27 May, 2023

My Response: Inerrancy Is a Hill to Defend to the End


by | 1 May, 2023 | 1 comment

By Jerry Harris, Publisher

Christian Standard enjoys receiving feedback from our readers. Some of the best comments and letters are printed in our “Interact” section at the back of the magazine. I have personally received both positive and negative comments on articles I’ve written; up to this point, I have never responded, because I believe those viewpoints are also instructive. But when I received this letter from Dr. David Kiger, the librarian at Milligan University, about a phrase I used in a recent column, I knew it was essential I respond. Here is his unedited letter:  

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Thank you for all [the] work you do to keep the Christian Standard going. It is a flagship publication of our movement, and I am grateful it continues. 

I write to voice a concern to the January/February 2023 issue of the Christian Standard. In his “From the Publisher” column, Jerry Harris says, “Doctrinally, the Restoration Movement believes the Bible is the Word of God written by authors inspired by God and inerrant in its original language” (p.3). The sentiments of this statement are good, but the phrase “inerrant in its original language” is not precise regarding the history of the movement. As such, Harris’s doctrinal affirmation does not represent the ethos of the movement. 

Isaac Errett, the founding editor of the Christian Standard, in his Missouri Christian Lectures of 1883, provides a view of Scripture that does not coincide with Harris’s claim. Errett argues against the concepts of inerrancy, infallibility, and even against certain understandings of inspiration. In doing this, he makes the case that human language and capacity to understand are incapable of being inerrant. 

Errett says, “Admitting the fact of inspiration, have we in the inspire[d] Scriptures an infallible guide? Are they absolutely free from error? That all truth is infallible needs no proof. But, is the communication of truth, in the inspired Scriptures, absolutely free from error? I do not see how we can answer this question affirmatively, unless we can prove that human language furnishes an absolutely certain method of communication between mind and mind. Nor do I see how this can be proved.”  

After Errett gave these lectures, Bro. James McGarvey offered a counter argument, which is recorded in the Missouri Christian Lectures.  

In response to McGarvey, Errett noted, “To make this matter unmistakably clear, I ask Bro. McGarvey, Is this volume—King James’ Version—the infallible word of God? He answers, No. Is the Revised Version, or the American Revised Version, or any other English version, the infallible word of God? No. Is the Vulgate, in any of its editions? No. Is any existing Greek text entitled to this distinction? No . . . we affirm infallibility only in the autographs of the inspire[d] writers. My reply to this is twofold: 1. We have none of the autographs, and a discussion of their infallibility is practically of little value. 2. If we had them, I should still insist, from the inability of human language to convey thought from mind to mind with absolute certainty, that any assertion of their infallibility must be subject to the limitations of the imperfections of human language as a medium of communication between mind and mind.”  

Throughout the history of the Stone-Campbell movement there have been and continue to be people who explicitly deny inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures. This denial is not rooted in being unfaithful to the Truth, but is rooted in faithfulness to the infinite God who communicates to and through finite humans. What is troubling about Harris’s definition of this “doctrine” of the movement, is that it cuts out many faithful Christians from the movement. The inerrancy of Scripture was not, nor should it be, considered a doctrine in the movement. 

In addition, in the Millennial Harbinger, Alexander Campbell denies plenary verbal inspiration, saying, “It would be a great reproach upon the four Evangelists to represent them as believing every jot and tittle of the words of the Messiah and of themselves to have been inspired, when not any two of them narrate the same parable, conversation, sermon, or aphorism in the same words. The ideas and leading terms that represent them may be so regarded, but not every jot and tittle” (Millennial Harbinger 1837, page 397). 

What I have personally found most discouraging about Harris’s remark is that this definition of SCM doctrine removes a significant number of faithful people from the movement, including both Alexander Campbell and the founding editor of the Christian Standard, Isaac Errett. The spirit of the “restoration plea” is one of unity around the principles of the New Testament. This unity means there is room for diversity of thought, even around the nature of Scripture (which was still in the process of being formed in the earliest church). Perhaps we ought to consider calling Bible things by Bible names and call the Scriptures “God-breathed, and useful” instead of using divisive and imprecise terms like inerrant or infallible

Grace and Peace, 

David Kiger 

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Dr. Kiger’s statement that my words do not represent the “ethos” of the movement does not reflect my understanding of how our movement started, how it has traveled through history, or where it is today. The belief in the inerrancy of Scripture wasn’t unique to the Restoration Movement when it took root; rather, it was the common understanding of evangelicals. Barton Stone, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Walter Scott, and Raccoon John Smith were clear about inerrancy. 

Barton Stone in the first issue of The Christian Messenger said, “As the Bible alone is acknowledged by all Protestants to be the only infallible rule, by which all doctrines and spirits are to be tried; so by this rule we will honestly try the various, jarring doctrines and spirits, which have done so much mischief in the world, for so many centuries back. Should we be so happy as to find the error, we shall be compelled by our benevolence for man, and love of truth, to expose it to view; and to endeavor to exhibit the doctrine of the Bible, unsullied by the unhallowed touch of man’s wisdom.”  

