God’s Inerrant Word: an International Symposium on the Trustworthiness of Scripture

Written by John Warwick Montgomery, ed. Reviewed By Bruce A. Demarest

The twelve essays which comprise the present volume were delivered at the Conference on the Inspiration and Authority of Scripture sponsored by the Ligonier Valley Study Center, Pennsylvania. The rising tide of sceptical criticism which challenges the historic Christian view of Scripture has prompted the wider dissemination of these studies on the place of inerrancy in Christian theology.

In his opening essay editor Montgomery outlines precisely what is at stake in the contemporary debate on inerrancy, particularly between the conservative and the liberal evangelical. Statistical data highlight the unmistakable deterioration of belief in the full authority of Scripture on the part of clergymen in the mainline American denominations. Montgomery judges that loss of confidence in a fully inerrant Scripture, especially marked among younger clergymen, parallels the decline in belief in other key doctrines such as the virgin birth. The liberal evangelical, who thus seeks ‘to eat his revelational cake while retaining the indigestible scriptural errors claimed by the secular critics’ seriously contributes to the muting of the life-giving word in a decaying world.

Whereas James Barr and other contemporary opponents of inerrancy brand the position as merely a modern fundamentalist heresy, James Packer and Montgomery in historical surveys plainly demonstrate that a fully authoritative Scripture lies at the heart of the theology of the reformers, whose battle cry was ‘sola Scriptura’. Packer shows that although Calvin had no occasion to fight 20th century battles, the full inspiration of Scripture was for the reformer a catholic truth beyond all dispute. Similarly, Luther set ‘the infallible Word of God’ above every human and ecclesiastical judgment. According to Packer, the Protestant reformers were of one mind that Scripture ‘is the only Word of God in this world, the only guide for conscience and the church, the only source of true knowledge of God and grace, and the only qualified judge of the church’s testimony and teaching, past and present’. Post-reformation Christians, whatever their stripe, were fully agreed that ‘the teaching of the Bible is to be received as instruction from God without any qualification at all’. Montgomery marshalls evidence to show contra Seeberg, Brunner and others, that Luther wholeheartedly rejected the idea of an errant Scripture. Although Luther’s subjective criteria of canonicity led to a depreciation of the four NT antilegomena, the remaining NT books judged by Luther to be canonical were held to be fully inspired and infallible.

The inerrancy of Scripture scarcely has been defended more vigorously in modern times than by the Princeton scholar B. B. Warfield. After a careful analysis of Warfield’s case for inerrancy, John Gerstner concludes that his fellow evidentialist has been greatly misunderstood and misrepresented by liberal critics. While conceding that Warfield occasionally overstated his argument (e.g. his tendency towards a docetic view of Scripture), Gerstner concludes that the Princeton scholar on the whole was eminently successful in arguing the case for biblical inerrancy.

Clark Pinnock’s essay on the crucial issue of limited inerrancy may prove to be the most valuable of the collection. Pinnock affirms not only that inerrancy represents the historic Christian position, but that ‘the idea of ascribing error to the Scriptures has always been unthinkable’. The real cause for the massive defection from the positive inerrancy in the eighteenth century requires clear explication. During the Enlightenment, modern man under the guise of scientism usurped to himself the authority traditionally vested in God. Thus in repudiating the biblical framework in favour of man-centred criteria based on reason, the modern theologian is driven to the extremely negative conclusion that the Bible is a dated human book loaded with contradictions and errors. But what can be said of the argument which lies between the historic Christian position and the modern sceptical view, namely the view which restricts the truthfulness of Scripture to its specifically salvific content? Pinnock judges that the position of limited inerrancy chiefly fails to do justice to the God of the Bible, since thereby authority is transferred from the objective Word of God to whims of human opinion as to what constitutes salvific teaching. Pinnock astutely observes that ‘limited inerrancy is a halfway house on the way to unlimited errancy’. The clear lessons of the past two centuries of radical biblical criticism lead Pinnock to conclude that those who limit inerrancy today are highly likely to abandon the biblical faith altogether tomorrow.

On the subject of language analysis, John Frame examines the contention that Scripture cannot be equated with the Word of God because human language is an inadequate vehicle for conveying truth about the God who is transcendent. To this allegation that knowledge of God cannot be conveyed by ordinary human language, Frame concludes that religious language, in addition to being ‘odd’ (so Barth) is also ‘ordinary’, i.e. non-esoteric and verifiable in consequence of both the transcendence and immanence of God. Thus biblical language, far from being cognitively meaningless, may indeed convey the infallible Word of God because verbal revelation in Scripture connotes both the Word of God and the words of man.

R. C. Sproul rounds off the symposium by evaluating the leading evangelical apologetic approaches in defence of Scripture. Berkouwer’s confessional method, which calls for a strictly fideistic acceptance of the general and existential trustworthiness of Scripture, is regarded as a method of convenience calculated to skate round the difficulties of defining precisely the extent of the Bible’s trustworthiness. The presuppositional method of Van Til, which posits as a first premise the absolute authority of Scripture, succeeds in laying bare the ultimate poverty of all rationalistic systems. But as an apologetic argument the latter is crippled by a thorough-going circularity which provides no possible point of contact with the unbeliever. Sproul regards the non-circular classical method, which proceeds from the general reliability of Scripture to infallibility, as the preferred apologetic approach. The superiority of this method is that the case for Scripture rests upon the unmistakable testimony of Jesus Christ attested in the generally reliable NT record. Should it be objected that the NT distorts the teaching of Jesus in one way or another, Sproul rightly argues that then Jesus’ pronouncements on any subject could not be trusted, in which case man would find himself totally lost in a jungle of relativism and uncertainty.

The accumulated evidence presented in this volume presses with what Luther called ‘resistless logic’ to the conclusion of a thoroughly truthful and authoritative Scripture. Modern man’s rejection of the historic Christian doctrine of Scripture reflects his persistent quest to eliminate the living God who stands over him in judgment. Surely at this present moment of theological confusion Montgomery’s symposium on Scripture is an absolute must for the pastor, the student of theology and the concerned Christian.

Bruce A. Demarest

Denver Seminary, Denver, Colorado