Does Inerrancy Matter Any Longer?

Article ID: JAF4324 | By: James R. White

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 32, number 4 (2009). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

Western Christians have little connection with history. Events of thirty years ago are easily forgotten and generally considered irrelevant to “today.” So it is not surprising that most evangelicals are blissfully ignorant of a vitally important document on the topic of inerrancy produced by leading evangelical scholars. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, first published in 1978, remains one of the most important documents of the past century, and its importance has only increased with the slide of Western culture into ever more virulent forms of secular humanism. In a cultural context where nothing in the religious realm can ever be said to be “true,” a fully authoritative scriptural revelation will be attacked incessantly. The foundations on which the historic Christian proclamation has rested are once more under attack, and more often than not those swinging the pickaxes are wearing religious garb.

The contemporary attacks on the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture are often couched in an attitude of twenty-first century hubris. Those people did not have computers. They did not have cell phones and modern medical knowledge. They did not send men to the moon or put satellites in orbit. So how could they have possibly had any meaningful knowledge of transcendent truths? The Bible was not written using modern language and categories; therefore, how can it be at all relevant to us today? Couple this with carefully selected texts demonstrating apparent “contradiction,” and it is easy to see why many Christians are embarrassed by the historical confession of the perfection and inspiration of the Bible. “We just can’t speak like that anymore. We need a new way of looking at the Bible,” we are told.

Have we grown so much wiser than our predecessors? Were the great men and women of God of the past naïve when it came to the Bible? Should we abandon inerrancy and speak of the Bible in postmodern terms? Or is there a reason to continue to believe that God has spoken with truthful clarity in Scripture?

CAREFULLY DEFINING THE ISSUES

There is no question that Christians have attributed things to the Bible that it never attributes to itself. Ignorance of the Bible’s authors, its historical context, languages, canon, and overall purpose has led to all sorts of odd claims about the Bible down through church history. Claims that the Bible is a handbook to nuclear physics or that it contains startling scientific secrets are easily (and truthfully) refuted.

The acts of the ignorant over the centuries do not determine the nature of Scripture, however. We must think carefully and clearly about what Scripture is so that when we speak of its authority, nature, and accuracy, we are standing on solid ground. It is just this kind of clear, careful thinking that marks the work of the scholars who crafted the Chicago Statement in 1978.1 Though the entire statement is lengthy, the summary statement is brief enough to be of assistance to us here:

1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.

2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God’s

instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5. 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.

One of the clearest expressions of the Bible’s view of itself is found in 2 Peter 1:21: “No prophecy ever came from the human will, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”2 The origin of Scripture is God; the means of expression is human language. Yet, even in the act of speaking that which comes from God, the authors are guided, guarded, by the Spirit, who bears them along in their speaking. This text, along with Paul’s assertion that all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16), provides the foundation of a proper, sound, reflective doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy:

1. All of Scripture is God-breathed. Its ultimate origin and source is God, who determines its form, the date and structure of its revelation, and the author through whom the revelation will come.


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2. God uses different individuals at different times to bring His Word to His people. He uses their circumstances, their individual personalities, and their particular experiences as the means through which His Word is revealed. This means the Bible speaks in human language, replete with differing styles and emphases.

3. Since Scripture is intended to communicate in its first appearance as well as down through the ages, it must be understandable to its initial audience. Therefore it will use language directly relevant to its human authors and audience. Later generations, seeing the progressive outworking of God’s revelation over time, should interpret older portions in light of the original context and overall intention of Scripture.

Apart from these major considerations, there is another element often overlooked. Scripture can be read by anyone, but it speaks of those who are the enemies of God, and those who are submitted to Him. There is a spiritual element to Scripture that is embarrassing to many in our technological society. While the words themselves communicate to any person capable of understanding, a desire to understand and obey is beyond the capacity of the natural man. Divine grace is needed to truly understand divine truth, as the Lord Jesus illustrated on His first meeting with the gathered disciples after His resurrection. “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45 NASB). Just as the Lord had to open Lydia’s heart to respond (Acts 16:14), so too the mind must be opened to understand the divine revelation of God in Scripture. In other words, sound interpretation of divine revelation is not an amoral activity. Hence, those who remain in rebellion against God are predisposed by nature to unbelief and a twisting of the text before them (2 Pet. 3:16).

