by Dan Lioy

Abstract

The major premise of this chapter is that when a seminary abandons the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it becomes the critical first domino or tipping point that leads to the school’s rapid and dramatic decline. The opening section begins the discourse by exploring the sobering state of theological education in North America. Next, in the second section, biblical inerrancy is defined and described, followed by the third section considering the testimony of Scripture to its inerrancy. The fourth section deliberates the perils when divinity schools yield ground on biblical inerrancy. The fifth section concludes by reiterating the importance of a seminary vigorously maintaining a high view of Scripture.

Introduction: the sobering state of theological education in North America

Nearly a generation ago, Timothy Morgan (1994) reported that enrollment at seminaries in North America was booming. Year-over-year increases ranging from about 9 to 20 per cent seemingly pointed to widespread institutional health and vibrancy; yet, even then, according to Morgan, theological colleges faced a ‘crisis of credibility’ in which the perception of irrelevancy against the backdrop of a changing, ‘post-Christian America’ could lead to a steep drop in enrollment. In turn, this could result in divinity schools reducing the size of their ‘faculties, programs, and institutions’.

More recently, Peter Leithart (2016a) confirmed that today there is a bona fide ‘crisis of theological education’ in North America. This stands in contrast to seminaries in the majority world, which typically are thriving.[1] Leithart observes that both students and schools in Western academic circles are struggling with the ever-increasing costs associated with ‘traditional’ forms of seminary training (2016b; i.e. on-campus, full-time, for three or more years). The plight does not seem to be isolated to any particular ecclesial tradition or faith community; rather, it is ‘spread out across the theological spectrum’.

Sorum (2017:1) notes that the usual response is for a graduate school of divinity to address the predicament by ‘dumbing down the curriculum’, along with ‘watering down its biblical and confessional integrity’. Nonetheless, despite these sorts of desperate interventions, seminary administrators fail to ‘fix’ the ‘problem’. Instead, theological colleges forfeit their ‘educational integrity’, their ‘identity and mission’, and the ‘loyalty’ of their ‘constituents’.

Admittedly, a steep decline in seminary enrollment in North America is due to various interconnected factors. Even so, a leading cause, as identified by Leithart (2016a), centers around divinity schools ‘losing the clarity of their vision and a sense of purpose’. The major premise of this essay is that one critical element remains a weakened emphasis on the inerrancy of Scripture. Indeed, as the title of the chapter indicates, when this key doctrine is abandoned, it becomes the critical first domino or tipping point that leads to the rapid and dramatic decline of a theological college.[2]

To advance the chapter’s major claim, the second section defines and delineates the meaning of ‘inerrancy’. This is followed in the third section by a consideration of Scripture’s testimony to its inspiration. Next, the fourth section shifts the emphasis to the perils facing graduate theological education when it yields ground on inerrancy. The fifth section concludes by stressing the importance of affirming inerrancy. In short, God is honored and seminaries thrive when a high view of Scripture is maintained. Oppositely, the Lord is dishonored and divinity schools wither—at least spiritually—when the Bible’s truthfulness and trustworthiness are abandoned.

Biblical inerrancy defined and delineated

In this section, the meaning of biblical inerrancy is defined and delineated. This entails what the phrase legitimately includes and what it does not entail. On the one hand, the discourse strives to be scripturally based and doctrinally grounded; yet, on the other hand, the presentation seeks to remain accessible and readable to non-specialist readers.[3] A modest, representative sampling of information deliberating the issues broached here can be found in the formal citations and bibliography.[4]

To start, then, the following definition is put forward for biblical inerrancy, an articulation that is upheld in various forms by numerous conservative, evangelical scholars and pastors.[5] Specifically, the Scriptures, in the words of the original manuscripts, are absolutely truthful and perfectly accurate in all they affirm. Concisely put, the Creator—who cannot lie and always tells the truth—has spoken clearly and unambiguously in the Judeo-Christian canon.[6] Worth considering is the pithy interjection conveyed by Mohler (2013:29, 58): ‘when the Bible speaks, God speaks’.[7]

Along the lines delineated by Berman (2017), the teaching of inerrancy centers on the following three interrelated subjects: (1) the ‘literary coherence of the biblical text’; (2) the ‘authenticity of its historical account’; and, (3) the ‘antiquity of its composition’. Feinberg (2001:156) moves the discourse forward by explaining that biblical inerrancy is not limited to issues involving ‘faith and practice’. Additionally, the infallibility[8] of God’s Word includes what it reveals about ‘doctrine’, ‘ethics’, and the world the Lord created at the dawn of time.[9] For this reason, Erickson (2013:194) upholds the conviction that Scripture is ‘completely inspired by God, even to the selection of details within the text’. Far from being a parochial doctrine, inerrancy is a first-order presupposition regarding the ‘coherency’, ‘accuracy’, and ‘antiquity’ (Berman 2017) of the Judeo-Christian canon.[10]

