Biblical Inerrancy

John H. Gerstner


Part I - Some Unsound Bases for Sound Doctrine


The Bible’s Own Testimony as the Basis for Inerrancy

We could compose a book many times the size of this one consisting merely of fervent and eloquent evangelical appeals to the Bible itself as the proof of its own inspiration. Some three thousand times the Bible does make this claim for itself. “Thus saith the Lord” is a veritable refrain of the Scriptures. No book in the history of literature has made such frequent and moving assertions of its divine origin. Because of this remarkable characteristic of the Scriptures many have almost unconsciously concluded that the Bible is the Word of God.

This we believe and later shall attempt to prove is the right doctrine. The Bible is the Word of God; the inerrant revelation from above. It is the Word of God indeed, but not because it says so. Rather, it says so because it is.

How, we ask, would anyone prove the Bible is the Word of God simply because it so often says so? There could only be one basis for accepting Scripture for Scripture’s sake; assertion for assertion’s sake. But what an incredibly naive notion: A thing must be what it says it is. A man must be what he says he is. A book must be what it says it is.

Surely the mere setting forth of such an argument must be its sufficient refutation. An identification of claim with proof of claim is palpable error.

If it is not beating a horse that was born dead, let us point out the absurd consequences of the position we are here considering. If everything is to be believed simply because it says it is to be believed, then Hitler was a Messiah, the devil is an angel of light and anti-Christ is Christ. As Jesus said: “Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not” (Matt. 24:23).

But on the principle under scrutiny we would have to believe everyone who claims to be Christ — here and there, now and then. After all, according to the supposition we first believed in Jesus as the Christ because he said he was the Christ. We would have to be fair with other claimants whose claim is as loud or louder than his. If we would say: “You are not the Christ because the Christ says you are not the Christ,” anti-Christ could well say: “If you believed this other one because he said he was the Christ; why do you not, on the same principle, believe me when I say that I am the Christ? and if you will not believe that I am the Christ because this other Christ, whom you believe merely because he said what I also say, why not believe me when I say that he is not the Christ?”

There cannot be any answer to this criticism for even to attempt to answer it is to admit it, by retreating from the position being maintained (acceptance on mere assertion without any argument). If, for example, one says to anti-Christ, “I believe Jesus’ claim because he has confirmed it in my experience,” then you do not believe Jesus simply because he says he is the Christ. Rather, you believe him because of something which he does in your heart. Your ground has changed. You are no longer believing him for his mere word’s sake but for his work’s sake; specifically, his work in your heart.

Consequently, if you give no answer to the criticism of belief on the mere basis of assertion you are exposed to palpable naiveté and absurdity. But, if you do give an answer you flatly contradict yourself.

Some suppose that the Word of God is a special case to which ordinary rules of evidence do not apply. They admit essentially what has been written above but take exception to its application to the matter in hand. It is true of men, they say, that their word may be challenged and must be proven to be true. But God’s Word cannot be challenged but must be immediately accepted as true and obeyed as right. To hesitate when God speaks is to be both foolish and impious, they say.

With all of this we cordially agree. But it misses the point under discussion. We are not here asking whether God should be obeyed when he speaks. We are simply asking whether a being must be acknowledged as God speaking merely because he so claims; or, more particularly, whether the Bible is to be regarded as the Word of God merely because it so claims. It cannot be said too emphatically that when God speaks he is to be instantly believed. Any question whatsoever at that moment is utterly and dangerously out of order. When God the Lord does speak, the devout and intelligent mind can only reply: “Speak Lord for thy servant heareth.” But like Samuel, who spoke those words, we must first know that the voice speaking is that of God.

