One of the things I most appreciated about Dr. Danny Akin's sermon about the Axioms of a Great Commission Resurgence was his bold statement that there is no room in the Southern Baptist Convention for people who do not agree regarding the inerrancy of the Bible. It is an utterly unenforceable concept, but nonetheless a welcome clarification of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.
Inerrancy-fatigue has meant that there has not been much discussion in the blog world about the nature of the Bible. Indeed, inerrancy-fatigue may mean very little response to this blog post. Nevertheless, I have decided to reproduce a paper that I wrote some time ago on the topic of inerrancy. The paper amounts to an attempt to interact with the thoughts of James Denison, the official theologian of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and his attack upon inerrancy in a self-published paper entitled, "The Errancy of Inerrancy." It is longer than my standard post, so if such things bore you, I won't be offended if you just don't bother. Otherwise, enjoy.
An Errant Bible: The Gateway Heresy
Dr. Jim Denison has served as the official professional theologian of the Baptist General Convention of Texas since being installed as Theologian-in-Residence at BGCT by the administration of Dr. Randel Everett in January 2009. Dr. Denison’s ministry as theologian-in-residence, according to Everett, will “[reflect] an innovative approach to serving the needs of our churches in Texas while also being involved in ministry beyond the state.”
Mentioned in the press release, and doubtless a factor in his selection, are Denison’s past labors in communicating theology to lay people. Among his better known efforts in this regard are his published books, such as Wrestling with God: How Can I Love a God I’m Not Sure I Trust? Far less known, but perhaps more important, is a paper Denison published in 2005 entitled “The Errancy of Inerrancy: Historical and Logical Examinations.”
The nature of the Bible is a foundational point of Christian theology. Denison serves in a rare and prestigious position as the official resident theologian of a large state convention of Southern Baptist believers. The inerrancy of the Bible has become a topic of significant historical importance. Denison’s writings are factually flawed and tend toward sophistry. For all of these reasons, this paper will offer a critique of Denison’s denial of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Two possible approaches exist for refuting Denison. One approach would involve the authorship of a footnoted pedantic rebuttal fit for the academic community. I believe that this type of rebuttal is the less important of the two options. Denison authored his paper in order to take the denial of inerrancy down from the ivory towers of liberal academia (its indigenous habitat) and plead his case “in common-sense terms” for the benefit of “anyone confused by this issue” for whom “too little of [the denial of inerrancy] has been explained or made relevant to the church member.” Because Denison has made this argument for the lay community, the rebuttal also needs to be addressed toward the lay community. Besides, Denison’s paper is merely a regurgitation of points long since addressed within academic circles, making an academic rebuttal superfluous. It is appropriate for this rebuttal to take a non-academic, common-sense tone in setting forth the simple logical flaws of Denison’s main arguments.
Those main arguments are six in number:
Denison argues that the word “inerrancy” has been defined and qualified in too many different and highly technical ways to be of any theological use; therefore, we ought to prefer to speak of the “trustworthiness” or “authority” of the Bible.
Denison argues that the concept of inerrancy, since it is applied exclusively to the original Bible manuscripts, actually undermines the faith of believers in their own copies of the Bible.
Denison argues that inerrancy is a recent doctrinal innovation not shared by those in Christian history whom we ought to emulate—that it is not among our theological “roots.”
Denison argues that rather than the denial of inerrancy's leading to other heresies, the affirmation of inerrancy leads to unwarranted divisiveness.
Denison argues that inerrancy is a philosophical position not supported by the statements of the Bible itself.
Denison argues that the Bible actually is not inerrant; therefore, to apply the test of inerrancy to the Bible is to set the Bible up to fail at a test that it does not and would not apply to itself, and thereby to undermine one’s belief in the “trustworthiness” of the Bible.
FIRST, we consider Denison’s claim that the word “inerrancy” has been defined and qualified in too many different and highly technical ways to be of any theological use. In Denison’s own words: “it seems clear to me that any word with at least eight definitions and twelve qualifications has lost its value as a simple, common test of anything.”
