Back on the Table Again

Martin Downes has been blogging the renewed controversy over the inerrancy of God’s Word. This is a discussion that many have not wanted to have for a long time.

When I started seminary in 1984 the sounds of the last “Battle for the Bible” were still ringing in everyone’s ears. We could still smell the sulfur from the battlefield. Occasional shots were still being fired as the “cease fire” message circulated slowly around the evangelical academy. The last shot might have been the 1988 WTS/P faculty volume, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic That book generated a minor reaction in some quarters. Today, however, that volume would be considered positively reactionary.

Over the last twenty years the word has been, “That’s not the issue any more.” To be sure, as a matter of sociology, that’s true. There were other issues to face such as the nature of doctrine (from where does it come?), issues in the doctrine of God such as open theism and social trinitarianism (this one doesn’t seem to be getting any traction, however), and issues in soteriology such as justification. So, for the last twenty years the doctrine of Scripture hasn’t been front and center.

So long as it’s called Modernity (and it’s still late or liquid Modernity) the doctrine of Scripture is bound to be a problem. By Modernity I mean the assertion that man is the measure of all things, the assertion of human autonomy relative to all other authorities, the universal brotherhood of man, the universal fatherhood of God, and the doctrine of human perfectibility. In contrast, we Christians believe that God is and that he the ultimate authority and that he speaks. Indeed, the Apostle John identifies God the Son with revelation: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” We believe that he has spoken to us in a canonical, written revelation: the Bible. We believe that this revelation has intrinsic authority, that it is the norm that controls all other authorities, even the church. We believe that it is objectively true and authoritative. Our experience of the text does not make it authoritative or true. It doesn’t become true for us under certain circumstances. We believe that it is true whether we confess it to be true or not. Its authority is completely bound up with its truthfulness and reliability and both are, ultimately, beyond our competence to judge.

This was never going to be a state of affairs that Modernity would tolerate. Modernity, whether in its early objectivist, rationalist, empiricist phase or in its late, subjectivist, mystical, irratationalist phase, would never tolerate authority located outside the self. In all its phases Modernity has always and consistently located authority within the self. Scripture is not the self. It comes to the self. It judges the self. It norms the self. The self must submit to it, even when the self does not fully understand it or when the self cannot fully reconcile every single letter to every other single letter or when Scripture refuses to meet our burdens of proof and our canons of evidence.

In other words, the controversy over Scripture is back but it never left. Scripture is an ancient book written in three languages, in multiple settings, from 1500 BC to 94 AD. It is very human but, like Jesus who is also very human, it is not fallible. It cannot make mistakes because it is God’s Word. Neither does it make mistakes. It is divine and it is inerrant. Scripture did not originate with us humans. It came through us humans but it didn’t begin with us. It is truly human inasmuch as it breathes various human personalities. The Hebrew style of the Pentateuch is not that of the psalms (and it probably varies within the psalter). The Greek of John is not the Greek of 2 Peter. The theology of Paul harmonizes with John’s theology but they are not identical. Scripture is a symphony conducted by God the Spirit who breathed it out in time, space, and history.

As we watch the unfolding of the latest contest over a divinely authorized, inspired, inerrant, and infallible revelation in a culture that rejects the very possibility of such a thing, the way it plays out will likely, in human terms, be determined by the stance that one takes to Modernity. The children of Carl Henry and Billy Graham are tired of the tension with Modernity. They dislike being on the outside looking in. The condescension of the Modernist academy that, “She’s a good scholar, for an evangelical” wears on them. The children of the neo-evangelicals are suing for peace. Just as the scandal of the cross is too much for some in the emergent village, so also the scandal of inerrancy is too much for the post-conservatives. They want to have Scripture and judge it (just a little) too.

Two more points. First, it’s evident from the latest round of books from those who would loose the bonds of Warfield with which we are allegedly tied haven’t really read him or at least not well. I remember reading an essay by a prominent evangelical NT scholar in which he was quite critical of Warfield. In a subsequent issue someone wrote to complain about the treatment that Warfield had received and the author, as I recall, conceded that well, he hadn’t actually read much Warfield. Indeed. Does anyone read Stonehouse anymore? William Henry Green?

