illustrious teacher set forth for his students and the churches. Faber interacts with a controversy that affected Reformed and Evangelical churches in the late 1970s. Harold Lindsell had written his influential book, The Battle for the Bible, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). In this book Lindsell robustly defends the doctrine of inerrancy. (You will note that Zondervan, a well-known Reformed publishing house, published this book.) This book, and the doctrine of inerrancy defended and promoted by Lindsell, came under attack in Reformed circles as “fundamentalism” by Allen Verhey, a Christian Reformed minister. It was in this atmosphere that Dr. Faber wrote Incarnation and Inscripturation published as Chapter 2 in his Essays.
In his discussion of they who attack the doctrine of inerrancy he asks the rhetorical question, “What is his answer to those who, like Bavinck, compare the conception of the Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit and the conception of the Scriptures through that same Spirit as without spot or blemish? What is his answer to those who like Warfield, Bavinck and Kuyper compare the sinlessness of the Lord and the inerrancy of Scripture? (27)”
It seems that, though Faber is careful (as he always was as a Theologian: careful and modest) he sided with “with Warfield, Kuyper, and Bavinck in the battle for the Bible against the liberalism and “ethical theology” of their days and modernism and neo-orthodoxy today….” (27).
Earlier (pg 23) Faber interacts with those who would say that “the Bible is … not concerned with the kind of history which some twentieth century “objective observer” would be interested in. The example in question is not the Baptism of Jesus as analyzed above but the earthquake at Easter. Verhey maintained that “Matthew’s inclusion of an earthquake in proclaiming the discovery of the empty tomb is terribly significant. It shows that the apocalyptic interest of the Matthew is the proclamation of the death and resurrection of Christ.” To that Faber counters, “But is it possible to speak of an apocalyptic significance of something which has not happened? Proclamation in the Holy scripture is always a proclamation about facts.”
So though I can’t point to a chapter and verse, I would say that the esteemed brother Faber would have sided with those who defended inerrancy, than those who would expunge the term from Reformed theology. I say this acknowledging that Faber would mostly likely have pointed us to the Belgic Confession and the perfections of scripture that we can find there.
(All italics other than titles are from the original essay.)
I think that a helpful book to this discussion is The Infallible Word: a symposium by members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. (Pres & Ref Pub 3rd ed: 1946).
The authors John Murray, EJ Young, Ned Stonehouse, John Skilton, Paul Woolley, RB Kuiper and Cornelius van Til set forth a vigorous defence of the scripture, introduced by a Preface by D Martin Lloyd-Jones.
John Murray leads off with the first chapter in which he equates infallibity with inerrancy.
He qualifies this with a footnote (2) as follows.
It must be emphasized that the proponents of Biblical inerrancy do not ignore "facts" nor do they fail to take these into account in their construction of inspiration. "It must be emphatically stated that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy ... is not based on the assumption that the criterion of meticulous precision in every detail of recorded history is the indispensable canon of biblical infallibility. To erect such a canon is utterly artificial and arbitrary and is not one by which the inerrancy of Scripture is to be judged. It is easy for opponents of inerrancy to set up such artificial criteria and then expose the Bible as full of errors... Every one should recognize that in accord with accepted forms of speech and custom a statement can be perfectly authentic and yet not pedantically precise. Scripture does not make itself absurd by furnishing us with pedantry."
It is worth noting that the 3rd printing (revised) from which I quote was published in 1967 10 years before The Battle for the Bible and 21 years after the original printing. This discussion has been lively for the last half century.
I would like to engage Tyler’s paper from an other angle.
He quotes, on Page 5 of his paper, the BC 5,
Belgic Confession Article 5 (“The Authority of Holy Scripture”) relates to us that the Scriptures are received “as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith.” That is, the focus is not on their inerrancy, but rather on their usefulness in all aspects of faith. The Article continues, “We believe without any doubt all things contained in them.” Again, we find no assertion that we must adhere to one particular interpretation of various Scripture texts, but that we must not doubt the teachings of Scripture. Furthermore, the reference to doubting “all things” must not be understood as a reference to the historicity of a particular biblical text a priori. No, it must be a reference to what the Scriptures teach once they have been interpreted. That is to say, once we have established, through faithful exegesis, what Scripture teaches, then (and only then) must “we believe without any doubt.” To be sure, this does not mean that we cannot debate and even strongly disagree with one another about the text’s meaning. Nevertheless, to claim that one does not adhere to the inerrancy of Scripture is not the issue; again, the issue is the obedience to what Scripture teaches.
But this is not what the BC says. Tyler has moved the meaning of the confession from the Scripture itself, to “the teachings of Scripture.” This is a subtle but meaningful shift: A post-modern one, if you like. Now it is no longer the Bible, the Word of God, that is the final arbiter, the canon -- a holy one at that: one from God -- but it is our exegesis that is the measure. And so you can exegete “an old world, pre-adamite man, pre-fall human death, 14 billion year old big bang creation” and I can “exegete a young earth, fiat creation in 6 days, Adam as son of God (not of a pre-man), death entering human existence at the fall,” and we can both be right! That’s the implication of Tyler’s “we find no assertion that we must adhere to one particular interpretation of various Scripture texts, but that we must not doubt the teachings of Scripture.” “I think it teaches this, and you think it teaches that. We come to our conclusions using slightly different hermeneutical tools, but that shouldn’t bother us.” (As an aside, I wonder if in Tyler's thinking there's something of the idea that Scripture derives its authority from its redemptive purpose rather than from its divine origin.)
But I think we need to take Jesus word seriously that “scripture cannot be broken”! The whole of it testifies of him. We cannot maintain that the confessions of the church hold to a position that it is not the Word itself that we believe, but only the teachings it contains.
... to be continued
L. Berkhof writes in his Principia of Doctrine on the “Inspiration of Scripture” that by the time of the Great Reformation it was the Church of Rome that was above Scripture and Tradition and it alone could infallibly determine their. Berkhof writes, “The Reformers clearly saw that this position of the Church of Rome was the fruitful source of many errors, and therefore felt that it was incumbent on them to call the people back to the Bible, which had been greatly neglected, and to stress its autopistis.” (That it is self authenticating, and “that it has authority in and of itself as the inspired Word of God.” pg 163.)
Berkhof continues about the authority of scripture (which Tyler acknowledges) by introducing a dispute in the 17th century. He writes, “While Scripture as a whole was recognized as the only and sufficient rule of faith and practice, the question was raised, whether every part of it should be regarded as authoritative. In seeking an answer to this question it became evident that it was necessary to distinguish between the Word of God in a formal sense and in a material sense, and between an autoritas historica and an autoritas nomativa. Scripture has first of all historical authority, that is, it is a true and absolutely reliable record, and as such is entitled to a believing acceptance of all that it contains. But in addition to that it also has normative significance, as a rule of life and conduct and as such demands absolute subjection on the part of man.”
Reformed theology went on to develop a nuanced position about normative authority. Words of demons were not normative, words of Job and of his friends not necessarily so. Laws of Moses were not in detail, but principles continued, words of God and of Jesus always. Berkhof concludes, “In general it will not be difficult to determine… (165).
I must say that I seems that the push to remove inerrancy from our CanRC vocabulary (even the carefully nuanced position of the Westminster Symposium that rejects pedantry) is a move to allow the natural sciences to be freed from the constraints of good Reformed hermeneutics. “If the present hermeneutical rules don’t allow for chimpanzee-like creatures in the human family tree, we need to change the rules.”
