Scripture Is Made Up of “Mere Words”


A Response to President David Norman’s Final Article Entitled “The Bottom Line”

Ken Pierce

EDITOR’S NOTE: Ken Pierce is the Pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church (PCA), Jackson, MS. He is a friend of the ARP Church. Though we did not compare notes when writing our articles, our opinions are the same and some of our ideas are the same. Dr. Norman’s words have raised eyebrows in many places in evangelical Presbyterianism. However, that we are critical does not mean that we are not for him and that we do not continue to pray and long for his success; it only means that we want clarity on what we consider to be the most significant theological issue in the last 150 years.

It was the old Puritan Richard Rogers who said, “We serve a precise God.” As Francis Schaeffer said, many centuries later, our “God is there,” and He is not a silent God. Our God communicates with us, and He does so in such a way as to be clearly understood by us. Calvin says that God lisps (or “baby-talks”) to us so that we can grasp his meaning. Though it has become quite unpopular in certain circles to say so, God speaks to us in propositional statements, the meaning of which is not determined by the hearer, but by God himself.

To generations of evangelical Christians, those statements would be unremarkable and taken for granted. It was a bedrock article of faith, shared across denominational lines, that the whole of Scripture, down to its very words, was the inspired word of God. Scripture was not man’s thoughts about God, but God’s thoughts about God and everything else expressed through human authors in human language. Just before the turn of the 20th Century, when theological liberals began to co-opt the language of “inspiration,” evangelical Christian scholars adopted the more precise theological term “inerrancy.” If God, as Scripture says, “breathed out” the words of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16) and if “holy men spoke as they were moved by the Holy Ghost” (2 Pet. 1:21), as Peter wrote, then it follows that the words of Scripture are themselves inspired.

As an outside observer, a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and friend and admirer of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, I have viewed the events of the last year with a mixture of sadness and alarm. I was cautiously optimistic when Erskine College and Seminary, the locus of the late difficulties, despite deep division in the church and on its board, unanimously selected a young evangelical and Reformed president who publicly voiced support for the historic positions of the Associate Reformed Synod. I have read much of what President Norman has written and listened to one of his speeches (the one given at the First Presbyterian Church of Columbia). He strikes me as a good man, but one who is in a very difficult position. In these three articles, President Norman seeks to stake out a middle ground. He affirms his own personal belief in inerrancy and points his reader to thoughtful resources; for this we can be glad. Yet, at the same time, he appears to want to have the best of both worlds. He wants to hold to inerrancy, but allow latitude at the institution he leads for those who do not, and this in spite of the expressed doctrinal commitments of both Erskine and the Associate Reformed Synod.

The middle ground is often untenable. If your criteria include the pleasing of constituencies, the middle position is often not the position of compromise, but of setting oneself in opposition to both sides simultaneously. I make no presumption of knowing Dr. Norman’s motivation in choosing the position that he has, but I do find the choice of middle ground exceedingly curious. If the doctrine of inerrancy is true, then let him stake his ground unashamedly on inerrancy. If inerrancy is, as Erskine Seminary professor Richard Burnett has publicly said, outmoded, constraining and anti-intellectual, then consign it to the ash heap of theological history. It simply cannot be both things.

This is what is troubling about Dr. Norman’s words. He states, for instance, “[w]e must remember Jesus’ stern rebuke to those that would strain out gnats of detail, yet swallow camels, neglecting the weightier truth of Scripture.” This is a curious statement, and Dr. Norman does not flesh it out. It is curious because one of the weightier truths Jesus mentions in that statement is left unmentioned by Dr. Norman, namely, “faithfulness.” Part and parcel of faithfulness is contending for the truth, a truth contained in the very words of Scripture. Indeed, without the truth, faithfulness is an empty concept –faithfulness to whom or to what? Certainly it must be to God and His truth, which is expressed in the words of Scripture.

Dr. Norman goes on to state: “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…But it is not (foundational) because of the precision of our definitions. It is so because it is Truth.” We must heed Dr. Norman’s counsel here; it is surely Biblical. It is possible to get overwrought over definitions. Scripture warns us against quarreling over words. We often are too punctiliar and too pedantic in theological debates.

Yet, we need to ask ourselves if that is true in the realm of the doctrine of inerrancy. Isn’t inerrancy all about words and their definitions? How do words have any fixed meaning apart from precise definitions? How does truth have any content apart from “mere words”? God speaks, and He means for us to understand. Moreover, much of the Bible is meant to be lived out, certainly, but much of it is simply to be believed. It is objective, propositional truth. Someone may honor their father and mother, but deny that Jesus is the Son of God. Is that person living out Scripture? How does one live out the doctrine of the Trinity or the substitutionary atonement? These are objective truths, outside of my experience, expressed in words, of which I lay hold by faith –I do not live them out.

Dr. Norman concludes his series of articles by stating that “Satan…would like nothing more than to leverage our pride to turn us against one another with pet arguments over the hyper-precise definitions of mere words.” Again, this might be sound counsel in certain contexts. Yet, Dr. Norman does not give us a context and the reader is left wondering precisely to what he is referring. It appears that he is referring to the inerrancy debate itself. It is curious, however, in a series of articles in which he seeks to affirm inerrancy, that Dr. Norman would conclude such a debate with a caution against hyper-precision over mere words.

I am reminded that, at one point in church history, the whole doctrine of the divinity of Christ hinged on a single iota – the difference between Christ as uncreated eternal Son of God and Christ as mere creature is one little “i” in the Greek. Many other vital debates in church history have hinged on similar seeming subtleties. This should not surprise us, for Satan is the master of subtlety. To the untrained ear, the difference between understanding the Bible as “authoritative” or “inerrant” may sound like a quarrel over “mere words.” Yet, when we flesh out for people what the difference is, and they begin to understand that the difference is between a Bible that is man’s thoughts about God or God’s word to man, they see very clearly the difference. It is ironic that the whole inerrancy debate is about the importance of “mere words,” the “mere words” of the Bible, and whether they are God’s “mere words” or man’s “mere words.” That may appear to be subtle, but it is the difference between a God who has spoken and one who is mute, between one who intends Himself to be known rightly and one who has left Himself a mystery to be puzzled out by mortal and sinful man.

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