Some Light from the East for the Perplexed Inerrantist
by S. M. Hutchens
The set of ideas which go by the name “biblical inerrancy” is a perennial source of exasperation for educated theological conservatives who live in or about the Evangelical world. A great many have found to their dismay that holding a classically high view of biblical authority and vigorously eschewing the modernism which threatens it is simply not enough. This writer—whose involvement with the subject is admittedly intense and personal—has found coming to grips with the problem within the Evangelical world can be a harrowing ordeal. No mere intellectual game this. Qualification to preach and teach Christian doctrine in a significant part of Christendom hangs in the balance. Mental reservations notwithstanding, one must profess belief in “inerrancy.”
Now let me make it clear that this is not just an issue of personal discomfort, neither is it merely an occasional dilemma for a few liberalizing Evangelicals trying to slip into a job. The problem is far more basic, inherent, I believe, in a flawed formulation, a hidden agenda, and a highly politicized situation. Inerrancy is frequently admitted as between the enlightened to be a shibboleth for mollifying a constituency who have never been let in on the real issue. It is understood among insiders that the range of acceptable constructions placed on the term is wide enough to accommodate fairly radical divergence on a number of very important matters. It is conceded that one need not be an inerrantist to be an orthodox and devoted Christian and that the position in itself ensures neither faith nor piety. It is further conceded that while inerrancy allegedly follows from the Bible’s teaching about itself, the doctrine is not explicitly taught there, and that the Fathers and Reformers didn’t talk about the Bible in quite the same way the modern inerrantist does. Despite all of this, however, and despite the fact that after a great deal of earnest consultation there is still no unanimity on just what “inerrancy” means, there is still a stonewall consensus in certain circles that one must speak the word to enter or to prove his faith.
I place in evidence an excerpt from a letter received by an unsuccessful applicant for a teaching position at a major Evangelical college. The gratifyingly frank committee chairman who wrote it alludes to a set of problems notorious in Evangelical institutions of higher education, but little known in the churches they serve.
Dear Mr. Smith:
Thank you for your candor with regard to our [inerrantist] doctrinal statement. . . . I regret that, given your explanation, your suit would be cold from the start. Please understand that this has more to do with the needs of the institution than with the opinions of the members of this department. I am sure that we disagree about very little of substance. But the institution insists that certain expressions, however generously defined, be affirmed. And since this position serves primarily freshmen who come from rather narrow and non-critical evangelical churches, it demands unusual sensitivity. Ideally, we will locate a person of mature intellect who is comfortable in the subculture. That is a rare combination, to be sure. . . .
I write this article, then, with Evangelical friends in mind who persist in asking me, “Well, do you or do you not believe in inerrancy?” They become suspicious when I do not respond immediately with a Yes or No. Yet, I hesitate to deny it because doing so will almost invariably lead the questioner to mistakenly think I have a “lower” view of Scripture than he does. As an inerrantist he will think I am “liberalizing”—when in fact I am convinced that the inerrancy doctrine, despite superficial appearances, is unacceptably low, sharing liberalism’s approach to the Bible to a far greater degree than the inerrantist would be happy to admit.
If, on the other hand, I identify myself as an inerrantist, using the word in a loosely doxological sense to assure my friend that I’m really sound after all, I lay myself open to the charge of dissimulation by established inerrantists who cannot regard me as an advocate of the doctrine as they understand it. And on this they would be entirely correct, for it appears to me that the theory of scriptural authority which goes by this name is not only mortally flawed but completely misconceived and must be discarded in favor of the understanding of the nature of the Bible which has sustained the theological integrity of Eastern Christianity for almost two millennia. I am under the growing conviction that the Orthodox churches, whatever answers they may have gotten wrong, got the one about the nature of biblical authority as a function of the greater authority structure within the Church Universal basically right. I do not intend to go into great detail on the Eastern view—a brief description must suffice. My object here is to explain the quandary of the inerrantists and point in the general direction which seems right not only to me, but to a growing number of thoughtful conservative Protestants.
Let us begin by noting that no precise meaning of the term “inerrancy” has ever been agreed upon by its proponents.1 But more troubling are the patent misconceptions held about it. My first response to a person who identifies himself as an inerrantist would be to ask him if he understands that the scholarly defenders of inerrancy do not use that term to refer to the Bible which he is actually reading, but rather to the original manuscripts of Scripture—not one of which, to our knowledge, has survived the ravages of time. If he is not aware of this—and I believe that many lay people are not—he may see all attacks on the doctrine of inerrancy as assaults on the truth of the Bible he knows and cherishes. He does not perceive that his own teachers have already conceded most of what he fears is under attack. He is unaware that the predicate “inerrant” does not refer to any Bible to which anyone has access, but to a Bible which no one possesses. “Inerrancy,” he must understand, is held by its proponents to refer to the biblical autographa—the original writings on the original manuscripts by the original writers (or exact copies thereof)—and to the autographa only.
