Apr 25, 2010 | Comments 3
Editor: The paper below is by Erskine Theological Seminary professor Dr. Richard Burnett. Dr. Burnett is a humble friend of the ARP Church who attempts to help the poor, benighted ministers and lay people of the ARP Church understand the theological failure of the doctrine of inerrancy. He is concerned that we are hopeless anti-intellectuals who have lost our way in the land of theological conservatism. Dr. Burnett has found a way beyond the strictures of Biblical inerrancy and trust in the Biblical text. It is the path of Barthianism.
Karl Barth was rarely concise. Dr. Burnett has drunk deeply from Barth’s well. He enthusiastically affirms Barth’s theological method and tedious penchant for verbosity. His article is a forest of words. For those who survive the long, dry trek, the Editor has posted a few BRIEF comments that follow Dr. Burnett’s screed of 22 pages.
– Charles W. Wilson
- The Interminably Long, by Richard E. Burnett
- The Concise Response, by William B. Evans
A Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy
In The Original Manuscripts: A Non-Barthian Approach
Richard E. Burnett
This is an effort to supplement the recently published work, A Layman’s Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate, by my colleague, Dr. William Evans.1 Given the range of its dissemination, I do not doubt the latter’s effectiveness or that its claims are considered unassailable, its authority indisputable, or its logic irrefutable. However, a few questions may remain for those whose powers of deduction are not as lightening fast or whose logic is not as razor sharp.
I too have struggled like many “laymen” to understand what it might mean to affirm that the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts, but I think I’ve got a better handle on it now. Therefore, I thought it might be helpful to discuss some of my discoveries, and from a theological perspective. Since John Calvin never liked the word “layman,” I use the term “student” throughout since we are all students in some sense. And I have good reason to believe that there are college and seminary students who struggle with some of the same issues.
However, this Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy in The Original Manuscripts: A Non-Barthian Approach is written primarily for my colleagues here at Erskine College and Seminary. Why is it necessary? The Commissioner’s Preliminary Report of Feb.19 2010, made it clear that among the most serious problems among us is: “Thirteen faculty members have been employed since the General Synod added inerrancy to its definition of what constitutes an evangelical profession. It is not evident that many of these new faculty members are committed to inerrancy, and there is little evidence that the Board has made certain that Synod’s directives were followed.” Moreover, the Commission expressed “concerns that some seminary professors cannot affirm inerrancy as defined by the General Synod, despite assurances of the Administration to the contrary.”
Given the Commission’s concerns, I have tried to think about what it might take to provide the sort of certainty and assurance they seek. It occurred to me the problem might be that some of us do not understand what it means to affirm that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, much less are we able to explain it. And since we are teachers and explaining things is what we do, I thought it might be helpful to think together about what it would require of us as teachers to fulfill the ARP Synod’s most recent directive.
This is only a draft intended to generate discussion among us. Its claims are tentative, revisable, and subject to reform if not total negation. I would be grateful if others who have learned how to teach the inerrancy of the original manuscripts of Scripture would share their own insights. I would have preferred to state the following as questions or discussion points. But because many seem to think that Church directives should never be questioned or discussed but only followed, I will state the following as interpretive sub-directives or rules. A hint of satire may be detected (in the spirit of I Cor. 4:8ff, I trust), but this should not detract from the seriousness of the matters under discussion nor my sincerity in wishing to be better instructed in them.
- Convince students that asserting that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts is essential to affirming the Bible’s full authority and that failure to do so is not to be “an evangelical Christian.” But do not let students know that the vast majority of evangelical Christians around the world and the overwhelming majority of evangelical colleges in the United States (e.g. according to the Christian College Coalition of which Erskine College is a member) do not make this affirmation nor do they require it of faculty members.2
- Do not encourage students to ask “If affirming that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts is so essential, why did it take the Church so long to do so officially?” or “Why has it occurred only here in America among denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church of America in the late 1970s and now in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in June, 2008?”
- If students ask such questions, change the subject. Tell them it is essential to affirm that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts because it is necessary to affirm the authenticity and reliability of the biblical text itself, that is, it’s about having an objective standard by which to do textual criticism. As you can see, this doesn’t address the question of the Bible’s authority, but it’s close enough that most won’t notice that it’s a different question. Ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of textual critics throughout the last 200 years have done their work without the assumption that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts.
- Do not encourage students to think about what standard or criterion they might use to determine the authenticity (much less the authority) of an original manuscript even if they had one in front of them. Obviously, the standard or criterion has to be more trustworthy to you than the Bible itself, but if you are teaching students to become inerrantists of the original manuscripts nothing can be gained by pointing this out.
- Do not encourage students to think what an original manuscript might look like in the case of the Psalms, Proverbs, or, for that matter, most of the books of the Old Testament. For example, such questions as the following are extremely dangerous and are to be discouraged: If Moses wrote the Book of Deuteronomy, would the original manuscript have included the narration of Moses’ own death? If Moses wrote the Book of Deuteronomy, how is it that the form of Hebrew language used in it did not exist until 800 years after his death? What then would an original manuscript of Deuteronomy look like? And quite apart from Wellhausen and various documentary hypotheses, was there no editorializing of the Pentateuch or the Prophets over a period of years, if not centuries, that would make the notion of original manuscripts difficult to imagine? And when it comes to the New Testament, was there no source material or editorializing work that stands behind the Synoptic Gospels? Did the original manuscript of Mark’s Gospel include Mk.16:9-20? Did the original manuscript of John’s Gospel include Jn.7:53-8:11? If not, are these passages canonical? And are there no obstacles in asserting the existence of original autographs in those cases that seem easiest to conceive such as Paul’s epistles? There are conservative biblical scholars who think there are.3 And what would an original manuscript of II Corinthians, which is the compilation of at least two or three of Paul’s letters, look like? Were there no lost letters, e.g. I Cor. 5:9? Of course, there are hundreds more questions like these, but don’t let them deter you. These are questions only for those who are curious about the Bible and such students are becoming increasingly rare given the state of biblical illiteracy in most evangelical churches today. Certainly, when students begin asking such questions, it is only a matter of time before they begin to wonder about the meaningfulness of the concept of “original manuscripts,” especially in the case of many Old Testament books. They are to be avoided at all costs.
- Do not encourage students to wonder why, if they were so important, the original manuscripts were not preserved. There are some creative theories out there that explain this. For example, it is said that they were providentially lost “lest in the process of time they should be idolized.”4 But this explanation is risky because it’s basically what Joseph Smith claimed about his lost “gold tablets.” Thus, I wouldn’t use this explanation unless you’ve gauged the level of gullibility of your students. If you have determined that the well is deep and they have nothing to draw with, then go ahead and try it. It might work.
- Do not encourage students to wonder why the Westminster divines never thought to appeal to original manuscripts as a basis for the authority of Scripture in the Westminster Confession, particularly when they certainly could have since most theologians from Augustine on have openly acknowledged the likelihood of copyist errors in the Bible, and not least of all Reformed theologians throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.
