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My Take on Inerrancy

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August 10, 2006

A popular blogsite recently reviewed Reinventing Jesus (a book I coauthored with Ed Komoszewski and Jim Sawyer [see www.reinventingjesus.info for reviews and contents about the book]). The review was quite positive, and as is typical on blogsites, there were a lot of comments to follow. One comment took a detour from discussion about the book and challenged what he thought were my bibliological views. From this, a snowball effect occurred. Essentially, snippets from some of my published and posted essays were used to put me on trial. What started the whole heresy trial (perhaps that is too strong a word, but the tenor of much of the discussion certainly seemed to go in that direction), however, were some acontextual quotations from a lecture I gave at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Danvers, MA seven years ago—a paper that was not intended for a general audience. I have refrained from posting that paper online because of the pre-understanding of several issues needed to grasp the full argument. In other words, my pastoral concerns have kept me from posting an essay for general consumption that requires a bit of theological training to comprehend.

Back to the blogsite. Remarkably, not one person interacting with this minimal material contacted me directly for clarification, in spite of the pleas of Ed Komoszewski, who asked that people read a little bit more of what I have written before passing judgment. Ed also asked them more than once to write to me if they had problems with my views. Judgment was passed even though Ed mentioned that some of the quotations were taken out of context and others were not quoted accurately. Such is the age of the Internet: A man’s reputation can be dashed in minutes by those who only have hearsay to go on. I am consequently taking the opportunity to post a response to my critics and inquirers here.

But I must begin by saying that although I am strongly Reformed in many of my views (including my soteriology and epistemology), I felt ashamed of such a heritage when reading many of the bloggers’ comments. Now, please understand: I have a fairly thick skin, and I’m not particularly concerned about what people think of me. After all, King James Only advocates have condemned me to hell more times than I can count! But when people with whom I have a much greater theological kinship do the same, I feel as though they are taking a step backwards on their evangelical commitment. After all, one of the things that makes an evangelical different from a fundamentalist is that an evangelical is supposed to be willing to wrestle with the evidence. One of the hallmark differences between a fundamentalist and an evangelical is willingness to dialog over the issues. A fundamentalist condemns; an evangelical thinks. A college professor of mine used to say, “The Christian army is the only army in the world that shoots its wounded.” And, as a colleague of mine at Dallas Seminary says, “Some evangelicals in the rear guard are more comfortable taking pot shots at their own front line troops than they are engaging with the enemy.” It is a sad state of affairs for the evangelical church, especially the Reformed branch, when some act more like fundamentalists than evangelicals.

Christology and Bibliology

Before I discuss the particular accusations against me regarding inerrancy, I would like to preface my remarks with notes about my methodological approach to this issue. This preface is actually the heart of this paper because it is where the confusion has come. Here goes: The center of all theology, of the entirety of the Christian faith, is Christ himself. The cross is the center of time: all before leads up to it; all after it is shaped by it. If Christ were not God in the flesh, he would not have been raised from the dead. And if he were not raised from the dead, none of us would have any hope. My theology grows out from Christ, is based on Christ, and focuses on Christ.

Years ago, I would have naively believed that all Christians could give their hearty amens to the previous paragraph. Sadly, this is not the case. There are many whose starting point and foundation is bibliology. They begin with the assumption that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God, and that the way one must define inerrancy is in twentieth-century philosophical terms. I won’t get into the details of how inerrancy (in America at least) has been filtered through the grid of Scottish Common Sense Realism, as that would take us far afield from the main objective here. Suffice it to say that many evangelicals believe that without an inerrant Bible we can’t know anything about Jesus Christ. They often ask the question, “How can we be sure that anything in the Bible is true? How can we be sure that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, or even that he existed, if the Bible is not inerrant?”

Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches to Inerrancy

My response to the above question is twofold. First, before the New Testament was written, how did people come to faith in Christ? To assume that having a complete Bible is necessary before we can know anything about Christ is both anachronistic and counterproductive. Our epistemology has to wrestle with the spread of the gospel before the Gospels were penned. The very fact that it spread so fast—even though the apostles were not always regarded highly—is strong testimony both to the work of the Spirit and to the historical evidence that the eyewitnesses affirmed. Second, we can know about Christ because the Bible is a historical document. If we demand inerrancy of the Bible before we can believe that any of it is true, what are we to say about other ancient historical documents? We don’t demand that they be inerrant, yet no evangelical would be totally skeptical about all of ancient history. Why put the Bible in a different category before we can believe it at all? We are not asked to take a leap of faith in believing the Bible to be the Word of God, or even to believe that it is historically reliable; we have evidence that this is the case. I enlist on my behalf that radical Arminian of yesteryear, Benjamin B. Warfield1 (after whom we named our second son). In his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Warfield lays out an argument for inerrancy that has been virtually ignored by today’s evangelicals. Essentially, he makes a case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive evidence, rather than deductive reasoning. Most evangelicals today follow E. J. Young’s deductive approach toward bibliology, forgetting the great articulator of inerrancy. But Warfield starts with the evidence that the Bible is a historical document, rather than with the presupposition that it is inspired. This may seem shocking to some in the Reformed camp, but one can hardly claim that Warfield was soft on bibliological convictions! Let me prove my point with a lengthy quotation from his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible:

Now if this doctrine is to be assailed on critical grounds, it is very clear that, first of all, criticism must be required to proceed against the evidence on which it is based. This evidence, it is obvious, is twofold. First, there is the exegetical evidence that the doctrine held and taught by the Church is the doctrine held and taught by the Biblical writers themselves. And secondly, there is the whole mass of evidence—internal and external, objective and subjective, historical and philosophical, human and divine—which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides. If they are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true, and is to be accepted and acted upon as true by us all. In that case, any objections brought against the doctrine from other spheres of inquiry are inoperative; it being a settled logical principle that so long as the proper evidence by which a proposition is established remains unrefuted, all so-called objections brought against it pass out of the category of objections to its truth into the category of difficulties to be adjusted to it. If criticism is to assail this doctrine, therefore, it must proceed against and fairly overcome one or the other element of its proper proof. It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides.2

Notice how often Warfield speaks of evidence here as the grounds for believing in inerrancy. The evidence is historical, exegetical, and doctrinal. Two statements stand out as crucial to his argument: “If they [the biblical writers] are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true…” and “If criticism is to assail this doctrine… It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides.” I think Warfield’s argument is one of the most profound paragraphs ever written in defense of inerrancy. If you’re reading this quickly, go back and let it sink in for awhile.

In 1992, when Bruce Metzger was on campus at Dallas Seminary for a week, delivering the Griffith Thomas lectures, students would often ask him whether he embraced inerrancy. Frankly, I thought their question was a bit uncharitable since they already knew the answer (he does not). But as one who, like Warfield before him, taught at Princeton Seminary, and as a generally Reformed scholar, Metzger certainly had earned the right to be heard on this issue. His response was simply that he did not believe in inerrancy because he felt it unwise to hold to any doctrines that are not affirmed in the Bible, and he didn’t see inerrancy being affirmed in the Bible. In other words, he denied Warfield’s first argument (viz., that inerrancy was held by the biblical writers). It should be pointed out that Metzger would not disagree with Warfield’s second argument. In other words, he has a high view of the Bible, but not as high as most American evangelicals precisely because he does not think that the biblical writers held to the doctrine of inerrancy.

As an aside, I think it is important for us to note degrees of theological differences within Christendom. It is one thing to believe that inerrancy is not true because this doctrine is not found in the Bible, and quite another to believe that it is not true even though it is found in the Bible! The first view is consistent with what is called infallibility (viz., the Bible is true in what it teaches), while the second view takes a lower view of scripture.

