by Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson
If God has given us the Scriptures to be the canon or rule for our lives, it follows that we must regard them as the supreme authority for our lives. Paul tells us that they are 'breathed out' by God. There can be no more authoritative word than one that comes to us on divine breath.
The Scriptures are also a sufficient authority for the whole of the Christian life. They are 'profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work' (2 Tim. 3:16).
The Scriptures do not tell us everything about everything. They provide no instruction about computer programming, or how best to organise a library, the correct way to swing a golf club, or how to play chess. They do not tell us how far away the sun is from the earth, what DNA is, how best to remove an appendix surgically, the best coffee to drink, or the name of the person we should marry.
That is not an expression of any deficiency on their part. For there is a focus and a goal to the sufficiency of the Scriptures. Everything I need to learn in order to live to the glory of God and enjoy him for ever I will find in the application of Scripture.
Yet this narrow focus broadens out into everything. For one thing, Scripture teaches us something about everything. Since the Bible gives us grounds for believing we live in a universe, Christians understand that everything has the characteristic of createdness, of derivativeness, and also that everything fits into the grand design of God.
So Scripture is sufficient to give me a rational ground for thinking about anything and everything on the assumption that this world and everything in it make sense. Further, no matter what my calling or abilities, the Scriptures are sufficient to teach me principles that will enable me to think and act in a God-honouring way when I am engaged in any activity or vocation.
Inerrancy In this context it is appropriate for us to ask an important and muchdebated question: If Scripture is our final authority, exactly how reliable is it as the authority on which we should base the whole of our lives?
If, convinced that the Bible is the word of God, we ask that question from a theological point of view there seems to be only one reasonable answer: Scripture is completely reliable. For the God who has 'breathed out' Scripture is trustworthy in everything he does and says. He is the God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2; Heb. 6:18; cf. Num. 23:19); he speaks the truth in everything he says (Prov. 30:5). The notion that he would be untruthful and err is contradictory to everything Scripture tells us about him.
However, Scripture also tells us that the word of God comes through the minds and mouths of men. Does this not mean that it will inevitably contain some mistakes? After all, 'To err is human.' If so, to use an old illustration, is it not more appropriate to think of the Bible as though it were a slightly scratched gramophone record? Or, in more contemporary terms, is the Bible not like a digitized version of an old recording— despite deficiencies, the music can still be heard, and if we listen with care we can make out the words quite well.
But two obvious considerations need to be remembered.
First, strictly speaking, 'to err' is not so much human as it is fallen.
Second, not everything said by humans involves error.
Life revolves round the fact that people speak the truth, that what they say is not riddled with mistakes. A person can go through the whole day without making a single erroneous statement. And societies function well only where a premium is placed on truth telling. Much of what we say and write is, in a fairly obvious sense, error free.
It is surely then within the power of God to preserve the authors of Scripture from error.
So the assumption that the Scriptures inevitably contain errors because written by men is false.
But there is a further consideration, in addition to that of the logic of our theology. The books of Scripture specifically affirm the truthfulness of what is written; those who appear in their narratives share that perspective. Jesus himself spoke of God's word as 'truth'. Almost in passing he stated that 'Scripture cannot be broken' (John 10:35)—and it is often in such passing comments that our real convictions come to the surface.
Other passages in Scripture point us in the same direction. The New Testament authors refer to passages and authors in the Old Testament in a way that assumes their trustworthiness and absolute reliability. There is no New Testament example of an author taking the view that there were probably, or even possibly, errors of any kind in Scripture. For them if Scripture said it, then God said it; when he put his words into men's mouths those words could be trusted fully and regarded as accurate. This applies both to statements of facts and to interpretations of events. The Scriptures are inerrant.
But when we speak about the 'inerrancy' of the Bible, what do we mean? 'Inerrancy' is, after all, a privative term. It tells us what Scripture is not—it is in-, or non-, errant, that is, 'error free'. What kind of 'inerrancy' do we mean?
