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THE INERRANCY OF SCRIPTURE AND THE FREEWILL THEORY
By R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D.
I. THE PROBLEM
The doctrine of inerrancy states that the Bible is free from error. A common reason given why inerrancy is impossible is that the Bible was written by fallen human beings; fallen people are fallible, therefore, since "God does not override our freewill," the Bible cannot be inerrant in everything, especially in those details of history, geography or science, etc., which were only "incidental" to its spiritual message. Sometimes evangelicals are heard to affirm its "infallibility" in spiritual or saving truth, while its "inerrancy" in other details is denied. They then claim to believe in the "infallibility of the Bible" but reject its "inerrancy."
The essence of this objection to inerrancy stems from two ideas in particular. The first is the humanistic notion that being "truly human" involves something called "freewill," conceived of as an innate capacity for uncaused or purely spontaneous action of a will equally capable of deciding one way or the other. The Arminians call this capacity the "liberty of indifference."
The second assumption is that God would never counter or "override" this human ability, even when inspiring Scripture. So even when producing the Bible, the authors, not being perfect, would of necessity include something of their own fallible ideas in the text. It follows that because the original autographs were not inerrant, no later copies could be, although the main saving content of Scripture might still be reasonably reliable.
The fact is, that if the authors of the Bible had freewill in any sense acceptable to an Arminian, and were thus always freely capable of error, it would simply be impossible for God to secure the inerrancy of Scripture either in "the details" or in "its central saving message" without overriding that freewill in the very act of revealing himself and therefore also when inspiring Scripture. I see no way out of this dilemma either for an Arminian or for Calvinists who inconsistently hold to a similar freewill position along with their belief in God's sovereignty. And it simply will not do for such an Evangelical to appeal to "mystery" at this point; what we have here is a contradiction, pure and simple. Either God controlled and so determined the resultant text, or he left the human agent free to include mistakes.
For a Biblical Christian, the term mystery means a religious secret originally "hid in God" but "now revealed" to the writers of Scripture, who were to "make it known" to the nations (see Eph. 3:4-10). There are today therefore no secret doctrines in Christianity, for the responsibility of the Christian leader includes declaring "the whole counsel of God" as revealed (see Acts 20:27, 26:26 etc.). Jesus himself taught no secret doctrines and said so plainly at his trial (John 18:20). The word "mystery" (secret) is not a synonym for "paradox" in the Bible.
For the non-Christian worldview, all experience and all truth "ends in mystery," i.e. in paradox, contradiction, and the ultimately unintelligible, for back of all Being is non-Being, and behind the light of our knowledge, looms the primeval darkness. All the heathen gods are finite and so they struggle as we do, to maintain whatever control they can muster; even Zeus was powerless against the Fates.
For the Christian, no human knowledge can be exhaustive, for behind all our finite knowledge is the exhaustive knowledge of God himself. "All things are open to the eyes of him with whom we have to do," says Hebrews 4:13. However hard it may be for us to grasp the relationship between the finite and the Infinite, God as Creator remains himself the Origin of this relationship. It is therefore to be resolved in Him, and not in some abstract dynamic tension within an ultimate "Mystery of Being."
None of this alters the fact that the magnificent Holiness and pure Presence of the great God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in his transcendent Glory, even when but dimly perceived, draws out the soul in wonder, love, and praise. Even our wonderment at the beauty and vast complexities of nature itself often tend to lead the soul by degrees into a contemplation of their great Original, and this may be the beginnings of worship in its fullest sense. But there is a worldview of difference between the pagan "Mystery of Being" and the now revealed secrets of the God who "has spoken to us in these last days in His Son, by whom also he made the ages" (Heb 1:1-2).
Wonder and worship do not presuppose, much less require, an irrational or paradoxical element in God, in the creation, or in human nature. On the contrary, they come into their own in the context of the fullness of revelation known and believed. "I know whom I have believed, and am convinced," said Paul in 2Tim 1:12.
II. INSPIRATION ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE
As well as arguing from such a priori considerations as the above however, a Biblical perspective on inspiration can be gained from certain key passages in which the process of inspiration is directly in view, and its results described.
1) 2 Timothy 3:16-17. This classical verse on the subject makes it clear that inspiration is an attribute of the text itself rather than of the human authors of Scripture. "All Scripture is God-breathed"that is, "the Scriptures are breathed out by God" rather than being merely the products of a spiritual ecstasy or an inspired or spiritually-elevated life.
In other words, the process of inspiration therefore terminates upon the text itself, whatever the intermediate stages might be. We should ask ourselves therefore, what state of affairs would be necessary for this to occur? Would such a conclusion with the text even be possible if a human (and sinful, and so fallible) freewill could interpose itself at any time and choose arbitrarily to say something other than what God intended? But that is precisely what the freewill theory usually means, and indeed seems to require.
2) 2 Peter 1:20-21 says explicitly that the prophecies of the Old Testament came "not by the human will." Apparently Peter wanted to unambiguously exclude the human will as an originating factor in the process of inspiration. He then strengthens this claim by saying that the human authors "spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit." The word rendered "moved" (KJV, NASB) is more accurately rendered as "carried along" and is so used in Acts 27:15 of Paul's ship being driven by storm winds in the Mediterranean.
