Evangelicals Debate Biblical Inerrancy/Program 2

By: Lee Strobel; ©1982
Can we accept the Bible as our authority when it comes to matters of salvation and faith, but allow that it contains errors in other matters?


Can the Bible be Authoritative, but Contain Errors?

Guests (information was valid at the time this program was taped)

Dr. Jack Rogers – Professor of Philosophical Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and a member of the General Assembly’s Taskforce on Biblical Authority and Interpretation of the United Presbyterian Church of the U.S.A. He has challenged several well entrenched beliefs among American evangelicals in his book, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible – An Historical Approach. Dr. Rogers received his Ph.D. from the University of Amsterdam.

Dr. Peter Macky – Associate Professor of Religion at Westminster College. He holds that Scripture be interpreted metaphorically and will share his thoughts on how C.S. Lewis interpreted the Bible. Dr. Mackey received his Ph.D. from Oxford University.

Dr. John Woodbridge – Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He will argue that the Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God in all matters and that this accurately depicts the historic position of the church and the view that Jesus and the apostles taught. Dr. Woodbridge received his Ph.D. from the University of Toulouse, France.

Dr. Donald A. Carson – Associate Professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He will defend the historical-grammatical way of interpreting the Scriptures. Dr. Carson received his Ph.D. from Cambridge University.

