The center of all theology, of the entirety of the Christian faith, is Christ himself. The Christ-event—in particular his death and resurrection—is the center of time: everything before it leads up to it; everything after it is shaped by it. If Christ were not God in the flesh, he would not have been raised from the dead. And if he were not raised from the dead, none of us would have any hope. My theology grows out from Christ, is based on Christ, and focuses on Christ.
Years ago, I would have naïvely believed that all Christians could give their hearty amens to the previous paragraph. This is no longer the case; perhaps it never was. There are many whose starting point and foundation for Christian theology is bibliology. They begin with the assumption that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. I can understand that. Starting one’s doctrinal statement with the Bible gives one assurances that the primary source of theology, the scriptures, is both true and trustworthy. I don’t start there, however. I have come to believe that the incarnation is both more central than inspiration and provides a methodological imperative for historical investigation of the claims of the Bible.
Sometimes the reason why doctrinal statements begin with scripture is because the framers believe that without an inerrant Bible we can’t know anything about Jesus Christ. They often ask the question, “How can we be sure that anything in the Bible is true? How can we be sure that Jesus Christ is who he said he was, or even that he existed, if the Bible is not inerrant?”
Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches to Inerrancy
My response to the above question is twofold. First, before the New Testament was written, how did people come to faith in Christ? To assume that having a complete Bible is necessary before we can know anything about Christ is both anachronistic and counterproductive. Our epistemology has to wrestle with the spread of the gospel before the Gospels were penned. The very fact that it spread so fast—even though the apostles were not always regarded highly—is strong testimony both to the work of the Spirit and to the historical evidence that the eyewitnesses affirmed.
Second, we can know about Christ because the Bible is a historical document. (Even if one has a very low regard for the Bible’s historicity, he or she has to admit that quite a bit of it is historically accurate.) If we demand inerrancy of the Bible before we can believe that any of it is true, what are we to say about other ancient historical documents? We don’t demand that they be inerrant, yet no evangelical would be totally skeptical about all of ancient history. Why put the Bible in a different category before we can believe it at all? As one scholar wisely articulated many years ago, we treat the Bible like any other book to show that it is not like any other book.
Warfield’s Two Premises
We are not asked to take a leap of faith in believing the Bible to be the word of God, or even to believe that it is historically reliable; we have evidence that this is the case. I enlist on my behalf that towering figure of Reformed biblical scholarship, Benjamin B. Warfield. In his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Warfield lays out an argument for inerrancy that has been all but forgotten by today’s evangelicals. Essentially, he makes a case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive evidence, rather than deductive reasoning. Most evangelicals today follow E. J. Young’s deductive approach toward bibliology, forgetting the great, early articulator of inerrancy. But Warfield starts with the evidence that the Bible is a historical document, rather than with the presupposition that it is inspired. This may seem shocking to some in the evangelical camp, but one can hardly claim that Warfield was soft on bibliological convictions! Let me prove my point with a lengthy quotation from his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1948), p. 174:
“Now if this doctrine is to be assailed on critical grounds, it is very clear that, first of all, criticism must be required to proceed against the evidence on which it is based. This evidence, it is obvious, is twofold. First, there is the exegetical evidence that the doctrine held and taught by the Church is the doctrine held and taught by the Biblical writers themselves. And secondly, there is the whole mass of evidence—internal and external, objective and subjective, historical and philosophical, human and divine—which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides. If they are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true, and is to be accepted and acted upon as true by us all. In that case, any objections brought against the doctrine from other spheres of inquiry are inoperative; it being a settled logical principle that so long as the proper evidence by which a proposition is established remains unrefuted, all so-called objections brought against it pass out of the category of objections to its truth into the category of difficulties to be adjusted to it. If criticism is to assail this doctrine, therefore, it must proceed against and fairly overcome one or the other element of its proper proof. It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides.”
Notice how often Warfield speaks of evidence here as the grounds for believing in inerrancy. The evidence is historical, exegetical, and doctrinal. Two statements stand out as crucial to his argument: “If they [the biblical writers] are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true…” and “If criticism is to assail this doctrine… It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides.” Warfield’s argument is one of the most profound paragraphs ever written in defense of inerrancy. If you’re reading this quickly, go back and let it sink in for awhile.