In the compilation of the Millennial Harbinger’s first 5 years, Alexander Campbell made his appeal for inerrancy. It is titled “Principles of Interpretation” and runs to nearly 100 pages, divided into 33 chapters. He stated, “We regard the apostles of Jesus Christ, as gifted with a full and perfect knowledge of the Christian institution; which entitled them, without the possibility of error, to open to mankind the whole will of their Master, whether in the form of doctrine, precept, promise, or threatening; and as furnished with such a knowledge of the signs of those ideas in human language, as to express this knowledge clearly, accurately, and infallibly, to mankind. . . .  

“The Bible is to the intellectual and moral world of man what the sun is to the planets in our system—the fountain and source of light and life, spiritual and eternal. There is not a spiritual idea in the whole human race that is not drawn from the Bible. . . . The Bible, or the Old and New Testaments, in Hebrew and Greek, contains a full and perfect revelation of God and His will, adapted to man as he now is. . . . The words of the Bible contain all the ideas in it. These words, then, rightly understood, and the ideas are clearly perceived. . . .  

“The Bible is a book of facts, not of opinions, theories, abstract generalities, nor of verbal definitions. It is a book of awful facts, grand and sublime beyond description. These facts reveal God and man, and contain within them the reasons of all piety and righteousness, or what is commonly called religion and morality. The meaning of the Bible facts is the true biblical doctrine. History is, therefore, the plan pursued in both Testaments; for testimony has primarily to do with faith, and reasoning with the understanding. History has, as we say, to do with facts—and religion springs from them.”  

While I could cite many other examples from those who started this movement, for the consideration of space I will leave it with these and our mottoes that reflect the understanding of infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture in their original language. 

In the quotes he offers, I believe Dr. Kiger is referring to the developing schism that occurred in the movement with the influence of Modernism, rationalism, and individualism that migrated from Europe during the latter half of the 19th century. Dr. L.L. Pinkerton in the late 1860s first applied Modernism to the inerrancy of Scripture in the Independent Monthly, a paper he co-edited. W.E. Garrison called him the first liberal among the Disciples. Robert Cave followed it up in 1889 by denying the inspiration of Scripture and Jesus’ resurrection, portraying Jesus as a myth. He was dismissed from his ministry.  

I do not dispute that Isaac Errett had a dubious position later in life on inerrancy, but it was rejected by much of the movement. After Errett’s death, Christian Standard took a stand against this influence by firmly rooting itself in inerrancy. In 1884, a year after Errett’s thoughts, The Disciples of Christ started their own paper, The Christian Oracle, which later became The Christian Century

As the Disciples of Christ moved away from inerrancy and toward Modernism, they lost all understanding of the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and miracles. Dr. Martin Marty, church historian at the University of Chicago, wrote at The Christian Century’s centennial, “The editors saw fundamentalism as a backwoods, over the hill, jerkwater phenomenon that had already outlived its time.” 

I would argue that the opposite is true. From 1965 to 2012, The Disciples of Christ was the fastest declining denomination in America; during those years its membership fell 67 percent, from 1,918,471 to 625,252. By 2017, Disciples numbers were at 411,140. It was expected to decline another 50 percent within a decade, and that estimate was made prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

On the other hand, Independent Christian Churches, African American Churches of Christ, and Churches of Christ are flourishing (as I’ve detailed before). It’s not hard to see where the lampstands have gone out.  

Many authors have written in detail through the years about the subjects of rationalism, Modernism, and individualism, and I would refer to those writers for individuals seeking deeper knowledge of those topics. Some of those scholar-authors would include Jack Cottrell, J.W. McGarvey, and Roger Chambers. (In September 2022, shortly after Dr. Cottrell passed from this life, Christian Standard reposted a 1982 article by him entitled “Inerrancy—Does It Really Matter?”) 

In conclusion, I will say that I not only believe inerrancy is a core belief of the Restoration Movement, but it is also essential to an understanding of Christianity and our movement. 

Founded in 1866, Milligan University was renamed in 1881 in honor of Robert Milligan, the renowned RM educator and author. In his last book, Commentary on Hebrews, which was completed but not yet printed when he passed away, Milligan’s good friend and colleague J.W. McGarvey wrote a “Sketch of the Author.” He wrote, “. . . but let any man attack the Bible in his [Milligan’s] presence; let Rationalism dare to show its face; or let him be told of some inroad that infidelity was making on the territory of the Lord, and you would see in the twinkling of an eye that the lion within him was not dead but only sleeping.”  

1 Comment

  1. Michael Hines

    I read with interest [David] Kiger’s letter and Jerry Harris’s response. Thank you, Jerry for standing up for the inerrancy of Scripture. I must point out, though, that “infallible” is a weaker term than “inerrant.” It can be argued that Scripture is “infallible in its result” rather than without error. But . . . we’ve been through this before! The 1970s and early 80s saw the debate played out in Christian Standard and in a debate at the North American Christian Convention. For the most part, the argument flared up and raged for a few years then was “swept under the rug” without reaching a real conclusion. Several “scholars” and at least one seminary continued denying biblical inerrancy and this denial persists, as evidenced by Kiger, in some circles of both independent and a cappella churches. Such is the result of our independent and non-creedal position.

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