Ankerberg: We’re talking this week about, Is the Bible the inspired Word of God? We have some representatives from some of our major seminaries in this country, some of the evangelicals that are making it happen. One of them is Dr. Jack Rogers from Fuller, who has written a book, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible – An Historical Approach. Fantastic book, has some shock waves to the evangelical community, in the sense that you are challenging them on the view basically that the majority of them are holding.
We want to come into this area, the Reformation Era. What did people like Luther and Calvin believe? Now, we commented briefly last week about what Luther believed, but let’s talk about Calvin. Dr. Rogers, what you said in your book was that you believed that Calvin held that the central purpose of the Bible is to communicate salvation truth about Christ, and you also hold that, and that its authority is made known to believers through the internal witness of the Holy Spirit. You believe that, and I believe that, most of the evangelicals believe that as well.
But then you go one step further and that is that you indicate that Calvin held a belief in limited biblical infallibility, and here’s where even some of the Calvin scholars would seem to disagree with you. For example, and here is Dr. Woodbridge coming from his 74-page review, that he did in the Trinity Journal and this is from Edward Dowey, a very knowledgeable Calvin scholar who writes, “To Calvin the theologian, an error in Scripture is unthinkable. Hence, you find the endless harmonizing, the explaining and interpreting of passages that seem to contradict or to be inaccurate. But Calvin the critical scholar recognizes mistakes with a disarming ingeniousness. The mistake or the gloss is simply a blunder made by ignorant copyists.” Why would Calvin do that if it didn’t really matter?
Rogers: Boy, John, that’s really hard to pick up on because you’ve attributed to me several things that I didn’t say.
Ankerberg: Okay, let’s backtrack. Where would you like to start?
Rogers: I didn’t ever say that Calvin held to a limited biblical authority. Of course Calvin believed that the Bible and the whole Bible is authoritative, just as I believe, and I think all evangelical Christians do. That’s not the issue. The issue is a whole constellation of other approaches to the Bible that I fear evangelicals let get in the way of going to the Bible itself. For example, a lot of evangelicals spend a lot of effort trying to prove to non-believers that the Bible is the Word of God. Calvin said, “To try to prove to an unbeliever the Bible is the Word of God is foolishness, because only by the Holy Spirit can it be know.” That’s the sort of thing that I’m trying to get at is that I think we have to be careful not to get locked into a tradition where we spend a lot of time and energy on things that the reformers themselves didn’t worry about
Ankerberg: So you’re saying that the view that Scripture that Calvin held was what?
Rogers: That the Bible is authoritative. But when he talks… You notice that none of the Reformation confessions use the word “inerrancy.” They all use the word “infallibility” and they link it to salvation, faith, and life. I think that’s kind of a key to how to interpret it. What are you supposed to look for when you go to the Scripture? You’re supposed to treat it like an encyclopedia of information about everything under the sun? No. When you go to the Scripture find out how to get right with God and with your neighbor. That’s what it’s about.
Ankerberg: Because they didn’t use the word, though, I think that Dr. Woodbridge’s point is the words that they did use tip us off to what they would have said if they were here tonight. Dr. Woodbridge, would you like to comment?
Woodbridge: Well, first of all, Jack is right that the Holy Spirit is the person of the Godhead who does let us know that the Bible is the Word of God and Calvin affirms that. But on the other hand, Jack, you go ahead in your book and you attribute to Calvin the fact that he would have allowed for technical errors. I don’t think that’s the case at all. Nor do I think that the use of the word “infallible” in the 16th century was related only to the issue of how one is brought to salvation. When those people talked about the Bible being infallible, they meant that it was without error. Indeed, the word infallible throughout the history of the church has meant “without error.” The Bible has authority because it’s God’s Word and God is the author of truth. Thus, in fact, His Word is without error. So, I think that you’ve taken the word “infallible” and drifted into the area of salvation where in fact it has some place, but it also has some place in the area of whether there are mistakes in the Bible or not.
Rogers: Well, neither Calvin nor I have ever said to my knowledge that there are mistakes in the Bible. That’s a problem that other people bring up.
Woodbridge: Hold it, Jack. You in your book indicate in Acts 7 that Calvin said, “Luke made a mistake.” There you are attributing to Calvin the fact that he thought that Luke made a mistake.
Rogers: Now wait a minute. That’s a quote from Calvin you said?
Woodbridge: Yes. Right?
Rogers: Well, then, what do you think? You just told me that you didn’t think there were any mistakes and that Calvin didn’t think there were any. What do you do with those words?
Woodbridge: What I do with those words, I take a look at what Calvin actually said and I found that you misquoted him. He didn’t say that Luke made an error. And thus, if you care to do this we can, the statement you make in your book where you say, “Calvin said that Luke made an error,” is not in Calvin’s commentary. In fact, Calvin goes on to attribute the potential error probably to a copyist.
Rogers: What do you do with the kind of a thing where “Calvin says?” And this is what I’m trying to get at: that Paul uses language that Paul does not quote exactly from the Old Testament, but this isn’t a problem to Calvin. He says, “Paul gets the intent of the writer correctly though he does not quote him exactly.” Now I don’t call that an error. John might call that an error. I don’t call that an error. I think if he gets the intent of it correctly, that’s what counts. What I’m trying to show is that people in different periods of history could accept the authority of the Bible without accepting our 20th century mindset that things are true only if they are technologically true like taking them out of a computer.
Ankerberg: Didn’t Copernicus have his theory on the books at that time? And in the areas of science wasn’t there something Calvin believed about the Bible that actually went against that view simply because he held to a view of Scripture that was authoritative all the way through?
Rogers: That whole thing is so very early on the scene. To quote either Luther or Calvin on it is I think quite beside the point. Because very little was known about it.
