Inerrancy and Relativism

At our consistory meetings, we’re working our way through John R. Sittema’s With A Shepherd’s Heart.  This is an excellent book that I can highly recommend.  Last night, we discussed chapter 6, “The Wolf’s Teeth – Relativism.”  Sittema ably lays out the problem, but then also gives a few suggestions for elders and pastors to combat this deadly poison.  His first point is especially worth noting:

Make clear, both from the pulpit in your local church and in personal pastoral meetings with the members of the flock under your care, that your church holds firmly to the Bible as the infallible and inerrant Word of God.  Teach clearly what these terms mean.  Declare loudly and often, both in principle and in practice, that you consider the Bible to be the absolute and infallible standard for both doctrine and life. (64)

Sittema has a footnote right behind “infallible and inerrant Word of God” and those words are also worth quoting:

I deliberately use both terms “infallible” and “inerrant,” since one of the interesting breaches in the high view of Scripture in recent decades has come as a result of the work of so-called evangelicals who argue in favor of biblical infallibility, but consider inerrancy to be a modern rationalistic term, inconsistent with the Bible’s view of itself.  I reject the distinction as a dangerous semantic game. (64)

It’s too bad that Sittema doesn’t work this out further.  However, I agree with what he states.  Remember: when Sittema wrote this book he was still a Christian Reformed pastor (he later became PCA) and he had seen first hand what the rejection of inerrancy does to a church and its doctrine.  Biblical inerrancy is a powerful anti-venom for the poison of relativism.

About Wes Bredenhof

Pastor of the Free Reformed Church, Launceston, Tasmania. View all posts by Wes Bredenhof

25 responses to “Inerrancy and Relativism

  • Tom Skerritt

    I seem to recall from a discussion I had with Rev. Berends years ago that Dr. J. deJonge didn’t like the term inerrancy.

  • Coosje Helder

    Does any one know why Dr. deJonge didn’t like the term. Maybe Rev. Berends could enlighten us on that one since Dr. deJonge is unable to.

    • Wes Bredenhof

      Since that wasn’t his assigned area, I don’t recall Dr. DeJong ever lecturing on that issue. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if that was his position. My impression was that he disdained virtually anything that has come out of North American evangelicalism/fundamentalism and Puritanism/Presbyterianism too. “If it’s not Dutch, it’s not much.” For instance, he did lecture a bit on the regulative principle of worship and how that is a Puritan innovation that has nothing to do with us Reformed folk. I think he was dead wrong on that and I argued my case in a booklet dealing with article 7 of the Belgic Confession:

      http://www.swrb.com/newslett/actualNLs/wholewes.htm

      When I look at how some of the folks at Reformed Academic want to privilege the stuff coming out of the Netherlands on the nature and authority of Scripture, I scratch my head and wonder whether they make any connection between that and the direction that our Dutch sister churches are taking on any number of controversial issues. If they don’t make that connection, we still should and learn the cautionary lesson.

      • David deJong

        Wes said,

        “My impression was that he disdained virtually anything that has come out of North American evangelicalism/fundamentalism and Puritanism/Presbyterianism too. ‘If it’s not Dutch, it’s not much.'”

        This is really ridiculous, and disrespectful.

        David DeJong

  • George van Popta

    I’m not sure whey Dr. De Jong did not care for it since I never had him as a teacher, but Dr. Faber did not care for it either, preferring the word “infallible.” But Dr. Faber (and I think Dr. De Jong would have agreed) said that “infallibility” included “inerrancy.” If Dr. Faber had seen where some of the deniers of inerrancy are going, I think he would have said, “I’m not going with you.”

  • Tom Skerritt

    I’m not sure I like it either. I may be quibbling here but “inerrancy” seems to imply that a person has actually done the work nessessary to be able to determine if the Bible is without error and has concluded that it doesn’t. If someone qualified this by arguing that inerrancy is critically related to infallibility I’d feel more comfortable.

    • Jim Witteveen

      Tom, from my memory of Dr. Gootjes’ (former professor of dogmatics at the Canadian Reformed Seminary) position and the lectures he gave on this topic, this was his concern regarding inerrancy.

  • Jim Witteveen

    As I understood it (and Dr. Gootjes had similar issues), their concern with the terminology of “inerrancy” and the Chicago Statement on inerrancy had more to do with procedure than with result; in other words, the _content_ of “inerrancy” was not a problem, but rather the theological procedure that led to the term and statements was seen as problematic.

    The difficulty that arises is that statements like this “trickle down” from the halls of academia in separation from their context. What starts out as an overly complex (and ultimately, in my opinion, meaningless) distinction between terms (a distinction that even M.Div students have to struggle mightily with in order to comprehend, speaking from my own personal experience), ends up with “So-and-so didn’t believe in inerrancy either,” and the door is opened to all manner of departure from the truth.

    • David deJong

      Hi Jim,

      Hope everything’s well with you! Give yourself some credit: you were always one of the sharpest M.Div. students in the class. 🙂

      In my opinion, the distinction between “inerrant” and “infallible” is not too difficult for the layman to comprehend. There are two reasons why “inerrant” is not a preferred description of Scripture.

