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Dr. George Stob on Infallibility

The occasion of the lively controversy which has been carried on for many months in the Christian Reformed Church is the publication of two articles in Stromata the student publication of Calvin Seminary. In these articles—questions were raised in connection with the infallibility and–of Scripture.

The thesis of these articles is that me doctrine of infallibility is carried too far when we broaden it so as to cover the idea of complete inerrancy of all Scriptural data, including minor historical details as well as matters of faith and life.

It was the contention of the writer of these articles that the term infallible might possibly be redefined so as to be compatible with the inaccuracies, discrepancies, and errors which we find in the Bible. The presence of such imperfections does not destroy the general infallibility of Scripture.

These articles made a considerable impact on the church as a whole, and occasioned an immediate ra. action in certain publications issuing from the church. Most of what was written as responses to the Stromata articles was in the nature of alarmist reaction. Some frantic judgments were passed, e.g., the fear that with the adoption of such a view of the Bible the last bastion of the faith would be forsaken.

If the church is to profit from this controversy, it will be necessary to remove the controversy from the context of fear. distrust, and frantic judgments about those who raise questions about the traditional view of inspiration and infallibility of Scripture.

It may be well for us to consider the exact context in which this controversy arose.

1. The question of infallibility arose in the context of honest inquiry. Marvin Hoogland, who wrote the articles in question, is not a neophyte who ought to concentrate for the present on growing a beard. He is a careful student of theology, a theologian. He is as old as John Calvin was when the latter wrote the famous treatise De Clementia. The Stromata articles posed an honest question by a competent man. It was not youthful iconoclasm, but honest theological concern which led him to raise the question. He was undoubtedly motivated by the desire for a freer avenue for the orthodox faith, and a wider witness to that faith. This spirit should be commended, not condemned.

2. The present controversy originated within a context of commitment to the Bible as the Word of God. Marvin Hoogland’s questions did not arise out of unbelief, but out of faith. His writings were not an attempt to deny inspiration but to understand it. In this he was following some other orthodox, conservative Bible scholars who are held in very high repute among us, such as James Orr, Matthew Henry (and several others named by Dr. Stob).

There are in the present controversy two theories as to the nature of inspiration. These are as follows:

1. Inspiration makes certain that we have an authoritative record of all that God wanted to make known. But it was not God’s intention or purpose to secure inerrancy in peripheral matters. “Peripheral matters” include Scriptural data which have nothing to do with faith and life, such as minor historical details, grammatical constructions, and the like.

2. The other view is that inspiration applies to all the data of Scripture, including peripheral matters. Every word of the Bible, all grammatical points and every historical detail, however trivial, are God-breathed. According to this view the Bible is free from all error, discrepancy, and inaccuracy.

Dr. Stob at this point stated his basic objection to the second of these views: Such a view is an attempt to force all the data of Scripture into harmony with an a priori concept of infallibility which itself is not derived from Scripture.

The first view Dr. Stob finds to be in harmony with the fact that some writers of the Bible were dependent on non-inspired writings which, when taken up into Scripture, do not change their character as historical records. He quoted James Orr, Revelation and Inspiration (pp. 164, 165) as follows:

“In historical matters it is evident that inspiration is dependent for its knowledge of facts on the ordinary channels of information—on older documents, on oral tradition, on public registers, on genealogical lists, etc. No soberminded defender of inspiration would now think of denying tllis proposition. One has only to look into tlle Biblical books to discover the abundant proof of it. The claim made is that the sources of information are good, trustworthy, not that inspiration lifts the writer abovc the nced of dependence on them. In the Old Testament, for instance, reference is constantly made to older or contcmporary writings as authorities for the information given as to the acts of tlle various kings. Thus, for the history of David, reference is made to three works—The Book of Samuel the Seer, the Book of Nathan the Prophet, the Book of Gad the Seer. For numerous reigns extracts arc given from ‘the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel’ (or ‘of the Kings of Judah,’ or ‘of the Kings of Israel and Judah’). The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah embody gencalogies—letters of Persian kings, and other documents. The Gospel of Luke, in the New Testament, explains distinctly the manner in which that book was composed, viz., by accurate research into those things which had been delivered to the Church by firsthand witnesses…Where sources of information fail, or where, as may sometimes happen, there are lacunae, or blots, or mis-readings of names, or errors of transcription, such as are incidental to the transmission of all MSS., it is not to be supposed that supernatural information is granted to supply the lack. Where this is frankly acknowledged, inspiration is cleared from a great many of the difficulties which misapprehension has attached to it.”

