Christians must defend inerrancy or watch the church die.
-Dr Ligon Duncan talks to Peter Hastie-
J . Ligon Duncan III is the senior minister of First Presbyterian Church, Jackson, Mississippi and the chancellor of Reformed Theological Seminary with campuses throughout the USA in Jackson, Orlando, Charlotte, Washington, Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis. He is a minister of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), which has more than 1500 churches and missions throughout the USA and Canada, and a membership of about 350,000.
Dr Duncan is also president of both the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
A Greenville, South Carolina, native, Dr Duncan is a graduate of Furman University, Covenant Theological Seminary and was awarded a PhD in Ecclesiastical History and Systematic Theology at the University of Edinburgh, New College, Scotland in 1995.
He has written many articles, edited several collections, and was a joint author and editor of Give Praise to God: A Vision for Reforming Worship-A Celebration of the Legacy of James Montgomery Boice (with Phillip Graham Ryken and Derek W.H. Thomas) and is editor and contributor of The Westminster Confession in the 21st Century, volumes 1-3.
The interview was conducted by the Rev. Peter Hastie, principal of the Presbyterian Theological College, Victoria.
Ligon, what do we mean by the term ‘inerrancy’?
The doctrine of biblical inerrancy asserts that the Bible is true in all that it affirms. This means that whatever the Bible affirms, whether it is making empirical claims about the world or spiritual statements, is true. Therefore, the authority of Scripture is not simply limited to its spiritual or redemptivehistorical statements, but extends to every affirmation of Scripture so that whatever it teaches, whether in the realm of history, science or faith, is without error in the original manuscripts.
When people talk about complete inerrancy as opposed to limited inerrancy, what exactly do they mean?
Complete inerrancy refers to the truthfulness of the Bible’s statements in whatever it affirms. On the other hand, those who want to restrict the Bible’s reliability to its spiritual and salvific statements prefer the term, limited inerrancy. Of course, the term limited inerrancy is really a self-contradiction. The Bible is either inerrant, or it’s not. The idea of limited inerrancy is really illogical.
Does inerrancy relate to the words of the Bible text or just its concepts?
We need to understand that the doctrine of inerrancy is a logical consequence of the plenary, verbal inspiration of the Bible. The doctrine of inspiration says that God has inspired the words, not merely the thoughts of the writer, and therefore inerrancy extends to those words. The very significance of the term inerrancy, if you’re going to distinguish it from infallibility, is that inerrancy is something that applies to the text. I occasionally hear some evangelicals say, “I believe the Bible is inerrant as to the source”. Well, of course, God is inerrant. However, what the doctrine of inerrancy affirms is that the words that God has spoken are without error.
Is there any biblical basis for the doctrine of inerrancy?
Yes, there is, and you see it especially in Jesus’ treatment of the Old Testament. He believed that the Scriptures are inerrant. Jesus says things like, ‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ (John 10:35). He also quotes passages of Scripture and makes arguments that are dependent on the tense of the verbs in those passages (see Luke 20:37, 38).
The Bible is inerrant because it is inspired. It comes from the God of truth, and is, therefore, consistent with His nature.
Paul takes an identical approach to inerrancy when he says that all/every Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). In this instance he makes an argument about the nature of every part of Scripture – that it’s Godbreathed, and therefore absolutely truthful and trustworthy. The logic of the inerrancy position is as follows: The Bible is not inspired because it is inerrant; it is inerrant because it is inspired. It comes from the God of truth, and is, therefore, consistent with His nature.
So the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is predicated upon the doctrine of inspiration. Inerrancy is a doctrine that is not only explicitly stated in assertions like, “Your word is truth” (John 17:17), but it is also deduced from such doctrines as revelation and inspiration which must be interpreted in view of the fact that God is a God of truth.
Some people claim that the term “inerrancy” is actually an artificial, American invention. Do they have a point?
No, I don’t think so. First, I would certainly admit that the term inerrancy became popular in America in the late 19th century in the debates over the authority of Scripture during the Warfield/Briggs controversy. However, if you look at the Oxford English dictionary and its usage of the term as well as that of the allied term, “infallibility”, you will notice that the words were regarded as synonymous from at least the 16th century. And if anything, infallibility is an even more expansive claim than inerrancy. Theologians were making explicit claims for the infallibility of Scripture from the time of the magisterial Reformation to the Protestant orthodox period immediately after the Reformation, and this was three centuries before Hodge and Warfield ever came on the scene. So the idea that inerrancy is a recent American invention, or came from Princeton Theological Seminary, or is the product of 19th century rationalism, ignores 300 years of settled Reformed history and confessional commitments.
