To See Ourselves as Others See Us

 

The article below is by Rev. Ken Pierce, Senior Pastor, Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA), Jackson, MS. The article first appeared in The Aquila Report on February 24, 2011. Rev. Pierce has given the Editor of ARPTalk permission to reprint his article.

This is a view from the outside. This is how an outsider sees us. This is how a minister/theologian in the PCA reads the February 2011 article in The ARP Magazine on inerrancy by Dr. David Norman, President of Erskine College and Seminary.

No New Battles – The Inerrancy Controversy Strikes Again On the Erskine Campus

by Rev. Ken Pierce

A school’s real creed is what is taught in the classroom. If a creed sits in a drawer, it does not matter much what is said. A school’s practical creed is the beliefs and teaching of its faculty. Erskine cannot at the same time uphold inerrancy and employ those who oppose inerrancy any more than the United States of 1850 could have been described as a free society.

Last year, the Reformed world watched as the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church (ARP) plunged itself into a debate about how to address longstanding tensions and issues surrounding its Erskine College and Theological Seminary. Those issues are far too complex to sort out here, other than to say that one result of the battle was the appointment of a new president for those conjoined institutions, Dr. David Norman. Dr. Norman has an unenviable task, for the issues are many and complex. Since his appointment, he has been attempting to navigate the murky waters of Erskine’s deep and longstanding difficulties.

One of those difficulties surrounds the requirement that all faculty affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. What is this doctrine and why is it so vital? The ARP expressed its understanding of inerrancy in 2008, stating “the position of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church on Scripture is that the Bible alone, being God-breathed, is the Word of God written, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts.”

Inerrancy is something the Bible claims for itself. Paul tells us that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17). Likewise, the Apostle Peter wrote, “[k]nowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. 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 1:20-21).

Inerrancy simply means the Bible is God’s word and thus without error. While it is true that we don’t possess the original manuscripts, archaeological discovery and Biblical scholarship has given us a very trustworthy and accurate manuscript.

For a long time, scholars in the PC(USA) who consider themselves to be relatively conservative have tried to stake out a mediating ground between inerrancy, which they perceive to be a militant and anti-scholarly fundamentalist position, and the outright denial of Biblical authority by higher critical scholars. Thus, they attempt to affirm the Bible’s authority without affirming its inerrancy. This presents a problem, and this is where Erskine and her president come in.

Erskine’s requirement, the ARP’s statement, and the Scriptures appear clear enough. There are only two options: either one sits under the authority of the Word of God or he places himself in judgment over the Word of God. Either God’s Word is what it claims to be or human scholarship and authority supersedes the Bible’s own claims, and man must sort out for himself which parts of Scripture are accurate and authoritative, and which are not.

If the Bible contains error it cannot be authoritative. Man must then judge which parts of Scripture are true and which are false; Scripture no longer sits in judgment over man.

The problem at Erskine centers around two faculty members, themselves members of the PC(USA), not the ARP, named Michael Bush and Richard Burnett. Dr. Burnett does not like the ARP’s statement on inerrancy, or Erskine’s requirement that faculty submit to it. Indeed, he has written a fifty-six point rebuttal of such a doctrine, with high dudgeon [link removed by Editor].

This presents Dr. Norman and the whole Erskine governing structure with a tremendous problem. How can Erskine stand before the watching world, proclaiming herself to be evangelical in doctrine, and yet harbor those who publicly and vociferously denounce and ridicule the doctrine of inerrancy?

Like institutions are wont to do, Erskine is resting her hopes in a technicality. First, Erskine reports “In 2008, the Seminary Committee of the Board of Trustees investigated issues related to Dr. Burnett’s teaching on Scriptural authority…The committee agreed that Dr. Burnett affirmed the inspiration of Scripture and its infallible authority in keeping with the Westminster Standards.” There is no subsequent explanation of how it found this to be true, given what Dr. Burnett himself has written. It is simply declared to be true, in defiance of the public evidence.

For instance, Dr. Burnett, in the aforementioned fifty-six points, states that inerrancy is of recent vintage, asking

“If affirming that the Bible is inerrant in the original manuscripts is so essential, why did it take so long for the church to do so officially?”

This is misleading. The truth is that belief in Biblical inerrancy was always subsumed under the doctrine of inspiration. It is not until Protestant liberals began to widen the definition of inspiration to make room for themselves that orthodox Christians were pressed to define the doctrine further. Doctrines always become more precise as error asserts itself –witness the Nicene Creed and its precise Christology.