- Try if you like to argue that an appeal to the inerrancy of the original manuscripts can be inferred where the Westminster Confession says: “The Old Testament in Hebrew … and the New Testament in Greek … being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical” (WC 1.8). But in making this argument you take a chance that the more perceptive students will notice this completely misses the original point at issue. Certainly “immediately inspired” implies the autographa (originals), but it includes the apographa (copies), the extant Greek and Hebrew manuscripts “kept pure in all ages” by God’s providential preservation. Why was this so important? It is not important for our goal of inculcating belief in the inerrancy of the original manuscripts, of course. Just the opposite! But in order to steer students toward our brand of fundamentalism, it is valuable for us as teachers to realize the question at the time was not about the autographa, but about the authenticity and reliability of the apographa, which is why the Westminster divines had every reason not to appeal specifically to lost autographa. Such an appeal would have undercut the status of the received text (textus receptus) of the common Greek and Hebrew manuscripts as opposed to the Latin Vulgate which their Roman Catholic opponents were still claiming was “authentical,” i.e., superior, as compared to Protestant Bibles with all their Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. Such an appeal would have been problematic also because it would have opened them up to the same charge they had made against the Roman Church: who then decides what texts are “authentical” in the meantime? The magisterium? And never mind that “inerrancy” and “purity” are two different things. At all costs these matters are to be kept out of the minds of students. They are only presented here so my colleagues will know where the shoals lie.
- Try if you like to claim that the autographic theory of inerrancy has its roots in Protestant Orthodoxy, but again, the sharper students will see that this may not be accurate either. Some may discover that Francis Turretin, Heinrich Heidegger, and Lucas Gernler got carried away in claiming, as they did in the Formula Consensus Helvetica of 1675, that the Masoretic text was inspired, including the Hebrew vowel points which were not added until between the 7th and 11th centuries. In spite of your best efforts they may discover that such an immunization strategy had almost immediate, devastating consequences for the Reformed church in Switzerland.5 Nevertheless, it is true that Turretin said, “By the original texts, we do not mean the autographs written by the hand of Moses, of the prophets and of the apostles, which certainly do not now exist. We mean their apographs which are so called because they set forth to us the word of God in the very words of those who wrote under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”6 Because we have long represented Turretin as an advocate of inerrancy in the original manuscripts, this quotation is for your eyes only, and is not to be shown to students! We must admit (if only to ourselves) that to whatever extent Turretin and others may have tried to protect the Bible from the intense, mounting criticism of their contemporaries, Richard Muller says, “It is important to note that the Reformed orthodox insistence on the identification of the Hebrew and Greek texts as alone authentic does not demand direct reference to autographa in those languages; the ‘original and authentic text’ of Scripture means, beyond the autograph copies, the legitimate tradition of Hebrew and Greek apographa. The case for Scripture as an infallible rule of faith and practice and the separate arguments for a received text free from major (i.e., non-scribal) errors rests on the examination of apographa and does not seek the infinite regress of lost autographa as a prop for textual infallibility.”7 In other words, “The Protestant scholastics do not press the point made by their nineteenth-century followers that the infallibility of Scripture and the freedom of Scripture from error reside absolutely in the autographa and only in a derivative sense in the apographa; rather, the scholastics argue positively that the apographa preserve intact the true words of the prophets and apostles and that the God- breathed (theopneustos) character of Scripture is manifest in the apographa as well as in the autographa.”8 Muller has recently stated this point more emphatically: “A rather sharp contrast must be drawn, therefore, between the Protestant orthodox arguments concerning the autographa and the views of Archibald Alexander Hodge and Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield. … The point made by Hodge and Warfield is a logical trap, a rhetorical flourish, a conundrum designed to confound the critics – who can only prove their case for genuine inerrancy by recourse to a text they do not (and surely cannot) have.”9 But this is only Muller’s opinion. What does Richard Muller really know about Reformed Scholasticism anyway?
- Try if you like to find a Puritan who claimed that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts. There are some who come pretty close (e.g. Richard Baxter), perhaps close enough to be useful to us. But John Owen shared the same burden as the Westminster divines, Turretin, et al, in defending the authenticity of the apographa, but on the basis of divine preservation, not on lost, potentially reconstructable autographa. But as with other theologians, Puritans must be treated with care, because their views vary widely.
- Try if you like to find the autographic theory of inerrancy in “Old Princeton,” that is, in the theologies of John Witherspoon, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, et al, but here again some students will inevitably go to the sources and notice it is a stretch. It is one thing to draw a distinction between autographa and apographa. It is one thing to recognize the dependence of the latter upon the former. It is yet another to claim absolute authority and exclusive inspiration for the former and only relative authority and no inspiration whatsoever for the latter. This is of course what we demand of our students and colleagues, but the Old Princetonians are somewhat weak on this point. Certainly in the face of rising textual and historical criticism, there were American clergymen in the middle of the 19th century who were willing to speak of the “uncertain and second-hand authority” of the latter.10 But this, apparently, Old Princeton never did. If you claim otherwise, you risk finding yourself with a student or colleague who thinks you beg the question or make an argument from silence.11 Besides, even in his lecture notes on “Biblical Criticism of the New Testament” where Alexander concedes “that it is even possible that some of the autographs, if we had them, might not be altogether free from such errors as arise from the slip of the pen, as the apostles and [‘had’] amenuensis[-es] who were not inspired,”12 he did not claim that what they wrote, that is, the Bible we now have, is not inspired. Neither did Hodge claim exclusive authority and inspiration for the autographs. Even with respect to them, according his son, Casper W. Hodge, he was open to “the possibility of infinitesimal inaccuracies of no importance to the end designed …”13 Yet this sounds like a slippery slope to me, and at any rate is unfortunate in theologians upon whom we have learned to depend so heavily. Thus, little good for the cause of inerrancy in the original manuscripts can come from exposing your students to the Old Princetonians. As with so many theologians, it is best just to tell your students what to think about them.
- If you want to find the true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy you must look to B.B. Warfield. According to the broad scholarly consensus over the last forty years, he is its most vigorous and articulate defender. Warfield was a magnificent scholar and became highly skilled at textual criticism. Having mastered many of the latest techniques in textual criticism while studying in Leipzig, he became a pioneer in it without parallel in America. He eventually became so enthralled with textual criticism and its objectivity as a science that he claimed: “The inerrant autographs were a fact once; they may be a fact again, when textual criticism has said its last word on the Bible text. In proportion as they are approached in the processes of textual criticism, do we have an ever better and better Bible than the one we have now.”14 Yet not only did Warfield hold out hope for an improved, “better Bible” on the basis of better textual criticism (which even our opponents, the critical scholars, acknowledge to be legitimate so long as “better” has to do with a more precise rendering of words, that is, a more accurate understanding of the signs but not necessarily the central subject matter, content, and theme signified by them). Warfield set an important standard for us in criticizing scholastic theologians when their “reverence for the Word of God, perversely but not unnaturally exercised, erected the standard or received text into the norm of a true text.”15 Indeed Warfield denied that the standard, received, or “common text” was inspired “but only that the original autographic text was inspired.”16 This is obviously most useful to us, as it so clearly undermines the authority of the actual Bible students can read in favor of one they cannot. To whatever extent others in the 19th century may have anticipated such a move, Warfield shifted the authority from the text we have, the received text (textus receptus) to the autographic text from 1881 onward. This is the foundation on which the modern autographic theory of inerrancy rests. It is the firmest foundation for biblical authority ever conceived by man. Unfortunately, many weren’t smart enough to recognize it as such (and many still aren’t!).
