Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Clarion and Creation Science

Clarion describes itself as “The Canadian Reformed Magazine.” This does not mean, it is true, that it is the official denominational magazine of our churches. Nevertheless, many a reader, both at home and abroad, considers it as such. And the magazine itself admits that, “with contributions coming mostly from our own ministers, it endeavours to provide Reformed articles, aimed primarily at our Canadian/American Reformed church membership.” It is not surprising, therefore, that various readers tend to give it an official status. In other words, whatever Clarion’s editors and writers appear to stand for is, for them, what the Canadian Reformed Churches stand for.

Not all Clarion’s articles deal with theology, of course. A good deal of attention has also been devoted in recent years to such subjects as the relation between faith and science and especially to the controversy about the interpretation of Genesis 1, the age of the earth, the extent of the flood, and similar matters. As far as we know, Clarion does not have an official position on these issues, and in the past it did accept articles from various perspectives within the Reformed tradition. For the last six years or so this is no longer the case. Only articles promoting young-earth creationism are published, the rest is being censored. (It was this change in policy that led us to the establishment of our blog in 2009.)

We did not cease, however, in our attempts to publish in Clarion as well. The reputation of our churches is important to us and we want to show to the readers of Clarion that not all members of our churches are creation-scientists or approve of the questionable manner in which this issue is sometimes promoted in Clarion. More importantly, we are anxious to reach those among our church members who depend for their information largely on what is published in Clarion, and show them that the teachings in this magazine on these specific matters are often neither biblical nor in accordance with Reformed teachings. We fear, in fact, that, not least because of the policy of Clarion, our churches are more and more sliding into a literalistic, fundamentalist view of both the Bible itself and of the relationship between Scripture and modern science. Various articles to warn against such a slide have been posted on our blog, but we fear that some of the readers of Clarion may not have access to the blog, or have been taught that it cannot be trusted.

Our repeated attempts to publish letters or articles in Clarion have all been fruitless, however. The latest such attempt was made in connection with an article by the Rev. Klaas Stam, a frequent advocate of young-earth creationism, in the September 25, 2015 issue. Because we are convinced that the teachings promoted in this article give rise to some serious questions, one of us sent an article to Clarion in response. When the editor replied once again that he “must decline to publish it” and did not respond to further letters from us, we at last decided to post it on the blog. We sincerely hope that it may contribute to a serious, informed, and balanced discussion among us of the policies which Clarion — and by implication our churches? — is following. We also hope very much that the one-sided policy by Clarion will be reconsidered.

The following article was submitted to Clarion, but was refused. See above.

by Freda Oosterhoff

What follows is inspired by Rev. Klaas Stam’s article ‘Bible and Science: More than a book review’ in Clarion, September 25, 2015. Stam introduces a book here by the well-known American author Henry Morris (1918-2006). Morris is one of the fathers of scientific creationism (or creation science). With John C. Whitcomb, Jr., he wrote The Genesis Flood: The Biblical Record and its Scientific Implications (1961) — a book that played a major role in establishing creation science as we know it. The book that Stam introduces is a different work by Morris, namely his Science and the Bible of 1986, an update of an earlier edition.

Stam speaks well of Morris and heartily recommends his book to the readers of Clarion. He admits that perhaps a question could be raised about Morris’s use of the Bible, at least in one case, but concludes that that is a theological matter which does not touch upon the essence of the book and therefore can be ignored. After all, as Morris wrote, “The purpose of this book…is to win people to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, and the Bible as the Word of God, and to help strengthen the faith of those who already believe” (from the book’s Preface, quoted by Stam). And indeed, who would not applaud such a goal?

The important thing is of course whether Morris accomplishes this purpose, and on that point there are serious questions. I am not referring now to his scientific theories, except to say that not only unbelieving scientists but also various orthodox scholars, including Reformed ones, disagree with Morris and other creation scientists on their scientific ideas. This should be well-known among us. In earlier years Clarion itself has written about it. I am sorry that Stam does not acknowledge this, but again, it is not my main concern at this time. What I do want to draw attention to is Morris’s use of the Bible and, in that connection, to serious objections that can be and indeed have been raised against that aspect of his work. In outlining some of these objections I will refer to work by the late professor Jaap Kamphuis (1921-2011), a Dutch theologian of undoubted orthodoxy who for several years taught at the theological seminary in Kampen.