A MODERN CONTROVERSY OVER INERRANCY

In 2005 Baker Academic published Dr. Peter Enns’s book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. Enns was at the time an associate professor at the venerable Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Westminster Seminary was founded by J. Gresham Machen and others in response to the decline of Princeton Seminary in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Machen impressed on the school his own deep reverence for Scripture and his strong views on theological liberalism. Machen’s book Christianity and Liberalism plainly distinguished between the two, identifying theological liberalism as its own separate religion, standing in opposition to Christianity.

In reviewing Enns’s book, Dr. John Frame noted in passing, “Enns, like many evangelicals, wants to be invited to the table with the mainstream scholars.”3 This impetus is behind the gradual movement of almost every theological institution away from the foundation on which it was established. There can be little doubt that Machen himself would have found Enns’s work troubling. Though we can only speculate about that, the governing board of Westminster Seminary likewise found his views inconsistent with the historical stance of the seminary. Though the faculty voted in support of Enns, the board did not, and as of August 1, 2008, Peter Enns “discontinued his service to Westminster Theological Seminary after fourteen years.”4

Why did Enns’s book result in his leaving Westminster only a few years later? Why has he now been sought out by a local NPR affiliate and given the opportunity of presenting his views in that venue?5 The answers to these questions shed a great deal of light on whether inerrancy matters any longer.

ENNS’S ARGUMENTS

There have been a number of published responses to Enns’s work,6 including a full-length book, so there is no need to go in-depth in re-presenting his material. Some elements of his argumentation, especially concerning parallel historical accounts in the Old Testament, require extensive and lengthy analysis, and hence are beyond our scope here. A brief summary of his major assertions will be sufficient for our purposes.

Enns presents three areas of argumentation, all designed to support his central thesis that we need to change our traditional ways of viewing Scripture and embrace what he calls the “incarnational” model. First, he presents a number of examples of parallels and relationships between literature and stories from the ancient world and the Scriptures, raising the basic question of the Bible’s uniqueness. Next, he raises questions concerning the Bible’s internal consistency and integrity by addressing what he sees as theological diversity in the text of the Old Testament, primarily. Then he deals with the always difficult and challenging area of the New Testament’s use of and interpretation of the Old.

It is important to grasp the position Enns is promoting in this work, as it has become a common theme among those who find the old categories of speaking about inerrancy inadequate in our day. With his paradigm of seeing the Bible incarnationally, Enns wishes to avoid the error of Docetism. Historically, Docetism was a heresy that denied the human nature of Christ. Following the Bible’s own teaching on the incarnation of Christ, the early church struggled with those who would deny elements of that divine revelation. Some, mainly influenced by early Gnostic movements, came to teach that Jesus only seemed to have a physical body, for no truly good teacher could have a physical body (all matter being evil, all spirit being good). They would tell stories of Jesus and a disciple walking along a seashore, and the disciple, on looking back, would see only one set of footprints. Why? Because Jesus does not leave footprints in the sand, for He only seemed to have a physical body. The Greek word for “seems” is dokein, hence the term “Docetist” for a person who believes Jesus’ physical body only seemed to be real. Docetism, as it was later called, was strongly condemned by John in his first epistle, and later generations of Christians likewise added their rejection of this false teaching.

Biblical Docetism, then, would ignore, or at least downplay, the “human” side of the Bible. A biblical Docetist would be one who refuses to see how the Bible came to be in history, its intimate and undeniable connection to its original contexts, authors, and situations. Evidently for Enns, it also means accepting that the limitations, even ignorances, of the original authors are fully on display in the text of the Bible. It is just here that Enns’s incarnational model raises very serious questions.