Moreover, I find it disingenuous to suggest, as Dr. F. Oosterhoff writes, “The American inerrancy movement has from the beginning attracted leaders of newly formed churches and movements such as Pentecostalism, Premillennialism, Dispensationalism, Seventh-Day Adventism and similar cults, as well as various Holiness Movements.” It may have attracted the cults, but it was defended vigorously by the likes of C. van Til, J. Murray, E.J. Young, H. Bavinck, B. Warfield, and A. Kuyper (see my previous comments.) No cult leaders, those men! Just because cultish people adopted inerrancy and turned it into literalism, biblicism and pedantry, doesn’t mean that the doctrine of inerrancy is to be rejected.
It’s ironic that RA calls on Bavinck as someone who might have held to an old earth interpretation of Genesis 1, and yet will dismiss his position on inerrancy.
John van Popta
I have to admit I am a little surprised that John Vanpopta is attempting to claim that I do not believe the Bible is the Word of God, but instead only believe its teachings. I am also having trouble seeing how these two can be separated. How is it that one is able to disbelieve the Bible as God's Word and yet adhere to what it teaches? Can we really separate these two? A further explanation from Vanpopta would be helpful. Furthermore, I am troubled that in Vanpopta's analysis, he makes it sound as if I do not take Scripture to be God's Word. After quoting me at length, Vanpopta writes, "Tyler has moved from the meaning of the confession from the Scripture itself, to the 'teachings of Scripture'...Now it is no longer the Bible, the Word of God, that is the final arbiter...but it is our exegesis that is the measure." Later on Vanpopta states, "I wonder if in Tyler's thinking there's something of the idea that Scripture derives its authority from its redemptive purpose rather than from its divine origin." Finally Vanpopta states, "We cannot maintain that the confessions of the church hold a position that it is not the Word itself that we believe, but only the teachings it contains." To be sure, nothing is further from the truth! I agree completely that the Word of God is our "final arbiter." If Vanpopta had read my article carefully, this would be immediately clear. On page 6, I discuss the sufficiency of Scripture in which I make it adequately clear that we are to hold to Scripture more highly than all writings of men (this is includes their teachings and exegesis of Scripture). Likewise, in my conclusion, I point out that the crux of my argument rests on the belief that factual inerrancy "has the danger of forcing an interpretation on the Scriptures before an honest engagement with the biblical text." I then quote Berkouwer who echoes this same concern when he writes, "'In the end it will damage reverence for Scripture more than it will further it.'" Finally, I conclude by stating, "It is, rather, out of a deep desire and love for the Word of God that the so-called doctrine of biblical inerrancy [i.e. factual] must be seriously challenged and that the authority, sufficiency, and infallibility of Scripture should be lovingly embraced." I am sorry if I sound a little agitated, but there appears to be in my critics an underlying assumption that I do not take God's Word seriously. Again nothing can be further from the truth!
In connection with John van Popta’s comment a few remarks, in addition to Tyler’s.
(1) John writes that “the push to remove inerrancy from our CanRC vocabulary” is motivated by the idea that a change of the rules will “allow for chimpanzee-like creatures in the human family.” This is an absolutely unfounded assumption, is regrettable, and should be withdrawn. The Reformed theologians who felt uncomfortable with the use of the term “inerrancy” (no matter how defined) were not Darwinists, and neither am I. A more a careful reading should have made abundantly clear that there are other reasons for questioning the concept.
(2) I also have to remind John that the use of the word “inerrancy” in the CanRC is not part of a well-established tradition that we are trying to change, but that it is an innovation, and a very recent one at that.
(3) The American inerrancy movement indeed attracted not just cult leaders but also North-American Reformed theologians. L. Berkhof, whom John quotes as his authority, was probably one of them, and may well have been the leader. He was certainly a young-earth creationist, together with most of his North-American Reformed colleagues, and there often is a connection between the two positions. As I have pointed out some years ago, there is a striking difference on the interpretation of Genesis 1 between these North-American Reformed theologians and their Dutch colleagues – such as Kuyper, Bavinck, Honig, Aalders, Schilder (see my “Klaas Schilder on Creation and Flood” on this blog under “Collected Papers,” and also Max Rogland’s article on the issue in Westminster Theological Journal, v. 63, pp. 211-33, to which I referred). Are we in danger of forgetting our own Reformed tradition in favour of the American one – both in the interpretation of Genesis 1 and in the inerrancy issue? I am not at all sure that that would be a profitable exchange. (I should point out here that not all American theologians went the way of Berkhof c.s. An exception has to be made for men like Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield, both of them Presbyterians and contributors to The Fundamentals.)
(4) I don’t understand John’s final remark. In my article on Schilder I show that Bavinck indeed held to an older-earth interpretation of Genesis 1. I have seen no evidence that, as John asserts, he was at the same time an inerrantist, nor that Kuyper was. There is evidence to the contrary. In any case, I don’t see what is ironic about all this.
john's last post tweaked a question I've had for awhile. In it, he quotes Louis Berkhof who said that Scripture is "self-authenticating". I was wondering if the notion of Scripture being "self-authenticating" came from Calvin? For example, in the "Institutes" (1.7.2) he writes:
"As to the question, How shall we be persuaded that it came from God without recurring to a decree of the Church? it is just the same as if it were asked, How shall we learn to distinguish light from darkness, white from black, sweet from bitter? Scripture bears upon the face of it as clear evidence of its truth, as white and black do of their colour, sweet and bitter of their taste."
-- Institutes 1.7.2
But, awhile back, I read History of the Church" by Eusebius. In it, there are several places (especially book 3) where he talks about which writings were used in the Church in his time (325AD). For example, here's a quote from Book 3, Chapter 25 "The Divine Scriptures that are Accept and Those that are Not":
"Among the disputed writings, which are nevertheless recognized n by many, are extant the so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name.
Among the rejected writings must be reckoned also the Acts of Paul, and the so-called Shepherd [accepted my many in the East as canonical], and the Apocalypse of Peter, and in addition to these the extant epistle of Barnabas, and the so-called Teachings of the Apostles; and besides, as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books. And among these some have placed also the Gospel according to the Hebrews, with which those of the Hebrews that have accepted Christ are especially delighted. And all these may be reckoned among the disputed books. But we have nevertheless felt compelled to give a catalogue of these also, distinguishing those works which according to ecclesiastical tradition are true and genuine and commonly accepted, from those others which, although not canonical but disputed, are yet at the same time known to most ecclesiastical writers---we have felt compelled to give this catalogue in order that we might be able to know both these works and those that are cited by the heretics under the name of the apostles, including, for instance, such books as the Gospels of Peter, of Thomas, of Matthias, or of any others besides them, and the Acts of Andrew and John and the other apostles, which no one belonging to the succession of ecclesiastical writers has deemed worthy of mention in his writings"
-- Book 3, chapter 25.
How is the notion that Scripture is "Self-authenticating" squared with this testimony of Eusebius?
