INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE, PART THREE: EXAMPLE OF WHAT HAPPENS WHEN DENIED
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 4:03pm
THE INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE: DOES IT STILL MATTER?
JACK COTTRELL – CINCINNATI CHRISTIAN UNIVERSITY – APRIL 2011
PART III. AN EXAMPLE OF WHAT HAPPENS TO THEOLOGY WHEN INERRANCY IS DENIED
I have said that a denial of inerrancy leaves us at the mercy of subjectivism and relativism. I.e., in the end each of us as individuals will ultimately decide, based on our own subjective inclinations and preferences, what aspects of the Bible we will accept and what we will reject. A good example of this is the book by Stephen T. Davis titled The Debate About the Bible: Inerrancy Versus Infallibility (Westminster 1977). Here I will give a synopsis of his view.
First, he makes it clear that he denies inerrancy, which he (rightly) defines as claiming that the Bible “contains no errors at all,” e.g., in history, logic, and geography. But that claim “is one that in all humility I cannot affirm,” says Davis (16). “I consider myself an evangelical Christian and yet I do not affirm inerrancy” (18). Instead, he believes the Bible is “infallible,” i.e., “entirely trustworthy on matters of faith and practice” (16).
Later he qualifies this by limiting infallibility only to “matters that are crucially relevant to Christian faith and practice” (118, italics added). But in the end this means nothing, since he says, “I admit that I am unable to stipulate a clear and infallible criterion to distinguish Biblical passages that are crucially relevant to faith and practice from those that are not” (125). But even if he could do so, it would not make any real difference, since he clearly says that his “faith and practice” distinction “does not necessarily mean that I find no theological error in the Bible as opposed, say, to scientific or historical error” (125).
In fact, Davis says, it is always possible that the Bible contains errors in any of its claims; the deal is that he has simply not found any yet in matters (crucially relevant) to faith and practice. “There are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice. I do not claim a priori that the Bible is or must be infallible, just that I have found it to be so. Perhaps someday it will be shown that the Bible is not infallible” (115-116). “I am open at any point to the possibility that the Bible is not infallible” (120).
What criteria shall we apply to determine if any given Biblical doctrine is indeed erroneous? His answer seems to be: human reason, i.e., an examination of the available evidence. “The only epistemological credentials a doctrine must have in order to be accepted by evangelicals is that it seem true on the available evidence.” An evangelical accepts “evangelical doctrines . . . simply because they seem true to him.” “I believe B, C, and D because I believe they are taught in the Bible and because I know of no argument or evidence that refutes them.” No Christian can accept a doctrine on the basis of the Bible alone. “He must hold to some other authority or criterion as well. That authority, I am not embarrassed to say, is his own mind, his own ability to reason” (71). A Christian must “accept whatever the Bible says on any subject whatsoever unless there is compelling reason not to accept it. That is, everything in the Bible is authoritative and normative for the Christian until he comes across a passage which for good reasons he cannot accept. . . . One should reject something that the Bible says only where, having thoroughly examined the problem, in all humility one cannot accept what it says” (75). “I believe that the Bible is or ought to be authoritative for every Christian in all that it says on any subject unless and until he encounters a passage which after careful study and for good reasons he cannot accept” (116).
Despite this ultimate appeal to and apparent dependence on the evidential use of reason, Davis acknowledges “that sin has corrupted all aspects of human personality, including reason, and that reason is not therefore an infallible guide to truth.” But this does not change anything: “Corrupted or not, we have no choice but to listen to and follow the dictates of reason” (72).
Where does this leave Davis regarding his use of the Bible for deciding matters of faith and practice? It leaves him in the bottomless and shoreless sea of doctrinal subjectivity and relativity. To change the metaphor, his feet are “firmly planted in mid-air.” He cites a kindred spirit, Daniel P. Fuller (whose father, Charles P. Fuller, founded Fuller Theological Seminary), who says that regarding doctrinal errors in the Bible, “he has discovered none yet and hopes he never will.” Fuller labors on “despite his clear belief that a discovered error on a revelational matter makes the whole Bible questionable” (42). Likewise, Davis says that he too must decide “whether or not there is compelling reason to reject some Biblical claim. For me this does not occur often, but it does occur occasionally. It has never yet occurred on a matter of faith or practice, and, like Fuller, I hope it never will” (76).
In the midst of all this subjectivity, relativity, and uncertainty, Davis makes his final appeal to the most subjective criterion of all: the inner guidance of the Holy Spirit. “I do affirm the traditional Christian claim that the Holy Spirit guides us into truth, although I do not wish to explore here the question of how this guidance works in relation to Scripture, reason, or any other epistemological authority” (72).
My point here is that Davis is simply accepting the consistent results of denying biblical inerrancy. Of course, many have denied and are still denying inerrancy, but have failed to see the end to which this will logically lead them and their disciples.