An Open Letter to David Norman

 

Below is the third article by Dr. David Norman, President of Erskine College and Seminary, as it appeared in the ARP Magazine regarding inerrancy.


Inerrancy: The Bottom Line

By Dr. David A. Norman President, Erskine College & Seminary

In this, the last of my three-part series on inerrancy, I have one final point to make: We don’t just recognize biblical authority because it brings us the joy of a shared commitment (cf. part 1) and gives us an intellectual foothold (cf. part 2). We also recognize biblical authority because we actually believe the Bible is true.

Rather than make this point myself, however, I would like to refer readers to a sermon by one of my theological heroes, Dr. Timothy Keller. The sermon is titled, “Literalism: Isn’t the Bible Historically Unreliable and Regressive?” and is available at redeemer.com. (link)

The main points of his sermon are:

  • We can and should trust the Bible historically.
  • We can and should trust the Bible culturally.
  • We can and should trust the Bible personally.

All the supporting thoughts behind each point are helpful and I recommend checking out the entire sermon. However, it is the conclusion that is most helpful for our discussion.

Keller says:

“It is often hinted—and sometimes said outright—that people who believe in the absolute authority of the Bible, and therefore believe they should submit to its authority, have a cold, legalistic kind of faith. This can certainly be true of someone. But I would like to make the case that a completely authoritative Bible is the prerequisite for a warm, personal relationship with God—not the enemy of it.”

He continues the thought by adding:

“Unless you have a completely authoritative Bible that can contradict you and come after you…, you have a god of your own making. An authoritative Bible that you have to submit to whether you like it or not is not the enemy of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God—it’s the precondition.”

This is an incredibly important issue. I readily acknowledge there are many disputes regarding the finer points of what specific language best expresses these concepts of biblical inerrancy. These disputes, if and when they are settled, will no doubt be replaced by other equally thorny issues. And the need to earnestly seek clarity as well as unity will continue.

However, as we seek to truly understand the authority of God’s inspired Word, we must remember Jesus’ stern rebuke to those that would strain out gnats of detail, yet swallow camels, neglecting the weightier truth of Scripture.

Ultimately, it is those who diligently live the truth of Scripture, not those who have the most precise definitions of it, whom Jesus commends in the final judgment. Biblical authority is not just another important doctrine. It is foundational. But it is not so because of the precision of our definitions. It is so because it is Truth

I will conclude my series on inerrancy with this final plea. We are currently facing one of the most significant milestones in Erskine’s history. Our commitment to the Triune God of the Christian Scriptures is at the heart of our shared mission. But Satan is alive and active, and he would like nothing more than to leverage our pride to turn us against one another with petty arguments over the hyper-precise definitions of mere words.

For the sake of Erskine, for the sake of the Truth, and for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, we cannot let the evil one succeed. Our God has faithfully revealed himself in the Bible. Let us rejoice and do his will. Let us recommit ourselves to the important work of Erskine: to equip students to flourish as whole persons, for his glory and our good.


EDITOR’S NOTE: It is the practice of the Editor to use the third person when he writes. However, since the article below is in the form of a “letter,” the Editor will use the first person.


Dear David,

First of all, you are my brother and friend, and you know that I do not esteem those words lightly. I have prayed and will continue to pray for you publicly and privately. I desire your success. Unlike many who disparage your youth, as you are aware, I delight in your youth. The task that is before you requires the strength and courage of a young man.

More than once in our conversations, you have invited my prayers, comments, instructions, corrections, and criticisms. I have been blunt with you, and you have been every bit as blunt with me as we have discussed many matters regarding Erskine and the ARP Church. You have also invited my public response. Indeed, my comments in this open letter should not be a surprise to you.

My brother in Christ, I applaud your willingness to write and publish these articles on what you believe about the inerrancy of the Bible. Your transparency in stating who you are and what you believe is refreshing. It is a transparency that has been all too often absent in Erskine administrators. I am thrilled that Dr. Tim Keller’s preaching and writings are instructing you (and, don’t tell anyone, I also listen to Keller’s messages). My heart rejoices when you write on Facebook in reply to unbelief and sarcastic rejection of evangelical Christianity, and say: “If I ever disagree with anything the Bible says, I am wrong. The Bible is the word of God. God is never wrong. We don’t always understand Him, but all too often that is because we are actively suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. . . . And yes, . . . I believe in angels, demons, Adam and Eve, etc. I also believe in the just, eternal punishment of those who are not united with Christ by grace through faith.” When you write like that, my soul is stirred by your bold affirmations.

