The Foundational Implications of Biblical Inerrancy
Differing views of Scripture are a prime source of division in those nations historically following a Christian perspective. These nations would include Europe, the Americas, and former colonial outposts around the world. Nations with a European heritage were founded by people who believed, overwhelmingly, the Bible to be the word of God and, therefore, true and authoritative in all of its teachings.
Applying Scriptural authority to produce conformity is the normal way followed by those with confidence in the Bible. C. S. Lewis noted:
If I have read the New Testament aright, it leaves no room for ‘creativeness’ even in a modified or metaphorical sense. Our whole destiny seems to lie in the opposite direction, in being as little as possible ourselves, in acquiring a fragrance that is not our own but borrowed, in becoming clean mirrors filled with the image of a face that is not ours. (7)
Lewis’ view of the Scriptures’ transformative power produces conformity, not diversity. This attitude is what comes from a penitent heart: seeking to please God. As we each become more godly, we all will (in essential matters) become more alike. To the extent Western culture shared in this aspiration towards godliness, social unity followed.
Over time, however, immigration has brought a significant number of Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus into societies formerly united in a Judeo-Christian outlook. As these alien faiths proliferate, social division follows.
Division also comes in the increased secularism that dominates European society, along with American media and academia. To the nonbeliever, the biblical framework is archaic and unsuitable for serious consideration.
Even among believers, division comes from differing views of Scripture. Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Holiness-Pentecostal, and Mormons (for example) believe the Bible to be true and yet believe its message to need additional authority to be properly applied. Liberal Protestants believe the Bible to be a construct of human ingenuity, and, therefore, not authoritative in any absolute sense.
Even among religious fellowships formerly accepting Scripture as wholly true and altogether sufficient, there has come division as some now doubt the complete truthfulness, the inerrancy, of the Bible and, therefore, look to other authorities in religion.
What Churches of Christ are going through today mirrors the crisis faced by religious groups in the middle of the nineteenth century. In those days, the philosophical theories of Immanuel Kant were applied to religious studies, especially by German theologians such as Friedrich Schleiermacher. Their approach was to adapt religious thought to secular academic fads.
After the American Civil War, these new theories came to America, popularized by the universities of the Northeast and Midwest. Every major religious group was affected but none as much nor as quickly as the Disciples of Christ.
David Lipscomb described this situation writing in the Gospel Advocate (Jan. 23, 1884):
Nothing indicates the wide departure from the landmarks of truth more clearly, that is taking place among those who started out to restore the ancient order, than the loose views put forth by some of the accredited teachers among them in reference to the authority of God. These show that the old standards have been set aside and new ones adopted. (49)
The foundational aspect of Scripture is evident, because changing one’s view of Scripture, changes the very essence of one’s faith.
The Truth of Scripture
The doctrine of inerrancy rests upon confidence in the divine origin of Scripture. If the Bible is the word of God, it is free from error. God does not lie, nor does He make mistakes. It is just that simple.
What one believes about the integrity of Scripture speaks volumes about one’s faith in God’s honesty and in God’s ability. Upholding the complete truthfulness of Scripture keeps faith with God who speaks through Scripture. Abandoning faith in Scripture breaks faith with the God of Scripture.
Inerrancy and the Authority of Scripture
“The inerrancy debate about whether we should treat all Bible teaching as true and right,” J. I. Packer rightly notes, “is really about how far we can regard Scripture as authoritative” (14). Confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture and submission to the authority of Scripture spring from a common source. Belief in the divine origin of the Bible leads one to accept the Bible as both utterly true and totally authoritative. If God has spoken, it makes all the difference in the world.
The authority of Scripture is the practical application of the Lordship of Christ. Jesus frames the question simply, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46, ESV). Those holding fast to their faith will submit to the authority of Scripture. Those who are embracing a different religion will introduce other sources of authority to justify their lack of faith and their resulting lack of faithfulness.
Shrinking the Bible to Fit Reduced Faith in God
Dispensing with the Bible’s authority requires dispensing with the Bible’s truth for “the privilege of knowing God’s truth with certainty and precision carries with it the responsibility of obeying that truth with equal precision. Christianity is no armchair faith, but a call to action” (Packer 29). Removing the clarity of the command reduces the precision of the obedience expected. Obscure the command altogether, and there is nothing left to obey.
Often, before full-scale disbelief is honestly admitted, divergent teachings will undercut submission to the authority of Scripture and marginalize confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture. God’s word is reduced in importance through a changed view of the sufficiency of Scripture, and through a changed view of the accessibility of Scripture. This agenda distances God’s word from God’s people.