I had written of Br. Tyler’s essay: Tyler has moved the meaning of the confession from the Scripture itself, to “the teachings of Scripture.” Tyler’s paper does exactly that. The Belgic Confession (5) maintains the Reformed principle of the autopistis of scripture: ie it is self authenticating . I wrote above that our Reformed fathers maintained that the Bible has “an autoritas historica and an autoritas nomativa. Scripture has first of all historical authority, that is, it is a true and absolutely reliable record, and as such is entitled to a believing acceptance of all that it contains. But in addition to that it also has normative significance, as a rule of life and conduct and as such demands absolute subjection on the part of man.”
I don’t doubt that Tyler believes that the Bible is the Word of God; not at all! You will note that above I wrote that Tyler accepts the authority of the Scripture. It just that what he writes makes clear that what he believes about the Word of God is different from what those who went before us believed the Word to be. (Quoting Tyler’s last comment) he writes, Likewise, in my conclusion, I point out that the crux of my argument rests on the belief that factual inerrancy "has the danger of forcing an interpretation on the Scriptures before an honest engagement with the biblical text. Exactly! What the Battle for the Bible was about in the 50’s and the 60’s and the 70’s was exactly this. Those who want to expunge the term “inerrancy” deny that the Bible has an autoritas historica . If you maintain that there are factual errors, you will need to deny inerrancy. I understand the point. It seems to me that what opponents to “inerrancy” have done is this: inerrancy is related to autoritas historica and infallibility to autoritas nomativa. And since our exegesis has demonstrated that there are demonstrable errors and historical faults we need to drop the concept of autoritas historica and remove the term inerrancy maintaining only infallibility to autoritas nomativa. But this puts the exegetical cart before the presuppositional horse. An important contribution to this area was made by one of our “Dutch fathers” S. Greijdanus in his Schriftbeginselen ter Schriftverklaring. He had vigorously defended a humble presuppositional approach to scripture.
Tyler has also stated above that he rejects “verbal plenary inspiration” (in his exchange with Wes). Could Tyler yet flesh that out? How is this different from “organic” or with careful reflection of J Faber suggested “covenantal” inspiration. Is Tyler denying that every word of the Bible comes from God? What would he replace the term with?
Too be continued…
JI Packer contributed to the debate in the last half century with his book, Beyond the Battle for the Bible (Cornerstone, 1980). In that book you can find an essay by Dr. Packer (a stalwart historical Reformed Calvinist) titled, “Inerrancy in Current Debate.”
He list three undermining principles detected and rejected before moving on a fourth.
1 the canonical scripture is not identifiable, but needs an infallible church to pick it out.
2. the canonical scripture is not clear, but needs and infallible church to declare its meaning
3. the canonical scripture is not sufficient, but needs an infallible church to supplement it.
The Reformers responded with four principles.
1. The canon is inspired
2. The canon is closed
3. The canon has unity (self interpreting ie compare scripture with scripture.)
4. The canon has divine authority.
The fourth undermining principle came much later. In the late 18th century scholars and academics suggested that the canonical scripture “is not wholly trustworthy since it is not wholly true." Packer writes of the many skeptics who succumbed to this novelty. BB Warfield constantly contended against this view as did many others who maintained against the skeptics that the Bible was without error.
JI Packer writes “Disconcertingly, G. C. Berkouwer, perhaps the most distinguished Reformed Theologian of our time, dismisses the concept of inerrancy as a needless and misleading addition to the confession of Scripture as reliable and infallible. He sees this concept as bound up with mechanical ideas of inspiration…” Packer notes that Berkouwer nowhere in his book Scripture (which Tyler quotes) quotes those whose position he rejects. Packer writes, “Certainly, there is no reason to feel tied to conceiving inerrancy in terms of Berkouwer’s morbid fantasy.” Packer in his essay puts for a convincing argument that “inerrancy” is a concept worth maintaining and assembles a battery of arguments. He does acknowledge that if “inerrancy” is what Berkouwer “takes it to imply, I would deprecate the notion too”.
Yet, for several reason, Dr. Packer would like to maintain the term “inerrancy”, if only as a apologetic tool, serving as “terminology for affirming to a skeptical world that the Bible is true.”
I am willing to drop the term inerrancy and maintain the five perfections of scripture as outlined in the Belgic Confession, as well as maintain the phrase that the scriptures are canonical “against which nothing can be alleged”. And then I will say that the scriptures are infallible also in autoritas historica ie. Scripture is Infallible in factual matters as well, and so I continue to disagree with Br. Tyler.
Fritz asks about Calvin and "the self-authenticating scripture." I would point to a few parag further where Calvin writes in 1.7.5.
Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that the Scripture indeed is self-authenticated [footnote autopiston cf. 1.7.2 (end)] (which Fritz quotes) hence it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning.
As for the formation of the canon and Eusibius, I'll defer to others on that.
Dr. Oosteroff writes that I should withdraw a comment
(1) John writes that “the push to remove inerrancy from our CanRC vocabulary” is motivated by the idea that a change of the rules will “allow for chimpanzee-like creatures in the human family.” This is an absolutely unfounded assumption, is regrettable, and should be withdrawn.
I defer to Freda, and withdraw that. However, it didn’t seem to be a great leap of logic to connect the papers and postings on this blog which promote, among other things: pre-adamite ancestors, pre-adamite death, pre-fall evil as well as chimpanzee – like ancestors in the human family tree etc, to Tyler’s paper in which he says that factual inerrancy cannot be maintained. All four names of the owners of this blog are listed at the bottom. I assumed (wrongly apparently) that all took responsibility for what was being posted. That was an error on my part: all, of course, are only responsible for their own positions.
(2) I also have to remind John that the use of the word “inerrancy” in the CanRC is not part of a well-established tradition that we are trying to change, but that it is an innovation, and a very recent one at that.
I’m not fighting to maintain the term “inerrancy”: I’m arguing that Tyler’s essay undermines the Reformed doctrine of the autopistis of scripture and its autoritas historica.
(4) I don’t understand John’s final remark. In my article on Schilder I show that Bavinck indeed held to an older-earth interpretation of Genesis 1. I have seen no evidence that, as John asserts, he was at the same time an inerrantist, nor that Kuyper was. There is evidence to the contrary. In any case, I don’t see what is ironic about all this.
I was referring to what Dr. J. Faber had written and which I quoted above:
In [Faber’s] discussion of they who attack the doctrine of inerrancy he asks the rhetorical question, “What is his answer to those who, like Bavinck, compare the conception of the Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit and the conception of the Scriptures through that same Spirit as without spot or blemish? What is his answer to those who like Warfield, Bavinck and Kuyper compare the sinlessness of the Lord and the inerrancy of Scripture? (27)”
(With this, I'm signing off this discussion.)
I wonder if you realize that B.B. Warfield, whom you correctly cite as a champion of inerrancy, accepted theistic evolution? If nothing else this reveals that your accusation
“If the present hermeneutical rules don’t allow for chimpanzee-like creatures in the human family tree, we need to change the rules.”
is a false dichotomy. Warfield held to a view of inerrancy you (apparently) approve of; yet he saw no conflict with his view of Scripture and accepting theistic evolution.
In response to Dennis' comment about Warfield's accepting evolution, I think his position is somewhat more nuanced than simply "accepting evolution."
In Evolution, Science, and Scripture, edited by Mark Noll and David Livingstone, Warfield expressed an openness to the possibility that God may have created through evolution and thus I support Dennis' comment about Warfield and inerrancy. However, he also argued for the unity of the human race, so Warfield hedged somewhat for theological reasons when it came to human evolution.
