I recently came across a review written by J. I. Packer in 1979 of Harold Lindsell’s The Bible in the Balance (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), which was a sequel to The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).
Packer, as usual, is clear and perceptive. After summarizing the book, he provides this evaluation:
1. Is inerrancy a revealed truth belonging to the catholic Christian heritage?
YES—but . . . the questions of inerrancy and interpretation must be kept separate. Acknowledging that whatever biblical writers communicate on any subject is God-given truth does not commit you in advance to any one method or school of interpretation, nor to any one way of relating Scripture to science, not to any one set of proposed harmonizations of inconsistent-looking texts. All it commits you to is a purpose of taking as from God all that Scripture, rightly interpreted (as you judge), proves to say.
Mediaevals allegorized, Reformers interpreted literally, but both maintained inerrancy.
Covenant theologians and dispensationalists, Calvinists and evangelical Arminians have significantly different hermeneutics (it’s true, and we may as well admit it), but all may agree on inerrancy—as indeed they did at the Chicago conference of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in October 1978.
Some find in Scripture wonderful anticipations of modern mathematics, physics, geology, medicine and all kinds of technology, whiles on grounds of philosophy, method and technique deny that “science” in our sense appears in Scripture at all; Lindsell thinks Peter denied Christ six times, and John Wenham thinks the problem here is textual (New Testament Studies, July 1979, pp. 523-25); but all can join hands in affirming inerrancy, for these are differences about interpretation only.
But Lindsell almost (not quite) implies that you don’t believe in inerrancy unless you interpret all Scriptures as he does, and that seems to me an expository weakness.
One wishes he had somewhere highlighted that in all the communications which made up the history of revelation God accommodated himself to the historical and cultural situation of the human speaker and hearers—a situation which he, of course, had himself shaped up in readiness for each revelatory events.
This does not mean that what God said was culture-bound in the sense of not applying universally, but that in applying it cultural and historical differences must be borne in mind, and no interpretation unrelated to what was being conveyed to the first addressees can be right. To say this would guide interpretation, and guard against blind reaction. For, reacting against affirmations of inerrancy that overlook accommodation, some have recently taken the position that affirming accommodation means denying inerrancy.
2. Is inerrancy really a touchstone, watershed and rallying point for evangelicals, and did Lindsell do well to raise his voice about it?
YES—but . . . his arguments in both books would gain much by re-angling.
For (a) what is centrally and basically at stake in this debate, and has been ever since it began two centuries ago, is the functioning of Scripture as our authority, the medium of God’s authority, for faith and life. Inerrancy is basic to authority, inasmuch as what is not true cannot claim authority in any respectable sense. But it is a further expository weakness that Lindswell nowhere focuses on biblical authority as that for the sake of which he fights the inerrancy battle.
For (b) lacking this reference-point, he makes himself appear as an evangelical (or should I say, fundamentalist) scholastic, doing theology as it were by numbers, concerned only to maintain frozen finality of some traditional formulations of the doctrine of the nature of Scripture—and that is to make this whole discussion seem a great deal less important than it really is. Indeed, some evangelical wiseacres have written it off as trivial already; but that is not really a very discerning position.
Thank you, Harold Lindsell, for having the guts to do what you have done. To have the inerrancy question out in the open, where your writing has set it, is clarifying and catalytic.
But now it really is important that we inerrantists move on to crystallize an a posteriori hermeneutic which does full justice to the character and content of the infallible written word as communication, life-embracing and divinely authoritative. Other we could win “the battle for the Bible” and still lose the greater battle for the knowledge of Christ and of God in our churches, and in men’s hearts.
—J. I. Packer, Beyond the Battle for the Bible (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone Books, 1980), 144-46; originally published in Crux, the Regent College journal.