I felt the import of Metzger’s argument even before I had heard it, because I had long ago memorized the passage from Warfield quoted above. When I was working on my master’s degree in the 1970s, I was convinced that Warfield’s twofold argument needed to be examined and either affirmed or rejected. So I wrote my master’s thesis on an arcane point of Greek grammar. It was entitled, “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions.” It could cure the most hopeless insomniac. But I chose that particular topic because it directly affected how we should translate 2 Timothy 3.16. Should we translate this verse “every inspired scripture is also profitable” with the possible implication that some scripture is not inspired, or should we translate it “every scripture is inspired and profitable,” in which case the inspiration of scripture is directly asserted? I spent over 1200 hours on that thesis, working without the benefit of computers—in the Greek New Testament, in the Septuagint, in classical Greek, in the papyri—to determine whether adjectives in anarthrous constructions (constructions in which no definite article was present) could be predicate or whether they had to be attributive. All of this related to 2 Timothy 3.16 because the adjective “inspired” was related to the noun “scripture” in an anarthrous construction. Further, of the dozens of New Testament grammars I checked, not one gave any actual evidence that adjectives in such constructions could be predicate. A predicate adjective would be translated as an assertion (“every scripture is inspired”) while an attributive adjective would be translated as a qualification or assumption (“every inspired scripture”). I felt an obligation to the evangelical community to wrestle with this issue and see if there was indeed genuine evidence on behalf of a predicate “inspired.” I charted out over 2200 Greek constructions in the New Testament, as well as countless others in other corpora—all by hand—then checked the primary sources a second time to make sure I got the statistics right. At one point, when an ice storm hit Dallas in the winter of 78-79, cutting down power lines in our neighborhood, I had to work by lamplight for a week to get the first draft of the thesis in on time. My conclusion was that “inspired” in 2 Timothy 3.16 was indeed a predicate adjective. And I supplied over 400 similar examples in the appendix to back it up! These 400 examples had never been discussed in any New Testament grammar before, as far as I could tell. I believed then, and I believe now, that supplying this kind of evidence is a worthy use of one’s time. The main part of the thesis ended up being the first piece of mine accepted for publication. It appeared in Novum Testamentum in 1984 as a lengthy article. And the editors kept my opening comment that my motivation for the article was to help resolve some disputes about bibliology raging at the time in American evangelical circles.

I mention the above autobiographical note for two reasons. First, the question of the nature of the Bible has been, and still is, a very precious issue to me. Obviously, to spend a thousand hours on a verse of scripture shows that such a text is important. And that such a passage is a major verse on verbal inspiration should show that this doctrine is important to me. Second, the conclusion I came to is equally important: I can affirm, with Warfield, that the biblical writers do indeed embrace a high view of the text of Holy Writ. To be sure, there is a lot more evidence for verbal inspiration and inerrancy than 2 Timothy 3.16. But this is a crux interpretum, deserving our utmost attention. I must therefore respectfully disagree with Professor Metzger about Warfield’s first argument. But I also recognize, as Dallas Seminary did in 1992, that Bruce Metzger is an evangelical scholar whose contributions to biblical scholarship and the cause of Christ deserve a hearing. Someone said, on the blogsite that prompted the need for this essay, that Dallas Seminary has surely changed in the last fifteen years to allow a heterodox person like me on the faculty! I must respectfully disagree with that assessment, and as an illustration of where Dallas Seminary was sixteen years ago, in 1990—when the faculty unanimously voted to ask Dr. Metzger to be the Griffith Thomas lecturer for 1992—we were not so paranoid about those who had a different take on things that we thought that a non-inerrantist would be the destroyer of our school. Now, I must quickly add: I am an inerrantist. But I may construct my approach to inerrancy differently than some others would. Dallas Seminary is not so paranoid that it would lynch me (or many others on the faculty with a similar approach) for arriving at inerrancy inductively rather than deductively. I am grateful to be at such a school, for its faculty are truly interested in engaging in dialog and wrestling seriously with the text of scripture.

Many today are uncomfortable with an inductive approach to bibliology. I have to wonder if perhaps one of the reasons they are is that it is simply easier to hold to a naïve fideism than it is to examine the data. I have to wonder if perhaps the presuppositionalism of Reformed epistemology has run amok in some circles. Yes, I am a presuppositionalist in my core beliefs, but I believe that there is a place for evidence. When I was a full-blown presuppositionalist years ago, I slipped into a kind of doctrinal arrogance. I didn’t distinguish which truths were grounds for others. This caused a certain smugness on my part, and allowed me the luxury of viewing all doctrines as created equal. But I learned a rather valuable lesson while in the master’s program. I came home to California for a Christmas vacation early on in the program. And I had lunch with my uncle, David Wallace. He was the first graduate from Fuller Seminary to earn a Ph.D. He earned it at Edinburgh University, under Matthew Black. But he also logged some time in various places in Europe—studying with Baumgartner, Barth, and others. He was not pleased with my choice to attend Dallas Seminary; I was clueless about what he really believed. During the lunch, I asked him what he thought about inerrancy. His response startled me, and changed my perspective for all time. He essentially said that he didn’t hold to the doctrine (though he said so much more colorfully than that!). I thought to myself, “Oh no! My uncle is going to hell!” I felt compelled to ask him what he thought about the bodily resurrection of Christ, fearing what I would hear next. After all, without inerrancy, we really can’t know anything about Christ, right? To my surprise, David said, “If Christ is not raised from the dead, then we’re all dead in our sins.” He was certain about the resurrection of Christ. But how could he be without a bibliological presupposition to back it up? I cannot tell you how great the existential crisis was for me at that moment. Up until this time, I had believed that inerrancy was an essential belief of the Christian faith, one that was indispensable to salvation. When David affirmed the central credo of salvation, I could not deny his spiritual status.3 I came to the sudden realization that one could be saved without embracing inerrancy.