- In recognition of “the strenuous opposition to it which has arisen,” Warfield tried later in 1893 to qualify his statement that only the original autographic text was inspired by claiming that it had not disappeared but that “practically the whole of it is in its autographic text in the best texts in circulation.”17 But this did not stop him in the Sunday School Times of Dec.2, 1882, from rejecting Mark 16:9-20 and its resurrection account as “no part of the word of God.” “We are not then to ascribe to these verses the authority due to God’s word.”18 Warfield’s colleague, Casper W. Hodge, held that verses such as Matt. 6:13, John 5:3-4, John 7:53-8:11 (the woman caught in adultery), Acts 8:37 were non-canonical.19 Others would go further … in the tradition of Thomas Jefferson! We agree with Warfield, of course, that there are many such passages circulating in Bibles today that probably were not in the autographa. I have long suspected that the Ninth Commandment may be one such passage, for example, since some of our esteemed brothers find it impossible to obey (They seem confident that God would not burden us with more than we can handle, which experience shows the Ninth Commandment to be). Jefferson, however, was not an inerrantist, and it would be difficult to explain the commonality of Warfield’s position with Jefferson’s. Best, then, to avoid the subject altogether.
- It seemed like a good idea at the time (as it has seemed to us fundamentalists ever since), but a great cloud of supposedly evangelical witnesses calumniously claimed that Warfield’s move was a dangerous innovation. Despite Warfield’s claims to fidelity to the Westminster Confession, they could not agree with his interpretation of it.20 They were wary of putting so much stock into the results of textual criticism and began to question Princeton’s appeal to a “lost Bible.” N. M. Wheeler asked whether this theory meant “we must ask the critics every morning what is the latest conclusion in order to know what is that Scripture inspired by God.”21 In his essay, “The Doctrine of Scripture: The Reformers and the Princeton School” (1895), Scottish theologian Thomas M. Lindsay delineated the fundamental differences between the Reformers, Reformed confessions (and not least of all, the Westminster Confession) and the Princeton School of A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield.22 Contrary to the latter’s understanding, Lindsay stated that the object of the former understanding of inspiration “was not to ensure a formally errorless record, nor did it cease when the writers had finished the original autographs of the Scriptural writings. It is now going on, and is to go on ‘in all ages.’”23 To claim that only “the original autographic text was inspired,” Lindsay said, “is a very grave assertion, and shows to what lengths the School are driven to maintain their theory, and it is one which cannot fail, if seriously believed and thoroughly acted upon, to lead to sad conclusions both in the theological doctrine of Scripture and in the practical work of the Church.”24 Lindsay asked: “Where are we to get our errorless Scripture? In the ipsissima verba of the original autographs? Who are to recover these for us? I suppose the band of experts in textual criticism who are year by year giving us the materials for a more perfect text. Are they to be created by-and-by when their labors are ended into an authority doing for Protestants what the ‘Church’ does for Roman Catholics?”25 Lindsay concluded: “if I am asked why I receive Scripture as the Word of God and as the perfect rule of faith and life, then certainly I do not answer: Because it is the slightly imperfect copy of original autographs, which, if I could only get at them, I could show you to be absolutely errorless writings. I answer – Because the Bible is the only record of the redeeming love of God, because in the Bible alone I find God drawing near to man in Christ Jesus, and declaring to us in Him His will for our salvation. And this record I know to be true by the witness of His Spirit in my heart in and with the Word, whereby I am assured that none other than God Himself is able to speak such words to my soul. This is the answer of all the Reformers, and it was also the answer of the Puritans – of Luther, and Calvin, and Knox, and John Owen.”26 Well, I suppose everyone is entitled to his own opinion. Like so much else in this Guide, this information is of course to be kept from students’ eyes, and is only offered as background. Probably none of your students will have heard of Lindsay and others who voiced the same concerns, and it is important to keep it that way.
- With the ascendancy of this “band of experts in textual criticism,” Roman Catholics didn’t miss the irony of a move toward a Protestant magisterium.27 Nor did liberal critics miss the deeper implications or wider possibilities for semper reformanda. For example, see Peter J. Thuesen, “Some Scripture Is Inspired by God: Late-Nineteenth Century Protestants and the Demise of a Common Bible.”28 But contrary to Thuesen (et al), this probably had nothing whatsoever to do with the rise of Protestant liberalism in America.
- As much as it had been discussed among Northern Presbyterians in the 1890s and in a more popular vein among fundamentalists with the publication of The Fundamentals in 1910,29 inerrancy had little if anything to do with the subsequent controversy at Princeton Seminary during the 1920s, and it certainly had nothing to do with inerrancy in the original manuscripts, at least in the eyes of J. Gresham Machen. However, we must stick to the story told in the Layman’s Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate and other revisionist histories. Machen is best referred to in solemn tones and only selectively assigned. Students who read his works will find that Machen, though an extraordinarily gifted New Testament scholar and a revered father of fundamentalism, had no interest whatsoever in defending the doctrine of inerrancy throughout his years at Princeton and he scrupulously avoided the term.30 He consistently preferred terms such as: “infallible,” completely trustworthy,” “full truthfulness,” etc. Even his most sympathetic interpreter, D.G. Hart, says Machen “was virtually silent about biblical inerrancy”31 and though he could affirm it, “it was a side issue in his estimation.”32 Needless to say, it is better to encourage students to believe what we tell them about Machen without ever reading him for themselves.
- Yet after leaving Princeton and shortly before his death, I think it is clear that Machen did defend inerrancy, at least at the popular level, for example, over the radio in 1935 in addresses that were later published under the title, The Christian Faith in the Modern World. Having claimed the mantel of “Old Princeton,” Machen assumed responsibility for defending Warfield’s autographic theory of inerrancy. It was not an easy sale, even to those sympathetic to Machen’s larger concerns. Having agreed that “Only the autographs of the Biblical books, in other words – the books as they came from the pen of the sacred writers, and not any one of the copies of those autographs which we now possess – were produced with that supernatural impulsion and guidance of the Holy Spirit which we call inspiration,”33 Machen knew he had to address the deep and “widespread objection [that] … troubles many thoughtful and intelligent people. ‘What is the use of the inspiration of the Bible,’ people say, ‘if no form of the Bible that we now have is inspired?’” Machen said he had “deep sympathy with people who raise [this question] and are troubled by it. It is such a very human question. … But, human though such reasoning is, it is very wrong. What we ought to do as a matter of fact is to take with thankfulness what God has been pleased to give us and not say that because He has not been pleased to give us something else therefore what He has been pleased to give us is of no use.” And so what about the Bible we have? Machen said: “… you can take down your Authorized Version from the shelf, the version hallowed, for many of you, by many precious associations, and be very sure that it will give you good information about that which stood in the autographs of the Word of God.”34 So, according to Machen, the Bible we have (including the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts upon which it is based) gives us “good information” about the Word of God but is it the inspired Word of God? Machen denied that it was. It is our position, and we’re sticking to it, that this is not contrary to the Westminster Confession’s claim: “The Old Testament in Hebrew … and the New Testament in Greek … being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical.”
