A Brief Response to “A Teacher’s Theological Guide to Inerrancy.”

Bill Evans head shot

[Editor’s Note: This essay dates back to 2010–a time of some controversy over the doctrine of Scripture at the institution where I teach.  It responds to a satirical piece written by a former colleague, and while it is obviously a bit dated and the initial context of controversy has thankfully faded, it says some things that, in my opinion, still need to be said.  Both the other individual’s article and this response were, until recently, hosted on another site that has now gone off-line (enterprising folks can likely still find the full exchange via Google cache).  For better or worse, I have resisted the urge to update it.]

I have read my colleague Dr. Richard Burnett’s 22-page single spaced essay with both interest and some annoyance. He has written a satirical piece depicting how he thinks that Biblical inerrantists such as myself should go about defending what Burnett regards as our indefensible doctrine of Biblical authority. Of course, the dangers of such an exercise are evident—in pretending to put words in other people’s mouths one runs the distinct risk of erecting a straw man and then beating it about the head.

I gather that Burnett has created a composite picture of inerrantists, but since he mentions me so often I will respond on a few points. The question is: where does one begin? Much that Burnett asserts is open to debate, and some of the things he says are simply wrong or at best misleading. I will confine my brief comments to three areas. Once one sifts through the sarcasm, Burnett seems concerned to do three things. First, he seeks to show that the doctrine of inerrancy in the original autographs is an intellectually untenable and rationalistic exercise. Second, he tries to depict this doctrine of inerrancy as an historical novelty. And finally, he wants to vindicate the orthodoxy of his theological hero, Karl Barth. In the interests of what John Calvin called “lucid brevity,” references to the enumerated sections of Burnett’s paper will be in parentheses.

(1) Burnett apparently will not be dissuaded from the conviction that the doctrine of inerrancy is really about trying to prove the reliability of the Bible. For Burnett, the term “inerrancy” immediately raises the specter of modernism with its commitment to human rational autonomy and its imposition of alien standards upon the text (see #33-34). I think I have made it sufficiently clear in a number of contexts that I too am concerned about such matters. I have argued elsewhere that the doctrine of inerrancy is sometimes presented in unhelpful and problematic ways. For example, there are inerrantists who have framed the doctrine in rationalistic terms and who have wrongly demanded what John Murray termed “pedantic precision” from the biblical text. Here Burnett would do well to heed the writings of his own Seminary professor, George Hunsinger of Princeton Seminary, who correctly sees the more “impressionistic” doctrine of inerrancy found in the Dutch Reformed (Kuyper and Bavinck) and Westminster Seminary (Richard Gaffin) traditions as a viable alternative to rationalism (see George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace, 354-358). Of course, we also understand that Burnett’s case depends on presenting the doctrine of inerrancy in the most unfavorable light. For example, given the context of Burnett’s quote from J. I. Packer (see #28), one would never suspect that Dr. Packer has long affirmed the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs.

(2) Burnett also argues that the idea of the inerrancy of Scripture in the original autographs is of recent vintage. He appears to be unaware that there is a venerable tradition of “inerrancy” language in the Roman Catholic tradition stretching from St. Augustine’s implicit affirmation of inerrancy in the original autographs (“If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”) to the First and Second Vatican Councils. Such is the prominence of inerrancy in the Catholic tradition that, not surprisingly, there have been extensive discussions of “absolute inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic traditionalists) and “limited inerrancy” (often affirmed by Catholic progressives) which parallel, to some degree, recent Protestant inerrantist/infallibilist debates.

But Burnett’s handling of evidence on this point is also shaky. His treatment of Old Princeton Seminary is a good example. In a curious historiographical move, Burnett distinguishes between Old-Old Princeton (Witherspoon to Charles Hodge) and New-Old Princeton (B. B. Warfield and J. G. Machen), and the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy,” for Burnett, is B. B. Warfield (#11-12). Even Machen is subjected to similar treatment as Burnett distinguishes the early Machen (who rarely mentioned inerrancy) from the later Machen who staunchly affirmed inerrancy in the original autographs (#16-17). Of course, there are historical explanations for these patterns. Extensive discussions of the authority of the original autographs tend to emerge with vigor after the rise of textual criticism as a discipline (though they were present before), and Machen’s personal history (treated with subtlety by Darryl G. Hart) may have played a role. But Burnett seems uninterested in such matters—much of his historical argument is directed toward the question of whether somebody mentions the original autographs or not, as if this settles the issue.

