Science in Christian Perspective
Letters to the Editor
Further Responses on Inerrancy (Journal ASA 24, June 1972)
Barton Payne, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, Missouri 63141
R. Laird Harris Covenant Theological Seminary St. Louis, Missouri 63141
From: JASA 25 (December 1973): 164-167.
Fuller's presentation may he summed up like this: "The Bible is free from
all error in revelational matters, but its nonrevelational statements
the category of inerrancy." And yet, who would want to disagree
the Bible is free from all error in its revelationial matters? Yet the question
remains, just what is revelational, and who is to say? Is it simply the Sermon
on the Mount? Is it restricted to God's redemptive acts? Or could it
be that the
category includes everything except "non-revelational matters,
which we define
as capable of being checked out by human reason?" But Christ's
is capable of being checked out by human reason. And I don't think that is what
Fuller really intended to say when he proposed that "revelation concerns
what the eye cannot see." This last assertion is undeniably an appealing
position: you never have to worry at all, because if some new datum
comes up that
appears from human investigation, why, it can't contradict revelation, because
revelation stops being revelation as soon as it becomes contradictable (I). All
this indicates that clarification is needed. Our approach, moreover, ought to
be an objective one-not what we think ought to be in the Bible, but
what the Bible
really is; and I would like to go about this by asking Fuller three
1. The first is on defining terms. Fuller has used the word revelation. But what is revelation? Actually the Bible has two usages. Revelation may be either a process or a product. In Eph. 3:3, we have the process; where it says. "By revelation was made known unto me the mystery." Revelation is thus God's way of communicating knowledge that men do not otherwise have. It involves, moreover, some of the greatest troths that men can know, pre-eminently, that God sent His only begotten Son to be our Saviour. In this regard, I rejoice in the warmth of Fuller's message: we are brothers in Christ; and some day, if the Lord tarries, I trust we will be meeting around the throne of our God in heaven. Negatively, however, if this be our definition, namely of revelation as a process, then clearly not all the Bible is revelation. In fact, only a relatively small part of it would be, if we consider all the historical hooks of the Old and New Testaments.
Yet on the other hand, revelation may define a product. For example, Rev. 1:1 speaks of "the revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto Him to show to his servant." What then is included in that which Scripture calls the "revelation"? There are propositions like Rev. 2:13, that a man called Antipas was martyred at Pergamos, or 2:20, Jesus' revelation, when He said, "thou sufferest that woman Jezebel ... to teach" at Thyatira. Such items are knowledge that men already had and that anybody who was there could have discovered. But God confirms this knowledge; and it is in such a sense, as a product, that the Bible is revelation: it is truth which may have come to men by natural means, but which God confirms.
This leads directly into another definition, of the term inspiration, with which we are very much concerned. Inspiration, likewise, may suggest a process. II Timothy 3:16 says, "All Scripture is theopneuatos" literally, "God breathed," indicating a process. But, inspiration is also a product; for Paul says the Scripture is given by inspiration-and this is a hook. So let me propose, for working definitions, first, that revelation as a process makes truth known, and that inspiration preserves truth in writing; and second, that the resulting product is a composition of divinely guaranteed truthfulness. As our Lord affirmed in John 10:35, "the Scripture cannot be broken." We need hardly quibble over available synonyms. The Lord said, "not broken"-we could as easily say, infallible; we could say, inerrant; or we could say, authoritative. Kantzer, at Trinity, has given a definition of inerrancy that is widely accepted: that inerrant products "never wander into false teaching." But where dues this leave us in respect to "non-revelational" material in Scripture? Fuller would limit what is "revelational" to certain elements within the Bible, maybe to most of the elements (maybe not); but there is still a limitation. Unless I misjudge, he is proposing that Scripture is "partially inerrant." But this strikes me as being a self-contradictory combination, rather similar to the Roman Catholic position on the infallible Pope. This latter would say the Pope is infallible when speaking ex cathedra. But when dues the Pope speak ex eathedra? The perception of this difficulty is not limited to us here at Wheaton. The president at Fuller Seminary, David Hubbard, circulated recently a statement which bears out the fact that he knows what inerrancy is; and just because he knows what it is, he dislikes the term. He said,
"The term inerraney, to be true to what the Bible does and teaches, has to be so radically redefined that it loses its meaning. Inerraney is ton precise, too mechanical a term to describe appropriately the way in which Gods infallible revelation has come to us in a book."1
He thus takes issue with his colleague, Dr. Fuller, and raises the same question that I raise: is it really cricket to talk about a product as inerrant, when one holds that it contains things which are errant? Furthermore, once we start doing this, is the term "infallible revelation" legitimately applied to the Biblical product either? William E. Hull, who is Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, has taken the next step beyond President Hubbard's. You see, Fuller likes "inerrancy;" Hubbard doesn't like incrrancy, but he'll buy "infallible;" and Dr. Hull says this,
No, it is not wise to call the Bible 'infallible.' The term is subject to too many problems to become a controlling concept in our witness to Scripture. Let us say, kindly, but firmly, that here is not the decisive place for our denomination [and if there are Southern Baptists in the audience, please pardon this!] to take a stand, nor is this an issue worthy of splitting our ranks. There are many wonderful unambiguous affirmations that we make all about Scriptures, but this [infallibility] is not one of them."2
So, he says, Let's face it, and don't use the term!
