Yesterday I mentioned the publication of The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, a 1,248-page tome edited by D. A. Carson (Eerdmans, 2016). I included the full list of contributors with their chapter titles and the questions they answer.
Following an orienting chapter by Carson, the first part covers historical topics across nine chapters:
2. Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine 3. The Bible in Reformation and Protestant Orthodoxy 4. Natural Philosophy and Biblical Authority in the Seventeenth Century 5. German Pietism and Scriptural Authority 6. Wesleyan Theology and the Authority of Scripture 7. The “Old Princetonians” on Biblical Authority 8. Accommodation Historically Considered 9. Karl Barth on Holy Scripture 10. Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present
Below are D.A. Carson’s summarizing FAQs from each of these chapters.
1. D. A. Carson, “The Many Facets of the Current Discussion”
1.1 Why is the authority of Scripture so hotly debated today?
We live in a time when many competing voices scramble to impose their own understandings of life, culture, spirituality, and much else — the “age of authenticity,” in the words of Charles Taylor, when what makes us “authentic” is that we adopt an intrinsic suspicion of authorities so that we can be free to be ourselves. From the Bible’s perspective, this is, in part, a reprehensible flight from God, a form of idolatry.
1.2 Why are the issues surrounding the Bible’s authority so complicated?
A good deal of the complexity is bound up with the range of disciplines that affect how we understand biblical authority. These include disputes about how the Bible’s authority has been understood at various points in church history, what truth is, the nature of revelation, principles of interpretation, how different literary genres in the Bible have different ways of making their own rhetorical appeals, text criticism, epistemology, and much, much more.
1.3 Isn’t the word “inerrancy” pretty useless, since it has to be defined very carefully and technically for it to be deployed at all?
There are very few words in the pantheon of theological vocabulary that don’t have to be carefully defined if accurate communication and serious discussion are to take place. Consider, after all, “God,” “justification,” “apocalyptic,” “Spirit,” “regeneration,” “sanctification,” and many more. That a word, to be useful in theological debate, must be defined carefully (e.g., inerrancy has nothing necessary to do with precision, and certainly understands that the sacred Scriptures are written in a wide diversity of sentences and clauses, not all of which are propositions) is no reason not to use it.
2. Charles E. Hill, “‘The Truth Above All Demonstration’: Scripture in the Patristic Period to Augustine”
2.1 What role did Scripture play in the writings of the patristic period?
Scripture lay at the very center of the intellectual and spiritual life of the Christians of the early centuries of the Christian church.
2.2 Wasn’t the formation of the New Testament canon a rather late development?
A careful reading of the primary sources shows that the notion of canon, as a given set of inspired and authoritative writings, was well established in the second century.
2.3 Didn’t the fathers apply the term “inspiration” to writings other than the writings of the New Testament?
Yes, once in a while they did — but then they deployed other terms to show that only the biblical writings were authoritative and free from error.
3. Robert Kolb, “The Bible in the Reformation and Protestant Orthodoxy”
3.1 Did Luther and Calvin provide substantial innovation as they worked out their doctrine of Scripture?
Both Reformers were heirs to the high view of Scripture they received from the early church and from medieval scholars. Their contribution, so far as their understanding of the nature of Scripture is concerned, largely lay in freeing up the Bible from its domestication by certain ecclesiastical traditions and by scarcely constrained allegorizing. Theologically, there is a Christ-centeredness and a justification-centeredness in their handling of Scripture that sets them apart, but such exegesis did not exclude attention to the Bible as the authority for other matters in the church’s and believer’s life.
3.2 Doesn’t Luther’s well-known comment that James is “an epistle of straw” demonstrate that he was prepared to dismiss Scripture when it didn’t suit his theology?
On the contrary. In the same Prefaces, Luther insists that James is “a good book because it sets up no human teaching but vigorously promulgates the law of God.” But Luther tended to evaluate the weight of any biblical text by the clarity with which it expounded Christ and justification. Hence his characterization of James as an “epistle of straw.”
3.3 How similar are the views of Luther and Calvin on the doctrine of Scripture?
Both of these Reformers embraced the absolute authority of God’s Word, from which the Holy Spirit, who brought the texts into being through human authors, still speaks. Slight differences emerge in their formulations: Luther, for instance, was significantly influenced by Ockham, and Calvin was not. Again, Luther does not use the word “inspiration” as much as Calvin, but he does insist that the Holy Spirit was truly present in the origin and is truly present in the use of Scripture.
4. Rodney L. Stiling, “Natural Philosophy and Biblical Authority in the Seventeenth Century”
4.1 Weren’t the scientists of the seventeenth century, such as Kepler, Galileo, and Newton (like Copernicus a century earlier), essentially an early species of secularists whose scientific methods left them free to challenge the authority of Scripture?
No. All these men were Christians or Deists who continued to reverence Scripture. But hermeneutically they tended to argue that when it comes to the natural order the Bible tends to speak phenomenologically (to use the word we prefer today). And some of these scientists cited Scripture, with all its authority, to justify learning about God and his ways by studying the natural order God had made.