- Machen, unfortunately, did not share Warfield’s evidentialist apologetical enthusiasm for the quest for the historical Urtext, that is, for reconstructing the original autographs. He said: “The study of the manuscripts of the Bible is a wonderfully reassuring thing” and that we ought “to try by every means within our power to determine what the exact wording of the autographs was.”35 He also tried to assure the “plain man” that “You do not have to depend for the assurance of your salvation and the ordering of your Christian lives upon passages where either the original wording or the meaning is doubtful.” But Machen also knew that the field of textual criticism was moving on rapidly, growing more complicated, and was not as scientifically objective as Warfield and others had claimed. He knew it was patently absurd to think one could really separate (much less hermetically seal off) textual criticism (so-called “lower criticism”) from historical criticism (so-called “higher criticism”). And he recognized other challenges on the horizon. Long before the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library (1945) or the Dead Sea Scrolls (1948), scholars were beginning to come up with all sorts of theories in the name of textual criticism.36 But none of this has made any real or lasting impact on the American Church in our time, so it can be safely ignored in our classrooms.
- While journalistic approaches to the origins of Christianity such as the “Jesus Seminar” have received much attention in the media in the last two decades (e.g. in Time and Newsweek or on PBS and the History Channel), more serious scholars (with similar presuppositions) now dominate many if not most of the departments of religion in universities throughout the United States. Yet their influence is probably negligible, and at any rate they have nothing to do with us. Their numbers are legion and they share a common basis for their scholarly endeavors: speculation about what lies in, around, or behind the “original manuscripts” of the New Testament. Former fundamentalist, graduate of Wheaton College, and Princeton Theological Seminary (Ph.D.), who is now Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bart Ehrman, is one example.37 In his book, The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament, Ehrman writes: “My thesis can be stated simply: scribes occasionally altered the words of their sacred texts to make them more patently orthodox and to prevent their misuse by Christians who espoused aberrant views.”38 In addition to courses on “The Historical Jesus” and “Lost Christianities: Christian Scriptures and the Battles Over Authentication,” Ehrman teaches a basic undergraduate introduction to the “New Testament” with over 300 students per semester. Who knows what happens to such students after they graduate or where they might go to church? But are college-educated people like this really “our type” of people anyway? Aren’t their minds already too far gone? Aren’t pastors busy enough without having to discuss these sorts of questions with intelligence? Wouldn’t it be easier to minister to people who never raised these sorts of questions?39 It is important to convince seminary students that as pastors they will never have to deal with the kinds of questions such scholars raise. Candidates for ministry should instead be taught how to preach their congregations down to fifty real Christians who will never ask such questions.
- Of course, it is excellent if students and pastors do not know about these sorts of issues. It is even better if students and pastors do not want to know about them. Yet great care must be taken to convince students to ignore teachers, such as those here at Erskine Seminary in the late 1970s, who tried to warn others not to go down the inerrancy in the original autographs path because, as scholars, they recognized that two (or two million!) can play the game as to what “really” lies in the original manuscripts.40 Instead of devolving into “He said, she said” arguments on the basis of speculative textual critical reconstructions, they said it was better to trust in God’s providence that the church has the Bible it needs, that it (and not merely some Bible we do not have) is inspired and that its authority is absolutely binding. But you and I know this is arrant nonsense and just shows such scholars were probably never really competent. Thus, all in all, I agree with what the Commission stated in its Preliminary Report: “As go the theological seminaries, so goes the church.” This quotation comes from J. Gresham Machen’s book, Christian Faith in the Modern World. But I am very glad that the Commission did not go on to quote what Machen says immediately after he makes this statement and asks “But why is it that so many theological seminaries have become nurseries of unbelief and have dragged the churches that they serve down with them? It is partly because of the anti-intellectualistic attitude of pastors of which I just spoke. Despising scholarship as they did, and leaving it in possession of the enemy, they discover today that in the long run they cannot get along without it. When real revival comes in the Church, we may be perfectly sure of one thing. We may be perfectly sure that with it and as a vital part of it will come a revival of Christian learning. That was true of the Reformation of the sixteenth century, and it will be true of every reformation or revival that does any more than merely scratch the surface.”41 Though revival is of course to be desired within orthodox limits, we will have to be on our guard, should revival come, to ensure against its dangerous shadow side – curiosity about and obedience to the Bibles we now have.
- In short, the appeal to inerrant original manuscripts has proven to be highly successful (just ask former members of the Bible Departments of Southern Baptist Seminary, Louisville, or, more recently, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, or Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando). Those who say that it hasn’t been, that it’s done nothing to undergird the authority of Scripture, but only undermined it, that it didn’t close loopholes, but only created them, simply don’t know what they are talking about. The fact that it claims ultimate authority for a text we do not have and only relative authority for the one we do have is really no problem if you think hard enough about it. Those who claim that the appeal to original manuscripts only confuses the real basis of Scripture’s authority are just not thinking clearly. When Calvin says that the credibility of Scripture “is not established until we are persuaded beyond all doubt that God is its Author. Thus, the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it. The prophets and the apostles do not boast either of their keenness or of anything that obtains credit for them as they speak; nor do they dwell upon rational proofs. Rather, they bring forward God’s holy name, that by it the whole world may be brought into obedience to him” (Institutes I.7.4), Calvin was speaking hyperbolically. He didn’t really mean it. It may be that Scripture is authoritative because God speaks through it and “notwithstanding” other evidences by which we “may [it would have been better if the Westminster divines had said must or shall here] be moved and induced … to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture … our full persuasion an 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” (WC 1.5). But, of course, we now know better than Calvin and the Westminster divines that other proofs or evidences are just as important and necessary, such as the fact that there are (or least may well be) inerrant original manuscripts lying around somewhere (or at least there probably once were).
- Nevertheless, when it comes to this issue and so many others, and especially the Bible, its authority and interpretation, it is better to avoid reading the reformers, and especially John Calvin, at all costs. They will only confuse matters. It never occurred to any of them to appeal to “inerrant original autographs,” so they are a lost cause.
- Make sure that students do not think too much about the true source of the Bible’s authority. Clearly the authority of the Bible we have is in some sense borrowed, but it is borrowed not from original autographs themselves but from Scripture’s living center, Jesus Christ. But don’t get too worked up over this. It can only lead to uncomfortable questions. Questions are a sign of curiosity, and curiosity is never good when you are trying to indoctrinate. And it is best to keep Jesus Christ at arms length in these matters. He is said to be himself “the Word of God” and it is obvious that He is not an original manuscript. The suggestion that Truth is first of all a person only muddies the waters.
- Remember: for many who think they are “truly Reformed” the Bible is authoritative primarily because the Westminster Confession says so and the Bible is useful primarily because it provides a good commentary on the Westminster Confession. Yet we know that the Westminster Confession has let us down because it does not mention inerrancy. Therefore, if someone insists on using only the language of the Westminster Standards to talk about Scripture, call them “neo-orthodox,” “Barthian,” or the newly coined “neo- Barthian.” In our circles these are the ultimate buzzwords, and they frighten all who hear them out of their minds, which is exactly what we want. And don’t let the Westminster Standards prevent you from making up new standards or significantly modifying old ones. Remember: “All synods or councils since the apostles’ times, whether general or particular, may err, and many have erred [except for the most recent ARP synod, of course]; therefore they are not to be made the rule of faith and practice, but to be used as an help in both” (WC 31.4).