Metzger’s Challenge: The Bible Doesn’t Affirm Its Own Inerrancy
In 1992, when Bruce Metzger was on campus at Dallas Seminary for a week, delivering the Griffith Thomas lectures, students would often ask him whether he embraced inerrancy. Frankly, I thought their question was a bit uncharitable since they already knew the answer (he did not). But as one who, like Warfield before him, taught at Princeton Seminary, and as a Reformed scholar, Metzger certainly had earned the right to be heard on this issue. His response was simply that he did not believe in inerrancy because he felt it was unwise to hold to any doctrines that were not affirmed in the Bible, and he didn’t see inerrancy being affirmed in the Bible. In other words, he denied Warfield’s first argument (viz., that inerrancy was held by the biblical writers). It should be pointed out that Metzger did not disagree with Warfield’s second argument. In other words, he had a high view of the Bible, but not as high as, say, the Evangelical Theological Society, precisely because he did not think that the biblical writers held to the doctrine of inerrancy.
The Role of 2 Timothy 3.16
I felt the import of Metzger’s argument even before I had heard it from him, because I had long ago memorized the passage from Warfield quoted above. When I was working on my master’s degree in the 1970s, I was convinced that Warfield’s twofold argument needed to be examined and either affirmed or rejected. So I wrote my master’s thesis on an arcane point of Greek grammar. It was entitled, “The Relation of Adjective to Noun in Anarthrous Constructions in the New Testament.” I chose that particular topic because it directly affected how we should translate 2 Timothy 3.16. Should we translate this verse “every inspired scripture is also profitable” with the possible implication that some scripture is not inspired, or should we translate it “every scripture is inspired and profitable,” in which case the inspiration of scripture is directly asserted? I spent over 1200 hours on that thesis, working without the benefit of computers—in the Greek New Testament, in the Septuagint, in classical Greek, in the papyri—to determine whether adjectives in anarthrous constructions (constructions in which no definite article was present) could be predicate or whether they had to be attributive. All of this related to 2 Timothy 3.16 because the adjective “inspired” was related to the noun “scripture” in an anarthrous construction. Further, of the dozens of New Testament grammars I checked, not one gave any actual evidence that adjectives in such constructions could be predicate. A predicate adjective would be translated as an assertion (“every scripture is inspired”) while an attributive adjective would be translated as a qualification or assumption (“every inspired scripture”). I felt an obligation to the evangelical community to wrestle with this issue and see if there was indeed genuine evidence on behalf of a predicate “inspired.” I charted out over 2200 Greek constructions in the New Testament, as well as countless others in other corpora—all by hand—then checked the primary sources a second time to make sure I got the statistics right. When an ice storm hit Dallas in the winter of 1978–79, cutting down power lines in our neighborhood, I had to work by lamplight for a week to get the first draft of the thesis in on time. My conclusion was that “inspired” in 2 Timothy 3.16 was indeed a predicate adjective. And I supplied over 400 similar examples in the appendix to back it up! These 400 examples had never been discussed in any New Testament grammar before. I believed then, and I believe now, that supplying this kind of evidence is a worthy use of one’s time. The main part of the thesis ended up being the first piece of mine accepted for publication. It appeared in Novum Testamentum (one of the world’s leading biblical journals) in 1984 as a lengthy article. And the editors kept my opening comment that my motivation for the article was to help resolve some disputes about bibliology raging at the time in American evangelical circles.
I mention the above autobiographical note for two reasons. First, the question of the nature of the Bible has been, and still is, a very precious issue to me. Obviously, to spend over 1200 hours on where to put the “is” in one verse of scripture shows that I regard such a text to be rather significant! And that such a passage is a major verse on verbal inspiration should show that this doctrine is important to me. Second, the conclusion I came to is equally important: I can affirm, with Warfield, that the biblical writers do indeed embrace a high view of the text of Holy Writ. To be sure, this verse is not all there is in defense of inerrancy. But it is a crux interpretum, deserving our utmost attention. I must therefore respectfully disagree with Professor Metzger about Warfield’s first argument.
Christological Grounds for a High Bibliology
Where does this leave us with reference to inerrancy? I arrive at inerrancy through an inductive process, rather than by starting with it deductively. My epistemological method may therefore be different from others, but the resultant doctrine is not necessarily so. At bottom, the reason I hold to a high bibliology is because I hold to a high Christology. Jesus often spoke of the Bible in terms that went beyond the reverence that the Pharisees and Sadducees had for the text. They added traditions to the Bible, or truncated the canon, or otherwise failed to handle scripture appropriately. Jesus had a high view of the text, and it strikes me that I would be unwise to have a view different from his. Indeed, I believe I would be on dangerous ground if I were to take a different view of the text than Jesus did. Thus, my starting point for a high bibliology is Christ himself.