If he does understand this and it doesn’t bother him, he has failed to recognize the invincible difficulty which arises from the principal implication of the idea: the doctrine of inerrancy is thoroughly drained of its intended apologetic force if one cannot in some way “get back” to those perished documents. For by strict inerrantist reasoning they and they only can be regarded as flawless, and hence the Word of God in a sense which gives proper honor to the term.
Now to be sure, the learned defender of inerrancy will offer a response. He gives the job of salvaging something from the theory to experts in textual criticism. He reasons that responsible specialists have weeded out so many of the probable errors in the surviving copies that they can give us a product so close to autographal perfection that for all practical purposes it may be called inerrant. But while I respect and gratefully use the work of text scholars, I cannot allow that a product so close to perfect that it can for all practical purposes be called inerrant means the same as “inerrant,” for it plainly means precisely the opposite. The doctrine of the “inerrancy of the autographs” could with equal accuracy (and greater pertinence) be called the doctrine of the “errancy of all presently available versions.” The notion that this approach in any way involves a defense of biblical authority is entirely illusory.
But please note that in finding fault with the doctrine of autographal inerrancy, I and many conservatives like me are not necessarily “denying inerrancy” as if we were disputing the inspiration and authority of the Bible. (The reader is invited to be attentive and maintain healthy suspicions; this is a subject upon which tendentious argumentation is rife.) Rather, I am simply denying that the doctrine of autographal inerrancy as set forth by its principal champions is a reasonable way to understand the nature of the scriptural authority, and insisting that if a better way may be found, it must be taken.
The belief that the Bible is impeccable only in its original writings has made me extremely uncomfortable ever since I first learned that this is what “biblical inerrancy” really meant. For one thing, the formulation is far too weak and doubtful. It does not accord with the power which Holy Scripture, manuscript variations, translational ambiguities and all, has exercised in the Church from the beginning. Despite all these things, the Bible, where it has been allowed the opportunity, has again and again manifested itself with power as the very Word of God—more in accordance with pre-critical or naive understanding than with that typical of liberalism or of the theologians of inerrancy.
The more detail is added to the formulation, the stranger the whole business sounds. One school of theorists holds that we should believe in inerrancy principally because the Bible testifies this of itself. But this, I should think, is a rather obvious piece of question-begging when the matter at issue is whether these testimonies—if they are really what they are claimed to be—are themselves inerrant.2 Another group holds that the Bible can be proven correct by normal scholarly methods to such a high degree that any reasonable person would be compelled to assent to its inerrancy. Worse and worse! First, it is not reasonable to consign the large number of learned believers who dissent to the ranks of the irrational, especially when their protest makes so much sense: that this approach rests belief in a transcendent perfection on a catena of imperfections—mere probability of high accuracy as determined by fallible men and assented to by the same. Moreover, I am particularly suspicious of a preoccupation with lost but approximable texts which inevitably makes a priestly caste out of the text critics. An inescapable corollary of the inerrancy concept will seem to be that those who can ascertain the best reading with the highest relative certainty are closest to the Word of God. This is just too much!
There are other ways of going about the defense of the doctrine, but I am not clever enough to see their value, much yet get over the pons asinorum which all of them eventually require one to traverse—the astounding contention that while the original writings alone can be considered inerrant, the admittedly errant copies which have come down to us are so good—once they are worked over by text scientists—that we can attach the concept of “inerrancy” to them too. This is where the term “infallible” as the equivocal form of “inerrant” is frequently brought into play, demonstrating the length to which the doctrine of autographal inerrancy must be drawn in order to defend its worth.3
All of this maneuvering apparently must be done as far as possible from the environs of Spirit and Church. For once the Spirit is brought in (the teachers of inerrancy invariably complain) anybody can say anything on his account. And faith in and dependence upon the authority of the Church must also be radically subordinated, for inerrantists are, after all, Protestants, who place the Bible higher than the Church, and the unique superiority of the Bible is what is really at stake here.4 This is the hidden agenda, the strategic necessity. There is no alternative but resort to the mysteries of relative inerrancy—a postulation which forces the inerrantist to contend for the truly remarkable proposition that people who believe all existing Bibles contain errors may be called inerrantists as long as they believe that a Bible that does not exist contains none.