First, it should be noted that the only way we know the truth of the Incarnation is, in fact, due to the reliability of the revelation God has given us in Scripture. If we are left with a hobbled revelation (due to the “human” aspect of things diminishing the trustworthiness of the text to communicate divine revelation), the entire incarnational model is left hanging in mid air unless, of course, someone wishes to argue for some form of divine revelation outside of Scripture.7 Indeed, any form of argumentation that seeks to transcend divine revelation and objective truths found in propositional Scripture founders on this very question, for unless we have a trustworthy revelation to start with, how do we derive these higher paradigms such as the Incarnation?

Second, a sound doctrine of the Incarnation includes within it a careful affirmation that the human nature of Christ was sinlessly perfect. There is nothing in confessing that Christ was one person with two distinct natures that necessitates imperfection or error in the man Jesus. In the same way, a sound “incarnational model” of Scripture would not therefore force us to bring in error, ignorance, contradiction, or falsehood as a constituent part of the human side of Scripture. If we wish to use Enns’s model, we would be perfectly within our rights to recognize all the human aspects laid out so clearly in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, such as the differing styles of the authors, their life situations, and so on, as well as the original contexts to which they spoke. We will see how this applies to major portions of Enns’s examples below. But we would not be following that model properly at all if we laid at the feet of Christ’s humanity our concepts of errors, contradictions, and falsehoods.

IS THE BIBLE UNIQUE?

Many of the examples Enns provides come from ancient documentary sources that are generally not a part of the normal reading of most evangelicals. While I am not suggesting that every believer should be pouring over Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, it is just as true that some reading in the contexts of the sources cited in such discussions is often very helpful. Enns lists “similarities” between, for example, the Enuma Elish story (also known as the “Babylonian Genesis” account) and the biblical account in Genesis. Specifically, (1) The sequence of the days of creation is similar, including the creation of the firmament, dry land, luminaries, and humanity, followed by rest. (2) Darkness precedes the creative acts. (3) There is a division of the waters (waters above and below the firmament). (4) Light exists before the creation of the sun, moon, and stars.8

On the basis of such similarities, Enns asks how we can speak of the biblical revelation as “unique,” since it shares commonalities with other ancient works of literature, and even with mythology. As he writes, “both Genesis and the Enuma Elish ‘breathe the same air.’”9

But do they? Not if you read beyond surface-level similarities. First, any discussion of origins or creation will, of necessity, speak of the earth, the sky, luminaries, planets, and so forth. Any such discussion will have to have some order of creation to it, some discussion of light and darkness, and so on. Such similarities are necessary, given the subject being addressed.

But it is the dissimilarities that are most important in answering Enns’s question as to the uniqueness of the biblical narrative. For it is the foundational proclamation of the uniqueness of the Creator in Genesis that separates Genesis from Enuma Elish or any other such ancient narrative. The God of the Bible is not a part of a pantheon of divine beings and hence dependent on preceding generations of gods. He is not taking preexisting matter and re-forming it into our current creation. God speaks, and light and life come into existence. The creation is “good,” in proper relationship with the Creator, and the distinction between creator and creation is marked out clearly from the start.

A brief review of Enuma Elish10 reveals that it is firmly rooted in the bedrock of mythological polytheism. It is not the story of creation by a self-sufficient, eternal Creator who speaks and brings the physical creation into existence. Instead, it is the story of one god among many, Marduk, and his battle against his great-great grandmother Tiamat. There is no answer offered as to the origin of these many gods. The physical creation itself comes out of Marduk’s defeat of Tiamat and the division of her body into various portions of the natural world.

One of Enns’s parallels, that of light existing before the sun, moon, and stars, is not a parallel at all, since, obviously, all sorts of things in the realm of the “gods” exist prior to the division of Tiamat’s body into the various parts of the physical creation. Marduk has weapons to use in his fight with Tiamat, and, obviously, they were not fighting in darkness. So clearly, there is little relevant in observing this “parallel” given the fundamental difference between the accounts. Outside of their common topic (creation), the worldviews and answers given to the central question are as different as night and day.