Actually, Denison’s argument works against him, not for him. Yes, many different people have defined “inerrancy” in different ways. And yes, several inerrantists have offered a number of qualifications of the term “inerrancy” in order to forestall misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the term. Denison has suitably demonstrated that people with an impressive array of varied beliefs about the precise nature of the Bible can all claim to be an “inerrantist” in some fashion or another. Denison’s suggestion is that this complex state of affairs makes it not very meaningful for one to affirm that he is an inerrantist.
Yet even if this fact makes it mean less when someone affirms that he is an inerrantist, then it necessarily makes it mean more when someone cannot affirm that he is an inerrantist. The denial of inerrancy then means that, out of all the various definitions of inerrancy and with all of the various reasonable qualifications of inerrancy applied, a person still cannot find a way with all of that flexibility to affirm the word in any sense.
By the way, although Denison protests in this first section of his paper that the word “inerrancy” is so variously defined and over-qualified as to be meaningless, he seems to have no problem defining inerrancy while he is arguing against it in the remainder of the paper. Thus, shortly after declaring the word meaningless and excessively complex and qualified beyond repair, Denison simply states that “’Inerrancy’ may be defined as the view that ‘1. When all the facts are known, 2. they will demonstrate that the Bible in its autographs 3. and correctly interpreted 4. is entirely true 5. in all that it affirms.’” There you go. That’s precisely what I and so many other Southern Baptists mean when we speak of inerrancy, and Denison has defined it in a simple sentence. What’s so difficult about that?
Finally, we should observe that any word used to describe the nature of the Bible is going to wind up being subjected to a number of definitions and qualifications. The complexity is not a feature of the word; it is an aspect of the subject matter.
Denison doesn’t want to use “inerrant” but he does want to use “trustworthy” as an adjective to describe the Bible. Yet, is he suggesting that every last person who describes the Bible as “trustworthy” always means precisely the same thing by that affirmation? If so, he is wrong. I affirm the trustworthiness of the Bible, but I mean by the word something different than the belief that Denison articulates in his paper. By my meaning of the trustworthiness of the Bible (i.e., that you can trust anything you read in the Bible to be true), Denison does not believe in the trustworthiness of the Bible. Denison’s favorite word obviously has multiple definitions and is just as complex as “inerrant” ever could be.
Furthermore, just as clarifications and qualifications exist for the definition of inerrancy, Denison likewise qualifies his understanding of biblical trustworthiness. His trustworthy Bible actually is not trustworthy, according to Denison, for “an involved scientific explanation of the origin of the universe” or “a detailed system for the future” or as a chronicle of the reigns of the kings of Judah or as a narrative of what Judas did after he betrayed Jesus. In all of these respects, according to Denison, the Bible (whether the original manuscripts or the Bible you have on your shelf) is definitely not trustworthy. Denison’s concept of a “trustworthy” Bible is a highly qualified theory.
If these flaws so deeply damage the utility of the word “inerrancy,” they why do they not bother Denison in his use of the term “trustworthy”? Even after rigorous definition and careful qualification of both terms, to call the Bible inerrant is still to say something higher about its nature than to call it “trustworthy”—something higher about the nature of the Bible that not every proponent of a highly qualified and watered-down concept of the “trustworthiness” of the Bible is willing to say.
SECOND, we move to a consideration of Denison’s imaginative notion that the affirmation of inerrancy actually works to undermine Christian faith in the text of the Bible that the present-day believer actually holds in his hands. Again, to use Denison’s own words:
To summarize the threat which inerrancy poses to your Bible:
By this doctrine, the Bible must be inerrant to be trustworthy;
Only the original documents were inerrant;
The copies on which we base our Bibles today are therefore “not entirely error-free”;
Our Bibles therefore cannot be inerrant, and by definition are thus untrustworthy.
Denison’s assertion is entirely theoretical. He cannot produce teeming masses of people whose faith in the text of a modern Bible has been spoiled by the deleterious effects of having affirmed biblical inerrancy. On the other hand, the repeated experience of Southern Baptists in the real world has been that those who lack a trust in the truthfulness and accuracy of the Bibles in their hands are universally people who deny the inerrancy of the Bible rather than inerrantists. The person who is an inerrantist with regard to the original manuscripts but more skeptical with regard to the Bible he holds in his hand than are those who deny the inerrancy of the Bible? He’s a phantom existing only in Denison’s mind.
