Note: Throughout the week, as we liveblog the general sessions, we will be using a time-stamp method. This will give readers an approximate sense of key statements that were made throughout the session, as well as allowing them to trace the flow of the argument. (Also, if readers want to listen to any key moments by downloading the audio, these time-stamps will make it easier to track down certain statements in the audio file.) However, what follows is not intended to be a full or exact transcript of what was said.
12:15 Carl Trueman: I have been asked to discuss inerrancy from the Reformers.
Then he showed me a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, 2 in the middle of its street. On either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. 3 There will no longer be any curse; and the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and His bond-servants will serve Him; 4 they will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will no longer be any night; and they will not have need of the light of a lamp nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God will illumine them; and they will reign forever and ever. 6 And he said to me, “These words are faithful and true”; and the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent His angel to show to His bond-servants the things which must soon take place.
What I intend to offer this morning are historical reflections, more so than theological reflections.
12:20 The doctrine is often dismissed as something that derives from the Enlightenment. If that were true, it would be a powerful argument because if something is new then it is likely untrue.
Interestingly enough, the Reformers spent relatively little time reflecting on the nature of Scripture because they assumed the doctrine that they received from the early church and from the middle ages.
There are vast tracts of Christian theology on which the Reformers have no issue with what has gone on before, and so they assume it. The Reformer’s inherited a high doctrine of Scripture from the ancient church and from the Middle Ages.
Inerrancy is something that is assumed by the Reformers and therefore it must be inferred from what they write. Part of the process requires knowing the background from which they were working.
So, let us go back to the sixteenth century.
The doctrine of Scripture as the authority in the church emerges in the 16th century against a very specific background. Several factors include:
– an increasing lack of confidence in human reason in Europe from the late 13th century onward,
– an increasing doubting of human potential to grasp reality (partly due to the devastating effects of the black plague)
The plague caused people to question their confidence in how to know God.
People looked to the church, but the corruption of the church (including the existence of three popes at the same time), caused people to doubt the authority and purity of the church.
By the time we get to the Reformation, the answer to where can one find a trustworthy God, the answer given by the Reformers is to point to Scripture.
They understand Scripture as clear and sufficient speech from God. Scripture is perspicuous. For the Reformers, there is an intimate connection between their understanding of Scripture and their understanding of God.
The Reformers inherit from the church an understanding of Scripture and inspiration which they did not care to question because they found it adequate.
First, I would like to speak about the mode of inspiration. In the early church, there were those who had such a high view of Scripture that they were prepared to use the language of dictation when they spoke about Scripture.
Evidence for the inspiration and authority of Scripture in the early church comes from 1 Clement, Theodoret of Cyr, Gregory the Great, Athenagoras, the Muratorian Fragment.
While these authors may not give a fully adequate understanding of the mode of inspiration, it is clear that the ancient church believed there was such a close connection between Scripture and God Himself that they could use the language of dictation.
Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, nuances this doctrine, but not in a bad way.
Aquinas makes a basic distinction between revelation and inspiration. Aquinas allows us to avoid the pitfalls of an over-emphasis on dictation, while affirming the truth of inspiration.
Coming back to the Reformers, we can do better than just an argument from silence.
In the Reformation, we can find similar language on the Holy Spirit, regarding inspiration and dictation, that we find in the early church.
The three Reformers I will focus on are: Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Heinrich Bullinger.
Evidence from Martin Luther’s writings demonstrate that he held a similar view of inspiration as his theological predecessors.
For Luther, the origin of Scripture lies in the speaking of God to inspired speakers and writers. Scripture was inspired by the Holy Spirit and it remains the active speech of the Spirit.
When facing temptation, believers ought to respond to Satan’s attack by quoting Scripture.
When Luther returned to Wittenberg from the Wartburg castle, he preached the Word in order to bring calm to the city. When asked why the Reformation was so successful, Luther responded by noting that the Word had done all of the work.
Calvin is likewise very similar to the ancient church in holding forth a high view of Scripture.
It is too much to claim that Calvin held to a dictation theory for all of Scripture, but he did not eschew the language of dictation when it was appropriate to describe the giving of biblical revelation.
Bullinger, in his Decades, likewise affirms that God spoke through the prophets. He does not talk about the mechanics of inspiration, but he is confident of the outcome — an inspired and inerrant Word.
What about alleged errors? Were they concerned about these?
In Letter 82 from Augustine to Jerome, Augustine clearly affirms inerrancy. In that letter, Augustine makes stunning statements regarding the doctrine of inerrancy from the early fifth century of the church.
Augustine suggests that supposed errors in Scripture could result from 1) faulty manuscripts, 2) poor translations, or 3) misunderstandings in his own interpretation.
Were the Reformers likewise concerned about supposed errors in Scripture? They were aware of ‘difficulties’ in the text.
With regard to Martin Luther’s view of James, the issue is not inerrancy but canonicity.
What about the apparent conflict between Moses’ statement in Genesis and Stephen’s statement in Acts 7? Luther resolves that by referring to authorial intent.
While his approach may be inadequate, he goes out of his way to point out that there is no error in Scripture.
Luther attempts to harmonize the account of the kings in the OT, and of Christ in the four gospels. One would hardly do that if they were convinced that the Scriptures were not inerrant.
We can read the Reformers as having a high view of Scripture because they inherited that view from the Middle Ages and they did not question that view.
The Reformers recognized that the Bible is God’s speech. And because God is trustworthy, Scripture must be trustworthy.
If Scripture is God’s speech, then our doctrine of God is determinative of our doctrine of Scripture.
The contemporary evangelical world is adept at selective outrage.
We must not only be outraged about the attack on inerrancy.
The doctrine of inerrancy must be coordinated with other theological loci. In particular, we need to connect the doctrine of inerrancy with the doctrine of God.
That is what makes preaching powerful. If Scripture is God’s speech, then preaching brings God’s speech to bear on congregations in the church each Sunday.
It is because Scripture was inspired in the past as the speech of God, that those who preach Scripture today speak the words of God.
As we reflect on the doctrine of inerrancy, we must likewise reflect on the doctrine of God.