Monday, November 28, 2005

Lesson 2: Biblical Inerrancy (Part 1)

(This is based on John Gerstner’s Primer on Biblical Inerrancy from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Thology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.)

Our second topic has to do with the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture. This is no small matter: more than 3000 times, the bible makes the claim “thus sayeth the Lord.” If the bible is not really the word of God, then it is a pack of lies. This is an important point: The bible makes very lofty claims about itself—this exaggerates the negative impact of any discovered biblical error. Suppose you have two professors. Professor A claims that everything he says is absolutely true while Professor B makes no such claim. When each is found in error, is it not Professor A’s credibility that takes the bigger hit?

In this segment, we will attempt to prove biblical inerrancy. Not in the scientific sense, but more like in the “beyond a reasonable doubt” sense. What we really doing is uncovering the minimum set of assumptions you need in order to establish the authority of scripture. So instead of saying, “I just know it is true” you can at least say “If you can believe X, Y and Z then I can make a compelling case for inerrancy.”

For the most part, this argument will be for the believer. An atheist will accept no proof of biblical inerrancy just like he will accept no proof of God's existence. It is not just that he won't, but he cannot. (He of course interprets this inability as rational denial.) If he is not drawn by God, and not moved by the Spirit, he will, enslaved by his natural state, view the word of God as foolishness.

Of course, God ordains the means as well as the ends, so we take every chance provided, always praying that this time the atheist will believe our arguments. If he does, we know it wasn't the persuasiveness of our words that deserves the credit.

Like apologetics, what we are doing here is strengthening our case for why we believe what we believe. It is, for the most part, to give ourselves encouragement. At the same time, it does allow us live up to our biblical mandate to answer our critics. If someone argues: you have no reason to believe in the truth of the bible we can say: yes we do.

Inerrancy is an important topic. The great confessions of the past, including the London Baptist the Westminster, make this claim:

The Holy Scriptures are the only infallible rule of faith, and practice.

Many denominations, faced with higher criticisms of this doctrine, have substituted the above statement with a new one:

The Holy Scriptures are infallible in matters of faith and practice.

The first statement is strong, saying that of all books ever written, the bible stands alone in its infallibility. The second is as different from the first as night is from day. It states only that the bible is infallible (and perhaps not uniquely so) in matters of faith and practice. In matters of history and science, it is deemed fallible and hence, ultimately, unreliable. The stakes are very high.

Four Bad Proofs

As important as inerrancy is to us, we need to avoid bad arguments supporting it. In the book Primitive Theology, Gerstner outlines four bad proofs. These are four ways that are sometimes used but which in fact are fallacious and should be avoided. These four “bad arguments” are lifted, nearly verbatim, from Gerstner’s treatment of their error in Primitive Theology.

1. The Bible’s own Testimony as the Basis for Inerrancy

We cannot use passages such as 2 Tim. 3:16 to prove the bible is inspired or inerrant. Probably everyone senses the circularity of such an approach, or the logical fallacy of begging the question, in which the conclusion is demonstrated by first assuming it to be true. And of course, if a claim of inerrancy is all that is required then we must allow that the Koran and the Book of Mormon are also inerrant.

Here is the important distinction: The bible is not the word of God because it says so, it says so because it is.

Some will argue that the bible is different. In general, they agree that something is not true merely because it says it is true. However the bible, being the word of God, is subject to different rules. It is God’s word, and God’s word cannot be challenged. This, of course, is true. But it misses the point. The question is not whether we should instantly obey the word of God. We agree with the prophet Samuel who said "Speak, for your servant is listening." (1. Sam 3:10) but like Samuel we must first know that the voice we hear is really God’s. The question is whether we can accept the bible as the word of God merely because it says that it is. The answer is we can not.

Some will argue it is simply too presumptuous and impious to put the bible to the test. On the contrary, it is an act of humility. For we are using the only means at our disposal that God has given us, our reason, to distinguish between the true word of God and the word of men falsely claiming to speak the word of God. We are again reminded that Jesus’ miracles are offered as proof of his claims of deity.

No we cannot use the bible’s own claim as proof of its inspiration. However, if we successfully make a case for inerrancy, as we will attempt to do later, then the bible’s lofty claims about itself will carry great weight. It’s claim of inspiration will be of comfort, and its refrain of “Thus sayeth the Lord” and its proclamation of the gospel will be sources of great joy.

