The fourth chapter of " 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God" by J.I. Packer is quite packed with important insights concerning the concepts of infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Even though Packer wrote this in 1958, what he writes on these subjects is still relevant today. Packer was responding to the arguments put forth by the Liberal Tradition of Christianity concerning the Divine nature of the Word of God and its authority in matters of doctrine and conduct. Today there are those who claim to be within the Evangelical tradition who put forth some of the same arguments in slightly different language.
After having established the authority of Scripture for the Christian in the previous chapter, Packer encourages us to appeal to Scripture for Scripture's own attitude towards itself, Scripture's own way of approaching its contents. The sole test for correct doctrine concerning the Word of God is does such doctrine line up with the way the Bible itself presents the doctrine of Scripture? "Scripture itself is alone competent to judge our doctrine of scripture" writes Packer. Packer examines the Bible's own view on the following three issues in assessing the correctness of a doctrine of Scripture: 1. The Divine origin of Scripture, 2. Scripture's nature as the Word of God and 3. How Scripture is to be interpreted.
1. The Divine Origin of Scripture: Packer points us to 2Tim 3:16, which teaches that all Scripture is of Divine origin. The Greek word for inspiration Paul used in this passage is "theopneustos" which means in the AV, "given by inspiration of God." In reference to Scripture, the noun "inspired" can be used in two different ways: first it can be defined passively, referring to the "inspiredness" of Scripture. Or it could be defined this way according to Packer: "...the supernatural, providential influence of God's Holy Spirit upon the human authors which caused them to write what he wished to be written for the communication of revealed truth to others." Human writers were used as a means to an end, but which actually terminated, not on them, but on what they wrote. These writers were predestined human vehicles of inspiration performing their tasks mainly through their own human abilities. They did not always know that they were writing cannon. Luke wrote his gospel because it seemed good to him at the time and what he wrote was the result of his first hand historical research. This view has been mistakenly referred to as dictation, that the mental activity of the writers was suspended as God dictated every single word, every punctuation mark. As Packer points out, no major Protestant theologian has ever endorsed such a theory. This view is still ascribed to Evangelicals by those opposed to the use of the words "inerrent and infallible" in describing Scripture. The writing of Scripture was not a process of dictation but one of what Packer calls "accommodation": "God completely adapted His inspiring activity to the cast of mind, outlook, temperament, interests, literary habits and stylistic idiosyncrasies of each writer." God's acting upon the activities and personalities of the writers can be labeled as "concursive"; God's influence is exercised in, through and by means of the writers own activity in such a way that their actions were spontaneous and free while being divinely controlled. The result was not just the fruit of their own labor, but the work of God as well. Some would assert that this means that the Word of God was tainted by the thought of sinful men so that the entire Word was not uncorrupted by human imperfection. Those who hold this view believe that free man and the actions of God are mutually exclusive. This view is deistic, viewing God as powerless to protect His Word from corruption.
2. The Nature of Scripture: The Word of God is a real unity, a single book with a single author, God the Spirit. The New Testament writers referred to the Old Testament writings as either graphe (Scripture), or hai graphai (the Scriptures). Both words convey a complete single document set apart from all others by its divine origin. It has a single theme: God the Son and the Father's saving purposes which all revolve around the Son. Packer expresses the matter this way: "Our Lord is therefore the key to Scripture, and its focal centre; there is a sense in which all bears witness of Him, and in this common reference the heterogeneous contents of the Bible find their unity." Not all passages speak of Christ in the same way, but no part of Scripture is without reference to Him or can be understood apart from Him.
God's Word is a propositional revelation. Liberal Christianity views God's revelation as one of Divine actions, not one of revealed truths. These actions, Liberals say, were written down for us by reliable but fallible men. What they wrote, according to Liberals, is not a final source for theology, doctrine and practice. Yet that is not the case. Without God revealing doctrinal truth to Man, Man would have no understanding of God's purpose for Christ's mission. Therefore in giving us a gospel explaining His actions, God acted in a redemptive matter on our behalf. Without written truth, there could be no obedience to God on our part.
Now we come to consider the words which many ascribe to Scripture: infallibility and inerrancy. While both words have a long pedigree, there is no recognized precise meaning among Christians for these words anymore. While according to Packer these words are not essential to expressing the Evangelical view of Scripture, it does not necessarily follow that these words should be dropped from Evangelical vocabulary. The word infallible as used by those who first applied it to Scripture means "never deceiving, never misleading, and so is wholly trustworthy, reliable." Inerrant means "wholly true." Packer explains: "Scripture is termed infallible and inerrant to express the conviction that all its teaching is the utterance of God 'who cannot lie' (Titus 1:2), whose word, once spoken, abides forever (1Pet. 1:23-25 and Ps 119:84) and that therefore it may be trusted implicitly." God's Word is infallible because God himself is infallible. The infallibility of Scripture is simply the infallibility of God speaking. What Scripture asserts in its entirety is to be received as the infallible Word of the infallible God. To assert biblical infallibility and inerrancy is to confess faith in the divine origin of the Bible and the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God. "The value of these terms," Packer tells us, "is that they conserve the principle of biblical authority; for statements that are not absolutely true and reliable could not be absolutely authoritative." To ascribe to Scripture infallibility and inerrancy does not extend these terms to cover interpretations and teachings from Scripture. Nor does the doctrine of infallibility and inerrancy prejudge what Scripture says. Nor does such a doctrine ignore the various genres of Scripture and the principles required in interpreting truth written in these different genres. Nor is the doctrine of infallibility and inerrancy of recent vintage. The Reformers asserted this doctrine in response to the over-allegorical interpretation of the Bible practiced in the Middle Ages. The Fundamentalists asserted this doctrine in the face of the attack upon the Bible's divine origin and truthfulness which has its roots in literary criticism. This doctrine does not have its roots in Enlightenment thought, which some today assert, even in Evangelical circles.
3. The Interpretation of Scripture: In rightly interpreting Scripture, each passage must first be analyzed in its immediate context. Then we must determine the meaning of a passage in the context of its position within the book. Then we examine the passage in the context of the Bible as a whole. To interpret Scripture literally is to interpret a passage using the accepted rules of grammar/discourse and the passages place in history. Literalistic interpretation is not being literal. While we must respect the place of symbolism in the Scriptures, we must also protest the imposition of inappropriate literary categories upon Scripture that Literary Criticism of the Bible encourages. The inability to harmonize all Scripture is no grounds for rejecting Scripture as God's Word. It is in the nature of faith to believe on God's authority truths which cannot be rationally demonstrated or exhaustively understood. To grasp spiritual truth requires spiritual receptiveness. In other words, we need the Holy Spirit to reveal the truths contained in Scripture. More than a century of Literary Criticism has thrown some light on the human side of the Bible. But has it given us a clearer understanding of Scripture's message than was possessed by the Reformers or the the leaders of the 18th Century Evangelical revivals? Packer is doubtful.
I think that two more posts will be needed to cover the rest of the book.