If there is any good in this way of thinking about Scripture I cannot see it. It is difficult, moreover, not to resent the inerrantists’ tendency to relegate all who consider their theory defective to the class “non-inerrantists,” thus identifying any number of stolidly orthodox believers with liberals or those-who-would-be-liberals-if-they-followed-their-own-logic, as though the only alternative to ratifying their speculations—yes, and modern speculations at that—was to overthrow the authority of the Bible. No! One need not agree with the theory of autographal inerrancy to be orthodox, or indeed, to have a sublimely high view of Scripture. It is the inerrantists who, intimidated by biblical criticism, have ironically adopted several of the most important premises of the rationalizing and existentializing strains of religious modernism, in effect admitting precisely what their liberal antagonists have required of them: that any Bible to which we have actual access is errant, that the Word of God in its highest and purest sense is quite beyond us, but that in so far as the sanctuary of God’s Word can be approached, it is (again, the necessary but unadmitted premise of the theory of autographal inerrancy) the experts who are qualified to do the approaching. The inerrantists, having long since given up the citadel, are busy defending the moat—with weapons supplied by the enemy! Really now, are we reduced to this?
I have heard intelligent defenders of inerrancy, when pushed to the wall by arguments like this, admit that there are certainly problems with the formulation, but still contend that it is necessary to insist on biblical inerrancy, for once errancy is admitted, the dike caves in and we are flooded with a subjectivism in which the Bible can be twisted to our pleasure. But let us be clear about what they are saying: the end of preserving an important ideal justifies cheating a bit in the reasoning process which leads up to it.
Karl Barth provided welcome relief to me and to many other conservative refugees from the inerrancy camp. Over the course of years I studied him closely, and found that he did not simply say the Bible became the Word of God only in a moment of revelation or divine-human encounter. This is a theme developed by Brunner to which Barth could not have fully assented after writing his epochal treatise on St. Anselm. What Barth says is, in the final analysis, that everything has its being by virtue of its relation to God; therefore, discrete moments of revelation cannot be regarded as merely isolated series of singular events. Rather, they are mysteriously connected parts of the larger relationship of God to man which is perfectly comprehended in Jesus Christ, who is himself the Word and Truth of God, in and by whom only we can perceive the truth of Scripture.
This means (among other things) that the Bible, before it belongs to us, belongs to God, and is entirely at his disposal. If he allows its very words to enter the mouth of an evil spirit and become the word of the Devil instead of the Word of God, as he did when Satan quoted the psalm during the Temptation, he may do it—and indeed has done it. In dealing with the Bible one may not therefore bypass God, for Holy Scripture is what it is because of the living God who indwells it, using it and allowing it to be used at his own pleasure and for his own purposes.5
Some believers have mistaken the faithfulness and consistency of God in speaking to his people by Scripture for a quality of the writings considered in and of themselves. They are wrong about this, Barth said. He deplored the liberals’ error of treating Holy Scripture as if it were simply a piece of important religious literature. He equally deplored the conservatives’ mistake of thinking about the Bible as if God’s presence in the text—and our own ability to draw him out—was to be taken for granted, as if inspiration meant that the Truth of God was captive in the words like a genie in a bottle, obliged to show itself once the proper exegetical incantations were uttered. The freedom of God meant a lot to him, and he knew his Bible very well.
While Barth, by his own direction, is not to be considered a final stopping place on faith’s search for understanding the Church’s doctrine of Scripture, still he helped a great deal, especially with his teaching—which he professed to find in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury, that it is God himself who, in his ordering and maintaining of all things according to the counsel of his will, has been at every moment, and still is, in charge of the Bible and everything else, and is the one who, in the person of his Holy Spirit, makes it what it is.
With this in mind, I returned to the Bible itself, particularly to the texts which are most commonly used to defend autographal inerrancy. I read, for example, in 2 Timothy 3.16–17:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching—for reproof, correction, and training in holiness, so that the man of God may be fully competent and equipped for every good work. (NASB)
But where in this do we find reference to an inerrant original? These lines, which were written after speaking of the Old Testament Scriptures to which Timothy’s family had access (surely not themselves original manuscripts), are emphatically not teaching the inerrancy of the unavailable, but that God himself is present by his Spirit—the Greek word is theopneustos—in the Scriptures to do his work through them, in and by and on behalf of the “man of God.” There is no distinction whatever made between the authority of the originals and the copies. Why must there be when a gracious God superintends them both? And if this is really so, must we have more than this? Doesn’t God himself provide sufficient warrant against the profitability of the abuse of Holy Scripture? One wonders whether the inerrantists are not running, like Peter at Gethsemane, to the defense of one who could call a myriad of angels. Now this passage, to be sure, does not rule out autographal inerrancy, but neither does it oblige us to believe it, and—this should be the most important point to the inerrantists—it tends to relativize the importance of an inerrant original. If God accompanies Scripture as our pre-eminent Lord and Teacher, then an absolutely perfect text would not be required—just one that he finds serviceable.