I will be referring to a number of articles Kamphuis wrote on the topic in the Reformed magazine De Reformatie. He begins the series with a review of Morris’s study The Twilight of Evolution, published in 1963 (De Reformatie, Oct. 18, 1969). Admittedly this is not the book Stam refers to in Clarion, but since Morris’s views had, as far as I know, not really changed over the years, we may assume that Kamphuis’s criticisms apply to both books — at least as far as his main ideas are concerned.

Morris’s use of the Bible

Kamphuis makes clear that he of course agrees with Morris’s ultimate aim: the defence of Scripture. He further declares himself to be, again like Morris, an absolute ‘anti-evolutionist’ and he agrees with him on a number of other points. But there is criticism as well. While admitting that Morris’s respect for Scripture is not to be doubted, Kamphuis concludes that nevertheless he often uses the Bible ‘irreverently’ (oneerbiedig) — namely by mis-employing Bible texts to confirm his anti-evolutionist arguments. By doing so, Kamphuis argues, he cuts the branch on which he himself is sitting, namely the infallibility of the Bible.

For example, Morris describes the steps of the water cycle — from the evaporation of ocean waters through the process of condensation, rain, the refreshment of the earth, and then finally back to the oceans — with reference, for each step, to a specific Bible text. (To illustrate briefly: for the evaporation of the ocean water he refers to Ps. 135:7, its move to the land to Eccl. 1:6, its condensation to Prov. 8:26, its formation into water drops and clouds, to Job 26:8, and so on: 7 steps and 7 isolated Bible texts in all.) His aim? To prove, in essence, that the Bible teaches modern science and is a reliable scientific textbook. Meanwhile the true message of Scripture, Kamphuis points out, remains hidden, namely the proclamation of God’s majesty as displayed in the work of his hands, which the texts that Morris quotes in fact proclaim.

There are other and even stranger examples of Morris’s objectionable use of the Bible, such as his teaching that Satan personally discovered the evolution theory (and that he used it as a justification of his rebellion against God), as well as the statement that by divine providence verse 8 of Psalm 118 is the central verse of the Bible. (Morris does not seem to have realized that the Bible books were not originally divided into chapters and verses, or that the present sequence of the Bible books does not correspond to their original sequence.) Kamphuis calls this sort of argumentation ‘juggling’ (goochelen) and suggests that it is as harmful to the Christian faith as the theory of evolution.

But quite apart from these special cases, Morris’s entire approach, Kamphuis says, is dangerous. The Bible speaks to us about our creation, the depth of our fall into sin, and the redemption we have in Christ Jesus; this is altogether different from attempting to prove that it serves to ‘confirm natural laws which are beyond all doubt’ (Kamphuis, p. 23). They are of course only beyond all doubt, as Kamphuis adds between parentheses, until hey appear to be wrong after all! Indeed, he concludes, Morris’s type of ‘exegesis’ does nothing at all to strengthen the Christian position against evolutionism; quite the contrary. Moreover, it makes our belief in the infallibility of the Bible dependent on our ongoing success in proving that the teachings of Scripture are in agreement with modern laws of nature.

The extent of the Flood

So much for the review proper. In subsequent editions of De Reformatie (see especially those of Nov. 22 and Nov. 29, 1969) Kamphuis turns to another aspect of scientific creationism, namely its defence of the global extent of the Genesis flood. This is a major argument in supporting its belief that the earth is quite young — some 6,000 to 10,000 years in age, rather than the billions of years acknowledged by most scientists. According to creation-science most of the geological features of the entire earth have been shaped by a global Noahic flood which took place some 5,000 years ago.