Along the same line Matthew Henry writes, in commenting on the complex genealogies of I Chronicles 8:1–32: “as to the difficulties that occur in this and the foregoing genealogies we need not perplex ourselves presume Ezra took them as he found them in the books of the kings of Israel and Judah (ch. ix. 1), according as they were given in by the several tribes, each observing what method they saw fi t. Hence some ascend, others descend; some have numbers affixed, others places; some have historical remarks intermixed, others have not; some are shorter, others longer; some agree with other records, others differ; some, it is likely, were torn, erased, and blotted, others more legible. Those of Dan and Reuben were entirely lost. This man wrote as he was moved by the Holy Ghost; but there was no necessity for the making up of the defects…nor for the rectifying of the mistakes in these genealogies by inspiration. It was sufficient that he copied them out as they came to his hand, or so much of them as was requisite to the present purpose, which was the directing of the returned captives to settle as nearly as they could with those of their own family, and in the places of their former residence. We may suppose that many things in these genealogies which to us seem intricate, abrupt, and perplexed, were plain and easy to them then (who knew how to fill up the deficiencies) and abundantly answered the intention of the publishing of them.”

Everett F. Harrison takes this same position on the question of error. Harrison is a conservative scholar; he is a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary. He writes, in Revelation and the Bible: “We venture to embark on a delicate question which is involved in our general discussion. Does inspiration require that a Biblical writer should be preserved from error in the use of sources? Presumably when Stephen asserted that Abraham left Haran for Canaan after his father’s death (Acts 7:4), he was following a type of Septuagintal text such as Philo used, for the latter has the same statement…The Hebrew text of Genesis will not permit this, since. the figures given in Genesis 11:26, 32 and 12:4 demand that Terah continued to live for 60 years after Abraham left Haran. (Obviously, Abraham could not have left Haran both before and after his father’s death.) A similar approach may be made to the problem of Matthew’s citation of Zechariah 11:12, 13 as though it were from Jeremiah (Matthew 27:9). No doubt other explanations are possible here, but we can understand that if this passage in Zechariah had already been associated with the name of Jeremiah in Jewish tradition, Matthew might readily fall into line with this practice. We are not affirming that this is a dogmatic requirement, but if the inductive study of the Bible reveals enough examples of this sort of thing to make the conclusion probable, then we shall have to hold to the doctrine of inspiration in this light. We may have our own ideas as to how God should have inspired the Word, but it is more profitable to learn, if we can, how he has actually inspired it (p. 249).”

We must (said Dr. Stob) look at the contents of Scripture for our concept of inspiration, rather than basing it on our theological postulates concerning what inspiration ought to be. We can observe this approach to the question of verbal inspiration in Herman Ridderbos. In his book, When the Time Had Fully Come, he frankly accepts what he regards as imperfections in the New Testament, stating that it was not the Holy Spirit’s purpose to give an exact, accurate or complete account of what was said and done. “The Gospels are very imperfect books of history” (p. 90). Their purpose was the proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom and the kerygma of salvation through Jesus Christ.

Stob: These represent an attempt to come to a sound and tenable view of the Bible.

As to the other view, that every word of the Bible is inspired and therefore inerrant, it may be said that plenary inspiration is not required by the Reformed creeds. There are, to be sure, some who think that they find complete inerrancy taught in the Confession, but we believe that Reformed theology does not necessarily include a doctrine of plenary inspiration.

Those who hold to the idea of plenary inspiration seek to establish a doctrine of inspiration deductively from proof texts which they think teach such a doctrine. The two texts usually offered as proof of plenary inspiration are II Timothy 3:16 and II Peter 1:21.

This way of formulating a doctrine of inspiration fails to take account of the contents of Scripture as a whole, the phenomena of the Bible itself, and contents itself with a deductive approach leading from a preconceived notion of inspiration rather than one which moves toward a doctrine of inspiration based on the contents of Scripture.

The error of this method is not that it is a deductive approach—every Christian proceeds on the basis of deductive reasoning. The error lies in the use of proof-texts which do not teach plenary inspiration. It is an unwarranted assumption that in II Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is God-breathed” means “God breathed every word of Scripture.” Of course, when God breathes out his Word, he always breathes out truth. But God does not breathe out every word of Scripture.

Stab expressed serious disagreement with Edward J. Young’s view of inspiration as set forth in Thy Word is Truth (Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration). Said Stob, “I find several great and very serious difficulties in it.” Following are the difficulties which Stob finds in Young’s view.