Further, the "speaking" of the authors is said to be "from God" as distinct from "from the will of man." These contrasts are unmistakable and can only be understood in terms of God's "overriding" the limitations of an imperfect human nature (the will being particularly mentioned) in order to produce a text which represents exactly what God himself wants and nothing else. That is, the result is a "God-breathed" text, whatever human attributes it may additionally have.
3) 1Corinthians 1-2 contains a blanket repudiation of what Paul calls "the wisdom of men," a wisdom "of the world" which is merely a "wisdom of words" and not "of God. " The sense in which the apostolic message is "of God" is not merely the general content of the message ("the preaching of the cross," "the gospel" in general) but also "words.. taught by the Holy Spirit" (2:13).
The resulting verbal testimony is said to be "revealed by his (God's) Spirit," and is actually called "the mind of the Lord" and "the mind of Christ" in the immediate context. That this also applies to the written revelation concretely is stated by Paul in 1Cor. 14:37, where he warns us that "the things that I write to you are the commandments of the Lord." In other words, they have the same status as the Ten Commandments of Moses, as Peter notes in 2 Pet 3:15-16.
4) The Ten Commandments are, of course, an explicit case of the most extreme form of "mechanical" verbal revelation, using a method even less error-prone than pure dictation through a stenographer would be. The case is especially interesting. Not only was no human agency used, but Moses himself was set aside as it were, and God inscribed the Ten primary Laws on two tablets of stone with his own finger. "The tablets were God's work, and the writing was God's writing engraved on the tablets" says Exodus 32:15-16.
This is the first account in the Pentateuch of an inscripturated revelation and begins the process of the Torah's being revealed. At some point Genesis was also compiled, presumably in the Wilderness, and then naturally placed first because of its earlier subject matter.
Another occasion of God's writing with his finger is the case of Belshazzar's feast in Daniel 5;5, but it is not clear whether this was a permanent engraving in the plaster wall or only a visionary image of some kind. Again, when Jesus wrote on the ground in John 8, we are not told what his actual words were, but whatever it was, it seems to have embarrassed the surrounding legalists who quietly drifted away. Occasionally then, God speaks to his people directly, and sometimes even without using a human agent at all.
Occasionally, Bible-believing Christians are treated to the absurd argument that "a dictation theory of inspiration" would be "dehumanizing," being merely "mechanical," and so not involve the personality" of the human author. But how a teacher giving a dictation lesson to a class of children to teach them care in listening and precision in copying down what they hear is "dehumanizing" is not particularly clear to me. How a lawyer dictating a letter to his client through a stenographer is "dehumanizing" to the stenographer is likewise unclear.
One would have rather thought that training children in attentive listening to, and recording of, details would bring out some of the more important human features they are capable of. Surely, the whole point of the technique of dictation is the elimination of errors of detail? This is presumably even more important in a God-given revelation than it is in a business letter, or in a legal brief.
It makes no difference to point out that John's Gospel differs from Matthew's and Romans differs from Acts in style, each document bearing the unmistakable personal characteristics of their respective human authors on every page. The reasons for this are obvious. It is also true that tape recordings of Paul's or Peter's speeches would reveal that Peter had a Galilean accent and Paul a Tarsian. But the real issue is not the trivial fact that every human personality is unique and different. The real issue is the sovereignty of God, as the Lord pointed out to Moses when he tried to get out of being a prophet on the basis of being a poorer public speaker than his brother Aaron.
The answer God gave was explicit and sufficient; "Who made man's mouth? Who makes him dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?" (Ex. 4:10-17) When Moses objected further that Aaron would cut a better figure, God angrily set aside the objection with "I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to say. . . (and) you are to speak to him [Aaron] and put the words in his mouth. .. he shall be as a mouth for you and you shall be as God to him." This type of description of how God would inspire the verbal content of the Testimony is used often in the books of Moses (Deut. 18:18) and later of God's other prophets, such as Isaiah (Isa. 51:16), "I will put my words in your mouth."
All this of course, is the explicit language of "dictation." It would appear that there were on many occasions an element of what can only be called dictation in the method God used to reveal truth to his people, and it might reasonably be concluded that there is an element of dictation behind all verbal revelation.
As for John's Gospel having a different stamp of personality than Paul's Romans, the sufficient answer is "Who made man's brain? Is it not I the Lord?" If a 22 year old secretary can manipulate computer or word-processor to produce a business letter with no errors in it, while having no knowledge whatever of how the machine works, how can anyone rationally object to the eternal God using a human being to produce an accurate revelation, when he himself designed and created the prophet's human nature? The idea is simply ludicrous.
III. UNLESS, OF COURSE ...
Unless, of course, we introduce the idea of freewill. The whole point of the freewill theory is to provide a state of affairs which God has produced by not controlling the will, by not imposing his will on human choices, so that we will choose spontaneously, and freely from any causal or overriding interference which might determine the choice one way or the other.
