The following is Part 5 of an open letter to Colonel Vaughn Doner and a critique of his 2012 book, Christian Jihad: Neo-Fundamentalists and the Polarization of America. Throughout the series, I address Colonel Doner in the second person, “you.” This book review is part of a series examining Christian Postmodernism.
Dear Colonel Doner,
Your description of how “neo-fundamentalists” view the inerrancy of Scripture as God giving “direct dictation” was the part of your book that had me scratching my head the most.
Even though only a small group of top-ranked Evangelical scholars and almost no mainline Protestant or Catholics still believe Scripture was directly dictated by God, most fundamentalists still insist on promoting inerrancy theory developed by three nineteenth-century Princeton scholars, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield. Faithful to Calvin and the Puritans, they insisted that the original biblical autographs were word for word dictated by God and without error [emphasis mine].
I realize that the dictation theory is held within some conservative Christian circles. This is the view that God simply dictated what He wanted to be written down. Therefore, the end product is the Word of God. Although Scripture does portray this idea (Jeremiah 26:2; Revelation 2:1,8), this is not the way most of the Bible was written. It is also not the view of the scholars you mention in your book who stand for biblical inerrancy.
Therefore, I was baffled as to why you equate the doctrine of inerrancy with all of Scripture being “word for word dictated by God.” Contrary to your statements, inerrancy is in fact the view held by the Roman Catholic Church and the historic orthodox Christian church in general. It is odd that you use the modifier “still” to describe what you claim is a small minority of Christian leaders clinging to an all but dead doctrine. On the contrary, denial of inerrancy is essentially the definition of theological liberalism, which is the prevailing thought behind the fastest declining Protestant denominations. Most of the growth in American Protestantism is now concentrated in denominations that are theologically conservative and have a high view of the authority of scripture. Granted, the controversy over what is meant by “inerrancy” continues to swirl among evangelicals. However, the characterization that it is a doctrine held by only a tiny handful of scholars is patently false.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
What is even more amazing to me is that you ought to know what the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says and how it defines inerrancy. You at least ought to have known it at some point because according to Jay Grimstead the participants in the Coalition on Revival’s councils had to first read and agree with the Chicago Statement. You also describe the document on page 160.
Grimstead began to dream – and dream big! … Making his dream a reality, he organized the first International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, invited a veritable who’s who of sixty-two neo-fundamentalist scholars, and together they reaffirmed the total inerrancy and infallibility of Holy Scripture. There he connected with neo-fundamentalist heroes like R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and James Kennedy, all of whom would play a prominent role in his future endeavors.
So I was left wondering why you’d write that the founders of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), R.C. Sproul, D. James Kennedy, et al., believe something very different than what the document actually says. The Chicago Statement explains what “free from error” actually means in a series of affirmations and denials.
From the ICBI’s Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:
We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.
We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.
We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.
In your book you say the group who put together the Chicago Statement, affirms the very things they say they deny; and deny the very things they say they affirm.
You also assert that this is the position of a tiny handful of “fundamentalist” scholars. You don’t mention that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has been adopted by entire denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, as a standard to hold teachers to orthodoxy in their Bible Colleges and Seminaries.
You devote a quite a bit of space to both ICBI and Jay Grimstead’s Coalition On Revival in your book. I would encourage you to read the Chicago Statement, if you have never read it or have forgotten what it actually says. Just to be certain, I decided to go to the horse’s mouth and ask Jay Grimstead if dictation theory is what is meant by ICBI’s doctrine of inerrancy. He answered me via email.
No, the dictation theory is not what ICBI and I teach, though we claim that the Bible is co-authored by God and man, so God wrote 100 percent of it and the Biblical writers wrote 100 percent of it. This is as much of a God-kept hidden mystery as to how those facts can both be true, just as Christ’s incarnation is true wherein He was at the same time 100 percent God and 100 percent man without confusion.
A major mistake in your argument against inerrancy was in saying that it is a “fundamentalist” doctrine. Quite to the contrary, the Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council ratified a similar document in 1965 called Dei Verbim (The Word of God) which affirmed the doctrine of inerrancy.
Through divine revelation, God chose to show forth and communicate Himself and the eternal decisions of His will regarding the salvation of men. That is to say, He chose to share with them those divine treasures which totally transcend the understanding of the human mind.
As a sacred synod has affirmed, God, the beginning and end of all things, can be known with certainty from created reality by the light of human reason (see Rom. 1:20); but teaches that it is through His revelation that those religious truths which are by their nature accessible to human reason can be known by all men with ease, with solid certitude and with no trace of error, even in this present state of the human race….
Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) [emphasis mine].
While it is untrue to say, by any stretch of the imagination, that inerrancy is a minority doctrine, I do agree that there is a problem in evangelicalism in general as to what “inerrancy” means and does not mean. This is why the Chicago Statement was drafted in the first place. R.C. Sproul, one of the founders of ICBI, relates an anecdote.
Many times people have said to me, incredulously, “You don’t interpret the Bible literally, do you?” I never answer the question by saying, “Yes,” nor do I ever answer the question by saying, “No.” I always answer the question by saying, “Of course, what other way is there to interpret the Bible?” What is meant by sensus literalis is not that every text in the Scriptures is given a “woodenly literal” interpretation, but rather that we must interpret the Bible in the sense in which it is written. Parables are interpreted as parables, symbols as symbols, poetry as poetry, didactic literature as didactic literature, historical narrative as historical narrative, occasional letters as occasional letters. That principle of literal interpretation is the same principle we use to interpret any written source responsibly.