      1) “Inerrant” moves us into the realm of the law of non-contradiction. That is, it makes rational agreement the principle by which Scripture is judged. At bottom, Faber, Gootjes’, and DeJong’s concerns with the term “inerrant” were simply that it ultimately makes man and his reason the arbiter of Scripture. Will man judge God?

      2) The Bible never claims to be “inerrant.” What is does claim is to be “infallible,” e.g. Isa 40:8. The Word’s testimony of itself is that it is completely trustworthy, a solid foundation on which one can build. In order to not go beyond what is written (1 Cor 4:7), many have resisted the term “inerrant.”

      “Infallible” is preferable because it points us to the appropriate response to God’s Word, namely, faith and trust. You can put your faith and trust in what God has said. “Inerrant,” on the other hand, appeals to reason: you can believe this because you know there are no errors. All difficulties have been resolved. But the Bible does not accord our reason this supremacy, we need to reason in light of faith.

      I hope that’s clear!

      Also, concerning Dr. DeJong’s views, it is categorically false to say, as Pastor Bredenhof did above, that he “disdained virtually anything that has come out of North American evangelicalism/fundamentalism and Puritanism/Presbyterianism.” In fact before his illness he was planning to spend an upcoming sabbatical in Scotland and Ireland working with Presbyterian brothers on issues of Church Polity. He had a very good relationship with many in the Presbyterian tradition, though it is true that he had a preference for the Continental Reformed tradition and thought that the CanRC should stay true to its roots. He did a dissertation on Schilder, after all. But to say his views were “if it ain’t Dutch, it ain’t much” is a remarkable distortion of what he labored to achieve – I remember many occasions where he preached against that very attitude! While he would not have agreed with the folks at Reformed Academic on all their positions, he would have agreed that the influence of North American fundamentalism/evangelicalism on the Reformed faith has not always been healthy or to the good.

      Blessings,

      David DeJong

      • Wes Bredenhof

        David,

        Thank you for your comments and clarification. As I said, that was my impression. Of course, impressions are often subjective, mistaken, and prejudiced by any number of factors. What I heard and experienced as a student was what led me to that impression.

        With regards to inerrancy, I don’t have a problem with subsuming the general sense and intent of it under “infallibility.” I do have a problem with people questioning it or wanting to discard it because of a prior commitment to the denial of verbal plenary inspiration, or because of an agenda which includes making room for pre-Adamites, primate ancestors and other such things.

      • Arnold Sikkema

        Well said, David, and I want to pick up on your last sentence, given that I am one of “the folks at Reformed Academic”. None of us agree on all our positions either. In fact, it’s not about positions, but about discussion and engagement.

  • George van Popta

    At my blog here http://agricola.blogspot.com/2010/02/inerrancy.html I have some thoughts of Jelle Faber on “inerrancy.”

  • DongWoo Oh

    Hi, Wes

    I am not sure it is right for you to attack someone’s position when he is not able to reply to your criticism.

    As a matter of fact, I think you are dead wrong, and de Jong is right.
    For example, in terms of the RP, no one denies that we have to worship the Lord as He commands. Period.
    But someone like Dr de Jong argues that the RP was a product of the churches in England out of their struggle against the government’s imposition in terms of how to worship. But the Reformed Churches in the Continent did not have such history. As you might know, when we argue with someone about a certain issue, it is very easy for us to say what we would not say in normal circumstances. For a similar reason, by making the RP, the Churches in England have gone beyond what is written. It is a human invention. Once again, no one denies that we have to worship the Lord according to the Bible, as Dr. de Jong would have agreed with more than anyone else.
    Secondly, I do not buy your explanation on the BC article 7. I understand that the worship in the article refers to our entire life. How can you miss the Confession’s point in that our whole life is worship?

    Regards,
    DongWoo

    • Wes Bredenhof

      Hi DongWoo,

      Let me try to understand you. Are you really saying that it is unethical to critique the position of someone who is dead or otherwise unable to respond to your critique? On that reasoning we should excise mention of Marcion, Mani, Praxeas, Sabellius, etc. from article 9 of the Belgic Confession. I don’t agree and I doubt that anyone would. Dr. De Jong is not off-limits for criticism just because he is unable to respond.

      Your explanation of Dr. DeJong’s position reveals why I found it unpersuasive when I heard it in class. He made it sound as if the Puritans came up with it. Long before the Puritans, however, was John Knox. The Puritans didn’t invent the RPW; they were heirs of the biblical insights of Knox, who in turn had learned from Calvin. See Knox’s True and False Worship and tell me where Knox differs from the Puritans. And we haven’t even begun to discuss BC 32 and HC LD 35. Isn’t it odd that the only people in the English speaking world who don’t see the RPW in the TFU are Canadian Reformed?

      Moreover, you stated:

      “I do not buy your explanation on the BC article 7. I understand that the worship in the article refers to our entire life. How can you miss the Confession’s point in that our whole life is worship?”

      Did you read my booklet? I answered that point by fleshing out the meaning of the word “service” in middle French. If you’re going to disagree, then you need to come with proof. Prove to me that de Bres might have meant something other than public worship. Your saying so doesn’t make it so.

