It has been some time since we have heard from the bloggers at Reformed Academic. Last week, however, a post finally appeared from Dr. Freda Oosterhoff. In this post, she is interacting with an article in Clarion written by Rev. Klaas Stam. She claims that Clarion refused to publish her response and so it now appears on Reformed Academic. The focus of her article is a critique of Henry Morris. Certainly some of what Morris writes is worthy of critique and my goal here is not to defend Morris. Instead, I want to interact with the last of her conclusions.
Dr. Oosterhoff writes, “It is high time, I am convinced, to issue warnings against an inerrantist view of the Bible, one that has, unfortunately, been much promoted among us in recent years.” Naturally, as one of those who has been promoting biblical inerrancy, I take note of her burden to warn against this. Dr. Oosterhoff and I will agree on this point: biblical inerrancy is at the heart of the present controversy in the Canadian Reformed Churches over whether there should be room for those who wish to hold to an explanation of man’s origins that might or does include biological evolution. Deny biblical inerrancy and the room is more likely to be created. Affirm biblical inerrancy and the room is not likely to be there for creation compromisers. Find out where someone stands on inerrancy and you can predict where they will likely fall on what can be taught or tolerated in terms of origins. This is obviously a vitally important issue.
Another point where I can agree is Dr. Oosterhoff’s last sentence in her article. She states there that we should not ignore the difficulties in this discussion nor cover them up with fallacious arguments. To do so is dangerous – and I absolutely agree. Because we are united to Jesus Christ (who is the Truth, John 14:6), it is incumbent on us to conscientiously avoid fallacious reasoning.
The irony is that Dr. Oosterhoff’s warning against “inerrantism” (as she calls it) employs a common informal fallacy: the fallacy of the straw man. She offers an extreme and uncharitable portrayal of inerrancy and then knocks it down with the “the traditional Reformed belief” in a Bible that is infallible (but not inerrant). She even says that infallibility is what “the traditional Reformed belief has always been,” implying that inerrancy has never featured in traditional Reformed theology. This is the way she defines the problem she is warning against:
Inerrantism on the other hand teaches the Bible is without any factual errors in the modern-scientific meaning of that term; that it contains no ‘mistakes’ in quotations, no ‘discrepancies’ in for example genealogies, and no ‘errors’ of memory, of grammar, of word choice, of historical information and description, and so on. According to inerrantists, the Bible can be proven to be accurate, again in the modern-scientific meaning of that term.
Dr. Oosterhoff provides no source for that description. She refers to no specific “inerrantist.” There are no footnotes to support these claims. She appears to be providing her own description of what proponents of inerrancy believe.
Now perhaps Dr. Oosterhoff can find some example of someone defining inerrancy in the sloppy way she described. However, I’m sure that Dr. Oosterhoff is aware of the Chicago Statement produced in 1978 and signed by over 200 theologians, including several from the CanRC. The Chicago Statement is still widely-recognized as the most precise and helpful definition of biblical inerrancy. In view of Dr. Oosterhoff’s portrayal of inerrancy, it is worthwhile to read carefully Article XIII of the Chicago Statement:
We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.
We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of materials, variant selections of material in parallel accounts or the use of free citations.
Dr. Oosterhoff’s portrayal of “inerrantism” simply does not line up with this – in fact, I would expect her to be able to agree to what the Chicago Statement says here about Scripture. Moreover, if you are compelled to warn people against inerrancy, you need a good definition of inerrancy, and what better place to find one than in the Chicago Statement?
But there is not only a problem with her portrayal of inerrancy. There’s also a problem on the other side of the equation, with her portrayal of “the traditional Reformed belief.” She says that our traditional belief is infallibility, and not inerrancy. Now I could multiply historical examples to prove that she is wrong. However, let me only refer to a highly-respected Reformed theological textbook from the seventeenth century, the Leiden Synopsis. The first volume of this has recently appeared in English translation, so readers can check it for themselves. We find Antonius Walaeus writing, “It is made clear to us that the authority of Holy Scripture is much greater than that of the Church by the fact that the Church is capable of erring while Scripture cannot” (71). Sometimes it is claimed that biblical inspiration or inerrancy only extends to doctrines. In other words, the core teachings of Scripture are inspired and even inerrant, but this does not apply to “peripheral” matters. This notion existed in the days of the Leiden Synopsis already and Walaeus had a ready answer in thesis 28:
And here one ought not to pay heed to Socinus and several other Christians who grant that Holy Scripture is divinely-originated in issues of special importance, but that its authors in situations and circumstances of lesser importance were abandoned by the Holy Spirit and could have erred. Because this opinion paves the way for contempt, and expressly contradicts Scripture which testifies that “everything that was written was written for our instruction (Romans 15:4), and “all Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16). Likewise, “no Scripture is of one’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20); indeed, “not even one iota will disappear from the Law” (Matthew 5:18). “And it is not permitted for any man to add or to remove from it” (Deuteronomy 4[:2], Revelation 22[:18-19].” (69)
In a footnote, the editors of the Synopsis point out that besides Faustus Socinus, Walaeus noted elsewhere that Erasmus displayed “the same pernicious view.” We can do away with the flawed notion that biblical inerrancy has been smuggled into Reformed theology from fundamentalism. The traditional Reformed belief has long been an inerrant Bible. Yes, yes, I know about Rogers and McKim and their efforts to say otherwise. Their flawed research has been quite adequately answered by Richard Muller (in his Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) and many others (see here for a bibliography).
This response has already become too long, but I need to raise one more point. Dr. Oosterhoff says that “According to inerrantists, the Bible can be proven to be accurate, again in the modern-scientific meaning of that term.” Here she paints with a broad brush. To which specific inerrantists is she referring? All of them? Some of them? Which ones? Certainly, I would grant that there are proponents of inerrancy who take such an approach, but they would generally not be Reformed. Reformed proponents of inerrancy like Dr. Greg Bahnsen have argued for a presuppositional approach. We do not prove the Bible to be accurate, but we believe it to be accurate because this is the way God himself describes it to us, it is the self-attestation of Scripture. Inerrancy is never a matter of proof, but of faith. It is not a matter of a conclusion reached by our reason, but a matter of faith accepting what God’s Word says about itself as our starting point. As I have pointed out before, even some Lutheran theologians have taken this approach to biblical inerrancy. Dr. Oosterhoff does not acknowledge that this presuppositional approach even exists and that again puts inerrancy in the worst possible light.
If Dr. Oosterhoff and her colleagues at Reformed Academic feel a burden to warn the Canadian Reformed Churches against biblical inerrancy, they will need to at least become familiar with the best arguments for biblical inerrancy, especially from Reformed theologians. Taking the weakest and sloppiest statements of inerrancy and demolishing them is easy and it scores points with sympathizers. However, we are those who are to “take every thought captive to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5) and certainly that means we have to forsake all fallacious reasoning.