Inerrancy: Recent Overview and a Review
Vern Poythress, Inerrancy and the Gospels: A God-Centered Approach to the Challenges of Harmonization (P&R, 2022), 240 pages, Paperback, $24.99.
At what might well have been the high-water mark in the battle over the Bible, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), issued the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) in 1978. In the nearly five decades since the CSBI was published, those skirmishing over the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible have experienced somewhat of a detente, and the Evangelical church turned its attention to other controversies, such as Open Theism and the New Perspective.
Since that time, it seems that the CSBI has fallen out of prominence and into relative obscurity. At the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting in 2004, in order to clarify the organization’s position on inerrancy, the ETS members passed a resolution that asserted,
“For the purpose of advising members regarding the intent and meaning of the reference to biblical inerrancy in the Doctrinal Basis of ETS, the Society refers members to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978)… .”
Despite passing with an 80% margin, it was reported that the Executive Committee came to the realization that many of the members present were not familiar with the CSBI — so many, in fact, that the Committee members thought it necessary to have copies of the document distributed to each attendee.
This obscurity may have led in part to subsequent controversies. While Open Theism and the New Perspective involved the issue of interpretation and the Bible’s authority, overt acrimony over inerrancy within Evangelicalism remained somewhat muted until the early 2000s, when provocative views on inerrancy published by a faculty member caused no small dust-up at Westminster Theological Seminary. In 2008, Westminster’s faculty addressed this controversy with a series of affirmations and denials, which included a section on the truthfulness of Scripture. Those affirmations upheld the institution’s long-standing position on biblical inerrancy.
Westminster and Inerrancy
Westminster’s position is a legacy inherited from Princeton Seminary, particularly seen in Warfield’s defense of the inspiration and authority of Scripture. This position was continued by various WTS faculty members who wrote and/or edited books defending inerrancy. In 1946, Ned Stonehouse and Paul Woolley edited The Infallible Word: a symposium by the members of the faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary. Professor E. J. Young published Thy Word Is Truth: some thoughts on the biblical doctrine of inspiration (1957), which was echoed in 2013 by Peter Lillback and Richard Gaffin, Jr. in their anthology, Thy Word Is Still Truth: essential writings on the doctrine of Scripture from the Reformation to today. In the wake of the publication of the CSBI and the shift of the discussion to issues dealing with hermeneutics, professor Harvie Conn edited a series of essays by the WTS faculty and published it in 1988 under the title, Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: a tradition, a challenge, a debate.
As an evangelical institution, WTS has faithfully stood in the gap decade after decade, upholding the orthodox doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In the most recent round of publications to deal with challenges to the doctrine of inerrancy, the Westminster faculty have addressed issues raised against the doctrine not just by higher critical views, but also by postmodernist and hyper-individualistic hermeneutical assumptions. In 2008, then professor Gregory Beale published The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: responding to new challenges to biblical authority to address concerns that new views on inerrancy that were being promoted within Evangelicalism were raising regarding the Old Testament’s reliability and authority. The year 2012 saw the appearance of the volume, Did God Really Say?: Affirming the Truthfulness and Trustworthiness of Scripture, edited by WTS professor David Garner, which included chapters from WTS faculty along with professors from other Evangelical institutions. This book sought to counter the influence of some self-identified Evangelical scholars who were projecting “creaturely limitations on the Scriptures.”
This brings us to Professor Vern Poythress, who holds the title “Distinguished Professor of New Testament, Biblical Interpretation, And Systematic Theology” at WTS. In 2012, he published two books through Crossway: Inerrancy and Worldview and Inerrancy and the Gospels. The former addressed modern assumptions and presuppositions that impact, at a most fundamental level, one’s view of the Bible and its inerrant nature. The latter addresses challenges from skeptical scholarship concerning the nature of the Gospel accounts. As the recent reissue from P&R Publishing indicates, this book remains highly relevant, both for the importance of its subject and for the unique and helpful perspective of its author.
