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A Response to David Watson on Biblical Inerrancy (Part 3)

Dr. David F. Watson recently published an article for Firebrand in which he presents several objections to biblical inerrancy (or "verbal inerrancy"). This is the third in a series of short posts responding to Watson's article.

Watson proposes that Scripture is "infallible," meaning that Scripture is "utterly reliable" for the fulfillment of its primary purpose: "to lead us into salvation and the associated life." Nevertheless, Watson denies that the Bible is "inerrant." According to Watson, the Bible does contain errors in matters of history and science, but these errors do not impede its primary purpose.

Watson is a Wesleyan, and he aims his article at Wesleyans. Therefore, it is worth considering what John Wesley would think about Watson's proposal.

In 1763 William Warburton, the Bishop of Gloucester, published a treatise entitled, The Office and Operations of the Holy Spirit. In it he asserts that the purpose of inspired Scripture is to "afford an infallible rule for the direction of the Catholic Church." He therefore concludes that while divine inspiration prevented the human authors from making any "considerable error" (p. 33), it did not prevent them from making "trifling errors in circumstances of small importance" (p. 36).

Notice the striking similarities between Warburton's proposal and Watson's proposal. Both claim that the Scriptures are infallible but not necessarily inerrant. Both assert that certain errors in the Bible do not impede the Bible's primary purpose and are therefore consistent with divine inspiration. Contemporary Wesleyans who find this view attractive need to acknowledge the historical fact that Wesley heard it, Wesley understood it, and Wesley emphatically and unequivocally rejected it. In response to Warburton's claim that divine inspiration merely ensured that the human authors made no "considerable error," Wesley retorted, "Nay, will not the allowing there is any error in Scripture shake the authority of the whole?" (Works 11.504). Elsewhere Wesley asserts, "If there be one falsehood in the Bible, there may be a thousand; neither can it proceed from the God of truth" (Works [1872] 9:481).

Furthermore, in insisting upon the inerrancy of Scripture, Wesley was not, as some contemporary Wesleyans like to imagine, merely succumbing to the influence of the Enlightenment. Rather, Wesley was affirming the traditional view of Scripture.

Consider Augustine's response in the late fourth century to Jerome's interpretation of Gal 2:14. Some in the early church were troubled by this verse, which relates a sharp disagreement between Peter and Paul. In his commentary on Galatians, Jerome suggests that Peter and Paul never really disagreed. Peter held the same view as Paul, but only withdrew from the Gentiles for a time to avoid destroying the faith of weak Jewish Christians. Paul knew this, but nevertheless pretended to rebuke Peter for the benefit of those listening.

Notice that Jerome is not suggesting that there was some error in Paul's theology of salvation. Rather, he is merely suggesting that Paul's historical account of his interaction with Peter is not entirely accurate. Nevertheless, Augustine reacted strongly against Jerome's interpretation. In his first letter to Jerome on the matter, Augustine anticipates Wesley's concern:

It seems to me that most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. ... The authority of the Divine Scriptures becomes unsettled (so that every one may believe what he wishes, and reject what he does not wish) if this be once admitted, that the men by whom these things have been delivered unto us, could in their writings state some things which were not true. (Letters 28.3, 5)

In a subsequent letter to Jerome, Augustine insists again that the Scriptures are inerrant:

I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it. As to all other writings, in reading them, however great the superiority of the authors to myself in sanctity and learning, I do not accept their teaching as true on the mere ground of the opinion being held by them; but only because they have succeeded in convincing my judgment of its truth either by means of these canonical writings themselves, or by arguments addressed to my reason. I believe, my brother, that this is your own opinion as well as mine. I do not need to say that I do not suppose you to wish your books to be read like those of prophets or of apostles, concerning which it would be wrong to doubt that they are free from error. (Letters 82.3)

Note that Augustine is not presenting a view of Scripture that he believes to be controversial. Indeed, Jerome himself apparently abandoned his interpretation of Gal 2:14 after Augustine's rebuttal (see Augustine, Letters 180.4-5).

In conclusion, both Wesley and Augustine explicitly affirm biblical inerrancy. This does not, of course, prove that the doctrine is correct. It does, however, suggest that Christians should take the doctrine seriously.



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