Battling over the Bible

Mark Johnston
Mark Johnston Mark Johnston has ministered in Ireland, Camberwell and Philadelphia, USA, and is currently Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. He is also a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust.
01 October, 2008 5 min read

Battling over the Bible

It is more than thirty years since Harold Lindsell coined the phrase ‘Battle for the Bible’ in the title of a book about the inerrancy of Scripture. Leaving aside what he said for the moment, his choice of title captured the real sense of conflict within the evangelical community over how the Bible should be viewed.

That conflict was not a flash-in-the-pan skirmish between different shades of evangelical opinion at that time, but rather part of an ongoing debate of major proportions and with far-reaching implications.

The debate continues right down to the present time and has recently intensified with the publication of two new books on Scripture – Inspiration and Incarnation, by Peter Enns of Westminster Seminary, and The Divine Spiration of Scripture, by Andrew McGowan of Highland Theological College. Both of these books raise major questions about the whole idea of inerrancy and both are coming from a Reformed and evangelical perspective.

Many might be forgiven for thinking that this is just another debate between Christian academics, but that would be to overlook the enormity of its impact on the church generally.

The Bible is central to the Christian faith and every Christian needs to have at least a basic understanding of why we can place our full confidence in all that it says. Jesus makes a categorical pronouncement when he declares, ‘Your word is truth’ (John 17:17) and we need to appreciate what that means in relation to God’s written Word, the Bible.

A little bit of history

The roots of this debate stretch back into the Enlightenment of the 18th century – a time that marked a seismic shift in the worldviews and life-perspectives that had prevailed up until that point. In large measure it was a change in the philosophy of how we understand things, but it had an inevitable impact on the church and the way Christians understood the Bible.

It was the time when human autonomy and human reason came of age. The starting point in the quest for knowledge was no longer outside the human mind; it was now firmly within the reach of human intellect and ability. The Age of Reason was born.

As far as the church was concerned, the first major impact of this new way of thinking was felt in Germany. Theologians there began to view Scripture more in terms of its human authorship than as a divinely given revelation. It was as though the Bible could be put on an operating table and dissected with the scalpels of the new philosophical and scientific insights.

This new approach came to be known as Higher Criticism – the ‘higher’ pointing to the fact that reason was no longer subject to the Bible, but the Bible was subject to reason. This in turn led to the spread of ‘liberal’ or ‘modernist’ theology which became a dominant influence in the church during the 19th and 20th centuries. Liberalism found a soul-mate in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and a whole new era of optimism in humanity ensued.

Is the Bible reliable?

The First World War and the Great Depression dealt a major blow to this optimistic outlook and liberal theology, in turn, began to be questioned. The most significant challenge came from Karl Barth and a new brand of theology that soon earned the epithet ‘neo-orthodoxy’.

It was an attempt to restore a meaningful spirituality to the heart of Christianity. This is not the place to explore the strengths and weaknesses of Barth’s contribution to theology, but suffice it to say that his view of Scripture drove a wedge between God’s Word as it is written in the Bible and as it is experienced in life.

The crux issue in this debate, as far as Evangelicals were concerned, was whether or not the Bible is reliable. Or, to put a finer point on it, is it reliable in all it says or only in matters that relate to faith and salvation?

Infallible or inerrant?

In many ways the argument has come to revolve around the words used to define the reliability of Scripture. Some favour ‘infallible’ in the sense that the Bible provides a reliable guide for all we need to know for faith and life. Others have opted for ‘inerrant’ to indicate that Scripture is free from error.

As with every debate that focuses on the meaning of words, the words themselves have not always been that easy to pin down. Many theologians have used the word ‘infallible’ with the sense of ‘free from error’ while others have used ‘inerrant’ in a way that is naive in its understanding of the nature of Scripture.

But it would, I think, be fair to say that these words are used today in such a way that ‘infallibility’ means general reliability, whereas ‘inerrancy’ means freedom from error.

There are all kind of nuances in this debate that a serious student of this issue cannot afford to overlook, but beneath them all there is one major theological issue: ‘Can the God of truth give us a Bible that contains elements that are not true?’ The answer to that can only be ‘No!’ – because God himself has made it clear that he cannot lie (1 Samuel 15:29).

The humanness and divinity of Scripture

The tensions implicit in this debate can only be resolved if we recognise that the Bible is not only a book of divine origin (‘All Scripture is God-breathed’; 2 Timothy 3:16) but that it has been given through human agency (‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’; 2 Peter 1:21).

There is no question that all the men God used in giving us the Bible were sinful men – David and Peter being cases in point. But God by his Spirit overruled their sinfulness in this singular act of bringing his written Word into being.

Recognising the humanness of Scripture allows us to note that accuracy and uniformity are not the same thing. If two or three witnesses were to testify in court and their testimony was identical, then the judge would throw out their evidence as having being fabricated.

Different people reporting the same event which they have all witnessed will place their own particular angle and emphasis on what they have seen. That helps us to appreciate why, for example, there are variations in the Gospels over particular incidents and teachings reported there. They are not errors or contradictions but different accounts by different eye-witnesses, each of whom singles out or emphasises different details.

The crunch issue

The bottom line in this whole debate is the following question. If the Bible does contain errors, then how can we know whether or not the particular detail at any given point is error or truth?

The attempt by some to distinguish that which relates to faith and salvation from that which is merely historical, geographical or scientific, is artificial, misleading and doomed to failure.

Salvation rests on what God did in history at specific times, in specific places and in specific ways. A supernatural thread is woven through all these things and it will never sit comfortably with attempts to explain everything rationally.

It’s a question of where we start. Or, to put it more biblically, a question of where we put our faith. We either proceed in the belief that the Bible really is what it says it is – the Word of truth that has been given by the God who cannot lie – or else in the belief that human reason is the final arbiter of truth.

This, then, is anything but a debate between armchair theologians. Our hope of salvation hangs on it. So we need to know we have a Bible we can trust. And indeed we do have such a Bible!

Mark G. Johnston

Mark Johnston
Mark Johnston has ministered in Ireland, Camberwell and Philadelphia, USA, and is currently Minister of Bethel Presbyterian Church, Cardiff. He is also a trustee of the Banner of Truth Trust.
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