Inerrancy and the Gospels
The book should be helpful to every Christian reader, whether a church member, seminary student, pastor, or scholar. As one expects from Professor Poythress, in this book he addresses both the complications raised by modern scholarship as well as the assumptions and presuppositions underlying that scholarship. This latter element is key, as readers who take up the Gospels with skeptical assumptions inevitably cast them aside with cynical conclusions. Indeed, where we end often depends on where we begin.
As its title indicates, the book seeks to tackle crucial issues that either question or affirm the Bible’s own view of the nature of the canonical Gospels and thus either undermine or support the subsequent trustworthiness and authority of those documents. Dr. Poythress points out that apparent difficulties in harmonizing differences among narrative passages in the Gospels can cause even sympathetic readers to have doubts about the Bible’s own claims to inerrancy. So, he aims to address inerrancy by tackling some of the main sticking points regarding the harmonization of apparent discrepancies among the Gospel accounts.
To that end, Inerrancy and the Gospels provides three broad approaches that seek to help blunt some of the thorny parts of harmonization. The first part of the book takes the account of the Centurion’s servant as a case study for the problems raised in trying to reconcile differences in the Gospel narratives and then uses that as a springboard into an extended discussion of important principles that must be taken into account when considering possible solutions to resolving these apparent discrepancies (Part Two).
The closing part of the book (Parts Four through Seven) offer possible harmonization solutions to a number of specific instances where the Gospel writings have some level of deviation within their accounts of the same events. This is a helpful section that allows the reader to see exactly how the harmonization principles from earlier in the book are deployed on specific texts in order to come up with solutions that are possible, plausible, and even probable.
The middle part of Inerrancy and the Gospels (Part Three) is actually the most helpful. It builds its principles on the concept in the book’s subtitle: A God-Centered Approach to The Challenges of Harmonization.
Before discussing those particular principles as they apply to harmonization and inerrancy, it should be noted that the “God-Centered” theme is important for at least two reasons: first, it is central to Christianity and a proper understanding of truth. By starting with the understanding that all truth is God’s truth, it is easy to see that everything must be understood from God’s perspective – as much as we are able, given the revelation we have. Human limitations and sin’s impact on human reason ensure that our ability to clearly discern reality has been lost. It is only by using the corrective lenses of Scripture that we see things more as God sees them. Calvin’s analogy about Scripture as spectacles brings the importance of viewing things from God’s perspective into focus: “For just as eyes, when dimmed with age or weakness or by some other defect, unless aided by spectacles, discern nothing distinctly; so, such is our feebleness, unless Scripture guides us in seeking God, we are immediately confused.”
A second reason why the God-centered theme of Inerrancy and the Gospels is significant is because it has become central to Professor Poythress’s own understanding of applying truth to a host of biblical, theological, and worldview issues. A quick survey of his recent book titles will make this evident:
In the Beginning Was the Word – language: a God-centered approach (2009).
Redeeming Sociology: a God-centered approach (2011).
Inerrancy and the Gospels: a God-centered approach to the challenges of harmonization (2012).
Logic: a God-centered approach to the foundation of western thought (2013).
Redeeming Philosophy: a God-centered approach to the big questions (2014).
Chance and the Sovereignty of God: a God-centered approach to probability and random events (2014).
Redeeming Mathematics: a God-centered approach (2015).
Redeeming our Thinking about History: a God-centered approach (2022).
Dr. Poythress is to be commended for consistently employing an approach that gets the foundation of our understanding correct from the very outset. This allows him to build a coherent edifice for whatever topic he is addressing by viewing it from God’s perspective. Every reader will benefit from his methodology because every topic seen from God’s sovereign vantage point gives the reader confidence that they are starting out on the right heading and sight line and should end up at reasonable conclusions.
