Scripture Alone, The Evangelical Doctrine (R. C. Sproul Library) Hardcover – 5 Jul 2012
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Reviewed by Amanda Killgore, Freelance Reviewer.
This book also contains the full text of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, with explanations of each article. I would highly recommend it to any Christian (or non-Christian) who wishes to better understand the Protestant teaching of Sola Scriptura.
Denials of Biblical inerrancy are nothing new. Liberals have for centuries asserted that the Bible is merely the product of human beings who wrote their thoughts about God, and therefore as a matter of course it contains errors. But what precipitated the contents of this book is the relatively recent movement within Evangelicalism itself which would, unlike liberalism, still claim divine inspiration of the Bible, but concede the presence of errors in Scripture.
These individuals, many of them scholars and seminary professors, might claim the term “limited inerrancy” for their position. And the way one of its advocates explained it to me, on the surface it actually sounds reasonable: “God has so worked with sinful human beings, the authors of Scripture, that in spite of the mistakes that they made, his message of salvation gets through.”
One strength of this book is that it shows that this position is reasonable only at the surface and cannot stand up to scrutiny and logical analysis. Dr. Sproul relates how on numerous occasions he has had the following dialogue with biblical scholars who hold to this position. And he assures us that he is not making this up, but what follows is a verbatim reproduction of what transpires:
“Do you maintain the inerrancy of Scripture?” – “No.”
“Do you believe the Bible to be the inspired Word of God?” – “Yes.”
“Do you think God inspires error?” – “No.”
“Is all of the Bible inspired by God?” – “Yes.”
“Is the Bible errant?” – “No!”
“Is it inerrant?” – “No!”
At this point, Sproul says, he gets an Excedrin headache. The fallacious nature of so-called “limited inerrancy” is exposed here because there is no tertium quid between errancy and inerrancy. Inerrancy is a category that incorporates everything outside of the category of errancy. To affirm or deny both categories is to be involved in a logical absurdity.
Sproul rightly and forcefully concludes: “Unless we want to join the ranks of the absurd, or unless we confess that God inspires error and join the ranks of the impious, or unless we confess that the Bible as a whole is not inspired, then we are forced by what Martin Luther called “resistless logic” to the conclusion that the Bible is inerrant.”
The issue of the autographs, or original manuscripts of the biblical books, is one reason some Evangelicals reject inerrancy. Because inerrancy is claimed only for the autographs and not for subsequent copies, and since we do not have any of the autographs any more, critics charge that the claim of inerrancy is empty, being neither verifiable nor falsifiable.
But, Sproul counters, it’s important to realize that the argument is not really about texts that we don’t have, but about texts that at one point in time did indeed exist. The real question is, were those original documents inspired by God or weren’t they?
In other words, to limit inerrancy or inspiration to the original manuscripts does not make the whole contention irrelevant. It does make a difference. If the original texts were errant, the church would have the option of rejecting the teachings of that errant text. If the original text is inerrant, we have no legitimate basis for disobeying a mandate of Scripture where the text is not in doubt.
Biblical inerrancy affirms that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. The one who finds such a claim to be empty simply needs to educate himself on the science of textual criticism, the discipline which seeks to reconstruct the original based on the examination of the existing manuscripts. The fact is that about 99 percent of the original can be reconstructed to a virtual certainty, and where there is some doubt in the remaining 1 percent of the text, no doctrine of the Christian faith hangs in the balance.
So it is fair to say that though we don’t literally have the originals, we do, practically. For all intents and purposes we can reconstruct what was in the original.
Nobody is denying that there remain some Bible difficulties that have not yet been resolved. These have been known for centuries, even millennia. And in knowing how to proceed we might note that a parallel exists with the discipline of science. In science, you don’t throw out a paradigm due to the existence of a few anomalies that are not easily explainable by the paradigm. The same thing is true when dealing with the problem of Bible difficulties. You don’t just look at the particulars of unresolved problems, but you also look at the trend.
A century or so ago at the height of liberal hubris regarding the errancy of the Bible, there were maybe 100 difficulties that at the time were regarded as errors. But that list has been pared down to a handful of apparent discrepancies. At this point in the investigation, you don’t take the handful of unresolved difficulties and say, uh oh, we can throw the Bible out, when everything indicates greater confidence in the paradigm than what we had before.
