Science in Christian Perspective



The Bible: Truth and/or Error?
Norman L. Geisler 
Professor of Systematic Theology 
Dallas Theological Seminary, Dallas, Texas
Director, Publications Division International Council on Biblical Inerraney

From: JASA 32 (March1980): 55-58

The recent attention (June 1979) given to the topic of inerrancy by the Journal ASA is well deserved. The editor has graciously given me the opportunity to interact with the articles.

1. A Response to Bube
First, let me comment on Richard Bube's article, "The Relation Between Christian Truth and the Natural Sciences." His first two points are noteworthy. (I) Truth is "that which conforms with reality." This is a correspondence theory of truth. As such it stands in contrast to some noninerrantists (such as Dan Fuller) who define truth in terms of intentionality. This allows them the loophole of saying the Bible is wholly true (inasmuch as it accomplishes its intended redemptive purposes) even though it may affirm some factual errors. (2) Further, Bube notes that "total truth is something we seldom-shat we really never have in our possession." We are, of course, finite. In biblical terms, "now I know in part" (I Cor. 13:12). A clarification, however, is called for. What we know as Christians (through God's revelation) is the whole truth. We simply do not know is whollr. Put another way, we know God who is infinite truth; we, however, do not have an infinite grasp (only a finite one) of the infinite Truth. Let us, then, be cautious. There is a needed epistemological humility, but we should not neglect either the certaints' we do have of she essential truth, nor the completeness of truth as we know it, nor the infinity of the truth we know (viz., God).

As to the "metaphorical" nature of knowledge, 1 believe Bube overstates the case. First, not all theological language is metaphorical (an implication that can possibly be drawn from this section). Something must be literally true or else to speak of the nonliteral (i.e., metaphoric) would make no sense. Even Paul Tillich saw the logic of this and changed his earlier view that all religious language was symbolic. He later included at least one non-symbolic statement, namely, God is Being or the Ground of Being.

Further, Bube states that all scientific descriptions are "transient" and "none represents the true picture of the universe." Besides the implied scepticism in this statement, it is selfdefeating. It implies that one already knows what "the truth" about the universe is and, hence, can see that the present scientific descriptions fall short of this knowledge.

Also it is not clear whether Bube believes that theological "models" really describe God (as he seems to imply that scientific models really describe the world), or only "reveal" some "inspired pictures" of God (as he indeed says). Does the Bible tell us only how' to think about God or does it tell us something about the way God really

Finally, has not Bube "punted to paradox" when he says that the metaphors "cannot [?] be simultaneously applied." The orthodox Christian position is that God's attributes are not mutually contradictory. It is the more radical "modern" existential thelogians who sec this kind of irrationality within the nature of God.

It is worth noting that we may not assume so easily, as Robe does, that there is no "inevitable strife between creation and evolution." At least we may not assume this if truth is "that which conforms with reality" (as Bube defined it). For if scientific truth entails factual conformity with spare-time reality, then surely the description in Genesis of the special creation of certain forms of life and especially of Adam and Eve from "dust" and a "rib" would be false. It would seem that either one must hold a different definition of "truth" or else give up the belief that total evolution is compatible with the view of the factual description of creation in Genesis.

In the concluding paragraph there is an inexcusable (and false) caricature of what Rube believes to be "many" inerrantists. I would challenge the author to even find one contemporary writer on inerrancy who holds, as Rube charges, that the Bible is "a book that tells the absolute truth in every conceivable category regardless of whether the authors of that hook under divine inspiration were using that categorr or not" [emphasis mine]. This is an unfair, untrue and unscientific exaggeration.

Furthermore, the author misconstrues the normal inerrantist's claim for "scientific accuracy" in Scripture. lncrrantists do acknowledge the "transient and changing" nature of scientific theories. That is precisely why most inerrantists are not willing to allow present theories about evolution to overthrow clear teaching of the Scripture to the contrary. As a matter of fart, what concerns inerrantists is that many non-inerrantists too easily capitulate the scientific (i.e., factual, space-time) affirmations of Scripture to the current moods of changing scientific opinion (which is all too often built on naturalistic presuppositions).

