Friday, December 15, 2006

Lesslie Newbigin and B.B. Warfield: A Mini-Dialogue on Inerrancy

The doctrine of inerrancy is not popular. Many evangelicals hold to it, but it is assailed on all other sides. For instance, the certainty inherent in the doctrine is off-putting to many postmodernists. To them, it seems nothing more than a power grab. Theological liberals and humanists, on the other hand, find inerrancy foolish. Biblical criticism has demonstrated many biblical errors, they think, so the matter is settled.

If the first two attacks weren't enough, another has joined the fray. Lesslie Newbigin, in his book Proper Confidence levels an attack that purports to be neither modern nor postmodern. Newbigin's attack is supposed to be biblical, or at least from a biblical worldview. How should evangelicals defend against such an attack? We must begin by examining how Newbigin understands inerrancy, and then we must analyze that understanding to see if it matches what we actually believe. This last step will involve delving into the works of one of the most brilliant inerrantists of all time, B.B. Warfield.

Newbigin defines inerrancy by asserting that anyone believing in inerrancy "affirms [the] factual, objective truth of every statement in the Bible", and believes that any factual error would destroy biblical authority.[1] Newbigin's use of the term 'objective' in the definition reveals his opinion of inerrancy. In Proper Confidence Newbigin thinks of the modernist's quest for objectivity as an attempt to rid oneself of all subjective prejudices and presuppositions, which is impossible.[2] For him, inerrancy is necessarily shackled to this illusion.[3]

Newbigin levels these accusations at evangelicals because he believes we hold an Enlightenment epistemology. In fact, he believes this to be the common ground we share with liberal Christians. The difference, in his view, is that evangelicals try to make the Bible meet Enlightenment criteria for knowledge while liberals are happy to say it does not. He refers to these criteria as "alien norms" which take our focus off a proper biblical epistemology. In this way, according to Newbigin, evangelicals end up placing their confidence in human rationality rather than the personal God of the universe.[4] This is Newbigin's error, and a proper understanding of Warfield will expose it.

Princeton theologian B.B. Warfield was perhaps the greatest defender the doctrine of inerrancy ever had. The greatness of his defense is doubted by many, however, because his writing is not easy to comprehend. Many have erroneously called Warfield a modernist, thereby making him appear vulnerable to Newbigin's criticism. From there it is easy to extend the reasoning: if Warfield is the best defender of inerrancy, then most other inerrantists will follow in his footsteps. Therefore, whatever criticism is true of him must also be true of the whole lot. A fair reading of Warfield tells a different story.

In his book The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Warfield states that the
proper way to approach the Bible is to assume its accuracy.[5] Problematic passages are 'innocent until proven guilty.' This is not in line with the Newbigin's conception of inerrancy. If Warfield was a modernist he should have used the principle of critical doubt here. Instead he approaches the text in faith, which is exactly what Newbigin desires.

Warfield also rejects the view that it is impossible to trust Christ because he can only be known through history. The modernist aversion to arguments from history is well known. Historical events cannot be proven by reason, so they are suspect. While Warfield agrees in Revelation and Inspiration that historical study is not enough to give someone full confidence in Christ, he still asserts that such confidence should be given.[6]

These two facts (presumption of accuracy and full confidence in Christ without deductive certainty) demonstrate that Warfield was not mired in the Enlightenment when he defended inerrancy. On the contrary, one could say that Warfield's understanding of Scripture was in the same ballpark as Newbigin's. Newbigin says, "the locus of our confidence (if one may put it so) is not in the competence of our own knowing, but in the faithfulness and reliability of the one who is known."[7] Warfield would have added a hearty 'amen' to this statement, but would want to take that confidence even further.

One must not assume, however, that Newbigin and Warfield are in complete agreement, regardless of the similarities we previously noted. Though some disagreements are without merit, others remain. As one reads the two theologians side by side an interesting dynamic emerges. Both acknowledge that Scripture involves interaction between the human and the divine, and they agree that humans are fallible creatures. The difference is in which side of the revelatory partnership they emphasize.

Newbigin emphasizes the effect the fallibility of man has on Scripture. He states, "at every point…we are dealing with the interaction of men and women with God. At every point human judgment and fallibility are involved…"[8] To Newbigin the debate is over at this point. Once humans enter the picture fallibility follows. This assumption is made more plain by another statement: "The idea that at a certain point in this long story a line was drawn before which everything is divine word and after which everything is human judgment is absurd."[9] Perhaps, but which inerrantist proposed such a line? What of the role of the Holy Spirit?
Warfield provides the answer. In The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible he points out that the Church has always believed that the Holy Spirit superintended the wording of the divine revelation. He did so because, in Warfield's opinion (which is likely correct), falsehood is inconsistent with the divine nature.[10] If I may, I will supplement Warfield with a quote from Sinclair Ferguson's essay, "How Does the Bible Look at Itself?":

Because words express meaning, and a particular word may possess different
meanings in different contexts, the meaning communicated depends on the
significance of all the words used. If Scripture is God-breathed at all,
that inspiration must extend to all the words that are employed.[11]

The nature of God and the nature of language conspire to make verbal inerrancy not only a viable doctrine, but also a needful one. As a result, evangelicals should not fear to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. This is proper confidence indeed.

[1] Lesslie Newbigin, Proper Confidence (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995. p. 85
[2] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 45
[3] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 85
[4] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, p. 85-6
[5] B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible," 215-16 quoted in Michael Williams, "Covenant Theology," class lecture notes 16, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 4 October 2006.
[6] B.B. Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration," 67 quoted in Michael Williams, "Covenant Theology," class lecture notes p. 16, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 4 October 2006.
[7] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 67
[8] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 86
[9] Newbigin, Proper Confidence, 86
[10] Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 296 quoted in Williams "Covenant Theology" lecture notes, 16
[11] Sinclair Ferguson, "How Does the Bible See Itself?," in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie Conn. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1998), 47-66.

Ferguson, Sinclair. "How Does the Bible Look at Itself?," in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic, ed. Harvie Conn, 47-66. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Co., 1998.

Newbigin, Lesslie. Proper Confidence: Faith Doubt & Certainty in Christian Discipleship. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.

Williams, Michael. "Covenant Theology." Class Lecture Notes, Covenant Theological Seminary, St. Louis, 4 October 2006.

1 comment:

James n' Laura Anderson said...

Thank you for this analysis of Newbigin. You have done your homework well and wrestled with deep topic subject to nuance and perspective. I have been reading "Foolishness to the Greeks" and it raised questions in my mind about the intention of Newbigin as he criticized inerrant viewpoints as expressions of modernity.

You offer an intelligent and respectful assessment that I found helpful.