Is Biblical Inerrancy a Test for Orthodoxy?
The View of Carl F. Henry
By Christopher T. Haun
What’s the relationship between biblical inerrancy and orthodoxy? Recently Daniel Wallace suggested that Carl Henry opposed the importance of inerrancy, claiming it was not a litmus test for orthodoxy. Wallace wrote:
And it is this very problem that one of the architects of modern evangelicalism, Carl Henry (who could hardly be condemned as being soft on inerrancy!), addressed in his book, Evangelicals in Search of Identity. It seems that many evangelicals are still not listening. And yet Henry saw, forty years ago, that the evangelical church was making inerrancy the litmus test of orthodoxy to its discredit.1
However, this is a misleading representation of Henry’s views on the topic. More properly, Henry believed that while inerrancy is not a test of evangelical authenticity, it is a test of evangelical consistency. That is, one could be saved and orthodox on all other essential evangelical beliefs and not believe in inerrancy. Nonetheless, inerrancy is vital to the life and endurance of the Christian Church. For a more balanced view, consider what Henry said elsewhere:
Inerrancy is the evangelical heritage, the historic commitment of the Christian church.2
Evangelical scholars are fully aware that the doctrine of the Bible controls all other doctrines of the Christian faith.3
Evangelicals do not dispute the fact that for a time at least Christianity may function with an impaired doctrine of Scripture. But it does so at its own peril and inevitably must then lose much of its essential message.4
If the strength of American evangelicalism rests in its high view of Scripture, its weakness lies in a tendency to neglect the frontiers of formative discussion in contemporary theology5
It is no accident that those who deplore the concept of biblical inerrancy are increasingly uncomfortable with the doctrine of biblical inspiration as well, and prefer to speak instead, sometimes quite amorphously at that, only of the authority of Scripture.6
The first thing the Bible says about itself is not its inerrancy or its inspiration, but its authority. . . . Just as in the Gospels the most important thing is the incarnation, death and resurrection, while the how of the incarnation, the virgin birth, lies in the hinterland; so also in respect to the doctrine of Scripture, while inspiration is as clearly taught as the virgin birth, it lies rather in the hinterland. The Bible teaches is authority and inspiration explicitly, while inerrancy, it seems to me, is an inference from this.7
Those who reject inerrancy have never adduced any objective principle, either biblical, philosophical, or theological, that enables them to distinguish between those elements which are supposedly errant in Scripture and those that are not.8
An unregenerate inerrantist is spiritually worse off than a regenerate errantist. But an unstable view of religious knowledge and authority jeopardizes not only an adequate definition of regeneration but one’s insistence on its absolute necessity. The alternatives therefore seem much like choosing whether to have one’s right or left leg amputated.9
If one asks what, in a word, eclipsed the biblical doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture, what theological redefinition of inspiration in nonconceptual categories, and what encouraged neo-Protestant denial of inspiration as a decisive New Testament concept, the answer is modern biblical criticism.10
In short, Henry held that, although one can be saved without believing in inerrancy, yet–:
1) One cannot be a consistent evangelical and deny inerrancy.
2) A denial of inerrancy is an impaired view of Scripture.
3) Those who deny inerrancy are increasingly uncomfortable with the doctrine of biblical inspiration as well.
4) Those who deny inerrancy have no objective principle by which to distinguish truth from error in the Bible.
5) Inerrancy is the evangelical heritage, the historic commitment of the Christian church.
6) The doctrine of the Bible controls all other doctrines of the Christian faith.
7) Evangelicalism denies inerrancy at its own peril and inevitably loses much of its essential message.
8) The strength of American evangelicalism rests in its high view of Scripture (which involved the belief in inerrancy).
Biblical Inerrancy and Orthodoxy
In view of all these statements, it is difficult see how it does not add up to the belief that inerrancy is a kind of litmus test for orthodoxy at least in any full or enduring sense of the term.
When Carl Henry was asked about the possibility of reliving his life and redoing whatever he could, he responded:
From the outset of my Christian walk I have treasured the Book that speaks of the God of ultimate beginnings and ends, and illumines all that falls between. . . . An evangelical Christian believes incomparable good news: that Christ died in the stead of sinners and arose the third day as living head of the church of the twice-born, the people of God, whose mission is mandated by the scripturally given Word of God. The term evangelical—whose core is the “evangel”—therefore embraces the best of all good tidings….That good news as the Apostle Paul makes clear, is validated and verified by the sacred Scriptures. Those who contrast the authority of Christ with the authority of Scripture do so at high risk. Scripture gives us the authentic teaching of Jesus and Jesus exhorted his apostles to approach Scripture as divinely authoritative. There is no confident road into the future for any theological cause that provides a fragmented Scriptural authority and—in consequence—an unstable Christology. Founded by the true and living Lord, and armed with the truthfulness of Scripture, the church of God is invincible. Whatever I might want to change in this pilgrim life, it would surely not be any of these high and holy commitments.11
Again, what does this all add up to but an admission by Henry of the belief that inerrancy is crucial, if not essential, to the orthodoxy of the evangelical church—at least in any vital and enduring sense.
1 Wallace, Daniel B., “Review of Defining Inerrancy.” Accessed July 29th, 2014, http://danielbwallace.com/2014/06/01/review-of-defining-inerrancy/
2 Henry, Carl. Carl Henry at his Best: A Lifetime of Quotable Thoughts. (Portland: Multnomah Press: 1989), 29 Excerpted from God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol 4, 367.
3 Ibid, 61. Excerpted from Frontiers in Modern Theology, 138
4 Ibid, 61. Excerpted from Frontiers in Modern Theology, 139
5 Ibid, 62. Excerpted from Frontiers in Modern Theology, 140
7 Ibid, 28.
8 Ibid, 29. Excerpted from “The Battle for the Bible,” Trinity Scribe.
9 Ibid, 29. Excerpted from “A House Divided,” Eternity.
10 Ibid, 29. Excerpted from God, Revelation, and Authority. Vol 4, 75-76.
11 Henry, Carl. “If I Had to Do It Again.” In God and Culture: Essays in Honor of Carl F. H. Henry, D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge, eds., 392-393. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993.) Accessed July 29th, 2014, http://tgc-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/UnderstandingTheTimesChapter4.pdf.