Archives For 2015 Theology Conference

The Biblical “canon” refers to the books inspired by God which are inerrant and which are received as such by the church. The church received the inerrant canonical Scriptures, she did not determine them.

Canon originally referred to a measuring rod and the word became a technical term for the books of the Bible that are God’s Words. The biblical canon, the Word of God, is the norma normans, the norming norm of everything else.

In the providence of God, he inspired and inscripturated the words. Here is some of that historical process in which God uses humans to accomplish his purposes.

Old Testament

  • Jews (BC): TaNaK – Torah (law/teaching), Nevi’im (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings)
  • Jesus (1st century): Law, Prophets, the Psalms (Lk. 24:25-27, 24:44)
  • Melito of Sardis (AD 170): Canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament

New Testament

  • Peter (1st century): Paul’s letters (2 Pet. 3:16)
  • Muratorian Canon (2nd-4th centuries): Canonical list that distinguishes between books that ought to be read in the church and in personal/private
  • Justin Martyr (2nd century): Four Gospels
  • Athanasius (4th century, Thirty-ninth Letter on the Paschal Festival [367]): lists the 27 books of the New Testament
  • Council of Carthage (397): Only canonical writings ought to be read in the church

In reference to the Old Testament Scriptures, J. R. McRay writes “They were brought together evidently as an act of God’s providence, historically prompted by the emergence of apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature in the intertestamental period and the increasing need to know what the limits of divine revelation were.” Something similar could be said for the New Testament.

The Canon of the Scriptures has often been an issue of question and contention. The Jewish canon consists of 39 books (the Old Testament). The Protestant canon consists of 66 books (39 Old Testament and 27 New Testament). The Roman Catholic canon consists of 80 books (66 books of the Old and New Testaments, and also 14 books of the Apocrypha). The Orthodox canon is similar to the Roman Catholic canon (though the former follows the Septuagint [LXX], the latter the Masoretic text [MT]).

The issue of the canon of Scripture has been raised afresh with the publication of various Gnostic gospel texts such as The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Although these gospels are 2nd century texts, some claim they are as early and ought to be considered as authoritative as the original four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Although God providentially directed this, there was a means of recognition/acknowledgement of the texts God inspired compiled in the canon, the norming norm for all truth of God and his ways. What was that criteria?

Main Criteria for Canonicity

  1. The Authority of Jesus
  2. Conformity to the Rule of Faith
  3. Apostolicity (and thus antiquity)
  4. Acceptance and Usage by the Church (churches)

Another summary of canonicity in the early church was written by Vincent of Lérins (died c. 445). This became known as the Vincentian Canon: “that which that which has been believed everywhere [ubique], always [semper], and by all [ab omnibus]” (cf. Chapter 4 of The Commonitory (or The Commitorium), AD 434).

In sum, the church did not create the New Testament canon (contrary to the RCC), but rather acknowledged the documents that God had inspired as authoritative for the faith and practice of Christians, that which was orthodox.  It was the gospel in these Texts that God used to birth the church.

The canon of the Scriptures is one of the important contemporary issues Graham Cole will address at our Theology Conference: “The Theology of Canonicity: Why a Book, Why this Book, Why this Sequence of Books within the Book.”

In our EFCA Statement of Faith, Article 2, The Bible, we affirm the Scriptures are “the verbally inspired Word of God” and because of this “the Bible is without error in the original writings.” What does it mean that the Scriptures are “without error in the original writings?” Why is it important to state there are “original writings” and what is the significance of affirming they are “without error” or inerrant?

We unequivocally affirm inerrancy. However, we do not often focus on its qualifier, “in the original writings.” One of the best explanations of this affirmation and qualifier along with its importance is written by Greg L. Bahnsen, “The Inerrancy of the Autographa,” in Inerrancy edited by Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 151-193.

Here are six reasons for the importance of the inerrancy of the autographa/original writings (summarized from the Bahnsen statement below).

  • Copies of the Bible can serve the purposes of revelation and function with authority only because they are grounded in the autographic (original writings) text.
  • Present copies and translations are inerrant to the extent that they accurately reflect the biblical originals.
  • Apart from the inerrancy in the original writings, we cannot consistently confess the truthfulness of God, be assured of the biblical promise of salvation, or maintain the epistemological authority and theological principle of sola Scriptura.
  • The original writings are without error, for errors in the original would not be correctable, unlike those in transmission.
  • The manuscripts in transmission provide overwhelming evidence of an original writings and through textual criticism we can affirm that the text we have in translation is substantially identical with the autographa.
  • Therefore, the evangelical restriction of inerrancy to the original writings is warranted, important and defensible, and, additionally, it does not jeopardize the adequacy and authority of our present Bibles.

