Ancient Word, Changing Worlds: The Doctrine of Scripture in a Modern Age

By Stephen J. Nichols and Eric T. Brandt
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2009). 176 Pages.

Reviewed by
20.2 (Fall 2009) : 279-281

Once again, evangelicals have cause for renewed attention to a doctrine of Scripture. Amidst what has been called the “third-wave” of the inerrancy debate, this short volume seeks to tell the story of three words that received greatest attention in discussions about Scripture’s authority during the nineteenth, twentieth, and now twenty-first centuries. These are “inspiration,” “inerrancy,” and “interpretation” (14, 18).

In a consistent format, Nichols and Brandt, professor and student at Lancaster Bible College, devote an individual chapter to developments surrounding each of these words. Each of these is followed by one that includes select quotations from key sources in the debates surrounding the terms. They also provide introductory comments to original source texts which give historical background, other aspects of the debates’ contexts, and sometimes reasons why the selections were made. This work is laden with historical facts and useful bibliographic material. Among what is throughout the text, these features include time-lines (30, 74, 118), succinct lists of sources cited (41-42, 87-88, 131-32), and three appendices. Appendix one includes nineteen evangelical doctrinal statements on Scripture (159- 71); appendix two, key Bible texts on a doctrine of Scripture (173); appendix three, books for further reading (175-76), all of which were cited throughout the work.

New features in the present state of the debate are also highlighted. Among these are the current modern/postmodern struggle (39-40), Barth’s role in the American evangelical conversation (36-37, 118), the role of community (124), and theological interpretation (38, 124-25). The authors hold inerrancy by precommitment, deeming it a helpful theological construction (71, 84-85, 129) and also affirming that the Bible stands over readers (118, 127, 130).

Some technicalities should be observed. The citation of Grenz (29) misrepresents his pneumatological emphasis, effectively putting words into his mouth concerning the Princetonian view of inspiration. Page 30 n. 7 cites Grenz at page 116, but it should be 118. Hodge and Warfield are mistakenly identified as not allowing the dictation theory of inspiration (31) whereas they actually did allow that “in some of the prophecies, they wrote by divine dictation” (“Tractate on Inspiration” [1881], in Westminster Doctrine Ancient Holy Scripture: Tractates by Profs A. A. Hodge and Warfield with Notes on Recent Discussions by Rev. Robert Howie [Edinburgh: Hunter, 1891] 31). Without directly stating it, Nichols and Brandt contradict article XVI of the 1978 Chicago Statement when asserting that “the challenge” to the Bible was met recently with deeper reflection and clearer expression of the doctrines of Scripture (14). And though asserting Feinberg’s closeness to the Chicago Statement (91 n. 66), Nichols and Brandt do not mention the interesting feature that the word “fact” is introduced by Feinberg while missing in the statement.

Further shortcomings might be in the selection of texts, not all of which are the most important or most reasonable voices in the debates. The blurring of the thematic and chronological approaches might also be somewhat confusing. A citation index would be helpful, as might a joint-authored book by scholars from different sides of this debate, which could have attracted a wider readership and given stronger cases from select texts. Nevertheless, while preferring inerrancy, allowing variegated source materials to articulate positions makes it a useful tool for readers in a broad range of positions.

Including hermeneutics as part of a doctrine of Scripture is a matter of question for this reviewer. The topics are certainly related, but seem to be separate unless traditional theological categories are to be shifted. Theology, which is able to account for all reality, carries the burden of providing a doctrine of Scripture. It gives descriptions of phenomena before, during, and after biblical exegesis, but should not be equated with the hermeneutical discipline or exegetical task. Though theological interpretation receives attention in this work, occasionally theological interpreters are more interested in what Scripture does rather than what it is. Regardless of whether or not hermeneutics should be a part of a doctrine of Scripture, it seems to have slipped in the back door of the evangelical debates about Scripture (and was virtually missing in discussions over the nature of Scripture among evangelicals before the mid-20th century), and may be here to stay.

The few criticisms mentioned should in no wise diminish from this boo k’s importance. It is a clear, delightful read, written with brilliant prose (e.g., 26, 39) at an important time in the history of evangelicalism. Surprisingly, it is a portion of what the present reviewer mentioned as needed to move the inerrancy debate forward: “a serious attempt at a comprehensive understanding of the history of this debate... replete with all the arguments set forth, needs to be made and is due to the evangelical community” (“How Far Beyond Chicago? Assessing Recent Attempts to Reframe the Inerrancy Debate,” Themelios 34/1 [April 2009]:31). It is unlike any other book this reviewer is aware of, especially in recent times. It will be a useful tool for laypeople or pastors interested in the topic, and would serve well in an undergraduate or M.Div. course dealing with bibliology or contemporary evangelicalism. Even then, it should probably be supplemented with other helpful books about the nature of Scripture, including possibly Mark D. Thompson, A Clear and Present Word [Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2006] and perhaps Michael F. Bird and Michael Pahl, eds., The Sacred Text: Artefact, Interpretation, and Doctrinal Formulation [Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias Press, forthcoming]). Nichols and Brandt have produced a remarkable resource in helping evangelicals understand the mammoth nature of the recent debate over the Bible’s authority. Though one may still eagerly await an exhaustive treatment of the debate’s vast terrain, Ancient Word, Changing Worlds is a needed move in that direction.