The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy, Part 2

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September 19, 2011 Tags: Biblical Authority

Today's entry was written by Michael Horton. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy, Part 2

This is the second of a two-part series, taken from an article by Michael Horton which appeared in the March/April 2010 issue of Modern Reformation. In Part 1, Horton introduced some distinctive elements of the doctrine of inerrancy as formulated by Reformed theologians A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield in their late nineteenth-century book, Inspiration: 1) They affirm the authorship of Scripture by the Holy Spirit working through human writers in a centuries-long process; 2) they acknowledge the reality of textual difficulties and errors; and 3) they reject the notion that authors of Scripture were omniscient or infallible. Today, Horton explains that Hodge and Warfield define inerrancy not as the absence of technical errors but as the truthfulness in what the biblical writers were affirming.

The Princeton Formulation of Inerrancy (Continued from Part 1)

Fifth, the claim of inerrancy is that "in all their real affirmations these books are without error."1 The qualification "real affirmations" is important and deserves some elaboration. The scientific and cultural assumptions of the prophets and apostles were not suspended by the Spirit, and in these they were not necessarily elevated beyond their contemporaries. Nevertheless, that which they proclaim and affirm in God's name is preserved from error. For example, critics often point to Matthew 13:32, where Jesus refers to the mustard seed as "the smallest of all seeds." From the context it is clear that Jesus was not making a botanical claim but drawing on the familiar experience of his hearers, for whom the analogy would have worked perfectly well. If every statement in Scripture is a propositional truth-claim, then there are obvious errors. A reductionistic view of language is implied at this point both in many of the criticisms and defenses of scriptural accuracy. It is unlikely that in his state of humiliation, in which by his own admission he did not know the day or hour of his return, Jesus had exhaustive knowledge about the world's plant life. Whatever contemporary botanists might identify as the smallest seed, if it were unknown to Jesus' hearers, the analogy would have been pointless. We have to ask what the biblical writers are affirming, not what they are assuming as part of the background of their own culture and the limitations of their time and place.

If we do not hold ourselves and each other to modern standards of specialized discourse in ordinary conversation, we can hardly impose such standards on ancient writers. As Calvin observed, "Moses wrote in the manner of those to whom he wrote." If one wants to learn astronomy, Calvin adds, one must ask the astronomers rather than Moses, since his purpose was not to deliver supernatural information about the movement of planets.2 Inerrancy requires our confidence not in the reliability of Moses and his knowledge of the cosmos but in the reliability of the historical narratives, laws, and promises disclosed in the Pentateuch. Even then, it is truthfulness, not exactness, that we expect when we come to the biblical text.3

To supplement their account, one could add that there are obvious discrepancies in biblical reports concerning numbers. However, these can be explained by recognizing the different methods of accounting, which are better known now than in the past. For example, on the basis of calculating the generations in Genesis, Archbishop Ussher concluded that the world was created on Sunday, October 23, 4004 B.C. However, we know more now about ancient Near Eastern genealogies, which were not exhaustive but singled out significant and transitional figures. Similarly, Matthew's list is selective, highlighting the crucial (and sometimes surprising) links in the genealogy that led to Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:1-17). Their goal (or scope) is to highlight the progress of redemption, not to provide general historical or scientific data. It is impossible to know how many generations are missing from such genealogies, and therefore efforts at calculating human history from them are always bound to fail. The fact that evenhanded historical research has resolved apparent discrepancies such as this one cautions us against hasty conclusions. Many of the alleged conflicts between Scripture and science have turned out to be founded on flawed biblical exegesis. In every science, anomalies are frankly acknowledged without causing an overthrow of an entire paradigm or settled theory that enjoys widespread consensus on the basis of weightier confirmations.

On the one hand, we must beware of facile harmonizations of apparent contradictions. It is sometimes said that the Bible is not a book as much as it is a library. We have to resist the long-held assumption in our intellectual culture that plurality reflects a falling away from the oneness of being. God is three persons in one essence. Analogously, this triune God reveals the one truth of the gospel in a plurality of testimonies. Furthermore, God spoke through prophets and apostles in many times and places, each of whom was shaped by various circumstances of God's providence, and the variations even between the four Gospels enrich our understanding of the different nuances and facets of Christ's person and work.

