Thursday, April 24, 2008

Infallibility vs. Inerrancy: Reformation 21

Over at Reformation 21, there is a review article by Martin Downes entitled, Is Inerrancy Unbiblical, Rationalistic and Presumptuous? A critique of A.T.B. McGowan's proposal for evangelicals to reject inerrancy which deals with Andrew McGowan's book The Divine Spiration of Scripture.

I don't want to offer a counter-response to Downes' article as I'll leave it to Andrew to respond himself if he chooses to (although I don't think that the central focus of Andrew's article is against inerrancy as much as it is reconfiguring a doctrine of Scripture as part of a doctrine of God). But a number of questions do come to my mind. Now before I press ahead let me say that I ask these questions as one who is committed to the authority and veracity of Scripture. I write as one who regards the Word of God as "true and trustworthy" and I have laboured elsewhere to show that the Gospels are historically reliable accounts of Jesus' career. In my mind, the Bible teaches history, theology, and ethics and it is "true" on all three counts. I teach my students that the goal of their instruction is that they would know better the Word of God and the God of the Word!

(1) To what extent is it legitimate to derive a theology of Scripture from a priori inferences about God? Does "God is X and therefore Scripture is Y" constitute a reasonable argument? At one level I want to say "yes" as I would maintain that the faithfullness of God means that his Word will also be faithful and reliable. But does an a priori inference allow us to determine what the phenemenon of Scripture must have been and to define further the standards upon which its "faithfulness" must conform to? I am not so sure on that one. (2) The WCF 1.5 and 1689 LBC 1.1 all use the phrase infallible to define the veracity of Scripture (the Anglican 39 Art. 6 speaks of "sufficiency"). Does a preference for "infallible" over "inerrant" constitute a doctrinal abberration? Is the entire Reformed Tradition, as exemplified by the confessions, an insufficient theology of Scripture? As I read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy the impression I get is exactly that: infallibility alone is insufficient (see esp. art. 11 and 19.III.C). I remain concerned and confused as to why persons, however polite and well intentioned, imply that my Reformed Baptist heritage that has been around for 400 years just ain't good enough any more (and the same is true for Presbyterians)! It was good enough in 1689 and it is jolly well good enough now! Can one become a liberal by holding fast to 400 years of tradition? (3) Is there any cultural or historical contingency to the Warfield/Henry articulation of inerrancy? Keep in mind that inerrancy was articulated during the height of the fundamentatlist versus liberal controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was the "Battle for the Bible" in North America which was really about the struggle between Modernity and Revealed Religion. Christianity was subjected to a critique based on the assumptions of post-Enlightenment philosophical rationalism. Did Christians such as Warfield and Henry try to defend Scripture by using the same tools of philosophical rationalism such as a foundationalist epistemology and objectivist views of historical knowledge? Has the inerrancy of the autographa always been the rubric upon which Christians at all times, in all places, and in all ages have articulated the authority and veracity of Scripture, or was it a new way of defending the Bible against an atheistic worldview birthed out of of the rationalist impulse of the time in the particular setting of North America? In other words, is inerrancy a "catholic" doctrine?

The Chicago Statement provides the best exposition of inerrancy to date and one that tries to nuance the term where it needs to be. If I had to choose between "errancy" and "inerrancy", I'd choose inerrancy any day of the week and twice on Sunday. Still, I am reminded of the words of Howard Marshall who said that if you need fifteen pages to define one word, may be you should just get a new word. I have an old explanation in mind: "The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience, although the light of nature, and the works of creation and providence do so far manifest the goodness, wisdom, and power of God, as to leave men inexcusable; yet are they not sufficient to give that knowledge of God and his will which is necessary unto salvation ... All of which are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life." (LBC 1.1-2).


Ben said...

I guess the big question is whether or not there has been a difference in meaning historically between inerrancy and infallibility. As far as I can tell there is no difference (at least as the discussion has taken place in the Reformed theological tradition). Does Warfield, for example, mean by inerrancy something different than the WCF means by infallibility? The word inerrant didn't even exist in English usage until fairly recently, so it seems to be reading something into the discussion to argue that infallibility meant something other than inerrancy prior to the coinage of the word inerrancy. I am not sure that is what you are arguing, but that is how I am reading you. Am I missing something?

If inerrancy implies that there cannot be a historical error in Paul's missionary history (just a random example), such as saying that Paul lived in Ephesus, when in fact this is simply a construct of the author of Acts, does the notion of infallibility as per the WCF (or the Reformed, evangelical tradition) allow that this kind of thing is allowable in Scripture?