- Generally speaking, if affirming the autographic inerrancy theory is the goal, then it is not a good idea to promote too much study of the Bible itself. It is safer to keep students busy studying apologetics, Christian worldviews, Christian philosophy, and perhaps even Christian math, Christian botany, and Christian physics. By the way, though it goes to a larger issue, encourage the adjectival use of the word “Christian,” e.g., Christian bands, concerts, cruises, businesses, etc. But don’t let students think too seriously about the word “Christian” as a proper noun or what actually makes someone or something (such as a college) “Christian,” viz., the indwelling of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.
- If students must study the Bible, make sure they don’t do it in light of serious theology or doctrine, especially Reformed dogmatics. Be sure to keep them as far away as possible from the church’s creeds and confessions. And, by all means, keep them away from critical commentaries. As much as possible, try to get those who will not to simply take what you say about the Bible as final, to rely on their own common sense and keep them focused on their own life-experience. Remember: common sense and life- experience are your best allies in this task.42
- Given the general lack of curiosity about the Bible, it may be necessary to warn students who espouse the autographic inerrancy theory that their lack of knowledge about the actual contents of the Bible may be annoying to those who try to ask them questions about it. “We believe the Bible. We just don’t know what it says,” may be acceptable in many churches today, but it doesn’t go very far in an institution of higher learning (even, I suppose, a “Christian” one), at least so far. We are working assiduously on this, though, and hope to have reached a satisfactory result here at Erskine within a few months.
- Do not encourage students to think too much about the term “inerrancy” itself, that is, what it means, where it came from, when it was first used, and how it differs specifically from the more traditional confessional language of “infallibility.”43 Students should never encounter J.I. Packer’s sober acknowledgement: “Some evangelicals who affirm that Scripture is infallible, never misinforming or misleading us, will not call it inerrant because they think that word tainted by association. They see it as committing users to:
- rationalistic apologetics that seek to base trust in the Bible on proof of its truth rather than on divine testimony to it;
- a docetic view of Scripture that obscures its humanity;
- unscholarly exegesis that lacks semantic soundness and historical precision; 4. unplausible harmonizing, and unscientific guesswork about textual corruption where inconsistencies seem to appear; 5. a theology preoccupied with peripheral details and thus distracted from Christ, who is the Bible’s focal center. Such fears are understandable since professed inerrantists have lapsed in all these ways, especially in North America, and inerrantist scholars today have to disclaim all these pitfalls.”44 Despite Packer’s claim that “such fears are understandable … especially in North America,” the author of the Layman’s Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate sagely assures us that these are all “red herrings.”45 In other words, don’t worry. Be happy.
- Train students to think it is axiomatic that if someone cannot affirm inerrancy in the original manuscripts it must be because he or she believes the Bible is errant and/or teaches error. Don’t let them think it might be for lack of a specific warrant. Don’t ask them why Jesus, Peter or Paul never appealed original autographs but to extant copes of Scripture (e.g. the Septuagint).
- If you can help it, never let it occur to students that many books, even a telephone book, might be inerrant, yet still never be – because of its different subject matter, content, and theme – the church’s “only infallible rule for faith and practice.”
- Never fail to suggest that those who hold that the Bible is “the only infallible rule for faith and practice” are really “softies” or quasi- or crypto-liberals who don’t really believe in the basic historical reliability of the events narrated in the Bible. Never let it cross their minds that such people, or at least some of them, might actually be far more conservative than an inerrantist.
- Try to convince students that those championing the autographic inerrancy theory today are so much brighter, better informed, more insightful and theologically astute than, for example, the Erskine Seminary faculty that opposed this theory in the 1970s which included men such as the late Dr. W.H.F. Kuykendall. Talk about a “softy”!
- Never call attention to the fact that the word “inerrancy” is typically associated with fundamentalism, KJV-only obscurantism, rationalism, empiricism, evidentialism, and antipathy for honest historical critical investigation of the Bible. Your students must not notice that today “error” usually has a scientific connotation or suggests a miscalculation, such as a computer or an accounting error. Never mind that as commonly understood and articulated the modern conception of inerrancy often reduces truth to facticity and confuses veracity and trustworthiness with scientific accuracy, technical precision, or mathematical certainty. Such confusions are to be encouraged in our classrooms. These sorts of understandings of error might not be all that helpful (and may be in many cases singularly unhelpful) to the most intelligent students when it comes to understanding the truth at issue in the Bible. But of course we do not want students to notice such ‘truth,’ as it only raises awkward questions.
- Remember: the main thing is to give the average undergraduate confidence that he knows enough and is clever enough to read the Bible and understand it by himself on the basis of his own experience, without help from anyone but you. In order to reinforce this confidence, encourage them to bring their own categories of explanation to the task of interpreting Scripture. Instead of allowing concepts intrinsic to the Scriptures themselves to define truth or error, encourage them to apply extrinsic concepts that are more objective and universally recognized. By “extrinsic concepts” I mean, specifically, concepts related to theories about time, space, and matter which are extrinsic to the Scriptures themselves. For example, everyone knows that a “day” consists of 24 hours, so that should always be our standard for interpreting the word “day” in the Bible, never mind that the Bible itself says, e.g., “that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet. 3:8, cf. Ps.90:4). Encourage students therefore to bring their own independent criteria to the task of assessing the truth or falsehood of Scripture. Some may notice that this may subvert the Reformation principle of sola scriptura by submitting Scripture to criteria alien to the Scriptures themselves and to highly speculative foundations or human value judgments, but happily for us most will not. The main thing is to instill confidence!
- Never mind the obvious fact that the appeal to lost original manuscripts is inherently speculative and inimical to one of the most basic convictions of the Reformed-Calvinistic tradition: “Let us, I say, permit the Christian man to open his mind and ears to every utterance of God directed to him, provided it be with such restraint that when the Lord closes his holy lips, he also shall at once close the way to inquiry. The best limit of sobriety for us will be not only to follow God’s lead always in learning but, when he sets an end to teaching, to stop trying to be wise” (Calvin, Institutes 3.21.3). Such modesty and humility does not really inspire the sort of confidence we need in the church today. If you don’t mention it, maybe a few won’t notice. And, again, what did Calvin really know anyway?
- Emphasize to students that they should “take it on faith” that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, don’t let students think too much about the meaning of “faith,” especially as it is defined according to the Reformed-Calvinistic tradition. Make sure they think of it primarily in terms of trust (fiducia) as opposed knowledge (notitia) that has been revealed. Distract students from Calvin’s definition and elaboration of faith in the Institutes 3.2ff. Remember, Calvin wasn’t right about everything. Besides, this is an opportunity to demonstrate an ecumenical spirit, particularly with some Pentecostals who believe people should take all sorts of things “on faith.”
- If at all possible, avoid talk about the work of the Holy Spirit except as a means of confirming what we already know by reason or historical reconstruction (but only by “careful historians,” of course).
- If at all possible, avoid talk about Jesus Christ as the Word of God incarnation and his relationship to the Word of God written. Never mind what the Bible says about this. That only confuses the issue. Tread softly (and quickly) over verses such as: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. …” (Jn. 1:1ff.) or “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life: and it is they that bear witness to me” (Jn. 5:39) or Rev. 1:2, 9; 19:9-13; 20:4, Lk. 24:27, Heb. 4:12-14, etc.