On the other hand, we must beware of equally facile conclusions that depend on naturalistic presuppositions or our own incomplete knowledge. Like the biblical authors, we are not omniscient and must with patient reserve anticipate fuller research and explanations. This does not require a dualistic conception between "religious truth" (faith and practice) and "secular truth" (history and science), as theories of limited inerrancy hold.4 If we cannot trust God as Creator, then we cannot trust God as Redeemer. Instead of this sort of a priori division, we must recall the purpose or intent of a biblical passage. Once again, it is a question of scope--what is being claimed rather than assumed. As Warfield explains, "It is true that the Scriptures were not designed to teach philosophy, science, or ethnology, or human history as such, and therefore they are not to be studied primarily as sources of information on these subjects."5

Sixth, these theologians also denied that inerrancy was the foundation of our doctrine of Scripture, much less of the Christian faith.6 We must first begin with the content and claims of Scripture, centering on Christ. Christianity is not true because it rests on an inspired and inerrant text, but vice versa. In fact, the redemption to which Scripture testifies and that it communicates would "be true and divine...even if God had not been pleased to give us, in addition to his revelation of saving truth, an infallible record of that revelation absolutely errorless, by means of inspiration."7

The Original Autographs

The appeal to the inerrancy of the original autographs has been a bone of contention in this debate. After all, what does it matter if inerrancy is attributed only to the original autographs if we no longer have access to them? But this is not as abstract or speculative a point as it might first appear. We have to distinguish between the original autographs and their copies in any case, since the valid enterprise of historical-textual criticism presupposes it. The very attempt to compare textual variants assumes that there is an original body of documents that some copies and families of copies more or less faithfully represent. Errors in these myriad copies are a matter of fact, but they can only be counted as errors because we have ways of comparing copies in a manner that gives us a reasonable approximation of the original autographs.

Even if we do not have direct access to these original autographs, we do have criteria widely employed in all fields of textual criticism that give us a good idea of what was originally written.8 However, the methodological assumptions of textual criticism are quite different from those of higher criticism, which as an apparatus of theological liberalism follows naturalistic presuppositions. Where real discrepancies and doubts remain as to the authenticity of certain sayings, on the basis of textual-critical rather than higher-critical analysis, they do not affect any point of the church's faith and practice.9 The very fact that textual criticism is an ongoing field yielding ongoing results demonstrates that reconstructing or approximating the content of the original autographs is a viable goal and that, for the most part, it has already achieved this goal.

The Faithful Inspirer

In evangelical circles, generally, inerrancy was assumed rather than explicitly formulated until it was challenged. Warfield and Hodge helped to articulate this position, which is more formally summarized in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (see page 30).10 Like any formulation developed in response to a particular error or area of concern for faith and practice, the inerrancy doctrine invites legitimate questions and critiques. However, its alternatives are less satisfying.

Whatever the holy, unerring, and faithful Father speaks is--simply by virtue of having come from him--holy, unerring, and faithful. In addition, the content of God's speech is none other than the gift of the eternal Son who became flesh for us and for our salvation. Revelation therefore is not merely an ever-new event that occurs through the witness of the Bible, it is a written canon--an abiding, Spirit-breathed deposit and constitution for the covenant community in every generation. Thus, the Christian faith is truly "a pattern of the sound words" and "the good deposit entrusted to you" that we are to "guard" by means of "the Holy Spirit who dwells within us" (2 Tim. 1:13-14; cf. 1 Tim. 6:20). It is an event of revelation that not only creates our faith--fides qua creditor, the faith by which we believe--but, according to Jude 3, contains in canonical form "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints"--fides quae creditor, the faith that is believed.