Dilution of biblical authority with secular additions often produces an apostasy of attrition. Submitting to a single inerrant authority leads people towards a united vision of whom they are and what God expects them to do. The framework of disbelief, however, seeks authority from a wide range of secular disciplines. When these are embraced, divergent ideas continually reshape religion to suit current trends. Rather than following the New Testament pattern for the church, these secular ideas fit religion into the kaleidoscopic pattern of the world.
Sometimes God’s authority is denigrated by an undermining of confidence that most Christians can read the Bible with understanding. Limiting the accessibility of Scripture, by definition, limits its authority in the lives of individuals. If reading and interpreting Scripture is reserved for an academic elite, members of this elite are free to innovate a religion that suits their fancy.
One may dismiss with biblical authority just as easily by obscuring its message behind a fog of uncertainty as by denying its truth outright. Ambiguity, in point of fact, is a more effective means of destroying biblical authority; rather than fighting against truth with counterclaims, it rejects the possibility of knowable truth and therein nullifies the authority of Scripture.
What is at Stake
The distinctive nature of Western civilization rests on a faith in God Who speaks to us through Scripture. If we lose this conviction, we will have lost everything. Without confidence in the truth and authority of the Bible, our faith will collapse into a false and self-serving construction of our own creation. We will lose not only religious values, but all the social good that spring from these values.
To collapse truth into personal belief (subjectivism), with the corollary adoption of relativism, has spelled death for the respectability and authority of philosophical reasoning; the critical examination of ourselves and of what we believe is hardly relevant or important unless objective truth and objective values are attainable. (Bahnsen 283)
Pluralism, the assumption that one’s understanding of the truth is not “the” understanding of the truth, is a collapsing of truth into personal belief. And this assumption of subjectivity initiates the divergences unraveling the fabric of our culture.
Longings for freedom from restrictions, from the dead hand of the past, from disliked pressures, obligations, systems, and what not, are for many people the strongest of life’s driving forces. Freedom—“getting out from under” as we say—has become modern man’s obsession. And freedom is always seen as involving rejection of authority. Authority is equated with fixed limits, freedom with cutting loose from all that. Hence the crisis of authority which marks our time. (Packer 12)
Diversity is the inescapable result of a scaling down of God’s authority presented in Scripture, both in society as a whole and, as Packer notes, in religion:
Third, we should note that biblical skepticism, even in small doses, has effects that reach farther than career academics in their ivory towers sometimes see. In principle, it marks abandonment of the axiom that what Scripture says, God says. Once that happens—once, that is, you give up the New Testament view of biblical inspiration—there is no limit on how far you will go in rejecting or relativizing biblical assertions. There is no limit apart from your own arbitrary will. Protestantism’s current confusion is largely due to the way its teachers have fanned out at this point, producing as many different sub-biblical theologies as there have been thinkers to devise them. (48)
Among Churches of Christ, there is no wonder that the reduction of confidence in the objective authority of Scripture has been followed by doctrinal deviance of every sort.
This deviance is showcased by Jeff W. Childers, Douglas A. Foster, and Jack R. Reese, in their book The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of the Churches of Christ. Having rejected the objective authority of Scripture, these Professors at Abilene Christian University maintain that God is speaking through the flow of history and, in particular, through the traditions of religious fellowships.
This historicism was an incontestable outgrowth of adulterating objective biblical authority. Herbert Schlossberg describes the same process at work in Western culture:
Passively accepting domination by the outside culture is probably related to an implicit historicism into which the church intellectuals have fallen. The historicist mentality finds it difficult to consider the possibility that a dominant trend may be evil, and thus stands ready to embrace anything that will confer contemporaneity on itself. (237)
The world calls the tune and subjective theologians dance, claiming all the while the process is an outwork of a deified historic process.
This mystical revelation through history smudges providence into revelation:
We are at this place and time partly because God has brought us here and some of the momentum we feel is the benevolent guidance of his hand reaching out to us through our ancestors in the faith. The goal is to recognize and appreciate God’s work among us in the past, building on that momentum, while also 1) identifying points at which we have not been faithful and allowing God to reform us, and 2) adapting where appropriate to face the future faithfully but flexibly. It is crucial we understand that history is the incarnation of God’s work. (Childers, Foster, and Reese 63)
Feel the momentum—a subjective authority producing flexible fidelity. History: “the incarnation of God’s work.”
Rather than discerning God’s objective will in Scripture, Childers, Foster, and Reese call Christians to obey the subjective dictates of history. “Knowing our story,” they enjoin, “is a matter of spiritual formation” (76). Perceiving history is perceiving God: “God’s continued activity in our midst moves us to tell the ongoing story of what he has done since the time of Jesus, just as we hope to pass on to the next generation some sense of how God has worked among us in our own time” (75).