The other issues raised by Enns likewise help us to gain perspective on these commonly promulgated objections to biblical inspiration and uniqueness. Enns makes reference to the Gilgamesh epic, an ancient story that makes reference to a great flood, similar to that in the Bible. He refers to the Nuzi documents from northern Iraq and to the Hittite Suzerainty treaties, both of which indicate that similar legal and cultural norms existed outside of the context of the biblical stories. Likewise, he makes reference to the Code of Hammurabi, which contains many legal parallels to what we find in the Mosaic Law.

All of these issues are perfectly valid areas of study for the student of the Bible. In fact, they should be seen for the exciting confirmation of the Bible that they are. Although many skeptics wish to remove the Pentateuch from its ancient context (preferring a much later date for its composition and thus removing Moses as its primary author), these documents demonstrate that those earliest portions of the Bible reflect very accurately the cultural and legal contexts of the days in which they were written.

This is not a problem, as Enns seems to see it, but is instead a positive affirmation unknown to earlier generations. Consider the legal and cultural aspects of the Nuzi documents and the Hittite Suzerainty treaties. What are we assuming about the biblical revelation if we find it “difficult” that similar laws and concepts existed in the legal systems of other nations? If we believe man is made in God’s image, and if we believe what the Bible itself teaches about man’s conscience, common grace, and natural revelation, would we not expect to find echoes of divine truth in the laws common to man? The errant assumption underlying the view of these things as objections to the Bible is that the inspired text must somehow transcend the context in which it was first revealed and must be unique in style and substance. That is, the false assumption is that the Bible should speak in some heavenly language at all times, even when narrating God’s acts in history, and that any evidence that God did, in fact, act in a particular historical period in a way that would have made sense to those with whom He had communication is somehow antithetical to “divine revelation.” But this is just to miss the nature of Scripture itself.

Likewise, the Gilgamesh epic is a tremendous problem for the unbeliever, not the believer. We have clear evidence of an ancient memory of a great, catastrophic event, written in this case in another language from another culture. Given the uniqueness of the event itself, to encounter such evidence is truly startling.

Yet, if such a thing as the flood took place, would it not leave a mark in the memories and stories of mankind? That is just what we find here. It is therefore unwarranted to assume that if the Bible contains a similar story, this means it is shot-through with “myth” that must be challenged.

Of course, Enns discusses the term “myth” and presents his own definition of the term, but in general usage today, the term is being used to refer to ancient stories that have no connection to history. Now obviously, it is absurd to hold ancient writers to modern standards of historiography. Everyone should recognize that. It does not follow, however, that accounts written to illustrate a particular moral, ethical, or theological point are, by definition, “untrue” or “unreliable” in the historical facts they relate. One writer may choose to emphasize certain aspects of a historical situation to make a point, but that is not a meaningful objection to the accuracy of the facts that he chooses to include in his account.

This leads us finally to Enns’s recounting of the common issues that arise in dealing with the so-called “Synoptic problem.”11 We can summarize the objection in this fashion: the differences in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) force us to abandon modern ideas of “history” and “accuracy” and embrace a less-defined idea of what is “true” about the Gospel accounts. Hence, Enns notes the issue of the cleansing of the Temple recorded at the end of Jesus’ ministry, pointing to the fact that John records this as happening at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Plainly, then, John is not recording history, but is providing a different kind of literature that we need to recognize in the“incarnational” model. Enns says that it is “distortion of the highest order to argue that Jesus must have cleansed the temple twice.”12 Yet, he does not note, as Beale has rightly explained, the list of those Enns must say are guilty of such “distortion of the highest order,” such as A. Plummer, B. F. Westcott, R. V. G. Tasker, R. G. Gruenler, Leon Morris, and D. A. Carson. Likewise, Craig Blomberg and A. Köstenberger lean toward two cleansings as well.13

So often in the rhetoric of the current controversies, any treatment of the ancient documents that gives them the benefit of the doubt and seeks harmony between them is dismissed out of hand as “contrived.” Yet, is it not far more probable that, when it comes to apparent conflicts regarding statements of fact we, positioned thousands of years later, may well be missing basic pieces of the contextual puzzle that were quite apparent to the original authors? Do we not extend this very courtesy to other ancient works? It is ironic that many of those who seek to exhort us to “epistemological humility” are actually a good bit less humble when it comes to the standards they apply to the writers of Scripture. We should have the humility to admit we do not have sufficient information on which to judge the intentions and motivations of ancient writers.

