Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Legacy of Inerrancy

There is a common myth that abounds that B.B. Warfield and the Princeton School invented inerrancy. As near as I can tell the word itself was coined in the early 1800s but the concept with respect to Scripture has an ancient pedigree going all the way back into the church fathers. Granted the debates of the church fathers were hardly as rigorous as those of Warfield or others when they encountered 19th and 20th century liberalism. However it is a common misunderstanding that the rise of such rigorous debate led to a novelty in thinking about Scripture on the part of Warfield and his ilk.

In a recent issue of Themelios, Robert Yarbrough reviews four recent books on Scripture. Commenting on Richard Gaffin's book God's Word in Servant Form, Yarbrough writes:

We find ourselves in ongoing battles over the Bible and proper understanding of it today, as the titles at the head of this essay remind us. There is no easy way out of this. “But,” Gaffin notes, “one thing is certain.” Progress will be possible in agreement on the doctrine of Scripture only “when we share at least a common mind-set concerning the past and what in fact the central church doctrine is” (107). Warfield is among many to have shown that something like what he calls “inerrancy” is the view of Christ and Scripture writers themselves. Woodbridge has shown that “inerrancy” is appropriate to characterize the “central church doctrine” from patristic times forward. Donald Bloesch has noted that inerrabilis (roughly “inerrant”) is used to describe Scripture by Augustine, Aquinas, and Duns Scotus, while both Luther and Calvin “described the Bible as being infallible and without error,” Calvin calling Scripture an “unerring rule” for Christian faith and life. Gaffin’s reconstruction of Kuyper’s and Bavinck’s views—not essentially different from the inerrantist position of Warfield—ensures that their respective (and quite compatible) doctrines of Scripture can be accurately grasped by any with ears to hear as discussions currently underway run their course in days ahead. (Themelios 34.1, p.15-15).

Another helpful book in rooting out this modern day fallacy of inerrancy vs. infalibility is John Woodbridge's Biblical Authority. Certainly over time the nature of theological debates changes. Certain issues rise to the forefront that were not as vigorously contested in previous generations. There is often a danger of both sides marshalling to the past in an attempt to claim "See! They are just like us." It takes careful historical work to make ones case. Often times, when figures in history were deeply contesting other issues, we can only find what they thought of the issue that concern us through careful invesitegation of their whole body of work.

It is two entirely different things to say that (a) ancient writers did not use the term inerrancy and (b) they not only had no concept or inerrancy and would fully agree with the common contemporary understanding that the Bible is full of historical errors and internal contradictions. Arguing the former in no way proves the latter. The latter supposition is entirely false as scholars in historical theology have demonstrated.

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