A Primer on Inerrancy (pt. 3)
In this excerpt from John Gerstner’s Primitive Theology, Dr. Gerstner looks at the issue of inerrancy and seeks briefly and non-technically to present a case for Bible Inerrancy that a serious-minded layman can follow and evaluate. Though by no means an exhaustive treatment, it is one that is sound and faithful to the Scriptures. This is the third part of the series and here Dr. Gerstner continues his discussion on unsound bases for sound doctrine.
3. The Believer’s Testimony as the Basis for Bible Inerrancy
It may not have been obvious that the fallacies of the preceding views lay ultimately in their unconscious elevation of the creature above the Creator who is blessed forever. It seemed to have been quite the opposite. By accepting the authority of the Bible on the basis of its own divine affirmation, or its divine corroboration in the soul, advocates of these positions intended to bow before the majesty of heaven, but, in fact, did not. Since there is no evidence that an avowed Word of God is a genuine Word of God simply because it avows itself to be such, accepting it for no reason is sheer arbitrariness (however reverent the intention). Instead of abiding by the laws of evidence which God has given us, we become laws to ourselves. In other words, the first two unsound bases for sound doctrine, though they appear to be quite objective, are actually only appeals to mere personal feelings. But to this position, in the purity of its expression, we now come.
The view runs something like this: the Bible is inspired because it inspires me. It “finds” me. It rings a bell in my soul. I know that this is God’s book because I feel within that this book is God’s book. It affects me as no other literature does. It exhibits a power and an energy which speak to me.
This view is not intended by those who favor it to be an appeal to subjectivity. It is, of course, an appeal to the subject’s experience. However, it is claimed that the subject experiences something not himself. He senses the presence of a spirit not his own. The argument is not subjective, then, in the sense that the subject himself “existentially” produces the experience. It is not a creation of the human soul, but something that happens to the soul, which is thought to prove that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.
This experience, then, is offered as the basis for believing that the Bible is the Word of God. In itself, and in it alone, is the argument for inerrancy. No matter how sincere the Christianity of those who reason thus, no matter how truly the Bible of which they speak may indeed be the Word of God, still their argument amounts to this: “My heart is moved when I read the Bible more and/or differently than when I read any other literature. Therefore, this Bible, which is the occasion or cause of this wonderful feeling, must be God’s Word.” These good men do not phrase their argument that way, or they, too, would immediately recognize its futility as an argument. They imply this, but do not usually express it. Some of them will not even recognize it when someone else expresses it. They may even sincerely resent such a spelling out as saying something which they never intended. And, of course, they may not have meant it. People often imply what they do not intend. “Happy inconsistencies” abound everywhere. Whatever their inner intentions may be we leave to God, the only Searcher of Hearts. We concern ourselves only with their reasoning. Experience is set forth as a case for inspiration, and the only way that it could appear to be such is by supposing that such an inference is valid.
But is it valid to suppose that because I have a certain experience when I read the Bible that the Bible is thereby shown to be the Word of God? Surely not. First, the experience could be a mere coincidence One may have happened to have felt well for some reason when he began to read the Bible. By association he may have attributed this to what he was reading. Thus the Bible reading may have been a mere concomitant, rather than cause, of his experience. Christians do, in fact, testify that often, when they read the Bible, nothing “happens.”
Even if something always happened when one read the Bible, that would not prove that the Bible was the cause of what happened. We all have heard of the rooster who thought that his crowing caused the sun to rise each morning until he found it rising one morning when he had a sore throat. But suppose that rooster had never had a sore throat; he would have gone to his death still thinking that his crowing was the cause of the sun’s rising. We must have more than succession for a causal argument. There must be necessary succession. But this can never be shown by mere experience. Second, even if the Bible were the cause of these experiences, that would not prove that the Bible was the Word of God. It would prove that it had a unique power, but not a divine power. A unique power is not necessarily a divine power. The devil has power that is unique and, so far as men apart from special revelation know, it could account for such a phenomenon as that we are considering. Of course, that is not the case here. Of course the advocates of this view are correct in saying that this power comes from God. They are right, but they have no basis for being right. Their conclusion may be correct (as we think), but, their premises are incorrect (as we have shown).
No one is likely ever to admit that the Bible is the Word of God apart from the experience here described. Nothing so powerfully affects men’s convictions about inspiration as this experience. Nevertheless, precious and valuable as it is, the believer’s testimony is not the basis of an argument for Inerrancy. On the contrary, inerrancy must be the basis of validating Christian experience.
