29 November, 2022

THROWBACK THURSDAY: Jack Cottrell’s Thoughts on Biblical Inerrancy (1982)

by | 29 September, 2022

Dr. Jack Cottrell, professor of theology at Cincinnati Christian University for 48 years, died Sept. 16, 2022, at his home in Lawrenceburg, Ind. He was 84. 

In addition to writing 43 books, Dr. Cottrell also wrote numerous articles for Christian Standard through the years. 

As Tom Claibourne noted in an article last week, Dr. Cottrell was a “strong, biblical voice” with a “love for truth” and “a passion for sound doctrine. . . . He knew what he believed and why he believed it.” 

This article, published nearly 40 years ago, is good evidence of that.  

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Inerrancy—Does It Really Matter? 

By Jack Cottrell 
Nov. 7, 1982; p. 4 

It is now public knowledge that a considerable number of preachers, teachers, and leaders within the Christian churches (churches of Christ) reject the inerrancy of the Bible. They do not believe that the original manuscripts, as first penned by inspired writers such as Moses, Matthew, and Paul, were necessarily free from errors and mistakes.  

This is serious enough, but even more serious is the widely held notion that it really doesn’t matter whether one accepts inerrancy or not. The point of this article is to show that it does matter. The implications of denying inerrancy are staggering. This can best be seen by asking the question, what else does one give up when he gives up the idea of Biblical inerrancy?  

CONSISTENT SURRENDER TO CHRIST—When one abandons the concept of inerrancy, the first thing he gives up along with it is consistent surrender to the lordship of Christ. This does not mean, of course, that anyone who rejects inerrancy is not truly surrendered to Christ as Lord. It does mean that he no longer has a consistent, reasonable basis for such surrender.  

Why is this so? Because Jesus himself taught that Scripture is inerrant. His references to the Old Testament record of events and characters show an absolute confi­dence in its historicity and truth. The written text can be trusted, down to its smallest letters (Matthew 5:18). Jesus specifically affirms that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), i.e., its testimony cannot be assailed or shown to be false. Jesus addressed the Father in this affirmation: “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17; quotations are from the New American Standard Bible). In a promise relevant to the inspiration of the New Testament, Jesus told His apostles that the Holy Spirit “will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you”; “He will guide you into all the truth” (John 14:26; 16:13).  

Now the question is this: if Jesus taught the inerrancy of Scripture and we deny it, what are we saying about Jesus? There are two choices: either He was deceiving us, or He himself was mistaken. For instance, in Matthew 24:37-39 Jesus refers specifically to Noah and the flood as recorded in Genesis 6–9. Was there really a man named Noah? Did he really build an ark? Was there really a flood? If not, then Jesus has deceived us by His implied acceptance of the Genesis record. Or else Jesus himself thought it was true even though it is not.  

If such is the case, why do we still consider this man Jesus worthy of our trust? If what He taught about the Old Testament is incorrect, how can we trust anything else He says? How can we consistently accept Him as Lord and Savior?  

An alternative is to say that the Gospel writers were themselves mistaken in reporting that Jesus said such things about the Biblical records. But where would this leave us? If they were mistaken in their reporting about this, how can we trust anything else they tell us about Jesus’ words and deeds? We are back to the main point: once we deny inerrancy, our faith in Jesus lacks a consistent, rational basis.  

Such irrationality is clearly seen in this puzzling advice: don’t worry about inerrancy; just follow Christ! As a Florida church leader’s attack on inerrancy put it, “The inerrancy of the Bible? Hardly! The inerrancy of Christ? Amen!” A letter printed in a church of Christ journal said, “Are there errors in the Bible? The question isn’t that crucial. . . . Go now, and begin to hear the Master’s voice.” A letter in a subsequent issue pointed out the inconsistency here: “But that is precisely the problem! If the Bible is not infallible, then what has the Master said? How can we know?”  