The church always affirmed the full divinity and humanity of Christ but, when faced with a challenge, fleshed the doctrine out in response to error: so, too, with Biblical inerrancy. No-one could seriously assert that the Westminster Divines meant anything other than inerrancy when they penned the first chapter of the Confession of Faith.

Yet, it is precisely here that Dr. Burnett seeks to make room for himself. We cannot reasonably expect the Divines to have countered challenges to inerrancy they had not experienced any more than we could expect Sun Tzu to have written rules for nuclear war. You cannot oppose or define what does not yet exist.

Dr. Burnett wants to take refuge in the word “evangelical.” Erskine has long been known as an evangelical institution, and Burnett argues that an affirmation of inerrancy is not essential to what it means to be evangelical. In his first point, he states, that the inerrantist believes that a failure to affirm that the Bible is inerrant “is not to be an evangelical Christian.” He states that the vast majority of evangelical Christians around the world and the overwhelming majority of evangelical colleges in the United States do not make this affirmation nor do they require it of faculty members.”

Yet, this is a tautological argument. Dr. Burnett assumes what he seeks to assert, namely that self-described evangelical institutions do not see inerrancy as part and parcel of evangelicalism. We might counter that an institution, its protestations to the contrary not withstanding, that does not affirm the full inerrancy of the Scriptures is not evangelical in the historic sense of that term.

The term evangelical has an interesting history –it was the self-designation of Lutherans in Germany, and became associated with the revivalist movement of the eighteenth century, associated with men like Whitefield, the Wesleys and Edwards. In the nineteenth century, it was affiliated both with the work of Charles Spurgeon and the modern missions movement.

In the middle of the twentieth century, the term “evangelical” would be further defined by men like Carl F. H. Henry and Harold John Ockenga as a conservative, scholarly movement that focused on the centrality of the gospel, the necessity of Christ’s atoning work and the reality of the conversion experience, while advancing a conservative stance on Scripture and doctrine.

One wonders where, among this long pedigree, Dr. Burnett might find a single man who ever asserted a single error in the Biblical text. Indeed, the honest student of history will find just the opposite to be true. J. I. Packer, one of the intellectual leaders of twentieth century evangelicalism shows this to be the case in his fine little volume, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God.

The Erskine authorities take refuge in the rules of tenure. No doubt these rules put them in a difficult spot –the precise reason that other Reformed seminaries eschew tenure altogether. They state that 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 the ARP magazine, President Norman, no doubt eager to promote his schools as defenders of inerrancy, has published the first two articles of a three-part series on the doctrine of inerrancy and its place in academia. He tries to stake out careful ground between academic freedom and doctrinal moorings. In this attempt he is unsuccessful.

In part two, Norman writes,

“This discussion naturally raises questions like, “Can one believe in inerrancy and still believe in _____?” (Fill in the controversial idea of your choice: female elders, abortion, homosexual marriage, or football at Erskine). My answer would be “yes.” How? Because a commitment to inerrancy defines our premise, not our conclusions.”

Yet, surely this cannot be right –how can we define the Scripture to be inerrant, and yet take exception to what it says?

By Norman’s definition, one could affirm inerrancy, yet deny that the Scriptures are authoritative in all areas of faith and life. In Dr. Norman’s estimation, inerrancy is an empty doctrine. It affirms the whole of Scripture, while denying that it is the sum of its parts. It denies that Scripture is given for reproof, instruction, correction and training in righteousness. This is a most disappointing line of argument from a man pledged to lead an institution that is both ecclesiastical and academic.

Abraham Lincoln is famous for having said that the American government could not long endure half slave and half free. Two groups of people with such opposite commitments in such a fundamental area could not long exist together. It created problems in administration and policy to be sure –three-fifths compromises, territorial self-determination and so on. Yet, at a deeper level, ideologies were in conflict. Was the black man a man, or was he not? Were his person and his labor his own? What happened if a slave escaped to a free state? We know what the result was. Lincoln was right.

Erskine faces a similar situation. It cannot continue in its current position. It cannot advertise itself as a school that adheres to inerrancy while it and employs vocal opponents of the doctrine. It matters little that the school’s statement of faith affirms inerrancy if what is taught in the classes that inerrancy is anti-scholarly, untenable and untrue. Dr. Burnett would be forced into an untenable situation were he to hold that inerrancy was false and foolhardy, but be forced to teach a doctrine he does not believe.