Proverbs 27:6 reads, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” As you know, I am blunt. I have been told I have a provocative sense of humor. I will eschew the provocative humor as best I can, but I will be blunt. I hope that in the comments to follow I do not wound or give you cause for offense. I ask your patience and forgiveness in advance. Our past conversations inform me that you have a tough hide.

I begin with the following statement:

The inerrancy debate is not “petty,” and it is not a “hyper-precise definition of mere words.” That statement demeans the debate. When we confess that the Scriptures are inerrant, we are not giving a full doctrine of Scripture. There is still MUCH more that must be said; for example, inspiration and inerrancy must be accompanied by the doctrines of the perspicuity and preservation of Scripture. Nevertheless, inerrancy is certainly a necessary consequence of confessing that the Scriptures are God-breathed; and, furthermore, it is the most effective theological formula at our disposal for confessing our belief and for exposing theological liberalism. I join with the administration of Reformed Theological Seminary and praise them for refusing to hire professors who will not unequivocally affirm that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God written. And, yes, David, don’t forget that a very similar position statement is presently the position of both the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church and Erskine College and Theological Seminary.

David, your articles in the ARP Magazine are not a “bottom line” or a clarifier of the inerrancy discussion. They muddy the issues and confuse many of us. Do you realize that you have offended many of us by the choice of words like “petty” and “hyper-precise definition of mere words”? Surely you do not mean that the struggles for inerrancy in evangelicalism for the last 150 years and in the ARP Church for the last 40 years have been pedantic and scholastic exercises involving “mere words”!

Brother, I have read your articles in vain searching for a precise definition of inerrancy. It seems you have a phobia for precision and a predilection for vagueness. These are not the strengths of a theologian and a philosopher. You appear to be handling the problem like a politician. You know that this is not a matter of “mere words.” You know the history of evangelicalism and that the words and their definitions have been around for more than 150 years. Their meaning and precision have been forged in debates. They are clear. The only ones who think otherwise are those who advocate a deconstructionist approach to history and theology. And, from our personal discussions, I can’t imagine that is you. You have told me that your views square with the stance of the Evangelical Theological Society.

My dear brother, forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but “mere words” is what the Christian faith and practice are about. The Ten Commandments are “mere words”!? God-breathed words (2 Tim. 3:15) are “mere words”!? The Sermon on the Mount is the record of Jesus’ “mere words”!? In 1 Corinthians 2:13 Paul writes, “We speak . . . in words taught by the Spirit.” And, if I may be very bold, the history of Erskine on the matters of Biblical authority for the last 40 years has been one of disingenuousness and obfuscation and denial regarding these “mere words.” That you have not given a clear statement on the matters that have been contested for more than 40 years at EC and ETS AND in the ARP Church is disappointing. Indeed, I hope our physicians, when they prescribe medicines and procedures for us, are more concerned about “mere words” and “hyper-precision” than you seem to be!

Precision is specifically germane to this discussion. As you are aware, the theological history of the Christian Church has involved setting forth theological formulas and definitions. In the Trinitarian and Christological controversies of the early church, for example, the discussions hinged not on “mere words” but on a “mere letter.” Was it homoousios or was it homoiousios? That is, was Jesus of “one” or the “same” substance with the Father, or was Jesus of “like” or “similar” substance with the Father? Everything hinged on the Greek letter iota or, what we call, an “i”. The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed formula sets forth the Trinity and the divine nature of the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ. The Trinity and the deity of Christ are not insignificant doctrines of “mere words.” On a mere letter hung the difference between Trinitarian Christianity or Arianism. This is also true of the doctrine of inerrancy. The discussion hangs on “mere words” and “hyper-precision.”

David, on the one hand, you write that you affirm that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but, on the other hand, you take an anti-intellectual approach that dismisses discussion, and you take refuge in a nebulous concept that is as heavy as helium. Therefore, not having clear definitions and distinctions, you conflate doctrine (inerrancy) and actions (personal faithfulness). For example, you suggest that people who press for “hyper-precise definitions are people who strain at gnats and swallow camels. As you know, that’s Matthew 23:23-24 and the passage reads: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone. Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.”

Well, let me ask you three questions about those “mere words” of Matthew 23:23-24.

  1. Are you suggesting that people who are concerned for precise theological distinctions are like the Pharisees who attempted salvation through the righteousness of works, rejected Jesus as the Messiah and the only way of salvation by faith alone, and persecuted Him unto death on the Cross?
  2. By what authority do you use these “mere words” of Matthew 23:23-24 apart from some kind of assurance that they are the Word of God written or have you taking refuge in fideism, that is, faith in faith? If that is your position, you have embraced fides implicita, “implicit faith,” what Luther pejoratively described as “coal miner’s faith,” because coal miners were notoriously unlearned. Are you resting in the kind of anti-intellectualism that now pervades so many American evangelical circles that describes itself as an experience with Jesus but is unable to give a reason for the hope that is within them?
  3. Are you suggesting that those who attempt precision on these matters are not trying to live the truth of the Scriptures, and, if that is so, are you not being disparaging and judgmental? I now hasten to say that I know that you do not have a disparaging or judgmental spirit.

