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Biblical Inerrancy [2]

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Date April 19, 2011

The concluding part of a paper delivered at the 2009 Theological Conference of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland. See here for the first part of this paper.

3. Echoes of the downgrade movement

The echoes we can hear of the downgrade movement which destroyed the orthodoxy of the old Free Church, and indeed brought barrenness into the late nineteenth and twentieth century Church in the United Kingdom generally. The Free Church fathers were familiar with a variety of views regarding the inspiration of Scripture. Thomas Chalmers accurately represented the position of the early Free Church theology teachers when he claimed that in the Bible ‘there exists but one ingredient of pure unmixed divinity, utterly separated and free from the contamination of all that is human’.1

Dr N R Needham, whose book, The Doctrine of Holy Scripture in the Free Church Fathers, provides this quotation, comments that Chalmers certainly did not intend to deny the humanity of the Scriptures or their authors but

merely intended to emphasise that inspiration related so fully to what was written by their human authors that the documentary result perfectly expressed the whole mind and will of God, devoid of any human errors, misapprehensions, distortions, additions, etc . . . ‘perfect in its language as well as perfect in its doctrine’ . . . perfect . . . as a vehicle for God’s infallible truth . . . ‘The Bible is divinely perfect; yet in one sense may be regarded as the compound result of the natural and the supernatural – not so natural as to have one tinge of nature’s infirmity adhering to it – not so supernatural as wholly to suspend and overbear the laws of man’s mental constitution.’

Chalmers, says Dr Needham, ‘repudiated the notion of different levels of divine assistance operating in the production of Scripture, and instead insisted that all Scripture was equally the product of inspiration – an inspiration which meant that “the mind of God, and that conveyed in the best possible expression, is in every sentence of the Bible.”‘

Under the influence of German theology and rationalism and the desire to win the age to the truth by accommodating the Church’s view of the truth to the spirit of the age, an increasing body of the ministry of the Free Church entertained and then advocated liberal views of the nature of Scripture. H F Henderson, in The Religious Controversies of Scotland, explains that it was seen by some amongst ‘the more intelligent’ members of the Free Church that the critical movement ‘arose from the new intellectual conditions of life at the present day, how in every department of human knowledge the methods and tests of historical science are being rigorously applied, and how the theory of evolution requires of everything that exists an account of its origin and development.’ John Duncan, for example in a lecture as early as 1867, warned his students against the attacks of critics upon the Old Testament, which he perceived were really levelled at the Person, work and salvation of Jesus Christ, since their Old Testament exegesis impeached not only its authority as inspired but also that of Jesus himself.

There is little evidence to suggest that Duncan was aware that his own assistant, A B Davidson, who succeeded him on his death in 1870 as Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature in New College, was opening the minds of his students to the views which he warned them against. A former student of Davidson’s said:

We scarcely realised that traditional notions were being questioned; rather we became conscious of a new perspective, outlined with caution and reverence, which in its main features appeared self-evident . . . There were many details of the critical discussion to which Dr Davidson never referred. But in an almost furtive manner he would suggest certain broad fundamental ideas, which fermented in our minds all the more pervasively because he refrained from promulgating them as dogmas. He assumed and emphasised what was vital in contemporary criticism, not endeavouring so much to demonstrate its value as rather to indicate its fitness for elucidating the entire scheme of the history or literature of Israel.

He maintained that ‘the books of Scripture, so far as interpretation and general formal criticism are concerned, must be handled very much as other books are handled’ and yet that the facts in the history of redemption are untouched by the most advanced critical theories.

William Robertson Smith, appointed in 1870 as Professor of Old Testament Language and Literature in the Free Church College, Aberdeen, was a student of Davidson, Wellhausen and other German scholars, and much more bold in his advocacy of critical opinions. He professed ‘to place faith in a position where it would be invulnerable to criticism.’

Dr Kenneth Ross, in his Church and Creed in Scotland, points out that Smith made three distinctions intended to accomplish this end: (a) a distinction between revelation and the Bible, which enabled him to assert the reality of a supernatural revelation in history while denying that the records through which knowledge of the history is conveyed were themselves supernatural or infallible, so that criticism could not touch the substance of revelation; (b) a distinction between personal and propositional revelation, giving the knowledge of a person not of facts; (c) a distinction between personal trust in Jesus and assent to a theological system. What we have in the Bible is a history, not so much of progressive revelation, as of the development of the religion of Israel. The authority of the Bible rested not on the character of the objective record but on the effect it had on the believing reader. Dr Ross, commenting on the effect of Smith’s teaching on his students, says that ‘it freed them to criticise the biblical text with the utmost liberty while professing to hold a very high belief in the authority of Scripture.’