But what of the objective data? What does the Bible itself say? Paul, in Acts
24:14, claimed that he was "believing all things which are written in the
law and in the prophets," which surely suggests the Biblical approach to
inerrancy. In II Timothy 3:16 he said that "all Scripture is theopeustor,"
or God-breathed. In John 10:35 Jesus taught that "the graphe, the
cannot be broken." The first question, accordingly, which I would direct
to Fuller is this: Among the affirmations of the Biblical writers,
distinguish revelational from nonrevelational elements to the detriment of the
latter? If it limits revelation as a product (not as a process) to what are but
parts of Scripture, we had better admit it; but if it doesn't, we had better be
2. This raises a second objective question: whether indeed the definition that is found in Scripture is right. You see, a given claim might be in the Bible, and still be wrong. Here also we must face the danger of subjectivity, of trying to make matters into what we think they ought to be, rather than what they really are. I have seen this done by my evangelical friends. They may make propositions like this: "God is truth; the Bible is God's; therefore the Bible is truth." But does this follow? Suppose we were to substitute for "the Bible" the concept of "the church." The syllogism would read like this: "God is truth; the Church is God's; therefore, the Church is truth." The fact of the matter is: God did not have to commit our thought to what we have to have. Fuller has stated that revelation's purpose is to disclose God's redemptive acts in history, so that men might be wise unto salvation. But this does not require inspiration. Peter, Paul, John, and the others could simply have written down what they knew. Their writing would not have had to be infallible. This is, by the way, what many believe today-that there was revelation, but not inspiration. Then we could dodge the whole problem! But that is not what we want to do. We want to ask ourselves, not what God should have done, or what we think He ought to have done, but what He did do. Now, how are we going to find out?
At the outset, let me agree with the proposition which Fuller laid down, that we draw our data from history. I feel that he rightly criticized Dr. Edward Young for resting faith "simply on the testimony of the Holy Spirit and nothing else." Confessedly, we do accept the Bible because of the internal testimony of God's Holy Spirit; but how does the Holy Spirit speak to us? That is the question. I think we must say He speaks to us through history, and specifically, if I could quote the statement of Fuller himself, "God is revealing himself to man, entered into the very stuff of history. 'The Word became flesh.' " I-he then later quoted with approval the dictum of Dr. Warfield,
"We do not adopt the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture on a priori, or general grounds of whatever kind. [In otner words, inerrancy did not have to be.] We adopt it specifically because it is taught as truth by Christ and His apostles."
So we ask, What then did Jesus Christ and the apostles actually teach? Now, unquestionably, they show that the Scripture's main purpose was to make men wise unto salvation. But I'm afraid there's been a sleeper in Fuller's use of this phenomenon; while it is the Bible's main purpose, does it thereby rule out Scripture's other purposes? We could read the introduction of the book of Proverbs; and it contains a whole series of purposes, including how to read riddles and give subtility. Let me therefore take three examples out of the teaching of Jesus. I am trying to keep this objective, not what we think the Bible ought to be, but what does Jesus Christ tell us? Did God really commit Himself to this Book? And did He really commit Himself to its material as well as to its spiritual aspects? Here are three verses, by no means exhaustive, but representative. (1) Matt. 19:5, which is a quotation from Gen. 2:24. Yet Gen. 2:24 is not a statement by God; it is a statement by the writer of Scripture-presumably Moses. But Christ introduces this narrative statement of Moses by the words, "God creased them male and female from the beginning, and said and then proceeds to quote Gen. 2:24. So as far as our Lord was concerned, what Moses said was equivalent to what God said. (2) In Luke 4:25 our Lord said this, "In the days of Elijah, the heaven was shut up three years and six months when great famine was throughout all the land." This is a matter-offact statement. It is also, by the way, a highly questionable statement; for the weather seldom goes three and one-half years without raining in Palestine. But this is what the Lord said; Jesus Christ, apparently, believed the historical assertions of Scripture. (3) Matt. 24:15, a statement that the prophet Daniel predicted an abomination of desolation. Our Lord also said, "When ye shall see the abomination of desolation spoken by Daniel the prophet indicating that it had not yet been fulfilled when our Lord spoke, in approximately An. 30. Now, I know that some of Fuller's colleagues believe that the prophet Daniel need not really have spoken these words, but that they could have come from an anonymous writer in Macabean times, and that they may be referring to something Antiochus Epiphanes did hark in the years 168-165 B.C.