You're right that Warfield had somewhat nuanced views, but for the purposes of this discussion, he would be considered beyond the pale by many of the commenters here. For example:
"In several of his writings, Warfield worked carefully to distinguish three ways in which God worked in and through the physical world. The most important thing about these three ways is that Warfield felt that each of them was compatible with the theology he found in an inerrant Bible, if each was applied properly to natural history and the history of salvation. "Evolution" meant developments arising out of forces God had placed inside matter at the original creation of the world stuff, but that God also directed to predetermined ends by his providential superintendence of the world. At least in writings toward the end of his life, Warfield held that evolution in this sense was fully compatible with biblical understandings of the production of the human body."
From "Hodge and Warfield on Science, the Bible, Evolution, and Darwinism" by Mark Noll and David Livingstone, in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation , Keith Miller, Ed, Eerdmans, 2003, pp 69-70.
My point was that holding to inerrancy and maintaining a (high) view of Scripture that allows for God to create through evolution (even for the human body) are not incompatible, and have precedent within reformed circles; recent attempts to "circle the wagons" on this issue are just that: recent.
Rev. vanPopta's comments on the teaching of the late Dr. J. Faber suggest that he was at least hesitant to explicitly defend the “inerrancy” of Scriptures. His successor at the federational seminary of the CanRC, Prof. N.H. Gootjes, argued very strongly against the use of the term “inerrancy,” much preferring “infallibility.” His chief reason was that this term makes human reason an arbiter over Scripture in a way that a trust in God's Word as infallible does not. Therefore, in terms of the teaching tradition in the federational seminary, inerrancy certainly has not been insisted upon, and has even been explicitly rejected as an appropriate way to speak about Scriptures.
I also don't like the term, for a very simple reason: there are obvious contradictions in Scripture. While I appreciated Tyler's summary of Matthew and Mark's theologies, I don't think the differing wording at Jesus' baptism is really a pertinent example in this debate; even the strictest inerrantist would not have problems with varied wording. The different settings of Peter's denial poses more of a problem, but an inerrantist could still evade this point. Let's up the stakes a little: what about stories that cannot be reconciled? Just two examples, there are many more:
1)Did Korah's sons survive his rebellion (Num 26:11) or did they die in it (Num 16:27-32)?
2)Did Jesus command his disciples to go to Galilee after the resurrection (Mark), or did he expressly command them to wait in Jerusalem until the coming of the Spirit (Luke)?
I think these are cases that pose more of a problem for the strict inerrantist. I am skeptical of attempts to harmonize these passages; in fact I think they can better be treated in accordance with their authors' intentions much the way Tyler did with the baptism above. But I'm open to suggestions that these contradictions can in fact be reconciled.
To John: I also am having trouble seeing how the Word of God and its teachings can be separated. This kind of distinction, when referring to a person, is problematic. Imagine I say I believe you but not what you teach, or vice versa. If I said this kind of thing too often, people would stop taking me seriously. This distinction, when referred to the printed Bible, makes even less sense.
John also says: Scripture has first of all historical authority, that is, it is a true and absolutely reliable record, and as such is entitled to a believing acceptance of all that it contains. This is an assertion that hides a metaphor. Scripture is not a bucket that contains items that we can access without any thought. What Scripture contains can only be apprehended by reading. And reading is also not sufficient (Fritz's screen reader can do this); the reader must comprehend, and the comprehended message lies in our mind as an interpretation.
Further, on inerrancy, John quotes "John Murray leads off with the first chapter in which he equates infallibity with inerrancy. He qualifies this with a footnote (2) as follows: It must be emphasized that the proponents of Biblical inerrancy do not ignore "facts" nor do they fail to take these into account in their construction of inspiration. It must be emphatically stated that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy ... is not based on the assumption that the criterion of meticulous precision in every detail of recorded history is the indispensable canon of biblical infallibility."
I find this singularly unhelpful as it contains essentially no information. If infallibity and inerrancy are equated, all we are left with is a duplicate word. What Murray has basically done is to re-define inerrancy so that he can affirm it. It's not how I would define inerrancy; I think Tyler's definition is useful, Murray's is much less so.
To Wes: I have never understood the admonition to "let scripture interpret scripture". Scripture consists of printed pages. One must read it to understand it. The process of reading to the point of comprehension is called "interpretation". Scripture cannot interpret itself; only the reader can interpret. So I've often pondered: What do people mean when they say "let scripture interpret scripture"? Here is my best guess: instead of "letting" Scripture do something it cannot do, we are to use Scripture to interpret Scripture. IOW, when a text is hard to understand or seems to contradict something you know to be true, you must find other texts to compare it with. But which ones? The very act of choosing is an act of interpretation. An example may make this clearer. If we want Romans 5:18 to mean that everyone gets saved whether they believe or not, we interpret it in the light of 1 Timothy 4:10; if we want it to mean that not everyone gets saved, we interpret it in the light of John 3:18. (I stole this example from Simon Cozens.)
What I want to make clear is that there is some subjectivity involved. People who want things to be a certain way will think (and really honestly believe) that a straightforward (emptying-the-bucket) reading of the texts supports their opinion, while others may come to entirely different conclusions. As another example, if I cannot believe that the bible was written from a flat-earth cosmology, I will allow the references to the 4 corners to be somehow overruled by another text that mentions a circle. Whereas if I am OK with the outdated cosmological perspective, I won't be bothered by it, but then admittedly, Tyler-inerrancy (not Murray-inerrancy) is out the window.
--rick baartman, Surrey, BC
Interesting for our discussion on inerrancy is R.C. Janssen’s recent dissertation (this link). In part 18.104.22.168.4 of his dissertation (“Characteristics of Special Revelation”), Janssen notes that he is “concerned with special revelation that is common to mankind today…Thus I will look at the characteristics of Scripture: its authority and infallibility, its clarity, and its sufficiency” (pg. 276). Janssen then proceeds to discuss both the authority and infallibility of Scripture (pg. 276-7), I will quote this section in its entirety:
“The authority of Scripture is self-evident; Scripture is trustworthy in and of itself. For it is God who speaks in Scripture and His Word is truth (John 17:17). It is noteworthy that in the New Testament the mere quotation of a text from Scripture is sufficient to end a debate (e.g. Acts 15:15-18). Thus all books of the Bible are received for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith (BC art. 5). The authority of Scripture is not limited to just a part thereof. A distinction frequently used is that of normative and historic authority. Historic authority indicates that the record is true to the facts, while normative authority indicates that the message is to be applied in human lives. Furthermore, the message of Scripture should be understood in its original time and context; although the claim that Scripture might be ‘time-bound’ goes too far. Scripture ought to be used with a view to what it sets out to achieve.
In general the Dutch Reformed prefer to speak of Scripture’s infallibility rather than its inerrancy. The phrase ‘inerrancy’ is considered to be rationalistic and to say too much.647 [see footnote below] ‘Infallibility’ is to be understood as stating that Scripture does not fail to achieve what it sets out to achieve. One might also speak here of the ‘trustworthiness’ of Scripture. One must be careful, however, not to understand this ‘trustworthiness’ in the sense of ‘passed on in good faith but requiring verification as to its truth-content.’