Admittedly, one layer of complexity is that the original autographs no longer exist. Be that as it may, in contrast to other classical literature, there is a massive amount of manuscript evidence involving multiple copies of Scripture extending over thousands of years. This is just one way in which the authenticity and integrity of God’s Word far exceeds that of other ancient writings. Furthermore, the tools of textual criticism increasingly ensure that the access believers have to the original wording of the Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek autographs is reliable and trustworthy.[11]

Another potential ambiguity involves an ignorance of the multifaceted contexts in which any given portion of God’s Word was written. A commitment, then, to the inerrancy of Scripture incentivizes learning as much as possible about the genres,[12] languages, geographies, histories,[13] politics, and social institutions of passages being examined. To illustrate the last-mentioned item, an informed study of the Old Testament includes taking into account the multiple cultures of the ancient Near East. Similarly, for the New Testament, one must bear in mind an assortment of Jewish customs and Greco-Roman traditions.

In turn, a commitment to rigorous and meticulous scholarship increases, rather than diminishes, the confidence believers have in the authenticity and integrity of Scripture. On the one hand, believers endeavor to become familiar with the diverse forms of academic inquiry that are associated with the study of God’s Word; on the other hand, they attempt to balance a methodologically critical approach with a predominately evangelical, confessional, and orthodox perspective.[14] In every circumstance, the Bible remains the primary source for theology’s content and the principle norm by which doctrinal assertions are evaluated.

Faith-affirming exegetes understand that the accounts found in the Old and New Testaments are not historiographic in any contemporary sense; rather, they are interpreted histories. In addition, the narratives Scripture records are not raw facts, as though readers were trolling through verbatim transcripts obtained from electronic recordings appearing in surveillance cameras; instead, the accounts are carefully directed, arranged, and structured presentations of historical incidents. Moreover, the concern of the biblical writers was not to document people, places, and events for history’s sake; rather, the writers offered a theological explanation of the episodes they recounted in an objective and reliable manner.[15]

Building on the above, there is the recognition, as Horton (2011:177) puts it, that the words of the biblical texts were ‘inspired’, not their human authors and the materials they used to produce Scripture (including such physical objects as parchment, pen, and ink). Put another way, it is imprudent and shortsighted to insist that the individuals the Spirit used to convey prophetic oracles were themselves either ‘omniscient or infallible’. Indeed, the human agents of God’s revelation were well aware of their own ‘limitations’. The amazing truth is that even though these writers were fallible people, the Spirit enabled them to communicate eternal, inerrant truths.

Similarly, while the Bible’s infallibility is affirmed, the same does not extend to those interpreting it. Down through the centuries, exegetes have humbly recognized their dependence on the Spirit to illumine their understanding of God’s Word. This stance is based on what Thompson (2016:616) refers to as Scripture’s ‘perspicuity’, ‘clarity’, ‘accessibility’, and intelligibility’. Furthermore, exegetes strive to be receptive to and appreciative of the contributions made by their ecclesial predecessors to elucidate the Bible.[16]

So, by way of concession, any skillful and deliberative reading of Scripture, no matter how well-informed by reason and intuition, is characterized by methodological preferences. Consequently, deductions arising from any exegetical analysis of Scripture remain penultimate and provisional, as well as fragmentary and imperfect. Fittingly, Yarbrough (2014:8) asserts that even though ‘reason, experience, and tradition are necessary and welcome factors in how we go about understanding Scripture’, interpreters give pride of place to the Bible over ‘human reason, experience, and tradition’.

The testimony of Scripture to its inerrancy

As Feinberg (2001:157) observes, the ‘testimony of Scripture’ is a key reason for upholding the doctrine of inerrancy. Second Timothy 3:16 is a foundational passage in this regard. Paul literally declared that ‘all Scripture is inspired by God’. The Greek adjective rendered ‘inspired’ means ‘God-breathed’. Expressed differently, the Creator of the universe is the origin and divine author of Scripture.

It is important to clarify that, on one level, the Spirit supernaturally directed the Bible’s human authors; yet, on another level, He did not override their aptitudes and writing styles. The result is that God’s own complete and coherent message to humankind was recorded with perfect accuracy.