4. The Church’s Testimony as the Basis for Bible Inerrancy
The very futility of the preceding views has led some to the church’s testimony as the basis of inerrancy. Sensing that they cannot prove even to themselves, not to mention others, the inerrancy of Scripture from something within themselves or within the Bible, they succumb to the temptation of appealing to Mother Church. Yet, there is more here than that. It is not simply that many are thought to be able to do what a few cannot accomplish, but that God does in the many what He has not chosen to do in the few. That is, God has promised guidance to the body of the faithful and will lead them into all truth and not permit them to be misled fatally.
Now, where does the Church get the idea that it is the “pillar and ground of the truth”; that it is to “bind and loose” on earth? From the Bible! So it is the Bible which is the basis of the Church’s authority, not the Church which is the basis of the Bible’s authority. The Bible is the pillar on which the Church rests, not the Church the pillar on which the Bible rests. Incidentally, the expression in 1 Timothy 3:15 that the Church is the pillar and ground of the truth does not point to a pillar on which truth rests, but to a pillar on which truth was posted for public announcement in antiquity. In other words, it refers to the Church as witness to the truth, and not the basis of it.
But some will say that the Church came into existence before the Bible, and then called everyone’s attention to the Bible as the Word of God. This is true in an irrelevant sense and false in a relevant sense. When we say that it is true in an irrelevant sense that the Church existed before the Bible, we mean that granting the Church existed before the written and canonical form of the Bible is no proof of inerrancy. If, for example, the Church is thought of as beginning when the first sinners trusted in the mercy of God, and if sinful Adam and Eve were the first sinners to trust in the mercy of God, then the Church existed centuries before the Bible was probably written, and certainly many centuries before it was gathered into a canon of books recognized as the Bible. If the church is thought of as coming into existence at Pentecost,, then the Bible (the Old Testament) preceded it by centuries. Still, the New Testament Church would have preceded the New Testament Bible because there were New Testament Christians before a word of the New Testament was written.
All of this is obviously true, and just as obviously irrelevant to the matter in hand. First, granted that the Church, in a sense, existed before the Bible in its written form, what does this prove? According to the advocates of the view in question it is supposed to prove that the Church’s testimony is the argument for inerrancy. But does the Church’s testimony, which preceded the Bible, prove the inerrancy of the Bible? How does the fact that the Church may have preceded the Bible in existence prove that the Bible is inspired and inerrant? How does the fact that the previously existing Church testifies to the subsequently existing Bible prove the Bible to be what the Church says that it is? It is no doubt true that if the Church had not testified, and did not continue to testify, to the Bible as the Word of God, the world might soon forget about the Bible and thus never come to realize its inspiration. The Church is indispensable to the Bible’s being considered for what it is. But this fact is in no sense a proof that the Bible is what the Church says it is. The Bible is, we believe, exactly what the Church says that it is, but it is not what the Church says it is because the Church says it is. Rather, in the true order of events, the Church testifies because the Bible is what it is rather than that the Bible is what it is because the Church so testifies.
Perhaps it will become clearer if we outline the order of events:
- God speaks (revelation).
- Men respond in faith (church).
- Revelation is recorded (inerrant Bible).
- The Church recognizes, receives, and testifies to the inerrant Bible.
The question is: what is the basis of the Church’s testimony? Surely it is not the Church’s testimony
Some will still say, “Granted that the Church’s testimony is not the basis of inerrancy, but inerrancy is the basis of the Church’s testimony. Still, is not the Church’s testimony the basis of inerrancy for us? That is, granted that the church had good and sufficient reasons for recognizing the Bible for what it is, nevertheless we do not have access to these reasons, or, even if we did, we do not have the infallible divine guidance necessary for correctly perceiving them. So, we must rest on the Church’s testimony as the basis for our belief in inerrancy, though the Church herself must have another basis.”
We reply that, even if this were so, it grants our main point:, namely that the Church’s testimony cannot be the basis for inerrancy. But this point would still be important because it would terminate our search for the basis for inerrancy. Our search would have ended in a realization that we should not search anymore, that the answer has been found by another (the Church), and can be found by none other.
If this is so, so be it. But is it so? It is not so, nor could it possibly be so! Why not? For the simple reason that if it is proposed that the Church’s testimony must become our argument for inerrancy, we must ask “why?”. If the answer is: “Because the Bible says so,” it is obvious that we are right back where we began. It is the inerrant Bible itself which alone can tell us that the Church alone can tell us that the Bible is inerrant! So for us to accept the position that we can only know that the Bible is inerrant by the testimony of the church, we must first know that the Bible is inerrant. For example, Rome claims papal authority from Matthew 16:18; but to do so she must first prove the authority of Matthew 16:18. If that church is to establish her authority, she must first establish the inerrancy of the Bible. That is, even according to her own argument, she cannot establish the Bible’s authority, but the Bible must establish hers (which, incidentally, it does not do).
This then is another wrong basis for a right answer. We must continue our search. We have not yet found the right basis for accepting the Bible’s inerrancy.
To be continued…
Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.