A false alternative?
Before we think further about this, however, there is a much discussed issue we ought to address. By no means all Christians (indeed by no means all Christians who describe the Bible as the word of God) share the view that it is 'inerrant'. Many prefer the term 'infallible' believing that although Scripture may contain errors of fact, its message of salvation will not fail us. But this is a sleight of hand so long as our dictionaries explain 'infallible' and 'inerrant' in mutual terms.
Frequently, however, we are told that the term 'inerrant' has an Achilles' heel, since it needs to be qualified in order to explain exactly what it means. If so, then the term itself, it is argued, is surely an unhelpful one. From this point of view the term 'infallible' is both better, and, it is claimed, uses the historic term to present the historic view of the church. 'Inerrant', the argument often continues, is (i) a relatively recent concept and (ii) has come into popular use largely because of the influence of the influential American theologians Charles Hodge and Benjamin B. Warfield, both of whom taught at Princeton Theological Seminary.
Granted that, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith uses the term 'infallible' to describe the Bible,1 the power of this argument lies more in its rhetoric than in its substance. 1.
I. For one thing, to argue that the term 'inerrant' is unhelpful because it needs to be qualified is naive.
'Qualify' is a grammatical term. Every schoolboy of my generation learned from The Approach to Standard English that 'an adjective qualifies a noun'—it tells us something about its quality.
Say, for example, I play golf and want to purchase a new set of golf clubs. All golf clubs have shafts. The manufacturer asks me: 'What shafts do you need in your clubs—"senior" or "regular" or "stiff" or perhaps "extra stiff"?' If I say, 'Look, these qualifying terms are unhelpful. If you have to qualify "shaft" in these different ways, you shouldn't use it!' But the club-maker will reply: 'Sir, you don't understand. These qualifications clarify. If you are going to hit a golf ball with a club you will soon see the importance of these qualifications!'
The same is true when we describe the inerrancy of Scripture.
2. To say that, because the term 'inerrant' needs to be qualified, the term 'infallible' is preferable, is also naive thinking. For the term 'infallibility' equally needs to be qualified, and often for exactly the same reasons and in exactly the same way as 'inerrancy'. This criticism involves a self-defeating principle. For we are bound to ask: 'What do you mean by "infallibility"? When you say "Scripture is infallible" do you mean "error-free" (with the Oxford English Dictionary), or what? Is Scripture "infallible" on all matters, or only some? Is it "infallible" in historical detail, and in scientific issues, or is the infallibility linked only to what it says about God?' Some authors who reject inerrancy in favour of infallibility believe there are errors of fact and obvious inconsistencies in Scripture. For that very reason, when someone says Scripture is 'infallible', there is all the more reason to ask for clarification, i.e. qualification.
The point being established here is a simple, but important one: the criticism that the term 'inerrant' needs to be qualified and therefore is inadequate has no real substance. Qualifying a term clarifies it. Indeed rather than weaken, qualifying it may actually strengthen a term.
3. It is true that the term 'inerrancy' has been much more prominent in North America than, say, in the United Kingdom. But given the massive number of Christians, the much greater number and faculty size of major evangelical seminaries in the United States, and the number of publications that flow from them, this is hardly surprising. What is surprising is the implication that inerrancy is (i) essentially an American peculiarity and (ii) one of relatively recent vintage and (iii) largely thrust into the atmosphere by two, albeit hugely influential, American theologians and their colleagues.
Even if this were true, it could hardly be grounds for rejecting the term. Christians in the fourth century did not reject the term homoousios1 simply because it was not traditional terminology.
But in fact these claims can be dismissed. Perhaps the most interesting way of doing so is found in the following quotation which affirms the inerrancy of Scripture:
It is absolutely wrong … either to narrow inspiration to certain parts of Scripture or to admit that the sacred writer has erred … So far is it from being possible that any error can co-exist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God himself, the Supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.
