Farnell, David F. Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 2015. 563 pp. $86.09.
Through the lens of history men and women have looked back on the acts of heroism displayed by the brave soldiers who stormed the beaches of Normandy to liberate France from the oppressive control of Nazi Germany. The men who took the cliffs that day knew the importance of their mission, and many of them paid the highest price possible—they gave their lives for the cause. Now, imagine just for a moment that not long after the Allied forces secured those beaches, and began to move inland, that they received word that the German army was once again on the march, looking to regain control of the defensive positions the Allies had just taken from them. What message would the Allied soldiers send to those who were left behind? How urgently would they implore their brothers to hold their position? How diligent would they work to ensure that the ground they had won, would not be lost?
This is the image that comes to mind when reading Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate (VIID). The book, edited by F. David Farnell is a collection of scholarly essays, book reviews, position papers, defenses, critiques, and other content contributed by eight contributors, six of whom have obtained Ph.D.’s in various disciplines. While not every contributor is a veteran of the so-called “Battle for the Bible”, nor did every contributor serve on the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), all of them know the importance of not losing the ground that was taken from the forces of biblical criticism through the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982). These men, like soldiers warning against an immanent attack, stand to sound the alarm against a resurgent effort to redefine inerrancy. Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate, from the forward, through epilogue provides a stern warning concerning those who seek to weaken confidence in the Scripture, while also providing a strong defense of the inerrancy of the Scripture, and a call to arms to continue the struggle to keep the ground gained by those who enjoined the fight, and won the battle more than thirty-five years ago.
Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate is a lengthy volume, comprised of thirty-two chapters that are divided into two parts. Part one, entitled “Inerrancy Defined” is a response to those in the Neo-Evangelical community who are “actively involved in an attempt to redefine the term ‘inerrancy’ away from the historic, orthodox position of the church through its history” (1). Over the next eight chapters Norman Geisler, Shawn Nelson, David Farnell, and William Roach communicate to the reader, in no uncertain terms, exactly how the ICBI defined inerrancy, and what it means.
The opening chapter of the book is “mostly a reproduction of Norman L. Geisler’s introduction to Explaining Biblical Inerrancy” (3). Here, Geisler states the purpose for writing Explaining Biblical Inerrancy, which must have also been the reason the editors of Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate chose to include this excerpt. Geisler wrote: “It is a fact of human experience that when the living eyewitnesses to events die off, the process of developing myths about these events is often accelerated.” (3) To set the record straight, Geisler determined to put the four ICBI statements on the meaning of inerrancy in a single volume, making access and understanding easier for those who seek to know the truth about the counsel and their statements.
In chapter two Geisler and Nelson write about the differences between inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy stating that; “inerrancy simply means that the Bible is without error. It is a belief in the ‘total truthfulness and reliability of God’s words.’…This inerrancy isn’t (sic) just in passages that speak about salvation, but also applies to all historical and scientific statements as well. It is not only accurate in matters related to faith and practice, but it is accurate and without error regarding any statement, period” (21). The authors go on to reveal why inerrancy is important, noting: “inerrancy is extremely important because: (1) it is attached to the character of God; (2) it is taught in the Scriptures; (3) it is the historic position of the Christian church; and (4) it is foundational to other essential doctrines” (21).
Beginning in chapter three, Shawn Nelson introduces us to Mike Licona, and his book The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach. This book has proven to be the impetus of the revival of attacks on the inerrancy of Scripture. Nelson, however, makes the point that attacks on the inerrancy of Scripture are relatively new. Tracing a timeline back to the late 1,500’s, Nelson proceeds to prove that it has only taken a few hundred years for the doctrine of inerrancy to be “completely overturned” (31). Using a common analogy of a table that can stand on three legs, Nelson illustrated that inerrancy was the first leg to fall, and when one of the remaining three legs goes, the entire table comes down. Ultimately, nothing good can come when people lose confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture, a point that Nelson strongly makes in this enlightening, and useful chapter.
David Farnell takes the reigns in chapter four, discussing the importance of mentoring as a discipline to be employed by all disciples as it was exemplified, and commanded by Jesus. Then, he turns his attention to a book entitled I (Still) Believe. The book focuses “on those who struggle about their Christian faith and its teachings. In turn, it gives the spiritual testimony of eighteen Christian scholars who have mentored countless others in their Christian faith but who have faced their own doubts about the Old and New Testament” (43). Farnell rightly contends that faith and trust in God’s word can be severely damaged, if not destroyed, through “tragically bad mentoring” (43). He then cites four specific examples of these testimonies from I (Still) Believe before surgically, and biblically refuting the error of Donald Hagner, Bruce Waltke, Jimmy Dunn, and Scot McKnight. In the end, Farnell boldly calls these evangelical scholars to repentance. This is a powerful chapter, and it leaves the reader understanding that the contributors to VIID are not playing games with this important issue.