The doctrine of inerrancy (along with the inspiration and infallibility of God’s Word) extends equally and absolutely to all portions of Scripture. Put another way, all the books of the Bible are error-free in what they teach, and this involves every aspect of them. As noted earlier, it is not restricted to moral and religious truths, but even extends to the statement of facts.

As Paul wrote about the divine origin of Scripture, he declared that its study and application is eternally beneficial. For instance, God’s Word is immeasurably useful for teaching sound doctrine and for showing people where they have strayed from the truth. The Bible is also efficacious for correcting sinful behavior and training people how to live in an upright manner.

Moreover, believers learn from verse 16 that God’s Word is supremely authoritative. This means it possesses the right to define what Christians believe and how they behave. Indeed, verse 17 discloses that when Scripture is consistently heeded, Jesus’ followers are thoroughly prepared and furnished to undertake all sorts of beneficial acts for God’s glory.

There are other passages of Scripture that support the doctrine of inerrancy. Worthy of consideration is Matthew 4:4. The broader context is Jesus’ time of testing in the wilderness. In Satan’s first attempt to entice Jesus to sin, the ‘tempter’ (v. 3) said that since Jesus is the ‘Son of God’, He should turn some of the stones that were lying about into bread. Rather than yield to the tempter’s suggestion, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3. This verse teaches that people live not only by consuming food. They also need to take in God’s Word for spiritual nourishment (v. 4). Indeed, Scripture is pivotal to their temporal and eternal well-being.

Matthew 5:17–18 likewise affirms the permanence of God’s Word. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus talked about a better way to understand the Mosaic Law. Because of this, some of His antagonists falsely accused Him of trying to set aside the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Law and the Prophets, as they were commonly referred to in ancient times). Jesus countered by declaring that He did not stand in opposition to the Law. In fact, He sought to bring people back to the Law’s original, divinely-intended purpose.

So, Jesus did not speak against the Law itself, but rather against the abuses and excesses to which religious elitists of the day had subjected it. Likewise, the Saviour’s goal was not to set aside, negate, or annul God commands. Instead, Jesus came to fulfill the truth of the Old Testament. All that was written in the Law pointed to Him, and everything He did emphasized His deep commitment to it (v. 17).

When Jesus declared, ‘Truly I tell you’ (v. 18), He was making a solemn statement. ‘The smallest letter’ (the Hebrew letter, yodh) and the ‘least stroke of a pen’ (the slight extension on the Hebrew letter, daleth) refer to the minutest part of the Law. Jesus revealed that as long as heaven and earth continued to exist, so would the tiniest detail of God’s Word until its eternal purpose was achieved.

Jesus made a similar declaration in Mark 13:31. The literary context is His oracle about the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, along with signs indicating the imminence of His second advent and the consummation of redemptive history. Jesus stated that discerning, observant believers would recognize how close at hand was His return (v. 29). He also noted that even though the entire created universe would eventually ‘disappear’ (v. 31), His teachings about the end times would endure forever. This pronouncement highlights the everlasting validity, reliability, and infallibility of Jesus’ ‘words’.

The Creator’s eternal, redemptive plan and program are affirmed in Luke 24:27 and 44. As the risen Lord journeyed with two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus, He disclosed that it was the Father’s sovereign will for His Son first to ‘suffer’ (vs. 26) and die on the cross before being raised to ‘glory’. Then, Jesus guided the pair (possibly a believing husband and wife team) through the Scriptures by explaining how the events of the past few days had been foretold and fulfilled (v. 27).

Later that evening of resurrection Sunday, Jesus again appeared to His disciples. He reminded them that while He was previously with them (namely, before His crucifixion), He told them how the messianic promises recorded in the Old Testament were ordained by God to be fulfilled. Every portion of the Hebrew sacred writings reveals truths about the Redeemer that had to occur (v. 44).

Jesus’ statement affirms there is a strong interrelationship between the Old and New Testaments. Succinctly put, the triune God brought the universe into existence; humankind sinned, bringing moral and spiritual corruption to themselves and their world; and now the triune Godhead has made redemption possible through the atoning work of the Son. The divine plan of redemption, as revealed in the inerrant and infallible Scriptures, began at Calvary, continues even now, and will one day be complete when God creates a new heaven and new earth.

John 10:35 records one of Jesus’ many responses to His antagonists regarding His messianic identity. He noted that because the revelation Yahweh gave the covenant community was inspired and eternally true, Scripture could never be altered or nullified. Paul’s quotations in 1 Timothy 5:18 indicate that the preceding statement equally applied to both the Old and New Testaments. Specifically, to support his contention about reimbursement for church elders, the apostle treated Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7 as being equally authoritative in the divine truths they revealed.