1. Hodge and Warfield, 42.
2. John Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, trans. John King (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981), 1:86.
3. Hodge and Warfield, 28-29. The Princeton theologians pointed out, "There is a vast difference between exactness of statement, which includes an exhaustive rendering of details, an absolute literalness, which the Scriptures never profess, and accuracy, on the other hand, which secures a correct statement of facts or principles intended to be affirmed....It is this accuracy, and this alone, as distinct from exactness, which the church doctrine maintains of every affirmation in the original text of Scripture without exception."
4. Advocates of this position include G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975); Dewey Beegle, The Inspiration of Scripture (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1963); Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979). Although somewhat dated, the arguments offered in Vern Poythress, "Problems for Limited Inerrancy," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 18:2 (Spring 1975), 93-102, remain relevant.
5. Hodge and Warfield, 30.
6. Hodge and Warfield, 6-7.
7. Hodge and Warfield, 8-9.
8. For a careful analysis of this process, see esp. Bruce Metzger, The Canon of the New Testament: Its Origin, Development, and Significance (Oxford: Clarendon, 1987); F. F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1988).
9. One example is the ending of the Lord's Prayer: "For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever."
10. Among other places, the full Chicago Statement may be found in R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2005), 177-93.

Michael Horton is the J. Gresham Machen professor of apologetics and systematic theology at Westminster Seminary California (Escondido, California), host of the White Horse Inn, national radio broadcast, and editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation magazine. He is author of many books, including The Gospel-Driven Life, Christless Christianity, People and Place, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, and Too Good to be True: Finding Hope in a World of Hype.

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CF - #64822

September 19th 2011

The final article in footnote 4 can be had for free here:

PNG - #64842

September 20th 2011

Few of us make claims of inerrancy for our ordinary conversation. (If you’ve ever listened to Hugh Ross in ordinary conversation, you might think that he is an exception, but maybe hall talk at a meeting isn’t ordinary conversation.) It seems pretty strange to couple the standards of ordinary conversation to what sounds on the face of it like a very absolutist claim - inerrancy. It makes me want to say, “well, which is it, is the Bible like ordinary conversation or is it inerrant?” The two standards don’t go together very well.

CF - #64844

September 20th 2011

PNG said, ‘It seems pretty strange to couple the standards of ordinary conversation to what sounds on the face of it like a very absolutist claim - inerrancy…. The two standards don’t go together very well.’

The point is, I think, that we all already agree communicating truth does not require utter precision. Thus, even though ordinary communication does not carry utter precision, it can still be true.

Applying that common sensical notion to the Bible: just because the Bible contains much manifestly ordinary communication, we cannot therefore assert error based on this ordinariness or lack of utter precision alone. That is, the Bible has the genuine possibility (but not guarantee) of being true and without error “in what it says is the case” (“Problems for Limited Inerrancy” by Poythress) despite its ordinary, commonplace way of communicating.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #64886

September 21st 2011

Again the important thing is that John 3:16 does not say all that believe in the Bible will receive eternal life, but that all who believe in Jesus Christ, the Logos and Second Person of the Trinity, will receive eternal life.

The Bible is true in that it faithfully reveals God’s purpose for us and our world through Jesus Christ, the Beginning, End, and Substance of our faith.

Dancing From Genesis - #65024

September 26th 2011

The Bible is clearly intended to be a history book (Jesus speaks of the real Noah’s Flood as described in Genesis) with spiritual truths therein, so if the wording of Genesis is deceptive, as the old earth creationists maintain, then should not the ostensible spiritual truths in Genesis also be viewed as deceptive?

CF - #65035

September 26th 2011

Be careful not to lump all old earthers into one bin.

Some old earthers say that Genesis 1 is a literary account of God creating order (setting up realms and rulers) and is misread by young earthers and some old earthers (e.g., Hugh Ross) alike when it is interpreted as a strictly chronological account, albeit with a different meaning of “day.” Cf.—which makes no inherent claim about the age of the earth or mode of creation based on Genesis 1.