David, there are other relevant questions that I would like to ask you. If I have not already caused you to have an evil eye toward me, perhaps you will take note of the following.

Was it not the evil one who said to Eve, “Yea, hath God said?” and was not that an attack on the authority of God’s Word – that is, an attack on “mere words” of God? And is it not that this is the sort of thing that we have seen in so many professors at EC and ETS for the last 40 years? Many of us feel that your words about doing the work of Satan were aimed at us. How have we done the work of Satan in defending and promoting the Word of God written? Indeed, that is how we have read your words. Is that what you meant for your words to convey? Of course you didn’t! However, many who don’t know your heart have been offended by your words.

David, one of the things that totally mystify many of us in and outside the ARP Church is why it seems that you defend Dr. Richard Burnett? You have publicly informed many of us that he has changed his views on inerrancy, so why do you not allow him to make a public statement about his revised views on the Bible? Why is he still not a member of the Evangelical Theological Society? Indeed, you may want a new day (and who doesn’t), but do you not realize that whatever Dr. Burnett has said to you in private is now HEAVILY OUTWEIGHED by what he has so often and so boldly and so clearly written and said and taught in public? The events of the last three years regarding Dr. Burnett’s words cannot be treated as though they did not happen and he didn’t write the words that he wrote. During the administration of Drs. Randy Ruble and Neely Gaston, the reason that Dr. Burnett was able to attack derisively the ARP Church’s doctrine on inerrancy with impunity was because Drs. Ruble and Gaston gave him cover – and especially Dr. Gaston! Are you now giving Richard Burnett cover? For God’s sake, let this not be said of you! Let Dr. Burnett stand on his own two feet! He has a PhD from Princeton Seminary, doesn’t he? If he can’t stand on his own, he certainly doesn’t need to be teaching in a seminary. You are demeaning Dr. Burnett’s manhood! Listen, if he can convince me, would it not be “kingdom come”?

Finally, and I have been much too long at this, David, remember the exhortation of Luther, who said that if we stand for all the right things and fail to stand at the point of Satan’s attack, then we have denied the Gospel. The point of the spear that Satan has used to attack Protestant Christianity throughout the world has been his assault on the authority of the Bible, especially the doctrine of inerrancy. As you know, those who have NOT held a high view of the Bible are the ones who have capitulated. Many will say, and it’s an easy argument to make, that the theological and moral morass that we now see in the PCUSA is directly attributable to their jettisoning the doctrine of inerrancy. After the debates in the 1920s, the question was how far they would go. Well, pretty far! And they are not through!

I have one other quote and it fits the discussion. It’s an ARP thing. It’s a quote by Ralph Erskine. It’s from The Beauties of Ralph Erskine, Vol. I, pp. 211/12 (“The Dunghill of Our Righteousness”). Erskine writes, “When he [the syncretistic man] compares his best righteousness with Christ’s, he looks upon it as a dunghill, a stinking dunghill where there is no pleasure, and a sinking dunghill where there is no standing. . . . If we go about to establish our own righteousness, it stinks in the divine nostrils as dung; and not only so, but it is a sinking ground to stand upon, there is no firm footing; the more a man leans on it, the more he sinks in it. Christ’s blood is the only sacrifice of a sweet smelling savour to God; every sacrifice stinks that is not perfumed therewith.” Erskine also said that this man who attempted to stand with one foot on the dunghill of works’ righteousness and with the other foot on the Rock that is the complete satisfaction that is in Christ that he will surely slip and he will surely sink and he will surely stink. David, the attempt to stand with one foot on inerrancy (what Dr. Bill Evans has written) and one foot on anti-inerrancy (what Dr. Richard Burnett has publicly written but reversed in private to you) is going to put you in an intellectual and theological split that will demand 100 foot long legs and the flexibility of a wet washrag. Beware the slipping and the sinking and the stinking!

Well, let me see if I can end this with a statement and a question. The statement goes like this. You are new to us. Our history is not your history. With you not knowing who we are and the story of our struggles, I can see how it would be easy to misunderstand and pen words that would be offensive to us. I don’t know anyone who is looking to take offense in such a misunderstanding as this. However, we do want clarification.