Confusion over the definitions of “literal” and “inerrant” unfortunately reigns. I recently heard that an official of a certain denomination feared that his church was becoming more liberal because they no longer believed in inerrancy. He related that they changed their confession to say that the Bible was not “inerrant,” but merely “infallible.” The irony here is that “infallible” is actually a stronger word. Some of what I say is inerrant, but nothing I can say is infallible. That is, I can make a statement without a mistake, but in no way am I free from the ability to make a mistake. The same holds true for the men who wrote scripture. They were flawed men who were limited in their understanding, but under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit they were kept free from error.
A Voice from Heaven?
Of course, there are specific examples of a “voice from heaven” noted in scripture.
Then a voice came from heaven, saying, “I have both glorified it and will glorify it again.” Therefore the people who stood by and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to Him.” (John 12:28,29).
We see this in each of the first three Gospels when Jesus was baptized.
… and a voice came out of the heavens: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11).
And later the same voice speaks when Jesus appeared to Peter, James and John on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Then a cloud formed, overshadowing them, and a voice came out of the cloud, “This is My beloved Son, listen to Him!” (Mark 9:7).
Then 2 Peter 1:16-18 reiterates the voice heard at Jesus’ Baptism and the Mount of Transfiguration.
For we did not follow cunningly devised fables when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of His majesty. For He received from God the Father honor and glory when such a voice came to Him from the Excellent Glory: “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were with Him on the holy mountain.
However, most Christians I have talked to understand that most of the scriptures did not originate with a voice from heaven. I recently took your challenge and began to ask Christian friends of mine how they believe the Bible was written. I was told by one whom I interviewed that at least 75 percent of the Bible is written in the third person. While I have not tallied the biblical passages for a percentage, I am fairly certain that this is the case.
There are the “Thus saith the Lord” passages in the prophetic writings – as well as visions and dreams. I asked my friends also how these revelations occurred. Here I agree quite a bit with the “word-picture” theory. That is, the authors did not necessarily hear a voice from God, but had the authority to “speak for God” or to relate a picture they saw in their mind’s eye as they were guided by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe that these prophecies were given ecstatically in an unwilling state of lyrical rapture. Rather these words were consciously determined and often reflect the personality of the author. For instance, Jeremiah’s prophecy has a melancholy and pessimistic character while Isaiah is more sanguine and optimistic. Both prophecies are God’s Word. Both use the phrase “Thus saith the Lord,” but this is to denote the prophetic authority by which they are speaking. It does not mean that the prophets were used as a dictaphone connected to heaven on the other end.
When I read the Epistles of the New Testament and the historical books, I agree that Scripture here was almost wholly the initiative of the authors’ will and personality, but the words are inerrant simply because the Holy Sprit kept them from error in communicating sacred truth.
I believe the biblical authors “heard” from God in a similar way that Christians today “hear from God,” which is not by an audible voice or a “direct-line-to-heaven-connection” of some type. I do know at least a few people who have claimed to have heard an audible voice, but I suspect at least in most cases, that this is due to an over active imagination. We are guided by a sense of God’s presence. But unlike the biblical authors, we can never make the sure claim that our words are inerrant – although we may be without error when our words line up with scriptural truth.
All Truth is God’s Truth
There is also a truth that is not revealed in scripture. For instance, I know with 100 percent certainty that God condemns the use of cocaine as a recreational drug is a moral evil even though the Bible nowhere commands directly against it. In fact, according to Romans 1, every person knows what sin is. We know it is wrong to murder, steal, cheat on our spouses and harm our bodies. I may also know the truth about matters that do not pertain directly to morality. We can know for certain that the water molecule is the only substance on the planet earth that exists in nature in three forms: gas, liquid and solid. We can also know through empirical study that water is the only molecule that begins to expand before it freezes. In studying the laws of the natural world, these truths ought to point us to the existence of a sovereign God. All truth is God’s truth.
This same God also gave us His written Law-Word, which is more specific and applicable to address matters of faith and morality. Here the written Word of God, not natural revelation, is needed. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 addresses this need.
All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Now you argue quite pointedly that the very problem with using Scripture in this way is that the interpreter is not infallible and we can always twist Scripture to our own ends. Scripture itself attests to this problem and offers the solution. After claiming an eyewitness revelation of a direct voice from heaven that Jesus is the glorified Christ, 2 Peter 1:19-21 goes on to explain why the written Word of God is necessary.
And so we have the prophetic word confirmed, which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts; knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation, for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
The phrase “private interpretation” is better rendered as “private origin.” That is, Scripture did not originate by the will of man, but by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The defense against false prophets and false teachers, that the Epistle of Second Peter constantly warns about, is to be on guard against error. The Apostle Paul himself also speaks of being on guard against falling into error.
Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may obtain it. And everyone who competes for the prize is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. Therefore I run thus: not with uncertainty. Thus I fight: not as one who beats the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest, when I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Note that Paul writes here that even he himself is on guard against falling away from the truth, but cannot say that he is uncertain about what he preaches or that he is “beating the air” – a vivid image of someone flailing away at nothing. Postmodernism, on the other hand, teaches that the best path is to be uncertain about everything. Ironically, this is the only thing that postmodernists are certain about.