7 February, 2023

Jack Cottrell on Truth (from Our Archives)

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by | 1 January, 2023

Jack Cottrell (April 30, 1938—September 16, 2022) wrote many articles for Christian Standard over the years, and one of his favorite topics was truth. While we do not have space to include all his articles on different aspects of this important topic, we have excerpted from several of them here. 

We’ll let Dr. Cottrell introduce himself. In “What I Have Learned in 50 Years as a Theologian (Part 1),” published in our February 7, 2010, issue, he wrote, 

Since receiving my AB degree from Cincinnati Bible Seminary in 1959, I have been either preparing to teach or teaching theology (Bible doctrine) in CBS’s (now Cincinnati Christian University’s) graduate school. I was recently challenged to sum up what I have learned during this lifetime of study. Here are my thoughts. . . .  

My 50 years as a theologian (43 of them as a professor) have been based on the firm conviction that there is such a thing as truth. And if there is truth, there is also falsehood. I have also worked under the conviction that human beings made in God’s image are able to receive and understand God’s communication of truth in his revealed and inspired Word. 

I take seriously the teaching of Titus 1:9, that a leader in Christ’s church must be “holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Thus a main task of every Bible teacher (theologian, if you please) is to discern and teach truth (“sound doctrine”), and to expose and refute false doctrine. 

As I have attempted to be faithful to this mandate of the apostle Paul, I have been pleased to find widespread agreement about the reality of truth and falsehood. But I have also learned over these five decades that a great many within Christendom, including our movement, and often in positions of leadership, do not accept this most fundamental of all beliefs. 

These convictions are clear in Cottrell’s many writings.  

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‘In Defense of the Gospel’

January 21, 1967, pp. 7-8

(In response to two writers concerning their teachings about Calvinism)  

I want to be as clear and frank as possible. The motivation of consequence is not gospel at all; it is law. To insist on this motivation as the answer to man’s problems is to fail to make the transition from law to gospel, and the book of Romans may as well have never been written. 

To obey the law simply out of regard for the consequences is legalistic self-love; it reverses Romans 3:28. 

What kind of motivation distinguishes the believer from the unbeliever, who may outwardly obey the law for fear of punishment but inwardly hate it? It is the motivation of grateful love, not of fear (or greed). The Christian obeys the law not because he fears the consequences if he does not, but because he delights in the law and just wants to obey it (Romans 7:22; compare Psalm 1:2; 119:97). The ultimate test of Christian faith and love is the willingness to obey regardless of the consequences. As a matter of fact, fear of punishment cannot motivate the Christian to do good works, for those who dwell in Christ by faith have no punishment awaiting them anyway (Romans 8:1). The Christian is not a sullen slave who obeys only to escape the whip; nor is he a greedy hireling who does what he is told only to collect his promised wages. Rather, he is a saved and grateful sinner who loves his Lord and Saviour so much that he will joyfully do anything for Him.  

Consequences are important, to be sure; and we must not forget them. And just to be realistic, we must recognize that even Christians, while in the imperfect earthly state, still find themselves motivated by such considerations to a greater or less degree. But such motives alone are not gospel at all. The gospel-motive is love and must be primary in the Christian’s life, even if vestiges of the law-motive remain. But our goal is to rid ourselves of the latter, and to make love for God alone our motive for obedience. 

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‘Restoration and the Word of God’

November 15, 1970, pp. 11-13 

It is only because the Bible is the Word of God that it can and should be the norm for restoration. If it were less than this, it would have no more claim to authority than any other human judgment or standard. Restorationism itself would be questionable if not precluded—for why should we give any special allegiance to some collection of human opinions and ideas from the distant past and from a distant culture? Thus the divine origin of the Bible is the necessary foundation for restoration. The Anabaptists knew this, and we need to remember it today. 

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‘The Inerrancy of the Bible’

May 21, 1978, pp. 4-6 

One of the most crucial and widely discussed issues facing the church today is the nature of the Bible. At the heart of the discussion is the question of inerrancy. Is the Bible inerrant in everything it asserts? The answer must be yes. This is the only view which is consistent with Biblical teaching and Christian commitment.  

