Science in Christian Perspective

Letter to the Editor


Inerrancy Is/is Not The Watershed of Evangelicalism: None Of The Above
Richard H. Bube 
Department of Materials Science and Engineering
Stanford University 
Stanford, California 94305

From: JASA 29 (March 1977):

In The Battle for the Bible Harold Lindsell joins Francis Schaeffer in No Final Conflict in arguing that the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is the watershed of evangelical Christianity, upon which all else ultimately stands or falls. If the term used in place of "inerrancy" were "trustworthiness," "authority," "reliability" or the like, there would be little question about the cogency of this claim. But the very term "inerrancy" has lost its meaning - or had its meaning sufficiently obscured - that to carry into battle a banner with only this word held high can do little but scatter the people of God as they vainly seek to combat an elusive foe. If I am asked to answer whether (a) inerrancy is the watershed of evangelicalism, or (b) inerrancy is not, I can only reply that the answer must be, "None of the above."

On p. 129 of The Battle for the Bible Dr. Lindsell describes me as "an articulate spokesman in support of biblical errancy." This statement is itself an admirable example of the difficulty in using the terms "inerrancy" and "errancy." For Dr. Lindsell's statement is certainly true in terms of his understanding of ''inerrancy,'' just as it is certainly false in terms of ,'nine. A survey of several brief quotations from writings that have developed the theme according to the perspective I presently defend indicate a consistent position for almost 20 years.

A consideration of the total revelation of God . . . leads to the conclusion that the Scriptures are indeed verbally inspired, inerrant, and infallible as a revelation of God by Himself to men ... This by no means implies that there are "errors" of fact in the Bible, but rather that the criteria for judging fact are often either uncertain or irrelevant to the revelational purpose of the Bible. ("A Perspective on Biblical Inerrancy, "Journal ASA 15, 86(1963))
The discovery of errors in the Bible is the result of asking the wrong questions to ascertain revelational content . . . . If, on the other hand, one is guided by the Biblical criteria, all of the supposed Biblical errors and contradictions are resolvable problems. (The Encounter Between Christianity and Science, p. 98(1971))
It is possible to affirm that on the basis of God's faithfulness in the Scriptures, there is no error in the Bible when it is properly interpreted. ("Inerraney, Revelation and evolution," Journal ASA 23,81(1972))
The more important question is: does the Bible set forth a true description of reality? Christian faith presents a clear affirmation, "Yes, that is exactly what the Bible does." (The Human Quest, p. 117 (1972) )

In view of my clear and consistent denial of the existence of errors in the Bible, how then does Dr. Lindsell come to the conclusion that I am a "supporter of biblical errancy?" Such a conclusion is possible only because the term "inerrancy" means something quite different to Dr. Lindsell and to me.

This difference can be illustrated most clearly by comparing two quotations.

The Bible is not a textbook on chemistry, astronomy, philosophy, or medicine. But when it speaks on matters having to do with these or any other subjects, the Bible does not lie to us. It does not contain error of any kind. (The Battle for the Bible, p. 18)
The only criterion which is consistent with the Bible's own testimony is that which establishes that an error exists in the Scripture only if it can be shown that the revelation of Scripture fails to achieve the purpose for which it is given. ("lInerrancy, Revelation and Evolution," Journal ASA 24, 81(1972))

Again we have a semantic conflict. I interpret these statements as indicating that Dr. Lindsell defends "arbitrary inerraney" whereas I am defending "revelational inerrancy." I call the former position "arbitrary inerraney" because it demands that the Bible be judged as free from error regardless of what kind of arbitrary criterion is used to judge by, even one independent of the Biblical purpose of revelation; I call the latter position "revelational inerrancy" because in the process of communication through historical documents, only the ability to convey the intended message can be the ultimate criterion of reliability. On the other hand, Dr. Lindsell considers the former to be "total" or "biblical inerraney," the only form consistent with the integrity of an inspired Scripture, and he considers the tatter to be a "partial" or "limited inerrancy" because it is not as inclusive as his own definition.