Next, we should note that despite the knowledge of Bible difficulties, the church, historically, has affirmed inerrancy. True, the word “inerrancy” was not used until the seventeenth century. But the concept underlying the word has always been there. And the underlying concept is an affirmation of the complete truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture, that we can in fact trust our Bible.
The Protestant Reformation itself, though it did not use the word “inerrancy,” was built upon that concept. Sola Scriptura, the claim that Scripture alone is the supreme normative authority in matters of religion, was called the “formal cause” of the Reformation. Martin Luther argued that whereas both popes and church councils could and have erred, Scripture does not err. For Luther the sola of sola Scriptura was inseparably related to the Scriptures’ unique inerrancy. Sola Scriptura as the supreme norm of ecclesiastical authority rests ultimately on the premise of the inerrancy of the Word of God. So though the word is of somewhat recent vintage in church history, it is false to say that the concept of inerrancy itself also is recent, and that it is the product of a reified seventeenth-century Protestant scholasticism.
Finally, the folks who hold to “limited inerrancy” really face an insurmountable problem. They think that it is okay to concede that the Bible has errors in it but these errors are limited to insignificant matters of science and history, while the important matters of salvation and theology remain inerrant. Why would they believe that? The Bible certainly doesn’t teach that. You are left with nothing other than sheer subjectivism if you have to decide where the Bible is telling the truth and where it is mistaken. And such an approach completely strips the Bible of any authority over our lives.
No, our approach to Scripture should be nothing less than that held by Jesus himself. And even liberal scholars concede that Jesus’ view of Scripture was essentially that of modern day advocates of inerrancy. Liberals just flat out say that Jesus was wrong in his view. And Evangelicals who are essentially saying the same thing need to face up to Jesus’ words when he said, “how can you believe me concerning heavenly things if you will not believe me concerning earthly things?”
Talk about straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. At least the advocate of inerrancy will swat at a few gnats by rolling up his sleeves and struggling, methodically and painstakingly, using the tools of textual criticism, archaeology, ancient languages, and the like, to make progress in this endeavor. The critics don’t do any of that heavy lifting but just declare that the Bible has errors in it. They want to eat their cake and have it too. They strain out the gnat, that is, problems in the Bible, and swallow the camel, because they still want to say they believe the message of the Bible regarding the deity of Christ and salvation, when their only basis for believing that is their subjective and existential decision to believe it. If I cannot believe the Bible where it is testable, why in the world would I believe it where it is not?
Inerrancy is not something to be held because it is the product of a misguided Enlightenment search for absolute certainty. No, inerrancy is something to be held because it is inextricably bound together with Biblical inspiration, trustworthiness, and authority. It is the position of the Protestant Reformation and the historic Church prior to that, and to deny inerrancy is to deny sola Scriptura and to remove oneself from under the authority of Scripture.
The writing is - as always - superb. Dr. Sproul is a learned and intelligent man and it certainly shows! I did find this book to be a bit of a disappointment, however, solely because I expected something different.
So-so. If you can get it used or from the library, do so!
Dr. Sproul's fellow evangelicals like Dr. D. H. Willams and Dr. Craig Allert would also have issues with Dr. Sproul's work. See either Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation: A Sourcebook of the Ancient Church (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future) or A High View of Scripture? The Authority of the Bible and the Formation of the New Testament Canon (Evangelical Ressourcement: Ancient Sources for the Church's Future).
Scripture alone, as a principle, also touches on the issue of the duetero-canonical books. After all, if our sole guide is scripture then we had better find out what scripture consists of. God did not give us an inspired table of contents for the canon. See more on this in Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger: The Untold Story of the Lost Books of the Protestant Bible. Readers may also wish to round their education by way of Mark Shea's little book on the topic, By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition.
This is an important topic not to be taken lightly. It is important to make a decision in this matter and Dr. Sproul is right to offer the reformed position to the marketplace of ideas. Read what Dr. Sproul has to say but do not stop there. Study to show yourself approved (2 Tim 2:15).