1. The proof texts offered do not prove that God breathed out every word of Scripture. II Timothy 3:16 does not define the precise extent of inspiration. “Every Scripture” does not mean “every word of Scripture.” II Peter 1:21 does not describe the manner of God’s inspiration of Scripture. Young sets up his own assumed theory of what these passages teach and then he deduces his view of inspiration from this.

2. When Young deals with the discrepancies of the Bible he resorts to “strained harmonizations,” setting them forth not as sure solutions, but as possible ways of explaining away the difficulties. (Stob mentioned several examples of Young’s treatment of alleged discrepancies in the Bible, expressing his opinion that such treatment was a “strained harmonization,” but not demonstrating his point exegetically—a method which we regard as something less than scholarly. Stob, apparently, would allow the discrepancies to stand and would simply accept them as errors without attempting any kind of harmonization. J.H.)

Young holds that real error even in minor details would render the Bible untrustworthy in matters pertaining to faith and life. Stob stated that the errors which are present in minor details are “matters of no consequence, because they bear no relation to matters of faith and life.”

3. Young takes refuge in mystery when offering solutions to Biblical contradictions. “We simply do not know all the facts,” says Young, “and therefore we cannot dogmatically aver that a given solution is the correct one.” He compares the situation with our knowledge of the divine Trinity, surrounding which is great mystery. To make such comparisons between great matters and small details, says Stab, is to degrade the great matters of faith and life.

4. The argument of Young becomes a theodicy. It is not all prerogative to defend God against allegations of error. But Young’s treatment of error amounts not only to a defense of the trustworthiness of Scripture but a defense of the character of God. Young believes that in the question of errors in minor matters the veracity of God is at stake. Stob replies, “This is something to which I do not at all subscribe.” Young allows for certain grammatical errors in the Bible, yet he holds that inspiration applies to these erroneous constructions. This, holds Stob, is an inconsistent procedure, and a dubious defense of God’s grammar.

5. Young’s frantic attempt to harmonize discrepant pas sag e s of Scripture leaves the Christian in a state of fearful uneasiness. “If God has erred in even one utterance, how do we·know that be bas not erred in more than one? If in so-called minor points, he has inspired error, can we be sure that he has not done so in more important matters?” (Young, p. 269). This view inspires fear rather than trust in God and his Word. (We reply that this would be true only if one held that the Bible actually does contain errors, which Young does not do. J.H.) Stob stated that a belief in the general infallibility of Scripture removes such fear that the Bible might be found to be untrustworthy (1).

6. Young’s notion of inspired and infallible autographa (original manuscripts of the Bible) which we do not now possess is a “rationalistic defense of a deductively postulated theory of inspiration.” We do not need such a view of the autographa in order to have a Bible in which we can believe. No one holds the various translations of the Bible to be free from error, and yet in them we have the Word of God. We have it in the much beloved King James Version, the American Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version, etc. The Christians of the Middle Ages had it in the “exceedingly corrupt” Latin Vulgate of Jerome. In fact, it was in this corrupt version that Luther discovered the truth about the saving grace of God and it was on the authority of this version that Luther stood firm when he said, “Here I stand; I can do no other. So help me, God!”

Following the lecture opportunity was given to ask questions, to which Dr. Stob gave answers. Most of the questions are given below together with the gist of Dr. Stob’s replies:

1. In the light of the distinction which you make between peripheral matters which may contain inaccuracies, and central matters about which there can be no doubt, would you say, Dr. Stob, that the peripheral matters are merely uninspired human words, while central matters constitute the inspired Word of God?

Answer: The relationship between the human and divine elements in Scripture is a very complex matter. No doubt much of our study of the doctrine of inspiration in the future will be centered. at this point. I am inclined to agree with Professor Berkouwer that many Christians have a docetic view of Scripture. Just as some early Christians had a docetic view of Christ (which denied the reality of his human nature), so some Christians today have a docetic view of Scripture (which minimizes the human element in Scripture).

2. If there are real errors, inaccuracies, discrepancies, and so forth, in the Bible, and this comes to be generally acknowledged by Reformed Christians, will it not be necessary for Reformed theology to redefine or perhaps eliminate such terms as plenary inspiration, verbal inspiration, infallibility and the like?

Answer: Such matters require a considerable amount of study. These terms would not need to be dropped from our theological vocabulary, but may continue to be used.