Of course, the account in Genesis 7 and 8 seems at first glance to support the idea of a global flood. It states that every living thing that moved on the face of the earth was wiped out and that all the high mountains under the entire heavens were covered with water. Is Morris, and creation science in general, not right in stressing the flood’s universality? Kamphuis does not think so. He points out that Abraham Kuyper already dealt with this matter and, with reference to several Bible texts from both the Old and the New Testament, showed that the expression ‘the entire world’ in the Bible very often refers simply to the world as known to the human author. For example, when it says in John 12:19 that ‘the whole world’ followed Jesus this does not mean that the inhabitants of the entire earth, including for example the Americas, knew and followed him. It simply refers to the part of the world that came into contact with Jesus. And so in the Genesis account also the expression ‘the entire earth’ may well refer to only that part of the earth that was known to Noah. (For other examples of the limited usage of this phrase in the Bible see, inter alia, Gen. 41:57, John 21:25, Lamentations 4:12, 1 Kings 4:34, Rom. 1:8, Rom. 10:18 — and there are many more.) An additional argument against the flood’s global extent is that Genesis 7 and 8 seem to suggest that Ararat was among the highest mountains, although we know of many mountains elsewhere that far exceed Ararat in height.

This pre-occupation with the scientific accuracy and up-to-dateness of the Bible at the same time threatens to close our eyes to the truth, Kamphuis points out, that in the flood the Lord brought covenant judgment upon the earth. And also to the teaching that the flood must be seen as symbolizing baptism (1 Peter 3:21). How much do we miss when studying God’s Word by concentrating on its assumed agreement with modern science?

Where do we go from here?

Both Kuyper and Kamphuis mention further difficulties, exegetical and otherwise, to which belief in a truly global flood would give rise. They are very much worth considering and I wish I could mention them. I am in danger, however, of running out of space and still need to make some concluding remarks, so I will have to refrain. I will try to be brief in my conclusions.

Firstly. Creation science is very popular among us Canadian Reformed people today and I fully understand why. Years ago I myself turned to it when desperately looking for a defence of the biblical faith against the claims of atheistic scholarship. Arguments like those used by Kamphuis and Kuyper, as well as Bavinck, Aalders, Schilder, and many other scholars of various professions — all of them anti-evolutionists! — convinced me, however, that Morris and his allies could not help me. Study of science and of the history of science had the same effect, and so did the work of orthodox Christian scholars both outside and within our church community who valiantly tackled the religious implications of the theory of evolution itself.

Secondly. I also more and more came into contact with fellow-believers who shared my concerns, and I learned from them that scientific creationism can be as much of a danger as atheistic evolutionism. We are usually told that the teaching of evolution in our secondary schools must be avoided at all costs and that our students must be immunized against it by being taught scientific creationism. I know that this helps some, but I also know that others, those who read perhaps more critically and/or are better acquainted with actual modern science, are in danger of losing their faith when they learn that creation science, although it claims to be biblical, does not solve their problems but rather increases them. My question is: hasn’t this group been left in the lurch? I am also afraid that ‘outsiders’ who are drawn by the gospel will hesitate to join the church if they are told to believe what creation science teaches.

Thirdly. In the past, Reformed theologians tended openly to deal with the difficulties raised by a literalistic reading of Genesis. Calvin himself did so, for example with his theory of accommodation, and as I already mentioned, later theologians have followed his example. They have not necessarily solved every problem, but they have made serious attempts and shown Christian scientists that they are not alone after all. Even more importantly, they have assured them and their students that the certainty of God’s promises for us does not depend on our ability to balance biblical ‘prooftexts’ with the findings of modern science.

Fourthly. It is high time, I am convinced, to issue warnings against an inerrantist view of the Bible, one that has, unfortunately, been much promoted among us in recent years. The traditional Reformed belief has always been that the Bible is infallible, meaning that it is altogether trustworthy, containing all that we need to know ‘in this life, to his glory and our salvation’ (Belg. Conf., art. 2; see also art. 7). Inerrantism on the other hand teaches that the Bible is without any factual errors in the modern-scientific meaning of that term; that it contains no ‘mistakes’ in quotations, no ‘discrepancies’ in for example genealogies, and no ‘errors’ of memory, of grammar, of word choice, of historical and scientific information and description, and so on. According to inerrantists, the Bible can be proven to be accurate, again in the modern-scientific meaning of that term. Creation scientists need this to support their theories. But is such a Bible, one that is in fact first and foremost a system of ‘objective scientific truths’, the same as the Scriptures we receive as God’s covenant message to us? To ask this question is to answer it.

So let us please follow the example of our ancestors and freely and openly talk again about these matters, trying to help each other. You may ask if such a discussion is not risky? No doubt it is, but ignoring the difficulties or covering them up with fallacious arguments is, as I have been arguing, far riskier still.