      • David deJong

        Hi Wes,

        It’s not a question of seeing the RPW or not but a question of how “strictly” one understands the RPW. For example, I can think of a really strict application that would point out: Nowhere in Scripture is there a command that the Church should worship on Sundays. Therefore, we should not worship on Sundays, a la 7th day Adventists.

        Blessings,

        Dave DeJong

      • Wes Bredenhof

        @ David: You’re on the right track. More accurately, it’s a question of which are the elements and which are the circumstances of worship. For instance, that’s where I part ways with some Presbyterians on the question of musical accompaniment. They say it’s elemental; I say it’s circumstantial.

        As for the day on which one worships, I think most Reformed/Presbyterians would agree that that ‘s more of a question regarding the fourth commandment than the second.

      • David deJong

        What would happen if we applied a strict view of RPW to the CanRC worship service?

        Many Presbyterians argue against hymns and musical instruments because of the absence of an explicit command in Scripture. Let’s apply that standard to other elements of worship:

        Votum/Salutation: no explicit command, let’s get rid of it

        Singing: sure, but no hymns or instruments (despite the curious fact that instruments are commanded in the Psalms! Oh wait, the “shadow” argument)

        Reading the decalogue: no explicit command to do so in the context of public worship. If we do it, we should the WHOLE law, like Ezra did…(think our services are long now?)

        Giving alms: again, we are commanded to give to the poor, but are we ever commanded explicitly to incorporate this into our worship? 1 Cor 16:1 is a weak argument – Paul doesn’t indicate it’s in worship or just before worship. Out with it.

        Sermon: We shouldn’t have just one preacher, according to RPW. For Paul specifically says, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish each other.” The reflexive character of the action clearly implies multiple preachers – anything less would be unbiblical.

        Congregational prayer: if the posture is not uplifted hands, it’s unbiblical – Ps 134, 1 Tim 2:8

        Lord’s Supper – every week! This is interesting: one of the clearest arguments one could make based on RPW would be weekly communions, which, by the way, I support.

        The reading of liturgical forms. What??? Eliminate. 🙂

        Obviously the above is a bit of a caricature. But it illustrates my difficulty with RPW. Is not our worship based on scriptural principles rather than on explicit commands? Doesn’t RPW want more clarity than there really is? RPW seems opposed to the application of spiritual wisdom and mature reflection.

        But maybe this is all a result of my poor understanding of RPW.

        Blessings!

        David DeJong

      • Wes Bredenhof

        Yes, I think you’re misunderstanding the RPW, especially as to how it is held and formulated by those you would say have a “strict view.” I’ve got a book in the works on this subject, but for now I would suggest that D.G. Hart and John Muether have a good explanation in their book With Reverence and Awe, particularly chapter 9.

  • Coosje Helder

    Thank you, brothers! You have given me a lot to think about. I’m not in a position really to agree or disagree and I will admit that it is tough slogging for me. But it is fascinating and I thank you for making me stretch my mind. I am grateful for your desire to be sharp with regards to working with the Word of God and with how it needs to be applied to church life. This evening our family was reading from Jeremiah 52:12-27 after having read the parallel passage in 2 Kings 25 : 8-21 and noting the discrepancy in the date and proceeded to have our own little discussion on whether this would be considered an “errancy”. We did not really come to a conclusion because that would depend on what was meant by the term. Obviously we are not alone.

  • Tom Skerritt

    Wes,

    I started to read the booklet. It’s an interesting read.

    I looked up HC Q&A 96 to see if the standard prooftexts of the Puritans concerning the RPW are there as well. They all are, except the one in Col.2. Are the prooftexts in the BOP edition of the catechism the originals?

    Tom

    • Wes Bredenhof

      The early German editions had these texts with QA 96:

      Deut. 4, Isa. 4, Rom. 1, Acts 17, 1 Sam. 15, Deut. 12, and Matt. 15 (only chapters, no verse references).

      The earliest Dutch editions had these texts:

      Deut. 4:15-19, Isaiah 40:18-25, Rom. 1:23-24, Acts 17:29, 1 Sam. 15:23, Deut. 12:20-32, and Matt. 15:9.

      The CanRC edition has all those texts, but also adds Lev. 10:1-7 and John 4:23-24. I’m not sure where or how those two were added. They are in the old CRC edition used by the URCNA, but not in the Dutch edition used by the GKN (CanRC sister churches).

  • Bill DeJong

    Wes,

    The term “inerrancy” seems inherently tied to a rationalistic, positivistic, precisionistic worldview and therefore plays into the hands of higher criticism.

    But aside from this, is the Bible free of scribal errors?

    Bill

  • Tom Skerritt

    I find the addition of Lev. 10:1-7 interesting. Jeremiah Burroughs’ “Gospel Worship” (the first Puritan book I ever read) is an extended explanation of that passage. Again and again the Puritans come back to it to defend the RPW.

  • Tom Skerritt

    Personally I can’t imagine how LD 35 doesn’t teach the RPW. Anyone care to enlighten me?

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