A Primer on Inerrancy (pt. 2)

from Mar 03, 2011 Category: Articles

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 second part of this series and here Dr. Gerstner picks up his discussion on unsound bases for sound doctrine.

Continued from Part 1

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

One of the precious doctrines of the church is called the “Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Like the self-attestation of Scripture, it is a most gracious gift of God to His church. And like that gift it is sometimes misunderstood and misused even by those who love it most. A case in point is the one before us in which the internal testimony is submitted as proof that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

The thinking here may be shown to be wrong, but it does have the merit of being clear. It runs like this: 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 think that the Bible’s witness to itself remains a dead letter until the living Spirit speaks within the soul. But when the Spirit does thus speak men have the most solid possible basis for knowing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Some, by no means all, of the advocates of this view go on to teach that unless the Spirit testifies, the Bible is not the Word of God; and only when He does is it the Word of God. In any case, the argument at first glance is quite impressive. When God witnesses to His own Word, how can there be any doubt that it is His inerrant Word? If you want evidence, these men assure us, here is the best. What more can any reasonable or spiritual person desire than to have God speaking directly to his own soul?

We agree. As this case is often stated, it leaves nothing to be desired. We would never be so foolish as to question the very voice of God in our souls. Our search for truth would be ended promptly when God opened His mouth and spoke and that to each of us individually and inwardly.

We agree, that is, if the Holy Spirit does actually thus speak to individual souls. But I have never heard the Holy Spirit say to my soul or mind, “The Bible is the Word of God.” I have never met anyone who claims to have heard the Holy Spirit say that or anything like that to his soul. In fact, the advocates of the internal testimony as the basis of inerrancy never quite get around to saying it either. Rather, most of them would be inclined to rebuke us at this point for gross misunderstanding, if not outright caricature, of their opinions on this subject. “We do not mean,” they will reply, “testimony as an audible voice in the soul. Of course the Holy Spirit has not spoken to individual hearts telling them that the Bible is His Word! Of course you cannot find anyone in his right mind who claims any such experience,” they may indignantly respond.

Very well,” we reply. “We are sorry; we meant no offense and intended no caricature of a brother’s doctrine. Nor are we totally ignorant of the history of this doctrine. Indeed, we ourselves believe it in the sense in which Calvin, for example, meant it. But when it is used as the argument for inerrancy (which, incidentally, we do not think was Calvin’s idea at all), that is something else. It is that something else which we are now considering.” If it is so used as proof of inerrancy how is it such unless somehow God’s Spirit testifies, tells, signifies to us, reveals in us or the like that the canonical Scriptures are from Him? But very well, we will withdraw our query as we hear our wounded brethren protesting that they mean no such thing. Let it be agreed, then, that the “testimony of the Spirit is not like the testimony of a witness in court speaking to what he did or did not see or hear. The Spirit’s testimony is non-verbal, more subtle, more in the nature of an influence on the soul than an audible voice or mystical writing. But, we must insist, how then does the Spirit’s witness reveal inerrancy?

If the advocates of this line of thought say that the Spirit confirms our own convictions when we read the Bible; if they say that He makes the Bible student sure that the Bible is what the Bible student feels that it is; then the Spirit does not communicate any new information which the Bible reader receives, but somehow intensifies his experiences as he meditates on Holy Writ. We are inclined to believe that the Holy Spirit does precisely that in the hearts of many. But we do not see that even if He does so that this proves the inspiration of the Bible. All we would now have is this: a man reads his Bible. His feelings are stirred as he reads. He senses, or thinks he senses, that there is some other spirit besides his own at work in his heart as he reads. He cannot be sure that there is another spirit. If he does believe it, he cannot know what spirit it is. Certainly, he has no way of knowing that it is the divine spirit. And, even if he did, all he knows is that the divine Spirit is working in his heart as he reads the Scriptures and not “testifying” or saying that this Scripture is the inerrant Word of God. If it is said, “But the Bible tells us that the Spirit bears witness and therefore it must be true and the Word to which He testifies must truly be God’s Word,” we are back where we began: accepting the testimony of the Scripture to itself without any (at present)
just reason for so doing.

In summary, we must reject the testimony of the Spirit as the basis of inerrancy (not, please note, the testimony of the Spirit) because, first, if His “testimony” is construed as audible or verbal, it simply does not exist; second, if His “testimony” is construed as a spiritual effect intensifying our feelings as we read Scripture, this is not a proving of the inspiration or inerrancy of Scripture.

It may be necessary to show that we are not here opposing the Westminster Confession of Faith’s view of things, but actually defending it. It teaches that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof (of the Scriptures) is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (I, 5). But these words teach only that the “testimony of the Holy Spirit” persuades us of the inspiration of the Bible. It does not prove the doctrine, but persuades us of the truth of the doctrine. It leads us to acknowledge the evidence for inspiration which, apart from the Holy Spirit’s influence, we (as sinful persons, cf. Chapter VI) are prone to resist. This evidence is utterly sufficient to persuade us if we were frank enough to admit evidence when we see it. Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith says in full: “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, not withstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (Chap. I, 5).

According to this great creed the various characteristics of the Bible “abundantly evidence” (prove) its inspiration,
but only the influence of the Holy Spirit (overcoming our sinful dispositions) can “persuade” us to acquiesce in what we clearly see is the Word of God.

The reader may notice a certain difference (not discrepancy) between the approach of the WCF here cited and that of this little monograph. The “arguments” to which Westminster appeals are internal evidences drawn from the nature (not testimony) of the Bible itself, such as its harmony, perfection, etc. That these, in their cumulative effect, are arguments we agree, and have so written elsewhere. We are bypassing them in this monograph only because they take longer to develop, involve more debates with modernity, and are not so directly conclusive as the argumentation developed in Part II. That the approach of this Primer was abundantly used by the Westminster divines and seventeenth century Orthodoxy in general could be extensively illustrated, were there any necessity to prove what no one questions.

To be continued…

Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.