4.2 Didn’t theologians systematically try to marginalize the scientists?
In the seventeenth century, the Westminster divines were themselves moving in the direction of recognizing secondary causes in nature. In the Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 5 (on Providence), God is identified as the “first cause”; indeed, the divines affirmed that while “God the great Creator of all things does uphold, direct, dispose, and govern all creatures, actions, and things, from the greatest even to the least, by His most wise and holy providence, . . . yet, by the same providence, He orders them to fall out, according to the nature of second causes, either necessarily, freely, or contingently.” The supporting footnote cites half a dozen biblical texts that depict ordinary cause-and-effect relationships in the natural order. In other words, they went out of their way to incorporate the findings and foci of scientists within a larger theological framework.
4.3 So when did a more skeptical approach to the Scriptures begin to surface among scientists?
Well into the eighteenth century — and even then the evidence is quite mixed.
5. John D. Woodbridge, “German Pietism and Scriptural Authority: The Question of Biblical Inerrancy”
5.1 Is it not the case that many Christians in the Pietist-Methodist-Holiness-Pentecostal traditions trace at least some of their roots to Spener and other German Pietists? And that includes their views on Scripture?
Yes, that much is certainly true.
5.2 Is it not the case that Spener and other early Pietists rejected inerrancy, owing in part to their reaction against Lutheran orthodoxy?
It is true that this position is often asserted, not least in the writings of Donald Dayton. But careful perusal of the primary sources themselves shows it simply isn’t the case. The early Pietists, by their own testimony, were solidly in the inerrantist camp. They did not reject Lutheran views of Scripture; rather, they constantly criticized Lutherans for not living up to their own theology.
6. Thomas H. McCall, “Wesleyan Theology and the Authority of Scripture: Historic Affirmations and Some Contemporary Issues”
6.1 Is it not true to say that the Wesleyan tradition on Scripture descends from Pietism, such that Pietist views on Scripture controlled the stances of the early Wesleyans?
There was much more crossover of traditions than is sometimes envisaged. In other words, early Wesleyans were shaped not only by Pietism but also by Scholasticism and other traditions — and all of those traditions were committed to the classic traditional understanding of the nature of Scripture.
6.2 Why then do many Wesleyans explicitly reject the traditional stance on inerrancy?
Some do so because they misread the primary documents of Pietism (see FAQs 5.1 and 5.2 above), or because they distance themselves from the mainstream Wesleyan heritage on this subject. Others reject the traditional Wesleyan stance on Scripture because they think it is incompatible with the Free Will Defense. William Lane Craig has demonstrated, however, that their logic is not unassailable.
6.3 Haven’t some Wesleyans (especially William Abraham) argued that, since the Bible has been given for purposes of transformation rather than information (which seems to be the focus of attention in inerrantist formulations), the emphases of the traditional position on truth are fatally misdirected?
Indeed, that is one of the arguments sometimes deployed. The argument expresses a legitimate concern, but it does not undermine the traditional view in any way. On the contrary, it encourages us to appreciate the classical view even more. A small analogy helps: a physician acquires a body of knowledge in order to heal people — but it is altogether desirable that that body of knowledge be true and reliable if real healing is to take place. One cannot legitimately sideline the importance of the truthfulness of Scripture by observing, rightly, that the purpose of Scripture is more than truth-telling.
7. Bradley N. Seeman, “The ‘Old Princetonians’ on Biblical Authority”
7.1 Who are the “Old Princetonians,” and why are they brought up in connection with debates over the nature of Scripture?
The expression “Old Princetonians” refers to the remarkably learned and influential theologians and biblical scholars at Princeton Seminary in the nineteenth century (including Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin B. Warfield — the latter working into the beginning of the twentieth century). It is commonly alleged that in their defensive stance against the inroads into the doctrine of Scripture in their day, they ended up introducing innovations into the doctrine, including the affirmation of inerrancy, that were unknown before them.
7.2 What, more precisely, are the Old Princetonians alleged to have done?
Under the influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism and a Baconian view of science, the Old Princetonians allegedly viewed the Bible as a repository of inerrant truths, which simply needed to be carefully gathered together in a scientific fashion so as to compile a reliable systematic theology.
7.3 Are the charges against the Old Princetonians justified?
While they were men of their time who undoubtedly made mistakes, the Old Princetonians rightly understood their defense of inerrant Scripture to stand within the classic and common heritage of the church. In their day, novel critiques of church teaching were being consolidated on Kantian or Hegelian foundations. Their defense faithfully restated church teaching and included pointed critiques of Baconianism and Scottish Common Sense Realism. As Seeman puts it, “The Princetonian reaffirmation and defense of the church’s teaching on biblical authority is not beholden to an indefensible epistemological stance.” Not only so, but both Hodge and Warfield display remarkable profundity in sorting through how systematic theology is responsibly constructed — a far cry from seeing it as mechanical compilation of facts.