One final point on Bube's article. He strongly objects to the supposition "that the scientific truth can be known and stated once and for all." Sorely he does not mean that God cannot know it and state it in Scripture. Of course, no one is claiming that God stated all scientific troth in Scripture. However, inerrantists do wish to claim that sonic of it is there.

II. A Response to Pinnock

It is personally and professionally sad for me to witness my friend and former colleague Clark Pinnoek turn his talented pen from a strong and articulate exposition of inerraney (in his earlier writings) to a militant attack on the proponents of the doctrine he once so fervently defended. Unfortunately, as his first paragraph indicates, Pinnock has bought into a" peace-at-any-price" mentality regarding inerraney. While we all desire true unity among brothers in Christ I would ask thinking Christians to ponder these questions: can we have true unity without having unity in the troth? And can we have the troth if we do not stand firmly (even militantly at times) for the complete truthfulness of Scripture? This is, after all, precisely what the inerrantists are concerned about-the complete truthfulness of Scripture in whatever it affirms.

In the second paragraph Pinnock implies that divine authority and inerrancy can be separated. How can we have a divinely inspired error affirmed in Scripture? Sorely it is nonsense to suggest that the God of all troth, who cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), can utter an untruth. The only way out of this dilemma for the errantist is to deny either that the Scriptures are uttered or "breathed out" by God (see II Tim. 3:16), or that God is unchangeably truthful (see Titus 1:2). Surely no evangelical- Pinnock included-should deny either of these.

A little later Pinnoek uses a curious phrase to describe the Warfield-Hodge type inerrantist. He says they believe the doctrine of "perfect errorlessness." Does this not mean that those other inerrantists (such as Pinnoek himself claims to be) hold to "imperfect errorlessness." Now I soberly ask, does this really make sense? Do we not really have here death by qualification the "qualification" of one word ("errorless") by another ("imperfect") which is really the negation of the first?

I have observed Pinnock's pilgrimage away from the historic position on inerrancy (which he held himself) in a gradual but continual movement over the past few years. I was none the less shocked to read what seems to be his personal prophecy: "Indeed, it may well be, that modified inerraney [his present view] will prove to be a temporary way-station on the road . . . to a noninerraney position on biblical inspiration."

As to the alleged "serious discrepancies" in Chronicles, Pinnock is no doubt aware of the able and scholarly explanation of these by the late Barton Payne. In this connection, it seems to me that somehow Pinnock and modern opponents of biblical inerrancy have allowed a subtle but definite shift in the burden of proof issue. For if the Bible is accepted as God's Word, then the burden of proof is not on us to demonstrate how all these problems are to be reconciled. We need only show that there is a possible answer.inerrantists, however, are more likely to really try to find an answer because they believe it is possible. In other words, the non-inerraney position does not really provide the motivation for research because they believe either that reconciliation is impossible or at least onfroitfol to attempt a solution.

For instance, in court one need not explain how he could not have committed the alleged murder. He is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. If there is a possible explanation of his whereabouts and no proof to the contrary that he did commit the murder, that is all that is necessary. To use a scientific illustration, few scientists give up looking for an explanation of an anomaly which stands in contradiction to present scientific theory. On the contrary, most scientists assume (by faith) there is an explanation and keep on looking to find it. I hey assume the unity of the natural world and are often convinced, against evidence which seems to be to the contrary, that there is some possible explanation. Why, then is it so incredible if the Christian, who accepts (with good reason, I might add), the unity of God's Word, rests in the possihility of a reconciliation until there is more evidence?

Later in the article Pinnock touches on a fascinating point (which he more clearly states elsewhere). He speaks of the inspiration of the Bible in our hands (as opposed to the autographs, as inerrantists hold). How, I would like to ask, in the name of good logic can the Bible in our hands be inspired? Everyone admits there are copiests' errors in it. 'This means that the Bible contains "inspired" errors! This becomes all the more ludicrous when we remember that "inspired" (from It Tim. 3:16) means "breathed out" by God. Are the "writings" "breathed out" of God's mouth errors and all?!