Some today might think me rather naïve. I admit: I was. This lunch meeting was thirty years ago, however, and I hope that I have grown in wisdom just a bit over the last three decades. One thing I have learned is that we must develop a doctrinal taxonomy: certain doctrines are core beliefs, while others are more peripheral. By core or central beliefs, I mean beliefs that are essential for salvation. By more peripheral doctrines, I mean those that are not essential for salvation. I have been developing a more nuanced taxonomy than that of course. Here I want to raise three or four questions that should help the reader as I proceed through this labyrinthian bibliological trail:

  1. What doctrines are essential for the life of the church?
  2. What doctrines are important for the health of the church?
  3. What doctrines are distinctives that are necessary for the practice of the local church?
  4. What doctrines belong to the speculative realm or should never divide the church?

Many Christians have never thought about these issues in such terms. As a case in point, look at any doctrinal statement—whether it is your church’s, a Bible college’s, a seminary’s, or a Christian organization’s. How many of them prioritize their doctrines? Some churches do to some degree: leaders have to hold to a certain list, while regular parishioners can hold to a modified list. But even here, what doctrines belong to category one, two, or three, are not explicitly articulated.

Let me articulate a bit more about this approach to theological issues. Consider the role of women in church leadership, for example. Is a particular view essential for the life of the church? That is, does one have to hold to a particular view in order to be saved? Of course not. But some Christians may regard a particular view of the role of women as belonging to category two (important for the health of the church), while others may treat them as category three (necessary for the practice of the local church). Thus, if a church decides that a woman will not occupy the pulpit, it could be because of one of two reasons. It could be because the church believes that preaching to a mixed audience is inappropriate for women and that to allow such would be harmful to the health of the church (category two); or it could be because the church believes that some sort of consistency and harmony needs to occur within the local body, and allowing women to preach might lead to chaos in the church or at least confusion (category three). In this second option, it may well be that some of the church leaders view women preachers as a category two violation, while other church leaders do not. But for the sake of peace and harmony, the latter go along with the former. One can easily see how this approach to one’s credo can be helpful when it comes to baptism, spiritual gifts, communion, gray areas in the Christian life, eschatological positions, etc. The list is endless. But at bottom, we should recognize that doctrines need to be differentiated. If one is so inclined to break fellowship with others, valid reasons need to be given. For my take on things, fellowship cannot occur unless the core doctrines are affirmed by both parties. For my money, I cannot have genuine fellowship with someone who denies the deity of Christ or his bodily resurrection, because I do not believe that such a person is a Christian. These are not the only issues, but they are absolutely category one beliefs.

