Monolithic Inerrancy

While researching an entirely unrelated topic, I stumbled across a quote from J Gresham Machen’s most famous work, Christianity and Liberalism, that caught me by surprise:

It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christ—there are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls.

This has instantly shot Christianity and Liberalism to the top of my reading list so I can read this in its full context because I almost can’t believe this is an accurate quote. Machen was no liberal, on the contrary, he was forced out of Princeton and the PCUSA for his commitment to orthodoxy and went on to found Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in response. Yet this statement of his that can be found in nearly any Reformed Church’s library, is broad and charitable enough that if it was posted in the average Reformed Facebook group we’d have a holy horde doubting his salvation.

But at least Machen was simply being charitable towards others here. He himself fully held to the belief that the Bible was wholly divinely inspired and without error. He just didn’t think we should brandish those with a less strict subscription as being heretics. The same can’t be said for this inconvenient quote from one of our favorite thinkers:

The Book of Job appears to me unhistorical because it begins about a man quite unconnected with all history or even legend, with no genealogy, living in a country of which the Bible elsewhere has hardly anything to say.”

You see, the question about Jonah and the great fish does not turn simply on intrinsic probability. The point is that the whole Book of Jonah has to me the air of being a moral romance, a quite different kind of thing from, say, the account of King David or the New Testament narratives, not pegged, like them, into any historical situation.

In what sense does the Bible ‘present’ this story ‘as historical’? Of course it doesn’t say ‘This is fiction’: but then neither does Our Lord say that His Unjust Judge, Good Samaritan, or Prodigal Son are fiction. (I would put Esther in the same category as Jonah for the same reason.)

Are we prepared to condemn or at the very least, treat Lewis as dangerous because of these views? His books are doubtless in our church libraries, we trust him with our children (Including his book The Last Battle which contains that troubling story of Emeth). If we give Lewis a pass for these views and welcome him into our homes, are we prepared to do the same for someone who might be sitting in the pew across from us?

Inerrancy is a particularly tricky subject. I’d bet that no matter how strict you consider yourself on the matter there is someone out there who would take your view as insufficient. If you hold to anything other than 6 day, 24 hour creationism you can find yourself on the outs very quickly (despite this not being a controversial subject until relatively recently). If you rightly think that the Earth is spherical and revolves around the sun there is a whole cabal out there who will gladly inform you that you don’t take passages like Joshua 10 seriously enough. Think the Theory of Relativity is a legit scientific theory? Reconstructionists will tell you that you don’t take God at his word.

Obviously I believe the Bible is the inerrant and divinely inspired Word of God, but for each individual that says this, the term ‘inerrant’ is up in the air. I think we should be careful to not try to make the Bible authoritative over subjects that it doesn’t claim to have authority over. That we don’t twist it to say things it has no intention of saying. At the same time, we must be careful that we don’t work overtime to diminish it so that it ends up saying nothing at all

2 thoughts on “Monolithic Inerrancy”

  1. The reformers of the early 20th century were so different than what I think most people expect them to be. They were largely academics, who were coming from the mainline churches. These were not “fundamentalists” as we use the word now.

    Interestingly, I think it’s totally possible to embrace inerrancy and also view a book like Job as non-historical. It’s all about being true to the literary intent. It’s not an “error” to write fiction, or to use metaphorical language, etc. I’m not being a liberal by saying I think the round numbers used in scripture are not exact. It only becomes “error” if the author intended to teach something with his words that was actually wrong. There’s a number of places in the Bible where you could make a case for “error” if you don’t appreciate that kind of difference.

    The doctrine of inerrancy gets complex, because there’s a lot of different issues that end up intersecting with it:
    1) Post-inspiration errors. Did errors, changes or additions occur in the text later? (Almost everyone agrees they did, at least to some extent). In what ways does this impact the doctrine of inerrancy?
    2) Translation issues. Can there be an inerrant translation? How trustworthy is a translation? Or is The Bible only really the word of God in the original languages?
    3) Metaphor, allegory, simile, parables, etc. How much is used in Scripture? Are books like Job inerrant fiction? Is Revelation figurative? What about the numbers used in scripture?
    4) How do the author’s own knowledge and world views come into play? Did Moses need to believe the Earth revolved around the sun, or how the human body worked? Can we see the imperfections of the authors in scripture while also acknowledging it as inerrant?
    5) Canonicity. What if you (like Martin Luther) believe in inerrancy, but don’t believe some books (say James and Jude) are actually canon? Or what if you think additional books should be included as well? As R.C. Sproul says, canon is a fallible list of infallible books, but many find that idea somewhat confounding.

    Anyway, there are probably other related issues as well. Some people say they believe in “infallibility” but not “inerrancy” (or the other way around). Some prefer to use different terms altogether. I have no idea what the right answer is on any of this stuff, unfortunately!

    1. I really am curious how the fundamentalists won and got a hold on the public conscience over the academics. Van Til has had a pretty good run, but I think the influence that the likes of Dobson and Falwell wield is by far the dominant strain which has lead us to issues of secondary relevance becoming primary belief issues.

      And you’re right, inerrancy is a complex subject! Fundamentalists don’t want it to be one though, it needs to be a simple, cut and dried litmus test for them. I just finished reading Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism and am amazed at the inclusivity and nuance he treats these issues with while still championing the banner of orthodoxy.

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