But, why am I bringing up these
Because they make it clear what sorts of things our Lord had to say,
He did not have to say them. You see, He could have spoken about the people in
the days of Ehijals without mentioning anything about the famine having lasted
for three and one-half years. He could have talked about an
abomination of desolation
without suggesting that Daniel wrote it. These are just the things he did say;
Fuller has given us a proposed solution to such words. He asserts, "Surely
Jesus, in His omniscience, knew perfectly well that lithe facts might
but he used this facet of the culture of the people to whom He was speaking as
a vehicle." But, this, I think, is very serious. It questions the veracity
of what Jesus Christ has said. Perhaps we should not contend for Jesus Christ's
He did not claim total knowledge when He was here on earth. For instance, about
His second coming, He said. "No man knoweth the day or the hour, no, not
the angels, neither the Son," Mark 13:32, meaning, "I don't
But when He did not know a matter, lie was careful to say He didn't.
On the other
hand, John 3:34 states, "God giveth Him not the Spirit by measure,"
but that when He does speak, He "speaks the words of God." It is true
that Fuller has argued that He had to use these false forms. He said, "Any
revelation must be so accommodated," that "nonrevalational cultural
references demand that they be left unchanged." This I fail to see. Jesus
did not have to say that Daniel spoke those words in Matthew 24:15. In Hebrews
2:6, for example, the
writer said, "One in a certain place testified saying The
writer could have said it was David; he could have said it was the
but He didn't. One doesn't have to say these things. And when one
does say them,
it raises the second question that I would address to Fuller: Is Jesus Christ
3. My third question gets down to why anyone should want to question taking Jesus at His word; it brings us to those difficulties that we, in our thinking, experience over some of the phenomena of Scripture. Frankly, I was not impressed by the examples which Fuller adduced as errors (of a a non revelational sort, of course) in Scripture. He cited the problem of the grain of mustard's being the smallest seed. The Greek form is mfkroternn . . . pauton juts spernsatoss:
and Dean Alford, who is no mean scholar, has said flatly that this is "nut for the superlative,3 that the words do not
say that it was the smallest seed. This is one approach that Christians have taken. Another approach might be to grant the superlative, but to ask how context affects the meaning of the words concerned. Let me illustrate from Luke 2:1, which says that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus "that all the world should be taxed." Augustus, of course, did not tax all the world; he did not tax the Parthians-they were outside the Roman Empire. Luke knew that very wall, but he knew what his audience would understand him to mean when lie used the word world. It is the hermeneutical principle of the usus loquendi-that one must take a word in its context. But what is this context? Nurval Ceblenhuys observed, "The grain of mustard seed is the smallest kind of seed that was sown by farmers in Palestine,"4 Note carefully, he dues not say they regarded it as the smallest seed, it was the smallest seed that was sown by farmers in Palestine. If we take the phrase in context we have another approach to the problem.
Fuller's examples of errancy concerned Abraham and whether or not he left Haran for Canaan when his father died. Fuller might have approached the problem through textual criticism, by accepting a non-Masuretie reading;S but lie chose to retain the Masoretic Hebrew as the more accurate form. Yet without (any) appeal to textual change, the following syllogism, based upon what Fuller himself has given us, seems quite valid: (I) Abraham came to Canaan after his father Terah died (Acts 7:4); (2) Abraham was then 75 (Gen. 12:4); (3) Terah died at 205 (Gen. 11:32); (4) therefore, Terah was 130 at Abraham's birth. The problem is how Abraham might have "found it difficult to have a child at 90, if his own father had begotten him at the age of 130." But there are other relevant data. First, Terah had had other children when he was 70 (Can. 11:26), while Abraham had not. That makes a difference. Compare how the birth of Abraham's six additional children after Abraham's age of 137 (Gen. 25:1, 2) ilicits no surprise whatsoever, because he had already started having children, lust like Terah had at the age of 70. And yet Abraham had indeed had Ishmael at the age of 86, so the difficulty seems to lie primarily in Abraham's having a son through Sarah; see Gen. 17:18-19. Is then the question how Abraham found it difficult to have a child at 90 if his own father had begotten him at the age of 130? Well, if you lust had a child at the age of 86, having another at the age of 90 would not be so hard. And if it is Sarah's problem, why then this was a hurdle to which age on the part of Terals did not apply.
