The Case for Biblical Infallibility

Nigel Atkinson reports on the recent conference of the Fellowship of Word and Spirit

Despite the inclement weather the Conference on Biblical infallibility organised by the now growing and increasingly influential Fellowship of the Word and Spirit was attended by virtually all of those who booked. In the past such conferences used to be low key and “pastoral” in their approach. They provided fellowship, intimacy and a sense of belonging to many Evangelicals beleaguered in unsympathetic parishes or dioceses. Although there is no intention whatsoever of abandoning such a successful approach, it was felt that the topic to be discussed this year was of such momentous significance to the spiritual renewal of evangelicalism that the Conference had to go into top gear and book the Alan Booth Centre at Swanwick for two days in February. Fears that the Fellowship had over stretched itself proved to be wholly unfounded and as the Conference progressed it became crystal clear that the Conference organisers had hit upon a subject that is now perceived to be the great line of demarcation between what has come to be known as “open” evangelicalism and straightforward evangelicalism that has always held to God’s Word as unconditionally inspired, inerrant, and infallible. Naturally the “open” evangelical finds such unashamed confidence in God’s Word to be more than a little embarrassing and, as a consequence, he seeks to modify such a total reliance on Holy Scripture by the addition of very telling epithets just as he feels the need to redefine evangelicalism by adding the epithet “open”. As a consequence, the Scriptures are not absolutely trustworthy, but only “partially” or “mainly” trustworthy or, worst of all, only trustworthy in the “theological truths” that they impart; as if such “truths” can be divorced from the historical situation of which they are inextricably a part.

But do any evangelicals today really hold onto this outmoded and discredited view of God’s Word? We always knew that such views existed in obscure fundamentalist backwaters in the United States and in certain die-hard, rigorous and “unloving” denominations in the United Kingdom but surely such notions have long been purged from the ranks of “enlightened” modern Anglicanism and from the high reaches of academe? Surely, in this post-modern age in which we live, culturally sensitive Christians in tune with the philosophical realities of the modern world would have come to understand that the Warfield / Packer / Stott view of scripture is just a historical oddity that needs to be rapidly abandoned. Well, much to the encouragement and relief of the Conference, this is not the case at all. In stunning arid gripping lectures the academics Dr. Kevin Vanhoozer, Lecturer in Systematic Theology at Edinburgh University and Professor Dr. Don Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School demonstrated the way in which only those who held to the abiding, inerrant and infallible Word of God had any hope of reaching the lonely, the lost, and the confused with a meta-narrative that made sense not only of this world, but also of the world to come. The truth of their assertions was then convincingly demonstrated by the Anglicans who shared the platform with the academics. By their ministries, Dr. Paul Gardner and the Revd Wallace Benn prove what it is possible to achieve in post-modern cynical Britain with regular thirty minute expositions of God’s infallible Word. This, of course, should come as no surprise. When God’s Word is proclaimed by one who preaches as if he believes it to be true, then God’s Spirit is pleased to honour such a ministry and, together with his Word, brings the Truth alive so that those who hear it cannot help but cry out, “What must we do to be saved?” When this happens, Truth becomes irresistible and rebellious sinners are brought to faith and repentance.

But are the differences between the “open” Evangelicals and other Evangelicals just a matter of emphasis? If that is so, then there need be no doubt that the rift emerging within the evangelical world might be swiftly healed. It is however precisely at this point that the gulf widens alarmingly which means that we have all got to work a lot harder at seeking a true and lasting rapprochement. For as the Conference developed it became apparent that lying behind the various approaches to the biblical text lay differing understandings as to the being and nature of God. In other words, that one’s view of God determines one’s view of Scripture and vice-versa. Clearly, this is a deep theological difference that is not going to be easily overcome and should act as a warning to those who view these Evangelical squabbles as mere storms in tea-cups. Nevertheless the Evangelicals can take heart. Often portrayed as less than “Anglican” in their theological commitments and more Presbyterian and rigidly Calvinist, it might encourage them to know that none other than the great Richard Hooker held to Scriptural inerrancy simply because he realised its origin in the doctrine of God. Because Scripture is a product of Divine handiwork it was natural that they should share some of the Divine attributes. Because God cannot err and make mistakes and because he always tells the truth then the same is true of Scripture. It also cannot fail and cannot deceive. As Hooker wrote, “God him self can neither possibly erre, nor leade into error. For this cause his testimonies are.. always truth and most infallible certainty”. Almost unwittingly therefore, the Conference of the Fellowship of Word and Spirit has shown what it means to be both an authentic Anglican and a consistent Evangelical. This was a not a Conference to be missed.

Nigel Atkinson is the Warden of Latimer House Oxford.