20 June, 2024

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

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by | 1 May, 2023 | 9 comments

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:  

_ _ _

– LETTER TO THE PUBLISHER – 

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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– RESPONSE FROM JERRY HARRIS – 

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.”  

9 Comments

  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.

  2. Tom Fortner

    We’ll done Jerry

  3. Mark Mathews

    I would like to point out that along with the attempted readjustment of belief that the Bible, in its entirety, is infallible and, by this, also inerrant, that a general eroding of doctrine occurs along with this movement. One that I have seen at the seminary level is a “new” look at the atonement. All a person has to do is investigate at barely below the water’s surface to see how progressivism is creeping in slowly but surely in our houses of worship. Granted, it is a slow creep, but one that is taught by respected professors and, for the seminarian, hard to argue against.

  4. Steve Carr

    I truly appreciate this dialogue as it allows us to revisit, as Mr Hines observes in his comment, an historical argument from recent decades. The reason we continue to circle back to it is that it’s an issue fraught with complexity. Our churches practice a more primitive theology that leans toward simplicity so this goes against our preference to settle matters quickly.

    The words “inerrant” and “inerrancy” took on an entirely different meaning and position in the first quarter of the 20th century with the rise of fundamentalism. Thus, comments about “inerrancy” by Movement leaders before the spread of theological liberalism (late 1800s/early 1900s) aren’t necessarily culturally compatible. More recent critiques of the word centers not on the concept of biblical authority but on the deep implications of its use. God’s Word is perfect, but human language is mutable/malleable. How do we stand on biblical truth but not confuse it for misguided interpretations?

    Ultimately, this is a semantical disagreement more than a theological one. I don’t observe any view here that denies or deemphasizes the unparalleled importance of the Word of God. Without a doubt, the Restoration Movement has historically embraced biblical authority and its inspiration. We must continue to hold to this high view of the Bible. Our churches must submit to the authority of Scripture.

    The seismic event for the Independent stream of the Restoration Movement was the infiltration of theological liberalism into our churches, seminaries, and publications. For nearly 100 years, those of us left in the wake have feared such a reemergence and have sought to prevent it at any cost. But past threats aren’t necessarily the most critical challenges to our futures.

  5. Larry Jackson, La Grange, TX

    As is so often the case with controversy, you’re both right.

    Preach on, Brother Jerry. Defend the word, contend for inerrancy.

    But keep reminding us, Brother David, of our heritage. If was for freedom that we were set free. “Inerrancy” is not one of the “Bible names for Bible things” that we have contended for.

    It is not in our “ethos” to exclude brothers with whom we disagree. We know how that works out. Nor is it our “ethos” to disbelieve the Bible. We know how that works out, too.
    You’re both right. And you are both free to “contend earnestly” for your understanding. Doing so in a kind way reflects the best of our heritage as “people of the Book.”

  6. Dwight Webster

    I would like to see specific examples of how the meaning of a passage is interpreted by those who argue for the use of the term “inerrancy” and those who argue against it. One of my biggest concerns about what is going on in the church today — including Restoration Movement churches — is the attitude Christian leaders have taken toward the Genesis account of creation. This is the hill I would recommend we defend to the death. Tragically, in my mind, I seem to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness. I am convinced that the reason so many young people have rejected Christianity in America today is that they believe the Genesis account of creation has been proven wrong, which, in turn, undermines everything the Bible teaches.

    Attempts on my part to discuss the subject with preachers and educators have met with resistance that seems to communicate a desire to steer as clear as possible from dealing with this “hot potato.” Failure to take a stand on the Genesis account is, to me, a much greater threat than what feels like a semantics issue regarding inerrancy. Does the limitations of language rule out the use of the term “inerrancy”? Does this issue cause doctrinal issues? Would agreement on the use of the term “inerrancy” resolve all doctrinal issues? As Professor R. C. Foster used to say in class at the Cincinnati Bible Seminary, “I think not.” I have a feeling that most, if not all, of those involved in this discussion would agree on all (or virtually all) doctrinal issues. I also feel if there are any doctrinal issues that need to be addressed, agreeing on the use of the term “inerrancy” will not solve the issues.