I have no time to trace the decline further through the increasingly bold and unbiblical assertions of men such as A B Bruce and Marcus Dods, who in his inaugural lecture as the successor of George Smeaton in New College in 1889 described the doctrine of verbal inspiration as a theory ‘which has made the Bible an offence to many honest men; which is dishonouring to God, and which has turned inquirers into sceptics by the thousand – a theory which should be branded as heretical in every Christian Church’. He also suggested that belief in the historicity of the resurrection was a matter of indifference, that belief in substitutionary atonement or even in Christ’s divinity was not essential to Christians, and that there was defective morality in the Old Testament. The death of Christ was not propitiatory but a manifestation that there were no bounds to the love of God which he came to express. The case against Dods was dismissed by the Assembly in 1890. While he was cautioned as to carelessness in expression, which required the Assembly to reaffirm the divinity, atonement and resurrection of Christ, his view that there are errors in Scripture detail – so that the Bible is infallible substantially but not verbally – was specifically tolerated in the Free Church.

The Declaratory Act of 1892 had no article modifying the Church’s professed commitment to the Confessional doctrine of Scripture, as this had been resisted by Dr Rainy. But in response to agitation by some of the more conservative members of the Confession of Faith Committee, Rainy endorsed a statement by the 1891 General Assembly in which ‘the Assembly cordially avail themselves of the opportunity of recording their full and steadfast adherence to the doctrine laid down in the Confession as to the great truths of the inspiration, infallible truth and Divine authority of Holy Scripture, as proceeding from God, who is the Author thereof.’ The same Assembly defeated a motion from more conservative members to the effect that the General Assembly ‘declare the steadfast adherence of this Church to the . . . Divine authority of Holy Scripture, as proceeding from God the author thereof, whereby it was free from all error as originally given.’

The statement adopted was intended to try to please all sides, but its worthlessness is clear from the statement made by James Denney.

He thought that to adopt such a form of words as something in which they could all agree – though they could only agree in it by taking it in totally different senses – something that did not compose, but only concealed, differences of opinion, was neither candid nor wise. The infallibility of the Scriptures was not a mere verbal inerrancy, a historical accuracy, but an infallibility of power to save. The Word of God infallibly carried God’s power to save men’s souls. If a man submitted his heart and mind to the Spirit of God speaking in it, he would infallibly become a new creature in Christ Jesus. This was the only kind of infallibility he believed in. For mere verbal inerrancy he cared not one straw.

Kenneth Ross says of those in the old Free Church whom he describes as the New Evangelists, that they

criticised the traditional approach to the question of biblical inspiration as deductive and dogmatic, starting from an a priori assumption as to what a revelation from God must be. Blaikie wrote that ‘we have no right to assume that God will frame his revelation according to what we would wish for and desire. This were rationalism, pure and simple.’ Their own method they believed to be more biblical and evangelical, for it was inductive – constructing a theory of the nature of the Bible from the facts as to its own structure and contents. . . . Since apparent errors and inaccuracies are among the phenomena of Scripture, they must be accepted at face value and embodied in the Church’s doctrine of inspiration and authority . . . Conceding the occasional fallibility of the structure of Scripture was a master-stroke which secured inviolably the infallibility of the substance. The truth of the revelation of Christ was no longer bound up with the accuracy of minor incidental details. Moreover, the Bible’s authority does not finally lie in a written text which is ever at the mercy of criticism but is to be found in the impression which it makes on the believer.

The sad thing is that there were many prominent ministers in the Free Church of Scotland, like W G Blaikie, who were under the delusion that the Church could give free scope to critics who denied the essential inerrancy of the Bible and yet maintain the Evangelical doctrines of the Bible. They could reject the Bible’s doctrine of Scripture and yet authoritatively preach other doctrines which the Bible taught. History demonstrates the fallacy of that opinion, and will do so again. What happened in reality was, as Dr Ross puts it, that the majority ‘gave their blessing to a Christianity which was different in character from what had hitherto been found in the Free Church.’ Blaikie himself, in 1889, was complaining of the change that had come over contemporary preaching.

