Feb 16, 2011 | Comments 26
The e-mail below was sent out for President David Norman by Mr. Cliff Smith, Chief Communications Officers, Erskine College and Seminary.
Dr. David Norman and the administration of Erskine College & Theological Seminary would like to make the members of the Board of Trustees and their advisors aware of the following:
A recent post on the blog ARPTalk, dated February 2, 2011 and titled “Erskine Theological Seminary Irrelevant to the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church” asserts that Erskine Seminary professor Dr. Richard Burnett denies Biblical inerrancy and that such denial is a matter of public record. We believe these comments regarding Dr. Burnett to be misleading and unnecessarily inflammatory.
In 2008, the Seminary Committee of the Board of Trustees investigated issues related to Dr. Burnett’s teaching on Scriptural authority. That committee agreed that Dr. Burnett affirmed the inspiration of Scripture and its infallible authority in keeping with the Westminster Standards. The committee also unanimously found that Dr. Burnett was in full accord with the terms under which he was called and affirmed his continued ministry at the Seminary.
Earlier that same year, the Erskine Board of Trustees enacted a policy regarding the hiring of new faculty and administrators that contains specific wording regarding Biblical inerrancy. It is this wording with which Dr. Burnett takes issue. However, since Dr. Burnett was hired and granted tenure before the adoption of this wording, he is under no obligation to concur with that wording as a condition of his continued employment at Erskine.
In discussions with this administration, Dr. Burnett has expressed that he fully supports Dr. David Norman’s leadership in continuing to clarify how a commitment to Biblical inerrancy is lived out in the Erskine context. For more on Dr. Norman’s statements regarding inerrancy, please see parts one and two of his current series of articles in ARP Magazine.
At this time, the Editor of ARPTalk is obliged to make a candid and succinct response to the above e-mail from the Erskine College and Seminary administration.
So that all readers may be informed, below is what was written by the Editor of ARPTalk.
Finally, looming large like the proverbial elephant-in-the-room is the problem of the “Barth Brothers,” Drs. Richard Burnett and Michael Bush. Thanks to Dr. Gaston, Dr. Burnett (a PC(USA) minister) is now a tenured professor of systematic theology and Dr. Bush (a PC(USA) minister) is the VP for Development at ETS. None of this bodes well for ETS. Their neo-Barthian views of the Bible and denial of the inerrancy of the Bible are a matter of public record. That is what ignited this conflagration that has spread from seminary to college and throughout the General Synod and that has made the ARP Church a byword for theological and ecclesiastical ineptness and lassitude among conservative Presbyterians and other evangelicals. Does the reader think that there is going to be any scenario of healing and reconciliation between ETS and the ARP Church that fails to address the bewildering and controversial and inflammatory decisions of Dr. Gaston in embracing and defending such heterodoxy? Are we in the ARP Church going to abandon our position on the Bible? Are we going to adopt a definition of Biblical authority that rejects inerrancy and accommodates the heterodoxy of neo-Barthianism and Protestant secularism that permeates the mainline Presbyterians? Indeed, for the past half-century, ETS has always been more liberal than the ARP Church. This must stop. This must stop now! If it does not, it may see the demise of both ETS and the ARP Church. Does the ARP Church need ETS if ETS is going to be as irrelevant to the ARP Church as ETS has been and is? Do ARP candidates for the ministry want to attend ETS for any reason other than the fact that they can attend virtually tuition free? Even under these circumstances, many of our brightest and best have chosen other seminaries. Rightly so!
What is “misleading and unnecessarily inflammatory” about the truth? In the last three years, both Dr. Richard Burnett and Dr. Michael Bush have publicly and often disagreed with the statement of inerrancy that is held by the ARP Church. The following are a few examples of what has been reported that one are both of these men have written or said:
- ARPTalk(5.1) – Do Burnett and Bush Affirm Inerrancy? No!
- ARPTalk(8.3) – Martyrs of Due West
- ARPTalk(13.0) – Barthianism at ETS: Things Haven’t Changed!
- ARPTalk(Extra5) – Dr. Richard Burnett Publicly Acknowledges That He Does Not Concur with Inerrancy
- ARPTalk(Extra9) – Extra! Inerrancy: The Interminably Long vs. the Concise
It is not “misleading and unnecessarily inflammatory” to note the role of these men in the controversy that hounded the ARP Church in the last two years. They, and particularly Dr. Burnett and his denials and attacks on inerrancy, were the flashpoint for the controversy that has ensured.
What IS MISLEADING is to say that Dr. Burnett merely “takes issue” with the wording of the General Synod’s 2008 statement regarding inerrancy as it has become binding on new teaching and administrative staff at Erskine. The doctrine of inerrancy is well-known. It has been and is the consensus of orthodox evangelicalism in the United States. It has been expressed in the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (1978), in the membership vows of the Evangelical Theological Society, and in the 1979, 1980, and 2008 statements by the General Synod of the ARP Church. All of these statements refer to or clearly assume the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs. Dr. Burnett has not affirmed and says that he cannot affirm these statements.
