These are my notes on:
The Debate about the Bible, Inerrancy vs. Infallibility, by Stephen T. Davis. 1977. Philadelphia, Pa; Westminster Press. Bibliography, endnotes. ISBN 0-664-24119.0.
John W. Burgeson, Feb 2003
“Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?” Book of Common Worship (1946)
The book has 7 chapters.
2. The Biblical argument
3. The epistemological argument
4. The slippery slope argument
5. The case against inerrancy
The Forward by Clark Pinnock, who describes himself as
p. 11 “committed to the position of Biblical inerrancy. “
p. 13 Pinnock likes the words of the Lausanne Covenant, “inerrant in all that it affirms.”
p. 15. Davis claims the Bible is NOT inerrant. He considers himself an evangelical. He affirms the quotation that begins these notes.
p. 16. Definition. To claim the Bible is inerrant is to claim that it contains no errors at all – none in history, geography, botany, astronomy, sociology, psychiatry, economics, geology, logic, mathematics, or in any area whatsoever.
p.16. The word “infallible” is used in the 1647 creed, which seems to limit the truth of scripture to “faith and life.” See 6.001-6.010 in the PCUSA Book of Confessions. “Inerrant” is a technical term.
p. 17. Is the claim that the Bible is inerrant true? That is the focus of this book.
p. 17. Three arguments for inerrancy:
1. The Bible claims it. The Biblical argument.
2. If it is not inerrant, we have no sure word from God. The epistemological argument.
3.. Anyone who denies inerrancy will end up denying other evangelical doctrines. The slippery slope argument.
p. 19. Davis writes to counteract the recent (1970s) strong statements by Francis Schaeffer and Harold Lindsell which argue for inerrancy as a necessary doctrine.
p. 20. Davis reaffirms his high view of the Bible, as inspired, authoritative, trustworthy and infallible. He decries the “all or nothing” arguments of many inerrancy defenders as being divisive.
Definition 1. The Bible is inerrant if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any topic whatsoever.
Definition 2. The Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice.
p. 24. there are two sorts of possible errors.
1. Those which make false or misleading factual claims.
2. Those which occur where two accounts of the same event or fact are inconsistent
(Note – there is at least one other type of possible error – logical. – jwb)
Most defenders of inerrancy qualify their claims in as many as five ways:
1. Grammatical and form errors do not count.
2. Inerrancy refers only to the original manuscripts
(Note that some defenders refer to the 1611 KJV and do not use #2 – jwb)
3. The author’s intended meaning must be shown to be false or misleading to be an actual falsification of the inerrancy claim. For example, when Jesus referred to the mustard seed in Matt 13 as “the smallest of all seeds, “ that was not the point he was making, and though the mustard seed is by no means the smallest, there is no error.
4. Error type #2 must be shown by demonstration that the two accounts are incapable of harmonization. (Listed by Warfield/Hodge)
(This can lead to the “death of 1000 cuts,” as “ad hocs” are piled up. – jwb)
5. Error type #2 must be indisputably false or contradictory – it cannot be of a type that may later be resolved. (Listed by Warfield/Hodge).
p. 27. The debate seems to become unreal, says Davis. When we analyze all the above, a purported error will actually falsify the claim of inerrancy if and only if:
1. It concerns a Biblical claim, not just grammar.
2. It occurs in the original text (which is unavailable – jwb)
3. It concerns the main point being made
4. Either it is incapable of harmonization, or
5. It is indisputably false and not a possibly resolvable difficulty.
p. 28. Davis notes that if all those qualifications are accepted, the inerrancy doctrine becomes unfalsifiable. (Note that logical errors are still not mentioned, and so I disagree with the above -- jwb)
Any imaginable purported error can be excluded on conditions 2 or 5.
Historical and geographical errors can be excluded on condition 3.
(Davis also notes that internal inconsistencies in two Biblical texts can be excluded on condition 4, but I don’t agree with him here. – jwb)
P 29. Davis argues that inerrancy is not even relevant to much of the Bible.
P 30. Discussion of Lindsell’s THE BATTLE FOR THE BIBLE, which defends inerrancy. Lindsell says, “Whatever it communicates is to be trusted and can be relied upon as being true.” Lindsell makes four major arguments:
1. The Bible teaches that it is inspired, and that it cannot be inspired unless inerrant.
2. The historical argument. Inerrancy has been held by the church throughout the centuries
3. The epistemological argument
4. the slippery slope argument
Davis will address #1, #3 and #4 later. He argues that #2 is “highly questionable” and is based on selective quotations from past theologians (Luther & Calvin among them).