If Denison has never encountered anyone afflicted by this malady, then how did Denison come to identify and diagnose it? This portion of Denison’s argument is pure sophistry. Denison weaves an abstract philosophical argument by which he and those who deny biblical inerrancy are the true guardians of the trustworthiness of the Bible, while those who outwardly affirm the inerrancy of the Bible are the covert opponents of its trustworthiness and reliability. For someone who spends so much time arguing against Christians being confined by Aristotelian logic, Denison certainly seems insistent that his readers follow his purported logical framework to beware some danger of inerrancy that has proven to be entirely unrealized in actual existence!
How do inerrantists deal with the manuscript question? Both inerrantists and people who deny biblical inerrancy know that typographical and copying errors have been made in the production of Bibles down through the ages. We have thousands of manuscripts of the Bible, and the occasional differences are there for all to see. So, the fact of textual variants (another term for these typographical and copying errors) is not something that separates inerrantists from those like Denison who deny biblical inerrancy; rather it is a fact that we acknowledge together in the same way.
For some verses in the Bible, therefore, some manuscripts read one way and other manuscripts read another way. Only three possibilities exist for understanding this reality. First, perhaps in this postmodern relativistic age I could somehow choose to believe that each and every different reading is equally the entirely trustworthy word of God (to use Denison’s preferred term). Second, I might believe that the original wording is the trustworthy word of God, and that the later mistakes are not the trustworthy word of God. Third, I might believe that neither the original wording nor any of the later mistakes are the trustworthy word of God—that no reading is inerrant or trustworthy.
Which of those three positions do inerrantists advocate? We affirm the second option, believing that the original wording is the inerrant and trustworthy word of God, while the later mistakes are just that—human mistakes. It is at this point that Denison is attacking inerrantists for embracing the second option.
Which option does Denison affirm? From what Denison has written in the paper, we can rule out the first option: Denison does not believe that the later mistakes constitute the trustworthy word of God. He explicitly points out that he does not consider the “longer ending” of the Gospel of Mark to be trustworthy. He also indicates that he does not consider the typographical error that resulted in the “Wicked Bible” to be trustworthy. Denison does not believe that textual or typographical errors in the Bible are trustworthy.
Which of the other two options has Denison chosen? Either he believes that the Bible from which he preaches each Sunday is trustworthy where the translators have chosen the right readings and not trustworthy where they have not (the second option), or he believes that his Bible is not trustworthy anywhere (the third option). Denison seems not to choose the third option, so we can presume his affirmation of the second option.
If Denison agrees with this second option, then one wonders why he is criticizing inerrantists who hold the same viewpoint as his own. Wherever your Bible might contain one of the later mistakes, both Denison and I believe the same thing—that those words are neither inerrant nor trustworthy. Wherever your Bible contains the original wording, I affirm that those words are the inerrant word of God, while Denison somehow apparently believes that the original wording of the Bible may at places be erroneous yet somehow at the same time is trustworthy. These facts define our two positions.
THIRD, Denison argues that inerrancy is a novel doctrine of recent development and that we cannot legitimately claim it to be a part of our “roots” as Southern Baptists. This is among the weakest sections of the paper.
One of those weaknesses involves the criteria that Denison employs for evaluating figures in church history regarding their views of the nature of the Bible. For a person who lived in the past to be considered an inerrantist, Denison requires that he either employ the exact word “inerrant” or articulate something similar to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.
Denison’s ploy only succeeds if the inerrantist is willing to accept the entire burden of proof during the examination of the history of Christianity. Let Denison bring forth the history of those using precisely the word “trustworthiness” to refer to the nature of the Bible, and those who employ precisely the words that he favors to define trustworthiness and qualify it. Furthermore, let him produce those who speak of errors in the biblical text and discredit its treatments of the origins of the universe and human life. His standard for judging Christian History would cause any view of the nature of the Bible to fail, including his own.
When one is not straining at gnats and swallowing camels, the historical search is much less complex. For example, consider this comparison. Denison quotes Augustine as saying:
…none of [the biblical] authors has committed an error in writing. If in that literature I meet with anything which seems contrary to truth, I will have no doubt that it is only the manuscript which is faulty, or the translator who has not hit the sense, or my own failure to understand.