4. The fundamental significance of biblical inerrancy for the whole position of biblical Christianity

We can concur in the assertion of the framers of the Chicago Statement that ‘the authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.’ As they say,

great and grave confusion results from ceasing to maintain the total truth of the Bible, whose authority one professes to acknowledge. The result of taking this step is that the Bible which God gave loses its authority, and what has authority instead is a Bible reduced in content according to the demands of one’s critical reasonings, and in principle reducible still further once one has started. This means that, at bottom, independent reason now has authority, as opposed to scriptural teaching. If this is not seen and if for the time being basic Evangelical doctrines are still held, persons denying the full truth of Scripture may claim an Evangelical identity while methodologically they have moved away from the Evangelical principle of knowledge to an unstable subjectivism, and will find it hard not to move further.

As E J Young says, ‘if, as a matter of fact, the revelation of God is not free of error, the message of Christianity must ever remain in doubt.’ As he says again, ‘the Bible, according to its own claim, is breathed forth from God. To maintain that there are flaws or errors in it is the same as declaring that there are flaws or errors in God himself.’ James Montgomery Boice, in Foundations of the Christian Faith, claims that

what is at stake is the whole matter of revelation. Can God reveal himself to humanity? And, to be more specific, can he reveal himself in language, the specifics of which become normative for Christian faith and action? With an inerrant Bible these things are possible. Without it, theology inevitably enters a wasteland of human speculation.

5. The basis on which we are to defend what we believe to be the biblical, orthodox position

One could pursue an historical survey which would show that those who have contended earnestly for the faith down through the ages have held firmly to the inerrancy of the Bible. Wayne R Spear, in his discussion of ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith and Holy Scripture’, in the book To Glorify and Enjoy God: A Commemoration of the 350th Anniversary of the Westminster Assembly, repudiates the notion that the Westminster Divines were not acquainted with or committed to biblical inerrancy, which some claim was an idea that came to Britain after the Assembly. Spear shows that the Westminster position was very much that of William Whitaker, Professor of Divinity in Cambridge from 1579 till his death in 1595. Whitaker had expounded in print ‘an explicit doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture’ 60 years before the Assembly. He ‘contended that God is the Author of Scripture and he does not lie or make mistakes; therefore Scripture contains no lies or mistakes.’

Hugh Martin in his The Westminster Doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture (1877) makes the point that the Westminster Confession says, ‘”It pleased the Lord to commit the same [that is, his revelation of himself and his declaration of his will], wholly unto writing.” The Lord himself committed them to writing.’ He points out the contrast with the statement of the Free Church College Committee: ‘”The revelation of God and the declaration of his will are committed wholly to writing.” They are committed to writing. That’s all. The College Committee says not by whom.’ Dr Spear goes on to say that

one can go back to Augustine and find an explicit doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In his very significant work, The Harmony of the Evangelists, he said that if we find that the Gospel writers were inaccurate historians then our confidence in their doctrinal teaching is undermined. Augustine laboured to show that there are no historical discrepancies between the Synoptic Gospels.

An historical survey would be reassuring but we have not time to attempt it and, after all, it would be appealing to the testimony of men.

One could examine the passages of Scripture which are assumed to be unhistorical, unscientific, contradictory, and show that such assumptions are at least unwarranted and often refutable. E J Young warns: ‘When we meet difficulties in Scripture, it is well to be cautious about asserting the presence of error.’ Perceived difficulties are not incapable of solution, and if we cannot solve any of them it is most likely because ‘we do not know all the factors involved.’ As Hugh Martin put it in the fifth of his Letters to Marcus Dods (also 1877):

Let your difficulties about ‘inaccuracies’, about ‘lapses of memory’, and all that sort of thing, alone; and study, unprejudiced, the proof that is proffered for the divine authorship of the Word of God. Then, if convinced, deal with your difficulties as all wise men do with difficulties in reference to what they have believed on its own sufficient evidence, especially (as in this case) when the evidence is the testimony of God.

John Murray, in ‘Inspiration and Inerrancy’ (Collected Writings, vol 4), observes that

in dealing with any subject which Scripture brings to our attention we must take into account all the relevant data made known to us, and since these data are not all concentrated in one place, we must address ourselves to the task of correlating all the data drawn from various parts of Scripture. Too often we find what we think to be discrepancy, because we have left out of account, it may be, only one significant datum. Furthermore, we must recognise that oftentimes we are ignorant of significant data relevant to a particular subject, and we must be humble enough to admit the limitations under which we labour.