At least Pinnock is honest in calling this a "new" view. It is certainly not the one held by Jesus who said "every jot and tittle" is true (Matt. 5:1?, 18) and Scripture "cannot he broken" (John 10:35).

As one reads on in the article he has second thoughts as to how "new" Pinnock's view really is. When he speaks of the Bible's "sufficiency" (not really inerraney) in the "practical realm" and of hearing God's voice "in" Scripture (evangelicals hold that Scripture is God's voice), one wonders how different this "new" view is from the "old" neo-orthodox view.

Ill. A Response to Coleman

Coleman correctly observes that virtually everyone places some qualification on inerraney. For example, almost all inerrantists limit it to the original writings (not every copy). He correctly adds, "this qualification has not been overly abused." In addition, virtually everyone holds that it is only what the Bible affirms (not everything
it contains, such as Satan's lies) that is true (or inerrant). However, Coleman goes well beyond the evidence when he says this first qualification "is nothing less than a Catch 22." I personally believe, however, that Coleman strikes a sensitive nerve in the common defense of inerrancy which retreats behind the affirmations of Scripture into the alleged "intentions" of the author. He correctly observes that this "involves the interpreter in a game of mind reading." It seems to me that inerrantists should stay in the inerrant text (not go "behind" it) and in the affirmations of the text (not in the alleged intentions behind it). To be sure there are intentions behind the affirmations, but we know what the intentions were only by examining the affirmations; we du not (and cannot) know what the affirmations mean by an independent examination of the intentions.

On other matters, Coleman's comments are less than penetrating. Sometimes they seem clearly misdirected or misinformed. For example, he argues (a priori) that "if the Bible is infallible on all matters, . . . the Holy Spirit must have inspired the authors with supernatural knowledge in such matters as biology and astronomy in the creation account(s) " While acknowledging the legitimate distinction between what is being "asserted" in a passage and what is not, Coleman wrongly assumes that this reduces to the "intention" of the author. I would claim that one need not (and should not) retreat to an author's alleged intentions behind the text but simply engage in a good historieo-grammatical exegesis of what the author asserted in the text. Inerrancy holds that whatever the author really asserted in the text as true, is true.

In a strange twist of logic Coleman argues that if Warfield and Hodge were right that biblical language is only "adequate" but not "perfect," then the Bible cannot be inerrant in expressing the truth for all times. Why not? loerrant only means "without error" in what is expressed. As everyone knows, there are other (even better) ways of saying the sante truth. The fact that one is a'i//erent (whether better or nut) does not make the other one wrong. Coleman seems to believe that because the Bible is expressed in culturally conditioned language, the truth expressed cannot be absolute. But this confuses the truth itself as absolute and the medium by which it is mediated to us (namely, language). "Seven plus three equals ten" is not a culturally conditioned truth even though she English words used to express it are culturally conditioned.

While Coleman rightly criticizes some inerrantists for ton quickly giving up the "literal" method of interpretation for an easy solution to biblical problems, it scents so me that Coleman too quickly gives up on the historieo-gram matieal hermeneutic for a "spiritual" one. He raises questions about whether the author of Genesis I was "a poet first and an astronomer last" and about she biographical nature of the Gospels. It seems to me this goes somewhat beyond the limits of a legitimate hermeneutic. Indeed. Coleman falls pi ry to his own criticism about retreating to the intentions of the author when he insists that one must ask whether his method is "in accord with the purpose of the author" (emphasis mine). A few tines later he clearly says, "infallibility is limited only by the intention of the author. (emphasis mine).