Ankerberg: But what do we do with what they said?
Rogers: Look, I’m worried both about the way that John does history and the way you’re buying into it. Let me try to see if I can find a simply way to characterize it.
Ankerberg: I’m worrying about how you’re documenting it.
Rogers: The way John looks at my documentation rightly makes him worried, but it’s not because of the documentation, it’s because of the frame of mind he brings to it. We could take any particular quote and take people who have two different views of reality and they’ll look at that same quote and interpret it differently.
Ankerberg: But, Jack, isn’t the fact, first of all, you have set the stage. You set it.
Rogers: And we have set the stage carefully. Namely, we have gone to great lengths in that book to try to set the philosophical, cultural, historical circumstance to say why the person thought the way they did.
Ankerberg: And when anybody else would take a look at those same words and say that you didn’t, how can we disagree and come to a conclusion?
Rogers: Well, take this question of science that we were talking about a little bit ago. If John by science means that anytime anybody looks at nature and says something about it and I by science mean a contemporary technological approach, we could look at the same quote and have very different views of what it was saying.
Ankerberg: Well, let me push you just a little bit here. We’re buddies again, remember? If Calvin is talking about a deal in science and he quotes Scripture to stand against that view, then doesn’t that seem to say something about how Calvin viewed all of Scripture even the relationship to the scientific statements of his day?
Rogers: If you take the corpus of Calvin’s work and you read great hunks of it you will find little reference to what we call science and an enormous reference to what we would call salvation and matters of faith. That’s the point that I’m trying to make.
Ankerberg: Okay, I agree. But the thing is at that point, what should we do with the thing that he says about Copernicus? Should we just say, “Well, that was a little slip”?
Rogers: I’m not even quite sure what the particular issue is that you’re talking about right here. Let me try to say what I think is happening here in terms of our ways of doing history. John is trying to go through and say, “Look: all of these guys believed that the Bible spoke authoritatively about everything about which the Bible intends to speak.” I believe that, too. So does Calvin. The question is, though, whether Calvin’s perspective and the Bible’s perspective on things like science is the same as our perspective. And I’m suggesting that it is not. And I think if we were talking in a kind of a neutral way about something besides the Bible, everybody would agree with that.
Woodbridge: Now, if you say what you have just said, then you have now moved into the definition of inerrancy, because you say that the Bible’s authoritative for that about which it speaks. And the Bible talks about history. Isn’t Christianity an historical religion?
Rogers: Sure it is.
Woodbridge: Then the Bible must indeed speak authoritatively and infallibly about that. Is that not right?
Rogers: Of course it does from an ancient near eastern perspective.
Woodbridge: Oh, Jack. What do you mean by that?
Rogers: I mean that the biblical writers naturally talked like the ordinary human beings that they were, that they spoke God’s truth but they spoke it in their…
Woodbridge: Did they tell the truth?
Rogers: Of course they told the truth.
Ankerberg: Would you gentlemen like to comment further on what the Reformation men were saying as compared to what you think we’re saying today?
Rogers: Well, I think that they what I would call pre-scientific and so their view of history and science and things like that was accurate and true in their own frame of reference, but would not be necessarily the same way we would speak about it today.
Woodbridge: Jack, did Calvin use language like we do?
Rogers: Of course.
Woodbridge: Did he know what an error was in the text?
Rogers: Does Calvin know anything about computers? Does he know what they mean by errors?
Woodbridge: No, he doesn’t know anything about computers. Obviously he doesn’t. But is Calvin able to discriminate between a statement in the Scriptures which is perhaps true and one that’s false?
Rogers: Of course. If we’re talking about.
Woodbridge: But if he is. able to do that and you and I are able to do that, isn’t it possible then to see some commonality between Calvin talking about the Bible being infallible and we talking about it being completely infallible too?
Rogers: On the main things that we share as human beings. ..
Woodbridge: Main things. Now why do you limit it to main things? How do you know that you understand those main things correctly if you have such doubts about his understanding of language?
Rogers: I don’t have any doubts about his understanding of language. I think it was a perfectly sensible and flexible use of language. I just don’t want us to impose our view on him or our views on the Bible.
Woodbridge: Alright, so he understood salvation alright?
Rogers: Sure.
Woodbridge: He didn’t understand necessarily history.
Rogers: He doesn’t understand computers because they weren’t around.
Woodbridge: So your whole argument against Bible inerrancy is that Calvin didn’t know anything about computers?
Rogers: My whole argument about biblical inerrancy is I don’t want people to take a 20th century mindset and impose it on the Bible in ways that would distort the Bible. That’s the point that I’m making.
Woodbridge: And I agree with you perfectly, but all I would like to say is that it’s possible to hold to a complete biblical infallibility and not take 20th century concepts and push them back.
Ankerberg: Okay, we have a question right here.
Audience: Dr. Woodbridge, what impact would admitting the possibility of the Bible being wrong in scientific areas have on other areas such as doctrine?
Woodbridge: It seems to me that the Bible is a piece of whole cloth, and that when we look at the Bible we are informed that the Holy Spirit is its author, or as its primary author. If in fact the Bible were error prone in area of science, I think a good number of people would draw out a corollary to that and that would be that it could be fallible in other areas. This sometimes has been called the domino hypothesis. I think there’s some validity to that, at least in the history of the church. People have been very, very worried about that very point. If in fact the Bible has errors within it, then how can you trust it in the area of salvation truths or faith and practice?
Ankerberg: Jack, would you like to respond to that?
Rogers: Yes, let me pick up on that. Again, I think John is making a mountain out of mole hill. Why have to allege that the Bible makes an error when the biblical people simply had a different worldview, for example, than ours? I want to go back and ask John if he really believes that the Holy Spirit taught the biblical writers that the world was round when they had no other way of learning that?