The author? It certainly sounds like an early twentieth-century statement that might be found in one or other of the essays on Scripture written by the American theologian, B. B. Warfield. But its source is a diameter removed. For
(i) the statement comes from the work of a European theologian, not an American one.
(ii) the statement was not made by an evangelical theologian.
(iii) the statement was originally written in Latin, not in English.
(iv) the statement was published in 1893.
(v) the statement appears in Providentissimus Deus, the Papal Encyclical of Leo XIII issued in that year.
This is simply one example from the history of theology giving the lie to the notion that inerrancy is a recent evangelical invention. Rather inerrancy is the classical doctrine of the church, and not the idiosyncratic view of a narrow band of modern theologians. While the interpretation of Scripture may have been debated in the historic controversies of the church, and the sufficiency of Scripture may have been an issue at the time of the Reformation, the historic view of the Christian church is that the Scriptures themselves are without error. Indeed this is actually what the term 'infallibility' denoted through the history of the church.
In fact, while the words have different nuances they function as synonyms for each other. At the very least the two terms are interchangeable. Thus, for example, the Oxford English Dictionary defines 'infallible' as 'incapable of erring'. Indeed, it could be argued that, if anything, the term 'infallible' is the stronger, not the weaker of the two.
It is important to 'qualify' terms. What do we mean—and not mean—by 'inerrant'? In what sense is Scripture without error in what it affirms?
(1) When we refer to the Bible as 'inerrant' we are, of course, ultimately referring to the text of the Old Testament as it was received by Jesus, and the text of the New Testament as it was written by the apostles. Why is this important since we do not possess what are often referred to as 'the original autographs'?
We know that during the process of copying, whether from one manuscript to another by an individual, or many manuscripts dictated to scribes writing simultaneously, errors can creep in to the copies. If you think about it, very few readers of a book have seen its 'original autograph'. As far as I am aware, the 'original autograph' of the first edition of this book is no longer in existence. That notwithstanding, it remains the text I originally wrote. The fact that I no longer have it does not make it irrelevant. It is what I wrote.
Even with modern technology we find errors in the published versions of books which were absent from the original autograph. Until the fourteenth century, book production was much more error prone. They were copied by hand. Sometimes they were dictated to a group of scribes. Errors caused by mis-hearing easily crept in. Nor is it surprising if a copyist wrote down a wrong word from a manuscript as his eyes moved from the original to the copy he was writing.
Similar slips take place today. I recall writing the words: 'Rend your heart and not your garments' (Joel 2:13) in a manuscript . When the manuscript came back to me for review the wrong substitution of one letter (a 't' instead of a 'd'), changed my meaning dramatically, and humorously: 'Rent your heart, and not your garments.' That may be good advice; but it was not what my 'autographic text' said! I didn't say: 'I no longer have the "autographic text"—it doesn't matter.'
The reason for speaking of the inerrancy of the text of the Old Testament Jesus used and the autographic texts of the apostles should be well understood by every author.
(2) When we speak of the 'inerrancy' of the Bible we realize that Scripture needs to be interpreted properly, in a manner that is sensitive to its various genres and styles. It should be read in its own terms and not according to inappropriate standards. A young male student of astronomy is not likely to criticize an attractive young female doctoral student in English poetry who asks: 'Would you like to go for a walk round campus before sunset?' Even astronomers speak in those terms.
It should be obvious that the Bible was not written to be a twentyfirst century scientific textbook. A moment's reflection indicates that, if it were, its precision and detail would (a) be incomprehensible to the vast majority of readers, and (b) very soon be out of date! So we ought to assess the Bible by appropriate standards, not inappropriate ones.
(3) The history recorded in Scripture is written from a different perspective from that of technical historians today.
Biblical authors believed that history is the unfolding of God's purposes and reveals the outworking of his promises. It has a meaning written into it, and a goal to which it is moving. By contrast, contemporary historians tend to completely exclude God from history. For all practical purposes they adopt the view that while they may be able to trace causes and effects in the events that transpire it is no part of their discipline to discern an underlying plot line, or a divine plan and purpose, or for that matter an ultimate goal in history. It should not therefore surprise us that the authors of Scripture both describe and assess historical events very differently.
