Theological method

Poythress on biblical inerrancy

Vern PoythressIn my last post, I shared some analyses of why biblical inerrancy is back on the table for discussion among evangelicals, and I summarized John Walton’s proposal that the language of speech-act theory is a help as we approach the issue. Since then, I have come upon Vern Poythress’s contribution to a panel at the ETS annual meeting in Baltimore, on “Pedagogical Best Practices for the Doctrine of Inerrancy.” His response to the two questions I introduced last week enriches the discussion.

What brought on the renewed interest in biblical inerrancy?

Poythress wonders: “what is at the root of the contemporary form of challenge to inerrancy? Is it the uncertainty and pluralism of postmodern tolerance, or is it the (comparative) certainty claimed for pronouncements from biblical criticism and science?”

On the one hand, working from Tim Keller’s observations in regard to Christian apologetics (The Reason for God), Poythress suggests that changes in western culture have contributed to the need for us to revisit the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

 Something has happened. Western culture has moved in the direction of religious relativism and moral relativism. And that affects people’s perception of the doctrine of inerrancy. Clearly, if they think there cannot be one true religion, they will also think that the Bible cannot be completely right, because it contains absolute religious claims. And it contains absolute moral claims as well. These moral claims cannot be completely right if they constitute a straitjacket that inhibits and suppresses true human living. Inerrancy is implausible to people unless these perceptions about religion and morality receive cogent responses.

. . .

Inroads from relativism have certainly contributed to the implausibility of inerrancy.

Additionally, however, “some of the scholars who criticize inerrancy or attempt to redefine it have expressed considerable confidence in historical-critical reconstructions of the history and the meaning of biblical texts. . . . Biblical criticism increasingly confronts us with the alternative: interact responsibly with criticism, and give up classical inerrancy; or ghettoize yourself and become irrelevant to future generations. The same may be said for the claims coming from the scientific world.” [emphasis mine]

So both of these factors are at work in bringing us to the situation in which biblical inerrancy needs to be defended once again, and “they are both re-enforced by the influence from materialism and Kantianism.” [emphasis mine]

Materialism contributes to the idea that science gives us real truth, but that personal meanings built on top of the material layer of the universe are subjective inventions, either individual creations or cultural creations. Thus, religious ideas and moral ideas are subjective, rather than being based on objective revelation from God or the objective existence of absolute moral standards. According to these assumptions, the Bible is out of tune, because it originated in an era when people believed that religion and morality rested on accessible absolute truth.

Kantianism moves in the same direction. According to Kantianism, science gives us the realm of the rational, because it investigates phenomena belonging to the world of sense experience. Religion, morality, and human freedom belong to the noumenal realm, where pure reason cannot reach. Kant himself thought that people could operate for practical purposes using assumptions about God and morality and human freedom. But the multicultural influence in our own time has broken apart the unity of human views about God, morality, and freedom. And that leaves us with irreducible pluralism in religion and morality. Every society and indeed every individual must find his own subjective way. . . .

In the newer thinking, influenced by materialism, there is no revelation, but only what we as human beings project as our own personal meanings. The universe is a closed box of physical causation, which God himself–if there is a God–cannot break through. When it comes to understanding the Bible, the Bible itself is closed in with respect to four different dimensions. It is enclosed within history, which is a series of immanent causes (a closed linear development from cause to effect). It is enclosed within language, which is wholly human. It is enclosed within culture, which is wholly human. It is enclosed within the finite capabilities of the human psyche. God cannot break into history, or language, or culture, or the psyche.

Even supposing hypothetically that God did “break in,” we could understand the effect of his breaking-in only in purely human terms. So a break in history, in the form of a miracle, would be irrational and unintelligible, because it would not fit into our rational guidelines for historical meaning. A break into language would result either in unintelligible gobbledygook or a message in human language. And the latter would be wholly human, and so could not communicate anything divine. Similarly, a break into culture would be either unintelligible or wholly human, and so would a break into the human psyche.

How should we make our case for biblical inerrancy?

Poythress thinks that

teaching inerrancy works better if we take into account the influence of modern worldviews, including influences from postmodernism. Inerrancy seems implausible to people who are influenced by these worldviews. Certainly we need to teach the positive biblical basis for inerrancy. But we also need to discuss and undermine contemporary atmospheric assumptions that get in the way.

In our cultural context today,

responding to this array of opposition is not easy, because the attacks against inerrancy come from many points, and because the assumptions on which the attacks are based are often not critically analyzed, but are simply part of our intellectual atmosphere. They are, as it were, part of the intellectual and cultural air that we breathe. The typical university has systematically made God irrelevant. In its learned halls analysis proceeds with the assumption that science, history, language, culture, and the human psyche are whole and merely human–closed to the presence of God. And where rational analysis fails–because of pluralism–we get individual and corporate expressionism. Each does his own thing.