The doctrine of inerrancy is not a theological mystery. It is a known quantity! Scripture itself claims to be without error and inspired by God down to the very words of the biblical text, and yet we also know that the manuscripts of the biblical books were not transmitted without scribal mistakes. Thus we speak of “inerrancy in the original autographs” and with the firm assurance that God has providentially preserved the text substantially intact. Because of this, our copies and translations are very reliable although they are, technically speaking, not inerrant. But Dr. Burnett refuses to speak of the original manuscripts and to tie the doctrine of Scriptural authority to the concrete biblical text in this way, and he is left only with the fallible copies and translations. But how can one coherently speak of such fallible copies as inerrant or infallible? IT CANNOT BE DONE! And so, instead of the well-established doctrine of inerrancy, Dr. Burnett wants to base the authority of the Bible solely on the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit and on how through the Spirit’s work the Bible “becomes” God’s word to us. This is none other than the subjectivism of Karl Barth, Dr. Burnett’s theological hero.
Check the articles above in ARPTalk. Dr. Burnett has not attempted to hide his denial of inerrancy under a bushel. In an Erskine Seminary faculty meeting in April of 2008 two faculty members (the “Barth Brothers,” Drs. Richard Burnett and Michael Bush) declined to affirm the General Synod statements of 1979 and 1980 that “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the Word of God without error in all that it teaches.” The faculty then unanimously passed a substitute motion that these statements simply be added to the ETS catalog instead. Some ARPs will well recall how the former Executive Vice President of Erskine Seminary, Neely Gaston, then went around claiming that the faculty had “unanimously affirmed inerrancy,” only to be publicly corrected on this point by Dr. R. J. Gore at the 2008 meeting of the General Synod Moderator’s Committee on Erskine. It was this troubling situation, and others like it involving Drs. Burnett and Bush, that caused the General Synod to further strengthen our statement on the authority of Scripture at the General Synod of 2008 with the following: “’The Bible alone, being verbally God-breathed, is the Word of God written, infallible in all it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts.” Dr. Burnett took great exception to this statement in his May 29, 2009 “Open Letter to ARP Pastors,” in his March 17, 2010 editorial in the Greenville News, and in his April 20, 2010 “A Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy in the Original Manuscripts: A Non-Barthian Approach.” That last document is a 22-page sarcastic mocking of the General Synod’s position on inerrancy and of those who support it at Erskine. Dr. Burnett uses 56 points to scream that he does not believe in inerrancy – 56 points of the same thing! In none of these documents does Dr. Burnett affirm the “inerrancy” of Scripture – HE DEINIES INERRANCY!
No doubt all of this is inconvenient for the administration of Erskine College and Seminary. Perhaps that is why they immediately shift attention to the administrative question of what Dr. Burnett was obliged to affirm when he was hired. They refer us to the Erskine Board Seminary Committee’s 2008 whitewash of Dr. Burnett’s views. In fact, this was hardly an even-handed process. It is reported that Dr. Burnett had Dr. Neely Gaston and Dr. Robbie Bell in the room running interference for him. (As readers of ARPTalk will recall, Dr. Bell is the author of the confusing and misleading paper circulated in First Presbytery that wrongly contended that John Leith was an opponent of Neo-Orthodoxy). The Editor of ARPTalk has spoken with a number of trustees who were present at that meeting and who are most uncomfortable with the conclusion that the Seminary Committee reached. At the least, the Committee acted under pressure and on the basis of incomplete information, and its decision was based largely, as the Erskine administration seems to concede, on the fact that the General Synod did not require an affirmation of inerrancy at the time that Burnett was hired.
The Editor is mystified as to how Dr. Burnett “fully supports Dr. David Norman’s leadership in continuing to clarify how a commitment to Biblical inerrancy is lived out in the Erskine context” when Dr. Burnett does not believe in inerrancy. How can he support what he does not believe and is not committed to?
Why does the Erskine administration now embrace and defend one who has publicly shown his contempt for the ARP Church, who has mocked the doctrine of Scripture affirmed by the ARP Church, and who has demonstrated his opposition to the policies and decisions of the ARP Church by filing a legal action in the civil court of South Carolina against the General Synod of the ARP Church? Is not the title of the offending ARPTalk article correct? Does not this mess demonstrate that ETS is indeed now “irrelevant to the ARP Church”?
What the Editor wrote is NOT “misleading and unnecessarily inflammatory”! IT IS AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH!
These are my thoughts,
Charles W. Wilson
Filed Under: Extra!