God cannot err. The Bible is the Word of God. Therefore, the Bible cannot err.
This simple syllogism sums up the argument for the unlimited inerrancy of Scripture. While there have always been those who denied the historicity of some of its parts (Origen, for example), the view of the Bible’s total inerrancy is “rooted in the early fathers of the church, expressed emphatically in Augustine and Aquinas, expressed explicitly by the Reformers and continued into the 19th century without a major challenge from within the church” (12). However, when Darwin came along, attacks on God and Christianity took on new life, with the inerrancy of Scripture becoming one of the most beleaguered doctrines.
Norman Geisler and William Roach present a detailed study of the issue in Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation. They begin with a rather dry, but necessary discussion of the history of inerrancy, ending with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICB I) and that body’s treatise on the subject known as the Chicago Statement. Put forth in 1978, it consists of 19 articles, and was produced along with a Preamble, a Short Statement and an official commentary entitled Explaining Inerrancy by Reformed Theologian R.C. Sproul. Geisler and Roach include the articles in their book. It is imperative that readers familiarize themselves with them because they provide the standard by which all discussions, theories and interpretations of inerrancy are measured by the authors. If anyone deviates from the Chicago Statement, he or she ends up in Geisler and Roach’s doghouse.
The authors assert that the Chicago Statement made inerrancy the standard view of American evangelicals including the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). They present a tale of two organizations, showing its influence on the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) compared with the Fuller Seminary. The latter dropped inerrancy from its mandate. The former, however, having drifted from it, made a decision to reintroduce the doctrine into the fold. Its leadership recruited delegates who they knew would support inerrancy-believing presidents. They, in turn, appointed persons to crucial positions in the denomination, who, in turn, appointed board members in the seminaries who, in turn, hired inerrantist deans and faculty. Thus, the SBC completely reversed its view of inerrancy from top to bottom (35).
The second section of the book presents 10 theologians who the authors state have threatened inerrancy. They begin with Clark Pinnock who drew attention to himself as a member of the Evangelical Theological Society when he developed a view of inerrancy not in keeping with the Chicago Statement. He came close to being voted out of ETS and Geisler and Roach make a strong case suggesting that he should have been. According to them, among his aberrant views was his belief that only those portions of the Bible that are redemptive in intent are inerrant.
Second on the list is Bart Ehrman. Ehrman is one of the most vocal and well-known opponents to the inerrancy of God’s Word. He asserts, among other things, that the canon of Scripture is only one of many competing Christianities, that the biases of the authors undermine inspiration, and that the transmission of the information was unreliable as many of the scribes were amateurs and incapable of doing a good job. Geisler and Roach present a detailed examination of Ehrman’s philosophical and methodological presuppositions before tackling the issue of the historicity of the New Testament, the reliability of eye witnesses and both internal and external evidences for the trustworthiness of Scripture.
Next up is Peter Enns, who left the Westminster Theological Seminary for Princeton because of his views on inerrancy. His contention is that because Christ, the living Word of God, partook of full humanity with its accompanying limitations and imperfections, then why should God’s written Word be any different? (99). Geisler and Roach find some positive elements in Enns’ incarnational model of Scripture. For example, they concur with him that Genesis does not borrow from Babylonian origin stories, noting that the similarities between them are only conceptual, not textual. However, Enns does call Genesis myth even though he says it contains history. Enns opposes any apologetics that defend the Bible’s perfection, claiming that we accept the Bible by faith, not by reason or evidence (104). In other words, he would dismiss this book in which Geisler and Roach are assessing his views as entirely unnecessary.
The authors then take on Kenton Sparks who doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to his views on inerrancy. He has stated that “inerrantists are naïve fundamentalists equivalent to believing in a flat earth and are not real academics” (113). Those are fighting words indeed! Geisler and Roach discuss the theologian’s antisupernatural bias, his postmodern belief that truth cannot be found, but is created by the individual, and his insistence that genre determines meaning. The authors conclude that, if we are to accept his view on inerrancy, we would have to “believe that God can act contrary to his nature” among other equally unpalatable claims (130).
While all of the previous theologians either suggest a limited inerrancy of Scripture or deny it altogether, Kevin Vanhoozer (Wheaton College) claims to affirm total inerrancy. Why then is he in this book? Geisler and Roach suggest that he adopts philosophical positions that undermine it. For example, he believes that each text has many meanings. This flies in the face of the standard understanding of Scripture, that is, that it has one meaning and many applications. The authors insist that such a stance, while seemingly harmless to some, threatens the doctrine of inerrancy subtly, and makes Vanhoozer’s views questionable in light of the Chicago Statement.