8. Glenn S. Sunshine, “Accommodation Historically Considered”
8.1 What is meant by “accommodation”?
In the fathers, the Middle Ages, and Calvin, the topic of accommodation arose partly out of reflection on the ways in which an infinite and holy God could communicate with his finite and sinful image-bearers (he could do so by “accommodating” himself to their limitations), and partly as a way to explain apparent contradictions in the text of Scripture (the language is frequently accommodated to the understanding of common human beings — e.g., by describing some things in phenomenological language, which of course we still do today when we say things such as “The sun will rise this morning at 5:39 a.m.”).
8.2 Is that how accommodation is commonly understood today?
In the late Enlightenment, while some followed Spinoza and simply rejected biblical authority, many scholars maintained some sort of notion of biblical authority but under the influence of Socinus, whose views of accommodation included the assertion that the many ostensible errors in Scripture were no more than God’s “accommodation” to flawed human beings. Those who presuppose this more recent view of accommodation, with its ready embrace of many kinds of error, are misleading when they say that accommodation has always been part of sophisticated treatments of Scripture. Although formally true, the statement hides the way the notion of accommodation has changed in recent centuries. Discussion of the topic has become complex. Arguably Calvin saw accommodation as a theological category tied to God’s grace toward us, and exemplified in some ways in the incarnation. That is a far cry from seeing it as a merely rhetorical and exegetical device.
9. David Gibson, “The Answering Speech of Men: Karl Barth on Holy Scripture”
9.1 How come Karl Barth’s views of Scripture have come back to be the focus of so much attention today?
There are at least three reasons. First, Barth was certainly the most prolific and perhaps creative theologian of the twentieth century, so it is no wonder that people study his writings. Second, Barth’s thought is profoundly God-centered, profoundly Christ-centered, profoundly grace-centered. And third, his view of Scripture, though not quite in line with traditional confessionalism, is reverent, subtle, and complex, so scholars keep debating exactly what he was saying.
9.2 Doesn’t Barth say that the Bible isn’t the Word of God, but becomes the Word of God when it is received by faith?
In fact, he can affirm both; the question is, What does he mean? The “becoming” language is for Barth tied up with his insistence that the initial revelation of the Word and its revelation to the individual believer are tied up together in one gracious whole. The same is true with Barth’s treatment of inspiration. He refuses to speak of the Bible as itself inspired, but links together what is traditionally called the inspiration of Scripture and the illumination of the believer into one whole.
9.3 Doesn’t Barth claim to stand in line with the Reformers, so far as his view of Scripture is concerned?
Yes, he does, but he is clearly mistaken. Comparison with Calvin, for example, casts up not a few instances where Calvin happily speaks of the inspiration of Scripture, the text itself being God-breathed, regardless of whether or how believers receive it. Barth prefers to speak of the out-breathing of the Spirit of God in both the text and the believer, thus distancing himself both from the exegesis of Scripture and from the Reformed tradition. He appears to recognize his distance from Calvin in CD II/2, §3e. 9.4 Does Barth allow that there are errors in Scripture? Yes, he does, though he refuses to identify them (but cf. his treatment of the fall of angels in 2 Peter and Jude, CD III/3, §51, where he finds a theological error in Scripture). For Barth, this seems to be part of the humanness of Scripture, though he insists that God’s revelatory authority encompasses the whole, errors and all. That in turn inevitably raises questions about how passages of Scripture that include errors (not identified) can be said to carry the revelatory authority of God.
10. Anthony N. S. Lane, “Roman Catholic Views of Biblical Authority from the Late Nineteenth Century to the Present”
10.1 Does the Roman Catholic Church share the same view of Scripture that you have been describing as “classic” or “traditional”?
Yes. Indeed, across many centuries and until quite recently, Catholicism has been one of the mainstays in holding that the Bible is uniquely inspired by God, and inerrant. But that is not the whole picture. Catholicism has also held that tradition has an authority comparable to that of Scripture, and in any case the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the church, alone determines what Scripture and tradition mean. Thus, so far as understanding the nature of Scripture goes, the Reformers’ argument with Rome was not so much over the nature of Scripture as over its exclusive sufficiency.
10.2 What do you mean by “until quite recently”? Have the views of Catholicism as to the nature of Scripture changed?
For the last century or so, Catholicism has gradually recognized more of the human dimensions of Scripture than had formerly been the case. Vatican II, however, signaled a more dramatic shift. Influenced in part by liberal Protestantism, the Catholic Church in Vatican II (1962-65) tended to preserve much of the traditional language, while allowing to stand in Scripture a lot of things that an earlier generation would have understood to be errors.
10.3 Is this proving divisive in the Roman Catholic Church?
Arguably not as divisive as in various forms of Protestantism, in part because the Magisterium preserves its voice of authority as to the teachings of the church, regardless of changes in the way Scripture is perceived.