The ultimate basis on which we defend what we believe to be the biblical, orthodox position is that it is biblical – that it is derived from explicit statements of Scripture and ‘by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.’ If the Bible is trustworthy at all then it is trustworthy in what it says about itself. The divine Word carries its own authority and is believed on account of that authority by all those who are given spiritual perception. John Murray, in ‘The Infallibility of Scripture’ (Collected Writings, vol 1), makes the point that

the only ground is the witness of Scripture to itself, to its own origin, character and authority . . . Are we not begging the question? . . . We depend upon the message of Scripture for every tenet of our faith, for every ray of redemptive light that illumines our minds, and for every ray of hope against the issues of time and eternity. Christianity for us today without the Bible is something inconceivable . . . If we do not accept its verdict respecting its own character or quality, we have no warrant to accept its verdict respecting anything else.

(a) There is the Bible’s claim to be the product of Divine Inspiration. James Bannerman summed up the relation between revelation and inspiration: ‘A supernatural communication of truth from God is a revelation; the supernatural transference of the truth to the spoken or written word is inspiration.’ Inspiration is not our subject but the Old Testament bears witness to its own inspiration. Our Lord bears testimony to the inspiration and authority of Old Testament Scripture, and to the fact that it is without the slightest error and ever enduring (Matt. 5:17-19; John 10:35). This view of the Old Testament Scriptures as inspired and infallible is also set forth by the Holy Spirit in the New Testament in the teaching of the apostles. They refer to God speaking through men. They ascribe to named men what was spoken by God. They write of the Scripture saying something when it was God who spoke. They quote what is spoken in Scripture by man as the utterance of the Holy Ghost. They refer to the Old Testament Scriptures as the oracles of God. The New Testament bears witness to itself as part of the Holy Scriptures, with the same divine origin and infallibility and authority as the Old Testament (for example, 2 Pet. 3:15,16 with 2 Pet 1:19-21; 1 Tim. 5:18 with Deut. 25:4; Luke 10:7).

(b) There is the biblical view of the extent of Divine Inspiration. Inspiration extends to the words and not simply to the thought. As John Murray puts it in his article, ‘The Infallibility of Scripture’:

The inspiration of Scripture involves verbal inspiration. If it did not carry with it the inspiration of the words, it would not be inspiration at all. Words are the media of communication. It is nothing less than verbal inspiration that Paul affirms when he says in 1 Corinthians 2:13, ‘Comparing spiritual things with spiritual’ . . . They are Spirit-inspired words in the sense in which they were intended by the Holy Spirit.

He says in ‘Inspiration and Inerrancy’ that

it is strange that the term ‘verbal inspiration’ should evoke so much dissent if not scorn. When we speak of the inspiration of Scripture we refer to Scripture as written; otherwise we should not be speaking of Scripture. But there is no Scripture without words, and, if we are to speak of the inspiration of Scripture at all, we cannot dispense with the inspiration of words. Or if we are thinking of revelation in word, revelatory word, we cannot think of revelation apart from words, nor of the inspiration which guarantees the veracity and supplies the content of that revelation apart from words. The Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you (John 14:26).

(c) There is the omniscience and the truthfulness of God. God knows the truth about everything and God cannot lie. The God who is truth cannot err. R C Sproul makes the point that

unless we want to join the ranks of the absurd, or unless we confess that God inspires error and join the ranks of the impious, or unless we confess that the Bible as a whole is not inspired, then we are forced by what Martin Luther called ‘resistless logic’ to the conclusion that the Bible is inerrant . . . a logic that is driven to a conclusion drawn from the premise of the integrity of Christ’.

Calvin in his comments on 2 Timothy 3:16 asserts that ‘we owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God; because it has proceeded from him alone, and has nothing belonging to man mixed with it’.

The Bible is God’s Word and not merely the means of communicating God’s Word. God cannot err in anything that he says and therefore the Bible must be free from all error. We shall let E J Young have the last word:

It is perfectly true that if we begin with the assumption that God exists and that the Bible is his Word, we shall wish to be guided in all our study by what the Scripture says. It is equally true that if we reject this foundational presupposition of Christianity we shall arrive at results which are hostile to supernatural Christianity. If one begins with the presuppositions of unbelief, he will end with unbelief’s conclusions.

Taken with permission from the March and April 2011 editions of The Free Presbyterian Magazine.

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