They also posit that the genealogies in Genesis, like those in the Gospels, may be selective—skipping generations and chosing those that suit the literary purpose, rather than exhaustively listing all as raw data as one might want for a strictly chronological purpose. Thus the age of the earth is effectively open without deception or pseudo-history entering the picture.

You’ll find plenty old earthers here who believe Adam and Eve, Noah, et al. were real, historical people.

Dancing From Genesis - #65036

September 26th 2011

Can those old earthers (such as yourself I presume) say when they think accurate and contiguous history is recorded in Genesis?  Surely from Abraham on forward, right, wrong? 

If those old earthers believe Noah was a real man (ten generations before Abraham as the Bible says), with three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham, and ‘though that the flood was local, then why the Table of Nations from those three with all of humanity worldwide having come from them?

Since the flood was local, according to the old earthers, how could all of humanity at the time of the flood been just in one river valley, and if they were, then why didn’t they just walk over the hill to avoid the ostensibly local flood?

CF - #65040

September 26th 2011

The primeval history in Genesis 1-11 is not easy, but I’d suggest your sword cuts both ways.

For example, let’s take the genealogies. Stepping back from Genesis for a
moment, consider Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1. Verse 17 similarly
gives a temporal marker of fourteen generations (italics mine,
obviously): “So all the generations
from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the
deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to
Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.”

And yet examining it closely and comparing with the OT, we note that
some names are missing in the kingly list (viz., Ahaziah, Joash, and
Amaziah; cf. 1Ch 3:11f) and in the post-exilic list (viz., Pedaiah; cf.
1Ch 3:19), and that Jeconiah is counted twice (once in the kingly
fourteen, and once in the exiled group).

So strictly speaking, v. 17 does not represent a biblically consistent historical statement.

How do we solve this problem? One way, as theological liberals are wont
to do, is to give up immediately and say the Bible has an obvious error.
Another is to re-examine our way of reading this text and see if we can
see what Matthew is getting at.

Various conservative commentators have approached this text in different ways. Here are a few:

Brown (  “Some omissions behooved to be
made, to compress the whole into three fourteens (Mt 1:17). The reason why these, rather than
other names, are omitted, must be sought in religious
considerations—either in the connection of those kings with the
house of Ahab (as Lightfoot, Ebrard, and Alford view it); in their slender right to be
regarded as true links in the theocratic chain (as Lange takes it); or in some similar
disqualification…. [T]he whole [genealogy] may be conveniently divided
into three fourteens, each embracing one marked era, and each ending
with a notable event, in the Israelitish annals. Such artificial aids
to memory were familiar to the Jews, and much larger gaps than those
here are found in some of the Old Testament genealogies. In Ezr 7:1-5 no fewer than six generations of
the priesthood are omitted, as will appear by comparing it with 1Ch 6:3-15.”

italics mine): “The generations are not counted in a precisely similar
fashion — Jeconiah is counted twice. This is not inappropriate given that it is primarily a literary device intended to highlight the four markers.
Moreover, Jeconiah rightly belongs in both groups: in the first group,
he is in a line of kings; in the second group, having been deposed, he
is merely counted as a man.”

Clarke ( “The Jews had a sort of technical method of summing up generations in
this way. In Synopsis Sohar, p. 132, n. 18, we have the following words; ‘From Abraham to Solomon were fifteen generations; and then the moon
was at the full. From Solomon to Zedekiah were other fifteen
generations; the moon was then in the wane, and Zedekiah’s eyes were put
out.’ That is, the regal state came to its zenith of light and glory in
the time of Solomon; but decreased gradually, till it became nearly
extinct in the days of Zedekiah. See Schoetgen.”

All this is to say, all views have some trouble here. By insisting that
all genealogies (and summations thereof) are to be understood precisely
and strictly chronologically, self-contradictions are introduced. If we
instead allow for some purposeful selection for literary purpose, I
think we get closer to the authorial intent. We have to give up some
modernist presuppositions about historiography to get there, but I for
one think it’s a fair trade.

CF - #65041

September 26th 2011

Ugh. Sorry about the formatting there. This editor isn’t the smartest, and there’s no preview!