The simple definition of “inerrancy” that Denison himself quoted earlier says:
“Inerrancy” may be defined as the view that “1. When all the facts are known, 2. they will demonstrate that the Bible in its autographs 3. and correctly interpreted 4. is entirely true 5. in all that it affirms.”
The definition allows for the possibility that the Bible might not be interpreted properly or that all of the facts might not be known. Those possibilities correspond with Augustine’s statement about “my own failure to understand” or “the translator who has not hit the sense.” The definition speaks of the Bible in its autographs, corresponding with Augustine’s statement about “the manuscript” possibly being “faulty.” The definition states that, these conditions being met, the Bible is “entirely true…in all that it affirms.” Augustine says that “none of [the biblical] authors has committed an error in writing.” These two statements are different? I submit that it requires years of advanced study and careful indoctrination not to be able to see that these two quotations are essentially saying precisely same thing. Thankfully, most Southern Baptists are bereft of the necessary training to deprive them of their common sense.
A second weakness is present in this section as well. Denison takes great pains to place before us people in Christian History who have held a high view of the nature of the Bible, but who have also been guilty of holding erroneous positions in other areas of their theology. Denison summarizes, “In short, many of the so-called ‘inerrantists’ of church history interpreted the Bible in ways which would bother most Baptists and ‘conservative’ Christians today.” In making this important and often overlooked point, Denison is doing us a great service. A right view of the nature of the Bible does not guarantee a right practice of the interpretation of the Bible. Furthermore, the right interpretation of the Bible is as important as the right view of the nature and authority of the Bible. Some inerrantists have forgotten this truth, claiming that so long as a person is committed to inerrancy, inerrantists ought not to quibble over differences in interpretation. Denison’s arguments assist us greatly in correcting this naïve view.
However, it escapes me how Denison sees this point as undermining inerrancy. Yes, believing in inerrancy will not automatically make you a good interpreter of the Bible. Believing in inerrancy also will not cure warts, make your hair grow back, or enable you to make millions of dollars buying and selling real estate. These truths do not mean that affirming inerrancy is not valuable at all; they merely mean that these things are not the particular benefits of inerrancy that give value to the affirmation of inerrancy.
Denison has the formula backwards. It is not that affirming inerrancy is important because it makes me a good interpreter of the Bible; interpreting the Bible is important because I affirm inerrancy. God authored the Bible. He meant to communicate something through the words that He Himself chose when He caused men to write the Bible. Those words constitute the inerrant word of God, who finds me worthy of His message. The quest of seeking to find the one-and-only rightful interpretation of the Bible is an exercise in hearing the voice of God. Hearing the voice of God is an inordinately more important endeavor than is hearing the voice of “the Yahwist.” Therefore the inerrantist has far greater motivation to interpret the Bible rightly than does the modernist.
FOURTH, we look at Denison’s claim that the denial of inerrancy does not lead to a slippery slope of the compromise of other doctrines. Denison offers a fourfold rebuttal of the slippery slope theory. First, people can affirm inerrancy and still espouse doctrinal error. Second, there are instances of people who deny inerrancy and yet still manage not to apostatize completely. Third, because Baptist churches are autonomous, the teaching of an errant Bible in seminaries will not necessarily affect Baptist churches at all. Fourth, in real life one can question the accuracy of a statement or work partially without being compelled to reject it entirely.
Denison either misunderstands or misconstrues the concept of the “slippery slope.” Personally, rather than using the phrase “slippery slope,” I prefer to speak of the denial of biblical inerrancy as a “gateway heresy,” deliberately drawing from the characterization of marijuana as a “gateway drug.” Those who argue that marijuana is a “gateway drug” are not claiming that every person who smokes marijuana must necessarily move on to heroin. Neither are they claiming that every heroin addict also is a marijuana user. Rather, they are attempting to demonstrate that marijuana use leads to the use of other drugs often enough to be statistically significant.