On the other hand, the whole point of dictation is to eliminate the free choice of the legal secretary in using her own style of expression. A legal document must use the precise and unambiguous legal language which the lawyer dictates. Errorless exactitude is of the essence here. Likewise, Jesus said to his opponents that "The Scriptures cannot be broken" and "not one jot or tittle shall pass from the Law until all be fulfilled" (Matt. 5:18). Jots and tittles are, like the hairs of our heads, all numbered by the Lord (Luke 12:7) and are surely more important than any number of sparrows (Matt. 10:29-30).
The humanistic presupposition of the autonomy of human thought simply guts all these verses of their power. If "God cannot ride rough-shod over the human freewill" (as they put it), he cannot exercise the control necessary to guarantee that his revelation will be any more than generally accurate. So at last it rests with the "freewill," the autonomous human decision-making process to decide on more or less rational (?) grounds what in the Bible is correct and what is not. This is the final upshot of any theory of "partial inspiration," as B. B. Warfield called it.
IV. THE CALVINIST VIEW OF "FREEWILL"
The great reformational confessions contain strong statements against the libertarian freewill of the average arminianizing Evangelical. The Thirty-Nine Articles (Art. X) say that since the Fall "we have no power to do good works acceptable to God." In fact, God's grace must go before us to cause us "to have a good will," and to continue "to work with us [even] when we have that good will." The Calvinistic Anglicans of the 1500s certainly meant to exclude anything which might give the impression that God leaves the human will alone to muddle along or cooperate as the fit takes it.
Likewise in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1:8), both Old and New Testaments are said to be "immediately inspired by God. . and are therefore authentical." The word "immediately" is crucial here, because it means to exclude the "mediate" influence of human fallibility, since otherwise (IV:5) it is only "by his (God's) grace alone" that God "enables him freely to will and to do that which is spiritually good," for even when regenerate, we are still capable of sin, for the "will of man is made perfectly and immutably free to do good alone in the state of glory only."
But if this is true for sanctification in general, that God must continue to uphold the regenerate so that they produce at least some good works "which God has foreordained that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:8-10), how much more so must it be true in that special circumstance of his Apostles' writing verbal revelations involving jots and tittles? After all, one glance at a Hebrew manuscript makes it clear that the difference between the letter Daleth and the letter Resh is a mere "tittle" and between a Vav and a Yod is the shorter length of the Yod or the longer length of the Vav.
Furthermore, if Paul used a secretary to write his later letters, the divine control resulting in "what I write" being "the commandments of the Lord" must have necessarily extended to the secretary too. God made the brains of first-century secretaries too, as well as those of the Apostles.
While systematically excluding the libertarian notion of human freedom, Calvinists always insist not only that human choices are real and personal and significant for the resulting actions of the person willing and choosing, but that these acts of the will are free in the sense not of being uncaused, but of freely acting out of the nature (whether born again or not) of the person willing, and in harmony with that nature. This was Jesus' point about "good trees" bringing forth good fruit" and "bad trees. . bad fruit," and that "it is not possible" for it to happen otherwise (Matt. 7:17-19, 12:33). Trees are infallibly known by their fruits, he says. You cannot get figs from thistles, so bad characters make bad choices because their natures are bad.
The "Will" is simply the abstract noun of the verb "to will," synonymous with "to choose," and it is always a person with a character, an unregenerate or a regenerate nature, who is doing the willing. Thus the Will is essentially a manifestation of the character. If the character is fallen, sinful, and so fallible, the choices will be fallible unless God in some sense "overrides" the will in the process of thought and expression, thereby securing the result the way he wants it.
Thus "The Roman, British and Soviet Empires will pass away, but my jots and tittles will never pass away." (c.f. Mat 24:35) This must mean at the very least, that the authentic letters of the autograph manuscripts must exist today in the extant copies we have, even if the geniuses of textual criticism are not yet able to publish a Greek text which satisfies their requirements.
For example, in John 1:18, John either said "only begotten Son" (with the KJV, following the Textus Receptus, etc.) or "only begotten God" (with the NASB, following Sinaiaticus, etc.), but the original term (huios or theos) exists today in one or another published Greek text, even if I am not expert enough to evaluate the manuscript evidence and settle which word was original for myself.
Likewise, all the jots and tittles of Jesus' Hebrew Bible existed in the third century B.C., even if the Greek (Septuagint) translators did not take every one of them seriously and paraphrased a bit here and there, producing the Greek text which is so often quoted (paraphrases and all) in the New Testament. If God wants to use a Greek paraphrase of an OT verse he is at perfect liberty and at full sovereign competence to do so. The OT quotations in Hebrews testify to the fascinating variety of the results, every one of them inerrantly expressing what God wanted in each case.
This two-part article is concluded at:
The Inerrancy of Scripture and Freewill Theory - Part Two.
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The Inerrancy of Scripture and Freewill Theory © January 1996 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center.
The above article was posted on this Web site September 3, 1999.
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