The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy, Part 2

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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."1The 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.


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