2. The Holy Spirit’s Testimony as the Basis for Inerrancy

Another bad proof of inerrancy attempts to ride the coattails of a sound doctrine: the “Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit.” This internal testimony is necessary for us to understand God’s word, for without it His truth would appear as foolishness to our ears (1 Cor. 1:18). It is tempting, then, to make this type of argument:

Just as the bible certifies itself by the letter of scripture, so by the living voice of God the Spirit convinces the hearts of men.

Many even assume the bible is “dead text” until the Spirit speaks to a heart at which time the beneficiary has an experiential basis for accepting inerrancy. What more, could one demand as proof than the voice of God speaking directly into one’s soul?

Nothing more, is the obvious response. Nobody would be foolish enough to reject as inconclusive the very voice of God inwardly announcing to us that the bible His word. At such a point, searching for proof would be superfluous.

Of course, when pressed for details, the proponents of this view will concede that they never actually heard the voice of the Holy Spirit say to them “the Bible is my Word.” Many would even complain that it is impertinent to ask them if they actually heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, even as they continue to claim that the Sprit is talking to them. We politely remind them that we affirm the doctrine of the inward testimony of the spirit as it applies to understanding scripture, just not as it applies to the bible’s inerrancy.

If the Spirit does not testify audibly, the question becomes, how does the Spirit, through inaudible testimony, convey to someone that the bible is inerrant? The answer given is that the Holy Spirit confirms our convictions when we read the bible and intensifies our experience as we meditate on scripture. Once again we agree that such a thing happens, but counter that it still doesn’t prove inerrancy or inspiration. All it means is that a person reads the bible and he is stirred by parts of what he reads. He feels or thinks he feels a spirit other than his own working in his heart. Even if he is sure there is another spirit, he cannot be sure what that spirit is. Furthermore, if it is the Holy Spirit he cannot be sure it isn’t the Spirit telling him that this part of the book he is reading is good, but other parts—well—if you don’t feel the same way don’t you have to believe them.

To summarize we must reject the testimony of the Spirit as a basis for inerrancy. (At the same time, we loudly affirm our belief in the testimony of the Spirit.) The Spirit’s testimony is not audible, it is an intensifying of feelings and enlightening of understanding as we contemplate, but it does prove inerrancy.

3. The Believer’s Testimony as the Basis for Inerrancy

It may not be obvious that the first two “bad” proofs—using the bible itself or the testimony of the Spirit as the basis of inerrancy—are rooted in the same error: elevation of the creature above the creator. Indeed, they seem to have a level of piety implying just the opposite. However, accepting, for example, the bible as the word of God just because of its own claim is sheer arbitrariness, regardless of how lofty the intention. By dismissing (often derisively) God’s gift of reason, we become a law unto ourselves, appealing to our own “feelings.”

In our third version of bad arguments for inerrancy, we find an augment that is transparently man centered. The argument is this:

The bible is inspired because it inspires me.

Here we have a “proof” that is purely based on experience. But a proof based on experience can never prove anything to anyone else. In addition, the book that you claim inerrant on the basis of the experience never states that you are justified in your reasoning—it never states that “see, you have come to believe me just like I said you would, by feeling it in your bones.”

No rational person would deny that a Christian will have experiences when reading scripture that are different from when he reads something else, but this is not a basis for inerrancy, it is only a basis for stating that the bible is “moving.” One sign of the unreliability of this proof is that Christians often have similar feelings when reading a biblical commentary, watching a move such as The Passion of the Christ, receiving a well crafted sermon, or listing to a poignant testimony. Yet the same feeling would never be used to claim the inerrancy of those sources.

4. The Church’s Testimony as the Basis for Inerrancy

Some, sensing the error in the previous approaches, yield to the temptation of the bosom of the mother church. The (erroneous) idea is that God has promised guidance to the body as a whole that He has not promised to individual believers. In effect, God is entrusting, by means unspecified, the church with the certainty of the inspiration and inerrancy of the bible, and then saying: now you go teach the flock who should require no proof other than your word.

This relies on the authority of the church. And the church does have authority. And from where does the church derive its authority? From the bible! We are back to circular reasoning, although this circle has a larger diameter. The bible is inerrant because the church teaches that it is. To accept this, we must bow to the authority of the church. But the church enjoys this authority because it is granted in the bible, which is inerrant.

We must be straight on this: The church is not the basis of the bible’s authority. The bible is the basis of the church’s authority. The Catholic Church, for example claims papal authority from And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (Matt. 16:18) But to make this claim Rome must first prove the trustworthiness of Matt. 16:18. Only after that is established can the Catholic Church then attempt to use the passage to make her case for papal authority.

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