Inerrancy and Rationalism

A few days back, my colleague Bill DeJong wrote the following observation in the meta of a previous post:

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

The key word there, I think, is inherently.  Is inerrancy inherently rationalistic and all those other nasty things?  A couple of related thoughts come to mind.

I’ve heard the same thing said about apologetics.  Reformed folks only aware of the evidentialist or classical schools of apologetics might be led to conclude that apologetics is inherently rationalistic and tied to positivism and precisionism, etc.  If they were speaking only about those schools, they would be right.  However, to tar apologetics as a whole as rationalistic neglects the fact that there is at least one school of apologetics that may not be fairly characterized in that way.

The second thought is related because Greg Bahnsen was both a proponent of that non-rationalistic school of apologetics and a proponent and defender of inerrancy.  Bahnsen regularly and vociferously assailed rationalism in Christian philosophy, apologetics, and theology.  Similarly, he went after Edward J. Carnell’s rationalistic formulation of inerrancy.  For instance, in Presuppositional Apologetics: Stated and Defended, Bahnsen took issue with Carnell’s proposal to subject Scripture to critical analysis and rationally work towards the conclusion of inerrancy:

…[W]hen Carnell views the doctrine of Scripture’s inerrancy to be an inference that must be based on empirical investigation and inductive authentication, we can clearly see what it is that has highest epistemic certainty for him. (205)

Along with Bahnsen, I categorically reject that kind of an approach to inerrancy and I agree with my colleague Bill that this indeed emerges from a rationalistic, positivistic, etc. corruption of the Christian worldview.  Bill is exactly right that this plays into the hands of higher criticism.  It happened with Carnell.  Higher critics couldn’t figure out why Carnell didn’t just join them:

The outcome of Carnell’s favorable attitude to the thought of such unorthodox men as Plato, Kant, Kierkegaard, Brightman, and Niebuhr was his failure to present a solid challenge to liberal thinking in general.  William Hordern felt that Carnell’s method of verifying Christianity like a broad hypothesis in the tradition of the scientific method was the same as liberalism’s procedure.  L.H. DeWolf thought it odd that Carnell would, with his endorsement of testing all putative revelations, reject the method of higher criticism.  (233-234)

However, together with Bahnsen, Young and other Reformed stalwarts past and present, I don’t think Carnell’s unsatisfactory version of inerrancy requires us to dispense with inerrancy altogether.  A wrong formulation of a doctrine doesn’t necessarily mean that one throws out the doctrine — instead, we strive for a more correct and biblically faithful formulation.  Isn’t that exactly what has happened in the history of theology with doctrines like, say, the Trinity?

About Wes Bredenhof

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

4 responses to “Inerrancy and Rationalism

  • David DeJong

    You haven’t really stated what the positive value of retaining the term “inerrancy” is for Bahnsen (or you). If we are opposed to Carnell’s view of Scripture, shouldn’t that be reflected in how we speak about it?

    A stronger objection to inerrancy, I think, is that we do better when we reflect upon Scripture’s self-attestation. How does Scripture speak about itself? We find ourself not directed to the question that “inerrancy” would answer; rather, we find ourself directed to faith in the complete reliability and trustworthiness of the Word.

    Inerrantists can sometimes (perhaps justifiably) seek to protect infallibility by means of inerrancy. That is, worried about the doctrine of the inspiration of Scriptures, they use “inerrancy” as a fence around that doctrine that will shield it from attack. The motive may be laudable, but this to me is not unlike the rabbinic notion of a “fence around the Torah.” We stipulate additional commandments in order to ensure that we do not break the command of God. There may be a laudable desire here, but there are also unhappy consequences when one “protects” God’s truth with man-made fences. What happens when the young person who has been raised with views of absolute “inerrancy” starts to wonder about how many times Peter denied Jesus? Or about whether all Korah’s children perished in the rebellion or not? Or about whether animals or Adam were created first on the sixth day? (In this last case, we even have our preferred versions like the NIV obscuring the tension with their translation.)

    In advanced biblical studies, there are many examples of scholars who were raised “fundamentalist evangelical” and now have left the faith altogether. I hear this story all the time. Check out the life story of Bart Ehrman or Larry Stager to name just two examples. In fact, conservative Protestants have a harder time than Catholics in advanced biblical studies because of the incorrect construal of sola scriptura with which many of them have been raised. (Not that ‘sola scriptura’ is incorrect, but that many construe that doctrine in a harmful way.) This can seriously rock the faith of a young Christian unless they are discipled to think about Scripture correctly.

    I think the Reformed tradition has the resources to inculcate a profound respect for Scripture without accepting the false dichotomies posed since the Enlightenment between theology and history, between faith and reason. Unfortunately fundamentalism often falls all too easily into this dilemma by embracing the view of “history” that higher critical scholars also assert. For both, “history” is simply “what happened”: discrete real events that occurred in the past. “Text” simply points outside of itself to “event.” This vastly simplistic view (cf. Augustine) leads to the higher critics discounting miracles and any view of history that asserts the intervention of the supernatural. It also leads to fundamentalists reducing the Biblical text to a record of “what happened.”

    I believe the Reformed faith, with its covenantal hermeneutic and its emphasis on reading Scripture historically and contextually, along with a nuanced appreciation for post-modernism, offers a vital way forward for the church today. Proceeding, of course, will not be “safe” or provide easy answers. That’s why there is so much conflict over these issues.

    Blessings,

    David DeJong

  • SLIMJIM

    Have you read other works of Bahnsen as well?

  • Maranatha

    I have found plenty of works that equate inerrancy with rationalism or calling it a rationlistic construction. However, I am trying very hard to locate a quote from a book or an article that equates inerrancy with positivism (or logical positivism) or to say the doctrine of inerrancy is positivistic. Does anyone of your know where to find it?

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