The Biblical teaching—What does the word “inerrant” mean? It means “without error, mistake, contradiction, or falsehood.” It means “true, reliable trustworthy, accurate, infallible.” To say that the Bible is inerrant means that it is absolutely true and trustworthy in everything that it asserts; it is totally without error.  

Inerrancy is not just a theory about the Bible or a philosophical concept alien to the Bible, as some critics say. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy is firmly rooted in the teaching of Scripture itself, where it is both implied and asserted.  

The argument for inerrancy is more than a mere inference. It is actually a syllogism, which is a form of argument in which the conclusion is necessarily true if the two premises are true, as in the following classic example: “All men are mortal (major premise); Socrates is a man (minor premise); therefore Socrates is mortal (necessary conclusion).” 

In the argument for inerrancy, the major premise is “Every word of God is true (inerrant).” This may rightly be inferred from the very nature of God, since God cannot lie (Titus 1:2). But it is also specifically affirmed. Jesus said to the Father, “Thy word is truth” (John 17:17). His word is called “the word of truth” (2 Corinthians 6:7; Colossians 1:5; 2 Timothy 2:15; James 1:18). 

The minor premise of the argument is “The Bible is God’s word.” This premise is also established both by inference and by direct assertion. It is first of all the proper and necessary inference from the fact of inspiration. All Scripture is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16), which means that God himself is its origin and source. He is ultimately responsible for every word. It is His word, the word of God. 

In addition to inference, though, is the direct assertion. Scripture is called “the word of God” in Matthew 15:6 (see Mark 7:13); Romans 9:6; and Psalm 119:105 (“thy word,” addressed to God; see throughout the psalm). Even more emphatically, Scripture is called “the oracles (spoken words, ta logia) of God” in Romans 3:2, where the term refers to the whole Old Testament, and in Hebrews 5:12, where it includes the New Testament revelation as well. 

Since both the major and minor premises are asserted as true, the conclusion follows by logical necessity. Every word of God is true (inerrant); the Bible is God’s word; therefore the Bible is inerrant. This can be denied only by denying one or both of the premises. 

Direct statement—Even if one rejects this solid argument, there is still another point that must be faced. That the Bible is inerrant is not just the necessary conclusion of a sound syllogism; it is also directly taught in the Word of God. Jesus specifically declared that “Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). 

Whatever is written in Scripture is absolute truth; Scripture is the infallible authority. This statement by Jesus is the solid foundation on which the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy ultimately rests. . . .  

We should not be surprised at this conclusion [that the Bible is true (inerrant)], since the very purpose of inspiration is to assure the accuracy of the communication God gives to man through His spokesmen. This is the very goal and rationale of inspiration; this is why God inspired the writers in the first place. 

Why is the inerrancy of Scripture such a crucial point? If the Bible were no more important than any other book, then it would not really matter. The degree of accuracy in any writing is directly related to its importance. Vacation postcards could contain errors of fact, and little would depend on it. . . . On the other hand, mistakes in military communications and command decisions could be very costly in terms of lives and freedom. 

But the most important message of all is the one God is communicating to us through Scripture. It is a matter of life and death, indeed, eternal life or eternal death. These things “have been written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (John 20:31). Here is a message of such importance that God has not trusted it to fallible memories and understandings. He has supervised its communication so that it reaches us without error. 

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‘Inerrancy—Does It Really Matter?

A “Reflections” column, November 7, 1982, pp. 4-6 

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. . . . 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. . . .  

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. . . . 

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. . . .  

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. . . .  

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. 

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‘Ravi & Me’

March 2019, pp. 42-43 

My main advice for Christians in the early 21st century is this: Do not surrender the concept of truth to the pretentious proponents of postmodernism. Objective truth exists, and we can know it. Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32, New American Standard Bible). What we believe is absolute, objective truth; the Bible is absolute, objective truth. As the Word of God inspired by the Holy Spirit and given to creatures made in God’s image, every biblical statement has a single correct intended meaning that we for the most part can discern and confidently teach. We must resist the temptation to relativize faith and doctrine, and to elevate experience above Scripture as our final authority. 

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