It would be just as foolish and impious to accept and obey any voice whatsoever which claimed to be divine as it would be not to accept and obey the divine voice when it is shown to be such. To apply some reasonable test for ascertaining the voice of God and distinguishing it from the voice of men is not presumptuous as many charge; but, on the contrary, as humble as it is necessary. Humble? Yes, humble because it is using the only means which our Maker has given us whereby we may distinguish between truth and error; God and men; his Word and theirs. To accept any voice which claimed his divine name would be arrogantly to disregard the means God himself has graciously provided to prevent just such a mistake. The person who professed to believe without evidence would be despising the God who gave us minds which must needs have evidence in order to provide a basis for reasonable belief. While God is, of course, infinitely above his creatures it does not follow that, if and when he condescends to speak to them, he will speak in a manner which is infinitely above them. Manifestly if he speaks to men he must speak so that men can understand what he says. He must, as Calvin has said, “lisp.” If parents must accommodate their language to their infants when they would be understood, surely God must indulge in baby talk when speaking to those infinitely below him. If he chose to speak to us in a manner which is as infinitely above us as his being is above ours he would be, literally, infinitely over our heads. This would not only make comprehension by us infinitely impossible, but it would inevitably reflect on God’s infinite intelligence which would know no better than to attempt to communicate with finite creatures by going infinitely over their heads. It is equally evident that he will make it known that he is speaking — which means he will give some signs of his presence which the human mind can recognize.

In conclusion, then, the fact that the Bible claims its inspiration is not the basis for Inerrancy. If there is a sound basis for believing in Inerrancy, as we shall attempt to show in the second part, the self-testimony of Scripture will be a wonderful confirmation of it. Without the Bible’s own claim it would not be impossible, but it would be more difficult, to believe that it is the Word of God. But with such self-attestation the truth of divine Inspiration is gloriously sealed.


The Holy Spirit’s Testimony as the Basis for Bible Inerrancy

One of the precious doctrines of the church is called the “Internal Testimony of the Holy Spirit.” Like the self-attestation of Scripture it is a most gracious gift of God to his church. And like that gift it is sometimes misunderstood and misused even by those who love it most. A case in point is the one before us in which the Internal Testimony is submitted as proof that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

The thinking here may be shown to be wrong, but it does have the merit of being clear. It runs like this. Just as the Bible certifies itself by the letter of Scripture, so by the living voice of God the Spirit convinces the hearts of men. Many think that the Bible’s witness to itself remains a dead letter until the living Spirit of God speaks within the soul. But when the Spirit does thus speak men have the most solid possible basis for knowing that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. Some, by no means all, of the advocates of this view go on to teach that unless the Spirit testifies, the Bible is not the Word of God; and only when he does is it the Word of God. In any case, the argument at first glance is quite impressive. When God witnesses to his own Word, how can there be any doubt that it is his inerrant Word? If you want evidence, these men assure us, here is the best. What more can any reasonable or spiritual person desire than to have God speaking directly to his own soul?

We agree. As this case is often stated it leaves nothing to be desired. We would never be so foolish as to question the very voice of God in our souls. Our search for truth would be ended promptly when God opened his mouth and spoke and that to each of us individually and inwardly.

We agree, that is, if the Holy Spirit does actually thus speak to individual souls. But I have never heard the Holy Spirit say to my soul or mind: “The Bible is the Word of God.” I have never met anyone who claims to have heard the Holy Spirit say that or anything like that to his soul. In fact, the advocates of the Internal Testimony as the basis of Inerrancy never quite get around to saying it either. Rather, most of them would be inclined to rebuke us at this point for gross misunderstanding if not outright caricature of their opinions on this subject. “We do not mean,” they will reply, “‘testimony’ as an audible voice in the soul. Of course, the Holy Spirit has not spoken to individual hearts telling them that the Bible is His Word. Of course, you cannot find anyone in his right mind who claims any such experience,” they may indignantly respond.

“Very well,” we reply. “We are sorry; we meant no offense and intended no caricature of a brother’s doctrine. Nor are we totally ignorant of the history of this doctrine. Indeed, we ourselves believe it in the sense in which Calvin, for example, meant it. But when it is used as the argument for Inerrancy (which, incidentally, we do not think was Calvin’s idea at all) that is something else. It is that something else which we are now considering.” If it is so used as proof of Inerrancy how is it such unless somehow God’s Spirit testifies, tells, signifies to us, reveals in us or the like that the canonical Scriptures are from him? But very well, we will withdraw our query as we hear our wounded brethren protesting that they mean no such thing. Let it be agreed, then, that the “testimony” of the Spirit is not like the testimony of a witness in court speaking to what he did or did not see or hear. The Spirit’s testimony is non-verbal, more subtle, more in the nature of an influence on the soul than an audible voice or mystical writing. But, we must insist, how then does the Spirit’s witness reveal Inerrancy?