Second, that we’re even having this discussion is prima facie evidence that modernity isn’t really dead and that it isn’t the inerrantists who are the Modernists. Those who hold inerrancy are being accused of being crypto-Modernists. Really? If one bothers to read the better literature from the last battle for the Bible it’s pretty clear that Warfield didn’t invent the doctrine of inerrancy any more than Athanasius invented the doctrine of the Trinity. Who is sitting in judgment (just a little) over Scripture and who is taking Scripture on its own terms? Who accepts the essential perspicuity of Scripture and who has called perspicuity into question via various forms of subjectivism?

It was of the essence of pre-modern Christianity to begin with unquestioned, extrinsic authority. The medieval church gradually located that authority in the church. The patristic and Reformation churches located that authority in the Word of God written. The patristic, medieval, and Reformation churches all regarded the Word of God written as the absolutely authoritative and its truthfulness and infallibility beyond question. Only in Modernity did we relocate authority to the self and from that Archimedean point begin to try to lever the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

In the current discussion who is levering Scripture with some other authority or canon? The Warfieldians or the Briggsians?

UPDATE 23 May: Carl seems to agree that the “Battle for the Bible” is on again.

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Excellently worded. I picked up Berkhof this weekend and read the first third of his prolegomena on while stranded in the airport. It was interesting to juxtapose the modernists or subjectivists as Berkof calls them: Ritchl, Troeltsch, Schleiermacher, and Kant against the Emergent Church folk who want to throw off the yoke of modernity, yet they sound just like the denizens of Modernism. (Odd ain’t it?)

    At the end of Enns’ rejoinder against Beal in JETS, he concluded with a hope that the battle for the Bible wasn’t on its way back. I think what we who hold to inerrancy and Scripture as the objective source of theology forgot is that it never ends, and that while we slept on this one Mordor was being rebuilt and being filled with hordes hoping to overwhelm Gondor…ok enough with the LOTR imagery (but it fits quite well).

  2. Scott
    I addressed this in the editors introduction to our forthcoming book from Crossway, ‘ Reforming or Conforming?’ What should not come as any surprise to those familiar with the debates over the subject at the turn of the 20th. century, is the remarkable degree to which the new highly sophisticated post-con ‘Evangelical’ critics of inerrancy parrot Briggs-right down the line.

  3. Hi Gary,

    I’ve appreciated your work on Briggs and should have given you credit for alerting me to his importance. I was thinking of your work in the last line.

    Looking forward to the publication of the book!

  4. Scott:

    Amen and amen! Frankly I am tired of having to fight battles we have already won. But if fight we must, then so be it! I came to faith as the last battle for the Bible was winding down and I read much of the literature back then (early 80s) and it appears I have to go back and reread the sources. Warfield is must reading, and after some of the clap trap getting published out there, Warfield is a fresh tonic. Also, Woodbridge is a good antidote to this resurrection of the Rogers-McKim thesis.

    Hey, I have a new question for candidates for licensure and ordination: do you believe God spoke to Balaam by means of his donkey?

  5. Like Bavinck said:

    “If Christian revelation, which presupposes the darkness and error of unspiritual humanity, submitted in advance to the judgments of reason, it would by that token contradict itself. It would thereby place itself before a tribunal whose jurisdiction it had first denied. And having once recognized the authority of reason on the level of first principles, it could no longer oppose that authority in the articles of faith.”

  6. “They want to have Scripture and judge it (just a little) too.”

    Scott, first, thanks for setting up the “us vs. them” dichotomy here. I feel really loved by you, brother 😉 (Forgive my sarcasm, but I figure if you can dish it out, you can take it as well.)

    Second, I’m wondering who in the world you think *doesn’t* “judge” Scripture “just a little” (or perhaps a LOT)? Isn’t this part of what postmodernity has helped us unveil? our own cultural captivity? None of us sees/reads/interprets Scripture with perfect clarity. We’re all “judging” Scripture, so please don’t peg that one on the “emergents” and the “post-conservatives.”

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