Diermanse (22.214.171.124) describes Scripture as a collection of human thoughts on divine matters, and weighs the importance of Scripture passages from this perspective. He fails to consider the divine author in determining the weight of a passage. The very fact that something is included in Scripture by the Holy Spirit is proof of its importance for future generations (cf. John 20:30-31).One cannot sideline passages of Scripture the way Diermanse would allow.
Because Scripture is authoritative and infallible or trustworthy, it can serve as the standardizing standard (norma normans) for faith and thus faith-articulation in confessional writings.
[Footnote] 647 “To be the trustworthy Word of God and the infallible rule for faith and life for us (see BC art. 5) the revelation which God has given us through the ministry of people, need not be free of all inaccuracies” (Van Genderen and Velema, BGD, 95; see Maris, Geloof en Schriftgezag, 33-34.)”
I recommend Janssen’s entire discussion entitled “Doctrine of Revelation” (section 126.96.36.199 on pgs. 270-279), it is well worth reading.
A few days ago, I asked a question about something Calvin said in his "Institutes."
Basically, I was wondering:
Given Calvin's assertion that Scripture is "self-authenticating", how did he explain what Eusebius said about which writings were being used as Scripture, and where? how did Calvin view the development of Christian doctrine in history? How does the reformed tradition view this?
Simply suggesting something to read is ok: I'm not expecting a time-consuming answer.
There is one point I would like to add to this discussion. Some of the posts have asserted that there is a need to affirm the truth of historical facts such as the resurrection because it destroys fundamental doctrines if we do not. This is clearly Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15 where he says in verse 14 “And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” However, this is not the only reason that Paul seeks to establish the historical fact that Christ was raised from the dead. In the very next verse he goes on to say “More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that He raised Christ from the dead.” It seems to me that Paul is also saying that this historical fact of the resurrection is necessary in order to keep Paul from being factually incorrect about historical events as he testifies in places like Romans 4:25. It appears that Paul is not just concerned with doctrine 1 Cor 15.
My question then is can this point Paul raises here be used to affirm other historical facts that Paul testifies God did. For example in 1 Timothy 2:12-13 Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” It seems that Paul is testifying that Adam and Eve were real people created by God. If Adam and Eve were not a part of real history as the Paul said the resurrection was, would Paul then be a false witness about God?
One other thing I would like to add is that there seems to be an extreme in the way of allowing discrepancies in the text. For instance, I appreciate Tyler’s case study of Jesus’ baptism and I see his point about not trying to force things upon the text that we don’t have to do. I see also his point that it appears that this discrepancy was intended to be in the original writings of the authors. But one does this discrepancy do away with inerrancy, and two, does this mean that all the discrepancies found in the gospel accounts were contained within the original manuscripts. Is it possible that ones like the Baptism account were included for a purpose but other discrepancies, such as the example of the staff and sandals (Matt 10:10, Luke 9:3, Mark 6:8,9), occurred through copying errors? If we affirm the discrepancy of the Baptism account, do we have to draw the conclusion that the Bible is as full of errors as my high school history papers? (I sure hope not)
Inerrancy: Two Reflections in the Margin
Alvin Plantinga once wondered why so few Christians are bothered by Higher Biblical Criticism HBC). He suggested it is because higher biblical critics not only disagree amongst each other, but their arguments are far from convincing. This is true, but these answers were not available to Luther and Calvin because HBC was not around then. But they and other Bible scholars were well aware of discrepancies as john Perry has pointed out:
[ http://www.luthersem.edu/ctrf/JCTR/Vol06/Perry.htm ]
Yet they were not bothered by the discrepancies that kept HBCs busy. How to understand that? I suggest this is to do with their relationship with God. Their attitude was that even if they could not make things square they could trust the Author would know the answer. This is not an easy cop out that could be mistaken as a license for intellectual laziness as the work of Luther and Calvin demonstrates abundantly. But if trusting God is the most crucial aspect of biblical scholarship – as I believe it is – then it is appropriate to continue trusting God when all resources available to human interpreters are exhausted. The alternative is to deny that God is trustworthy or even that he exists. That is the conclusion many have come to at this point, but it requires replacing God with human reason. A move that is not an option for those who interpret Scripture trusting in the guidance of the Holy Spirit. This trusting attitude is not available to an atheist interpreter of Scripture.
Some contributors to this blog, notably John van Popta, keep suggesting that rejection of inerrancy is motivated by the desire to interpret Scripture in the light of science. It should be obvious by now that nothing is farther from the truth. Scripture itself offers plenty of reason for rejecting inerrancy modernist style.
Perry, John. “Dissolving the Inerrancy Debate: How Modern Philosophy Shaped the Evangelical View of Scripture.” Journal for Christian Theological Research 6 (3) 2001. [ http://www.luthersem.edu/ctrf/JCTR/Vol06/Perry.htm ]
Plantinga, Alvin. “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship.” In: Bartholomew, C, Evans, C. S., Healy, M., Rae, M. Behind The Text: History and Biblical Interpretation. Grand Rapids, Zondervan / UK, Paternoster Press. pp. 19-57, see p. 41.
Jitse van der Meer
Rick Vanderhorst asks if the rejection of inerrancy leads to a rejection of the historicity of Adam and Eve. The answer is: No. It does not imply agreement with the school of historical criticism, and as far as I know none of the theologians who have preferred the term infallibility over inerrancy has questioned the historicity of Adam and Eve.
Their concern of these theologians was different. They objected to inerrantism because it implied a rationalistic approach to the Bible. That approach they traced to the 18th century Enlightenment and the increasing impact of scientific reasoning. Inerrantists, they believed, ran the risk of basing their trust on scientific precision rather than on faith in the gospel promises. Such precision, however, is often lacking in the Bible. As Abraham Kuyper once wrote, the biblical authors did not strive for the “precision of a notary public.” Modern historians may insist on such exactitude, but the biblical authors clearly didn’t.
The gospel writers apparently did not find it necessary, for example, to check with each other whether they agreed on every point, let’s say in the resurrection accounts. The message was important, not the precise details. Furthermore, Biblical authors wrote in accordance with the worldview and world picture of their age, and as a result spoke of a flat earth, a firm expanse, water above the skies, a static earth and revolving sun, and so on. Because this was the prevailing world picture, it made sense to the original audience, and it makes no sense for us to try to harmonize the biblical text with modern science. Another point to keep in mind is that the biblical writers used the narrative conventions of their age. This meant that they might present a summary of a speech as a direct quotation. (This convention was also followed by the ancient Greeks, see for example the Greek historian Thucydides.) As a result, two reports of such a speech might differ, also two reports of the words of Jesus – but for the people at the time that was no problem. They knew that it was the message that counted, and the gospel writers were clearly agreed on the message. Many other examples could be given of the difference between the writings of the ancients and of moderns – think of the gaps in genealogies, of the symbolic meaning and use of numbers like 7, 10, 12, and so on, also in genealogies. (For examples of such literary features, see the NIV Study Bible’s introduction to Genesis.)
The problem with inerrantism is that so much time is spent on hopeless attempts to harmonize discrepancies away that there is a danger of the message getting lost. A well-known example is that of trying to harmonize Genesis 1 with modern science. Moreover, the so-called discrepancies, for example in the gospel accounts, are not a disadvantage but an advantage. They show that the authors did their own research, rather than following one account or a single manuscript. A multiplicity of witnesses helps to establish the truth. And as I mentioned, all the four gospel witnesses agreed on the central gospel message and thereby testified to the infallibility of the Bible. On the other hand, if every small detail becomes a touchstone for truth, we are in danger of losing the entire Bible. Even the smallest discrepancy which cannot be harmonized can then place the message of salvation in jeopardy. Our certainty is not based on biblical inerrancy – i.e., on a modern scientific precision – but on faith in Christ.