This is the full statement/summary taken from Bahnsen’s “Chapter Summary” (150, paragraphs mine).

While the Bible teaches its own inerrancy, the inscripturation and copying of God’s Word require us to identify the specific and proper object of inerrancy as the text of the original autographa.  This time-honored, common-sense view of evangelicals has been criticized and ridiculed since the days of the modernist controversy over Scripture.  Nevertheless, according to the attitude of the biblical writers, who could and did distinguish copies from the autographa, copies of the Bible could serve the purposes of revelation and function with authority only because they were assumed to be tethered to the autographic text and its criteriological authority.

The evangelical doctrine pertains to the autographic text, not the autographic codex, and maintains that present copies and translations are inerrant to the extent that they accurately reflect the biblical originals; thus the inspiration and inerrancy of present Bibles is not an all-or-nothing matter.  Evangelicals maintain the doctrine of original inerrancy, not as an apologetic artifice, but on sound theological grounds: (1) the inspiration of copyists and the perfect transmission of Scripture have not been promised by God and (2) the extraordinary quality of God’s revealed Word must be guarded against arbitrary alteration.

The importance of original inerrancy is not that God cannot accomplish His purpose except through a completely errorless text, but that without it we cannot consistently confess the veracity of God, be fully assured of the scriptural promise of salvation, or maintain the epistemological authority and theological axiom of sola Scriptura (for errors in the original, unlike those in transmission, would not be correctable in principle).  We can be assured that we possess the Word of God in our present Bibles because of God’s providence; He does not allow His aims in revealing Himself to be frustrated. Indeed, the results of textual criticism confirm that we possess a biblical text that is substantially identical with the autographa.

Finally, contrary to recent criticisms, the doctrine of original inerrancy (or inspiration) is not unprovable, is not undermined by the use of amanuenses by the biblical writers, and is not contravened by the New Testament use of the Septuagint as “Scripture.”  Therefore, the evangelical restriction of inerrancy to the original autographa is warranted, important, and defensible; further, it does not jeopardize the adequacy and authority of our present Bibles.  Accordingly, the doctrine of original inerrancy can be commended to all believers who are sensitive to the authority of the Bible as the very Word of God and who wish to propagate it as such today.

There is a big push among many today, particularly OT scholars, in a revisionist understanding of accommodation, specifically in addressing creation and Adam and Eve. Proponents of this revised view claim God accommodated himself in his revelation but he did so through the cultural conventions of the day, even though they were inaccurate and consisted of errors. As an example, even though Moses did not have an accurate understanding or grasp of the creation, God used that inaccurate understanding to reveal and communicate truth. This is contrary to the way accommodation has historically been understood.

The reason this is important to understand and discern is that most who embrace a revisionist understanding of accommodation simply use the term and claim that this is consistent with the Reformers since they also referred to God accommodating himself in his revelation. But this reading undermines inerrancy and the truthfulness of the Scriptures.

I will give examples of both. First, I refer to Peter Enns as an example who refers to accommodation in this revised manner. I will follow this with a few explanations of how accommodation has been understood historically, in contrast with the revised view, which is the traditional view of Evangelicals.

Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012).

The most faithful Christian reading of sacred Scripture is one that recognizes Scripture as a product of the times in which it was written and/or the events took place – not merely so, but unalterably so. . . .so is the Bible of ultimately divine origin yet also thoroughly a product of its time. (x)

To the contrary, it is clear that, from a scientific point of view, the Bible does not always describe physical reality accurately; it simply speaks in an ancient idiom, as one might expect ancient people to do. It is God’s Word, but it has an ancient view of the natural world, not a modern one. . . . If evolution is correct, one can no longer accept, in any true sense of the word ‘historical,’ the instantaneous and special creation of humanity described in Genesis, specifically 1:26-31 and 2:7, 22. (xiv)

Enns concludes his book by outlining nine theses that identify the core issues, of which I include one (137-148):

Thesis 7: A proper view of inspiration will embrace the fact that God speaks by means of the cultural idiom of the authors – whether it be the author of Genesis in describing origins or how Paul would later come to understand Genesis. Both reflect the setting and limitations of the cultural moment.