Let us remember that our faith in Jesus is consistent with reason. It is based on evidence that satisfies the mind. But what becomes of reason when we give up inerrancy and continue to serve and trust a Savior who taught it? Our relationship to Jesus ceases to have a rational basis. It becomes irrational, subjective, and mystical. This opens the floodgates to errors and excesses of all kinds.  

OBJECTIVE BASIS FOR DOCTRINE—A second thing one gives up when he gives up inerrancy is any objective reference point for Bible doctrine.  

When we accept the Bible as God’s inerrant Word, we must still go through two major steps to determine sound doctrine. The first is textual criticism, which means that sometimes we must decide which among varying manuscripts represents the original text. The second is hermeneutics, which means that we must apply standard rules of interpretation in order to determine the meaning of the original text.  

These are no small tasks, but with an inerrant Bible at least we do not have to decide which Biblical claims to believe and which to discard as false. All of Scripture is true and authoritative; it is an objective source and standard of truth. As 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching.” 

But what happens when we give up inerrancy? We are then faced with the infinitely more difficult task of deciding which Bible claims are true and authoritative for doctrine, and which are tainted with error and are therefore useless for doctrine. When a person denies inerrancy, he is saying there are errors in the Bible—somewhere. It is then up to the individual to decide which Bible statements are true and which are false. In the final analysis, where matters of doctrine are concerned, the criterion chosen for deciding between truth and error will be purely subjective. One winds up believing what he wants to believe and rejecting whatever he does not want to believe as false anyway.  

For example, some feminists’ personal preference for an egalitarian relationship between husbands and wives causes them to reject Paul’s teaching of a hierarchical relation as his own false opinion. (See Paul K. Jewett, Man as Male and Female; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975; pp. 112-119, 134-5.) Another example is a preacher who attacks the concept of inerrancy. He refers to the fact that “Paul occasionally speaks his opinion,” as in 1 Corinthians 7. (He apparently rejects the idea that it is inspired opinion, 1 Corinthians 7:40; 14:37.) Then he says, “If Paul can offer in that section his opinions and admit it, can we safely assume that other sections could reflect his opinion as well, even where he doesn’t come out and say so?”  

It should be obvious that such an approach to Scripture destroys its objective authority and pits the subjective opinions of the interpreter over against the claims of Scripture. This leads to a total subjectivism in the area of doctrine, and ultimately to doctrinal skepticism and agnosticism. Confidence in the very concept of truth is destroyed. Doctrine itself becomes less and less important because it becomes relative, i.e., relative to individual preferences. This leads to such inanities as, “We can be right without everyone else being wrong.” One belief becomes just as good as another, since we cannot have complete trust in our sources anyway.  

In this connection we may comment on the odd notion that the nature of the original manuscripts is irrelevant since they are no longer available. First it should be recognized that whatever we say about the inerrancy of the originals must also be said about the inspiration of the originals. If we do not know whether the originals were inerrant, then we do not know if they were inspired, either. If it is irrelevant whether they were inerrant, then it is irrelevant whether they were inspired. Let us be consistent.  

Second, a rejection of the inerrancy of the originals puts one in the very position described in this section. He has to make a subjective decision about the truth or falsehood of every single statement in Scripture, individually considered. He can no longer say, “I believe it is true simply because it is in the Bible.” Some other reason must be found for believing it.  

You see, if you cannot appeal to the nature of the originals, you cannot appeal to the nature of the copies either, since the nature of the copies depends on the nature of the originals.  

THE KEYSTONE OF BIBLICAL AUTHORITY—Finally, when one gives up inerrancy, he gives up the very keystone of Biblical authority.  

A keystone is the top piece in a stone arch, the very shape and position of which keep the other stones in place and hold up the arch. If the keystone is removed, the arch falls down.  

Inerrancy is like a keystone. Without it, the whole structure of Biblical authority becomes problematic. History and experience have shown that once inerrancy is surrendered, Biblical authority will continue to be eroded, because there is no logical stopping place. The denial of inerrancy is thus likened to a hole in a dike. The hole keeps getting bigger and bigger as the pressures of unbelief get stronger and stronger.  