Christological Grounds for a High Bibliology

Where does this leave us with reference to inerrancy? I arrive at inerrancy through an inductive process, rather than by starting with it deductively. My epistemological method may therefore be different from others, but the resultant doctrine is not necessarily so. At bottom, the reason I hold to a high bibliology is grounded in my Christology. Jesus often spoke of the Bible in terms that went beyond the reverence that the Pharisees and Sadducees had for the text. They added traditions to the Bible, or truncated the canon, or otherwise failed to handle scripture appropriately. Jesus had a high view of the text, and it strikes me that I would be unwise to have a view different from his. Indeed, I believe I would be on dangerous ground if I were to take a different view of the text than Jesus did. Thus, my starting point for a high bibliology is Christ himself. Some may argue that we can’t even know what Jesus said unless we start with a high bibliology. Frankly, that approach is a bit circular. Making a pronouncement that scripture is inerrant does not guarantee the truth of such an utterance. If I said the moon is made of green cheese, that doesn’t make it so. At most, what such pronouncements can do is give one assurance. But this is not the same as knowledge. And if the method for arriving at such assurance is wrongheaded, then even the assurance needs to be called into question. A web of issues brings about the deepest kinds of theological assurance: evidence (historical, exegetical, hermeneutical, etc.), affirmations, the role of the Spirit, etc. One does not have the deepest assurance about inerrancy simply by convincing himself that it must be true. Indeed, I would argue that such a presuppositional approach often caves in on itself. Exhibit A is the countless theologians who defected to liberalism after starting with such a perspective. Because they did not have sufficient evidence for their position, because they suffocated the voice of the Spirit, because they held to a domino view of doctrine (one falls down, they all fall down), or because their evangelical professors viewed any questions about inerrancy as disrespectful or due to sin, they abandoned a high view of the text—and with it, a high view of Christ. And the real tragedy is that many evangelical leaders don’t believe what I’m saying and continue to produce the next generation of liberal theologians. But if inerrancy is true, what harm is there in examining the data of the text? What are you afraid of?

Now, someone may say, “But how do you know that Jesus actually held to a high bibliology unless you start with that presupposition? How do you know that the Gospel writers got the words of Jesus right in the first place?” I think that’s an excellent question. I would use the criteria of authenticity to argue that he indeed held to a high view of the text. The criteria of authenticity, when used properly, are criteria that Gospels scholars use to affirm whether Jesus said or did something. Notice that I did not say, “Gospels scholars use to deny whether Jesus said or did something.” The criteria of authenticity should normally be used only for positive results. To take one illustration: The criterion of dissimilarity is the criterion that says if Jesus said something that was unlike what any rabbi before him said and unlike what the church later said, then surely such a saying is authentic. I think this is good as far as it goes. It certainly works for “the Son of Man” sayings in the Gospels. The problem is that the Jesus Seminar used this criterion to make negative assessments of Jesus’ sayings.4 Thus, if Jesus said something that was said in Judaism before him, its authenticity is discounted. But surely that would create an eccentric Jesus if it were applied across the board!5 Indeed, Jesus said things that were already said in the Judaism of his day, and surely the early church learned from him and repeated him.

How does this apply to Jesus’ bibliology? Since his statements about scripture are decidedly more reverential than those of the Pharisees or Sadducees, the criterion of dissimilarity requires us to see that Jesus did, indeed, hold to a high bibliology. Of course, I am not arguing that the average Christian for the past two thousand years needed to think about whether Jesus said something. But I am arguing that even the evidence from a historical-critical perspective points in the same direction. And I am arguing that in the modern world, and even postmodern world, for evangelicals to ignore evidence is tantamount to a leap of faith. I must confess that I did not at first embrace a high bibliology because of applying the criteria of authenticity to the sayings of Jesus. No, I initially embraced a high bibliology because I believed that the Bible’s testimony about itself was sufficiently clear. But when I came to grips with Warfield’s inductive approach and Metzger’s denial of Warfield’s first argument, I realized that, for those engaged in serious biblical studies, historical evidence needed to be assessed before dialogue with those of a different perspective could begin. The fact that many evangelical students abandon inerrancy, as I mentioned above, may in part be due to them not wrestling with more than a fideistic claim. In other words, if evangelical leaders are not prepared to give substance to their credo, then some evangelical students will continue to defect. I don’t lay all the blame on the professors of course. But some of it belongs there—and some of it needs to be laid at my feet, too! I have learned some hard lessons over the years of teaching in graduate schools. And one of them is that no question in the classroom is taboo. My point here is this: What harm is there in adding historical evidence to one’s arguments for a doctrinal position? Why are so many afraid, or unprepared, to do so? The impression this gives to many students is that such views are defenseless.