What follows are a number of definitions and explanations of accommodation as understood historically. Reading Enns and these reveals the huge disparity between the two understandings of accommodation.

Richard A. Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 19.

The Reformers and their scholastic followers all recognized that God must in some way condescend or accommodate himself to human ways of knowing in order to reveal himself. This accommodatio occurs specifically in the use of human words and concepts for the communication of the law and the gospel, but it in no way implies the loss of truth, or the lessening of scriptural authority. The accommodatio or condescensio  refers to the manner or mode of revelation, the gifts of the wisdom of infinite God in finite form, not to the quality of the revelation or to the matter revealed.

Note that the sense of accommodatio that implies not only a divine condescension, but also a use of time-bound and even erroneous statements as a medium for revelation, arose in the eighteenth century in  the thought of Johann Semler and his contemporaries and has no relation either to the position of the Reformers or to that of the Protestant scholastics, either Lutheran or Reformed.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God (A Theology of Lordship, vol. 4) (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2010), 175.

People sometimes think that if Scripture is the Word of God, it must be written in the most elevated language, language worthy of God. Can we imagine God speaking anything less than the King’s English? But that is a misunderstanding. God’s intent is to speak to ordinary people. He “accommodates,” as John Calvin put it; he “lisps” to us. (Footnote: Accommodation does not mean, as some have claimed, that God speaks error to us. Rather, it means that he speaks truth in such a way that we can understand it, insofar as it can be understood by human beings. Theologians often compare divine accommodation to a parent’s accommodation to his young children. But a wise parent, while choosing simple language to use with his children, does not lie to them.) So he speaks both in the elevated language of Luke the physician and in the simpler language of the fisherman Peter. If they or anyone else uses poor grammar in the judgment of modern linguists, that fact has no bearing on the Bible’s inerrancy.

Vern S. Poythress, “Three Modern Myths in Interpreting Genesis 1,” Westminster Theological Journal 76/2 (Fall 2014), 322.

The vehicle-cargo approach can say that God “accommodates” himself to the erroneous views of ancient addresses, and allows such views to find a place in the Bible. But we must be careful. The word accommodation has several usages. Several kinds of “accommodation” have occurred through the history of the church. In the ancient church, the classical doctrine of accommodation said that Scripture spoke in a way that took into account finite human capacities. But it maintained that Scripture did not “accommodate” error. By contrast, a more recent form of accommodation, associated with biblical criticism, allows the inclusion of error, and that is the decisive difference.

This is one of a number of important issues we will address at our upcoming Theology Conference as we study the history of the doctrine of the Scriptures.

The authority, inerrancy and sufficiency of the Scriptures has been and remains the view of Evangelicals, which is consistent with how the church has understood the Word of God as well.

In the late 1970s a number of Evangelicals were concerned about shifts and changes occurring within Evangelicalism and without regarding the doctrine of the Scriptures. As a response to these moves and in order to articulate a contemporary defense of the church’s view of the Scriptures, these Evangelicals founded the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.

When founded, they had a clear goal/purpose and a life-span. They were going to address the issues of inerrancy, hermeneutics and application, and they would do so within ten years after their founding. In the introduction to the final Summit’s document, the following was included as an outline of the goals and history.

The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy [ICBI] was founded in 1977, with a planned life-span of ten years. Its goal, under God, was to seek by means of scholarly writing and teaching to restore the ebbing confidence of Christian people in the total trustworthiness of the Scriptures. Because this loss of confidence leads both to loss of clarity in stating the absolutes of authentic Christianity and to loss of muscle in maintaining them, the task was felt to be urgent. The years of special effort to turn the tide of uncertainty about the Bible did not seem to be too much to pledge, nor to ask the Christian public to support. In its tenth year, the Council sees what has been accomplished as cause for profound thanksgiving to God, from every point of view.

The three scholars’ Summits that the Council has mounted were conceived as a logically connected series, each having a unitive as well as a consultative purpose. The 1978 Summit achieved a major restatement for our time of the historic Christian view of Holy Scripture as canonical revelation from God given in the form of composite human testimony in God’s will, works and ways. The 1982 Summit reached a wide-ranging consensus on hermeneutical guidelines and controls for biblical interpretation. The 1986 Summit seeks to show seeks to show the relevance of a rightly interpreted Bible to some key areas of confusion and dispute in North America culture today. The need for the second and third Summits was always clear, for professing belief in an inerrant Bible does us little good till we know how to interpret it, and interpretation involves applying biblical truth to the realities of contemporary life.