But let us assume, for the sake of argument, that these are questions that we cannot answer; where do we go from here? After all, I think I could have gotten some other questions myself which I would have had difficulty answering; and I think we all will as we read the Bible. If we are honest with ourselves, we will find things which we must admit we cannot explain. What should we do then? Fuller has warned that to rule out on theological grounds historical data that casts light ( doubt? ) on a Biblical writer would make it questionable whether any historical datum should ever be allowed to illuminate the meanings of the text. To this I would reply definitely negatively. Of course we rely on historical data; that is why we believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and His historical teaching is why we believe the Bible. But, I think we do question any human judgment, based on any data, which rejects the Biblical data, For example, to question whether Daniel really spoke those words about the abomination of desolation is not legitimate. It may indeed be a plausible surmise that the author was not the real Daniel, but rather a pseudonymous character in the Maccabean age; but when Matthew 24:15, which is the word of Jesus Christ, says the author was Daniel, it had batter be Daniel! What about the three and one-half years of famine under Elijah? Granted that a scientific observer may say, "I haven't seen a three and one-half year drought in Palestine since we started taking records." But here is the problem: its natural science, we accept our own rational judgments as the basis for our conclusions-it is the inductive method. But in historical science, we do not make inductive conclusions: in historical study, we have to go on the deductive basis of testimony. What I think Julius Caesar did, doesn't make that much difference; the important thing is, what do we have by way of record that tells us what he did do? In other words I would say at this particular point, if Jesus Christ said there was a three and one-half year famine hack in the days of Elijah, 850 B.c., it is my business to accept it, and not to question it.
This then leaves us with a very serious and a very important question, which has practical implications for our church today. For Titus 1:9 insists, "A bishop must hold fast the faithful word as he has been taught." Paul lays this down as the basis for accepting a legitimate Christian leader. Where this leaves me, then, is with a final question: namely, should evangelicals accept into church leadership those who oppose human judgments to the admitted assertions of Scripture?
1Circular letter to the alumni of Fuller Theological Seminary, Summer 1970, p. 2.
2Creacent Hill Sermons, August 16, 1970, p. 7.
3TJie Greek Testament, 1:144.
4The New International Commentary on the NT, Luke, p. 377; cf. the emphasis in Mk. 4:31 on its being "sown in the earth."
5Even as in Gen. 47:31, the LXX reading "staff" could well represent the original Mosaic form.
R. Laird Harris
Covenant Theological Seminary
St. Louis, Missouri 63141
I was much discouraged by the article on the nature of Biblical inerrancy by Daniel P. Fuller. Fuller's position, and I believe also Bube's, bears remarkable resemblance to the position that was strongly opposed by Warfield, Machen and many others in the 1920's and 30's. How well do I remember the examples of men who salved their conscience in their ordination vows in the Presbyterian Chords by saying that they believed that the Bible was infallible in areas of faith and life, but that it was no better than any other book in matters of history and science. Now it is being said that the Bible is inerrant in revelational matters, hot again the inference is that we most allow for mistakes in matters of history and science. I gather that they would feel that we dare not base too much on the fall of Jerico for fear some archaeologist might prove that there was no Jericho in Joshua's day.
It would, of course, be comfortable for us to have a religion that was unassailable from the viewpoint of history, but such a religion would have to he one devoid of historical foundation. There are such religions, hot Christianity has never been counted among them.
Of course, there are many objections to the view that Bube and Fuller espouse. It is not the view that the Christian church has held and quotations to this effect could he given hack to the Church Fathers. These men, of course, did not have scientific problems, but the problem of alleged contradictions was an obvious one, and repeatedly they say that there are no real contradictions in Scripture. Of course, a further problem is that Christ's authority is at stake, inasmuch as he repeatedly refers to this sort of thing in the Old Testament and gives us his approval. A logical conclusion often drawn is that Christ also is mistaken. This only leads us deeper into subjectivism in our approach to the Scriptures.
I am sorry that the Journal ASA feels that this sort of thing needs to be publicized in its pages. I am aware that the doctrinal basis of the ASA has been changed. I spoke against the change and now I see the results. It seems that the ASA, founded to support the historic Christian doctrine, has become the sounding board for divergent ideas. I know Bube feels that it is the business of the Journal ASA to stimulate discussion and give various sides of different questions; however, the historic doctrine of verbal inspiration (not as presently defined) should not, in my estimation, be up for grabs.