I really don't see the difference between inerrancy and infallibility as historically defined, although I suppose someone could redefine infallibility to mean something other than "without errors" (of whatever sort).

[I haven't read Prof. McGowan's book so I can't comment on what he is doing and am not implying anything about his view on anything.]

Kelly Kerr said...

Echoing Ben, infallibility and inerrancy are synonyms, at least that's how I've always heard it stated.

Marty said...

Well infallibility and inerrancy would've been synonyms until Rogers and McKim came along (last century) and gave them different meanings. That's caused considerable misunderstandings in the debate.

That's precisely why the Chicago Statement assumes they have different meanings, because at that time they did, due to Rogers and McKim.

When Warfield started to use inerrancy for the first time he wasn't meaning anything different from what the historic Christian tradition meant in its attitude to Scripture.

Unfortunately many have understood that Warfield introduced a new idea because of the new word ("inerrancy"). Not so.

In short, when the reformed confessions use "infallibility" it has a slightly different meaning to the Chicago statement's use of the same word.

sujomo said...

Thanks for the thoughtful post Mike. I had a look at Martin Downes' review article. I believe he himself should apply the principle of 'ad fontes'.

He cites Bullinger from The Decades as saying,"And even as God is true of word, and cannot lie, so is his word true and deceiveth no man". His footnote 2 reveals that he got the quote from Richard Muller. The quote is taken from page 93 of Thomas Harding's edition (Decade I, Sermon 4) in a section dealing with True Faith. The following sentence reads, "In the word of God is expressed the will and mind of God". Bullinger to this point has been referring to faith in the unseen and that we need not have any doubts trusting in God nor trusting in his word. Peter Optiz's critical edition of the Latin version of the Decades is about to be published any day now by TVZ.

Downes refers to Reformation principles in his review article. What about the perspicuity of Scripture?

I also think that when we discuss Scripture as the very word of God (not containing the word of God or becoming the word of God) we are referring to propositional revelation. That is, God reveals his word to us in and through propositions. Hence syntax and the actual words are important and thus Scripture is (here insert the word that one feels the most appropriate, viz thoroughly reliable, infallible, inerrant etc. This is an a priori fact because the very author is God.

It's the message that counts and the purpose of that message.

Let me illustrate from your blog. You have a post (new Blog 21) referring to the new blog of what you refer to as Presbyterian Theological College with a link to the blog. Now let me explain that Presbyterian Theological College is in Box Hill (next to Burwood)in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia whereas Presbyterian Theological Centre is in Burwood in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. It is the latter that you had intended to refer to and your link leads directly to its blog. Perhaps this 'error' crept in through oral tradition, an error in transcribing an email sent to you etc etc. But the purpose is spot on - we are linked directly to the blog intended.

Have a thought for those of us who have to minister the word of God in languages other than English (eg in the language I use we can't differentiate between 'possible' and 'probable'). We are often having to say "that what Paul really meant here is ......" and then try to give an accurate version of the NT Greek text in the language concerned.

But whatever difficulties we face the word of God will never lead us astray in regards to its purpose. This is what spurs the Bible Society to translate the Bible into as many languages of the world as possible.

your knight errant

TBrookins said...

Michael, I think I'm with you, in holding that the Bible is truthful in what it affirms, while this does not necessitate that we hold to plenary inerrancy. At the same time we might still employ the word "inerrant" in a looser sense (like in the "irenic inerrancy" of Pinnock, as expressed in the Scripture principle).

Martin Downes said...


Great questions.

It should be borne in mind that inerrancy is a word that came into use only in the 19th century. If it was used interchangeably with infallibility to sum up, in a single word, the same idea, then it is a toss of a coin as to which one we use. Of course it would be anachronistic to assume that the introduction of the word also meant the introduction of a new idea. There is solid evidence against that notion. Unfortunately infallibility is used as shorthand for "limited infallibility" hence, perhaps, the favouring of inerrancy by some. But I agree with you we ought to use infallibility and we ought to be clear about what we mean by that word, and what Christians before us meant by it. Warfield put forward some compelling evidence to show that the Westminster divines did hold to the total truthfulness (inerrancy if you will, although they used infallibility) of the autographs (whilst also recognising the copyist errors in the texts that we have). Woodbridge likewise presents compelling evidence that the Princetonians did not invent the inerrancy of the autographa.

Every blessing

Martin Downes

Grosey's Messages said...

Isn't it because God is infallible that scripure is inerrant?