Jeremy de Haan said...

Hi Dr. Oosterhoff,

Thank you for this article. I have two comments:

First, although I count myself amongst the "anti-evolutionists," I can appreciate your caution against the extremes that such a position can take. Just because a thing may be true does not justify any and all exegetical methods that arrive there. Doing so not only disrespects Scripture, but as you pointed out it can rattle people who later examine those positions and realize they were not as iron-clad as they were taught. In the long-run, it serves no one to sweep the exegetical difficulties under a dogmatic rug.

Second, regarding the terms inerrant and infallible, the situation is much more complex than you lay out. I know that this issue has been debated in this space before, and I do not wish to repeat that debate. I only want to express caution regarding the way you've explained it. You mention inerrantism as though it is a monolithic view. But it is not, any more than infallibilism (?) is monolithic. All sorts of different ideas can be smuggled in under these large umbrella terms. That is why it is largely meaningless in our day to state a preference for one term over the other apart from a substantive explanation of what is meant, the history of the debate having rendered a whole spectrum options available for either term.

I know that in a short article like yours it's impossible to get into all the complexities. But I think it is important to note that there are complexities, that it is not so simple as reverting back to the "traditional Reformed belief." Because if a self-identified inerrantist reads BC articles 2-7 and says, "Yes, that's what I mean," and if a self-identified infallibilist does the same thing, then both hold to the traditional Reformed belief.

My concern is that these terms quickly become ideologically loaded. The term inerrancy can come to mean "conservative," while infallibility can come to mean "liberal;" conservative and liberal themselves being very loaded and nebulous terms. When that happens, the debate moves beyond the specific discussion at hand, and becomes swallowed up within a larger ideological conflict to which it does not necessarily belong. The possibility for agreement then becomes lost within a swirl of emotion and reactive and reductive thinking. Noting that this is a complex issue helps us avoid that kind of thinking, and enables Christians to find common ground and a common celebration of truth.

In Christ,
Jeremy de Haan
Hamilton, ON

Gerhard H. Visscher said...


I certainly appreciate the concerns expressed above about the proper use of Scripture and agree that the way in which Morris uses Scripture, as mentioned above, is problematic.

What is also problematic however is the chasm that Dr. Oosterhoff places between the "inerrantists" and the "infallibilists," claiming that "the traditional Reformed belief has always been that the Bible is infallilble" and not necessarily “inerrant."

This does not quite hold up. While I agree that infallible is a better term, we should not be too quick to throw out the term “inerrancy." The classic statement on inerrancy is the Chicago Statement on Biblical inerrancy which you can find here.

Notice that it (1) affirms inerrancy with respect to the autographa (original writings) of Scripture (Article X), (2) affirms that Scripture is "true and trustworthy...on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write" (Article IX), and (3) denies that "biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science" and further denies that "scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood."

Given point 2 above, it should be said that many of the assertions of Morris cited have more to do with the hermeneutics used rather than allegiance to an inerrantist approach. Infallibility, rather than inerrancy, does not guarantee a proper hermeneutic.

The fact that this chasm noted above is incorrect is shown here and here. Peruse these lists and you will see that not only Henry M. Morris but also many significant Reformed scholars like Richard B. Gaffin, R. C. Sproul, Vern S. Poythress, and our own Jelle Faber, Heinrich Ohmann, and Lubbertus Selles signed it!

Hence I really believe that the cure is not to abandon “inerrancy” but rather to sharpen up on our hermeneutics, i.e., the manner in which Scripture is understood and used.

Gerhard H. Visscher
Hamilton, ON

Freda Oosterhoff said...

Hello Jeremy,

Thanks for your thoughtful comments - including the critical ones. You are of course right, and I should have been more careful in speaking of inerrantism than I was. In fact, as you already mentioned, some years ago we have discussed the matter at some length on our blog, and we made clear then that the term can be and is being used in a variety of ways. (See here.) And who does not know of the work of J.I. Packer, who calls himself an inerrantist but comes very close to being an infallibilist? I should at least have referred to him.