A correction and apology:
John van Popta wrote:
"But this is not what the BC says. Tyler has moved the meaning of the confession from the Scripture itself, to “the teachings of Scripture.” This is a subtle but meaningful shift: A post-modern one, if you like. Now it is no longer the Bible, the Word of God, that is the final arbiter, the canon -- a holy one at that: one from God -- but it is our exegesis that is the measure. And so you can exegete “an old world, pre-adamite man, pre-fall human death, 14 billion year old big bang creation” and I can “exegete a young earth, fiat creation in 6 days, Adam as son of God (not of a pre-man), death entering human existence at the fall,” and we can both be right! That’s the implication of Tyler’s “we find no assertion that we must adhere to one particular interpretation of various Scripture texts, but that we must not doubt the teachings of Scripture.” "
Jitse van der Meer responded:
"Some contributors to this blog, notably John van Popta, keep suggesting that rejection of inerrancy is motivated by the desire to interpret Scripture in the light of science. It should be obvious by now that nothing is farther from the truth. Scripture itself offers plenty of reason for rejecting inerrancy modernist style."
Correction and apology:
John van Popta's comments about the role of science in the discussion about Scripture were not made in the context of inerrancy, but in response to Tyler's distinction between Scripture and what Scripture teaches. I apologize to John for misrepresenting his position especially as he clearly is committed to what I call 'classical inerrancy'. So am I. What I should have said is that Tyler's distinction between Scripture and what it teaches is NOT motivated by a desire to interpret Scripture in the light of science as John van Popta assumes. Creating questionable associations such as this one or the one referring to postmodernism does not help the discussion. One ought to be able to discuss an honest question without being thrown into the company of those one rejects.
Jitse van der Meer
A few more comments:
1) Dr. Oosterhoff, you wrote:
“Furthermore, Biblical authors wrote in accordance with the worldview and world picture of their age, and as a result spoke of a flat earth, a firm expanse, water above the skies, a static earth and revolving sun…”
Perhaps you could give some textual references? Where does the Bible say the earth was flat, or that the expanse was “firm”, or that the earth was “static”? It would be helpful to have some textual references to interact with.
Also, why could there not have been water above the skies?
2) I think our default position as Christians reading the Bible needs to be one of trust. When we come to apparent discrepancies we need to first of all try to reconcile them. I think that if we do this most of them can be “solved.” Tyler mentioned earlier in the discussion the different accounts of the baptism of Jesus. Instead of seeing a contradiction, couldn’t it have happened that Jesus himself heard the words, “you are my beloved son,” while the others with him heard, “this is my beloved son”? Since it is God speaking, I think this would be a reasonable solution. Another apparent contradiction, mentioned by Dave de Jong, is the question of the line of Korah. Did his whole family perish, or did his line “not die out”? Perhaps something akin to what happens in Ruth is happening here, namely that of a “kinsman-redeemer.” Or, there was a young child, being taken care of at the time by a wet-nurse, who later carried on the line of Korah. The point is that when everything is not explained we don’t in the first place assume a contradiction. We also need to realize that our knowledge of the original languages is not complete, nor infallible.
3) I don’t think it is legitimate to use small discrepancies in the Gospel accounts to create a hermeneutic that is projected back onto Genesis 1-3. As I said, I think many discrepancies can be explained. I realize that there are also some that apparently can’t be. Nonetheless, I can’t agree with Dr. Oosterhoff’s simple conclusion: “They knew that it was the message that counted, and the gospel writers were clearly agreed on the message.” In the first place, to be clear, the Gospel writers would all have agreed that they were describing an actual historical event, namely the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I think everyone on this website agrees with that. The more important thing is that all of the writers would have agreed on the nature of the historical event, as well as the nature of the medium in which they were telling it, namely that it was literal history. It happened in real time (about 32 years), and none of the Gospel writers intend us to take these accounts as figurative. Christ was on the cross for three hours, real time. He was raised on the third day, real time. We can conclude this because of the nature of the Gospel accounts as literal history.
In the same way, even if there were some slight discrepancies in the Creation account, it would not change the nature of the account. Genesis 1-3 is literal history, just like the Gospels are. In order to fit any kind of evolutionary scheme into these chapters we have make a drastic shift in our understanding of this chapter as literal history. Indeed, I think we would have to re-evaluate our understanding of historical narrative in the whole Bible.
So, perhaps we can discuss the nature of the medium of Genesis 1-3 (although I think it is clearly literal history), but as I said, I don’t think that the discrepancies we find in the Gospel accounts allow us to create a hermeneutic of “it’s the message that counts” and project it onto these chapters.
Thanks, Tim Schouten, for continuing the conversation. I agree that the topic is very much worth our attention. It is good to hear that the discussion is being followed by your student group as well.
I will begin with the second point of your letter. Here you state that our default position when reading the Bible must be one of trust, and that when we meet apparent discrepancies we must first of all try to reconcile them. I agree with you, certainly on the first part. As to the second part, yes, we should see if such discrepancies can be reconciled, and often it is not at all difficult. I do not believe, however, that we must attempt to harmonize them in accordance with the modern worldview, modern science, and modern logic. To explain the Bible, exegetes must also give attention to the ancient/modern differences in world view, world picture, literary conventions, and so on. I referred to some of these features in my previous comment, and I could mention additional ones, such as the Bible’s use of phenomenological language (the language of appearances), of hyperbole, of metaphors and of anthropomorphisms (speaking of God’s attributes in human terms). (See on this also Mike Vandergugten’s comment on Ben Vandergugten’s paper on this blog entitled “The Waters Above the Firmament”. I encourage you to read all the comments on this paper, which are much to the point.) Yet another thing to keep in mind is that apparently the gospel writers did not worry about precise chronology. See, for example, the records of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (chapters 5-7) and in Luke (6:17-49, 11:2-4, 12:22-34).
As to point no. 3, you are right, the gospel writers were describing an actual historical event. I too am absolutely convinced of this. But there were different emphases, and this has resulted in differences in the actual accounts. A well-known example is that of Matthew, who wrote especially for Jews and therefore spoke of the “Kingdom of Heaven” (instead of the “Kingdom of God”). But there are several other instances. It would be interesting if one of our theology professors would write about the different purposes and so explain some of the apparent discrepancies in the gospels. I am convinced that such a study would enhance our understanding of the Bible and remove some of the problems we are talking about.
In your final paragraph you speak of the creation account and of attempts to “fit any kind of evolutionary scheme into these chapters.” I will come back to this, but at this point I want to state once more that I myself am not a Darwinist, and that there is no necessary link between non-inerrantism and evolution. Kuyper and Bavinck were non-errantists but not evolutionists, and the same is true of other orthodox theologians, also in the CanRef churches. It is true, these theologians did not necessarily accept a fully literal reading of Genesis 1. And you raise an important question here: If a partly non-literal reading is allowed for Genesis 1, don’t we have to re-evaluate our understanding of the historical narratives in the entire Bible? I admit that that I don’t have a definitive answer, but I think that at least a partial one can be found in connection with the world picture of the first audience of Genesis 1.
