John H. Gerstner
Objections Allegedly Arising from Science
It is objected to the Inerrancy doctrine that the Bible has many errors traceable to the inadequacy of the knowledge of the period during which the Bible was written. This is a major reason for setting aside the Westminster Confession by the drafters of “The Confession of 1967” as may be seen in the Appendix. It is added that these errors do not invalidate the message of the Bible; but merely disprove its Inerrancy and Inspiration. Adherents of Infallibility, it says, are forced into all sorts of unscholarly and obscurantist positions in their necessary defense of the Bible versus the findings of modern science. Admitting the mere humanness of the Bible and seeking the Word of God elsewhere than in its pages are presented as truly scientific and at the same time truly spiritual.
To this we reply: first, this position overlooks the two kinds of authority in an infallible Bible. There is what is called historical authority and normative authority (which is discussed more fully in the Appendix). Historical authority applies to every word of an inerrant Bible and tells us simply that whatever the Bible says was said or done was indeed said or done. Such information does not tell us whether what was said and done ought to have been said or ought to have been done. Only the normative authority of the inerrant Bible answers that question. For a fuller discussion of this difference see the Appendix. Its relevance to the point under question is important. It teaches us that Bible writers themselves may have been laboring under erroneous impressions without this being normative instruction for us. Suppose they did think of a three-storied universe, which was the common opinion in their day, the Bible does not err unless it teaches such as a divine revelation of truth. In fact, by showing that the writers may have personally entertained ideas now antiquated it reveals its own historical authenticity without its normative authenticity suffering.
Second, sometimes the difference between popular and technical or pedantic language is overlooked. “At sunset, Isaac went out to meditate” (Gen. 24:63) does not mean that the Bible teaches the Ptolemaic astronomy. It is not pedantically teaching that the sun rotates about the earth so that there is a literal “sunset.” This was and is a common way of speaking and does not necessarily reflect the thinking of those who use such language. Someone has said that if the Bible were to be scientifically exact it would have read: “when the rotation of the solar luminary on its axis was such that its rays impinged horizontally on the retina, Isaac went out to meditate.” We once lived in “Sunset Hills” and not one adult in the community believed that the sun ever sets. Likewise the “sun’s standing still” (Josh. 10:12) would be the way things would appear, not necessarily the way they would be. While we are referring to this miracle let us add another observation dealing with another criticism. Some object to the accuracy of this particular miracle arguing that if the sun did appear stationary for so long a period the whole universe would have been thrown out of order in one way and another. The objection is puerile. If God is able to do as much as the narrative relates it would be no more difficult to take care of all the attendant details! For the Creator any manipulation of the creation whatsoever would be infinitely easy — but it seems infinitely difficult for some to see this.
Third, much unnecessary strain is caused by the hasty judgments of the Bible’s friends and foes alike. We cannot examine at all thoroughly all the problems growing out of the creation narrative (Gen. 1-3) for example; but, this general statement is true, we believe: If every Bible scholar were careful not to read anything out of the Scripture teachings except what it indubitably teaches and natural scientists were equally careful to claim nothing as scientifically established but what is indubitably true, the tensions between science and Scripture would be reduced to a negligible minimum. For example, the Bible does not teach that God created the world in 4004 B.C. As Gordon Clark has written: we defend the Inspiration of the Bible, not of Archbishop Ussher. These are merely a few samples of a few types of objections to the doctrine of Inerrancy. There are many more types and there are many more answers. But this would seem to be a sufficient sampling for our purposes. A select and recommended bibliography may he found appended which will serve for further and more extensive investigation.
In closing we should like to say only this. In the case of alleged discrepancies it is not our burden to show how these may be reconciled as we have done above out of the “goodness of our hearts” and not the exigencies of our situation. We have given a case for the Inerrancy of the Bible. Unless this case can be shown to be false, then it carries with it the guarantee that there are no discrepancies. We have, in other words, if our case is sound, shown that discrepancies are only apparent and must be reconcilable even if we say not one word about how this reconciliation is to be shown. It behooves the opponent to prove us wrong by showing his “discrepancies” to be discrepancies incapable of harmonization. We have every reason to anticipate that he can succeed in so doing no better in the future than he has in the past because the Bible, we believe, is the inerrant Word of God.