If you examine the Westminster Confession of Faith, you will find that the entire perfection of the Scriptures is explicitly predicated in the very first chapter. When we affirm the doctrine of inerrancy we are merely giving a verbal affirmation of what is already set forth in the Confession of Faith. So the idea that inerrancy is a recent American idea simply ignores historical theology
So what is the importance of inerrancy for us as individuals and as a church?
Well, the importance of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is that it is methodologically essential to the health and ministry of the church. This is not a “slippery slope” argument; it’s an empirical, historically proven fact. One of the lessons of history is that wherever a church adopts a low view of Scripture it is either in the process of dying or, is in fact, dead. Churches that are thriving spiritually are churches that believe that Scripture is absolutely trustworthy and true.
The last century of church history confirms this. Wherever churches in the Protestant world have identified with theological liberalism they have diminished in size or are dying. I can’t think of a Protestant church anywhere in the world that has embraced an antiinerrancy view that is thriving right now – they just don’t exist in the English-speaking world.
There is another issue in relation to inerrancy that is of vital importance too. What many people don’t realise is that behind your doctrine of Scripture is your doctrine of God. If you have a low view of God you will have a correspondingly low view of Scripture.
Of course, the converse is true as well: a low view of Scripture will inevitably give rise to a low view of God and Christianity cannot long survive when it abandons a high view of God. So our supernaturalism and our commitment to the doctrine of God are very much tied to our fidelity to Scripture.
Some people claim that they believe in the doctrine of Scriptural infallibility but understand it to mean only that the Scriptures will infallibly lead us to faith in Christ; they do not believe that the doctrine of infallibility guarantees the truth content of the Bible. Are they right? Does the doctrine of infallibility mean something different from inerrancy?
It depends on who is using the term. It’s true that in the last 50 years there have been some evangelicals who have tried to use the term infallibility as a halfway house between a forthright affirmation of biblical inerrancy and the questions that are raised by critics with regard to Scripture. They try to use infallibility as a limiting term – in much the same way as limited inerrancy is used.
So, for them, the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and practice, but it’s not necessarily infallible in all that it affirms. Of course, there is a problem with this kind of word-play because the word infallible was never used historically in this way in the Reformed, Protestant tradition.
The truth is that the word infallibility has been used just as comprehensively as – if not more than – the term inerrancy. Here, I think, John Frame helps us in his recent book on the doctrine of God, where he addresses those who want to use infallibility as a concept of something less than Biblical inerrancy. Frame argues, “Well, actually, if you’re going to look at the words, infallibility makes an even more comprehensive claim than inerrancy”. So infallibility is a really good word as long as we don’t let people play semantic games with it, and downgrade what it affirms.
Is the present challenge to inerrancy something new? Or has it been going on throughout history in the church?
First, some of the arguments used against biblical inerrancy are ancient despite the fact that they are peddled around as though they have just been discovered. Celsus, one of the earliest pagan critics of Christianity, raised some of the same alleged errors in the Bible that modern scholars do. I find it almost amusing that well-trained, liberal, critical scholars dish out arguments that are literally 1600 years old, and then present them as if they’re something brand new that should make us change our doctrine of Scripture.
However, there are other kinds of arguments that are used against biblical inerrancy today that come from the period of the early to late Enlightenment. You can go back all the way to someone like Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and then work forward and you will find that many of the same assertions are made against biblical inerrancy today.
For instance, you and I live in a time when one hot button topic is the historicity of Adam and Eve. Did you realise that you can go back to Schleiermacher and then work your way through all the 19th century until you come to Barth in the 20th century and discover a consistent pattern of denying the historicity of Adam and Eve? Today that has taken on a new emphasis, but it is not a new attack on biblical inerrancy. It comes today with the new influence of Ancient NearEastern and scientific DNA arguments, but arguments have been made against the historicity of Adam and Eve for over 200 years. So many of the arguments we encounter today have more than two centuries of precursors in Christian discussion. The nice thing about that is, our best theological thinkers in the evangelical world have had to work through most of the problems that we’re working through now. We can actually benefit from their good work.
What have been the major crises in the church with respect to the Scripture in more recent times? And what were the issues?
Of course in the 19th century in Britain, America, and Australia, Presbyterian bodies in particular suffered significant theological divisions related to sustained attacks on a high view of Scripture. So in Scotland from the mid to late 19th century, with figures such as Samuel Davidson, William Robertson Smith and Marcus Dods, there was significant theological controversy taking place when these scholars tried to introduce German higher-critical thought into the divinity schools of Scotland.
The same thing happened in the United States, when Charles Briggs from Union Theological Seminary challenged the doctrine of inerrancy and was met by his orthodox opponent, B.B. Warfield. We see that continuing until the early 20th century when the book The Fundamentals was published – in part in response to the encroaching liberalism in main-line conservative Protestantism.