Woodbridge: Let me respond to you as a historian since you would like to claim Augustine and Calvin. Here’s what Augustine says on the issue, “I feel it duty bound to say that our authors knew the truth of the matter concerning the form of the Heaven.” Augustine thought that. Calvin thought that. So if you want to claim those individuals, you need to claim these particular points.
Rogers: Augustine and Calvin didn’t think the same thing about the heavens than you and I think, John. That’s my point. You don’t have to deny biblical authority by simply allowing human beings go be human beings in their setting. God can use ordinary human beings to speak His truth. He doesn’t have to remake them into 20th century people.
Woodbridge: How then do you define biblical infallibility such that to allow these people to make the mistakes of their own day and yet say that the Bible has no errors within it? How can you say that the Bible is infallible if these people are making errors according to what we actually know?
Rogers: They certainly weren’t errors in their day. That’s again, why do we have to impose our standards on them?
Woodbridge: Okay then so you have a two-tier theory of errors, errors that don’t count for our day from the early times versus other errors.
Rogers: Notice I’ve never called them errors. And you know, someday the things that we know for sure in many areas, especially science, will be proved to be in error by somebody else’s time period. I think it’s a bad mistake to try to judge the Bible by science at any given period. It’s always changing.
Ankerberg: We’ve got two Ph.D.s that play with these word games here. I’d like to bring them in. You’ve been listening to these fellows talk. As we close this portion of the program, I wonder gentlemen, Don, maybe you’d like to comment first, then Peter would you comment on what you’ve been listening to. What do you think you’re hearing?
Dr. Don Carson: I been enjoying just listening. It’s very informative. I think that in part we’re running against definitional problems that are pretty serious. What constitutes an error? If we say that they did not hold, let’s say in Calvin’s day, that the Scriptures were in error because within their particular framework they didn’t find any scientific error, does that mean that today with our particular science outlook perhaps we do find some error or alternatively we don’t find one that they did? It doesn’t really make any difference. We’re dealing then with what historians sometimes call paradigm shifts. That is, we can’t talk across certain models of thought, models of history, models of understanding. We can’t communicate with other periods.
I would want to say that there is so much continuity in human thought that we can talk across those periods and that in general the Scriptures purposefully use language about the world that is called phenomenological, that is it describes it the way that we perceive it. When I was a little boy, my father read a letter from the Montreal Star written by some learned professor “pooh-poohing” the Bible because the Bible writers apparently thought in a three-storey system and so forth. And my Father turned to me and said, “Don, what do you think of that?” I was 9-years-old. What would you expect me to think of that? And so I said that I didn’t know, and he turned to the front page and it said, “Sun rises 6:42 a.m.”
And I learned something then, that even in the 20th century we use common language that is not computer-based, that is, we use phenomenological language, descriptive language to describe what seems to us the sun rising and the sun setting, even though we know from our class books that in fact the earth rotates. So I think that an awful lot of these kinds of disputes turn in part on definition of how you perceive reality and I think the only way we would advance on this particular matter at this point is by taking hard examples, I suspect.
Ankerberg: Okay, Peter. Can I have a word from you?
Dr. Peter Macky: I think the central issue as I see it is this, that we must learn to distinguish between what the Bible asserts and what it merely presents. For example, it merely presents the views of Job’s friends. Job’s friends are wrong, not totally wrong, some wrong. The Bible presents them. Now, of course Job was a bit wrong too. God corrects him. What we must do when we’re talking about where the Bible is free of errors, is we must take the notion it is free of errors in what it teaches, in what it asserts. And therefore, the crucial question is this: How do we come to distinguish between what the Bible asserts, what it teaches, what it wants us to know, and what are the things that are merely the things it presents? And that’s the central issue of hermeneutics – of the principal’s interpretation.
Ankerberg: Now, Jack, what Peter just said, what Don just said, seems to agree with a committee that met in Chicago not too long ago, concerning inerrancy. And they said the same thing. Would you disagree with anything that Don or Peter just said?
Rogers: No.
Ankerberg: So, so far you would agree with those that are claiming inerrancy for Scripture?
Rogers: Notice what that shows more than anything else is that some of these folks have reinterpreted the meaning of inerrancy from its origins in the 19th century, because B. B. Warfield specifically said, “The Bible predicts the results of 19th century science.” I don’t have any trouble with what Don said at all, and I think that’s exactly the point I’ve been trying to make. What we don’t want to do is force a technology on the Bible that was not there.

Ankerberg: See if you think this correctly summarizes what all four of our guests were saying. “We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration God utilized the culture and conventions of his penman’s milieu. A milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence. It is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focus truth at which its authors aimed.”
Now this brief summary was taken from the appendix of the 4,000 word statement written and signed by the majority of 300 persons who attended the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in Chicago in 1978. I’m rather surprised that in spite of what we’ve heard expressed tonight and which seemed to be summarized in the appendix statement that I just read, Dr. Rogers would write in the preface of his book that, “Insistence on this particular form of biblical inerrancy was inadequate.” In its place he offers a 483 page alternative view of Scripture that seems to be advocating something much different than what we heard him say tonight. But then maybe, hopefully, what we heard tonight could mean we may yet agree on the doctrine of inerrancy.

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