Permit me to address one other issue—one that is very dear to my heart. If Christ is at the core of our beliefs, then the incarnation has to loom large in our thinking about the faith. When God became man and invaded time-space history, this served notice that we dare not treat the Bible with kid gloves. The incarnation not only invites us to examine the evidence, it requires us to do so. The fact that our religion is the only religion in the world that is subject to historical verification is no accident: it’s part of God’s design. Jesus performed miracles and healings in specific towns, at specific times, in relation to specific people. The Gospels don’t often speak in generalities. And Paul mentioned that 500 brothers and sisters saw the risen Christ at one time, then adds that most of these folks were still alive. These kinds of statements are the stuff of history: they beg the reader to investigate. Too often modern evangelicals take a hands-off attitude toward the Bible because of a prior commitment to inerrancy. But it is precisely because the incarnation of Christ is more important to me than the inerrancy of the Bible that I cannot do that. I believe it is disrespectful to my Lord to not ask the Bible the tough questions that every thinking non-Christian is already asking it. The result of this approach is that I am no longer afraid to wrestle hard with the text, and to go where the evidence leads. It may lead me to conclusions that I did not want to arrive at, but at least I arrive at those conclusions with full integrity. And I arrive at them with a Christological center that is always intact.

One thing that I have learned in thinking about inerrancy is that I must define it by the data supplied by the text of scripture. I cannot import my twentieth-century presuppositions to the text and call it the inner witness of the Spirit. These two things are not the same thing. The Spirit bears witness to what the text says; I cannot base a doctrine on what goes beyond the text. If I do, I fail to recognize that it is in fact my own cultural values that have influenced me more than the Spirit of God. This means that we must define inerrancy on the basis of scripture’s testimony itself, and subject all theological formulations about inerrancy to scripture. Otherwise, we succumb to the very thing that the Reformers were adamantly opposed to: tradition—a tradition that supersedes the authority of the Word of God. Ironically, those who are questioning whether I am orthodox have not examined what I’ve written against the evidence of scripture itself. Instead, they have appealed to their own understanding of inerrancy, and simply declared that I am found wanting. I do not think, however, that it is wrong to build a doctrine of inerrancy from the Bible’s testimony.

Specific Charges

Now, for the accusations against me. Three specific charges come to mind:

  1. I argued in one ETS paper that the words of Jesus may need to be colored pink instead of red at times;
  2. I stated that Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith alone might not have been shared by James, Peter, or Jude;
  3. I said that inerrancy and verbal inspiration are peripheral doctrines.

In response to the first charge, I wish to mention four points. First, the charge is true as far as it goes. That is, the Gospel writers may have written the gist of what Jesus said instead of his very words. Second, the vast majority of evangelical New Testament scholars would say the same thing. Every member of the New Testament department at Dallas Seminary would say so. And several of these folks have been in the department for twenty or more years. On this particular charge, then, it would be unfair (as one person insinuated) to declare that Dallas Seminary has gone through some bibliological shifts in the past fifteen years. So if I am to be branded as heretical, I’m in a large boat, filled with orthodox professors. And we all have our life preservers on! That of course doesn’t mean that I’m right, but it does mean that the viewpoint shouldn’t just be summarily dismissed without a careful reading—and a careful weighing of the evidence. Third, this particular paper was controversial for other reasons that I won’t go into here. The paper has never been posted on the Internet because it was never meant for a general readership. Consequently, I won’t get into the details of what it is all about here. Fourth, remarkably those who convicted me of bibliological heresy did so on the word of one blogger who did not quote exactly, or who quoted the paper out of context. For them to make this sort of judgment without having seen the paper itself seems to unmask an attitude that disregards evidence and context. I submit that that is presuppositionalism run amok.

With regard to the second charge, only a small snippet of my essay entitled, “Wittenberg 2002” was quoted before the roasting began. This is the quotation that was blogged:

Indeed, when we go back to the scriptures, it does indeed seem clear that Paul has a doctrine of justification by faith alone. But that doctrine is not as easy to find in James, Peter, or Jude. Yet Paul seemed to accept these other apostles, along with their theological commitments, as genuine and true. But if they did not see things quite the same way as Paul did, who are we to insist on beliefs and formulations that just might exclude even some of the apostles?