To his credit, Burnett does briefly mention the important article by Randy Balmer (#11), now of Columbia University and an acknowledged expert on American Evangelicalism (Randall H. Balmer, “The Princetonians and Scripture: A Reconsideration, WTJ 44 (1982): 352-365). Unfortunately, it appears that Burnett did not read with sufficient care the article he cites. For example, Burnett claims that “Balmer shows that a variety of American clergy in the nineteenth century (even a couple Presbyterians) held to the exclusive inspiration and authority of the original autographs,” adding that “Old Princeton never did” (#11). But Balmer’s point here is quite different—indeed the opposite of what Burnett maintains. Balmer demonstrates that “all the elements, including the belief that only the original manuscripts were errorless, are found in the earlier writings of [Old Princeton figures] Archibald Alexander, Joseph Addison Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Francis Patton. No new doctrine of inspiration was introduced at Princeton after 1850, as Sandeen and others have alleged.” Balmer goes on to note that “far from being unique or novel in their view of Scripture, the Princetonians stood squarely within the mainstream of conservative thought on the subject” (Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354-355). Particularly striking here is Balmer’s quote from Francis Landey Patton, who wrote in 1869 (shortly after his graduation from Old Princeton Seminary): “When it is claimed that the Scriptures are inspired, it must be understood that we refer to the original manuscripts” (quoted in Balmer, “Princetonians,” 354 n. 8). In other words, it is not just that a few believed this; rather, belief in the inerrancy of the original autographs, and thus in a certain authority of the original autographs over against later copies, was the consensus among conservative American Protestants—Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, and yes, even Associate Reformed. So how, we may ask, was B. B. Warfield the “true champion of the modern autographic theory of inerrancy” when it was common currency of the day? Burnett’s tendentious handling of the historical data of this issue should be recognized for what it is.

So, it appears that the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture has a much better pedigree than Burnett allows. It is, as I argued in my Greenville News op-ed piece, “simply what Christians have historically believed.”

(3) The subtitle of Burnett’s sarcastic essay (‘A Non-Barthian Approach”) suggests that he views the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth as the great alternative to the inerrancy doctrine that has been officially endorsed by the General Synod of the ARP Church. In fact, Burnett has made it clear that he regards Barth as the compelling answer to both Evangelical inerrantist and liberal views of Scripture. The interpretation and theological significance of Barth are large and difficult topics (which I have touched on elsewhere; see this article), but a few comments are in order here.

First, Burnett accuses me of bad faith and selectivity in my quotation from Barth, where my article “cleverly omits to quote” what Burnett regards as a crucial portion allegedly indicating Barth’s position that the Bible does not teach error (#53). But that is not quite what the omitted text says. There Barth says that we should not take sides when Scriptural teachings disagree and conflict even over matters of religion and theology. Rather, as Barth makes clear elsewhere, we must listen for the Holy Spirit to speak though this fallible and messy human text as it “becomes” God’s Word to us. Such subjectivism is a clear threat to the witness of the church.

Burnett also seems to accuse me, by implication at least, of directing students to the most hostile American interpreters of Barth (#51). But that is not the case. When students ask me for reliable treatments of Barth on Scripture, I send them to the writings of Geoffrey Bromiley—a translator of Barth’s Church Dogmatics and one who knew Barth well. According to Bromiley, Barth’s “handling of Scripture is in many ways the weakest and most disappointing part of the whole Dogmatics, and his safeguards against subjectivism here are very flimsy” (Bromiley, “Karl Barth,” in Creative Minds in Contemporary Theology, 52). Later Bromiley would write, “Barth’s dismissal of biblical inerrancy and his assigning of a special historical character to events like the resurrection pose the question whether the biblical books can really enjoy the status of direct, absolute, material authority, except by a sacrifice of the intellect, if they do in fact contain demonstrably incorrect statements or tell of events that do not meet the test of normal historical verifiability. . . . For many people, however, doubt seems unavoidably to arise about the great reality to which the Bible bears witness if it might be in error, or even under suspicion of being in error, about plain facts” (Bromiley, “The Authority of Scripture in Karl Barth,” in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon, 291).

It is indeed ironic that Burnett would seek to champion Karl Barth in a context where the clear expectation has been that professors will uphold a high view of Scripture. Near the end of his life Barth admitted, “I myself am also a liberal—and perhaps even more liberal than those who call themselves liberals” (quoted in Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 496). At the end of the day at least, Barth was honest about his theological stance. I commend Barth for that candor, but not for his sadly defective view of Scripture.