    Jesus’ reference to “straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel” is, I believe, applicable in this case. Think about this: The nation I grew up in in the 1950s that added “In God We Trust” to our currency and “under God” to our pledge of allegiance has become Sodom and has become Gomorrah and we, as a nation, have set aside the month of June to celebrate that fact. It feels like the Titanic is sinking and we are focused on how the chairs are arranged. We owe young people growing up in America a better America and it has to start with the first verse and the first chapter of the first book of the Bible. Either this is our Father’s world, or its time to throw in the towel.

    What is so sad is that we have the facts on our side. We don’t have to figure out a way to fit billions of years into the Genesis account. We have tried that and it hasn’t worked. It can’t be done legitimately and it sends the wrong message to young people who are being bombarded with reports of great age in our world and our universe. These reports are so consistent that they wear away the resistance of believers who don’t know how to respond. Giving them common sense reasons to reject these reports is the answer. They exist, but it feels like that door has been slammed shut in the minds of most Christian leaders.

    I am convinced that we can use Sherlock Homes’ approach to identifying truth as found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book, “The Sign of the Four” (i.e., “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”) The Genesis account of creation is certainly improbable to human beings. The idea that it was written to provide an explanation for primitive people who couldn’t understand scientific explanations is a ruse. It was not written to make perfect sense to anyone. Nevertheless, when all of the explanations available to us are examined closely, it remains the most reasonable explanation of where we came from and how we got here.

    Simple common sense truths can be applied to the Big Bang Theory to make it clear that the theory is fatally flawed. It won’t work. It is not science. It is a devious attempt to use “science — falsely so called” to undermine the Bible. It can be exposed at a level anyone can understand.

    The same is true of Darwin’s Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. A common sense examination of the theory can be used to reveal Darwin was wrong. But young people growing up in America are consistently confronted with “matter of fact” references to how evolution has developed all the life forms existing on earth. “Evolved” has become a term that is applied to every facet of life. I am convinced that it is a subtle attempt by Satan to do away with the last vestiges of faith in America.

    We can and must do better. Even those who attend church and wear the name “Christian” often use public opinion as their guide for what to believe and how to live. I have said that it is virtually impossible to bring a child up in America today and have them live a Christian life, enduring “to the end.” The desire to “fit in” is a very strong peer pressure for young adults (and even older adults). The Bible must be seen as authoritative at a level that will convince people to fear God and keep his commandments. When we have addressed that fundamental issue, we can debate whether the imperfections of language make “inerrancy” a flawed concept for the study of scripture.

  7. Michael Bratten

    Spend time embracing the authority of Scripture and we spend time knowing and espousing the truths of God. Regardless of what other words are used, “All Scripture is God-breathed” are the ones I appreciate most. My opinion/your opinion, my logic/your logic. . . it all gets confusing for me, especially when walking with those who are ‘more learned’. In the words of that great theologian Mark Twain (lol), “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.” My part is to share what little I do understand with those who need to know about the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

  8. Brian Gilroy

    Thank you, thank you, Jerry Harris! I appreciate that you stand for truth and doctrinal integrity. I grew up in the Disciples of Christ branch of our Restoration Movement and witnessed firsthand the implosion that took place. This self-destruction started with liberal theology, wayward principles, and rejecting the inerrancy of Scripture and the fact that the Bible is authoritative and can speak into our lives. This is a slippery slope we’re heading down (and is more apparent in our academic institutions), and it pains me to see this happening in our Independent Christian Church/Churches of Christ.

    May more people lead with conviction like Jerry Harris, regardless of the ire it creates among some in our Movement, or we might soon find ourselves a non-entity and facing the judgment of God that certainly wouldn’t be pleasant.

  9. Dave Thurman

    Thank you Jerry Harris for your loving and well stated response. I agree with you that this is a hill worth defending and history tells us what occurs when we fail to do so. The Christian Standard is blessed to have you as editor.

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