Inerrancy and Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics is the study or practice of interpretation, and it’s what humans cannot help but do. Every moment of our waking hours we interpret, which is to say that we assign meaning or significance to all that we experience. We do this either consciously or unconsciously on the basis of what we believe is true. Yet, what we believe is true may or may not be true. Of course, in our relativistic age someone will object and claim that what someone believes is true is merely true for them. While such an over-personalized view of truth, what we can call subjectivism, is the controlling confession of Western culture, it is not actually what people ultimately practice. If they did, they would stop talking altogether, because they would recognize that their fundamental belief about reality excludes a commonly known reality through which we have communion with others. In part, this simply shows the irrationality of sin, and people’s rational inconsistencies between what they claim to believe and what they actually do. Communication between people and fruitful communities mark life on earth precisely because there is a reality common to us all, and of which we have some common and truthful understanding. It’s what allows us to have some truthful interpretation of reality and our experience of it.  

Or, to put a slightly different perspective on it, everyone functions as if they have access to an inerrant standard by which they are able to truthfully or accurately interpret, to some degree, all that they encounter. People on CNN believe this just as much as those on FOX News. That little phrase to some degree is a very important qualifier, because it highlights that we need not claim omniscience, or knowing everything, in order to know truly or accurately. And yet, an unavoidable part of our knowing or epistemological process is access to what we believe is an unerring standard through which we are able to have truthful access to reality and on the basis of which we make progress in knowledge—in every subject matter. Long before I was able to write a dissertation on B. B. Warfield, I had to learn that he was born, lived at a particular time, and did particular things. I had to trust that the sources through which I was accessing these assertions about Warfield were communicating the truth about him. This progress in the acquisition of knowledge through trusting particular inerrant sources marks every subject matter of human knowledge. And here you thought that the doctrine of inerrancy was only affirmed by a bunch of bible-thumping, white males trying to oppress everyone who didn’t share their skin pigment! In point of fact, the biblical doctrine of inerrancy is simply a part of the broader topic of inerrancy related to everyone’s knowledge claims in every sphere of knowledge.

Ever since the Old Princeton scholars A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield in 1881 published their article “Inspiration,” the theological and biblical scholarly world has been unable to sidestep the debate on the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In their article, Hodge and Warfield asserted that the original manuscripts of the Old and New Testament were without error in all that those manuscripts affirmed as true. Indeed, they also asserted that this belief in the inerrancy of the original autographs of the Old and New Testament was the church’s foundational belief about the Bible throughout her history. Of course, it didn’t take long before some scholars denied this, and the debate has raged ever since. In 1979, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, in their book The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, denied that the doctrine of inerrancy as set forth by Hodge and Warfield had been the position of the church throughout her history. In response, John D. Woodbridge wrote Biblical Authority in which he took Rogers and McKim’s assertions and demonstrated how they lacked any factual basis in the historical record. To this day, there has been no refutation of Woodbridge’s fundamental thesis on the matter, and there won’t be. Why? Because Woodbridge interpreted the historical sources accurately, according to truth.

Every day people deny the existence of the Triune God. Do their denials of the Triune God cause the Triune God not to exist? I am not asking if the Triune God doesn’t exist for them or in their eyes? What they think and what is are two different, albeit related, issues. The lunatic madness of our age is that way too many people think those two different issues aren’t in fact two but merely one. And they believe they know this unerringly. The question isn’t: Who has a doctrine of inerrancy by which they interpret reality? The question is: Whose doctrine of inerrancy can account for all the available reality for which we have to account and must interpret?       

David P. Smith (Ph.D.) is the author of B. B. Warfield's Scientifically Constructive Theological Scholarship (Wipf & Stock) and co author with Ronald Hoch of Old School, New Clothes: The Cultural Blindness of Christian Education Wipf & Stock). David is Pastor of Covenant Fellowship A.R.P. Church in Greensboro, North Carolina.   


David Smith