Some may argue that we can’t even know what Jesus said unless we start with a high bibliology. But that approach is circular. Making a pronouncement that scripture is inerrant does not guarantee the truth of such an utterance. If I said the moon is made of green cheese, that doesn’t make it so. At most, what such pronouncements can do is give one assurance. But this is not the same as knowledge. And if the method for arriving at such assurance is wrongheaded, then even the assurance needs to be called into question. A web of issues brings about the deepest kinds of theological assurance: evidence (historical, exegetical, hermeneutical, etc.), affirmations, the role of the Spirit, etc. One does not have the deepest assurance about inerrancy simply by convincing himself or herself that it must be true. Indeed, I would argue that such a presuppositional approach often caves in on itself. Now if inerrancy is true, what harm is there in examining the data of the text?
Now, someone may say, “But how do you know that Jesus actually held to a high bibliology unless you start with that presupposition? How do you know that the Gospel writers got the words of Jesus right in the first place?” I think that’s an excellent question. I would use the criteria of authenticity to argue that he did indeed hold to a high view of the text. The criteria of authenticity, when used properly, are criteria that Gospels scholars use to affirm whether Jesus said or did something. Notice that I did not say, “Gospels scholars use to deny whether Jesus said or did something.” The criteria of authenticity should normally be used only for positive results. To take one illustration: The criterion of dissimilarity is the criterion that says if Jesus said something that was unlike what any rabbi before him said and unlike what the church later said, then surely such a saying is authentic. I think this is good as far as it goes. It certainly works for “the Son of Man” sayings in the Gospels. The problem is that the Jesus Seminar used this criterion to make negative assessments of Jesus’ sayings. Thus, if Jesus said something that was said in contemporary Judaism, its authenticity is discounted. But surely that would create an eccentric Jesus if it were applied across the board! Indeed, Jesus said things that were already said in the Judaism of his day, and surely the early church learned from him and repeated him.
How does this apply to Jesus’ bibliology? Since his statements about scripture are decidedly more reverential than those of the Pharisees or Sadducees, the criterion of dissimilarity requires us to see that Jesus did, indeed, hold to a high bibliology. Of course, I am not arguing that the average Christian for the past two thousand years needed to think about whether Jesus said something. But I am arguing that even the evidence from a historical-critical perspective points in the same direction. And I am arguing that in the modern world, and even postmodern world, for evangelicals to ignore evidence is tantamount to a leap of faith.
I must confess that I did not at first embrace a high bibliology because of applying the criteria of authenticity to the sayings of Jesus. No, I initially embraced a high bibliology because I believed that the Bible’s testimony about itself was sufficiently clear and certainly true. But when I came to grips with Warfield’s inductive approach and Metzger’s denial of Warfield’s first argument, I realized that, for those engaged in serious biblical studies, historical evidence needed to be assessed before dialogue with those of a different perspective could begin. The fact that many evangelical students abandon inerrancy may in part be due to them not wrestling with more than a fideistic claim. What harm is there in adding historical evidence to one’s arguments for a doctrinal position? Why are so many afraid, or unprepared, to do so? The impression this gives to many students is that such views are defenseless.
Incarnation as Methodological Imperative
Permit me to address one other issue. If Christ is at the core of our beliefs, then the incarnation has to loom large in our thinking about the faith. When God became man and invaded space-time history, this served notice that we dare not treat the Bible with kid gloves. The incarnation not only invites us to examine the evidence, it requires us to do so. The fact that our religion is the only major religion in the world that is subject to historical verification is no accident: it’s part of God’s design. Jesus performed miracles and healings in specific towns, at specific times, on specific people. The Gospels don’t often speak in generalities. And Paul mentioned that 500 believers saw the risen Christ at one time, then added that most of these folks were still alive. These kinds of statements are the stuff of history; they beg the reader to investigate. Too often modern evangelicals take a hands-off attitude toward the Bible because of a prior commitment to inerrancy. But it is precisely because I ground my bibliology in Christology rather than the other way around that I cannot do that. I believe it is disrespectful to my Lord to not ask the Bible the tough questions that every thinking non-Christian is already asking it.