(4) We recognize that the inerrancy of Scripture is, in the nature of the case, not something we can 'prove'. We do not know enough about the past to enable us to prove that all the Bible's statements are true; we do not know what will happen in the future to be able to verify any of its prophecies in advance. Our conviction is rooted in the more basic belief that the Bible is the word of God and that every indication we have confirms its reliability as such. There may remain elements in Scripture that we are not able to 'piece together'; but in the light of all we know about the Bible and its authors we see no reason to doubt its reliability.
Critics of inerrancy point to what they regard as inconsistencies or contradictions in the text to demonstrate their perspective. For example, as we have already seen, in one Gospel a Roman centurion asks Jesus to heal his servant while in another it is the elders of the local synagogue who come to speak to him. But far from being a contradiction, in this instance some knowledge of the cultural context enables us to see that these accounts are in fact completely harmonious.
Again, Jesus healed the blind as he made his way through Jericho to Jerusalem. But there are differences in the Gospel accounts. Did Jesus heal two blind men as he left Jericho (Matt. 20:29-30)? Or only one blind man as he left Jericho (Mark 10:46)? Or one blind man as he entered Jericho (Luke 18:35)? It may be easy enough to say: 'If he healed two, then he healed one. Surely all we have here is the different focus of the Gospel writers?' But aren't entering and leaving antithetical ideas? One cannot both enter and leave at the same time! Unless of course there was a larger area called 'Jericho' that one entered as one left the city called 'Jericho'. Or perhaps there were two healings? If so the similarity between them, even in the words spoken, is hardly surprising. Either explanation is, surely more likely than that the Gospel writers consciously contradicted the other.
Entire volumes have been written on these and similar passages suggesting resolutions to the difficulties some feel with them.1 But as we have seen, our conviction of the inspiration and reliability of the Bible is not based on our ability to prove the doctrine of inerrancy by showing that every statement in Scripture is error-free, but by a Spirit-born recognition of the divine character of Scripture. Like the biblical teaching on the virgin conception, the resurrection, and the return of Christ, inerrancy is an article of faith.
There is also a finality about the New Testament Scriptures. Since they record God's last word for the last days, we should not now expect that God will 'speak' to us directly. Now that he has spoken in Christ and through the apostles we discover his will by applying Scripture to all the varied circumstances in which we live. We do not expect, for example, that God will whisper to us the name of the person we are to marry, the calling we are to pursue, the church to which we are to belong, or the place we should live. We discover God's will in these areas by the careful and ongoing application of the principles, commands, and illustrations we find in Scripture to the life-situations in which we find ourselves.
1 This is an obvious implication of having the completed canon of Scripture. It might seem hardly worth mentioning were it not for the fact that it has become commonplace among contemporary Christians to believe God speaks to us apart from and in addition to his word.
The more balanced representatives of this view emphasise that this does not mean in contradiction of God's word. But nevertheless, in effect this establishes the possibility in practice of a second 'canon', separate from, and additional to, Scripture. And frequently—indeed almost inevitably—this second stream of revelation becomes the practical rule that directs the Christian life.2 It is seen as a more immediate and individualised revelation. These characteristics mean it is liable to be given precedence over the reading of, meditation on, reflection about, and application of the written Scriptures.
Whenever someone prefaces a statement by 'the Lord told me' or 'the Spirit revealed to me' and is referring to anything other than Scripture they have in effect established a second canon for themselves, an additional stream of revelation. But, as William Bridge wisely noted, 'who doth not know that the Devil will speak an hundred Truths, that he may crowd in one lye amongst them'.1
At one time I was a regular customer of a very talkative hairdresser. She became a Christian—but remained very talkative! Customers now began to prefer a different hairdresser to avoid being confronted by the gospel!