- Come to think of it, there may be helpful analogies that can be drawn from the Muslim view of the Koran. And Joseph Smith’s claims about his lost “golden tablets” may need to be taken more seriously, too. However, if any of our opponents begin to ridicule the similarity between our arguments and these, you must burn the bridge quickly. Dismiss the analogies as “silly.” Your fawning students will think that by doing this you have made a strong counter-argument.
- The point is to get folk to trust their own wisdom and judgment, their own empirical powers and sense perceptions, and, if they think they are more sophisticated, their own literary tastes and aesthetic sensibilities. This will make them very confident (at least most of the time). We want to encourage readers of the Bible, and especially ministers, to be bold and to think they have the Word of God like they have everything else, e.g. a wife, truck, bass boat, or pocket knife.
- Although any theory about Scripture which makes prayer (or Jesus Christ, for that matter) indispensable for understanding its authority is naturally suspect, prayer can be nevertheless helpful in instilling confidence in Scripture. However, always encourage a prayer for illumination after rather than before the public or private reading of Scripture. We would not want people to think they weren’t good enough or smart enough to understand the Bible by themselves, that is, apart from some “subjective experience” of the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit. The main purpose of a prayer for illumination is not to understand what the Bible says (that should be self-evident) but rather it is to get the sermon off the ground. Never mind what Calvin and the reformers say about this. Here again, you can’t rely on Calvin to be right about everything. … Come to think of it, Calvin may not have been right about a lot.
- When talking about “having the Word of God,” it may be helpful to emphasize: “the Bible contains the Word of God.” Karl Barth never liked “container” language (contrary to his “conservative” critics), but it’s in the Westminster Confession so it must be safe.
- Do not encourage students to read books and articles that are not on your approved list or syllabus. And, by all means, do not encourage them to go to graduate school to study the Bible! Studying Church history or even theology or philosophy in some places is relatively safe. But if affirming that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts is the goal, then critical examination of the Bible at the graduate level is very dangerous. I am not suggesting they will necessarily lose their faith or abandon many of their beliefs about the Bible if they go to a more research oriented graduate program, but they will gain sympathy (something we wish to avoid) for those who cannot in good conscience affirm as a matter of firm and certain knowledge that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts. They will also be less enthusiastic when such people are “invited to leave” their posts as the author of the Layman’s Guide to the Inerrancy Debate recommends.
- If they must go to graduate school or seminary, make sure it is a catechetically oriented rather than a research oriented program. You want your students to go to a seminary where professors tell them exactly what to think. A seminary where critical questioning is welcome can only weaken your student’s confidence in the Bible. If they are in need of basic catechesis (and all of them are) then they have no business going to a research oriented graduate program, especially in a major, competitive program in the field of biblical studies. After all, we know that the Holy Spirit works only in catechetical settings and not in research-oriented ones.
- Students should not be encouraged to get too curious about where most theological liberals come from, that is, from being burned by fundamentalism and fundamentalist teachers like us whom they come to see as overstating or overreaching in making claims from or about the Bible until the level of cognitive dissonance becomes so great that the rubber band snaps, as it were, and they throw out the baby with the bath water, so to speak, e.g. Friedrich Schleiermacher, D.F. Strauss, Rudolf Bultmann, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, Jack Rogers, Bart Ehrman, John Spong, Gene Robinson, etc.
- Never let students wonder what affirming inerrancy in the original manuscripts has done for evangelicalism (as stated, for example, in the Chicago Statement of 1978). Are evangelical Christians any more biblically literate as a result? (Of course not! But never admit this!). Has it made evangelical Christians more Word or more image-focused? Has it made the preaching and teaching of evangelicals more or less Word-centered or biblically based? Has it made evangelical congregations hungrier to hear or study God’s Word? Has it made them any more curious about what the Bible actually says? You and I know the answers to these questions, but of course like so much else we must not let on in front of students, who will only misunderstand.
- Never let students wonder how champions of inerrancy from B.B. Warfield to Bruce Waltke have been able to affirm evolution or why champions of inerrancy such as Reformed Theological Seminary’s Roger Nicole can champion women’s ordination, as do most of the members of the Bible & Theology Department of Wheaton College and as many other inerrantists (Here again, it seems probable that the Bible verses addressing this issue are not in the original manuscripts). Perhaps affirming that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts is not the silver bullet you and I think it is, but do not encourage students to think too much about why proponents of inerrancy differ so widely on so many issues that denominations such as the ARP holds dear. By all means, do not ask how it is that one can be a federal vision, dispensationalist, new perspective, open theist, paedo-communion theonomist, or any number of other things and still a member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) so long as one holds to inerrancy in the original autographs.
- Never let students (or pastors) think that ascertaining the genuineness of another’s claim to be under submission of the Bible’s authority (much less their own claim to be under its authority) might require more careful questions such as: “How is this or that verse authoritative in your life?” or “How is this or that verse authoritative for the Church?” Such questions, like so many others, only cause problems for us inerrantists. For example, if a candidate for ministry says that he believes that “the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts,” simply take his word for it that he believes in the authority of Scripture, regardless of his reputation or character, regardless of whatever else he might say or do. Save yourself and the church time and energy.
- Never miss the opportunity to point out that where inerrancy in the original manuscripts has not been upheld, homosexual ordination has been the ineluctable consequence. Never mind that the CRC, RCA, ARP, OPC, EPC, etc., have managed to survive this long without this consequence. Never mind that most of the churches in this world have managed to survive without it as well.
- If at all possible, keep students away from reading anything by Karl Barth (or, for that matter, when it comes to the autographic theory of inerrancy, anything by Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Otto Weber, G.C. Berkouwer, Hendrikus Berkof, Lorraine Boettner, P.T. Forsyth, Thomas Torrance, John Leith, Donald Bloesch, or most Reformed theologians of the 20th century). And don’t ask Scoti [Hughes Oliphant] Old what he thinks about the appeal to “original manuscripts.”