Dancing From Genesis - #65044

September 26th 2011

From that quibbling of a few names, you get millions of years of human history? 

And why was all of humanity in one river valley, that valley only ostensibly flooded during Noah’s Flood, all of those millions of people unable to simply walk over a ridge?

CF - #65046

September 26th 2011

No. From this I get the broader hermeneutical principle that biblical genealogies are often selectively composed and employed as literary devices rather than lists of precise and complete historical data. Then, allowing scripture to interpret scripture, I return to Genesis 1-11 and see it with new eyes.

Moreover, the evolutionary creationists who take Adam to be an historical person generally suggest that there were other hominids alive at the same time and that the bulk of their history happened before Adam rather than in the gaps of the genealogy. Hugh Ross has a similar position, except that man as image bearer was a de novo creation rather than a direct descendent of the existing hominids, but I digress. The point is neither ECs or Ross would try to shoehorn all of human history into the genealogies.

I’ll leave the flood for another day.

Dancing From Genesis - #65047

September 26th 2011

The Bible, the Word (Jesus), says that all humanity descended from Noah’s three sons, Shem, Japheth, and Ham, and as you may know, all language groups derive from them (shemitic, indo-european, and hamitic), so what other language groups may you suggest exist not derived from these, and for that matter, what people groups are you trying to shoehorn into Genesis 10?  There must be others if you’re right that there was no genetic bottleneck with the global flood clearly indicated in Genesis. 

CF - #65049

September 26th 2011

Some would dispute your account of languages, but that too is outside the scope of discussion that I am able to undertake at this time.

My point is that we both have to deal with selective biblical genealogies and summaries thereof. They cannot be seen as both non-selective and internally consistent. At least one of these has got to give. If one gives on selectivity, the case for a young date for the earth becomes difficult if not impossible.

Dancing From Genesis - #65050

September 26th 2011

You can cite no additional languages, well then how about the Table of Nations?  You say the Shem, Japheth, and Ham are not enough, so ostensibly who were the rest you think were deliberately omitted by the Word (who is Jesus Christ)?

And of course then there’s that pesky global flood which you are avoiding.

CF - #65052

September 26th 2011

I apologize if it seems like I am dodging issues. There are many demands on my time, and I have intentionally (and explicitly!) tried to limit scope here to mitigate that pressure.

I’d still be interested in reading your thoughts on selectivity vs. consistency in biblical genealogies.

Dancing From Genesis - #65054

September 26th 2011

Why would God deceive little children who can read about our origins in Genesis?  And so then too, why would he want to deceive the adults who teach them?

CF - #65057

September 26th 2011

At bottom, I’m claiming that the young earth creationist’s hermeneutic is fundamentally a modernist hermeneutic and needs to be reformed (semper reformanda!) to deal with the Bible as it is, not as the Enlightenment wishes it had been.

As for why God would speak this way, hearken to Calvin’s words on Genesis 1 (italics added):

“Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets
of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in
the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a
distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed
stars have their proper place
in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers
prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of 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, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great
labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.
Nevertheless, this
study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because
some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to
them. 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. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended
useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity
ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to
withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to
the art; but <i>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 method of instruction. Had he spoken
of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse
that such subjects were beyond their capacity</i>. Lastly since the Spirit
of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that
he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to
all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the
stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is
something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses,
therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the
Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy
the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude
were we to
close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason
why janglers should deride the unskilfulness of Moses in making the moon
the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only
proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers
possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who
perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of
perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of

Dancing From Genesis - #65062

September 26th 2011

Since “these are the generation of . . . . .” in Genesis means “these are the origins (toledoth) of . . . . .,” those passages then signed off by the writer or his scribe in his name with a colophon at the end of the clay tablet (to write in hebrew means to cut in), it’s obvious that all but the six days of creation in Genesis was recorded by humans, the authors of those histories in the earlier portions of Genesis (before written scrolls were in vogue). 

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