When an inerrantist responds by asking me if God would inspire error, my answer would be that it is not a question of whether God inspires error, but whether he ever could or would work in and through that which is to some degree imperfect. And I bristle at the pretense which lies behind the question—that he himself really believes in “biblical inerrancy”—for he does not. Rather, he holds to a dual-Bible theory which permits him to distinguish sharply between the autographs and allographs on one hand (lest he be regarded as a naive defender of the flawlessness of the copies) and on the other to mix the categories—something that can be done before uncritical audiences—and speak as if these Bibles were the same. It must not be forgotten that inerrantists one and all will not claim that God has given himself anything more to work through than imperfect copies. Contrary to the appearance of their confession, they firmly believe that no flawless Bible exists. Therefore they must not be allowed to evade the fearsome question: If the Word of God is by definition absolutely faultless (which I too hold it to be), then in what sense can the Bible which we actually possess be called the Word of God? I cannot agree with those who regard this as a cavilling reproach of the inerrantist position, for it goes straight to the heart of the most striking and distinctive feature of the doctrine. It is not an attack on a pawn, but checkmate: at this juncture the inerrantist must surrender point, probity, relevance, or reason. His instincts are good; his argument is not.
No one knows or appreciates his wrenching frustration better than I. He who knows the Bible well finds it to be, as far as fair and scrupulous inquiry can ascertain, phenomenally accurate. Moreover, it functions in life and thought for Christians of all ages, as the Word of God, an inexhaustible fountain of holy wisdom. The orthodox Christian is tempted to fear for the safety of the Bible, like St. Peter feared for the life of his Lord. His fears are not unreasonable; they are frequently reinforced and animated by a passionate love of truth. He reasons and observes that once we are forced to admit some apparent discrepancies in our Bibles, however minor, then people will be inclined to do with Scripture as they please and souls will be lost. This is confirmed by a great deal of evidence in the Evangelical communion and Protestantism in general. The famous “slippery slope” toward liberalism and agnosticism is an undeniably real feature of that grave and fretful world in which the Bible is established, confirmed, and defended not principally by the Spirit of Almighty God and the witness of the Church, but by agitated fire-brigades of experts. It seems to be an unfortunate feature of their defensive breastworks that admission of a single error does indeed lead to surrender of the authority of the whole. For if the inerrantist cannot successfully defend the Bible point by point he has nothing to fall back upon, since he understands it to be in itself the proximate fons et origo of authority in the Church, the epistemological touchstone by which all truth claims must be judged.6 It is because of this very understandable fear of declension that so many resort to defensive contrivances which the most thoughtful find distasteful. For them inerrancy functions not so much an article of faith as a burdensome strategic necessity on what is ultimately an indefensible line. The Evangelical teacher’s letter on the first page of this article is a restrained but eloquent witness to this fact.
Is there a way out of the quandary? I believe so. It will cost something in backtracking and humility, but this is perhaps no more than many exasperated Evangelicals would be willing to pay at this time in the history of their movement. The price is, specifically, the acknowledgement of the preeminent authority of the Spirit of God as he speaks in and through the Church Universal—something in which we all profess to believe, but Evangelicals have never been able to understand very well, perhaps because of their relative isolation from the main streams of Christian thought and tradition.7 To make the point, I will turn to 2 Peter 1:20–21, one of the most frequently used proof-texts for autographal inerrancy, which in fact teaches something quite different:
No prophecy of scripture is of private interpretation, for no prophecy ever came by the will of man, but men spoke from God, being moved by the Holy Spirit.
This passage is in effect an expansion upon what is meant by the Spirit’s working with the “man of God” in 2 Timothy 3. It is meant to give guidance and comfort precisely where the inerrantists cannot receive them, for they in fact believe that Scripture inevitably is a matter of private interpretation, or, as they classically phrase it, “private judgment.” If they did not, they would have little reason to be as preoccupied as they have been with the exegesis of liberals and lapsing Evangelicals. For the inerrantist—a conscientious heir of the sola scriptura tradition of Protestantism—the Bible really has to stand on its own, surrounded by private interpretations from which one must pick the one that seems the most reasonable, and for which there are no criteria but other private interpretations. Whether the criteria are rationalistic or wholly subjective, it is still your interpretation against mine, your logic against my logic, your understanding of what the Spirit is saying against mine.