Likewise, history demonstrates a clear statistical pattern of people who first reject biblical inerrancy and then reject other important Christian doctrines. One could cite individual anecdotes such as Southern Seminary Professor Crawford Howell Toy, who abandoned biblical inerrancy and eventually left orthodox Christianity. Another approach would be to analyze such groups as the homosexuality-affirming Alliance of Baptists and compare the percentage of their membership affirming inerrancy with the percentage of Southern Baptists affirming inerrancy. In doing this, the objective would not be to demonstrate that no exceptions exist, but simply to show that most who become heretics deny inerrancy first, and that the denial of inerrancy strongly predisposes one to deny other important Christian doctrines as well. One can agree with Denison that it is possible for a person to deny biblical inerrancy and yet cling to some of the Bible’s important teachings, yet we can also say that however possible this state may be, it often does not endure over the span of generations in the majority of those who deny the inerrancy of the Bible. The well-beaten path, trodden by Mainline denominations and institutions all around us, is from the denial of inerrancy to the denial of other vital Christian doctrines.
With regard to Denison’s argument from Baptist polity, he has the matter backwards. I agree with him that Baptist churches are normally quite resilient against the influences of liberal effete academicians. Nevertheless, even if we can guarantee that churches could remain impervious to the influences of liberal seminaries, our polity also requires us to guarantee that liberal seminaries should not be able to remain impervious to the influences of the conservative churches from which they once wrongly derived their income.
Denison’s statements about the tenability of rejecting the trustworthiness of the Bible in part, but not in whole, merits our attention. Consider his wording:
Fourth, the “slippery slope” theory rests on faulty reasoning. We’re told that if we admit there are questions with the biblical text regarding geography or science, we’ll soon slide into questioning vital areas of faith. If we cannot be sure how many angels were at the resurrection, soon we’ll be questioning the resurrection itself.
However, this reasoning doesn’t work in life. When you find typographical errors in a newspaper, do you question everything the paper contains? If you disagree with your pastor regarding his interpretation of a particular text, do you reject every part of his theology? By the “slippery slope” argument, once you’ve started down the precipice there’s nothing to break your fall. But the fact is, the slip doesn’t necessarily lead to a slope at all.
Denison’s argument fails at several points. First, his case only survives if one makes a stark and artificial separation between “geography or science” and “vital areas of the faith,” but such a neat division is unwarranted. Did God literally create Adam and Eve? Does the entire lineage of humanity trace back to one primeval couple? Were they created sinless? Did they fall into sin? Did their sin somehow affect the nature of their progeny? Is the nature of the universe itself affected by their sin? These are questions of cosmology, biology, anthropology, psychology, sociology, and even astronomy. These are scientific questions. Yet they are also spiritual questions, the answers to which affect the very gospel itself.
Denison’s case is further flawed because the nature of my newspaper or the nature of my pastor’s hermeneutics are not intertwined with the nature of God. The way I treat a publication or message is always intertwined with what I know about the character of the one who produces it.
Sometimes I encounter publications produced by those whom I know to be fallen, imprecise, errant people who are genuinely trying to produce a good and accurate publication. My local newspaper fits into this category. When I find a typographical error in my newspaper, I know that it is an error, but I do not conclude that the error was intentional, and its isolated presence does not make me any more skeptical as to whether the newspaper correctly reports the President’s activities yesterday. I conclude that the newspaper is generally accurate but occasionally flawed because I presume that the people who publish it are trying to be accurate but will make inadvertent mistakes.
Other people are deliberately dishonest. If I receive an email from a person I don’t know telling me about a vast fortune that he needs to transfer out of Nigeria, then I receive that message differently. I presume that the person involved is deliberately trying to deceive me. If I should enter into a subsequent conversation with the sender, I would presume every word to be a lie, simply because I know the sender to be a liar trying to deceive me.
Other people I consider honest but generally irresponsible. If they forward to me emails about FCC Petition 2493 and Madalyn Murray O’Hair and other similar matters, strongly chiding me that WE MUST ACT NOW, then I will soon conclude that they are well-meaning people but a bit reckless in their research. As a consequence, when they forward me an email about a missing child for whom we really need to be on the lookout, I am immediately skeptical.
On the other hand, if a friend calls me on the phone stating that her own daughter is missing, then I’m not skeptical at all. My friend is in a position to know the truth and it is too important a subject for her not to have given the matter careful thought. My estimation of the messenger’s credibility, competence, and character determine entirely my expectations of the message.