Hebrews 1 compares the incompleteness of God’s revelation through the Old Testament prophets with the completeness of His revelation through His Son. Various prepositional phrases in verse 1 indicate some of the characteristics of God’s communication: the timing was long ago; the target was our spiritual ancestors; the medium was through the prophets; and the methods were diverse and varied.[17] The implication is that God has always been active in history.

Regardless of the manner in which the Lord communicated, He conveyed His authoritative message to people of faith, and those spokespersons for God passed on His inspired declarations to others. Though acknowledging these inerrant, ancient revelations for what they taught people about God, the author implied that they were fragmentary and transitional. At most they pointed to a time when the Father would reveal Himself fully and finally in His Son, Jesus of Nazareth.[18]

Still, the author of Hebrews did not intend to diminish the infallibility and enduring value of the Creator’s revelation through the Hebrew prophets. The fact that the writer considered them the transmitters of God’s oracles is evidence of just how much respect he held for these faithful servants of the Lord and what they communicated verbally and in writing. For all that, the same God who had revealed Himself in a limited way during the Old Testament era, now had disclosed Himself completely and absolutely in the Messiah (v. 2).

Toward the end of Peter’s life, as he faced martyrdom in Rome as a believer, he wrote about the centrality of the prophetic Scriptures to the Christian faith. Specifically, in 2 Peter 1:20–21, he stated these sacred, inspired texts did not originate with the arbitrary interpretation of any individual. The apostle also insisted that legitimate, authoritative prophecy originated with God, and not with people.

Furthermore, those whom the Creator chose as His instruments spoke, but the prophetic oracles they declared originated from the Spirit. On many occasions, the human authors He used were neither dictated to nor caught up in a state of ecstasy. Instead, the Spirit superintended them as they wrote the declarations of God. As previously stated, while the Spirit used their personalities, cultures, and perspectives to shape each part of His special revelation, everything they penned still bore the full weight of divine authority.

Finally, in 3:15–16, Peter drew attention to God’s patience when it came to the ‘salvation’ of the lost. Here, the apostle reiterated a common theme found in Paul’s letters. While Peter wanted his readers to note the theological similarity and harmony between his teachings and those of Paul, Peter admitted that at times some of Paul’s writings were difficult to ‘understand’. Untaught and irresponsible people tried to twist and misrepresent these seemingly obscure texts;[19] yet, Peter placed Paul’s writings on the same level of inspiration as the Old Testament. In this way, Peter conveyed his high regard for the God-given prudence and authority of his fellow apostle in the Lord.

Short bio: Dan completed his doctoral studies at North-West University. He is widely published and has a particular interest in intertextuality between the testaments, Biblical ethics and spiritual care in professional settings. Dan has extensive experience in tertiary education and a passion for scholarly excellence.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article belong to the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the South African Theological Seminary.

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[1] A prime example is South African Theological Seminary (SATS), which God has blessed over the span of its two-decade long history, most recently under the leadership of Reuben van Rensburg.

[2] Arguably, an unwavering commitment to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is pivotal to ensure the health and integrity of any church, denomination, and para-church ministry. Manfred Kohl focuses on the preceding issue in his chapter titled, ‘As goes the seminary, so goes the church’ (which appears next in this dedicatory volume). He gives particular attention to the influence of seminaries to the well-being of the churches. For now, limited space necessitates the focus here remaining on seminaries, divinity schools, and theological colleges. For the sake of expediency, the discourse that follows uses all three designations in a broadly synonymous manner to refer to the same type of academic institution.

[3] The tenor of this chapter is in keeping with the overall literary tone of the dedicatory volume in which it appears.

[4] It is beyond the scope of this modest-sized chapter to undertake an exhaustive treatment of Scripture’s inerrancy, especially in light of the vast amount of literature dealing with the topic. For a definitive study of inerrancy written by various evangelicals, cf. Montgomery (1974). For a comprehensive treatment of the authority of Scripture from a Reformed standpoint, cf. Frame (2010). For differing historical, biblical, and theological perspectives among evangelicals regarding inerrancy, cf. Bovell (2011); Merrick and Garrett (2013). For a probing investigation of various challenges to inerrancy (e.g. philosophical and methodological; textual and historical; ethical, scientific, and theological), cf. Cowan and Wilder (2013). For an evenhanded consideration of the pertinent questions involving inerrancy, cf. Blomberg (2014). For an expansive survey of the contemporary, diverse stances toward the integrity and authority of the Bible, cf. Carson (2016). For a panel discussion of relevant issues connected with inerrancy, cf. Bock, Köstenberger, and Kruger (2015); Mohler (2012). For a video conference exploring various facets of inerrancy, cf. MacArthur (2015). For a detailed consideration inerrancy from an apologetic perspective, cf. White (2016a; 2016b).