But again, the biblical author’s intention is to put an end to that. His assertion of the inspiration of Scripture is meant to illumine his fundamental point—non-privacy of its interpretation. One is not free to make of Scripture what one will, and the reason is based upon something the Holy Spirit does among us, writers and readers—a common experience through time and space in which the Christian enters into a common property of the Spirit. Note, if you would, that I am not opposed to the proper role of private interpretation or of individual conscience; I am only interested in delimiting them. They are necessary parts of that greater whole of which I am speaking. What I am pointing to is something I feel has been misunderstood and neglected in a significant part of the Christian world, the part which has had difficulty appreciating this very particular work of the Holy Spirit who is the undying bond between the prophets and apostles and all to whom they speak.
The writer of Scripture is here assuming his readers understand that the Holy Spirit is with them. The property of all false teachers, he tells them, is that their teaching is “private,” that is, is not the same as is held among “us,” and the reason for this is that they are outside the community of the Spirit which binds us to the writers of Scripture. The right interpretation is that which is public and available in this community of the Spirit—i.e., the Church. He goes on to make the point most emphatically by telling his readers that we are not dealing here simply with competing interpretations among believers, but with radically different kinds of people—those “inside” and those “outside.” The picture he draws is not first and foremost of an inspired Scripture, but an inspired Church in and under which only the Scriptures can be read and understood aright. The precise nature of the writings themselves is again, as in 2 Timothy, not stipulated (and certainly no distinction is made between autograph and copy). It is assumed that they will be read and understood, as the church fathers taught, in the Spirit of Christ and in the Church which is his body, and so as the Word of God.
We cannot go beyond this to formulate a “safer” theory of biblical authority. If fear of Bible-twisting or irresponsible exegesis is required (as it certainly is), what more could be provided than the thundering judgments of 2 Peter on those who attempt to foist private interpretations on the Church? What we are free to infer about the Spirit’s protection of Scripture from 2 Timothy is made explicit here. One becomes a teacher, as James says, in peril of his soul, becoming ripe for “greater condemnation” if falsehoods are taught in God’s name.
If only the many modern conservatives who say prayers for cleansing and illumination before they preach or teach would truly understand the deep necessity for this and the gravity of what they are doing. They are not merely giving their people the product of dutifully scientific exegesis, but stand in a holy place, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, including the writers of Scripture. Their shoes should be off, not just their hats. They are not their own men in the face of the one who has commissioned them, if commissioned they have been. They are, as teachers of the Church, under the authority of the Lord Jesus Christ and his apostles. They may not therefore preach or teach the Word of God unless they have first heard it themselves, nor are they free to dispute this word or place it to one side on the strength of criteria foreign to the Faith of the Church.
It does not appear to me, moreover, that a general but firm understanding of what is meant by the “Faith of the Church” is as difficult as some would make it. Despite the differences (innocent and otherwise) which Christians have among themselves and the incessant attempts of anti-Christianity to destroy our fellowship by exploiting them, the doctrinal pillars of Apostolic Christianity remain resolutely visible. The Rule of Faith, represented by the Ecumenical Creeds, still stands for those who are willing to see it.8 If one believes in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only Son or Lord, born of the Virgin Mary . . . , does he not have the essential Faith of the Church as well as everything necessary to resist the heretics of every age? The belief of this confession is held by Baptists in America, Pentecostals in Brazil, Anglicans in Africa, Korean Presbyterians, Pope John Paul II, the Cappadocian Fathers, Mother Theresa, Bob Jones, Cardinal Ratzinger, Billy Graham, St. Athanasius, John Bunyan, St. Augustine, and even by orthodox Christians who—rather naively, I think—consider themselves “non-creedal.” Theological liberals, gnostics, feminists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Muslims, Hindus, secularists, Unitarians, and New Age religionists do not believe it. I have met professing Evangelicals who are well on their way to doubting some of it. But there it is. Might it not be the first of the essential gifts of those who teach Christian doctrine to possess firm and accurate intuitions about what has been, the words of Vincent of Lerins, “believed everywhere, always, and by all”?