Such as it is, this could indeed sound alarming. But my full statement on that issue is here quoted:

I’ve had a good amount of time to reflect on the significance of a single act that started the Protestant Reformation. Today’s world is quite different from Luther’s in many ways, and yet there remain the epistemological and practical questions regarding authority and truth. Nearly 500 years after Luther took his stand, Protestants and Catholics are beginning to wrestle with reconciliation. Gestures have been made on both sides. Language is toned down, and there is an increasing recognition that each branch of Christendom (including Orthodoxy) has a contribution to make—and even that no single branch has a corner on the whole truth. On the one hand, evangelical Christians have to ask themselves what ‘faith alone’—that great clarion call of the Reformation—really means. Is the doctrine of justification by faith alone a necessary doctrine for salvation, so that all those who do not embrace it explicitly are damned to hell? Or is it an important clarification of the gospel which is nevertheless not the core of the gospel? Our attitude toward one another within Christendom depends on how we answer this question. One of the interesting facets of this question has to do with the methodological battle cry of the Reformation, ad fontes. Indeed, when we go back to the scriptures, it does indeed seem clear that Paul has a doctrine of justification by faith alone. But that doctrine is not as easy to find in James, Peter, or Jude. Yet Paul seemed to accept these other apostles, along with their theological commitments, as genuine and true. But if they did not see things quite the same way as Paul did, who are we to insist on beliefs and formulations that just might exclude even some of the apostles?

In truth, Luther was a Paulinist. He held to a canon within the canon. Paul’s letters, especially Romans and Galatians, were the crown jewel of Luther’s theology. Is that altogether a bad approach? Is it possible to hold to a canon within the canon and yet to embrace a high view of scripture? And should Paul be considered the capstone of theological articulation? These are important questions that we must wrestle with. Further, by replacing tradition with revelation as the ultimate authority, Luther opened a Pandora’s Box whose implications he could hardly have anticipated. If revelation is the ultimate authority, then how should we interpret it? If we are to use reason—as Luther even hinted at at the Diet of Worms in 1521—then does this not make reason a higher authority than revelation? And if reason has this kind of power, what does this say about total depravity and the noetic effects of sin? How can a Christian reconcile the use of reason to grasp the meaning of scripture with a mind that has been tainted by sin? Although the Catholicism of Luther’s day was terribly corrupt, the value it placed on tradition was not altogether a bad thing. Protestantism gave rise to liberalism when reason usurped the throne of revelation. During this time, Catholicism remained far more conservative. And today, evangelicals and Catholics generally have much more in common than either of them has with liberal Christianity. In the least, this complex tapestry of western Christianity is not yet finished. The Weaver has more to do. And we all must humbly bow before him as he does his work in our lives both individually and corporately.

This is the broader context for the statement, and I will flesh it out even more. Some have charged me with holding to a particular view when I ask a question. For example, when I ask, “And should Paul be considered the capstone of theological articulation?” the assumption is that I would answer no. Or “If revelation is the ultimate authority, then how should we interpret it?” may imply that I do not believe that biblical revelation is the final authority. All I can say that my questions are meant to be questions, not answers (cf. John 21.21-23!). But now it is time for answers, or at least a bit more clarification. Anyone who knows me knows how unswervingly I am committed to justification by faith alone. I have often said that Romans is the most important non-narrative document ever written. Of the 50,000 letters from the ancient Greco-Roman world that we have today, none shines as brightly as Paul’s epistle to the Romans. When I teach Romans, I spend three class periods on 3.21-26. Yes, it’s that important to me. But the question I was raising in the “Wittenberg 2002” essay was just this: Is Justification by faith alone something that one must explicitly embrace to be saved? Or is it the great clarification of what Christ has done for us? Allow me to use an imperfect analogy. You’ll pardon me if this sounds sexist. When my wife drives her Toyota minivan, she does not have to understand the intricacies of the internal combustion engine before she can believe that the engine will start or that the car will get her from point A to point B. But she does have to have sufficient faith that the car will indeed get her where she wants to go. I have to question whether those who are not Protestants cannot be saved because they don’t explicitly embrace justification by faith alone. But this is a far cry from saying that this truth is not essential to salvation! The question I am raising is whether such a formulation must be a conscious credo for one to be saved. That most of the folks in the history of Christendom who have embraced the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of the Lord, and many other important doctrines, have not explicitly affirmed the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith does not, it seems, necessarily condemn them to eternal flames. (To be sure, many such folks are indeed forever lost, just as many Protestants are. After all, it is not just right doctrine that saves us, but a personal relationship with the risen Lord.) And when I ask that question, I notice in the New Testament that Paul seems to be virtually alone in affirming it. Does this mean that other writers would disagree with Paul’s view? No, it does not, nor did I say this. That some have wanted to add more kindling to my stake because I asked this question seems to me to be a bit hasty. It seems to me that they may be a bit too uncharitable by putting words in my mouth. Thus, when I look at church history I see some beliefs that are mirrored in the New Testament (or, more accurately, vice versa). And I have to ask myself, if justification by faith alone must be embraced explicitly if one is to be saved, then why wouldn’t it come up in James, Jude, or 1-2 Peter? After all, all of these authors explicitly speak about salvation.