If the advocates of this line of thought say that the Spirit confirms our own convictions when we read the Bible; if they say that he makes the Bible student sure that the Bible is what the Bible student feels that it is; then the Spirit does not communicate any new information which the Bible reader receives, but somehow intensifies his experiences as he meditates on Holy Writ. We are inclined to believe that the Holy Spirit does precisely that in the hearts of many. But we do not see that even if he does do it that this proves the Inspiration of the Bible. All we would now have is this: A man reads his Bible. His feelings are stirred as he reads. He senses, or thinks he senses, that there is some other spirit besides his own at work in his heart as he reads. He cannot be sure that there is another spirit. If he does believe it he cannot know what spirit it is. Certainly, he has no way of knowing that it is the divine spirit. And even if he did, all he knows is that the divine Spirit is working in his heart as he reads the Scripture and not “testifying” or saying that this Scripture is the inerrant Word of God. If it is said: “But the Bible tells us that the Spirit bears witness and therefore it must be true and the Word to which he testifies must truly be God’s Word” we are back where we began: accepting the testimony of the Scripture to itself without any (at present) just reason for so doing.

In summary: we must reject the Testimony of the Spirit as the basis of Inerrancy (not, please note, the Testimony of the Spirit) because: first, if his “Testimony” is construed as audible or verbal, it simply does not exist; second, if his “Testimony” is construed as a spiritual effect intensifying our feelings as we read Scripture this is not a proving of the Inspiration or Inerrancy of Scripture.

It may be necessary to show that we are not here opposing the Westminster Confession of Faith’s view of things but actually defending it. It teaches that “our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth, and divine authority thereof” (of the Scriptures), “is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts” (I, 5). But these words teach only that the “Testimony of the Holy Spirit” “persuades” us of the Inspiration of the Bible. It does not prove the doctrine but persuades us of the truth of the doctrine. It leads us to acknowledge the evidence for Inspiration which apart from the Holy Spirit’s influence we (as sinful persons, cf. Chapter VI) are prone to resist. This evidence is utterly sufficient to persuade us if we were frank enough to admit evidence when we see it. Thus the Westminster Confession of Faith says in full: “We may be moved and induced by the testimony of the Church to an high and reverent esteem of the Holy Scripture; and the heavenliness of the matter, the efficacy of the doctrine, the majesty of the style, the consent of all the parts, the scope of the whole (which is to give all glory to God), the full discovery it makes of the only way of man’s salvation, the many other incomparable excellencies, and the entire perfection thereof, are arguments whereby it doth abundantly evidence itself to be the Word of God; yet, not withstanding, our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.” (Chap. I, 5).

According to this great creed the various characteristics of the Bible “abundantly evidence” (prove) its Inspiration but only the influence of the Holy Spirit (overcoming our sinful dispositions) can “persuade” us to acquiesce in what we clearly see is the Word of God.

The reader may notice a certain difference (not discrepancy) between the approach of the WCF here cited and that of this little monograph. The “arguments” to which Westminster appeals are internal evidences drawn from the nature (not testimony) of the Bible itself such as its harmony, perfection, etc. That these, in their cumulative effect, are arguments we agree and have so written elsewhere. We are by-passing them in this monograph only because they take longer to develop, involve more debates with modernity, and are not so directly conclusive as the argumentation developed in Part II. That the approach of this Primer was abundantly used by the Westminster divines and seventeenth century Orthodoxy, in general, could be extensively illustrated were there any necessity to prove what no one questions.


The Believer’s Testimony as the Basis for Bible Inerrancy

It may not have been obvious that the fallacies of the preceding views lay ultimately in their unconscious elevation of the creature above the Creator who is blessed forever. It seemed to have been quite the opposite. By accepting the authority of the Bible on the basis of its own divine affirmation or its divine corroboration in the soul, advocates of these positions intended to bow before the majesty of heaven; but, in fact, did not. Since there is no evidence that an avowed Word of God is a genuine Word of God simply because it avows itself to be such, accepting it for no reason is sheer arbitrariness (however reverent the intention). Instead of abiding by the laws of evidence which God has given us we become laws to ourselves. In other words, the first two unsound bases for sound doctrine, though they appear to be quite objective, are actually only appeals to mere personal feelings. But to this position, in the purity of its expression, we now come.