The remaining chapters in this section further serve the purpose of defining the issue of inerrancy. Once again there is boldness as the authors do not shy away from revealing the names of those who are currently trying to tear down this all-important doctrine. There is transparency as the authors identify, and accept that there are some passages of Scripture that prove difficult at first glance. Acts 9 and 22, Joshua 6, Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5 are passaged that are specifically cited in order to demonstrate that these difficulties can be overcome with proper explanation. One of the more interesting questions that was addressed is found in chapter eight: “Do you have to be a Calvinist to believe in inerrancy?” This question was answered by Norman Geisler who stated “Many leaders in the modern inerrancy movement are strong Calvinists. From this some have inferred that inerrancy is a uniquely Calvinistic doctrine” (109). However, he goes on to reveal that “the doctrine of inerrancy was also held by the early church fathers such as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas. “So, it is historically inaccurate to claim that inerrancy originated with Calvinism” (109). From that point, Geisler mentions two specific reformers, Martin Luther, and John Calvin, both of whom held strongly to, and defended the inerrancy of Scripture. Geisler did make the point that other strong Calvinists throughout history have provided a robust defense of inerrancy. B.B Warfield, A.A. Hodge, John Gerstner, James Boice, and Roger Nicole are some of the men named by Geisler in this chapter. Yet many inerrantists down through the years have also come from moderate Calvinist, Arminian, or Wesleyan tribes. W.A. Criswell, Paige Patterson, Richard Land, Josh McDowell, and John Wesley are just a few of the men named in order to prove Geisler’s point.
Part two of Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate begins with chapter nine. The focus of this section is “Inerrancy Defended”. According to Farnell, “this section identifies many of the prominent Neo-Evangelical scholars who are now moving away from an orthodox view of inerrancy toward redefining the term in aberrant ways. It also highlights the various ideological methods and artifice that are now being employed by these critical evangelical scholars that are causing this change in meaning. These articles not only present a rigorous defense of the biblical, orthodox understanding of inerrancy but also a sound refutation of the ideas of those attempting to change its meaning” (113). This is the lengthiest, and perhaps the most necessary part of the book, especially when the aim of the book is to defend a position that was fought for, gained, and is in danger of being lost again.
The final twenty-four chapters are a combination of history lessons, which was necessary because those who do not know the past will, most certainly, repeat the mistake of those who came before them. There are also contributions that provide helpful responses to various erroneous views of inerrancy. Some of the more practical chapters detail the difficulties, and challenges that are being brought to bear on this critical understanding. It is in these chapters that the fight is more clearly defined, and the lines are more clearly drawn. A major component of part two are the critical evaluations and reviews of various articles, and books on the subject of inerrancy. Then, building on the boldness and transparency found in part one, we are once again confronted by pointed questions such as “Can we still believe critical Evangelical scholars?”, “Can we still believe the Bible?”, and “Can we still trust the New Testament?”. These questions are both fair, and challenging, however each author takes great care to lead the reader to gain more confidence in Scripture, not less.
Time and space do not allow for a thorough summary of all that was written over the 414 pages that comprise the second part of this volume. Suffice it to say that the material is extremely valuable as it serves to accomplish the goal of the contributors, to hold the position of biblical inerrancy for this generation, and for generations to come.
One of the great strengths of Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate is the fact that much of the content of this book was written by Norman Geisler, one of the three living original framers of the Chicago Statements of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) and Hermeneutics (CSBH). As one of the men who was heavily involved in the discussions, and then the construction of these landmark documents, Geisler has a unique perspective, not only of the council itself, or the documents which were the fruit of those meetings, but of the history that led to the formation of the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy. Geisler was one of the leaders who stood unwaveringly against the efforts of mainline denominations to redefine inerrancy. Geisler was one of the leaders who worked tirelessly to stem “the tide and guide the faithful away from the spiritual disaster that was forming.” (xvi) Because of his knowledge, conviction, and presence, this book has a gravitas that encourages confidence in the essential content.
Ironically, one of the great strengths of this book also becomes one of its great weaknesses. The notable absence of contributions from the other two living framers of the Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics; R.C. Sproul, and J.I. Packer is disappointing at best. One would expect to read at least one contribution from both, especially considering the fact that Sproul, and Packer have spoken of, and written about Biblical inerrancy in the thirty-five years since those documents were drafted, adopted, and signed. The closest anyone comes to reading anything by these two men is found in quotes contained in the writings of the selected contributors, and in chapter thirty. Chapter Thirty, written by William Roach, and Norman Geisler, works to clear up a Neo-Evangelical misinterpretation of Packer’s position on inerrancy and hermeneutics caused when Justin Taylor posted Packer’s review of Harold Lindsell’s book, The Battle for the Bible. Spanning less than five pages, this is, regrettably, the only lengthy mention of Packer throughout this book. The absence of these men in this work does cause the reader to wonder why they were not included in a more substantial way, it also leaves those who are serious about studying this important topic, hungry for more insight from R.C. Sproul, and J.I. Packer. This could, in theory, motivate a person to do more research to dig out the thoughts and ideas of these men on the subject of inerrancy. However, their inclusion as contributors would have, most certainly, bolstered the credibility of the argument for the inerrancy of Scripture found in this book.