Lindsell also argues that numerical discrepancies, for instance 23,000 in Num 25:9 and 24,000 in I Cor 10:8 are reconcilable “to the standards of accuracy of the time.” Davis does not accept this. (note – the differences in the time frame possibly addressed by the two passages is a plausible ad hoc explanation, although weak. – jwb).
p. 35. Lindsell goes to extremes in handling the problem of Peter’s denials. Davis argues that either Mark, or Matthew/Luke/John are mistaken – they cannot be both correct and so the Bible is not inerrant. Lindsell reconciles them, however, by claiming that Peter denied Jesus not three, but SIX times. Davis points out Lindsell’s tortured and illogical reasoning surrounding his claim. (I have read Lindsell’s book – it is quite unpersuasive on this point – to give Lindsell credit he does not argue that other explanations are impossible. -- jwb)
p. 38. Fuller’s defense of inerrancy is more reasoned, says Davis. Purported errors are, he says, relative to intention. By these criteria, the Bible IS inerrant. Fuller notes that there are many non-revelational matters in scripture, and here he agrees that the Bible is fallible. Fuller takes an inductive, rather than a deductive approach to scripture. The deductivist (such as Lindsell) begins with an a priori “full inerrancy” presupposition and then forces the Biblical text to conform to it. The inductivist does not accept that a priori presupposition. Fuller sees Biblical error – e.g. the mustard seed – to simply be accommodation to the knowledge of the times. Inerrancy, properly understood, REQUIRES the Holy Spirit leave unchanged nonrevelational, culturally conditioned statements that are technically in error. (this makes sense to me – jwb)
P. 43. Davis cites Fuller’s treatment of the problem of Gen 11:26 to 12:4 vs. Acts 7:1-4. The Gen text says Terah lived for many years after Abe’s departure from Haran. Stephen’s speech in Acts clearly says Abe left Haran only after Terah died. Fuller says that when Stephen spoke, the people believed the latter. (So, perhaps, did Stephen -- jwb) (note – I find Fuller’s argument to be an “ad hoc,” and, therefore, weak. Why would Stephen have a different view? There does not seem to be historical evidence which supports this. – jwb).
P 44. Davis criticizes Fuller for wanting to retain the word “inerrant.” Fuller says “a communication can be in error only if it fails to live up to the intentions of its author.” Davis notes that a communication can do that perfectly – and still be in error. Thus, while Fuller can claim “inerrancy” (his definition) for the Bible, he cannot claim it is errorless.
p. 45. Davis discusses the accommodation theory. That theory does explain why some errors were made, but it does not seem to DEMAND that errors be made. Why could not accommodation errors been avoided? The justification of accommodation error works only if in each case there was available to the Biblical writer no equally good (and inerrant) way to make the point. This seems dubious. Surely Jesus could have made the mustard seed argument just as well by alluding to it as simply a very small seed.
Chapter 2. The Biblical argument: 1. The Bible claims to be inerrant
2. Whatever the Bible claims is true
3. Therefore, the Bible is inerrant
p. 49. This is the way it is usually stated; the argument is logically invalid, since #2 is just a different way of expressing #3. The argument is circular. It has value only for those who want to believe #3.
p. 50. Everett F. Harrison argues that the Bible, itself, says nothing precise about inerrancy. It is a conclusion, not a teaching. Davis agrees.
p. 52. The Bible contains little systematic theology or apologetics. It does testify to its own inspiration. Davis cites II Tim 3:15-16 and II Peter 1:20-21. (Note that he does not speak of these passages having been written before the canon was complete – jwb)
p. 55. It does speak to its own authority. (I Peter 1:25, ps 119:89, John 10:35, etc.)
p. 58. It does speak to its own reliability or trustworthiness.
p. 60. The Bible containing an error is not to be equated with God lying.
p. 61. Lindsell’s argument.
1. God inspired the scriptures
2. “Inspired” = “God got written what He wanted written”
3. God cannot lie. (“Will not” would seem to be a better choice of words – jwb)
4. Therefore, the Bible cannot lie
5. Therefore, inerrancy.
p. 63. Lindsell’s argument is, again, deductive. Deduction is dangerous. Quenstedt deduced that Luke wrote by direct dictation of the Holy Spirit of the very words he should use. Beza was condemned by the faculty of Wittenberg for saying that the NT Greek contained barbarisms and solecisms. Gerhard argued that the Hebrew vowel points were inspired. Owen wrote that the Holy Spirit had kept the Biblical texts pure throughout all textual transmission. (Peter Ruckman argues today (in 2003) that the KJV writers were inspired to – finally – get it right. – jwb)
p. 64. Davis does NOT argue, a priori, that the Holy Spirit COULD NOT HAVE produced an inerrant Bible – but he does deny the reasonableness of the claim that he DID do so.
p. 64. An interesting argument. Paul, in Rom 4:3, quotes the Septuagint of Gen 15:6 with the preface “what does the scripture say?” Paul apparently regarded the Septuagint as scripture, and he regarded all scripture as inspired. Thus, it must follow, if the inerrancy arguments are correct, that the Septuagint is also inerrant. But it is, clearly, not, so the argument fails.