This is Harold Lindsell’s point in his book, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976). He states, “Once biblical infallibility is surrendered it leads to the most undesirable consequences. It will end in apostasy at last. It is my opinion that it is next to impossible to stop the process of theological deterioration once inerrancy is abandoned.” He adds, “No matter how sincere a man may be, and however carefully he guards against further theological concessions, they are inevitable once inerrancy is given up.” The generation which first gives up inerrancy may not go very much further, but the evidence shows that subsequent generations will.  

The second generation will follow through on the implications contained in the abandonment of inerrancy and will make concessions on questions that pertain to matters of faith and practice as well as to matters of history, science, and chronology. When inerrancy goes, it opens a small hole in the dike, and if that hole is not closed, the levee will collapse and the whole land will be overrun with the waters of unbelief (pp. 142, 159-60). 

We have seen this happen once in the churches and schools of the restoration movement, in the Disciples of Christ apostasy earlier in this century. I must state my deep concern that we stand today at the threshold of another such disaster. Already, as noted above, a considerable number of preachers and teachers have rejected inerrancy. Thus they have removed the keystone; it is only a matter of time until the arch falls down.  

In fact it has already begun to crumble in some areas, especially with regard to such Old Testament facts as the literal existence of Adam and Noah, and the authentic authorship of such Old Testament books as Genesis and Daniel. Arguing whether inerrancy is important or not is thus like arguing whether cancer is a serious disease. We can keep on discussing terms and definitions, or we can look and see what is actually happening to the body.  

Unfortunately we can no longer assume that just because a teacher or preacher is associated with “our” wing of the restoration movement (centrists; Christian churches/churches of Christ), he will have a consistent commitment to Biblical authority. The time has come when elders and pulpit committees must begin to ask specific questions of prospective ministers, and for college and seminary trustees to do the same of prospective teachers.  

If local elders or missions committees want to make sure that the missions and schools supported by their churches are still consistently committed to Biblical au­thority, they may want to make some specific inquiries. At least one church has begun to do this. Its elders are asking specific questions of each missionary and of each professor of Bible or theology in the schools supported by the church. Their questions are specific rather than general, since general questions can more easily be interpreted to mean something other than what was originally intended. Some of their questions are as follows: Do you believe— 

that Adam and Eve were literal historical figures?  

that the great flood of Genesis 6–9 was a literal historical event?  

that Moses wrote the book of Genesis as it stands today, allowing for errors in the transmission of the text?  

that the events of Jonah’s life as recorded in the book of Jonah literally happened?  

that Daniel wrote all of the book of Daniel?  

that Jesus was supernaturally conceived in Mary’s womb and had no human father?  

that Jesus literally spoke all the sayings attributed to Him in the Gospels, allowing for error in transmission?  

that demons (personal evil spirits) actually exist?  

that Jesus is truly God (the Son) and should be worshiped?  

that Jesus was literally, bodily raised from the dead?  

At this time, I would expect the overwhelming majority of preachers, missionaries, and teachers to answer yes to such questions. I do not believe the erosion of Biblical authority has proceeded very far as yet, but it has certainly begun. Only our continued vigilance will prevent it from expanding and engulfing whole churches, agencies, and schools.  

Even as I make these suggestions, I expect to be accused of “McCarthyism” and “witch-hunting.” But I feel somewhat like the television star who committed her drug-ridden fourteen-year-old daughter to a rehabilitation hospital against the latter’s will. Her comment to her dissenting daughter was this: “I love you enough to let you hate me.” Likewise, I love God’s Word enough, and I love our churches and schools enough to be hated by those who are blind to the dangers of rejecting Biblical inerrancy.  

Jack Cottrell is a member of the faculty of Cincinnati Christian Seminary, Cincinnati, Ohio.  

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You might be interested in how some readers responded to this essay. These comments were shared via Christian Standard’s “Mailbox” feature on Jan. 2, 1983.

Christian Standard

Contact us at cs@christianstandardmedia.com

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