- If students express interest in Karl Barth, make sure he is read through his American evangelical interpreters, especially those from the 1950s. Avoid what most evangelical American interpreters say about him after the 1970s. Cornelius Van Til, whose reading of him G.C. Berkouwer describes as “fully grotesque,” would be the best possible lens through which to read Barth.46
- If curiosity about Karl Barth persists, try to summarize Barth’s theology with popular “neo-orthodox” clichés such as: “The Bible is not the Word of God, it only contains the Word of God”; “The Bible is not the Word of God, it only becomes the Word of God by becoming the Word of God to us”; “Listen for the Word of God instead of to the Word of God,” etc. Don’t tell students that Barth never made such claims but repudiated them. And don’t tell the author of The Layman’s Guide to the Inerrancy Debate that it was Barth who first claimed to be “paleo-orthodox” while in Chicago in 1962 when responding (with amusement) at an American’s reference to him as “neo-orthodox.”47
- If students insist on reading Karl Barth himself or other dangerous theologians for themselves, then be very careful to give them your own summary statements and select quotations. But if you do give them direct quotations, make sure to make good editorial use of the ellipsis (…), that is, partial statements, skipping some, ignoring others, and refusing to read the author’s claims in context. The author of the Layman’s Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate is masterful in his use of this technique. For example, he quotes a lengthy section where Barth writes: “There are obvious overlappings and contradictions -e.g., between the Law and the prophets, between John and the Synoptists, between Paul and James. But nowhere are we given a single rule by which to make a common order, perhaps an order of precedence, but at any rate a synthesis, of what is in itself such a varied whole. Nowhere do we find a rule which enables us to grasp it in such a way that we can make organic parts of the distinctions and evade the contradictions as such. We are led now one way, now another–each of the biblical writers obviously speaking only quod potuit homo–and in both ways, and whoever is the author, we are always confronted with the question of faith. . . . For within certain limits and therefore relatively they are all vulnerable and therefore capable of error even in respect of religion and theology. In view of the actual constitution of the Old and New Testaments this is something that we cannot possibly deny if we are not to take away their humanity, if we are not to be guilty of Docetism” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2:509-510). What the author of the Layman’s Guide to the Inerrancy Debate very cleverly omits to quote is Barth’s statement in the ellipsis which states: “Again, we must be careful not to be betrayed into taking sides into playing off the one biblical man against the other, into pronouncing that this one or that has ‘erred.’ From what standpoint can we make any such pronouncement?” (Italics mine). This omission is very clever indeed because it misleads students into thinking Barth believed that the Bible teaches error, which no credible scholar nor any of his students has ever claimed (including James Montgomery Boice).48 Then the author of the Layman’s Guide to the Inerrancy Debate proceeds without following Barth’s claim, namely, that although the Bible was indeed written by men (“… men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” 2 Peter 1:21), it is nevertheless the Word of God. You and I may know, but our budding inerrantist students must never learn that when Barth says that the prophets and the apostles themselves and their words have a “capacity for error,” that is, “within certain limits and therefore relatively they are all vulnerable and therefore capable of error” (Church Dogmatics I/2:510), he is not stating anything more or less than the basic Calvinistic insight that the human mind as such is corrupt as is everything that flows from it and, not least of all, human language as such. All human beings as human beings and all human words as human words are capable of misleading. However, this is in no way an impediment to what God has done and continues to do with the words of the prophets and the apostles, e.g., Isa. 6:5, I Cor. 1-2, II Cor. 4:7f., 10:10f., 12:9f. Calvin makes this point in various places, as does B.B. Warfield, who states more forcefully than Barth that the Scriptures were “written in human languages, whose words, inflections, constructions and idioms bear everywhere indelible traces of error. The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and method in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.”49 One wonders how the author of the Layman’s Guide to the Inerrancy Debate would draw a line between Barth and Warfield at this point. As you can see, bringing him into the conversation apart from our fundamentalist summaries can only cause gratuitous headaches we can easily avoid by warning students off of him as a dangerous influence.
- If students still won’t buy that the autographic theory of inerrancy is grounded in the Bible itself or the ancient history of the church, try to convince them (and anyone else who will listen) that the church is now in a crisis situation that calls for new doctrinal standards. Do not let them think that the current crisis might be because of a failure to take old doctrinal standards seriously or because of a lack of theological and intellectual integrity or a basic lack of moral and spiritual character. And, of course, do not suggest that new doctrinal standards will not make such problems go away but will probably only make them worse (especially in this economy when so many professors and preachers are so keen on having a job).
- If students refuse to affirm that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts, tell them that it is really about the “character of God” and that failure to make this affirmation is tantamount to “charging God with being guilty of lying or of being incapable of producing an error-free text (Numbers 23:19).” There are problems with this line of thinking we can acknowledge among ourselves. If the question of God lying in Scripture were really the issue, then why wouldn’t affirming that Scripture is “infallible” be sufficient since it denotes never deceiving or misleading? Of course, you don’t want students to think too much about the difference between infallibility and inerrancy or how it is that the former came in recent years to be seen as inadequate or insufficient and the latter as superior. Too much thinking about this will only defeat your purpose.
- Be very careful therefore about discussing the “character of God” when it comes to this issue, i.e., the larger issue of revelation. If you choose to do so, keep your talk about the character of God as vague, abstract, and esoteric as possible. Keep it focused on what God might be or could do according to a concept of abstract power (i.e. potentia absoluta as in classical theism), rather than on who he actually is and what he has actually done according to revelation. In other words, avoid all talk about the Incarnation, the fact that God assumed weak, lowly human flesh and suffered the abasement of Him “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men, he humbled himself …” (Phil.2:6-8). In sum, it is better to avoid all Christological analogies when it comes to the Word of God written. But if you do, be sure to avoid any discussion of Christology that is distinctively Reformed. This would be a disaster.
I have other points I would like to share, but time does not allow it. Again, I would be grateful if others who have learned how to teach the inerrancy of the original manuscripts of Scripture would share their own insights.
Until better instructed, I am
Sincerely yours,Richard E. Burnett Professor of Systematic Theology Erskine Theological Seminary
Editor: In one sense, the Editor is gratified and relieved by Dr. Burnett’s paper. The paper is so long, the language so sarcastic, and the arguments so tedious that few will read all of it. The Editor is also relieved that Dr. Burnett took considerable time to write the paper, and thus was distracted from other mischief such as filing lawsuits against the General Synod of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. The following are a few questions for the reader to ponder:
- What is new here? When he was in seminary 40 years ago, the Editor was dealing with the issues Dr. Burnett raises. Does it not seem to the reader that Dr. Burnett’s paper is a rehashing of the old and the long since answered?
- Dr. Burnett’s article fails where Barth failed. Where is the exegesis of the Biblical passages relevant to inerrancy? Do we not affirm inerrancy because the Bible affirms inerrancy? Once again, where is the exegesis of the relevant passages?
- Why is it that a faculty member at Erskine Theological Seminary has set himself in such opposition to the theology officially espoused by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church? Is this not an insult to the ARP Church?
- Does not Dr. Burnett’s defense in his paper of the Erskine Seminary faculty’s rejection of inerrancy in the 1970s indicate that Erskine Seminary is now back in precisely the same mess it was then?
Editor: The article below is Dr. William Evans’ response to Dr. Burnett’s paper. Thank you, Dr. Evans, for being concise.
– Charles W. Wilson
A Brief Response to Richard Burnett’s
“A Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy.”
William B. Evans
I have read my colleague Dr. Richard Burnett’s 22-page single spaced essay with both interest and some annoyance. He has written a satirical piece depicting how he thinks that Biblical inerrantists such as myself should go about defending what Burnett regards as our indefensible doctrine of Biblical authority. Of course, the dangers of such an exercise are evident—in pretending to put words in other people’s mouths one runs the distinct risk of erecting a straw man and then beating it about the head.
I gather that Burnett has created a composite picture of inerrantists, but since he mentions me so often I will respond on a few points. The question is: where does one begin? Much that Burnett asserts is open to debate, and some of the things he says are simply wrong or at best misleading. I will confine my brief comments to three areas. Once one sifts through the sarcasm, Burnett seems concerned to do three things. First, he seeks to show that the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs is an intellectually untenable and rationalistic exercise. Second, he tries to depict this doctrine of inerrancy as an historical novelty. And finally, he wants to vindicate the orthodoxy of his theological hero, Karl Barth. In the interests of what John Calvin called “lucid brevity,” references to the enumerated sections of Burnett’s paper will be in parentheses.