If tomorrow I have the experience that Isaiah had, and I see the LORD high and lifted up and hear Him speaking to me, then I’m going to presume that every word is entirely inerrant. I will make this assumption apart from Francis Turretin, apart from any intent to divide the Southern Baptist Convention, and apart from any acquaintance with The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. The cause of my presumption is solely and entirely what I know about the nature of God. I heard God say something, and I will die before anyone convinces me that it was not true. Denison understands this connection between God’s nature and His message well enough to articulate it himself:
It all seems so simple. God inspired the Bible and he doesn’t make mistakes, so there can be no errors in the Bible. The Bible is therefore “inerrant.”
Denison rejects this argument, but he never bothers to refute it. The question is simply whether the Bible is like the newspaper or the Nigerian fraud email or the FCC Petition email or the phone call from the friend or Isaiah’s vision. The answer to that question hinges entirely upon who God is and what role He had in the production of the Bible. It not only seems that simple; it is that simple.
FIFTH, we consider Denison’s argument that the Bible does not claim inerrancy for itself. Denison opines:
…inerrancy is neither a word nor an argument found in the biblical text itself. Does it seem right or wrong to create a question the Scriptures nowhere ask, and then make one answer to this question the only “biblical” position?
Once again, it becomes important at this juncture to bring forward the simple definition of inerrancy quoted by Denison:
“Inerrancy” may be defined as the view that “1. When all the facts are known, 2. they will demonstrate that the Bible in its autographs 3. and correctly interpreted 4. is entirely true 5. in all that it affirms.”
Does the Bible make this argument, or does it not? Denison claims that the only way to arrive at this argument is to “extend the argument beyond the text.” In one sense, Denison is correct. Inerrancy is a matter of systematic theology. In other words, to understand the entirety of the biblical claim of inerrancy, it is necessary to consider not just what the Bible says in one place, but to consider the aggregate of what the Bible says in several places.
Perhaps the most intriguing way to address Denison’s argument would be to take his own admissions about what the Bible teaches of its own nature, and see that Denison’s interpretation itself essentially adds up to inerrancy! To do so we take Denison’s argument in our own sequence, looking at how his own chapter builds an argument in favor of inerrancy.
Denison acknowledged in his chapter than the Bible has come to us by the inspiration of God. Every word of the biblical autographs is God speaking. Inspiration tells us about “the origin of the text,” Denison says. “This text and others like it guarantee that the Bible came from God.” Denison favorably quotes a passage that goes even further: “the Spirit of God rested on and in the prophets and spoke through them so that their words did not come from themselves, but from the mouth of God.”(emphasis mine)
The paper also analyzes the text of Numbers 23:19, which says, “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.” So far, Denison has told us that every word of the Bible comes from God, and that God does not lie. This seems to be a solid case for biblical inerrancy! How does Denison not agree?
The flaw in this logic is that “lie” and “error” are not the same thing. Webster defines “lie” as “to make a statement that one knows is false, especially with intent to deceive.” It defines an “error” as “something incorrectly done through ignorance or carelessness; mistake.” Thus Number 23:19 does not speak to the question of error/inerrancy, but rather to the trustworthy character of God.
If a person does not subscribe to inerrancy, this does not mean that he or she accuses God of “intent to deceive.” Even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy claims that the Bible we have is “not entirely error-free” (Exposition E), but this does not mean that it deliberately deceives us. The author of Numbers 23:19 in no sense intended to address the issue of inerrancy.
So according to Denison’s very careful argument here, the words of the Bible may not be a “lie” because every word comes from God, and God cannot be accused of “intent to deceive.” However, “‘lie’ and ‘error’ are not the same thing,” and although the words of the Bible may not be a “lie” they may indeed be an “error.” God, according to Denison, is not someone able “to make a statement that [He] knows is false, especially with intent to deceive,” but He apparently is someone capable of “something incorrectly done through ignorance or carelessness.” God is not bad; He is merely incompetent!
The inerrantist, agreeing with Denison that God is the author bearing the responsibility for every word in the biblical autographs, maintains that our God neither lies nor makes mistakes. For this reason we believe the Bible to be inerrant. Denison has catalogued several (but not all) of the biblical passages that bespeak the high view we hold of the nature of the Bible. He employs several arguments to attempt to show that words like flawless, true, perfect, and faithful can be construed to allow room for errors in the Bible. What he cannot do—what no person has ever been able to do—is direct us to any portion of the Bible alleging flaws, weaknesses, or errors in any portion of the Bible in any sense. Once again, Denison’s only hope for success is to shirk the burden of proof and place it entirely upon his opponents.