[5] For a methodical discussion of how the term ‘inerrancy’ is used with respect to God’s Word, cf. Helm (2016).

[6] For an explanation of the concept of biblical truth, especially as it relates to the doctrine of inerrancy, cf. Blount (2013). For an elucidation of how the Judeo-Christian canon arose and a defense of its legitimacy, cf. Cole (2016); Wegner, Wilder, and Bock (2013).

[7] For an examination of the question as to whether it is logically possible for God to communicate verbally with people, cf. Blocher (2016); Geivett (2013). For a defense of the claim that the Bible is the Word of God, cf. Cowan (2013); Jensen (2016). For an interdisciplinary consideration of the intrinsic, metaphysical correlation between the trustworthiness of God and the complete reliability of His Word (taking into account exegetical, historical, systematic, and philosophical perspectives), cf. Helm and Trueman (2002).

[8] For the purposes of this essay, ‘infallibility’ denotes ‘being incapable of error’ (Proctor and Van Engen 2001:605). The discourse appearing here regards the terms ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ as being ‘approximately synonymous’ (Feinberg 2001:156) in meaning.

[9] Cf. Gen 1:1.

[10] For a comprehensive explanation of biblical inerrancy, cf. Boice (1978). For a disquisition of how this doctrine fits with the phenomena of Scripture, cf. Nicole (1980). For a detailed and nuanced consideration of inerrancy from various theological perspectives, cf. Erickson (2013:188–206); Grudem (1994:90–104); Horton (2011:176–84); Mueller (1934:98–115).

[11] For a defense of the integrity of the Old Testament texts, cf. Wegner (2013). Similarly, for a defense of the integrity of the New Testament texts, cf. Wallace (2013). Both authors discuss the history, nature, and goals of textual criticism as it relates to the Old and New Testaments, respectively.

[12] By genres is meant the literary forms or styles adopted in biblical texts. For example, Collins (2017) points out that the ‘narrative prose’ found in Scripture is neither monochromatic nor monolithic in its form; instead, it can ‘range from “high” in style to low, from detailed to broad-stroke, from “straight” in description to pictorial’, and ‘from thorough to episodic’. For an exploration of the diverse Old and New Testament genres and how they function as Scripture, cf. Webb (2016).

[13] The presumption here is that Scripture recounts actual persons who existed and real events that occurred in space-time history.

[14] For a discussion of higher criticism, including its historical development, as well as both its potential benefits and limitations, cf. Long (2016); Quarles (2013).

[15] For a defense of the historical accuracy of the Old Testament, along with the theological coherence of its message, cf. Kaiser (2013). For a corresponding defense of the New Testament, cf. Barnett (2013). For a response to the allegation that God’s Word is filled with internal contradictions, cf. Huffman (2013). Noteworthy are the author’s three ‘cautions against mistaken claims of contradiction’, as follows: (1) ‘misplaced expectations do not necessitate contradiction’; (2) ‘misconstrued referents do not necessitate contradiction’; and, (3) ‘mystery does not necessitate contradiction’. Also, under the first item, the author offers the following five additional qualifications: (1) ‘selection is not denial’; (2) ‘different is not discrepant’; (3) ‘accuracy is not precision’; (4) ‘paraphrase is not quotation’; and, (5) ‘thematic ordering is not errant’.

[16] For an affirmation of Scripture’s clarity and the readers’ ability to arrive at correct interpretations of biblical passages, cf. Melick (2013); Thompson (2016).

[17] The following lists some of God’s creative and varied means of communicating with the people of Old Testament times: through miracles (Exod 3:2–6); through the Urim and Thummim (28:30); through direct speech (Num 12:8); through angels (Judg 6:11-12); through a soft whisper (1 Kings 19:11–13); through dreams (Job 33:14–18); through family circumstances (Isa 8:1–4); through catastrophes (45:7); through visions and parables (Hos 12:10); through symbolic actions (Ezek 40:1–7); and through prophets (Heb 1:1).

[18] Cf. John 1:14, 18; 14:9.

[19] E.g. 1 Cor 5:5; 7:29; 15:29; Col 1:24; 1 Tim 2:15.