The view runs something like this. The Bible is inspired because it inspires me. It “finds” me. It rings a bell in my soul. I know that this is God’s book because I feel within that this book is God’s book. It affects me as no other literature does. It exhibits a power and an energy which speak to me.

This view is not intended, by those who favor it, to be an appeal to subjectivity. It is, of course, an appeal to the subject’s experience. However, it is claimed that the subject experiences something not himself. He senses the presence of a spirit not his own. The argument is not subjective, then, in the sense that the subject himself “existentially” produces the experience. It is not a creation of the human soul but something that happens to the soul which is thought to prove that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.

This experience then is offered as the basis for believing that the Bible is the Word of God. In itself, and in it alone, is the argument for Inerrancy. No matter how sincere the Christianity of those who reason thus, no matter how truly the Bible, of which they speak, may indeed be the Word of God, still their argument amounts to this: “My heart is moved when I read the Bible more and/or differently than when I read any other literature. Therefore, this Bible, which is the occasion or cause of this wonderful feeling, must be God’s Word.” These good men do not phrase their argument that way or they, too, would immediately recognize its futility as an argument. They imply this but do not usually express it. Some of them will not even recognize it when someone else expresses it. They may even sincerely resent such a spelling out as saying something which they never intended. And, of course, they may not have meant it. People often imply what they do not intend. “Happy inconsistencies” abound everywhere. Whatever their inner intentions may be we leave to God the only Searcher of Hearts. We concern ourselves only with their reasoning. Experience is set forth as a case for Inspiration and the only way that it could appear to be such is by supposing that such an inference is valid.

But is it valid to suppose that because I have a certain experience when I read the Bible that the Bible is thereby shown to be the Word of God? Surely not. First, the experience could be a mere coincidence. One may have happened to have felt well, for some reason, when he began to read the Bible. By association he may have attributed this to what he was reading. Thus the Bible reading may have been a mere concomitant, rather than cause, of his experience. Christians do, in fact, testify that often when they read the Bible nothing “happens.”

Even if something always happened when one read the Bible, that would not prove that the Bible was the cause of what happened. We all have heard of the rooster who thought that his crowing caused the sun to rise each morning, until he found it rising one morning when he had a sore throat. But suppose that that rooster had never had a sore throat; he would have gone to his death still thinking that his crowing was the cause of the sun’s rising. We must have more than succession for a causal argument. There must be necessary succession. But this can never be shown by mere experience. Second, even if the Bible were the cause of these experiences that would not prove that the Bible was the Word of God. It would prove that it had a unique power, but not divine power. A unique power is not necessarily a divine power. The devil has power that is unique and, so far as men apart from special revelation know, it could account for such a phenomenon as that we are considering. Of course, that is not the case here. Of course, the advocates of this view are correct in saying that this power comes from God. They are right; but, they have no basis for being right. Their conclusion may be correct (as we think); but, their premises are incorrect (as we have shown).

No one is likely ever to admit that the Bible is the Word of God apart from this experience here described. Nothing so powerfully affects men’s convictions about Inspiration as this experience. Nevertheless, precious and valuable as it is, the believer’s testimony is not the basis of an argument for Inerrancy. On the contrary, Inerrancy must be the basis of validating Christian experience.


The Church’s Testimony as the Basis for Bible Inerrancy

The very futility of the preceding views has led some to the church’s testimony as the basis of Inerrancy. Sensing that they cannot prove, even to themselves not to mention others, the Inerrancy of Scripture from something within themselves or within the Bible they succumb to the temptation of appealing to Mother Church. Yet, there is more here than that. It is not simply that many are thought to be able to do what a few cannot accomplish but that God does in the many what he has not chosen to do in the few. That is, God has promised guidance to the body of the faithful and will lead them into all truth and not permit them to be misled fatally.