Objections Arising from an Alleged “Docetism”
A very modern theological objection to Inerrancy is an implied “Docetism.” Docetism refers to an early heresy denying the genuineness of Christ’s humanity. It maintained that Christ merely appeared (dokein) to be human. Inerrancy does essentially the same thing to the Bible, it is said, that the docetists did to Christ; namely, deny its genuine humanness. “To err is human” and to be human is to err. If the Bible has no error it could not really have been written by men. Thus the human authors of the Bible, according to Inerrancy, it is charged, only appear to have written the Bible. In brief, the argument runs thus:
However, in this neat little syllogism they have neglected to observe a crucial part of the picture. Perhaps it will be clearest if we insert it where it belongs in the otherwise consistent syllogism:
Some may think that we here deny a principle we have defended above. There, we said that God could not force the will of man without destroying man as man. Here we say that God can suspend the operation of human sinfulness without destroying the humanity of the persons concerned. The difference is this: freedom is essential to the nature of man but sinfulness is not. Remove freedom and man ceases to be; remove sinfulness and he does not cease to be a man (in fact, he is only perfectly human without sin).
Furthermore, there is a rather interesting inconsistency among most of our critics. While they deny that the Bible writers can be truly human while writing without error they will not deny that Jesus could be truly human while living without error or even sin of any kind.
This criticism has the value of calling even greater attention to Inerrancy’s insistence on the genuineness and indispensable importance of human participation in the writing of Scripture. While God’s part has been insisted on throughout this and most literature on the Inspiration of the Bible, this is because it is so often challenged and is of such infinite importance. Sometimes in this stress on the divine, the human is, we regret to say, overlooked. Finally, some critics appear who claim that we deny the human role altogether. This calls forth our reiteration that the Bible is no less the word of man than it is the Word of God. But it is the word of men inspired by God. The Bible, then, is the Word of God expressed in the inspired words of men.
The one position of the Westminster Confession of Faith which the Confession of 1967 avowedly and admittedly changes is that on the Bible. In the “Introductory Comment and Analysis” the Committee says: “This section is an intended revision of the Westminster doctrine, which rested primarily on a view of inspiration and equated the Biblical canon directly with the Word of God. By contrast, the pre-eminent and primary meaning of the word of God in the Confession of 1967 is the Word of God incarnate. The function of the Bible is to be the instrument of the revelation of the Word in the living church. It is not a witness among others but the witness without parallel, the norm of all other witness. At the same time questions of antiquated cosmology, diverse cultural influences, and the like, may be dealt with by careful scholarship uninhibited by the doctrine of inerrancy which placed the older Reformed theology at odds with advances in historical and scientific studies” (p. 29; all quotations are from the official “Blue-book” of the General Assembly, May, 1965).
This is flatly contrary to the promise on page 1 of the “Blue-book”: “The proposal for amending the Confession does not entail revision or deletion (except for the deletion of the Westminster Larger Catechism) . . .” Here is an admitted revision following on the heels of a denial of such a purpose. But still it is to be admired for its candor. We suppose that it was an unintentional oversight that the committee did not mention this one acknowledged revision as it did the one acknowledged deletion. What is far more serious is that the whole mentality of the new Confession is different from that of the old one. Its intention is probably not revision but rejection. But candor has not reached the point of admitting that. The lack of frankness at this point is an advantage as well as disadvantage, however. It results in an ambiguity which, while it covers the probable intention of the committee, also permits adherents of the Westminster Confession of Faith to remain in the church in good conscience. They will be offended by this absence of the very clarity for which the Westminster Confession of Faith has always been justly famous. But whatever heresies may lurk in the shadows of vague language all of them have not yet dared to come to the light. Through the obfuscations of the new creed the light of truth from the old ones will continue to shine unabated to the glory of God and the comfort of those who still believe what they vowed at their ordination.
Let us first examine the preliminary statement (p. 29) before proceeding to the creedal section on the Bible “. . . Westminster doctrine which rested primarily on a view of inspiration and equated the Biblical canon directly with the Word of God We have no serious quarrel with this statement but will elaborate a little so as to prevent misunderstanding especially by the layman. First, Westminster is not unique in resting its doctrines on a view of Inspiration. Virtually all Christian creeds have done this either expressedly or impliedly. (It is one of the notable weaknesses of the new creed that it does not do so.) When we say impliedly, we mean that Inspiration is assumed even when there is no special article on the Bible. Inspiration is a catholic or universal or ecumenical, if you please, and not an exclusively Presbyterian, doctrine. In other words, in its eagerness to be modern the new creed would antiquate the Presbyterian Church by reverting to the time before creeds began. As soon as the church did begin to speak about the Bible it testified to its Inspiration. Never before has a church spoken of the Bible without bearing witness to its Inspiration. So powerful is the pull of the past even on this new creed that it cannot get entirely free of this tradition as we shall see when we come to consider its testimony that the Bible is the “normative witness.” Even that word “normative” did not satisfy the Commissioners to the General Assembly of 1965.