In presenting three possible views of the Bible, Dr. Lindsell argues (pp. 18, 19) that either (a) the Bible is not at all trustworthy, (b) the Bible is truthful in all its parts (arbitrarily inerrant, using my definition), or (c) the Bible contains some truth and some error. But his conception of inerrancy forces him to miss a fourth view of the Bible, the one which I would defend: the Bible is totally trustworthy in presenting to us the revelation of God, but if it is regarded as arbitrarily inerrant, some of the questions that we may put to it may result in our concluding there is error present - error according to the perspective of arbitrary inerrancy, but not error according to the perspective of revelational inerrancy, and not, therefore, actual error in the Bible.

Others have and will argue the case against "arbitrary inerrancy" more cogently than 1, both from a historical and a theological position, but it seems to me essential to emphasize two aspects of such a case.

1. The most ardent advocate of "arbitrary inerrancy" applies his principle only with great care, falling back time and again on the principles of "revelational inerrancy" to argue that this was not really an error, after all, because the purpose of the authors and of the Holy Spirit were better served by the form taken. Thus differences between descriptions of the same event in different biblical accounts are interpreted as being consistent with the purpose of the authors not being to provide verbatim accounts. Different chronological ordering of events in different accounts is interpreted as being consistent with the purpose of the authors not being to provide chronological ordering. The difference between New Testament quotations of Old Testament passages and the Old Testament passages themselves is interpreted as being consistent with the overall purpose of the New Testament writers. Direct misstatements of fact, as in Matthew's three sets of 14 generations in the genealogy of Jesus (whereas there were five other generations that Matthew omits) are interpreted as being consistent with the author's purpose in giving this genealogy. So many exceptions are routinely cited by the advocates of "arbitrary inerrancy" in order to defend it, that its defense seems arbitrary indeed. More importantly, its defense seems not at all consistent with the Bible's own testimony of the kind of book that it is.

2. On p. 19 of The Battle for the Bible Dr. Lindsell suggests that the "errors" that exist in the Bible according to his interpretation of the view that departs from that of "arbitrary" total inerrancy, can be assumed to have arisen "incidentally and accidentally, not intentionally." But such "errors" as Dr. Lindsell would find on the principle of "arbitrary inerrancy" are not present in the Bible because of some slip of the mind or pen; they are present of necessity. Any book that seeks to communicate to men of many different ages and cultures, many different worldviews and civilizations, must be written in a form that is meaningful to those for whom it is immediately intended without obscuring its meaningfulness for those who are to follow after. Nowhere is this more clear than in the discussion of whether or not the Bible is scientifically true. By insisting that the Bible must be scientifically true, Dr. Lindsell is insisting upon an impossibility - for the simple reason that what is scientifically true is defined by each generation for itself. To suppose that our present scientific views are ''true" and that previous ones were "false" is to misunderstand the necessary transient nature of ''scientific truth.'' Revelation, given as communication as is the Bible, must be given in terms of the ''scientific truth" of the people for whom it was written. It is the task of inspiration to insure that this process will not obscure the meaning of the revelation for future generations; the Bible is an awe-inspiring evidence of how this can be accomplished. It must remain, however, that the revelation of God's Creation can be expressed equally truthfully in terms of the three-layered universe, the Ptolemaic universe, the Newtonian universe, or the Einsteinian universe. The model chosen will be determined by the date the revelation is given; the message is timeless and applicable to all generations. If it is demanded that the Bible speak with an ultimately true cosmology - which one shall we demand? We know that tomorrow's will differ from today's. To suppose that "error" and "truth" can be handled in these matters in terms of naive intuition or common sense, is to misunderstand the nature of these terms as they must apply to scientific questions in a historical continuity.

It is true that Dr. Lindsell senses this argument and on p. 190, in connection with his discussion of Beegle's writings, he seeks to reply. His reply is essentially that if God wanted to convey absolute scientific truth, He could, because God is sovereign. This reply does not recognize that there are indeed things that God cannot do. God cannot act contrary to His character, He cannot lift a stone heavier than He can lift, He cannot make the sum of two and two be five. And He cannot take a relative thing like "scientific truth" and absolutize it in revelatory communication. If the law of contradiction is not applicable in describing God and His activities, then we have come a long way indeed from biblical theology.

Because of the confusions discussed above, the term "inerrancy" has outlived its usefulness. The basic authority and reliability of the Scriptures as God's revelation continue to be watersheds of evangelical Christianity. But it is not a shibboleth about "inerrancy'' that truly challenges the evangelical community today - it is not there that the watershed is to be found. The watershed, as in every other day, is still to be found in whether Christians are obedient to the Lord they serve.