Andrew McGowan argues that the term “inerrancy” should be discarded because it implies scientific precision and is “a violent assumption of fundamentalist thinking” (161). He considers it a new doctrine that arose as an apologetic response to the Englightenment. Such a view is easily refuted with a simple rundown of all the early Church fathers who upheld it. Nevertheless, McGowan favors the word “infallible”, a word that Geisler and Roach say is too easily open to misinterpretation and is effective in describing Scripture only when it is accompanied with the word “inerrant”.
The authors tackle Stanley Grenz and Brian McLaren together in the next chapter. These are the postmodernists who desire to have a “creedless” theology (180) and reject, among other things, absolute truth in favor of relativism. Geisler and Roach denounce McLaren in particular for his liking of the Jesus Seminar.
The last chapter in the second section addresses Robert Webb and Darrell Bock. Readers might be surprised to see the latter included in this book. Bock has declared his belief that the Bible is inerrant and has defended the faith both in the written form (including books denouncing Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code and affirming the reliability of the Gospels) and orally in debate with atheists. However, Geisler and Roach express concern over his and Webb’s preference for redactive criticism over a grammatical-historical approach to Scripture which leads to their late dating of the New Testament books and other questionable conclusions about God’s Word. This, they say, undermines inerrancy in subtle but devastating ways.
The third and final section is a reexamination of inerrancy, looking at it in light of the nature of God, the nature of truth, the nature of language and the nature of hermeneutics. The authors note that the nature of God is crucial to the inerrancy debate (215) and that to question the inerrancy of his Word is to question God himself. The challenge regarding inerrancy is a challenge to God’s sovereignty, immutablility, and omniscience.
The nature of truth is crucial to the inerrancy debate. Geisler and Roach offer the definition of truth as that which corresponds to reality. In turn, “the Bible is completely true in that all its affirmations and denials correspond to reality” (234). The authors embark on a discussion of the correspondence view of truth used by courts, scientists, and ordinary people, and provide arguments for its validity.
In their discussion of language and inerrancy, Geisler and Roach investigate the concern about the adequacy of human language to convey an objectively true propositional revelation from God (254). They quote Article #4 of the Chicago statement which reads, “We affirm that God who made mankind in his image has used language as a means of revelation. We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration” (255) They then go on to look at equivocal, univocal and analogous God-Talk as outlined by Plotinus, Duns Scotus and Aquinas as well as the basis for meaning and the challenge of human fallenness.
While inerrancy deals with the nature of Scripture and hermeneutics deals with its interpretation, the two are, in actual practice, closely related (282). The proper hermeneutic approach as outlined in the Chicago statement is grammatical-historical. The authors define that method, then revisit several of the aforementioned theologians (Pinnock, Enns, Vanhoozer) and defend it in light of their work.
Finally, Geisler and Roach study the relationship between God’s written Word (Scripture) and God’s living Word (Christ). Among the topics discussed is Barth’s fallacious view of fallen human nature and its influence on the subject of inerrancy.
The discussions in this third section as well as that of each of the 10 theologians in the second are lengthy and detailed. This review seeks only to present a tidbit from each with the hope that readers will get their hands on the book to explore them in full. Be warned, however. This time it’s not an easy read. It would be helpful to have a background in both theology and philosophy, but not absolutely necessary. The authors’ arguments may seem, at times, a matter of severe nitpicking. However, given the importance of maintaining the Bible’s place as a book of absolute truth, their fussiness is both understandable and forgivable.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from verbosity. In some cases, the authors choose to list the problems of a selected theologian’s views one by one, following each point with a response outlining its mistakes. However, in other cases, the authors list all the flaws in a theologian’s opinion and place their rebuttal at the end. This means that, throughout their refutations, they have to repeat what their subject has said to refresh the reader’s memory. This results in a lot of redundancy that could have been avoided with better organization and editing.
Aside from that, this book has much to offer. It is a comprehensive look at inerrancy and achieves the authors’ goal of affirming the accuracy of Scripture for the current generation.
Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Mary Lou is a Canadian journalist currently working on a Master’s degree in Theological Studies from Tyndale University College and Seminary, Toronto, Ontario. She holds three other degrees, including one in history, and writes poetry and fiction as well as non-fiction.