Wednesday, 14 April 2010
Belt and Braces
This morning I had breakfast with a theologian I greatly respect, whose recent book on the inspiration of Scripture cost him dearly. For expressing his views on the nature of Scripture, he lost his posts at two theological seminaries.
Not having read the book, I asked what it was about the book that got him into such hot water. It was his unwillingness to subscribe to the concept of biblical “inerrancy”. He believes the term “infallibility”, used to describe the trustworthiness of the Bible in the Westminster Confession of Faith, has served the Church well for more than three hundred years and adequately sums up what we need to say about the reliability of the Bible.
Does he believe, though, that the Bible is free from errors? No because only the original documents were without error and we don’t have them. Nevertheless, he believes the Bible is infallible; it means what God intended it to mean and the Holy Spirit who inspired the Biblical authors enables us, as we study the Scriptures in dependence on him, to understand them.
My friend is far more learned than I am and I respect him too much to name him here but – while acknowledging that we don’t have the original book of Isaiah or the first edition of the Gospel of Matthew or the apostle Paul’s actual letter to the Romans – I think the concept of inerrancy is important.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was sufficient to say the Bible was infallible because few people were calling into question its reliability in the areas of history, geography, anthropology and origins. The world, as my friend readily acknowledges, has moved on since the Reformation and the truth of Scripture is being assailed not only from the world but also from within the Church.
My theologian friend has been accused of being “Liberal”; I know he isn’t. However, it seems to me that allowing for mistranslations, differences of interpretation and so on, unless we maintain that the Bible is without error in every area it pronounces on – including origins – we are hammering the first of many nails into the coffin of Scripture.
After all, holding to inerrancy does not weaken our defence of the Bible; it strengthens it. In my humble opinion, and with great deference to my theologian friend, we would be safest to keep both terms.