That brings me (at last!) to the first point in your letter. It is clear to me that, as I have said before, Genesis takes into account the cosmology of the time – a cosmology that was common to the Israelites of Moses’ days, just as it was to the entire Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world. This view of the cosmos was based not on modern science but on appearances. The earth appeared to be flat, the sky appeared to be firm (indeed it looked like a tent), water came from the sky, i.e., from above the firmament, and the earth appeared to be static with the sun revolving around it. We no longer believe this because we have modern science. But the ancient Israelites didn’t, and if the creation account had been given in modern scientific terms it would have made no sense to them. But Genesis 1 does not give scientific information. It describes the world as it was perceived by its original audience in order to proclaim a theological message that is of overriding importance. If you want some details, I suggest you turn to my series “Genesis 1 in Context,” to be found on this blog under “Collected Papers.”
You asked for textual references and I will give some, but you will understand that in my opinion it is absolutely unnecessary to try to harmonize them with modern science. But here they are: The earth has “ends,” as well as four corners (Job 37:3, Ps 48:10, Jer 6:22, 25:31); it rests on pillars (Job 9:6, 26:11); there was water above the firmament (Gen 1:6, 7, Ps 148:4); the sun, moon and stars were placed in the firmament (Gen 1:14-19, Ps 19:4), but they also moved around the firmament (Josh 10, Ps 19:5, 6). As to the firmness or hardness of the “expanse,” the Hebrew term (raqia) in Genesis 1:6 that the RSV translates as “firmament” and the NIV as “expanse,” is translated in Job 37:18 as “a mirror of cast bronze” and in Isaiah 40:22 as “a canopy” – see on this the NIV text note on Genesis 1:6. I am not a Hebraist (and I therefore stand to be corrected), but I have been told that raqia is to be translated as “a thin sheet of beaten bronze or other metal.” The Israelites’ belief in a static earth and revolving sun has been deduced from a selection of the texts given above, and also from Joshua 10 (where Joshua orders the sun to stand still). Finally, I agree with you that God could have put water above the skies, but I don’t believe we have to assume that He did. Calvin already wrote that Moses did not intend to teach “astronomy” (see on this my comment on Ben Vandergugten’s paper I referred to earlier).
I understand the difficulties that the apparent conflict between the biblical cosmology and modern science causes for modern readers. I have experienced these difficulties myself, and have come to believe that a major cause is our mistaken idea that the Bible must be understood in terms of our scientific, rationalistic modern culture and worldview. I think that this is a central issue and would have liked to write more about it, but that would have made the answer far too lengthy. Perhaps I myself or someone else can do it on another occasion.
I invite you to continue the discussion. I would also like to suggest a number of sources, all of them available on this blog, that you and the other students may find helpful:
“Is ‘Creation Science’ Reformed?”
“Genesis 1 in Context”
“Reformed Views On Creation And Flood”
“The Waters Above the Firmament”
“Against Scientific Geocentrism”
Fritz Dewit asked for some reading material on canon formation. I would recommend The Canon Debate (edited by Sanders and McDonald). Link: http://www.amazon.com/reader/1565635175?_encoding=UTF8&ref_=sib%5Fdp%5Fpt#noop
It's a fairly comprehensive collection of essays from both liberal and conservative scholars on the issue of canon; there is a chapter on Eusebius as well. I don't know if this book will give you what you're specifically after—how the Reformed tradition views the process of canon formation—but it may give bibliography to help.
The problem Fritz is pointing to is the tension between the Reformed doctrine that scripture is authenticated by the testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Catholic teaching that scripture is the product of the Church. James Barr has some discussion of this in his work "Holy Scripture" but he does not deal specifically with Calvin, or with how Calvin handled Eusebius. Barr argues that Catholics are correct with respect to the origin of canon (the Church 'recognizes' which books are in, which are out) and Protestants are correct with respect to the goal of canon (the Word produces the church).
I too would be very interested in knowing how the Reformed tradition handled historical references to the fact that the canon simply was not as 'self-authenticating' as perhaps we claim. The Church was involved; we all accept tradition on some level (perhaps Catholics are more honest on this point?). I have no answers or any firm position in this particular debate.
Tim Schouten interacted with the example I raised on the line of Korah:
Perhaps something akin to what happens in Ruth is happening here, namely that of a “kinsman-redeemer.” Or, there was a young child, being taken care of at the time by a wet-nurse, who later carried on the line of Korah. The point is that when everything is not explained we don’t in the first place assume a contradiction.
I'm not sure how this evades the difficulty (which, admittedly, is only for the strict inerrantist as defined by Tyler's paper, not for John Murray or John vanPopta style inerrancy). For your proposed solutions are directly in contradiction with the narrative of Num 16, which makes it very clear that Korah's entire family died. How is it that I am the one who is assuming a contradiction? I think rather that the proposed harmonization assumes a contradiction.
If I were to carry out an analysis of these texts, I would perhaps conclude that Num 16 is hyperbolic. The total judgment on Korah, Dathan, and Abiram is impressed upon the Israelites; therefore, this passage teaches the importance of complete and utter devotion to the Lord. However, I would also have to conclude that this text is not “literal history”; indeed, there is clear alternate evidence in the Bible that it is not, since apparently the sons of Korah were not completely wiped out.
But my solution raises further problems. Have I not appealed to the theology of Num 16 rather than its history? Is this not a false dilemma that, if carried to its full extent, will lead us to doubt the historicity of the resurrection (the classic example, also raised several times in this thread)? You see here how my solution to the tension between Num 16 and 26 is no solution at all to the strict inerrantist.
That brings me to my second comment on Tim's post, this strange notion of “literal history”:
The more important thing is that all of the writers would have agreed on the nature of the historical event, as well as the nature of the medium in which they were telling it, namely that it was literal history. It happened in real time (about 32 years), and none of the Gospel writers intend us to take these accounts as figurative. Christ was on the cross for three hours, real time. He was raised on the third day, real time. We can conclude this because of the nature of the Gospel accounts as literal history.
This is a deeply problematic understanding of the genre of the gospels. First, there simply is no such thing as “literal history.” This appeals to an “objectivity” that post-modernism has rightly shown to be a chimera. I'm not disputing that Christ was on the cross for three hours—but, interestingly enough, did you know hours were reckoned differently in the ancient world than today? Some hours were longer, others were shorter, depending on the time of year (i.e., the amount of daylight). And of course we think of Sunday as only two days after Friday. This is just to say that your notion of “real time” is not appropriately nuanced; we don't often pause to consider how many of our ideas—even those about something as universal as “time”—are culturally bounded. [I'm not, of course, denying the existence of objective truth, as many post-moderns go on to do.]
In terms of the gospels, I've toyed with a comparison to modern newspapers. I'll present it here, even though I think it has serious flaws. Those who reside in the Toronto area have three major reputable sources of news information: the National Post, the Toronto Star, and the Globe and Mail.
In terms of the synoptic gospels, Matthew is the “National Post”: certainly more conservative (e.g. on issues of Jewish law), and he is quite an elegant writer. Mark can be compared to the “Toronto Star”: more liberal (re: Jewish law), and more crudely written; his gospel does not represent the use of the Greek language at its finest. Luke is balanced: he is a uniter, and he writes in a classic style related to Greco-Roman historiography; clearly, then, he represents the “Globe and Mail.” I'm curious, Tim, as to whether you would call the reports in these newspapers “literal history.”
