A Primer on Inerrancy (pt. 8)

from May 02, 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 eighth and final part of the series. Dr. Gerstner has looked at both unsound and sound bases for sound doctrine. And now he is answering a couple of objections to inerrancy.

Continued from Part 7

Objections Allegedly Arising from Science

It is objected to the inerrancy doctrine that the Bible has many errors traceable to the inadequacy of the knowledge of the period during which the Bible was written. This is a major reason for setting aside the Westminster Confession by the drafters of “The Confession of 1967,” as may be seen in the Appendix. It is added that these errors do not invalidate the message of the Bible, but merely disprove its inerrancy and inspiration. Adherents of infallibility, it says, are forced into all sorts of unscholarly and obscurantist positions in their necessary defense of the Bible versus the findings of modern science. Admitting the mere humanness of the Bible, and seeking the Word of God elsewhere than in its pages, are presented as truly scientific and, at the same time, truly spiritual.

To this we reply, first, this position overlooks the two kinds of authority in an infallible Bible. There is what is called “historical authority” and “normative authority” (which is discussed more fully in the Appendix). Historical authority applies to every word of an inerrant Bible, and tells us simply that whatever the Bible says was said or done was indeed said or done. Such information does not tell us whether what was said and done ought to have been said or ought to have been done. Only the normative authority of the inerrant Bible answers that question. For a fuller discussion of this difference see the Appendix. Its relevance to the point under question is important. It teaches us that Bible writers themselves may have been laboring under erroneous impressions without this being normative instruction for us. Suppose they did think of a three-storied universe, which was the common opinion in their day, the Bible does not err unless it teaches such as a divine revelation of truth. In fact, by showing that the writers may have personally entertained ideas now antiquated it reveals its own historical authenticity without its normative authenticity suffering.

Second, sometimes the difference between popular and technical or pedantic language is overlooked. “At sunset, Isaac went out to meditate” (Genesis 24:63) does not mean that the Bible teaches the Ptolemaic astronomy. It is not pedantically teaching that the sun rotates about the earth so that there is a literal “sunset.” This was and is a common way of speaking and does not necessarily reflect the thinking of those who use such language. Someone has said that if the Bible were to be scientifically exact it would have read: “when the rotation of the solar luminary on its axis was such that its rays impinged horizontally on the retina, Isaac went out to meditate.” I once lived in “Sunset Hills,” and not one adult in the community believed that the sun ever sets. Likewise the “sun’s standing still” (Joshua 10:12) would be the way things would appear, not necessarily the way they would be. While we are referring to this miracle let us add another observation dealing with another criticism. Some object to the accuracy of this particular miracle, arguing that if the sun did appear stationary for so long a period the whole universe would have been thrown out of order in one way and another. The objection is puerile. If God is able to do as much as the narrative relates it would be no more difficult to take care of all the attendant details! For the Creator, any manipulation of the creation whatsoever would be infinitely easy—but it seems infinitely difficult for some to see this.

Third, much unnecessary strain is caused by the hasty judgments of the Bible’s friends and foes alike. We cannot examine at all thoroughly all the problems growing out of the creation narrative (Genesis 1–3), for example; but this general statement is true, we believe: If every Bible scholar were careful not to read anything out of the Scripture teachings except what it indubitably teaches, and natural scientists were equally careful to claim nothing as scientifically established but what is indubitably true, the tensions between science and Scripture would be reduced to a negligible minimum. For example, the Bible does not teach that God created the world in 4004 B.C. As Gordon Clark has written, “We defend the inspiration of the Bible, not of Archbishop Ussher.”

These are merely a few samples of a few types of objections to the doctrine of inerrancy. There are many more types and there are many more answers. But this would seem to be a sufficient sampling for our purposes. A select and recommended bibliography may be found appended which will serve for further and more extensive investigation. In closing we should like to say only this: in the case of alleged discrepancies, it is not our burden to show how these may be reconciled as we have done above out of the “goodness of our hearts” and not the exigencies of our situation. We have given a case for the inerrancy of the Bible. Unless this case can be shown to be false, then it carries with it the guarantee that there are no discrepancies. We have, in other words, if our case is sound, shown that discrepancies are only apparent and must be reconcilable, even if we say not one word about how this reconciliation is to be shown. It behooves the opponent to prove us wrong by showing his “discrepancies” to be discrepancies incapable of harmonization. We have every reason to anticipate that he can succeed in so doing no better in the future than he has in the past because the Bible, we believe, is the inerrant Word of God.

Objections Arising from an Alleged “Docetism”

A very modern theological objection to inerrancy is an implied “Docetism.” Docetism refers to an early heresy denying the genuineness of Christ’s humanity. It maintained that Christ merely appeared (dokein) to be human. Inerrancy does essentially the same thing to the Bible, it is said, that the docetists did to Christ namely, deny its genuine humanness. “To err is human” and to be human is to err. If the Bible has no error it could not really have been written by men. Thus the human authors of the Bible, according to inerrancy, it is charged, only appear to have written the Bible. In brief, the argument runs thus:

  1. Inerrancy teaches that the Bible authors could not err.
  2. But humans can err.
  3. Therefore, inerrancy implicitly teaches that the authors of the Bible were not human.

However, in this neat little syllogism they have neglected to observe a crucial part of the picture. Perhaps it will be clearest if we insert it where it belongs in the otherwise consistent syllogism:

  1. Inerrancy teaches that the Bible authors could not err.
  2. But humans can err (unless the omnipotent God preserves them from error without destroying their humanity). 
  3. Therefore inerrancy implicitly teaches that the authors of the Bible were human (but we deny merely that their sinful erring tendencies were in operation during the writing of Holy Scripture).

Some may think that we here deny a principle we have defended above. There we said that God could not force the will of man without destroying man as man. Here we say that God can suspend the operation of human sinfulness without destroying the humanity of the persons concerned. The difference is this: freedom is essential to the nature of man but sinfulness is not. Remove freedom and man ceases to be; remove sinfulness and he does not cease to be a man (in fact, he is only perfectly human without sin).

Furthermore, there is a rather interesting inconsistency among most of our critics. While they deny that the Bible writers can be truly human while writing without error, they will not deny that Jesus could be truly human while living without error or even sin of any kind.

This criticism has the value of calling even greater attention to inerrancy’s insistence on the genuineness and indispensable importance of human participation in the writing of Scripture. While God’s part has been insisted on throughout this and most literature on the inspiration of the Bible, this is because it is so often challenged and is of such infinite importance. Sometimes in this stress on the divine, the human is, we regret to say, overlooked. Finally, some critics appear who claim that we deny the human role altogether. This calls forth our reiteration that the Bible is no less the word of man than it is the Word of God. But it is the word of men inspired by God. The Bible, then, is the Word of God expressed in the inspired words of men.

Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.