A school’s real creed is what is taught in the classroom. If a creed sits in a drawer, it does not matter much what is said. A school’s practical creed is the beliefs and teaching of its faculty. Erskine cannot at the same time uphold inerrancy and employ those who oppose inerrancy any more than the United States of 1850 could have been described as a free society. Dr. Norman’s statements simply do not wash.


Editor’s Comments

The Editor now makes the following comments regarding Dr. Norman’s second article on inerrancy:

  • The most glaring weakness of the article is that Dr. Norman attempts to say too much in one page. He also attempts to give what he writes a philosophical twist that does not clarify matters much at all.
  • Dr. Norman does not give a clear and usable definition of inerrancy.
  • Dr. Norman writes: “This discussion naturally raises questions like, ‘Can one believe in inerrancy and still believe in ___?’ (Fill in the controversial idea of your choice: female elders, abortion, homosexual marriage, or football at Erskine). My answer would be “yes.” How? Because a commitment to inerrancy defines our premise, not our conclusions.” Well, that opens up a can of worms, and it does not say what Dr. Norman was attempting to say. No wonder Rev. Pierce used this quote to criticize Dr. Norman. If the Editor may, what Dr. Norman was attempting to say was that evangelicals who affirm inerrancy often differ on interpretive issues. For example, evangelicals who affirm inerrancy differ on the mode of baptism, the use of the gifts of the Spirit, predestination (free will vs. election), the myriad issues involving ecclesiology, eschatology, and many other interpretive matters. Unfortunately, Dr. Norman’s choices of homosexual marriage and football were not ideal and tend to trivialize and confuse the issue.
  • Another can of worms was opened when President Norman asked this question: “So what if the Bible contradicts the facts? Do you reject the Bible, or reject the facts?” Such a statement is going to get a whirlwind of responses, mainly, “What contradictions?” Most Reformed evangelicals have waded through the so-called contradictions that have been posited by scholars critical of the Bible, and we do not find them imposing and unanswerable.
  • When Dr. Norman writes, “At Erskine we treat the Bible as the Word of God,” there is no doubt that what he writes is altogether true of him. However, the facts and history demonstrate that it has not been inclusively true and is not now true of the majority of the Erskine College faculty members.
  • There is no doubt that Dr. Norman affirms the inerrancy of the Bible. He has made that abundantly clear. On the Facebook site of the secular Erskine alums, he wrote: “Here is a link to another helpful discussion of inerrancy for those who may be interested. Of particular interest might be the ‘five things inerrancy is not.’ ” Dr. William Evans’ article at that web site is crystal clear. One would think that Dr. Norman would not have referenced Dr. Evans if he had any misgivings about what Dr. Evans believes.
  • Finally, what Rev. Pierce writes about Dr. Norman is a bit uncharitable. However, what he writes about Dr. Burnett is spot on!

These are my thoughts,

Charles W. Wilson

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  1. Ralph Smith says:

    Well said! I also read the ARP Magazine’s article. It appears to me that Dr. Norman is trying at appease two different agendas. Dr. Norman would be wise not to please everyone. In the end, no one will be pleased!

     
  2. Ken Pierce says:

    Rev. Wilson,

    I meant no ill will towards President Norman. I simply think his statement on inerrancy is exceedingly weak, particularly in light of the current issue. As Ralph Smith says above, trying to stake out some sort of middle ground will please nobody.

    Here’s another example from Inside Higher Education:

    Perhaps taking that long view, he declined to comment directly on the various allegations and counter-allegations made, but said he believes it is possible for Erskine to stay true to church teachings and to teach evolution. (Some outside critics have suggested otherwise.) “I believe in a historical Adam and Eve, and I believe that a historical Adam and Eve is a position that any high quality theologian will consider a fact, but I also recognize that most of the top biologists in the Western world would consider some form of evolution to be a fact, and I think all facts are God’s facts,” he said. Asked if that means he is comfortable with evolution being taught at the college, he said yes, without hesitation.

    He said that Francis S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, is “a good friend and one of the people I most greatly respect on this planet,” and cited with praise the way Collins has promoted a view that evangelical Christianity need not be viewed as inconsistent with evolution and science.

    I am grateful Dr. Norman affirms inerrancy. I hope he stands firm for it, and I pray for him as he addresses what he has inherited.

     
  3. Charles W. Wilson says:

    Dear Mr. Pierce,

    Thanks for you comments.

    AMEN.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    Editor, ARPTalk