I also appreciate your warning that the two terms can become ‘ideologically loaded’; i.e., that they are being employed by different groups to substantiate their specific positions. I believe, however, that this is done, in our circles and in the evangelical world at large, rather more by what I will call (for lack of better terms) inerrantists than infallibilists. If we trace the history of inerrantism we learn that its usage increased greatly in the late 19th century (especially in America), and that it did so, firstly, as a result of the biblical criticism that was imported from Europe, but increasingly also on behalf of scientific creationism and a variety of newly arisen sects and movements such as dispensationalism and premillennialism. It is these groups that need a literalistic interpretation of Genesis, O.T. genealogies, O.T. prophecies, and so on, to defend their position. That is one reason why I referred to the matter in my article on Henry Morris.

There is another reason, a rather more important one, namely my fear that our people, including our young people, are being taught that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ but are not informed about the meaning and abuses of the term. I intend to deal with that, however, in my response to Dr. Visscher and ask you to read it – and respond to it. A serious discussion on this issue is very much needed among us, and I would appreciate and value your opinion. Thanks in advance!

Freda Oosterhoff
Hamilton, ON

Ed Vanderboom said...

I very much appreciate the careful way in which Dr. Oosterhoff has outlined the limitations of the hermeneutics which have been put forth in various writing by Henry Morris.

We can likely debate for some time the balance between inerrant and infallible with respect to a correct understanding of the Bible.

However, for me the “take-away” is found in the last paragraph — where the author invites readers to “follow the example of our ancestors and freely and openly talk again about these matters, trying to help each other.”

Ed Vanderboom
Langley, BC

Freda Oosterhoff said...

Thank you for your positive comment, Dr. Visscher, and also for your warning. Both are appreciated. As I already confessed in my answer to Jeremy DeHaan, I was careless in my definition of ‘inerrancy’ and I am grateful to the two of you for correcting me.

Thank you also for reminding me of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It is indeed a beautiful piece, well-written, and giving evidence of great respect for the authority and truth of the Bible as God’s Word. I am not surprised that Dr. Faber and his colleagues at the seminary signed the statement. What I especially appreciate in the Statement is the way it deals with possible misunderstandings of the meaning of the term ‘inerrancy.’ By doing so it warns us against an unqualified, overly limited use of it (the error of which I myself of course was guilty!). I found particularly helpful in this regard Article XIII and the section entitled ‘Infallibility, Inerrancy, Interpretation.’ In these parts the Statement emphasizes the need of proper exegesis and hermeneutics. It admits that we cannot expect ‘technical precision’ in the Bible, and states that in inspiring human authors God made use of their distinctive personality and style, and further that he used the culture and conventions of the authors’ milieu. And therefore, the Statement adds, poetry is to be treated as poetry, history as history, and metaphor, hyperbole, generalizations and approximations also are to be taken for what they are. In other words, we are not to treat as literal what is not meant as such.

But I have some reservations as well, and I will mention two of them here, although more could be added. Please believe me when I say that I do not raise my questions because of a desire ‘to win the argument.’ As I hope to show, a good deal more is at stake. Meanwhile I do confess that I embark on this topic with some trepidation. If I am mistaken, I hope that you will (again) call me to order.

My first question is about Art. X, which states that inspiration applies only to the ‘autographic text’ (the original manuscript). I know that this idea is widely accepted also among us. But how do we know that what we are told here is true? Is it really a convincing argument, or is it rather a desperate attempt to save a theory that can’t be saved? Moreover, as more than one critic has observed, the theory leaves unexplained why God should have preserved the imperfect copies while allowing the original manuscript to disappear.


Freda Oosterhoff said...


I have also a problem with Art. XII, where we read: ‘WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.’ Limiting myself to the last part, I point out that we are not told what precisely is meant here. Stating that no scientific hypothesis about earth history may be used to overturn the teaching of the Bible on creation and flood is of course well and good, but it leaves open what this biblical teaching actually is. Surely it does not absolve the exegete of the requirement of careful interpretation, and therefore of taking into account whatever we know about the world, including what we learn from science? Nor, I should add, has the church done so in the past. For example, when scientists agreed that Copernicus’ theory about the earth circling the sun (rather than the reverse) was correct, theology (rightly) accepted this and explained that the biblical description of the earth being immovable and the sun circling round it must be understood with reference to ancient Israel’s world-picture. It was not a ‘scientific fact.’ In other words, the Bible was not given us to teach us science. (As Calvin already advised us in his commentary on Genesis 1:6, on the creation of the firmament: ‘He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere.’) I have often wondered where the church would be today if it had refused to accept the conclusions of Copernicus. And don’t we face a similar situation with the findings of geology? I of course know that many so-called inerrantists rightly refuse to accept “flood geology.’ But I fear that nevertheless it is being taught in at least some of our schools, together with other ideas of scientific creationism.