Second, while Westminster “equated the Biblical canon directly with the Word of God” this does not imply that it admitted of no differences within the Word of God. Obviously, when the Word of God says, “And Satan said,” that does not mean that God said what Satan said! It means that God said that Satan said it. This is quite another thing. To use a distinction that was acknowledged by the Westminster divines, as well as all other Reformed theologians: the authority of the Bible is complete but it is of two kinds. The Bible has descriptive and normative authority (authentia historica and authentia normativa). Descriptive authority means that everything which the Bible says happened, was spoken, or was thought — did happen, or was spoken, or was thought. It is authentic history however bad the event may have been which the history records. All of the Word of God, according to Westminster, has this descriptive authority or authenticity. Within this Word of God as authentic record is the Word of God as normative or authoritative for faith and practice. When God said, as noted above, that Satan said, we know that Satan so said; but, we are not to believe and practice as Satan says. But when the Word of God says that God said then we know both that God so said and that we are so to believe and so to practice.
We must add, also, that although Westminster equated the Biblical canon directly with the Word of God, as thus explained, this does not deny progress within the normative revelation of God anymore than affirming that God is the author of the whole creation is meant to deny that there is a difference between the egg and the chicken which comes from it.
One further and rather technical detail perhaps ought to be added. Westminster did not exactly “equate” the Word of God with the “canon.” It identified the Word of God with the original text of the canonical books. Furthermore, the Word of God is not quite identified with the canon because the canon is the judgment of men about the Word of God and not the Word of God itself. As B. B. Warfield, of old Princeton, who as much as any man since the Westminster standards were formulated shared their mentality, has written: the canon is not an inspired collection of books but a collection of inspired books.
“By contrast, the pre-eminent and primary meaning of the word of God in the Confession of 1967 is the Word of God incarnate.” What have we here? The “word of God” (that is, the Bible, the fallible word of men which incidentally ought not from this viewpoint to be called the word of God but the word to God) means Jesus Christ (“the Word of God incarnate”). We invite any competent and candid interpreter to make of these words something other than nonsense or blasphemy. If the words of men which we call the Bible means Jesus Christ then such statements as we mentioned above (“Satan said”) mean Jesus Christ; the statement of Paul that “Demas has forsaken us having loved this present world,” means Jesus Christ; “At sunset Isaac went out to meditate” means Jesus Christ; and the like.
To say that sinful actions, incidental details, trivial data severally mean Jesus Christ — well, it is far more charitable to say that this is nonsense rather than blasphemy. But what other construction can fairly be placed on these words?
But someone (charging us with a lack of love when we think we are being as charitable as it is possible to be) will say: The statement simply means that the words of the Biblical writers point to Jesus Christ. What words? Some point away from Christ as truly as others point to him. Reformed theology has shown how to distinguish them, as we indicated above; but, in the new creed no such formula is given. We have only the blanket statement: “the pre-eminent and primary meaning of the word of God . . . is the Word of God incarnate.”
But if we should grant that the words of men in the Bible do in fact point to Christ (directly and indirectly, by inference and affirmation, by what is not, as cue to what is) then what is the difference between this and what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches? Or, do our new creed writers wish to add slander to neglect when they write: “By contrast” (to the Westminster Confession of Faith!) “the pre-eminent and primary meaning of the word of God in the Confession of 1967 is the Word of God incarnate”? Do they suppose for one moment that our fathers in the faith thought that the Bible as the Word of God had any other pre-eminent and primary meaning than Jesus Christ? “Ye search the Scriptures for they bear witness of me” (John 5:39). 1647 believed this as much as 1967 and in a far more intelligible manner. What it amounts to is this: the new creed is saying nothing or something; if something, it is a slander of our fathers; if nothing, it is an insult to us.