I would strongly suggest, as I have elsewhere,9 that inerrantists return to examine their roots in early fundamentalism and the implications of the fundamentalist impulse for conservative Protestantism in general. The first fundamentalists were drawn from a great many Protestant denominations. They all had a high view of Scripture, but plainly did not all accept the doctrine of autographal inerrancy promulgated by the Princetonians. They were after “the fundamentals.” But what, precisely, are “the fundamentals”? This question, I would insist, was never resolved. It remains critically important. When this is decided, perhaps then their Evangelical heirs, in so far as they are truly evangelical, will see that they stand within the Holy Catholic Church (inspired by the Holy Spirit). Thus they will be able to confess with new appreciation the Church’s ageless Confession, and reading their Scripture in that light, recognize the undoubted Word of God. It should be apparent that along with this necessarily goes a very high view of the Bible indeed, but it is no longer the labor of the expert in producing an excellent text and a humanly plausible theory of authority to accompany it which assures this. Rather, it is something much larger, surer, and far more visible: the Faith of the Church—a “given” under which all theological discussions, including that of how we ought to speak of Scripture, should take place.
While it is clear that I am endorsing a view of the Church and its authority which could be called “catholic,” I am not necessarily excluding Protestants or Evangelicals from it, nor am I adopting the view that one of the major divisions of Christendom is the rule by which all other churches are obliged to measure themselves. The body of Christ, his holy, wise, and spotless bride, is above all of these, including and excluding all of them in ways appropriate to the conditions of each. In each the wheat and tares await harvest together. Each has its strengths and weaknesses; and I daresay, along with many of the great voices within the different communions, that none is entirely complete without the other. And the life of the Church will not be complete until each part of it learns the good the other has to teach it, for the Lord God, with inconceivable patience, has been at work among us all. The inability of our respective tribes to learn some things has not stopped him from teaching us what we have been able to hear. Thanks be to God!
On the matter at hand, however, it is my belief that Protestantism as a whole needs to listen to the voice of the East, for the consistent orthodoxy of the Orthodox—divided at times by antipathies natural to its own form of communion, but not, as in the West, into theological halves which require each other as complements—is not merely a matter of oriental fustiness, but a gift of God. And while we Western Christians might suspect much of the elaboration and application of their distinctive teachings, they still have much to tell us on symbolics and authority. There are reasons why destructive biblical criticism has never made the inroads among the Orthodox that it has among the Protestants and Roman Catholics, both of whom I would characterize as having a more brittle view of the authority structure within the living Church. The Protestants have typically depended more than they would be pleased to admit upon their exegetes, their professors, their scribes, as the highest class of biblical interpreter, and the Catholics traditionally upon their priestly hierarchy, to determine the bounds and meaning of Scripture. The Orthodox, attempting to keep the Church as a whole in view, its bishops, scholars, priests, and people obedient to the voice of the Spirit as heard in the Church Universal, have preserved the key to understanding how Holy Scripture works among us.
It is through eyes that I as an “evangelical catholic” borrowed from the Orthodox have come to read the biblical passages I was told taught autographal inerrancy. The cracks and chinks in the inerrancy edifice just wouldn’t go away. Resolution was needed along lines that I could recognize as fully Christian, untainted by shoddy reasoning or secular philosophizing. These passages now make sense to me, for I need not strain my credulity to hear them speaking of the authority of the Spirit of God—speaking by, in, and to the Church through the writers of Scripture, who are still alive in the Spirit, and speak through him just as they did in years past.
I have come to believe that modern Protestants, whether liberal or conservative, commit a fundamental error when they fall into treating Holy Scripture as though it could be divided from the Spirit or the Church. They set up a false paradigm when they isolate it from its living context for scientific examination. It is as though a researcher who wanted to find the principle of life were to begin by killing his specimen. He may thereafter, if he is of conservative bent, appreciate the elegance of the body, point out to observers of the dissection how perfectly the parts fit together, theorize respectfully about what he does not understand, and minimize the importance of what he suspects are flaws or vestigial parts. Or, if he is a modernist, he may simply chop out and discard as irrelevant everything that doesn’t agree with the Spirit of the Age. But neither will find what they set out to find; life will elude them both.