Now, where does the church get the idea that it is the “pillar and ground of the truth”; that it is to bind and loose on earth? From the Bible! So it is the Bible which is the basis of the church’s authority, not the church which is the basis of the Bible’s authority. The Bible is the pillar on which the church rests, not the church the pillar on which the Bible rests. Incidentally, the expression in I Timothy 3:15 that the church is the pillar and ground of the truth does not point to a pillar on which truth rests but to a pillar on which truth was posted for public announcement in antiquity. In other words, it refers to the church as witness to the truth and not the basis of it.

But some will say that the church came into existence before the Bible and then called everyone’s attention to the Bible as the Word of God. This is true in an irrelevant sense and false in a relevant sense. When we say that it is true in an irrelevant sense that the church existed before the Bible we mean that granting the church existed before the written and canonical form of the Bible is no proof of Inerrancy. If, for example, the church is thought of as beginning when the first sinners trusted in the mercy of God and if sinful Adam and Eve were the first sinners to trust in the mercy of God then the church existed centuries before the Bible was probably written and certainly many centuries before it was gathered into a canon of books recognized as Bible. If the church is thought of as coming into existence at Pentecost then the Bible (the Old Testament) preceded it by centuries. Still, the New Testament church would have preceded the New Testament Bible because there were New Testament Christians before a word of the New Testament was written.

All of this is obviously true and just as obviously irrelevant to the matter in hand. First, granted that the church, in a sense, existed before the Bible in its written form, what does this prove? According to the advocates of the view in question it is supposed to prove that the church’s testimony is the argument for Inerrancy. But does the church’s testimony, which preceded the Bible, prove the Inerrancy of the Bible? How does the fact that the church may have preceded the Bible in existence prove that the Bible is inspired and inerrant? How does the fact that the previously existing church testifies to the subsequently existing Bible prove the Bible to be what the church says that it is? It is no doubt true that if the church had not testified and did not continue to testify to the Bible as the Word of God the world might soon forget about the Bible and thus never come to realize its Inspiration. The church is indispensable to the Bible’s being considered for what it is. But, this fact is in no sense a proof that the Bible is what the church says it is. The Bible is, we believe, exactly what the church says that it is; but, it is not what the church says it is because the church says it is. Rather, in the true order of events, the church testifies because the Bible is what it is, rather than that the Bible is what it is because the church so testifies.

Perhaps it will become clearer if we outline the order of events:

    1. God speaks (revelation).
    2. Men respond in faith (church).
    3. Revelation is recorded (inerrant Bible).
    4. The church recognizes, receives and testifies to the inerrant Bible.

(The question is: What is the basis of the church’s testimony: Surely it is not the church’s testimony.)

Some will still say: Granted, that the church’s testimony is not the basis of Inerrancy but Inerrancy is the basis of the church’s testimony; still, is not the church’s testimony the basis of Inerrancy for us? That is, granted that the church had good and sufficient reasons for recognizing the Bible for what it is, nevertheless we do not have access to these reasons; or even if we did, we do not have the infallible divine guidance necessary for correctly perceiving them. So, we must rest on the church’s testimony as the basis for our belief in Inerrancy though the church herself must have another basis. We reply, that even if this were so it does grant our main point: namely, that the church’s testimony cannot be the basis for Inerrancy. But this point would still be important because it would terminate our search for the basis for Inerrancy. Our search would have ended in a realization that we should not search anymore; that the answer has been found by another (the church) and can be found by none other.

If this is so, so be it. But, is it so? It is not so, nor could it possibly be so. Why not? For the simple reason that if it be proposed that the church’s testimony must become our argument for Inerrancy, we must ask why? If the answer is: “Because the Bible says so,” it is obvious that we are right back where we began. It is the inerrant Bible itself which alone can tell us that the church alone can tell us that the Bible is inerrant! So, for us to accept this position that we can only know that the Bible is inerrant by the testimony of the church we must first know that the Bible is inerrant. For example, Rome claims papal authority from Matthew 16:18 but to do so she must first prove the authority of Matthew 16:18. If that church is to establish her authority, she must first establish the Inerrancy of the Bible. That is, even according to her own argument, she cannot establish the Bible’s authority, but the Bible must establish hers (which, incidentally, it does not do).

This then is another wrong basis for a right answer. We must continue our search. We have not yet found the right basis for accepting the Bible’s Inerrancy.

Part II

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