Looking back to our simple definition of inerrancy, we concede that the Bible does not make statements about its own “autographs” or manuscripts. This is hardly surprising, since no book of the Bible had a manuscript problem while that book was being written. It also is no impediment to affirming inerrancy. Rather, it is because the Bible, speaking of itself in its original state, affirms its own inerrancy that we speak of the inerrancy of the autographs. Otherwise, just from the texts cited by Denison, without bringing in 2 Peter 1:15-21 and a dozen other passages, we find an excellent case for inerrancy right within the Bible itself.
SIXTH, and finally, we consider Denison’s chapter naming some of the specific assertions in the Bible that he considers erroneous.
Denison believes that “any clear reading of [the accounts in Matthew 27:1-10 and Acts 1:18-19 of Judas’s post-betrayal actions] shows that the two accounts do contradict each other in several places” and that one, or both, is in error, disproving biblical inerrancy. I have attempted in this paper to maintain a conversational tone and to avoid the inclusion of footnotes and the invocations of experts. To refute Denison’s characterization of the accounts of Judas’s actions in Matthew and Acts, however, I must call upon an expert. The expert whom I summon to refute Jim Denison is…Jim Denison. In his online article entitled “Isn’t the Bible Filled with Contradictions?” Denison defends the Judas narrative against the charge that it is contradictory:
"Matthew says that Judas hanged himself; the book of Acts says he fell down and died. Which is it?" Matthew's gospel does indeed record Judas's suicide by hanging (Mt 27:5). In Acts 1 Peter says, "Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out" (v. 18). It may be that Judas's body decomposed, so that when the rope broke or was cut, it fell as Peter describes. Or it may be that the Greek word translated "hanged" is actually the word "impaled" (both meanings are possible), so that Peter describes more vividly the way Judas killed himself. Either option is a possible way to explain the apparent contradiction.
The body of written work struggling with the problem of being self-contradictory is not the Bible; it is Denison’s own writings. When writing for the lost, he defends the Bible against the charge that it is self-contradictory. When writing for Christians and against inerrantists, he himself charges the Bible with inconsistencies and errors. I say this neither to be uncharitable nor to make unduly personal what is a discussion of ideas. Rather, I think that Denison’s online article is a stellar example of the fact that apparent contradictions in the Bible are reconcilable. I think it further reveals Denison’s instinctual understanding (as a good pastor) that the inerrancy of the Bible is indeed important, and that successful evangelism often requires showing that the Bible is God’s perfect word and is not in error.
Just as Denison has been able to reconcile the Judas accounts to his apparent satisfaction, his other supposed contradictions that disprove inerrancy are not so problematic as he would suggest. I carried off to college with me a copy of Gleason L. Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Other similar works probably sit on the shelf of a bookstore near you or are available online. Each believer who is troubled by some alleged contradiction in the Bible owes it to himself to examine the strong evidence in favor of inerrancy before succumbing to the soothsaying of a document like Denison’s “The Errancy of Inerrancy.”
IN CONCLUSION, none of Denison’s six arguments disproves biblical inerrancy. As a Baptist, I’m thankful to live in a nation in which every individual is free to embrace the inerrancy of the Bible, to regard it as riddled with contradictions, or even to refuse to read it altogether. I affirm Dr. Denison’s right to come to his own conclusions regarding the nature of the Bible. I affirm his right to teach those conclusions and to publish them for the perusal of others. I affirm the right of the Baptist General Covention of Texas to hire him as their Theologian-in-Residence and to consider his attempts to undermine belief in biblical inerrancy as a service to the churches of the BGCT.
Thankfully, religious liberty in our nation also involves the right to consider Denison’s arguments, interact with them, and offer a vigorous critique. BGCT Theologian-in-Residence Jim Denison disagrees with what both the 1963 and the 2000 versions of The Baptist Faith & Message say about the Bible—that it has “God for its author…and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” His authorship, dissemination, and use of this paper represents his attempt to get Texas Baptist churches to join him in his error. In a land of religious liberty he thereby opens a conversation in which I may humbly disagree with him, point out his errors, and hopefully pray that the Holy Spirit will, as promised, lead him to all truth.