by Steven Hayes
– The denial of Biblical inerrancy is a heresy that has plagued the Church to an increasing degree for the past several centuries; indeed, it continues to be debated by contemporary theologians. For the Bible-believing Christian, the logical argument for the inerrancy of Scripture is straightforward: 1) God is true, and it is impossible for Him to lie (Romans 3:4; Hebrews 6:18); 2) God “breathed out” the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16); therefore, 3) the Scriptures are true. Moreover, the Lord Jesus declared that “[God’s] Word is truth” (John 17:17). To assert that the Word of God is truth is infinitely more than to affirm it to be merely true. That God’s Word is truth demands that it is not only true, but that it is the standard against which the veracity of every proposition is to be measured (Isaiah 8:20; Acts 17:11); how could Scripture be such a standard if it contains errors? Scripture’s testimony to its own inerrancy is clear; so clear, in fact, that Harold Lindsell proclaimed in The Battle for the Bible that no one who denied Biblical inerrancy could properly be called an evangelical.
While such Scriptural arguments have no influence with unbelieving critics, Neo-orthodox and Liberal theologians who have desired to continue under the mantle of evangelicalism have felt the need to defend their denial of an inerrant Bible. The Neo-orthodox defense has been to assert that the totality of the 66 books of the Bible is not the Word of God, but merely contains the Word of God. Thus, any alleged error can be conveniently ascribed to a portion of the Bible that is not (in their reckoning) the Word of God; in this way the Neo-orthodox theologian can have at the same time an inerrant Word of God and a Bible that contains errors. Difficulty arises immediately, however, in objectively determining what parts of the Bible are the Word of God.
The Liberal defense has much in common with that of Neo-orthodoxy, but there are differences in approach. The Liberal who wishes to be considered an evangelical will generally affirm that the Bible is free of error when it addresses subjects related to the gospel and other purely “spiritual” matters, but he allows for errors in non-soteriological areas of Biblical revelation. The commonality with the Neo-orthodox position is obvious in that both approaches result in a Bible that is inerrant in some places and errant in others. Again, the problem is that no objective way of “rightly dividing the Word of truth” into its inerrant and errant divisions can be formulated.
There is a general consensus, however, among all who deny strict Biblical inerrancy, that the portions of both the Old and New Testaments that purport to document the historical record contain errors (perhaps an innumerable multitude of them!). In spite of the painstaking historical and archeological research of men like Sir William Ramsey, which has demonstrated the accuracy and amazing precision of countless historical facts as recorded in Scripture, the naturalistic bias of the Liberal theologian convinces him that there are historical errors in the Bible. After all, God used men to record these histories, and men are fallible, so it should not surprise anyone that these histories contain errors—so the thinking goes. Somehow, the Liberal is not troubled by this particular concession on Biblical inerrancy. Believing he can still trust God’s revelation regarding the gospel, he readily concedes the inerrancy of historical portions of the Bible. Is there really any harm in such a seemingly insignificant compromise? As long as a knowledge of the way of salvation is preserved, is Biblical history really that important? To address such questions, one must consider God’s purpose in including history as part of the Bible. Why has He done so? The answer, in large measure, involves the Biblical covenants.
At the heart of Dispensational Theology is a right understanding of the Biblical covenants. God has chosen to constrain His relationship with mankind, to a significant extent, through covenants into which He has entered voluntarily, which He has recorded in written form, and which He has preserved in the Bible; these covenants, in chronological order, are the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Land, Davidic and New covenants. William F. Albright, dean of American archeologists during the 20th century, is well-known for his observation that the God of the Israelites is unique among all the ancient cultures, in that He entered into covenants with His people. The Biblical covenants and their progressive outworking in time have profound implications for the veracity of the historical portions of the Bible.
Covenants in the Bible are nothing more than what are termed “contracts” today. Contracts are implemented to govern relationships between the parties involved, as well as to provide a standard against which to measure the performance of each party relative to their commitments under the terms of the contract. In Scripture, it is the Biblical covenants that govern God’s relationship with men. God measures the actions of men relative to their obligations under the applicable covenant(s). The Mosaic covenant, for example, placed the nation of Israel under the obligation of keeping a huge number of commands (613 by Jewish reckoning). When Israel failed to keep the terms of the Mosaic covenant, God raised up prophets to indict the nation for breach of contract/covenant (Isaiah 1:2-4; Micah 6:1-2). The God of Israel took the terms of that covenant seriously and literally. Other covenants, such as the Abrahamic covenant and it’s associated sub-covenants (i.e., the Land, Davidic and New covenants), are unconditional covenants; while Israel is a party to these covenants with God, no obligations are imposed on the nation under the terms of these covenants. Thus, one never find prophets to Israel or Judah indicting the nation for failure to adhere to the terms of the unconditional covenants.