“The function of the Bible is to be the instrument of the revelation of the Word in the living church.” Let us compare this with the classic statement of the Westminster Confession of Faith, Ch. I, Sec. 10: “The Supreme Judge, by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture.” In the Westminster doctrine the Bible is indeed the instrument of the revelation of the Word (Christ) in the living church. But it is a doctrine of the Bible as instrument which we can understand. The Bible was inspired by God and as such has perpetual authority. The Holy Spirit of Christ still works by means of it as the permanent expression of his will by which the church is to be led. Here is a characteristic reaffirmation of the famous Calvinistic principle: the Word and the Spirit; the Word reveals the Spirit and the Spirit illumines the Word. The Word will not be properly received apart from the Spirit and the Spirit does not speak apart from the Word. If our new creedalists meant this we should rejoice; but, alas, nothing is further from their doctrines. We must not forget that they have explicitly rejected the Westminster view of Scripture. What, then, do they mean? This they attempt to explain first, affirmatively and, second, negatively, in the two sentences which immediately follow to which we now turn.
“It is not a witness among others but witness without parallel, the norm of all other witness.” “It” clearly refers to the Bible which is the subject of the preceding sentence. Thus the new creedalists are saying here that the Bible is the witness which is the norm of all other witness. Now a “norm” is a standard by which other of like character are tested. Accordingly, the Bible is the standard or test by which all other witnesses including, for example, this new creed, are tested for their truthfulness. The Bible, mind you, is the norm of all witness to Christ. The Westminster divines could not express it better. In fact, this is what the Westminster Confession of Faith is expressing. Why then do the new creedalists take exception to Westminster while expressing the same doctrine? The fact seems to be that they are not using the normal meaning of “norm.” Here is an abnormal “norm”; a standard which is not a standard. It is rather embarrassing to say that men are not using language normally and are not saying what they took seven years to formulate. That such is the sorry case is, however, as clear as it is surprising. First, they said, as noted, that their doctrine is other than Westminster. Second, they expressly repudiated the historic doctrine of “inspiration.” Third, they call the Bible “the word of God” in sharp contrast to the “Word of God.” If the Bible is not inspired and is merely the word of men then either men are perfect or a norm of the Word of God is not a norm. The imperfection of men is taught not only in the other creeds left standing in the new program but taught in the “new creed” also (Part I, Sect. I, B). So we lamentably say that the new creed is one in which a “norm” is not a “norm” or error is the norm of Truth (the Word of God).
Fourth, the next, the negative, proposition to which we now come explicitly rejects the Bible as “normative” (in any sense).
We are certain that every member of the committee which drew up the new creed would agree that the above statement means the following: the new creed, rejecting the doctrine of Inerrancy, leaves its adherents freer to accept historical and scientific studies which contradict the historical and scientific statements of the Bible. This is not, in fact, what this inaccurate, pejorative, disrespectful-to-the-fathers statement actually says; but, since it is undoubtedly what it intended to say let us address ourselves to the intention and ignore the unhappy form of expression. The upshot of the matter is this: We are being told that the scientifically and historically errant word of God is nonetheless the norm of all witness to the Word of God! The committee shows wisdom in not seeking to illustrate this.
We turn now to the main treatment of the Bible in the creed itself, Part I, Section III b. “The Bible.”
We grant that “the one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ” but why do they not grant that the one sufficient revelation of Jesus Christ is the Bible? Christ did: “. . . they” (the Scriptures) “bear witness of me” (John 5:39). Paul did: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Tim. 1:15; cf. Luke 19:10; Rom. 5:8). What God has joined together (the Word of God incarnate and the Word of God inscripturated), why does the committee attempt to rend asunder?
“. . . to whom the Holy Spirit bears witness in many ways”: Whatever the word “norm” may mean when applied to the Bible it is here clear that the Bible is not unique. It is not the only “revelation” of its kind as the church from the beginning (the whole church from the very beginning) has confessed. According to the new confession it is only one among many ways in which the Holy Spirit bears witness to Christ. To be sure it is the “norm” for others which, however, can only differ from it in degree, not kind. It is becoming clear that the Bible is thought of merely as the first and best of all these witnesses.
But assuming this inadequate view for the sake of argument, how do we know that the Bible is the norm of the rest of the witnesses? Answer: “The church has received” it as such. The Bible claims its own Inspiration some three thousand tunes hut this does not prove it. But the church recognizes the Bible as normative; this does prove it. Rome must be amused to hear such sentiments coming from the children of Calvin. They may well anticipate that it should not be long before these seers find the Holy Spirit bearing witness to the Word of God in the papacy as Romanists have themselves contended for centuries (for critique of this approach cf. Chapter 4 above).
That the New Testament is the recorded testimony of apostles to Jesus Christ is, of course, true. It is also much more than that — it is the recorded testimony of God to the apostles. The most vital thing for us is not that the apostles testify to God but that God testifies to or confirms the apostles. There is a vast difference between an infallible witness to an infallible Christ and a fallible witness to an infallible Christ. If it is a fallible witness it may (fortunately) be generally reliable as historical testimony to the major matters, but not absolutely reliable on all matters.