3. You spoke of genealogies, Dr. Stob. Are the genealogies, detailed instruction as to how to build the tabernacle, etc. matters of peripheral detail, or do they have kerygmatic significance? (i.e., significance for the proclamation of salvation through Jesus Christ).

Answer: I do not believe that such matters have any real significance for faith and life, but are peripheral matters.

4. Do you make any significant distinction between the autographa and the texts that we have today?

Answer: Yes, of course, but the texts which we have today are substantially the same as the autographa.

5. Wouldn’t it be better for us to try to eliminate the errors in the Bible by omitting or correcting them in future revisions of the Bible?

Answer: We have, of course, revised certain uninspired writings, e. g., hymns, but we must not deal with Scripture in this way. We must maintain the integrity of the writings which have come down to us through the inspirational and providential activity of God.

Comments By Reporter Hill

In conclusion we would like to comment briefly on Dr. Stob’s criticisms of Professor Edward J. Young’s book, Thy Word is Truth. We value this book highly as a very instructive treatment of the Doctrine of Inspiration. Though written in popular style, it is the product of learned scholarship.

Dr. Stab criticizes Young’s concept of inspiration as an “absolutist-deductionist” view. Stob says that Young approaches the Bible with a preconceived notion of what inspiration ought to be. All his interpretations, including that of  II Timothy 3:16 arc based on this a priori concept of inspiration. Young himself, however, repudiates t his approach to the Bible. In considering the question of inerrancy, says Young, “we have sought…to reject any a priori theories as to what inerrancy must be, and instead to examine the phenomena of Scripture itself for our answer. This examination has been necessary in order that we may make it clear that our conception of ‘inerrancy’ must be determined by the Scriptures…Our view of inspiration must be derived from the Bible. It is necessary to stress this point, for sometimes even those who hold the high view of inspiration are guilty of approaching the question with ideas already formed as to what the doctrine should be” (Young, p. 143; cf. p. 114).

Stob criticizes Young further for holding a concept of inerrancy which Young does not in fact hold. The view of inerrancy which Stob criticizes is that of meticulous, pedantic accuracy in all the words contained in the Bible. Young himself does not define inerrancy in this way. Young holds Dr. James Orr to be mistaken when Orr defines inerrancy as “hard and fast literality in minute matters of historical, geographical, and scientific detail” (Young, p. 143). Young devotes two lengthy chapters to an answer to the question, “What is inerrancy?” He states, “By this word we mean that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability to mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth” (p. 113). Speaking further of the word “inerrancy” he writes, “All that it postulates is that each writer who was borne of the Holy Spirit has recorded accurately that which the Spirit desired him to record. The Bible, in other words, is a true account of those things of which it speaks” (p. 139). Stob, we believe, has not accurately stated Young’s view of inerrancy.

Stob implied that Young’s view of inspiration is based on one or two isolated proof-texts such as II Timothy 3:16, rather than on a broad spectrum analysis of Scriptural data. We must allow Young to defend himself here. Says Young, “If, therefore, the Scriptures are the Word of God, breathed out by Him, it follows that they, too, are absolutely true and infallible. The passage in II Timothy to which we have already given attention certainly teaches that the Scriptures are the Word of God. Is it, however, an isolated passage? Is there no other line of evidence that we can follow? Does this one verse stand by itself, a lonely signpost pointing to the divine origin of the Scriptures? Happily, such is not the case. The testimony of the Bible to itself is abundant and compelling” (pp. 40, 41 ). Young goes on from this point to set forth the testimony of the Bible to its own infallibility. Young’s concept of Scripture is not, therefore, an (t priori postulate, as Stob thinks, but a doctrine defined by Scripture itself.

One more comment must be made in answer to Dr. Stob. Again we will allow Dr. Young himself to speak to the point. Stab holds that the historical details of the Bible are not important for the faith or life of the Christian. Dr. Young replies, “Why this stress upon historical detail? What difference does it make who was upon the throne of Rome at the time (of the birth of Jesus)? How can these historical details be of any possible benefit to our spiritual Me? Questions such as these, however, are based upon a misunderstanding of the nature of Christianity. It makes all the difference in the world who was upon the throne of Rome. It makes all the difference in the world where the ‘encounter’ between God and John the Baptist took place. Luke was most concerned to give us the necessary details which form the proper background of the revelation of God to John, for this revelation took place in history…Remove this historical background from Christianity, and you remove Christianity itself, for Christianity is a religion which is founded squarely upon that which was done once for all in history” (Young, p. 256).