On the other hand, in these same covenants God voluntarily obligated Himself to keep a multitude of promises. God promised to bless and prosper the nation of Israel in the Mosaic covenant, although His blessing was contingent upon their obedience under the terms of that covenant (Exodus19:5-8; Leviticus 26:3-39; Deuteronomy 28:1-68). When the nation of Israel failed to honor its commitments under the Mosaic covenant, culminating in the rejection of the long-awaited Messiah as King (Deuteronomy 17:14-15; 18:15-19), God was no longer bound to honor His contingent commitments under this covenant. Under the unconditional covenants, however, God remains obligated to keep all the promises He has made, irrespective of Israel’s behavior, since God entered into these covenants with no conditions whatever placed on the nation.
What has all this to do with the historical record included in Scripture? The performance of both men and God under the obligations of the applicable Biblical covenant(s) play out in the course of history. When God, through the ministry of His prophets, indicts the nation of Israel for its failure to keep the terms of the Mosaic covenant, He does so by calling their attention to the historical record (e.g., Hosea 4, 12-13); Israel’s failure under the covenant is contrasted with God’s faithfulness to His obligations under it, again with an appeal to the historical record (e.g., Deuteronomy 8:1-4). Consider, however, not the conditional Mosaic covenant that has passed away (2 Corinthians 3:7), but the unconditional covenants that remain very much in effect to this day. Although men (i.e., the nation of Israel) have no commitments to honor under them, God in the unconditional Biblical covenants has made many promises that He must keep.
The historical record included in the Scriptures is where inerrancy and the Biblical covenants intersect. Just as God cites the historical record in evaluating men’s performance under the applicable covenant(s), so also men may measure the faithfulness of God with respect to the commitments He has made in these same covenants. Therefore, the Scriptures must be inerrant, not only in the “spiritual” truths they reveal, but even in the historical record they preserve, for it is against the historical record of the Bible that one measures the performance of God relative to the Biblical covenants. In the unconditional covenants, God promises to do specific things throughout the history of the world, and the Bible is the inerrant record of history that demonstrates His faithfulness (e.g., Psalm 89; 105).
If the Neo-orthodox and Liberal theologians are correct in their belief that the historical portions of the Bible contain errors, then we have no sure testimony to the faithfulness of God. “God forbid: yea, let God be true, but every man a liar” (Romans 3: 4). Rather, God’s righteous character, demonstrated in history, is vindicated in His Word, which includes an inerrant record of history. Of course, some of this “history” is recorded in advance, known as prophecy, but it’s historicity is just as sure. Brethren, don’t compromise on the inerrancy of the Bible, not even in the so-called historical portions of Scripture, for God’s very character is at stake!
Steven, Thank you for this excellent article! There is much confusion today over both issues (inerrancy and the covenants). Many of us thought that the ‘battle for the Bible’ was fought in the 1970’s and was “won” with the Evangelical world broadly coming to agreement with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). However, Zondervan’s newly released book “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy” proves that there are many within the fold of “Evangelicalism” who today reject the Chicago Statement. This is a battle that refuses to go away. Sadly, it is not only neo-orthodox and liberals who have problems with inerrancy, but now self-professing evangelicals.
May I comment on a couple of things you said in this excellent article?
“In Scripture, it is the Biblical covenants that govern God’s relationship with men.” There are differing views on this. In my view, it would be more accurate to say “In much of the Old Testament it is the Biblical covenants …” According to Romans 9:4, the covenants belong to Israel (also Eph. 2:12). I think it is more accurate to say that the Church is related to God by virtue of being “in Christ,” than by saying we are related by covenant. Of course, there is debate over how the church is related, if at all, to the New Covenant.
“… the conditional Mosaic covenant that has passed away (2 Corinthians 3:7).” 2 Cor. 3:7 is probably a reference to the glory that was fading in Moses’ face (present participle) rather to the fact that the Mosaic Covenant had actually ceased by the Church Age. Other references that affirm the end of the Mosaic Covenant by the Church Age would include: Rom. 3:20; 4:15; 5:13,20; 7:7; Gal. 3:19, 23-25; Jer 31:31-33; Heb. 7:18-22; 8:7,13; Col. 2:14.
Dr. Gunn, thank you for your helpful comments. My statement, “In Scripture, it is the Biblical covenants that govern God’s relationship with men”, probably should come with a bit more explanation. God deals with Israel via the Abrahamic (and associated) covenants, in both the Old and New Testaments. God deals with all men via the Noahic covenant, again in both the Old and New Testaments. I must agree with you that the Church is unique in this regard; God deals with the Church via relationship (i.e., we are the Body and Bride of Christ, positionally “in Christ”), rather than covenant.
As for the New covenant, I personally see it as an elaboration of the blessing aspect of the Abrahamic covenant. Whether one sees it this way (as falling under the umbrella of the Abrahamic covenant), or simply takes the plain assertion of Scripture that the New covenant is made with “the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31; Hebrews 8:8), I find it difficult to see the Church related to the New covenant in any direct way.