An eminent Orthodox theologian has summarized his Church’s understanding of the nature of biblical authority in this way:
The witness of the Apostles would have been valueless without the miracle of Pentecost, unless the Spirit had come not merely to the Twelve but to the entire Church. The Church is thus founded not only by the Apostles but on them, as well as in the Holy Spirit . . . . It is the Spirit who defines the canon of Scripture in the Church and preserves the Church through the centuries in truth and faithfulness to its Head. . . . Scripture includes the totality of the apostolic witness and nothing can be added by way of completing our knowledge of the person of Jesus, his work, and the salvation which he brought us; but this written witness regarding Christ was not launched in a void . . . [it] was given to a community which had been founded by these Apostles and which had received the same Spirit. This community is the Church, which has received the Scripture and acknowledges in it the Truth . . . and interprets this corpus of writings with the help of the Spirit.10
And so also, after many years of struggle with a confusing welter of ideas about authority, it seems to me. This, to be sure, does not make things simple. The golden magisterial key which seems to dominate the vision of the Western churches appears not to be that easily available. Holy Scripture is of no private interpretation, whether it be that of professor or pope. As servants of Christ within the Church they may speak with all the authority proper to their offices, but only when they have correctly discerned “what the Spirit saith to the churches.”
1. Stanley N. Gundry makes this eminently clear in his 1979 presidential address to the Evangelical Theological Society: “If truly open discussions take place . . . inerrantists should not be so foolish as to assume that they will not be confronted with some rather difficult questions themselves. We may have individually solved these matters to our own satisfaction, but on them there is no consensus among inerrantists. It is far from evident that there is even a common, univocal meaning ascribed to the word ‘inerrancy.’ . . . I read with skepticism James Boice’s statement in a letter to invited participants to the summit meeting of the ICBI [International Council on Biblical Inerrancy]. He wrote that after the summit ‘the church and the world will know exactly what we mean by the term “Biblical inerrancy,” and that we are in agreement concerning its definition.’ Although Boice expressed a legitimate goal, his predicted fulfillment seems premature. . . . A comprehensive consensus has not yet emerged.” Stanley N. Gundry, “Evangelical Theology: Where Should We Be Going?” reprinted in Ronald Youngblood, ed., Evangelicals and Inerrancy (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984), 240–251.
2. The idea that the Bible is “autopistic”—independently self-authenticating—flows naturally from the sola scriptura principle as isolated and elaborated by the scholastic Protestantism which reached its apogee in this country at Princeton Seminary near the end of the nineteenth century. Much of the success of Neo-orthodox reaction, especially of the Barthian variety, may be attributable to a reassertion of the companion principle solus Christus under the strain of recognition that Protestantism’s basis of authority in an abstract and solitary Bible was too narrow and subjective.
3. The tenth article of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy denies that the “absence of the autographs . . . renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.” This confuses the issue. First we note that the lack of support for a specifically autographal doctrine of inerrancy in either Scripture or Church tradition reduces it to a distinctively modern text critical theory which must be considered on its own merits. The careful ambiguity we find in the Chicago Statement creates a false impression when it superimposes the undeniably historical belief of Christendom in Holy Scripture as the Word of God on a theory produced by modern Protestant scholarship—which, even though it may merit consideration by the Church as a whole, cannot claim the canonical status which manifestos like this present it as having.
The problem with denial that the absence of the autographs renders the assertion of biblical inerrancy irrelevant is that it is based upon an assumed conjunction of (1) the immense prestige and authority of the canonical Scriptures as acknowledged by all Christians at all times, with (2) the questionable, but still legitimate hypothesis of a flawless autograph, and (3) the concept of the virtual inerrancy of the existing text—which is self-contradictory on its face. This conjunction lifts (2) and (3), and those who advocate them, to the level of (1), making those who doubt their relevance appear to be denying the authority of Scripture. To this I must cry foul!
4. I can find no more striking example of the complete isolation of the Bible from its spiritual, historical, and ecclesiastical environment than that given by Professor Van Til in his introduction to the collection of B. B. Warfield’s essays on the inspiration and authority of the Bible (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948):
It is well known that Emil Brunner regards the orthodox view of the infallibility of the autographa of Scripture as not only useless but as idolatrous. . . . But is the orthodox view so useless? We have shown that unless it is true men are lost in the boundless and bottomless ocean of chance. . . . Without [the presupposition of an originally perfect text] there is no more point to turning to Scripture than to the Upanishads for the Word of God. The existence of a perfect original text of Scripture is the presupposition of the possibility of the process of human learning. Without it there would be no criterion for man’s knowledge. Orthodox scholars therefore pursue the search for this text with enthusiasm. . . . Those who do not hold to the orthodox view are at the mercy of a purely pragmatic and humanistic view of reality and truth. (note to pp. 46–47)
One can indeed see why the “orthodox” scholar is so avid in his pursuit of the perfect original text, but cannot help wonder what criteria he uses to guide his search, or would employ to identify autographal material.