In bowing their knee to the Muse of History, they redefine the mission of the church:
Church leaders will do well to find creative and engaging ways to explore, rehearse, and appropriate the stories of their churches. They can design classes that teach the story of God’s people since Bible times, including the stories of the Restoration Movement and the more local history of their own congregation. (76)
Packer was right. Even the slightest diminishing of Scripture’s authority opens the door for strange distortions.
By deifying the historical process, the facts of history receive prescriptive value. The facts (what did happen) are made the source of authority (what ought to happen). “Thus, by the alchemy of historicism, fact is turned into value” (Schlossberg 14). This subjective process is inherently unstable and cannot help but shift into something else. This fluctuation removes the possibility of any law permanently regulating behavior. Any government, church, or family structured around such a system is bound for chaos. “The disastrous quality in this confusion of fact and value is that it is utterly relativistic; as the facts of history change, values, and consequently laws, will have to change with them” (14).
The historicism presented in The Crux of the Matter adopts the presumption’s dismissal of anyone seeking to go against the trends of the present. “But one thing is for sure,” they write, “we can’t go back. We can’t resurrect the Fifties. We are living now” (Childers, Foster and Reese 51). Schlossberg identifies just this attitude as a hallmark of worshipping history instead of God:
One of the most common [popular statements of historicism] is the saying, “We can’t turn back the clock.” The progressive connotations of this saying are wholly illusory. It actually looks back and says that the trend of which the present moment is only the most visible manifestation is the inevitable one, that anyone who disagrees with it is trying to squeeze the whole world into a time machine and return to an earlier era. But in refusing to believe that an identified historical trend may be challenged, the historicists have divinized history. In any given case, they have absolutized this trend and thereby put history’s seal of approval on this status quo, one, no doubt, that is moving their way. (15)
Does God speak sovereignly through history or through Scripture? The answer will make a world of difference in practice.
But, doesn’t God work in history? “We are the expression today of what God has been doing through his Son’s body for some time” (Childers, Foster and Reese 66). C. S. Lewis answered this historicist objection ably:
If, by one miracle, the total content of time were spread out before me, and if, by another, I were able to hold all that infinity of events in my mind and if, by a third, God were pleased to comment on it so that I could understand it, then, to be sure, I could do what the Historicist says he is doing. I could read the meaning, discern the pattern. Yes; and if the sky fell, we should all catch larks. (104)
Indeed, even if someday God will provide a complete disclosure of the meaning of history, in this life Christians should seek God’s guidance in the text of Scripture where God has clearly spoken.
Incorporating the dual authority of Scripture and Tradition, these Professors are certainly espousing a different religion from that which is drawn Sola Scriptura, however much or little they may agree with biblical Christianity in particular practices.
This hermeneutic is not peculiar to these Professors; they are merely appropriating the methods current in the religious world. As Packer describes it:
The exponents of this “new hermeneutic,” as it has been called, see interpretation as the task of so explicating the biblical verbal matrix by historical exegesis and so manipulating it in sermons as to promote in folk at the receiving end the same sort of subjective events that first produced it. (93)
The religious practice produced by this method has no necessary connection to the faith described in the Bible. Whatever the effect is today, however, there is no assurance of the effect tomorrow. Autonomous humanism leads down a path that will suffer the same after-effects that plagued Revivalism in the nineteenth century, for as Warfield noted: “In propagating these revivals everything was bent to the production of the excited state of feeling that was aimed at, and all ordinary Christian duties were in abeyance—absorbed in the one duty of exaltation of feeling” (25).
In contrast to this arrogant humanism, Christians need to cultivate a repentance back to God’s will as revealed eternally in His written word. Only by looking to God in Scripture can we recover true spiritual power and a foundation providing answers to the questions plaguing our lost world.
Gregory Alan Tidwell serves as Editor of Gospel Advocate, the fifth longest running publication in the U. S. He is a graduate of Lipscomb University (BA), and Vanderbilt University (MA). He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Bahnsen, Greg L. Van Til’s Apologetic: Readings and Analysis. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1998.
Childers, Jeff W., Douglas A. Foster, and Jack R. Reese. The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of the Churches of Christ. Abilene: ACU P, 2001.
Lewis, C. S. Christian Reflections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967.
Packer, J. I. Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life. Wheaton: Shaw, 1996.
Schlossberg, Herbert. Idols for Destruction: Christian Faith and Its Confrontation with American Society. Nashville: Nelson, 1983.
Warfield, Benjamin Breckinridge. Studies in Perfectionism. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1958.