The question goes like this. I believe in your first article in the ARP Magazine and in several Facebook posting you have written that you embrace the position of the ARP Church on inerrancy. “The Bible only, being verbally God-breathed, is the Word of God written, infallible in all that it teaches, and inerrant in the original manuscripts” is what we affirm. Those words are precious to us. They have been fought for. Do you unambiguously affirm those words with us?

To paraphrase the words of John Wesley, if your heart is as our heart is on this matter, give us your hand. A “Yes!” would be about as clear and succinct a statement that a man can make. Indeed, a “Yes!” would clear the matter completely.

With this open letter, I have not intended to belittle you or make your unenviable challenge at Erskine College and Seminary more difficult, but I have tried, with blunt, unevasive, uncompromising language, tried to underscore for you the seriousness of your imprecise article.

With sincerest regards and best wishes, I am your brother and friend in Christ,

Chuck Wilson

 

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  1. Tony Locke says:

    Inerrancy is a Bible doctrine like the Trinity. To clear this issue up for my church I preached a sermon “Is Inerrancy A Bible Doctrine?” – two Sundays ago. We don’t need moderation on this topic. Our leaders need to sound like rabid ideologues if we are to firmly establish this newly minted ARP stance.

    http://firstprestucker.org/sermon-archive/sermon-archive-2/2011-03-13/

     
  2. Bill says:

    Tony — I don’t think you need to worry about sounding like rabid idealogues . . .

     
  3. Seth Stark says:

    Thank you, Dr. Wilson. I, too, pray for Dr. Norman on a regular basis. I do not envy his position or the situation in which he has found himself. However, I believe he has been less than precise with his words, when precision is absolutely necessary. When I read “mere words” I was thrown back. I pray your letter does some good, and I will continue to pray for Dr. Norman.

     
  4. Ken Pierce says:

    Chuck and Tony,

    If you’re making the right enemies, you’re usually right. Keep on, dear brothers.

     
  5. David Norman says:

    Do I believe and support the ARP position on Scripture? As you know, my answer is, unreservedly, ‘YES!’.

    I know there are many who would like to obfuscate my very clear position on this. I do not believe you are one of those people, but as we have discussed, I am very disappointed in the tactics you have employed in this open letter.

    I know you read my first article for the ARP magazine, in which I said, “In 2008, the Erskine board of trustees adopted the policy that all new faculty and administrators from the director level upwards must be evangelical Christians. In this policy, a definition of ‘evangelical Christian’ was also provided. That policy and the relevant definition was adopted in its entirety from a recommendation made by the ARP synod.

    “I fully embrace this policy, and intend to ensure that it is fully implemented. I also recognize, however, that one particular portion of that definition has produced a great deal of confusion, disagreement, and in some cases even fear.

    “I believe that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. But well-articulated evangelical theology should produce joy, not fear. After all, the word ‘evangelical’ is properly applied to ARP theology because of our fundamental commitment to the good news of Jesus Christ—not any pharisaical or oppressive fear mongering.

    “The particular part of Erskine’s definition of ‘evangelical Christian’ that many worry over is the way in which our commitment to the absolute authority of Scripture is articulated. We say that evangelical Christians affirm that the Scriptures are “infallible in all that they teach, and inerrant in the original manuscripts”.

    “This language, which carefully employs and faithfully parses language that is hotly debated by a small number of biblical scholars, is not as clear to the generally informed reader as I wish it could be. For this reason, I would like to share a little about how this formulation works in the lives of those of us who are less concerned by the finer points of textual criticism than living in the joy that comes from the knowledge that God has spoken to us, and His word has been transmitted and translated so reliably that I can rest in full assurance that what the bible says is true.

    “Here in part one of this three part series, my goal is to frame the discussion conceptually. In part two, I will frame this discussion personally, with special emphasis on the pedagogical value of a widely held, clearly articulated, high view of Scripture within a Christian liberal arts institution. Part III will be an examination of the reasons for and benefits of understanding the Bible’s absolute authority. It will give special attention to the Bible’s Historical, Sociological, and Personal veracity.”

    I know you read it because you wrote me afterwards saying:
    “In my 40 plus years in General Synod, you are the first Erskine president who has openly and boldly said that he was going to stand by and with the directives of the ARP Church.

    Well, I guess I’m going to have to write a check. Don’t get to excited; I don’t have that much.”

    Did you forget what you clearly understood just a few short months ago?

    I think a lot of you, Chuck, and I know that your commitment to the Word of God is very high. You would never condone the opinions of those who would confuse the words of God with “mere words”. Please tell me that what I am dealing with here is a simple lapse in your memory.