Again, the middle part of this book is helpful because in its discussion of the principles of harmonization, it addresses attitudes readers bring regarding the nature of the Bible and the doctrine of inerrancy, and it draws out the implications of a man-centered versus a God-centered attitude regarding revelation. A man-centered attitude starts with human pride and builds down from there. Adding rationalistic and empiricist presuppositions, it demands that the Bible conform to our humanistic ideals and expectations as well as to our mandatory level of precision and certitude in the historical events it purports to convey. Thus, it is inevitable that such humanistic hubris will skew a reader’s receptiveness to the truth. A strength of the God-centered approach of the book is that Professor Poythress takes seriously the noetic effects of sin on our ability to assent to truth and place our trust in the Jesus who is revealed on the pages of the Gospels. What he says of himself as an interpreter of the Bible is true for every reader who engages with special revelation: “I am a finite, fallible human being. I am also affected by remaining sin. And sin affects biblical interpretation.” To start from a man-centered approach to the veracity of the Gospels and their interpretation is to get off on the wrong foot at the very first step of one’s journey.
On the other hand, the author begins with a God-centered approach and builds up from there. From that starting point, he traces out a few crucial implications: “If God is the principal author of the Gospels, then we should attend to what he means. That implies that we should reckon with everything we know about him when we read, and we should try through the power of the Holy Spirit to interpret what we read in the light of what we know about him.”
To complete the Trinitarian aspect of how we should view the nature of revelation, Professor Poythress also stresses how our devotion to Christ comes into play: “Followers of Christ give their loyalty to Christ, and therefore they also should be loyal to his words.” And he goes on to show that the implication of starting with Christ (as well as with the Father and the Holy Spirit) is, “Our attitude toward the Bible and toward the Gospels differs from those whose primary loyalty is to themselves or to modern or postmodern ideas.”
This God-centered attitude that starts with a Trinitarian view of how we got the Gospels is just one of several very helpful attitude adjustments the author helps his readers to make. And I cannot imagine any reader who would not also benefit a great deal from Dr. Poythress’s very pastorally oriented and Christ-centered discussion on how God can use the intellectual suffering that may arise from unresolved attempts at harmonizing apparent discrepancies between Gospel texts (chapters 14 and 15).
This review has merely skimmed the surface of the many helpful and important aspects of biblical interpretation and its impact on the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy and the Gospels deals with weighty matters but does so in an easy-to-access writing style. The book can certainly serve as a helpful resource to pastors as they prepare sermons and to Bible study and small group leaders who are teaching through the gospels, especially when trying to help lay people think through how to deal with “problem passages” by incorporating textual, hermeneutical, historical, and theological aspects. The bottom-line advantage of Dr. Poythress’s approach and content is that the book helps with not just what to think about specific Gospel passages that appear to conflict but also how to think about the interpretive endeavor with respect to the Gospels and its impact on the Bible’s trustworthiness, and to do so from God’s vantage point. It’s a volume that should be on every Christian’s shelf – and it won’t be a dust-collector!
James Rich holds a Ph.D. in Church History from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is a Teaching Elder in the PCA, works as the chaplain at Spring House Estates in Spring House, PA, and is an adjunct professor of history and theology at Cairn University and an adjunct instructor in church history for Westminster’s online program.
"Inerrancy: What it Does and Does Not Mean" by David P. Smith
"A Layman's Historical Guide to the Inerrancy Debate" by William B. Evans
The Inerrancy of Scripture, ed. by Jeffrey Stivason
Does Inerrancy Matter? by James Boice
 Sexton Jason S. 2009. “How Far Beyond Chicago? Assessing Recent Attempts to Reframe the Inerrancy Debate.” Themelios 34 no.1 (April): 26-49, p. 26. Sexton notes that in 2006, ETS voted to add the clarifying statement to its by-laws.
 Did God Really Say?, p. ix.
 Institutes I.xiv.1.
 Page 15.
 Page 83.
 Page 83.