Chapter 3. The epistemological argument
p. 66. The argument comes in many forms:
If the Bible is errant
We have no sure word from God
For if it errs at one place
It may err at any place
And so cannot be relied upon
If the Bible is errant
It cannot be authoritative
If the Bible is errant
We have no sure source in theology
Each person must find his own extra-Biblical criterion
This criterion must be, in effect, superior to the Bible
This is an unchristian notion
Inerrancy is the only sure guarantee that other Christian beliefs are true.
If the Bible is errant, we have no such sure guarantee.
Davis makes a general response to all four at once.
p. 68. Davis lists four propositions:
1. The Bible is inerrant
2. We are lost and need redemption
3. Christ rose bodily from the dead
4. Persons need to commit their lives in faith to Christ.
Can one believe 2, 3 and 4 w/o believing 1? Clearly, yes.
Can one KNOW 2, 3 and 4 w/o knowing 1? Descartes argued that “knowing” was possible if, and only if, that proposition was immune to any conceivable doubt. Davis cannot claim the word “know” in this sense, only “believe.” But, if the word “know” means this – I know a proposition if and only if I believe it on the basis of good reasons, then Davis does claim the word “know.”
p. 70. “I do not believe we have any “sure guarantee” that ANY Christian doctrine is true – at least not a Cartesian sort of “sure guarantee.” We do have evidence, and I am a Christian because I believe that the available evidence, both subjective and objective, supports Christian beliefs. But more than this we do not have.”
p. 71. What does “believing something as an act of will” really mean? Is it a coherent concept? (I think not; I cannot conceive of forcing myself to believe, in my inner being, something I do not believe. I have no problem with taking a middle course – neither believing nor unbelieving – on many matters. – jwb)
p. 72. No Christian, Davis observes, who holds that the Bible is errant, can also hold that the Bible alone is his or her authority for faith and practice. He must also hold to the authority of his or her own mind – ability to reason. However, Davis argues, the defender of inerrancy is in the same position. There is NO ONE for whom the Bible ALONE is the authority of Christian faith and practice.
Reason is not an infallible guide to truth. But that does not mean I must distrust it, in the sense of embracing apparently irrational propositions or rejecting apparently rational ones.
P/ 74. Even for Lindsell and Schaefer, reason is a necessary criterion.
p. 75. Everything in the Bible is authoritative and normative for the Christian until he comes across a passage which for good reasons he cannot accept. (note – this may be “dangerous.” But I think it is necessary. For instance – God’s ordering the slaughter of infants in I Sam 15. – jwb)
p. 77. Certain Cartesian knowledge is nowhere to be had outside of logic and mathematics.
p. 78. So far, Davis has been defending his own position. Now he will argue against inerrancy. First, no contemporary defender claims that presently existing Bibles are inerrant (note – Ruckman and his like do exactly that – jwb). Present translations do contain errors, therefore God did not keep errors from being made. Therefore, He must think it not a vital issue. Second, it does not seem clear why we need an inerrant Bible. The work of the church goes on, people come to faith on the basis of an errant Bible, and therefore the issue appears unimportant.
p. 83. The argument is the usual one, belief in A is crucial because to reject it leads one also to doubt B, C and D, and that leads to no faith at all.
p. 90. Davis analyzes several versions of this; finds them all lacking. The doctrine that states, “the Bible is inerrant” is, by itself, even if true, not crucial to Christianity. We are not saved by the correctness of our theology (or our belief in any Christian doctrine. We are saved by our TRUST in Christ. – jwb). Davis argues that the doctrinal belief argument itself is insulting, divisive and counterproductive. (note – yet we must accept it as coming in good faith from our fellow Christians who think differently – jwb).
Chapter 5. The Case Against Inerrancy.
p. 94. Davis gives four arguments why the claim of inerrancy is untrue.