    Since my conversion as a child, I have never wavered in my belief in absolute biblical authority. I am not sure when I first heard the doctrinal formulation adopted by the ARP synod in 2008, but I know I cited it in writing as my own position as early 1994.

     
  6. Dear David,

    Thank you for your “Yes.” That clears the air.

    You memory is almost as bad as mine. I sent a check.

    We are brothers. Brothers can always discuss subtleties in theology. That’s fun.

    With warmest regards, I am

    Your brother in Christ,

    Chuck

     
  7. William Anderson says:

    Thank you David! Thank you for saying “YES!” I knew you in 1994 and was strengthened by your faith, belief and application of the Scriptures.

    I have to confess that I remain confused. Who are the Pharisees? Are the Pharisees those who love the Scriptures and defend the Scriptures or are they the ones who attack the Scriptures?

    With much support and prayer I remain your friend and brother,

    Will Anderson

     
  8. Ralph Smith says:

    Wow. Just Wow. I have read and re-read all of this. Are ARP ministers not annoyed by what seems to be a game of wording! Tony Locke gets it right!

    Norman’s ‘articles’ were clear as mud. One would think that he could say, the Word of God ‘IS’ the Word of God. It is inerrant, infallable, and fully authoritative without oddly-worded language. One would think he would support the ARP position plainly in the ARP Mag for at least financial soluability.

    I guess my response is one of shock: Mr. Norman you wrote such words in the ARP Magazine= the magazine regular church folks, non-theologians read. You clearly wrote in ambiguous language. I am ‘obfusicated’, whatever that means….

    Mr. Norman, my assumption was that you were hired to be an evangelical leader, endeavor to solve Erskine’s history of problems, and to promote the good of the ARP within the College and Seminary.

    I guess, my reading of your articles, seems to indicate that you are afraid to stand on the issue that defines the ARP. If memory serves me, the past three Erskine College and Seminary leaders (Carson and Ruble and Gaston) evidenced a failure to stand on the ARP’s evangelical position with regard to the Bible’s authority. Such poor leadership did not bode well for them!

    I guess that I’m left thinking, great this guy ‘personally’ says that since he was a child he believes in the authority of the Bible. However, your articles seem to indicate the reverse, or at least that you are tying appease all parties.

    Please, for the sake of unity, be a man of straight forward integrity in your personal life and in your leadership when such weighty matters as the Bible’s authority hang in the balance.

     
  9. William Anderson says:

    Mr. Smith,

    I will allow David to speak for himself with regards to these matters save one: his personal life. One of the reasons I was so pleased that the Board of Trustees voted unanimously in favor of David becoming the president of Erskine College and Seminary was that I knew him to be a man of integrity in his personal life. I have no reservations concerning his walk with Christ, his home life or anything that relates to him personally. Giving credit where credit is due, he has stated publicly his affirmation of the 2008 General Synod’s statement on inerrancy. If there are other questions you desire to be answered, then fine, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

     
  10. Ralph Smith says:

    After some further thought on this, yet again, new mess in the ARP saga, Norman tells us that he and Wilson have talked and that he doesn’t understand why he has attacked him. And then, Rev. Wilson replies to David’
    ”Dear David,

    Thank you for your “Yes.” That clears the air.

    You memory is almost as bad as mine. I sent a check.

    We are brothers. Brothers can always discuss subtleties in theology. That’s fun.

    With warmest regards, I am

    Your brother in Christ,”

    What does this mean? Is Wilson now okay with a less than solid position on Biblical authority? I guess, I would wonder how Dr. Norman’s post clears the air—something smells like a stink bomb to me???? Again, is Norman telling people in private (certain constiuencies) one thing and others another.

    A man a used to be an ARP and work at Erskine once told me, once told me he left because he was sick of the gaming and politics of men who could not let their ‘Yes be Yes’ and Nos No’!

    Again, shouldn’t a man’s personal belief be a part of his leadership and vision in public?

    More feverent prayers go out for the ARP from me today.

     
  11. Ralph Smith says:

    No conversation on this…? Instead, your ‘wingnut’ and ‘thoughtful’ readers choose to comment on facebook posts?!?!?!? This is absurd!

     
  12. Dear Mr. Ralph Smith,

    I can’t speak for other people; however, I’m not sure what you’re asking. It seemed that you were making statements. That is, a this-is-what-I-think exercise. If you have questions, ask them.

    Do you have specific questions for me? If you do, I will attempt to answer them.

    Once again, I can’t speak for what others will do. If I have misread what you have written, I apologize.

    BTW, the silence by some may be agreement.

    Regards,

    Chuck Wilson
    Editor, ARPTalk