Toplady on the Unerring Word

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There is great debate in parts of the Evangelical world at present over biblical authority, and especially over biblical inerrancy. This was, of course, a matter of controversy several decades ago in the so-called "Battle for the Bible."  One might be forgiven for thinking, therefore, that the doctrine of the Bible's utter trustworthiness had been adequately defined and defended already. Yet scholars unhappy at the traditional teaching, such as Peter Enns with his recent controversial book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament and another book by Andrew McGowan called The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives have brought the subject back onto the agenda.

I was thinking about this recently in terms of how our evangelical forebears might see it. I know some on this blog like to talk about "the top men", but I am more interested in Toplady, whose birthday it was yesterday. Augustus Montague Toplady (1740-1778), one of my heroes, held to the traditional view of God's word. In his day, the word 'unerring' was a far more common term than 'inerrancy' or 'inerrant' which, while not entirely unknown from as early as the 1650s, only seem to have entered common theological use among Protestants in the nineteenth century. Toplady often spoke warmly of "God's unerring oracles", asserting plainly that "the Bible is the unerring word of God."  For him it was the rock of faith, "an authority which cannot err," and "that unerring standard" by which all doctrines and practices were to be judged.

Moreover, Toplady did not downplay or ignore the human aspect of the word, as advocates of inerrancy are often accused of doing.  Instead, he recognized that God worked through the human writers of scripture. At one point he speaks of, "The Holy Spirit, making the apostle's pen the channel of unerring inspiration," adding that the epistles and the Gospels were "written under the unerring influence of the same Holy Spirit." He also used the word "infallible", which is supposedly more common in British Evangelical circles.

Where did Toplady learn this allegedly rationalistic and supposedly much later doctrine? He was certainly not the only Reformed Evangelical Anglican of the eighteenth century to hold to such a view of the Bible. George Whitefield, who everybody loves, speaks in one of his sermons of "the unerring rule of God's most holy word."  James Hervey in his 'Contemplation on the Starry Heavens' speaks of the Word of God as 'this unerring directory,' and of its 'infallible guidance.'  John Newton writes in his letters of 'the unerring word of God' e.g. Letters 20 and 32 in Letters, Sermons, and a Review of Ecclesiastical History (1780).

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While researching Toplady for my book The True Profession of the Gospel: Augustus Toplady and Reclaiming our Reformed Foundations, I discovered another possible source of his view on the Bible.  It turns out that some editions of the Book of Common Prayer, including those published in Dublin in 1750, 1753, and 1757 (while Toplady was a student at Trinity College), spoke of God's "unerring word" in their version of the Psalms, e.g. at Psalm 119:81, 114, and 144:

My Soul with long Expectance faints,
To see thy saving Grace;
Yet still on thy unerring Word
My confidence I place.

My hiding Place, my Refuge Tower,
And Shield art thou, O Lord;
I firmly anchor all my Hopes
On thy unerring Word.

Eternal and unerring Rules
Thy Testimonies give:
Teach me the Wisdom, that will make
My Soul for ever live.

Did young Augustus Toplady pick up this phrase, and this confidence in the unerring word of God, from singing Psalms in church on a Sunday?

Since we are an alliance of confessing evangelicals, we should also turn to the confessions. One of the earliest Reformed confessions is of course The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, the doctrinal basis of the Church of England. The Articles themselves indicate the confidence we can have in God's trustworthy word. Article 21, for example, reminds us of the non-inerrant nature of church authorities:

General Councils may not be gathered together without the commandment and will of Princes. And when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining unto God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of holy Scripture.

The last line of the Article is most interesting here, as it appears to simply assume that alongside erring and errant General Councils, the holy Scripture itself is alone to be considered as finally trustworthy.  Naturally this is because it is "God's word written" as Article 20 so straightforwardly puts it, and yet the implication is that the word itself is, by contrast to human authority, without error and cannot lead us astray. This view is also shared by the Homilies of the Church of England; see for example Homily 22 which describes the Bible as "his infallible word."

So Toplady may have learned from other Evangelicals, from Anglican tradition and Anglican formularies to speak of God's word as "unerring."  But ultimately, we must acknowledge that this is in line with the Bible's own presentation of itself. "Every word of God is flawless," says Proverbs 30:5, "he is a shield to those who trust in him".  The flawless, tested, genuine, refined word of God is utterly trustworthy. What Scripture says, God says (as Augustine famously put it), and when we believe and trust in the word, God himself will be our shield, and vindicate that trust.

This no doubt was why, when he wrote in his Journal that he "burnt with zeal, for the glory of God, and for the spiritual welfare of my flock," Toplady declared, "I wished to spend and be spent in the ministry of the word, and had some gracious assurances from on high that God would make use of me to diffuse his gospel, and call in some of his chosen that are yet unconverted."

Many seem to have dropped this vital adjective, "unerring," in recent years, perhaps embarrassed by allegations of 'fundamentalism' or obscurantism in the debates over inerrancy. Have we also lost confidence in the dependability of the word of God to bring spiritual life and growth to God's people? May we recover once again the joy and delight of the writer of Proverbs 30, the Reformers of the Church of England, and the Evangelicals of the Eighteenth Century in the unerring word of our unerring God.


Posted November 5, 2014 @ 3:08 AM by Lee Gatiss
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