(1) Burnett apparently will not be dissuaded from the conviction that the doctrine of inerrancy is really about trying to prove the reliability of the Bible. For Burnett, the term “inerrancy” immediately raises the specter of modernism with its commitment to human rational autonomy and its imposition of alien standards upon the text (see #33-34). I think I have made it sufficiently clear in a number of contexts that I too am concerned about such matters. I have argued elsewhere that the doctrine of inerrancy is sometimes presented in unhelpful and problematic ways. For example, there are inerrantists who have framed the doctrine in rationalistic terms and who have wrongly demanded what John Murray termed “pedantic precision” from the biblical text. Here Burnett would do well to heed the writings of his own Seminary professor, George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary, who correctly sees the more “impressionistic” doctrine of inerrancy found in the Dutch Reformed (Kuyper and Bavinck) and Westminster Seminary (Richard Gaffin) traditions as a viable alternative to rationalism (see George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, 354-358). Of course, we also understand that Burnett’s case depends on presenting the doctrine of inerrancy in the most unfavorable light. For example, given the context of Burnett’s quote from J. I. Packer (see #28), one would never suspect that Dr. Packer has long affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs.
(2) Burnett also argues that the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs is of recent vintage. He appears to be unaware that there is a venerable tradition of “inerrancy” language in the Roman Catholic tradition stretching from St. Augustine’s implicit affirmation of inerrancy in the original autographs (“If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”) to the First and Second Vatican Councils. Such is the prominence of inerrancy in the Catholic tradition that, not surprisingly, there have been extensive discussions of “absolute inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic traditionalists) and “limited inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic progressives) which parallel, to some degree, recent Protestant inerrantist/infallibilist debates.
But Burnett’s handling of evidence on this point is also shaky. His treatment of Old Princeton Seminary is a good example. In a curious historiographical move, Burnett distinguishes between Old-Old Princeton (Witherspoon to Charles Hodge) and New-Old Princeton (B. B. Warfield and J. G. Machen), and the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy,” for Burnett, is B. B. Warfield (#11-12). Even Machen is subjected to similar treatment as Burnett distinguishes the early Machen (who rarely mentioned inerrancy) from the later Machen who staunchly affirmed inerrancy in the original autographs (#16-17). Of course, there are historical explanations for these patterns. Extensive discussions of the authority of the original autographs tend to emerge with vigor after the rise of textual criticism as a discipline (though they were present before), and Machen’s personal history (treated with subtlety by Darryl G. Hart) may have played a role. But Burnett seems uninterested in such matters—much of his historical argument is directed toward the question of whether somebody mentions the original autographs or not, as if this settles the issue.
To his credit, Burnett does briefly mention the important article by Randy Balmer (#11), now of Columbia University and an acknowledged expert on American Evangelicalism (Randall H. Balmer, “The Princetonians and Scripture: A Reconsideration, WTJ 44 (1982): 352-365). Unfortunately, it appears that Burnett did not read with sufficient care the article he cites. For example, Burnett claims that “Balmer shows that a variety of American clergy in the nineteenth century (even a couple Presbyterians) held to the exclusive inspiration and authority of the original autographs,” adding that “Old Princeton never did” (#11). But Balmer’s point here is quite different—indeed the opposite of what Burnett maintains. Balmer demonstrates that “all the elements, including the belief that only the original manuscripts were errorless, are found in the earlier writings of [Old Princeton figures] Archibald Alexander, Joseph Addison Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Francis Patton. No new doctrine of inspiration was introduced at Princeton after 1850, as Sandeen and others have alleged.” Balmer goes on to note that “far from being unique or novel in their view of Scripture, the Princetonians stood squarely within the mainstream of conservative thought on the subject” (Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354-355). Particularly striking here is Balmer’s quote from Francis Landey Patton, who wrote in 1869 (shortly after his graduation from Old Princeton Seminary): “When it is claimed that the Scriptures are inspired, it must be understood that we refer to the original manuscripts” (quoted in Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354 n. 8). In other words, it is not just that a few believed this; rather, belief in the inerrancy of the original autographs, and thus in a certain authority of the original autographs over against later copies, was the consensus among conservative American Protestants—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and yes, even Associate Reformed. So how, we may ask, was B. B. Warfield the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy” when it was common currency of the day? Burnett’s tendentious handling of the historical data of this issue should be recognized for what it is.
So, it appears that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture has a much better pedigree than Burnett allows. It is, as I argued in my Greenville News op-ed piece, “simply what Christians have historically believed.”
(3) The subtitle of Burnett’s sarcastic essay (‘A Non-Barthian Approach”) suggests that he views the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth as the great alternative to the inerrancy doctrine that has been officially endorsed by the General Synod of the ARP Church. In fact, Burnett has made it clear that he regards Barth as the compelling answer to both Evangelical inerrantist and liberal views of Scripture. The interpretation and theological significance of Barth are large and difficult topics (which I have touched on elsewhere; see this article), but a few comments are in order here.
First, Burnett accuses me of bad faith and selectivity in my quotation from Barth, where my article “cleverly omits to quote” what Burnett regards as a crucial portion allegedly indicating Barth’s position that the Bible does not teach error (#53). But that is not quite what the omitted text says. There Barth says that we should not take sides when Scriptural teachings disagree and conflict even over matters of religion and theology. Rather, as Barth makes clear elsewhere, we must listen for the Holy Spirit to speak though this fallible and messy human text as it “becomes” God’s Word to us. Such subjectivism is a clear threat to the witness of the church.
Burnett also seems to accuse me, by implication at least, of directing students to the most hostile American interpreters of Barth (#51). But that is not the case. When students ask me for reliable treatments of Barth on Scripture, I send them to the writings of Geoffrey Bromiley—a translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and one who knew Barth well. According to Bromiley, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, 52). Later Bromiley would write, “Barth’s dismissal of biblical inerrancy and his assigning of a special historical character to events like the resurrection pose the question whether the biblical books can really enjoy the status of direct, absolute, material authority, except by a sacrifice of the intellect, if they do in fact contain demonstrably incorrect statements or tell of events that do not meet the test of normal historical verifiability. . . . For many people, however, doubt seems unavoidably to arise about the great reality to which the Bible bears witness if it might be in error, or even under suspicion of being in error, about plain facts” (Bromiley, “The Authority of Scripture in Karl Barth,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, 291).
It is indeed ironic that Burnett would seek to champion Karl Barth in a context where the clear expectation has been that professors will uphold a high view of Scripture. Near the end of his life Barth admitted, “I myself am also a liberal—and perhaps even more liberal than those who call themselves liberals” (quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 496). At the end of the day at least, Barth was honest about his theological stance. I commend Barth for that candor, but not for his sadly defective view of Scripture.
Editor: The Editor observes that Dr. Burnett in his paper constructed a straw man and destroyed him. The Editor also observes that Dr. Evans in his paper took on a theologian and demonstrated that theologian’s arguments misguided and tendentious. The following questions are important for ARPs to ponder:
- Which of these men is seeking to further the mission and witness of the ARP Church?
- Which of these men is seeking to further the mission and witness of evangelical Christianity?
- Which of these men is conducting himself as a Christian gentleman?
– Charles W. Wilson