After some time she told me how excited she was because her pastor was teaching her how to live so that every detail of her life could be directed by the Holy Spirit. This sounded wonderfully encouraging. But in fact her pastor had been teaching 'How to listen to what the Spirit is saying to you immediately, personally, and individually each day'. I recall her telling me with enthusiasm how she had learned to listen to the Spirit so that she would know whether he wanted her to put on the right foot sock or the left foot sock first in the morning.
But this pathway of pursuing detailed obedience to extra-biblical revelation always has the same tendency. One day it will lead to complete paralysis—not putting on either sock because the Spirit has not 'spoken'. Or it will lead to guilt when things go awry and then the individual fears that she may have disobeyed the Lord by putting on the wrong sock at the beginning of the day.
This is not to say that our inner promptings and 'feelings' are unimportant. They are, after all, superintended by the providential rule of God. But unlike Scripture, providential experiences do not come with their own built-in interpretation and we cannot claim for them 'thus says the Lord'. They are the result of processes within our own minds—even if they seem to come to us without prior conscious reflection.
The more our minds are saturated in Scripture the greater will be its impact on our mental processes at every level. Thus subjective feelings and judgments can be healthy expressions of the impact of biblical teaching on our responses to life situations. But our approach with everything that comes into our minds is to submit it to God's word in Scripture. It is our only safe guide.2
Understanding the authority and function of canonical Scripture—that God has adequately revealed his will for the church in the Bible—saves us from the instability of such 'bolt-from-the-blue' approaches to guidance. For all its apparent spirituality, immediacy is no guarantee of validity. And not every Christian is sufficiently mature enough to know how to distinguish the work of the Spirit from the influence of an enemy who appears as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14).
God has provided a safe and secure pathway for us in the directives, promises, examples, and commands of his written word. In their light we seek to interpret the significance of all his providences—including our mental processes and perceptions. Every thought we have about what may be the will of God we will want to bring to the touchstone of the teaching of the Bible.
We live in an age characterised by a reaction to sterile rationalism. We have a preference for, and have become used to, the immediate. There is therefore a subtle attraction about the subjective authority of personal experience in distinction from the objective authority of a book that needs to be studied and applied. All the more reason for us to be people of the Book who are growing in ability to apply its teaching to every life situation.
Instead of narrowing and confining life, biblical wisdom makes us strong and stable. Plus, unlike immediate guidance that bypasses Scripture completely, the patient study of God's written revelation gradually transforms our patterns of thinking and moulds our character. As we will see, it is in order to transform us by the renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) that God has given us the Bible in the first place.
Thus, at the end of the day how we understand Scripture as our canon—our rule of faith and life—has very practical repercussions.
1 An extract from the second chapter of a new book by the author, From the Mouth of God: Trusting, Reading, and Applying the Bible (see inside back cover). Available July (USA), Aug. (UK). 18 The Banner of Truth
1 The Confession speaks of 'the infallible truth and divine authority' of Scripture, I.v. 21 3.
1 'Of the same substance' (i.e. with the Father)—the term employed by the Council of Nicaea (a.d. 325) to indicate the full and true deity of the Lord Jesus
1 Including Gleason Archer, Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1982). 25
1 I have expounded this in some detail in Discovering God's Will (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1982, repr. 2013). 2 By a strange twist the dynamics of this way of thinking are analogous to Roman Catholic teaching. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that while there is a single source for revelation (God), there are two streams by which it comes to us (Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition). Historically the latter, which on occasion adds to Scripture, has tended to become the practical canon for the life of the church. The Authority, Sufficiency, Finality of Scripture 26 The Banner of Truth
1 William Bridge, Scripture Light the Most Sure Light, in Twenty One Several Books of Mr William Bridge collected into two volumes (London, 1656), vol. 2, p. 15. 2 See Professor John Murray's valuable discussion on 'The Guidance of the 27
Holy Spirit', in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 1: The Claims of Truth (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), pp. 186-189.