Finally, for the third charge: I said that inerrancy and verbal inspiration are peripheral doctrines. That’s the charge anyway. Actually, in my review of Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (posted on bible.org), I never said this. I said that inerrancy and verbal inspiration are more peripheral than core doctrines. But I was only discussing two categories of doctrines there: core doctrines, and those that did not belong to the core. I admit that I should have explained what I meant by core in that paper. I meant essential for salvation, as I tried to explain in great detail above. I would call inerrancy and verbal inspiration category two doctrines. They are important for the health of the church, but not essential for salvation.

The article has now been published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49.2 (June 2006): 327-49. I am grateful that the editor, Andreas Köstenberger, insisted that the statement about inerrancy being a more peripheral doctrine be dropped. He said that it might not be understood correctly, and I now see his point. Frankly, I was a bit naïve about where evangelicals are in their thinking on these issues. The blogsite that has prompted this response has served as a wake-up call. I must insist however that the major reason that people have seen me as saying certain things is that they are putting words in my mouth. When I ask a question, I mean it as a question. When I say more peripheral I don’t mean peripheral. One blogger inferred that I shouldn’t be teaching at Dallas Seminary because the Seminary calls inerrancy an essential belief. But the Seminary never defines essential (does it mean essential for graduation from Dallas Seminary? Essential for the evangelical faith? Essential for salvation?). Someone even went so far as to say that because I called inerrancy peripheral (which I did not), I must not believe it! That’s like saying that since I do not regard the pretribulational rapture as an essential doctrine I must not believe it. I certainly regard it as less important than a high bibliology, but I also am persuaded that the rapture will take place prior to the tribulation.

My mistake was that I did not define what I meant by essential in the Ehrman piece, and I have asked that the bible.org webmaster link that paragraph in my review of Misquoting Jesus to this essay. That should clear up any misunderstanding. Nevertheless, it grieves me that some are so quick to condemn without understanding, that not one person reading (or writing) on the blogsite contacted me directly for clarification, and that most formed their judgments without reading what I had written in context. Further, even when my words were clear (and I believe they were most of the time), I was only rarely given the benefit of the doubt. This kind of attitude does not bode well for where Reformed evangelicals are heading.

In conclusion, people obviously have the right to disagree with me. I’m glad that they do! But it strikes me as a gross caricature to insinuate that I am a heretic, a wolf in evangelical clothing, because the way I construct my theological convictions is different from theirs. At bottom, our resultant views are much closer to each other than they would admit. But our views still differ. I am convinced that my explanations in this lengthy paper will not persuade all that I’m squeaky clean in my theology. A major part of the reason, I think, is that I am trying to take my cues about bibliology from the text itself rather than from modern assumptions that are superimposed on scripture. And precisely because my starting point for inerrancy is Christ himself—indeed, my starting point for almost all of my theology is Christ—we will simply not see eye to eye on doctrinal priorities, the importance of historical inquiry, or the nature of the text. I pray that we can nevertheless be charitable and recognize that each other is a true believer in the same risen Lord.

Postscript

One other comment was repeated throughout the blogsite: Although I have some good things to say, people should read my writings with caution. I can give a hearty amen to that! But I would add that people should read everyone’s writings with caution. No one is categorically exempt from critical examination.


1 For those who are familiar with Warfield, he was actually a staunch Calvinist. The ‘radical Arminian’ was my sorry attempt at sarcasm.

2 Benjamin B. Warfield, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948) 174.

3 Obviously, there are more beliefs that one must embrace to be saved, but without a bodily resurrection we are all dead in our sins. David’s career was mostly in the realm of Christology, and he has strongly affirmed the deity of Christ.

4 The Jesus Seminar did not apply this particular negative argument to “the Son of Man” sayings because the evidence is unequivocal. However, when it came to prophecies in which Jesus spoke of the Son of Man they summarily discounted such sayings because they had previously rejected the possibility of predictive prophecy!

5 For a discussion on the criteria of authenticity, see J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, and Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006) 39-50.

Related Topics: Inerrancy