Here, again, in this paragraph we have the church’s receiving of the Old Testament and the New Testament as the crucial evidence for its authority — an utterly Romish view, as already shown. Here, again, also is the selective, discriminating acceptance of the witness of the Bible. It would seem that the committee is normative for the Bible rather than the Bible, as such, for the committee. That is, the Scripture is received as witness to God’s faithfulness to Israel. But the Scripture also bears witness to God’s rejection of Israel. That witness, nevertheless, seems not to be accepted by the committee, as the Bible teaches it. Hosea, for example, is a favorite Old Testament prophet because of his representation of the longsuffering of Yahweh. But what becomes of Hosea when he says: “. . . I will no more have pity on the house of Israel, to forgive them at all” (1:6)? Paul is supposedly writing Scripture which the church can accept when he says (II Cor. 5:19): “. . . God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. . . .” But the same apostle must be uncanonical when he declares (Rom. 11:22): “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off.”
As soon as we express gratitude for the enunciation of a sound principle, such as the interdependence of the two Testaments, we must immediately remind ourselves that we are reading something into this document which it does not intend. It does not mean that the New Testament is latent in the Old Testament and the Old Testament patent in the New Testament as this phraseology would normally signify. So to construe it would be to wrench this text of the new creed out of its context. It may seem charitable to do so but it would not be true. But if it is not true neither is it charitable, for charity rejoices in the truth (I Cor. 13:6, AV). And the truth, according to this context, must mean: not that the New Testament is latent in the Old Testament but that some of the New Testament is latent in some of the Old Testament. Nor is the Old Testament patent in the New Testament but some of the Old Testament is patent in some of the New Testament. And that “some” in each case is that which the church of the new creedalists deigns to receive.
Surely this is the form of sound words but its meaning is loaded and all in the wrong direction. Faithfully to read and preach the Bible, according to this committee, is to distinguish between the errant husk and cleave to the inerrant but also indefinable Truth. If this seems to be an impossible task an adequate help is suggested in the Holy Spirit’s guidance. But alas, the Holy Spirit cannot help us either for we do not know how to recognize his guidance until the committee tells us. If the Holy Spirit guided us into the understanding of inspired Scripture as the Westminster Confession of Faith taught us — this we could understand. Or, if the Spirit led us into an understanding of some definite part of Scripture —this we could understand. But it is only when the Spirit guides us into an understanding in accordance with this or some committee’s understanding that we can rely upon him. Having dispensed with the Inspiration of the Bible we must now look to the inspiration of a committee. We are sure that this committee does not think that it is the only inspired committee. There must be other committees also, alas. If anything is likely to awaken the church to its real danger it will be the realization that once we have done away with Holy Scripture — Holy Spirit, in the vacuum thereby created we must have an infinite series of holy committees!
The reader will recognize that this has been said before and criticized before. There appears to be no need for repetition. If our earlier words were true then the new creed’s climax is untrue. The important thing for the reader of this and all doctrines, for that matter, is to judge righteous judgment (John 7:24). There is an unrighteous judgment of principles as well as a righteous one, and it may be favorable as well as unfavorable. Some seem to think that we do an injustice to a statement only when we draw unfair, incriminating deductions from it. But we also do an injustice when we draw unfair, exonerating deductions from it. To make a righteous judgment, as commanded by our Lord, is to avoid all unfair judgments whether favorable or unfavorable. Because this is the proposed creed of earnest, serious-minded, hard-working Christian persons who are more likely to be unrighteous in our judgments by being too lenient than by being too strict. But we must avoid both if we would render righteous judgments. We must attempt, as we have here attempted (God being our witness), with malice toward none, free of any desire to find anyone at fault for a word, to ascertain what is meant by the proposed “Confession of 1967.” With one member of this present committee we are personally and fairly intimately acquainted and we bear him witness that he appears to be one of the most sincere Christians we have ever had the privilege of knowing. It may be that every other committee member is of such caliber. Nevertheless, notwithstanding the possible soundness of the persons who composed it, this creed is anything but sound. We appeal to them, no less than all others, when we urge them, in the name of the Christ, whom we all profess to love, to rescind this confession before it becomes an indelible blemish on the escutcheon of the church.
*Warfield is author of other works and articles bearing on our subject. We recommend his writings as best of all and himself as the ablest Reformed theologian of the twentieth century.