We need to lay out a coherent alternative. And if it is really an alternative, it is not an attempt to make a truce with the mainstream of contemporary thinking, by accepting most of it but also adding an extra “religious” layer or additional subjective personal meanings. Root and branch need revision; we need a radical alternative. The lordship of Christ leads to re-interpreting every field of human action and reflection.

So Poythress calls us to a vigorous restatement of the antithesis between unbelief and Christian faith, and he thinks that this antithesis will become more clear if we “work through the meaning of inerrancy from several perspectives.” Readers of the work of Poythress and John Frame will be familiar with their perspectival approach, looking at issues from a normative, a situational, and an existential perspective. I remember thinking this proposal rather artificial or forced when I first met it, but it has grown on me, and now I often find it quite helpful in the doing of theology.

Beginning with the normative perspective, Poythress suggests that we “work through the biblical teaching about the word of God and about its own status.” From the situational perspective, “we concentrate on how our view of history, language, culture, and psychology impinge on biblical interpretation.” We may begin by spelling out why “we do not believe in a mechanically closed system of causation in history,” and then describe our philosophy of language, particularly as it pertains to talking about God.

Here we are likely to meet the accusation that inerrantists make “inerrancy an idea that dies the death of a thousand qualifications. But the ‘qualifications’ they have in view arise in responding to a precisionistic ideal of virtually infinite and exhaustive detail, which is itself alien to the real character of language and truth, within a thoroughly Christian framework.” So Poythress proposes that “a view of language based on a biblically grounded view of the world leads in radically different directions,” but he does not spell out just how those other directions would look. Consequently, I am intrigued with this suggestion, but I am not yet able to unpack just how that would be done. I sense that it would produce something different from the sort of work that is inspired by the Chicago Statement, but I may be misconstruing Poythress’ intention. If not, I need a more concrete description of what these “other directions” entail.

Poythress gives us a small instance, in regard to the ways in which we learn the Bible’s teaching about itself. In the Reformed tradition, this has generally been approached from the normative perspective, and Poythress acknowledges the validity of that work, but he thinks that the biblical theology of Geerhardus Vos illustrates a more situational perspective.

 What historical unfolding do we see in the process of God giving his word to man? We can see the centrality of verbal instruction from God in the case of Adam, Noah, and Mount Sinai. Mount Sinai results in the beginning of a written canon. And in that context God teaches the people the importance of paying attention to what is written. This kind of biblical-theological exposition, when extended, can help people to make sense of how the authority of the Bible as the word of God fits into the larger context of life and history. It is, if you will, a kind of story approach to the role of the word of God, and can help people to see its relevance to human living.


we can also work through the meaning of inerrancy from an existential perspective [emphasis mine], also called the personal perspective. What does inerrancy look like for the person who is following Christ and who is committed to submitting to Scripture rather than critically sifting its meanings? It means humility. It means not always having an answer, but believing that God is true even when you do not. It means living intellectually as well as morally “by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4). It means looking like a fool and a simpleton to the rest of the intellectual world, for whom unfettered human judgment holds sway, free from the ultimacy of any religious claim.

In regard to our existential grasp of the nature of Scripture, we might

focus on our need. We need guidance because we are desperately fouled up by sin. And sin infects the mind (Eph. 4:17-24). Only a deep sense of need, together with the work of the Holy Spirit, provides a setting in which people are willing to give up everything, including every shred of autonomy, every shred of intellectual independence and pride, to the lordship of Christ:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:25-27)

If we give up, we are willing that Christ will be the master, and we will be disciples. That means listening submissively to his voice. And that voice teaches the authority of Scripture.

Added on Dec 5/13:

Professor Poythress wrote me with the following message which will be helpful to anyone reading my post who wants to pursue further his thoughts on this issue, by means of his books, which are generously made available for free download.

I am honored that you would comment on my remarks on teaching inerrancy. I have endeavored to flesh out my rather programmatic remarks by books. To begin with the issue of the nature of language, see In the Beginning Was the Word. It also has quite a bit on history. Then on culture: Redeeming Sociology. Then two books on inerrancy: Inerrancy and Worldview and Inerrancy and the Gospels. Oh, and one on science: Redeeming Science. There is also one on logic. All are available for download at All are pertinent to thinking through the universal Lordship of Christ. Blessings, Vern Poythress



By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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