Continuing on the idea of strengths and weaknesses, this book is both bold, and it could prove to be incendiary. The contributing authors do not hesitate to reveal the names of those who, by their own words and actions, have proven to be a danger to this foundational doctrine. Some of those names come from history, while others are working today to undermine, in some fashion, the inerrancy of the Scriptures. Ben Meyer, Bruce Waltke, Christopher Hays, Clark Pinnock, Craig Evans, Bruce Garland, Gregory A. Boyd, are just a few of the many men identified in this book. Some might question the wisdom of making the names of these men known, accusing the contributors of attacking these men in an effort to “out” them, in order to cause them great difficulty. Yet, the Apostle Paul wrote: “Now I urge you, brethren, keep your eye on those who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Rom. 16:17, NASB). Paul knew that there would be those who would teach false doctrine, therefore, in order to protect the church, and the gospel, believers would need to identify those who cause such difficulty. In Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate, the contributors set out to address specific teaching that does nothing other than weaken the confidence of believers in the truthfulness, and accuracy of the Scriptures. Because the consequences of this teaching would have a profound effect on the church, it simply would make no sense to only address the teaching, while, at the same time, allowing those who teach this doctrine to remain unnamed.
There is one other consideration as to why the authors of this book chose to name names; perhaps it was for the good of those who are erring from the faith. One would find it hard to believe that this action was taken in spite, for retaliation, or intimidation. However, it is entirely possible that the writers wanted to warn believers about the danger of giving up the inerrancy of Scripture, while, at the same time, properly instructing, and equipping those who teach and mentor other believers. Still, it seems they also worked to provide a loving warning to those who are attempting to do great harm by leading those who love God’s Word, and rely on it every day as the standard of absolute truth, to begin to doubt its accuracy, and reliability.
For those who remain critical of publically identifying these teachers, it is important, to understand, and concede the fact that the contributors did an admirable job of criticizing the thoughts and positions of these men, without demeaning the character of these men. In situations such as this, those who confront others must walk a very fine line—the contributors to Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate accomplished their task, and did so without sinning against those who hold to a different position. Every believer could learn from the example the authors set forth in this book.
Not only is the boldness of the contributors seen in publically identifying those who they believe are attacking the inerrancy of Scripture, but there is also a boldness that is found as the men responsible for this book addressed an enormous number of questions spread throughout the entirety of the book. Some questions were quickly answered, while some were a bit more controversial and challenging. Some of the questions that are vital to the issue, and were faithfully addressed were; How do inerrancy and hermeneutics relate to one another? Is inerrancy really a vital doctrine for believers? Should inerrancy be used as a litmus test? Is the story of Adam and Eve to be taken literally? Is there any room for biblical or textual criticism? The authors worked through each question, seemingly anticipating the arguments others could present as an attempt to prove the errancy of Scripture. The authors gently wrote in order to persuade their readers to have increased confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible.
The Bible is precious to millions of Christians around the world. Many believers have never known life without a bible because they grew up in a home in which every member had their personal copy of God’s Word. They read the Bible, they pray the Bible, they memorize verses of the Bible, and they do not doubt that Bible is the truth of God. They believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant. There are also many more believers around the world who never saw a Bible until a missionary brought one to their village, or until a friend invited them to a secret house church. For these believers, the Bible is precious, so they read, pray, study, memorize, and cherish God’s Word. They also believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant, and they trust everything that the Bible tells them. For both groups of people, the Bible is an anchor for their soul. It is a source of peace that they turn to in the most difficult moments of life. When they open the pages, they read the promises of God, and they count on the perfection, and performance of Christ for salvation. They eagerly await the day when they will see the God who created them, and redeemed them, face-to-face. For millions of believers of every tongue, tribe, and nation, the Bible reveals their greatest hope—the hope of full, and final salvation in Jesus Christ.
This is why the inerrancy of Scripture matters—because the Bible is God’s message to mankind. It must be believed, it must be relied upon, and it must never be allowed to be seen as a book that is only true for some things, but not all things. Vital Issues in the Inerrancy Debate frames the argument well, and those who read, and finish this book will put it down having gained a greater understanding of the evidence, its importance, and consequences of walking away from inerrancy. In the end, perhaps they will even gain greater confidence in the truthfulness and accuracy of God’s Word.