Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Inerrancy: Vital, or Vestige of Rationalism?

Lesslie Newbigin and B.B Warfield take Scripture very seriously. The Bible for both of them is the authoritative, normative rule for Christians as individuals, and as the church. But what these men said about its unique authority differed, dependent on what each man thought was the biggest threat to a lively Christian faith. Is it inflexible rationalism leading to public irrelevance? (Newbigin) Or is this grave threat due to a lack of recognition of Scripture’s origin in God, leading to a lack of submission to Him, and to it? (Warfield) How these men answered this important question, and their differing ministry contexts, lead directly to any dissimilarities between them. If I should be compelled to criticize Newbigin at all in the end, let it be known that I do so with the greatest reluctance, recognizing his heroic efforts in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ. (And likewise for Warfield, though that is not the task at hand.)
If both men had a similar high view of Scripture, on what crucial point did they differ? It was on the issue of biblical inerrancy. In Proper Confidence, Newbigin introduces his problem with inerrancy by saying that its affirmation arose from “a kind of fundamentalism which seeks to affirm the factual, objective truth of every statement in the Bible” and that the existence and acknowledgment of discrepancies by an inerrantist would mean that “biblical authority would collapse.” It is, he says, a “false concept of biblical authority imposed on the Bible…by the Enlightenment.” (85) It rests upon a fruitless “indubitable certainty” which is “context-independent.” Having pointed out that only God possesses that context independence, we ought to reject such a concept as a matter of intellectual humility. (101) Significantly, he places the adjective “supracultural” alongside the “indubitable certainty” he is rejecting on page 101. We will have to deal with whether “supracultural” necessarily means assuming this objective stance. To his credit, on that point, Newbigin writes, “The (true) assertion that all truth claims are culturally and historically embodied does not entail the (false) assertion that none of them makes contact with a reality beyond the human mind.” (74) Thus, our assertions on these matters cannot be relativized (and thus dismissed) in an a priori fashion. But why is this so? What is the ground upon which we believe the gospel? It seems uncontroversial to say that our trust in God gleaned from His Word will be less than absolute. But the heart of the matter is why the Bible can be considered to possess the unique authority Newbigin asserts that it has. Insofar as we evangelicals have placed our trust in inerrancy as Newbigin has described it, our faith will be shattered, or its certainty rendered inert by the fact that it makes no contact with reality. (75)
But has Newbigin fairly characterized what is meant by inerrancy? What if the proponents of inerrancy do not intend to assert absolute certainty? And a compelling corollary is this: Perhaps Warfield and his intellectual descendants (evangelicals) have absorbed many of the qualities of Newbigin’s humility in approaching and universalizing Scripture’s message, unhindered by the positivist arrogance Newbigin wished to avoid, which he claims are inherent in embracing inerrancy. We may indeed find Newbigin’s approach too humble, in that we are vulnerable to relativism because we cannot answer why the Bible is held in such high esteem by us. Why have we decided to commit ourselves to passionate affirmation of the story it tells? We’ll see that Newbigin is calling us to that very thing. What does Newbigin say about the Bible that would warrant such a response?
Newbigin commends his alternative view to us in several declarations. Our “confidence…is not in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known.” (67) Newbigin continues, “I believe that the Bible is the true rendering of…God’s acts in creation and redemption and therefore the true rendering of the character of God.” (98) And, “The heart of the Christian faith,” is that “the Bible is the true story of God’s dealings with…people.” (99) Those strong affirmations of biblical authority are weakened by, “But the Bible is also the work of sinful human beings [who needed rebuke and correction].” (99) [emphasis mine] But Newbigin is attempting to differentiate between the Bible’s origin (from God, and possessing unique authority the bind the Christian’s conscience and create and define the community of which we are part) and the story it tells, which includes the sins of God’s people. That is indeed a helpful distinction, but due to perhaps poor phrasing (namely “work”) he creates the impression that the Bible as product, as God’s community-shaping instrument, is fallible. He himself has confused categories, confusing the human apprehension of biblical truth (in both knowing and doing) with its source, ultimately, God. Newbigin has made the accusation that inerrantists fail to note both our sins (recounted in the biblical text) and the inadequacy of reason to fully understand biblical truth, by insisting upon inerrancy.
But Warfield (and others) will show us that confessing inerrancy need not mean dodging the reality of sin, or its impact on our interpretations of Scripture. To begin, one useful corrective to Newbigin is by addition, from Warfield. The Bible is,
“not merely…the record of the redemptive acts by which God is saving the world, but as itself one of the redemptive acts, having its own part to play in the great work of establishing and building up the kingdom of God.” (Inspiration and Authority, 161)

It is not at all clear that Newbigin views the Bible’s very existence as a redemptive act of God, though he would view it as able to accomplish the redemptive purposes of God among his people. Thus, we could say that the Bible is not the product of sinful people, but indeed a record of them and their sins, and of God’s condescension to them. If Vanhoozer is correct in saying that God acts redemptively often by speaking,[1] we cannot reasonably separate the sinful human part of Scripture from the God-given revelation. What about this “indubitable certainty” Newbigin identifies? Answers Warfield,
“We approach…the Scriptures with a very strong presumption that these Scriptures contain no errors, and that any ‘phenomena’ apparently inconsistent with their inerrancy are so in appearance only…We do not and cannot wait until all these difficulties are fully explained before we yield to the teaching of the New Testament the fullest confidence of our minds and hearts.” (Inspiration and Authority, 215-16)

“Very strong presumption” indicates something less than “indubitable certainty,” and Warfield clearly urges people not to wait in yielding to God and to the Scriptures, pending the outcome of a rational process. Also, our “fullest confidence” doesn’t seem to be harmed by not waiting. This quote by Warfield is in total harmony with the Newbigin quote referenced earlier,[2] and does not show any hint of dangerous Enlightenment rationalism. In fact, as he showed in another work,[3] he is fully aware of the new rationalism’s danger to trusting in Christ. Was not Warfield living and writing at the peak of Enlightenment rationalism? We might say that the problems Newbigin addresses have come because we failed to listen to Warfield! As we can see from Erickson’s careful definition of inerrancy,[4] Calvin’s attitude toward the project of “proving” the origin of Scripture,[5] and the Westminster Confession of Faith,[6] none of the members of this diverse group of unreserved inerrancy proponents is claiming the hermeneutical arrogance at the heart of the “fundamentalism” Newbigin described. C. John Collins noted that hermeneutics is hard work, and inerrancy can become a shortcut to avoid that work,[7] but it need not mean throwing Scripture’s inerrant character ‘under the bus’ for the sake of emphasizing hermeneutical humility. That also would be a surrender, to borrow from Newbigin.
Therefore, we might say that this fundamentalism is descended from an unhealthy Enlightenment rationalism, but inerrancy is not, (or doesn’t have to be) because the humility of trusting God and the Scriptures in spite of lacking absolute certainty was always implicit in the definition of inerrancy, and frankly, in the lives of many men who held to it. To me, inerrancy continues to be a statement about who God is, was, and will be, revealed clearly in Scripture, not necessarily our ability to explain or prove Him exhaustively.

[1] Lecture handout, “Revelation,” p. 6.
[2] Proper Confidence, p. 67.
[3] Lecture handout, “Revelation,” p. 12.
[4] Lecture handout, “Revelation,” p. 11.
[5] Lecture handout, “Revelation,” p. 6.
[6] Chapter 1, paragraphs 5 and 6.
[7] Covenant Theology lecture, CTS, 09/07.