Yes to authority, no to inerrancy? – Part 1

Many individuals, churches, and denominations today will tell you that they believe in the Bible. They may even say that have a great appreciation for the Bible. They may say it defines their faith, and it is authoritative. But, ask them if we can really, truly know what Jesus, the apostles, Moses, or the prophets said and wrote. Ask them if the Bible is inerrant? In this series, I want to examine the common belief that the Bible is authoritative but is errant (that is, it contains errors).

From a simplistic view, calling something authoritative, but containing unknown errors does not make much sense to me. These people cannot tell you, authoritatively, what the errors are or even how many there are. They certainly do not agree among themselves about which parts of the Bible are in error and how to correct those errors. Imagine applying that standard to the U.S. Constitution: “This document has some number of unknown errors and may not be what the writers of the Constitution actually wrote or intended, but you should consider it authoritative.”

The final authority for these people is not Scripture, but rather their own reason. They get to decide which parts of the Bible to use and which parts to ignore. There is no need to harmonize the Scriptures when you can just reject parts.

In this series I am going to pick on an older article written by Dr. James Ayers for Presbyterians Today magazine. This article describes what Presbyterians (at least among the liberal Presbyterian Church – USA) do not believe. Many of the issues Dr. Ayers covers in his article I would agree with completely. But, I want to address the last section entitled Beliefs about the Bible which has the subtitle Yes to authority, No to inerrancy. I believe that Dr. Ayers’ arguments are a fair representation of many, if not most, of the beliefs about the Bible floated around within liberal Christianity today. As such, his article provides an effective foil for examining this belief and the underlying arguments. You may want to jump to Dr. Ayers’ article before beginning as his section on the Bible is pretty short and will give you the full context.

Dr. Ayers begins this section of his article by claiming:

Presbyterians have always had a very strong doctrine of Biblical authority, but historically most have shied away from calling that doctrine inerrancy (Ayers).

Unfortunately, Dr. Ayers does not provide any Biblical or historical backing for this claim. Even if it is true that “most Presbyterians” have shied away from belief in inerrancy, that does not make it a good idea. This is the logical fallacy of appealing to the popular. But, let’s examine his claim to see if it is true.

First, what does it mean for the Bible to be authoritative and why should we consider it authoritative? The on-line Merriam-Webster dictionary defines authoritative as “having or proceeding from authority: official.” Now, no one would argue that it is the paper, ink, and glue of the bound Bible that make it authoritative (or, similarly, the electrons and photons when reading an electronic Bible). The authority must come from either the message and/or the authors. What does the Bible say?

All Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16, ESV).

For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21).

The Bible is pretty clear that the words are God’s words. Yes, humans were employed through the working of the Holy Spirit, but the Bible is God-breathed. All of it. The authority of Scripture comes from the author, God.

Jesus likewise affirmed that Scripture is the word of God. For example, in John 10:34-35 Jesus calls Scripture “the word of God” which “cannot be broken”:

Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came–and Scripture cannot be broken (John 10:34-35).

There is also Jesus’ famous “jot and tittle” comment which is rendered as follows in the English Standard Version:

For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18).

Jesus points to the smallest pen strokes of the writing of Scripture, not merely some overarching message that can be gleaned from fallible words, letters, and strokes of the pen. So, the Bible is authoritative, because it is the word of God and every pen stroke is critical. Now, back to Dr. Ayers’ first sentence:

Presbyterians have always had a very strong doctrine of Biblical authority, but historically most have shied away from calling that doctrine inerrancy (Ayers).

Is it true that Presbyterians have historically shied away from calling that doctrine inerrancy? Well, yes and no. The term inerrancy has not always been used, but the idea of inerrancy has always been central to Christianity and even Presbyterians. Just because the term inerrancy was not employed does not mean that it was not understood, believed and taught. Just as the term “Trinity” does not appear in the Bible, but is a fundamental truth contained in the Scriptures.

If we look back to the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith, which was a foundational statement of beliefs for most Presbyterians for hundreds of years, we read:

We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture. And the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is, to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it does abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God: yet notwithstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts (Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 1, paragraph V).

The Westminster divines believed not only in inerrancy (containing no errors), but the higher standard of infallibility (incapable of error). Not only was the Bible free from error, it was also perfect, of divine authority, incapable of error, and there was consent among all the parts (no contradictions). The Westminster Confession of Faith is still affirmed by many Presbyterian denominations today.

Looking back ever further, we can see that the great reformer and father of what we now call Presbyterianism, John Calvin, also believed in both authority and inerrancy:

He [Paul] commends Scripture, first on account of its authority, second on account of the utility that springs from it. In order to uphold the authority of Scripture, he declares it to be divinely inspired…the law and the prophets are not a teaching delivered by the will of men, but dictated by the Holy Ghost…Moses and the prophets did not utter at random what we have from their hand, but since they spoke by divine impulse, they confidently and fearlessly testified, as was actually the case, that it was the mouth of the Lord that spoke…We owe to the Scripture the same reverence which we owe to God, because it has proceeded from Him alone, and has nothing of man mixed with it. The full authority which they [the scriptures] obtain with the faithful proceeds from no other consideration than that they are persuaded that they proceeded for heaven, as if God had been heard giving utterance to them (Calvin, Commentary, 2 Timothy 3:16).

To argue that John Calvin did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible would be to argue that Calvin believed that God himself provided those errors. So, despite Dr. Ayers’ claim, we see that historically Presbyterians have confessed the inerrancy of Scripture.

So, one day and we have covered one sentence. This may take longer than I thought. Until tomorrow…

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