And this brings me to the thing that really worries me. As I suggested in my article, the teaching of creation science can have disastrous effects on the faith of our students, particularly when they study at a secular university. And I now suggest that the same is true for the teaching of unqualified inerrantism (and isn’t it this type of inerrantism that we generally understand by the term, and that we are generally taught?) Shouldn’t we speak more about the very serious problems that such a view implies? I’d like in this connection to quote the Dutch theologian Dr. C. Trimp, who wrote:

“…Reformed theology in the Netherlands since her renaissance in the days of A. Kuyper has never endorsed the inerrancy thesis. It was Kuyper himself who spoke of ‘notarial imprecision’ in the Bible. In that framework we meet also such expressions as ‘innocent inaccuracies’ [in Scripture]. This is not to be seen as the introduction of a limited ‘inerrancy’-doctrine, but as a relaxed use of the idea of the Bible’s infallibility, in accordance with the example of the theological leaders of the sixteenth century. Kuyper believed that in the Bible as a human document things happen in a manner common to humans. He therefore would not have agreed with the Leiden Synopsis that the Holy Spirit would have protected the human authors of the Bible against all faults in their memory and use of language. The experience of every Bible reader shows us differently….

“The impractical nature of the inerrancy-thesis became evident especially in exegetical work. Supporters had to make complex attempts at harmonization…not least in the area of textual criticism and chronology. [Because of these difficulties] some spoke of the ‘suicidal’ character of the inerrancy thesis. They meant thereby that the fundamentalists, like the fighter Goliath, are defeated by the sword that they themselves carry and bring to the battle.”

[C. Trimp, ‘Amerikaans fundamentalisme,’ in C. Trimp, ed., Woord op Schrift: Theologische Reflecties op het Gezag van de Bijbel (Kampen: Kok, 2002), pp. 36f.]


Freda Oosterhoff said...


Does all this mean that we have to stop using the term? That is hardly possible anymore. It was used, for example, in the Introduction to the Proposed Joint Church Order for a merger with the United Reformed Church. Moreover, it is accepted by the majority of evangelical and other Christian churches on this continent. We can’t escape it. But as I already suggested, what we can and should do is to make clear especially to our young people that inerrantism as generally understood and promoted, also among us, has very serious limitations. Let them be taught instead that we believe in the Bible as God’s Word because the Holy Spirit works this faith in our heart — and certainly not because we can prove Scripture to be inerrant in the modern, factual, scientific sense of the term. I continue to be thankful that our ancestors spoke of the Bible as infallible rather than inerrant, and I sincerely hope that the spread of inerrantism will not result in the loss of our own tradition.

Freda Osterhoff
Hamilton, ON

Gerhard H. Visscher said...

I thank Dr. Oosterhoff for her response to my comment.

As to the inerrancy of the autographa, this is the way that the term has always been understood in Christianity. Back in the 1970s when Harold Lindsell and others were busy with the inerrancy debate, the issue was whether the original writings (autographa) are inerrant. The conclusion was positive but it is of course unprovable since no one has them or has seen them (though Eusebius said that some of his peers had!). Today too, if inerrancy means that the version we have in our hands is inerrant in all its details and in the exact sense of the word then we have a significant issue as everyone of those Bibles has variants mentioned in the footnotes; to know what to do with them we teach a subject in both the OT and NT Departments called "textual criticism."

As to "unqualified inerrantism," I would not know who teaches that. It's certainly not an approach of CRTS nor of quality evangelical seminaries. It may very well be a simply an misunderstanding of the above. It’s why I have long preferred the term “infallible,” and have learned that preference from Dr. Faber (his signature on the Chicago Statement notwithstanding). “Infallible” seems to me to be a good presupposition to have in approaching Scripture whereas the “inerrant” term seems to presume that I have the position and authority to come to such a conclusion on the basis of my own judgements. But if someone presses me to use the term “inerrancy,” I do not object as long as it is understood, strictly speaking, as applicable specifically to the autographa.

