The word “inerrancy,” like the word evangelical, beggars clear and compelling definitions and articulations. Many of inerrancy’s proponents don’t believe simpler words — like truth, truthful, trustworthy — adequately express what is to be believed about the Bible. So there is an Inerrancy Debate, and it is now in an official form: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. The editors are J. Merrick and S.M. Garrett, and the contributors, with responses to each of the other essayists, are R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Peter Enns, Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and John R. Franke. Believe me, this is one of the more volatile issues among evangelicals (the term “inerrancy” tends not to be used except by evangelicals, and then not by all). I am not a fan of these Counterpoint books since, in general, the responses go down hill fast. I do value sketching various views of a topic, including inerrancy. But this sketch is clearly an in-house-evangelical affair with not a look at Catholics, Orthodox, Lutherans or others.
Mohler kicks the volume off, and after reading him carefully I have come to this conclusion: Mohler creates an argument the way Kris and I do crosswords — we work in this corner and then that corner, and then on this line and then on that line. We don’t finish up one section before we move on to another. The problem is that arguments are not crosswords. Mohler’s essay, in other words, is a tangled mess with barely any order — here one thing, there another, with an application/polemical point now and then later another one, with some Bible and then no Bible. One can discern what he believes well enough, but for a representative of the “classic” view (and he means Warfield through the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy) this is at best a hodgepodge of claims. There are much better studies, including those by B.B. Warfield, E.J. Young, J.I. Packer, and Paul Feinberg’s well-framed essay in a book called Inerrancy (ed. N. Geisler).
I was a college student when the inerrancy debate became big at the hand of Harold Lindsell’s famous The Battle for the Bible. I devoured the book, stood amazed at some of his claims, but knew there was much to study in this topic — so I read B.B. Warfield and E.J. Young cover to cover, carefully watching how they worked. They were articulate, careful, and mostly convincing. But not all have achieved their level of patient exposition of the Bible’s understanding of itself.
He contends inerrancy is supported by the Bible’s own claims, by the course of theological history, and for pastoral reasons.
These are representative statements by Mohler:
“An affirmation of the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible has stood at the center of the evangelical faith as long as there have been Christians known as evangelicals” (29). He’s more or less right: I don’t think it is all that helpful to call the Reformers “evangelicals” (as we know them today), but evangelicalism (properly boundaried) has believed in inspiration and authority.
One of his best lines is “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” (29). He accepts ETS’s older statement — “The Bible alone, the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs” (29). He approves of Carl Henry’s line that “inerrancy should be seen as a requirement of evangelical consistency rather than as a test of evangelical integrity” (29), though I’m not sure what this means. He knows many aren’t in agreement, including Roger Olson.
He believes in a slippery slope mentality: give up inerrancy and things fall apart theologically, morally, epistemologically, and ecclesially. Giving it up leads to “hermeneutical nihilism” and “metaphysical antirealism” (31).
His history of this discussion focuses on the 20th Century — from Warfield to Lindsell to ETS and CSBI (1978). God is perfect; his words therefore are perfect; Scripture is inspired by God and therefore inerrant; the Spirit attended the authors and the text and speaks to us today in the inward witness; the Bible is plenarily inspired; authority follows from this and without this the authority is shaken.
His case for the Bible starts off poorly for me. He quotes 2 Peter 1:21, which in the NIV 2011 reads: “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” Mohler’s observations: “Peter’s point is that the Scripture is to be trusted at every point, and he defines its inspiration as being directly from God, through the agency of human authors, by means of the direct work of the Holy Spirit” (37). Well, not exactly: Does “prophecy” mean “Scripture… at every point”? I doubt it. He speaks of the “original text” but is that one of Peter’s categories? Anyway, the point is that Mohler colonizes 2 Peter 1:21 into his existing theory of inerrancy and explains Peter through his theory. Fortunately, his section on the Bible improves and his stuff here on Paul is done well. Yes, I agree: Paul and the NT authors, including Jesus, were Jewish and had a “high” view of Scripture and its truthfulness and God’s trustworthiness in the Word. This does not solve the hermeneutical problems but it does give us a good framing of the early Christian view.
On the faith of the church, Yes, the church has always believed the Bible is true, trustworthy, and authoritative. To import the word “inerrancy,” which means CSBI or ETS for Mohler, is simply a bad case of anachronism run amok. It is not good history to impose later categories on the church fathers and medieval theologians or even the Reformers. Plus, they always operated with a strong sense of “tradition” alongside the Bible.
The authors are to use test cases: Joshua 6, the tension of Acts 9:7 and 22:9, as well as Deut 20:16-17 and Matthew 5:43-48. On Joshua 6, Jericho, archaeology and the Bible: he believes in inerrancy, therefore there is no problem; on Acts 9 and 22, he believes in inerrancy therefore there is no problem; and the same on Deut 20 and Matt 5.
This is a great example of a priori logic, of assumptions, and of deductive logic but I’m glad there are other essays in this volume.
Three more critical observations: Mohler makes claims about the history of theology without documentation. Why not trot out statements from Augustine to the modern day? Why not frame what they believed in their terms and let the chips fall where they may? Instead, he makes summary statements about history, and (as we will see) his summary statements are not accurate. Both Bird and Vanhoozer take Mohler to task for his claims about history. The second observation is that here is how Mohler’s logic works: I believe in inerrancy, therefore the Bible is not wrong. Over and over he says, Since I believe in inerrancy this theory about a passage can’t be right. This is a priori logic, if not fideism, and it is being used for a doctrine that was formed, if my reading of the history is right, on the basis of inductive logic. Third, for someone who affirms inerrancy of the Bible there is precious little emphasis in this study on the Bible itself. He has one short section (3 pages) and in the challenging portions he spends far too little time patiently examining what the Bible actually says. A “biblical” inerrancy is one founded on patient study of what the Bible says.
It is because of understandings of inerrancy like this of Mohler that many of us don’t want to use the term “inerrancy.” What does that mean? In the hands of Mohler, the word “inerrancy” is boundary-drawing politics and polemics. The Bible’s way of talking about the Bible is “Word” and a word is spoken by a Person, who is engaged in a covenant relationship of love, and the proper response to the Word from God is to listen because, as covenant people, we want to know what God says and do what he wants. I have sketched this in the “Boring Chapter” in The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible.