Hyper-Inerrancy and the Sectarian Impulse

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[Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by my good friend and former seminary teacher Dr. D. Clair Davis.  Dr. Davis studied under John Murray at Westminster Theological Seminary before completing his Dr.theol. under Otto Weber at the University of Göttingen in Germany.  He then taught at Wheaton College, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Redeemer Seminary in Dallas.]

“One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” “I believe in the holy catholic church.”  What can that possibly mean? I am a Presbyterian; I believe that when Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus he was really writing to all the churches there. But when I go to my presbytery meeting, who’s there? The churches just like us, that’s who. No Baptists, no Lutherans, no Pentecostals—yes, no Catholics either. 

I’ve personally come close to that one church thing, when I taught at Wheaton College. Presbyterian Westminster Standards are about 31K words long, but Wheaton’s doctrinal statement is about half a page, and that was enough. Most of my students didn’t believe in infant baptism, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t show them ‘covenant’ in the Bible. God makes promises and he keeps them and you can count on that, stake your life on that—that’s “covenant,” and we all welcomed and loved that kind reality. Now what does God promise us about the salvation of our children? How do you call out to God when they give it all up and leave Jesus out of their lives? With those hard questions, hard for us all, Baptists come pretty close to being on the same page we are, especially when there’s a baby’s funeral. But when you’re in a Baptist church and it’s Lord’s Supper, who can come to the Table? Those who have “biblical baptism,” that’s who—you know who you are, or aren’t.

How can we put together two parts of the salvation we have in Jesus Christ? Like justification and sanctification, forgiveness and change? Can we agree? We all want to say that Jesus brings us both, and we surely don’t want to say that sanctification is all up to us.  “Too much law” vs. “too much grace” is where the tension is, a battle that has been very vigorously carried on by both sides. What if we asked the folks who think there’s “too much law,” just to be more specific about the sins we need to fight, and how we should do it? Couldn’t we ask the folks who think there’s “too much grace” to just tell us what Jesus means to them daily? That seemed to work for me at Wheaton.

There was that sad seven-year struggle at Westminster Seminary as we tried to understand Norman Shepherd when he told us that justification was by our “obedient faith.” We just couldn’t make progress then. I’m sorry that I didn’t try to say something like this: can we agree that “to be joined to Christ” requires our obedient faith? Or “to receive Jesus as Savior and Lord” is that way too? I know we could agree on where “salvation” comes from, but why were we so weak on the aspects of it? Could that have pulled us together again, to agree that when we know Jesus, that happens “as the Holy Spirit works obedient faith in us”?

That amazing revival with Whitefield and Wesley had its center in “you must be born again.” They didn’t do much with Paul’s way of thinking but instead worked mostly with John. Would that help us too, if we looked around for a Bible book that we all agree on and begin by working with it first?

The hardest is still Calvinism and Arminianism. Whitefield and Wesley praised the Lord for opening the eyes and hearts of so many and bringing them to Jesus. But suddenly they discovered how far apart they were—or were they? Someone asked Whitefield, “do you think you’ll see Wesley in heaven?” and he answered, “I don’t think so . . . he’ll be so close to the Throne and I’ll be so far away.”  But still, who’s right? Who saves people, God himself (Calvinists), or the people as they themselves respond (Arminians)? How could we possibly understand each other on that one? I think I have a beginning. Marq, a student of mine in Dallas, told me his story: while his group was doing student evangelism in Mexico City, and no one was responding, Marq said, “we’ve just got to pray, that the Lord will open their hearts.” But the leader replied: “no way, we believe in free will.” Hearing that story really opened my eyes. I’ve been around many people who wanted to emphasize that sinners still have to make their own decisions—but I never before heard anyone say, so don’t pray for them! The precious gift God gives me from that is, all those other “free will” people I know are wise enough to have limits, never ever imagining that what they believed was, don’t infringe on people’s liberty by asking the Lord to touch their hearts.

Could we get some clarity on the Calvinist side too? If Arminians are really “implicit Calvinists,” knowing we need the Lord to do his work, could it be that Calvinists are really “implicit Arminians” too, realizing that we’re really asking people to believe? Their ongoing puzzle seems to be, how shall we say that God is sincere in calling people to himself, when he hasn’t chosen them beforehand anyway? We try hard to understand the Lord’s grand plan. In it, he chooses a people for himself and then sends his Beloved Son to call them to trust him; doesn’t that mean that election precedes faith? So that God has already made up his mind anyway before he asks people to come to him? What does “before” mean?

Some super Calvinists, those who want to get everything exactly right, say it this way: don’t even think about coming to Jesus unless you can first spot something happening in your heart that feels like you could be “elect.” That has some logic to it—but God doesn’t teach us about election that way. Look at Romans chapters 7-11. “Wretched man that I am, I do everything wrong,” that’s the life-summary of a believer under suffering and temptation. But soon after that comes: “what shall separate me from the love of Christ!” That’s the clearest place in the whole Bible where God teaches us about election, in the midst of seeing clearly how weak and sinful we are. In God’s big plan, his decision comes at the beginning; but in our lives we’re called to learn about it when we really need it. “Election” isn’t really about evangelism and what we should say then; it’s about how we can survive Satan’s attacks after we mess up again, and again. It’s not about logic; it’s about when and how we need to rejoice in God’s plan.

I think this is the answer that pulls us together, the one that helped Whitefield and Wesley keep on working together, actively evangelizing together. Don’t overdo, either of you. Don’t you dare forbid prayer for those not-yet-believers. Don’t you dare say that you need to find something amazing in you before you dare trust Jesus. I say this because of my heart’s desire for God-given revival, when we all will work together. If we’re not ready for that, when it happens again, we’re going to be so into being together that we’ll want to pay the price of dropping all the theology that keeps us apart—to our shame and regret. But if we’ve both corrected our courses before, until we’re very close to being on the same path—well Hallelujah Amen! 

I’ve just read again Jim Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit. He’s good at pointing out where almost everyone else is wrong, but he also tells us what others are bringing to the banquet table, especially Pentecostals. While the rest of us are working hard just to stay alive, they’re the ones that are growing, down in South America and Africa. It won’t be long before they’ll send missionaries to us and to Europe. The biggest thing I got from Packer is that they’re learning to describe what Jesus has done—while keeping the focus on Jesus himself. That’s where they can be ahead of the rest of us. “The presence of Jesus right now beside us, by the Holy Spirit as we call out to him”—that’s what they can give us, and they are already. The biggest new piece in our Calvinist theology is discovering that “union with Christ” isn’t some vague future thing but rather the foundation of all else. So we can rejoice together, can’t we?

I know a missionary who tells me that in South America he’s a Baptist but in Africa a Pentecostal. I know another who works in Latin America. He’s immersed in the OT and thought he went there to help the Presbyterians, but when they weren’t that interested and the Pentecostals kept coming to him, he showed them Jesus in the OT. They are turning from legalism (sound familiar?) to the big gospel. 

About everything else I thought about is back in history, still keeping us apart. The Pentecostal thing is right now; this is Christ’s one church.

It’s easy to stand in front of a classroom and pontificate: “this is how we’re right and they’re wrong. What makes us special is how we’re different.” It’s a lot harder to do a seminar where everyone talks and I have to listen. What if what really makes us special is that we’re good listeners? What if we can hear God’s Word better in what others are saying, than in listening to ourselves talk? What if we want our presbytery, at least one of our presbyteries, to be all the churches within a couple miles of us?

I think the clue is what we’ve learned about Calvinists and Arminians. Just don’t exaggerate the differences or you’ll be wrong. Look at Martin Luther and his horse again: if you’re so worried that you’ll fall off the horse on the right side that you lean to the left, well you’re going to fall off on that side. Consistency is a good thing, but be careful that you don’t want to be more consistent than God’s word. Be careful that you don’t lose ability to listen, either to God or to each other.

I know finally that there will be no conversation with the Westminster Board. I know their stance is so outlandish that it’s bound to disintegrate by itself within a few years, without needing any help from me. But I believe that we outsiders have been learning, especially about listening. (When no one listens to you, that helps the learning process.) I think I know what’s in the minds of the WTS Board, something like this:

The authority of the Bible and its inerrancy is under vigorous attack. The way we have always understood it is no longer acceptable by many within our ranks, and we must do something against that terrible trend. We note that many erroneous views come from reading the OT without NT clarification. Therefore we intend to remove from the Faculty all those who speak of reading the OT by itself, regardless of whether they go on to study how the NT uses the OT text. 

I think that is the Board’s direction. I deeply honor their commitment to God’s Word and ensuring that WTS is a place where it is supported vigorously and clearly. I agree with them that this is an important need in Christ’s church today. Their procedure appears at first glance to be consistent with the Seminary’s passion for teaching and learning the Word. But is there a downside?

I believe so. Just as Calvinism is not well served by hyper-Calvinism as the wisdom of man replaces God’s revelation, so support for the inerrancy of Scripture is not well-served by a hyper-inerrancy. How can we understand the OT unless there is room for serious study of how it was originally expressed? That is especially crucial at a school with a PhD program, but it is invaluable at all levels of biblical study. 

It may be that there should be a place for a seminary to contribute its own special understanding. For many years WTS fostered the Van Til apologetic that way. But God’s people need the deeper understandings that add to our knowledge, not those that take away. Is the time for independent para-church seminaries past? When they brought us together across denominational lines that was very promising, but today they can be narrower than our own church’s understanding, evidenced by the Glenside Session’s affirmative evaluation of Doug Green’s position.

“Truth is in order to goodness” is very basic to our faith and our allegiance to Jesus Christ. When gifted godly scholars are arbitrarily removed from teaching God’s people, more is lost than their contributions. A view of defending the truth indifferent to “due diligence” in maintaining love toward each other is not the Bible’s way. When a Board believes it knows where someone is going without careful listening to him, how can that embody the gospel, can it?

This is all much bigger than the WTS Board’s actions, which I offer only as another illustration—though my heart is deeply saddened by their direction. We need to think and pray beyond all this.  When this memory of WTS is long gone, the gospel challenge of listening to each other will remain. We do and will believe in the holy catholic church, much bigger and better than partisan commitment to avoid listening to each other. We believe there is the beloved church of our Lord Jesus.

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