1. The phenomena of scripture do not support it
2. The device of appealing to the writers’ intentions raises more questions than it solves.
3. It emphasizes wrong tasks, defending minutia, not proclaiming the Bible’s message
4. It appears to make all Christianity hang on the successful defense of the claim.
Davis expounds on each of these arguments in turn.
p. 95. 1. Phenomenological difficulties
Davis sees only a few problems in scripture so thorny that he must call them errors. He treats six of these and mentions in passing two more. The two he passes over are the Biblical claim that hares are ruminants (Lev 11:6) and how to reconcile the belief of some writers in a three-story universe (Phil 2:10). He also mentions the reconciliation of divergent parallel accounts or statistics and the problem of apparently inaccurate chronologies, but does not discuss these further. He skips over entirely the logical error in Matthew’s genealogy.
a. The problem of the Israelite conquest. Scripture makes four things perfectly clear:
1. God gave Canaan to the Israelites; it was his will they conquer it.
2. The Israelites were successful because God fought for them.
3. It was God’s will that the Israelites kill every single Canaanite, including children.
4. It was God’s doing to harden the hearts of the Canaanites against making peace.
Davis believes (and I agree – jwb) that killing innocent people is a moral wrong. He does not believe it was God’s will that every Canaanite, man, woman and child, be slaughtered. Since scripture claims this, he concludes that the Biblical writers in this case were mistaken. The slaughter of innocent people violates the moral standards of the Bible itself – see Gen 9:6, Ex 20:13, Luke 18:20, Rom 13:9, etc. (Note a somewhat similar problem in I Sam 15. – jwb)
b. David’s numbering of the people. II Sam 24:1-2 says God told him to do it. I Chron 21:1-2 says Satan was the instigator. The numbers are different too. Davis investigates some reasoning by the inerrantists to explain these passages and finds those explanations wanting.
c. The mustard seed problem. Davis discusses Lindsell’s explanation of this and finds it too improbable to consider, even as an “ad hoc.”
d. Matthew’s quotation of Jeremiah in Matthew 27:9-10. The quotation is not found in Jeremiah; it is found (loosely) in Zech 11:12-13. An “ad hoc” defense can be made, but it is terribly weak.
e. The Enoch problem. In Jude 14-15 the writer implies he is quoting the patriarch, but the words actually come from the pseudepigraphal Book of Enoch, written in the first century B.C.
f. The staff problem. Mark 6:8 refers to taking a staff; Matthew 10:9-10 & Luke 9:3 refer to not taking a staff. (note – the ad hoc defense on this one is certainly possible, even though still unlikely – jwb).
(Note. These are interesting examples. I would have included the logical (or mathematical) error in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus – 41 generations mentioned but they are spoken of as 14 + 14 + 14 which is 42 generations. There are others … . – jwb)
2. the Notion of intent
p. 107 what was the INTENT of Jesus when he referred to the mustard seed? Surely he meant to give a good and true illustration of his main point. so the intent argument fails here, as it does elsewhere.
3. Busy at the wrong tasks.
how should Christians spend their time? it surely must not be in arguing inconsequential doctrine. (note – ALICE in WONDERLAND is a book which one cannot prove errant. Is it, therefore, inerrant? And if it is, so what? – jwb)
4. A Defensive Doctrine
The bishops all have sworn to shed their blood
To prove its true the hare chews the cud.
Oh bishops, doctors, divines, beware –
Weak is the faith that hangs on a hare.
chapter 6. infallibility
1. the Bible is the Word of God
2. It is also the words of human beings.
3. it is infallible, but not inerrant.
4. the Bible ought to be authoritative for every Christian until he finds a passage which, after careful study and for good reasons he cannot accept. reason has a critical role to play in all beliefs. he says that the notion of “good reason” is both imprecise and flexible. but it cannot be rejected on that account. Even by the inerrantist.
5. the historical-critical study of the Bible is a “good thing.”
6. “Infallible” means that scripture never misleads us on matters that are crucially relevant to the faith. this is not my a priori position, I have come to it as a result of study and reflection. it is simply a good term to describe the Bible.
Davis does not like the term “limited inerrancy.”
p. 123. Davis suggests that perhaps Jesus shared with the people of his day some false beliefs. he does not (unfortunately) elaborate on this. (note – if I were to time travel to – say – 25 A.D. and engage Jesus in a discussion of quantum mechanics, is it likely he would know what I was talking about? I think not. – jwb).
Chapter 7. implications
There are two kinds of inerrantists:
Davis castigates the first kind. they will split the church. a readiness to split from other Christians at the drop of a hat is an unchristian attitude.
p. 138. Davis discusses “liberal Christians.” (note – I think he does not understand them well at all – jwb)
GREAT BOOK! – recommended reading.
John Burgeson, March 1, 2003
Home page www.burgy.50megs.com