Here are the documents from the three Summits.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (October 26-28, 1978)

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (November 10-13, 1982)

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Application (December 10-13, 1986)

There is also a document that contains the three Statements, along with a preface and explanations of each of the Statements.

I include an excerpt, the overview in the form of “A Short Statement,” from the first Summit, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

  1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
  2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
  3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
  4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
  5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

Many know of the Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but have not read it. However, the numbers of those who are even aware of this document are decreasing. Most are unaware that there are two other Statements there were written as part of ICBI, Biblical Hermeneutics and Biblical Application. Although they can be read with profit individually, there is also a unity and wholeness to reading all three of them. It is really a statement on biblical inerrancy in three parts.

I would encourage you to read these documents and then have your leaders read them. Plan an evening of study and discussion about this important doctrine of the Scriptures.

In relation to ICBI’s time of writing and defense of the Scriptures, it is not the final work or word on inerrancy, hermeneutics or application. It is, however, a timely and needed word. It is also important as a foundation as we ponder a response to and defense of the doctrine of the Scriptures today. ICBI was a response to the height of modernist thinking. It was necessary and sufficient. However, we now live in a postmodern day in which new questions are being asked and new (and some not so new!) issues are being raised against the inerrancy, authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures. Building on the excellent work of ICBI, we need a present-day response in this new day.

We need not fear this study. God’s Word is true and has withstood all the assaults against it. It will do so again. God has promised his word will not pass away (Matt. 24:35). And all the hammers that have attempted to dismantle and crumble it have instead been destroyed in its attempts (Jer. 23:29).

This is one of the important reasons why we are addressing the theme of The Doctrine of the Scriptures at our upcoming Theology Conference.

Evangelicals affirm that the Scriptures are both inerrant and infallible. If there is misunderstanding of the term inerrancy, that misunderstanding and confusion multiples when you add the word infallible.

Many today conclude inerrancy is the stronger term, infallibility the weaker. Many believe that the term infallible is a way of avoiding inerrancy, of affirming the authority of the Scriptures though without needing to affirm they are inerrant, i.e. without error. This is related to and a carry-over of the inerrancy debates in the 1960s when the expression “limited inerrancy” was used in relation to the Scriptures.

Is this accurate?

It is actually a misunderstanding. Both terms affirm the authority of the Scriptures and that they are without error. Inerrant means there are no errors, they are without error; infallible means there can be no errors, it is impossible for them to have any errors. The Scriptures are both inerrant and infallible.

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, helpfully defines the terms (169):

To say that a text is inerrant is to say that there are no errors in it. To say that a text is infallible is to say that there can be no errors in it, that it is impossible for that text to contain errors. . . . Inerrant means, simply, ‘without error.’ Infallible denies the possibility of error. . . . Scripture is both inerrant and infallible. It is inerrant because it is infallible. There are no errors because there can be no errors in the divine speech.

One of the criticisms of inerrancy is that the reality of what the term means dies a thousand deaths through caveats, concessions and qualifications. To claim a text is inerrant and then to follow that up with all the qualifications seems to undermine the very definition. But this is to misunderstand the nature of God’s revelation in written words, the Bible.

Once again Frame provides an important answer to this objection by distinguishing between qualifications and applications of inerrancy (174).

So I think it is helpful to define inerrancy more precisely [!] by saying that inerrant language makes good on its claims. When we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims.

Now, many writers have enumerated what are sometimes called qualifications to inerrancy: inerrancy is compatible with unrefined grammar, non-chronological narrative, round numbers, imprecise quotations, prescientific phenomenalistic  description (e.g., “the sun rose”), use of figures and symbols, and imprecise descriptions (as Mark 1:5, which says that everyone from Judea and Jerusalem went to hear John the Baptist). I agree with these points, but I do not describe them as “qualifications” of inerrancy. These are merely applications of the basic meaning of inerrancy: that it asserts truth, not precision. Inerrant language is language that makes good on its own claims, not on claims that are made for it by thoughtless readers.

The Scriptures are both inerrant and infallible. Because the Scriptures are infallible, they are inerrant. In the EFCA we affirm both truths as they relate to the Scriptures.