The fundamental problem with my analogy, of course, is that modern newspapers are not attempting to *communicate salvation* (at least, not most of them, the Star might occasionally bring the “gospel” of socialist “salvation”). The Gospels are not newspapers; they are carefully constructed narratives that attempt to persuade the reader to believe in Jesus Christ and rest in his finished work for one's entire salvation. Though they are rooted in history; they are hardly “literal history.”
Actually, not all the gospels may be the same genre. Luke in particular fits much closer in the category of Greco-Roman historiography than Mark or Matthew. To do Luke justice, one needs to read his two-volume work in accordance with the standards of the historiography of his time (Thucydides, Polybius, Josephus as a more near contemporary). Doing so, we find that Acts measures up very well in terms of accuracy (see the scholarship of M. Hengel); however, we are also cautioned against a naïve view of Acts as “literal history”; historiography in the ancient world was always tendentious and didactic; indeed, it was expected to be so.
Since we are on the topic of historiography, it may be helpful to pass on a book that I was recommended to read in regards to this issue: Sidney Greidanus, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1988), 80-101. Greidanus discusses many issues surrounding biblical history that have been discussed in recent posts. Greidanus distinguishes between historical events and written history – the biblical authors were doing the latter, but saw the former as foundational. On this, Greidanus writes:
“On the one hand, the issue of historical reliability is a crucial concern. On the other hand, in interpreting narratives, one ought not to pay undue attention to this question of historicity, for ironically it may result in a distorted interpretation – as when one views the text as a clear window through which to look at what actually happened. For the text is much more like a stained glass window, and the preacher ought to focus on the author’s prophetic interpretation of the event rather than on the (bare) event. The question of historicity, it must be remembered, was placed on the agenda by the Enlightenment and the historical-critical method; although that rationalistic mind-set needs to be answered in a prolegomena, one must be careful not to adopt this mind-set and allow it to guide subsequent interpretation.”
On another note, the whole discussion on Calvin and Eusebius is fascinating. I think that Calvin’s emphasis on the Holy Spirit need not be in opposition to Eusebius, however. There are three points that scholars often refer to as key requirements for a book to be canonical (at least for the New Testament): the book must be (1) orthodox, (2) universally used in the Churches, (3) and have some apostolic linkage.
Now at first glance this seems to contradict Calvin, for to him it was the Holy Spirit who convicts us that these books (and these alone) are canonical, as we also confess in B.C. art. 5. But how does the Holy Spirit convict us that these are the canonical books? Is it not through the Holy Spirit’s own work in guiding the whole canon formation (according to the 3 requirements above) that we are utterly convicted that these are the canonical Scriptures? Therefore, it seems to me that Calvin is right (and B.C art. 5). The Spirit does convict us that these are the canonical Scriptures, but not in a purely subjective way; rather, the Spirit does so by showing his guiding hand in the very formation of the canon.
In addition to Dave DeJong’s recommended reading, I suggest (1) Craig D. Allert, A High View of Scripture: The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007) , and (2) Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority (Updated and rev. 3d ed. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2007).
On October 24, 2009 @ 7:59 AM Dave DeJong, in response to what Fritz de Wit had written, wrote about the “the tension between the Reformed doctrine that scripture is authenticated by the testimony of the Holy Spirit and the Catholic teaching that scripture is the product of the Church.” Dave mentions James Barr who “argues that Catholics are correct with respect to the origin of canon (the Church 'recognizes' which books are in, which are out) and Protestants are correct with respect to the goal of canon (the Word produces the church).” Dave then said that he “would be very interested in knowing how the Reformed tradition handled historical references to the fact that the canon simply was not as 'self-authenticating' as perhaps we claim.” Dave writes: “The Church was involved; we all accept tradition on some level (perhaps Catholics are more honest on this point?).”
The question of the formation and the recognition of the canon is an interesting one. The Holy Spirit is the author of scripture; the church recognized the scriptures that had the Holy Spirit’s “finger prints” all over them. During the ages the 66 books of the canon were bring written, many other scriptures were written as well (Apocrypha Pseudepigrapha). How and why did the church recognize the 66 as holy?
Article 5 of the Belgic Confession is helpful: “We receive all these books, and these only, as holy and canonical, for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith. We believe without any doubt all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they contain the evidence thereof in themselves; for, even the blind are able to perceive that the things foretold in them are being fulfilled.”
Three reasons are given as to why the church receives these, and these only, as holy and canonical: (1) the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts; (2) the self-testimony of the 66; (3) the testimony of the church.
Indeed, as Dave writes, the church was involved. Recognition by the church of the canon is a “not so much” reason compared to the “especially” and “also” reasons, but it is a reason. The church did not form the canon; the church recognized it.
E.J. Young, former professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, was mentioned earlier in this discussion. At the end of chapter 7 in Thy Word is Truth (Eerdmans, 1957), he discusses inerrancy. I think his manner of humbleness before God’s Word is one that we can take example from. On pages 186-187 he states:
“There are some who would say, Why not simply grant that Mark [in 2:26] made a slip of the memory? Why not simply admit the presence of an error here? What serious harm could be occasioned by the presence of a minor error such as this? Simple as this solution of the problem may seem to be, it is not trifling. If actual error is found in the Bible, it is God, not the human writers, who is responsible for that error. From this conclusion there is no escape.
The Bible is inerrant. That Word which the Holy God gave to man is a Word that in all its statements is to be trusted. Upon its utterances we may fashion our lives and actions. He who dogmatically proclaims the presence of error in the Bible has, as a matter of fact, arrogated to himself an amount of knowledge which he does not actually possess. We today are living almost two thousand years after the latest books of Scripture were written. Can we transport ourselves back to the days of Scripture and speak with such positiveness upon those days that we can infallibly point out what is error and what is not? Those who think that they can do this, often give little evidence of understanding the nature of what they are doing. As a result of further study and also as a result of archaeology much of what formerly was regarded as error has been demonstrated to be no error at all. Adverse judgments against the Bible have had to be modified, not once or twice, but over and over again. There is no other document from antiquity which for accuracy can even begin to compare with the Bible. When therefore we meet difficulties in the Bible let us reserve judgment. If any explanation is not at hand, let us freely acknowledge that we do not know all things, that we do not know the solution. Rather than hastily to proclaim the presence of error is it not the part of wisdom to acknowledge our ignorance?
The Word of God is a pure Word. It is not a message marred by the annoyances of tiny faults and errors that had come to us from the mouth of Him Who is truth itself. His Word is also a rich Word. It is varied and manifold indeed. The great need of the Church today is to hear that Word. The time that is devoted to tearing the Bible to pieces could far better be spent in seeking to understand it.”
Reformed Academic Team:
I still hold to my original position that infallibility is preferable to the term inerrancy when referring to the absolute trustworthiness of Scripture. I believe, however, that my paper has been, and continues to be primarily used to promote the idea of theistic evolution, which is neither something I had intended nor is it a position I hold. For this reason, I respectfully request my paper –Inerrancy: A Reformed Doctrine? – be removed from your blog.
Tyler Vandergaag (Hamilton, ON)
We have agreed to Tyler’s request to remove his paper from our collection.
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