5. Barth pointed to (without developing) an analogy between the Bible and the Temple which I find powerful and convincing. Both are “inspired,” that is, indwelt by God, as meeting places for him and his people; both contain the Law, the tokens of the eternal covenant and the blood of the Lamb; from both God speaks his pure and flawless Word. But the Lord who indwells both Temple and Bible has shown himself not to be bound to their physical structure—as when Satan lies with the words of Scripture or the abomination of desolation is set up in the Holy Place. He who is present according to his own will and promise cannot be coerced to show himself therein, nor is he found by the desecrators, whether pagan conquerors or skeptical seminary professors.
6. Inerrantists will therefore have difficulty with the idea that one cannot speak of the Bible as a source of propositional truth apart from the existential matrix which authoritatively determines its meaning. This is a point that is not only thrust upon them by linguistic and semantic science, but in an even more decisive and threatening way by Roman and Eastern Catholicism which identify that matrix as the Church. In the scholastic Protestant tradition Scripture is typically treated as a primary and independent source of truth. This is not only impossible, but serves the illusion that the interpreter is exempt from responsibility to intermediate authorities greater than he, his calling being only to tell his hearers objectively “what the Bible says.” Naturally one cannot object to the opinions of individual or sect as long as they are perceived to agree with the historic beliefs of the Church. The danger lies in a way of thinking which, while giving apparent honor to Holy Scripture, covertly releases its interpreter to the exercise of authoritative private judgment.
7. That fundamentalism and its Evangelical offspring have little awareness of the history of the Church, much less any appreciation for its authority, is a commonplace among both the external and internal critics of the movement. See John Jefferson Davis, Foundations of Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1984), 44; James Barr, Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977, 1978), 16; Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing Co., 1978), 246. Stanley Gundry’s comment in the address cited above is representative: “Except for those denominations with a particular national origin, North American evangelicals have characteristically had little sense of history or of their connection with the Christian past” (p. 245).
This flaw cannot be passed over as incidental. It is a constitutional defect which severely impairs the movement’s perspective, theological and otherwise, from the outset. If Evangelicalism is as unmindful of the history of the Church as the writers above think, then it is essentially sectarian, divided in its mind from the consciousness of the Church Universal, and hence unable to meaningfully repeat the third article of the Creed. (The classic essay on this attitude is John Williamson Nevin’s “The Sect System” in the Mercersburg Review, vol. 1, nos. 1 and 2 (1849)). The chief significance of C. S. Lewis in the life of late 20th-century Evangelicalism has been his reintroduction of sectarian Protestants to thought patterns of the Church catholic under the concept of “mere Christianity.” But it is doubtful whether the Evangelical movement as a whole will be able to appropriate Lewis’s principal insights without a momentous change of character.
8. For this perception I readily admit a long-standing indebtedness to C. S. Lewis. No one has insisted in a more vivid and forceful way on the existence of a deep unity in the Christian mind which transcends “denominational” differences. His own discovery of this unity was initially along more literary and aesthetic than theological lines, but his comments are broadly applicable:
The only palliative for [avoiding the characteristic errors of our own age] is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. . . . If any man is tempted to think—as one might be tempted who read only contemporaries—that ‘Christianity’ is a word of so many meanings that it means nothing at all, he can learn beyond all doubt, by stepping out of his own century, that this is not so. Measured against the ages ‘mere Christianity’ turns out to be no insipid interdenominational transparency, but something positive, self-consistent, and inexhaustible. I know it, indeed, to my cost. In the days when I still hated Christianity, I learned to recognize, like some all too familiar smell, that almost unvarying something which met me, now in Puritan Bunyan, now in Anglican Hooker, now in Thomist Dante. It was there (honeyed and floral) in Francois de Sales; it was there (grave and homely) in Spenser and Walton; it was there (grim but manful) in Pascal and Johnson. . . . It was, of course, varied; and yet—after all—so unmistakably the same; recognizable, not to be evaded, the odour which is death to us until we allow it to become life:
an air that kills
From yon far country blows.
(A. E. Housman)
C. S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books” God in the Dock, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1970), 202–204.
9. S. M. Hutchens, “The Crisis of Evangelical Preaching” Touchstone vol. 2, no. 4 (Summer/Fall, 1988), 28–31.
10. John Meyendorff, The Orthodox Church, 3d ed., trans. John Chapin (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1981), 6–7.
S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.
Not a subscriber? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of content!
Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $1.66 per month!
Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access for only $39.95. NEW: Download PDF of issues! That's only $3.34 per month!
Transactions will be processed on the secure server of The Fellowship of St. James website, the publisher of Touchstone.
OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)
Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.
more from the online archives