Gerhard H. Visscher
Hamilton, ON

Hank Vanderbrugghen said...

Inerrantism is widespread on this continent, and there are mild versions of it around. So what’s the use of insisting that we turn back to infallibility?

Hank Vanderbrugghen
Hamilton, ON

Freda Oosterhoff said...

Thanks for this question, Hank. I agree that a ‘mild version of inerrancy,’ as we meet it for example it in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, is to be preferred over an unqualified version. One of the reasons why I nevertheless wish we could stop using the term altogether is that generally it is used and understood as without nuance or qualification. And this of course is a logical consequence of the term itself. ‘Inerrant,’ no matter how you turn it, means ‘without error,’ and in the twenty-first century this is automatically interpreted as ‘without errors in the modern, scientific, verbal, factual sense of the term.’ But that can’t be said of Scripture. All Bible students know this, especially if they read a Study Bible and give attention to its text notes.

In many cases, as Dr. Visscher suggested, a solution to the problem is a ‘sharpening up our hermeneutics, namely the way we explain and use Scripture.’ This is very true. Many so-called misunderstandings and apparent errors can be removed by this means. Calvin already showed us that. But however helpful proper hermeneutics is (and I do wish we heard more about it among us!), some discrepancies will remain, and I think that in such cases we simply have to say with Abraham Kuyper that the Bible contains ‘innocent inaccuracies.’ After all, Reformed people do not speak of verbal plenary inspiration, but of organic inspiration. This means that while Scripture remains the inspired and altogether trustworthy Word of God, God nevertheless did not dictate the contents of the Bible but left room for the style, background, education and gifts of each human author, and also for his cultural views and specific worldview and world picture. Human writers, in short, were allowed to influence the way they wrote, and it also seems that they were not kept from making these ‘innocent inaccuracies.’ At least, that’s how I understand Kuyper, and it seems to me that the evidence bears him out.

In any event, the practice of trying to ‘straighten out’ the discrepancies and insisting that the Bible is inerrant is unhelpful. It confuses believers, and it makes the Bible a very easy target for sceptics. Even if we should succeed in our harmonizing attempts for a while, a single discrepancy will overthrow the entire construction. Inerrancy, I am convinced, does not help but hinder faith. It is untenable and promises what it can’t deliver.


Freda Oosterhoff said...


I realize that the inerrantists among my friends will very much disagree with me on this point. I hope they will believe me when I say that there is nothing personal in my criticism. I understand and appreciate the motivations of inerrantists: they love and respect the Bible as the written Word of God and wish to defend it against attacks by Bible critics, atheists and sceptics. I share their motivation and wish them well. But it would be inappropriate if I remained quiet about the problems with the manner of their defence of the Bible, or if I failed to point to a better way. I hope that they will appreciate my motivation and also that, if the discussion continues, we can hold it in a friendly fashion.

The ‘better way’ is to admit that we cannot be assured of the Bible’s divine authority by looking for scientific ‘proofs.’ The Bible teaches us, rather, that it is faith that gives us certainty, and faith is a gift of grace. So we confess in Article 5 of the Belgic Confession that we believe without any doubt all things contained in the canonical books of the Bible because ‘the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God.’ And therefore also when inerrantists tell us that admitting one little error in the Bible puts at risk our belief in our salvation in Christ, we have to remind them that, again, our certainty is by faith, worked by the Spirit.

This is and remains basic. Of course we have to do our biblical studies, our hermeneutics, our research on the history and shifting meanings of the term inerrancy. For an informative study on the latter I refer you to Jitse van der Meer’s 2013 paper on inerrancy on this blog (see here or under our “Collected Papers”). All this, once again, is necessary, but it does not do away with the basic fact that certainty is had only by faith. And therefore – to return to your question – we should cherish the term infallibility and not unnecessarily replace it with inerrancy, no matter how nuanced our use of the latter term may be and however widespread it may be among our Christian neighbours.

Freda Oosterhoff
Hamilton, ON