Dr. David F. Watson recently published an article for Firebrand in which he presents several objections to biblical inerrancy (or "verbal inerrancy"), a doctrine articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and affirmed by every member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS). This is the fourth and final entry in a series of short posts responding to Watson's article. In this post, I consider Watson’s assertions concerning the relationship between inerrancy and modern science.
In expounding the views of Billy Abraham, Watson articulates this critique of inerrancy:
Questions related to the existence of dinosaurs or the age of the earth become problematic. The Bible gives us one timeline. Science provides overwhelming evidence for another. How do we decide between these? Proponents of verbal inerrancy would be compelled to argue that we must believe the Bible and disregard the science.
On the contrary, some inerrantists are outspoken critics of Young Earth Creationism. William Lane Craig is an active member of ETS and thus affirms the society's "doctrinal basis": "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs." Furthermore, Craig asserted in 2021 that acknowledging scientific error in the teachings of Scripture would require "a major revision of the doctrine of inspiration" (In Quest of the Historical Adam, 7). Nevertheless, despite affirming inerrancy, Craig clearly does not feel compelled to "disregard the science" concerning origins. When it comes to Young Earth Creationism, Craig is quite blunt:
The sooner the Christian community gets rid of Young Earth Creationism the better. This is an embarrassment for the Christian faith that is creating enormous obstacles to Christian belief among scientifically educated people. The universe is not – and the Earth is not – six thousand years old, and there is no reason biblically to think that it is. (source)
The Chicago Statement denies "that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation" (p. 5). Significantly, however, the Statement does not specify what precisely the Bible teaches about creation. As I noted in my first post, J. I. Packer was one of the theologians who produced the Chicago Statement. In a lecture on creation, Packer describes the genre of Genesis 1 as a "prose poem" and characterizes the literal reading of this passage as "naïve." According to Packer, "The biblical narratives of creation – Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 – don’t obviously say anything that bears one way or another on the question of whether the evolutionary hypothesis might be true or not" (source). Notice that Packer is not merely suggesting that Genesis is compatible with an old Earth. He is also suggesting that Genesis is compatible with the theory of common descent, a key element of the "evolutionary hypothesis."
Now to be sure, many inerrantists disagree with Packer on this point. They insist that Genesis does in fact make assertions which are contrary to the evolutionary hypothesis. This debate, however, clearly concerns the interpretation of Scripture, not the accuracy of Scripture. More specifically, the debate concerns the genre of Genesis 1-11. The Chicago Statement explicitly acknowledges that the Bible contains other genres besides history (see p. 9), and the Statement makes no attempt to specify the precise genre of Genesis 1-11.
It is a simple historical fact that readers of Genesis have long questioned whether or not the creation narratives were intended to be read as literal history. Philo of Alexandria, born in the first century BC, insists that certain elements in the creation narratives are clearly "intended symbolically rather than literally" (Creation 154 [LCL]; see also Planting 32-38; Posterity 33-51). Origen, born in the second century AD, asserts that a literal reading of these narratives is patently absurd. In reference to the Tree of Life and other elements in the story, Origen concludes, "I do not think anyone will doubt that these are figurative expressions which indicate certain mysteries through a semblance of history and not through actual events" (De Principiis 4.3.1 [Butterworth]). Even Augustine, whose strong views on inerrancy were discussed in my previous post, suggests that in Genesis 1 God's instantaneous creation is presented to us "as if in periods of time" (Literal Interpretation of Genesis 28 [Teske]).
Critics sometimes complain that since the term "inerrancy" requires so much qualification, it is unhelpful and should be abandoned. I would reply that the denial of inerrancy is often associated with an overly simplistic reading of the Bible. Consider differences in the Gospels, discussed in a previous post. Watson suggests that these differences indicate "errors in the text." Regardless of whether or not such a characterization of the Gospels is problematic theologically, I would argue that it is problematic historically. As Michael Licona and Craig Keener have shown us, the Gospel writers are following established literary conventions, and thus it is misleading to describe them as making errors. Likewise, the assertion that Genesis contains scientific error assumes that the text was intended to be read as a straightforward historical narrative. A close study of both the text and the history of interpretation suggests a more complex picture.
In conclusion, I appreciate Watson's willingness to tackle the complex and controversial issues surrounding our doctrine of Scripture. Furthermore, Watson and I certainly agree on much more than we disagree. Nevertheless, as I have argued in these posts, I think that his presentation of inerrancy can only be described as a "straw man." I know of no biblical scholar or theologian at ETS who would accept inerrancy as it is presented by Watson. Furthermore, I remain concerned by Watson's conclusion that the Bible "in not inerrant." As argued in my previous post, such a conclusion is emphatically contradicted by Wesley and is a clear departure from the traditional Christian view of Scripture.