The interesting thing about Coleman's article, in contrast to Bube's definition of truth, is that the latter conceives of truth as correspondence and the former in terms of intentionality. 1 personally believe that the theory of truth is the heart of the debate between errantists and inerrantists and that only on Bube's (correspondence) view of truth can inerraney be defended. (We have spoken to this point elsewhere in a paper entitled: "What is Truth: The Central but Neglected Issue in the Inerrancy Debate," given before the Evangelical 'theological Society, December, 1979, St. Paul. Minnesota.)

IV A Response to Phillips

Space allotted permits only brief response to some of the central points raised by Phillips. The main point of his article is to show' that contemporary inerrantists are epistemological foundationalists who have raised the doctrine of inerrancy from its earlier secondary order status to a first order doctrine from which one can deduce indubitable truth. This he feels is neither exegetically sound, philosophically correct nor spiritually fruitful.

It seems to me that Phillips is wrong on almost every point. Several things should be pointed out in response.

First, he wrongly assumes that there is only one kind of epistemological foundationalism for inerranttsts a deductive kind where absolutes are deduced from an absolute principium in a kind of geometric way. There is also a reductive foundationalism which says that all valid knowledge must sooner or later be reducible to some irreducible first principles of knowledge some absolute.

Second, Phillips confuses ontology (what is known) with epistemology (how we know' it). He fails to see that the foundation - the inerrant originals can be absolute even though we do not know them in an absolute way.

Third, he confuses the formal and the material questions regarding the truth of Scripture. He apparently does not understand that inerrantisss insist only that whatever Scripture teaches is true (she formal principle), and this leaves open the question as to what the Bible is teaching (the material) so hermeneutics.

Fourth, his argument is a "straw man" as applied to the main stream of contemporary scholars who defend inerrancy. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) which met last October and produced the 19 article "Chicago Statement" in no way committed themselves to a foundasionalist posture in their statement. Rather than using words like "absolutely necessary" the ICBI spoke of "vital" importance (Article XIX) of the doctrine of inerrancy. Phillips is attacking a largely non-existent foe.

Fifth, Phillips seems not to appreciate the kind of foundational argument that inerrantists do sometimes use. They do not usually claim that if one accepts even one error in the Bible then nothing else in the Bible can be accepted as true. It is an obvious truth that a single mistake made by one's friend does not forever shroud all their statements in uncertainty. What inerrantists do often argue is that if one's friend claims to be the voice of God to mankind and then makes one mistake, then they can no longer be trusted as the voice of God to mankind, regardless of how much truth may be in their statements.

Sixth, space does not permit refutation of Phillip's weak exegesis. But even more glaring is his overlooking of many crucial passages which if he had correctly exegeted would have answered his problems (such as Matt, 5:17, 18; Mast. 22; Gal. 3; Heb. 1,3; Ps. 19, etc.).

Seventh, one can easily see how Phillips misunderstands the Reformers and post Reformers by reading the excellent chapters by Preus, Gerstner and Krabbendam in the forthcoming ICBI book Inerrancy Zondcrvan, 1980, edited by N.L. Geisler).

Eighth, Phillips wrongly assumes that one must have an infallible interpretation in order to have an infallible principium of Scripture. But why? Suppose the U.S. Constitution were the absolute political truth for mankind. Despite the fact that the Supreme Court is fallible in interpreting is, it would be a whole lot better to live in the United States than under a totalitarian constitution which did not guarantee our freedoms, even it this constitution were infallibly interpreted by someone.

Finally, Phillips seems to assume, contrary to Bube, an incorrect intentionalist's theory of truth. He speaks of the "primary intent and purpose of Scripture" in terms of "redemption." If it is only salvitic or moral intentions which are the primary focus of the truth of Scripture, then one need not concern himself with whatever( minor?) historical or scientific affirmations there are in Scripture that may prove to be false. His faith, built unshakable as it is on only the "redemptive" truth of Scripture, is in the final analysis really unfalsifiahle. At least an inerrantist's position is "red-blooded" enough to claim something that is subject to scientific and historical falsification. The non-inerrantists' and "modified" (7) inerrantists' view is. in the final analysis, unfalsifiable.