DOES IT MATTER?

What is the foundation of a sound, lasting Christian faith? The Lord prayed on the night He was betrayed, “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth” (John 17:17 NASB). As central and important as all the means of grace God has given His people are, it is clearly His intention that the Spirit use Scripture as the bedrock of His communication with His people. No one can read the words of the Lord Jesus and come to the conclusion that He found Scripture dispensable or peripheral. “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35 NASB). For Jesus, “It stands written” ended the argument. So one is forced into an untenable incoherence to hold on the one hand to Jesus as Lord, as the God-Man, Savior, and King, while on the other hand believing the very Scriptures He honored (and, in His triune unity with the Father and the Spirit, authored!) are significantly less reliable than Jesus Himself believed.

Surely, if the Lord has not spoken, we are left with little more than the opinions of men. Such has never been the faith of the Christian Church. As Irenaeus said long ago, “We have learned from none others the plan of our salvation, than from those through whom the Gospel has come down to us, which they did at one time proclaim in public, and, at a later period, by the will of God, handed down to us in the Scriptures, to be the ground and pillar of our faith.”14

It has never been more important for the church of Jesus Christ to speak with confident authority to its own members in defense of the full inspiration, integrity, and inerrancy of divine Scripture. But it is likewise vitally important that we do so not from a position of dogmatic ignorance, but one of informed faithfulness and knowledge of the issues that surround the topic. We cannot afford to be ignorant of the developments in scholarship, but, at the same time, we must not slavishly follow secular humanism into an idolatrous exaltation of it either. Scholars are human beings with presuppositions and biases, and many today willingly dedicate their scholarship to the service of secularism. In the process their prejudices twist the conclusions they draw from the facts of their research. The wise believer in the twenty-first century will be the one who can sift through the writings of the scholars, happily accepting the nuggets of truth while recognizing the overriding control of naturalistic and humanistic presuppositions.

Let us not fear in the face of the mockery and angry denunciations of men. Divine truth does not change with the blowing winds of cultural trends. Though we may have to await patiently the Lord’s own timing, His truth will be vindicated, His people confirmed in their faith. Belief in God’s ability to communicate His will to His people through His Word is rational, historic, and defensible. We must resist the siren call of the slippery slope of cultural accommodation and stand firm in our faith that God’s Spirit will use God’s Word to edify God’s people.

James White is an elder of the Phoenix Reformed Baptist Church, the director of Alpha and Omega Ministries, and the author of more than twenty books. He has taught in a wide variety of theological fields and engaged in more than seventy-five moderated public debates in defense of the Christian faith.

notes

1 http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm.

2 Author’s translation.

3 http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2008Enns.htm.

4 http://www.wts.edu/stayinformed/view.html?id=187.

5 Dr. Enns appeared with Marty Moss-Coane on WHYY in Philadelphia on August 13, 2008.

6 D. A. Carson wrote a very useful and insightful review of Enns’s book (http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/three-books-on-the-bible-a-criticalreview.php). The full-length book is by G. K. Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008).

7 This is exactly the direction many have gone over the past few decades, seeking in various (and often contradictory) forms of “tradition” what they have concluded can no longer be found in divine writ.

8 Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005), 26.

9 Ibid., 27.

10 See James B. Pritchard, The Ancient Near East: Volume 1: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 31ff.

11 A huge array of resources exists on this topic. See Robert L. Thomas and David Farnell, The Jesus Crisis (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 1998); Robert L. Thomas, ed., Three Views on the Origins of the Synoptic Gospels (Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2002); Mark Goodacre, The Synoptic Problem: A Way through the Maze (London: T and T Clark International, 2001); David Allen Black and David R. Beck, eds., Rethinking the Synoptic Problem (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

12 Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation, 65.

13 Beale, The Erosion of Inerrancy, 50. [Editor’s note: for a different approach to resolving this problem see Ask Hank on p. 62 of this issue.]

14 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book III, 1:1.