Then in Australia you have echoes of these things as well, because some of the teachers that came to Australia were influenced by Robertson Smith, Dods, and others, and so all of us in the English-speaking world found that we were in this same theological conversation. It resulted in controversies, and sometimes splits, in our churches. Our heritage is actually very similar.
Have there been any important lessons from the last 100 years in how we should respond to these crises?
The first lesson is that defending the doctrine of Scripture is costly and demands great courage. Let’s face it: it’s painful to engage in polemics especially when many of those who hold a low view of Scripture and with whom we have to disagree are incredibly nice, cultured and intelligent people. Some of them are influential, charismatic and persuasive individuals. So it is very costly for orthodox theologians to engage and condemn the views of such people. We have been despised for doing so. Nevertheless, it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is absolutely necessary for the health and survival of the church. This is so because wherever low views of Scripture have prevailed, the church has died. And wherever those views did not prevail, the church has continued to be a faithful gospel witness. So there’s a connection: you can’t have a gospel without having an inerrant Scripture as the foundation. The gospel, if it’s to have ultimate authority, must be based on a trustworthy foundation.
“Some of the arguments used against biblical inerrancy are ancient despite being peddled around as though they have just been discovered.”
There have been evangelicals who go to the half-way house, and they say, “We’ll preach the gospel, but we don’t have to draw a line in the sand on Scripture; we can have a little bit of error without sinking the ship. Indeed, it’s okay to have diversity in our views of whether the Bible is inerrant or not. What we’ve got to hang on to is the central message of the gospel and the importance of evangelism”. Well, the verdict of history is in on that score: you can’t maintain the gospel and the mission of the church with an untrustworthy Bible. A Bible with errors does sink the ship. Where inerrancy is denied, an authoritative Scripture is undermined, and then the gospel, and the church’s mission of evangelism, is destroyed.
What is happening now in relationship to the controversy of inerrancy, especially among evangelicals? For example, there’s been a division in the Evangelical Theological Society. What’s going on?
You’re right. There has been division in the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). I was there when it happened. Dr Roger Nicole brought charges against Clark Pinnock and others for their failure to uphold the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy.
It happened, interestingly, due to claims by open theists that God does not know the future with certainty (as they allege). Thus, they reasoned, it’s possible that some biblical prophecy may be incorrect. However, Roger Nicole (very logically) pointed out that it is inconsistent to claim to be an inerrantist and also believe that biblical prophecy may be wrong. And he called for Pinnock’s expulsion from the ETS.
There was a great division in the ETS over how to deal with this issue, and some wanted the society to have theological diversity so that it could be more of a conversation place. However, there were also others who wanted it to be faithful to its very minimal theological affirmation. All it entailed was belief in the Trinity and inerrancy, and beyond that there wasn’t much more to the statement of faith that you had to sign. It’s now clear that the division that appeared in the Clark Pinnock case still exists within the ETS and that there are many within the society who no longer share the conviction of its founders about the importance of biblical inerrancy.
Now, in God’s kindness, this year’s ETS meeting in Baltimore is devoted to the topic of biblical inerrancy. I will be giving a plenary presentation and I will be on a panel with Al Mohler, Don Carson, John Woodbridge, Greg Thornberry, and Jason Duesing. That panel will be devoted to Carl Henry and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as well as Dr Henry’s contribution to the doctrine of Scripture since the publication of his most significant work, God, Revelation and Authority.
Why is the traditional doctrine of inerrancy under renewed threat today?
I believe that many scholars have lost confidence in the authority and inerrancy of Scripture. This is something that usually starts in the academy and then spreads to the churches. This has been the usual pattern over the last few centuries. The infection normally starts in universities and seminaries before it spreads further afield.
Today the traditional way of reading the text of Scripture has been challenged by scholars who want to read it through the lens of other Ancient Near-Eastern documents. The influence of this new approach has led scholars to understand the text in a different way that makes them reluctant to affirm biblical inerrancy. Other scholars have been influenced by some of the scientific claims that have arisen from the human genome project. For instance, some of those associated with BioLogos have cast doubt on the historicity of Adam based on some of the latest scientific theories that have emerged from this project. These scholars believe that modern biological science calls into question the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. They say that it is impossible to hold the discoveries of modern science and inerrancy at the same time.
There have also been a number of books written by scholars that have challenged the morality of the God of the Old Testament and His commands to Israel, especially with regard to the occupation of Canaan and the genocide of the various Canaanite tribes. Obviously, if you believe that God acts immorally then it also becomes impossible to believe in biblical inerrancy. A less than perfect God is hardly likely to produce a book that bears the marks of perfection. So this moral argument is also eroding the traditional doctrine.
Therefore, in the light of these challenges we need a new defence of inerrancy.
First published in Summer 2013/2014 edition