The Infallibility Question

The controversies concerning the question of infallibility rage on in the American Church world. Our readers will recall that this question arose some time ago in the Reformed Church in America in connection with the examination of a student who refused to subscribe to the position that the narrative of the creation and fail of Adam was historically true. This issue, inasmuch as it touched upon the infallibility of Scripture, was never finally settled in that Church to this writer’s knowledge. There was no strong condemnation of this position and of those who taught it.

More recently, the Christian Reformed Church faced the same question. This question arose from certain articles written by ‘a seminary student and approved by the president of the seminary in which the author spoke of certain errors in Scripture—errors of a scientific, historical, literary and chronological nature. Although an extensive report of a study committee was adopted by the Synod, the position on infallibility was left somewhat in doubt, both sides claiming support from the committee report.

At about this same time this same question came up for discussion in the Southern Presbyterian Church. There the errors had developed somewhat further so that there were those in the Church who were putting a question mark behind such important questions as the virgin birth of Christ and the resurrection of Christ from the dead.

This past summer the Southern Baptist Church met in convention in San Francisco. The question of infallibility came up. The occasion was a book entitled “The Message of Genesis” written by Dr. Elliot, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City. The book was published in 1961 by Broadman Press—the general book identification of the Convention’s Sunday School Board. This book also denied the historical truth of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The Sunday School Board had defended the publication of the book on the grounds that it was “representative of a segment of Southern Baptist life and thought.” The trustees of Midwestern Seminary had, reportedly, by a vote of 14 to 7, sustained Dr. Elliot and declared him to be a “loyal servant of Southern Baptists.”

Although there was considerable maneuvering on the floor of the Convention, the final decision was to create a specia1 committee to study the possibility of rewriting or adding to a statement of faith and purpose adopted by the convention of 1925. The committee would be composed of presidents of state conventions who would present a statement a year hence to serve as “guidelines” to the various convention agencies. Also the convention adopted a resolution which reaffirmed “their faith in the entire Bible as the authoritative, authentic, infallible Word of God.” Further it was decided: “That we express our abiding and unchanging objection to the dissemination of theological views in any of our seminaries which would undermine such faith in the historical accuracy and doctrinal integrity of the Bible, and that we courteously request the trustees and administrative officers of our institutions and other agencies to take such steps as shall be necessary to remedy at once those situations where such views now threaten our historic position.”

This motion does not seem to imply that Dr. Elliot be censured for his vote. A motion to instruct the Sunday School Board to cease printing Dr. Elliot’s book was defeated.

All this is of utmost significance. There is first of all the fact that these Churches which have grappled with this question number all of the more conservative bodies left in the United States. Secondly, it cannot be denied that to a greater or lesser degree the battle for the truth of infallibility has been lost in all these denominations. Even a reaffirmation of this truth is not sufficient unless the decisions to reaffirm the truth are accompanied by discipline against those who deny it. An affirmation is not enough. Those who militate against it should be censured or their views will continue in the Church. Thirdly, it is very significant that this question of infallibility should be the question at issue. This is, after all, the most fundamental point of the faith of the Church. The Church rests her very existence on the Bible as the Word of God. In the measure that the Bible is in error, it ceases to be the Word of God. In that measure the Church has no foundation on which to stand any longer. That the question should even come up for debate is incredible. This is a point which lies beyond debate. One may discuss the meaning and implications of inspiration and infallibility; this is of benefit to the Church. But when the question is open to debate within the Church, it bodes ill for such a denomination that the question needs debating at all. To deny that Genesis, in whole or in part, is not literally true is to open the door to further denials of other parts of Scripture. This must eventually lead to a denial of the truth of the incarnation, the divinity of Christ, the atonement of the cross, the resurrection from the dead—as indeed historically it also has. Then all is lost. Throw part of the Bible out the window, and the rest also flies away. Grant error in one place in Scripture and errors will be found all over the pages of Holy Writ.

The conclusion of the matter is inevitable. Since the truth of infallibility lies at the very foundation of the faith of the Church, its denial can only hasten the apostasy of the Church. Perhaps in these times in which we live, as we near the end of the ages, this apostasy will now develop with increased speed. There are two alternatives. Either these Churches will have to follow their affirmations of this truth with discipline—and this with utmost haste before it is too late; or the faithful remnant in these Churches will have to come out and seek fellowship with those who maintain the truth. God’s people cannot remain in Churches where this truth is lost:

It remains for our Churches to be faithful at all cost to this precious and fundamental truth, and to witness strongly to it that those who wish to maintain it may have some “ral lying point,” some beacon of light to follow in the darkness of error.

Of some significance is the fact that this question of infallibility has also been discussed off and on in some form or another in Roman Catholic periodicals. Recently a discussion in Our Sunday Visitor brought this to the fore once again. A certain editor had written concerning the flood that it could hardly be interpreted as fact, but was intended to point out some moral lessons. A reader wrote in about this and was answered. The question and answer follow:

When I was in grade school I was taught, like any other child, the story about Noah’s ark. I am now very disillusioned to learn that there was no Noah, no Ark, and not even a flood! 

I gather that we are supposed to learn a lesson from the story, but I wouldn’t know what the lesson is. Would you please explain the meaning of the story? 

Possibly we make a mistake in our manner of teaching these Bible stories to our school children. We tend to make them too simple, without pointing out the lessons they teach; and we tend to make them too factual, without making it clear that they are good folk-tales to be enjoyed for their story value. 

Probably we are frightened by the Holy Spirit. He inspired these writings, and we have a sort of scrupulous notion that we have to taker every word at, its technical face value, lest we question His divine veracity. 

We would do well to apply to the Third Person of the Trinity some of the human insights we learned from the Second Person while He lived with us here upon earth. Jesus never hesitated to tell a good tale for its story value and for the lesson in it. 

If Jesus told stories for the moral in them why do we have to tie the Old Testament writers down to hard, cold facts? The authors of Genesis were not writing a history but a book of religion. 

Among various people of the Near East there was a tradition of a treat flood probably based on some catastrophe of antiquity. It was passed down as folklore from one generation to the next, and of course took variant forms in different localities. The writer of Noah’s story in Genesis made use of this familiar tradition to teach his religious lessons in fact he used two different versions of the story and put them together without being very critical of details. As a result it is a bit hard to tell how long the flood lasted—40 days or 150 days—and just what varieties of animals were taken aboard the Ark. 

If we were to interpret as literal historical fact all the features of Noah’s story we would involve ourselves in some ridiculous and contradictory situations. For instance, water enough to cover the entire earth to the depth of the highest mountain—man, that is an enormous quantity of H2O! 

A job almost equally big would be that of getting all those animals into the Ark, keeping them at peace with each other, and feeding them for four or five months. The Ark was a real man-sized boat—probably 450 feet long. A batter standing on the prow would hardly be able to knock a home run over the poop railing. It was fully half the length of our modern ocean liners. But still things would be crowded; there must be half a million species of animals, birds, and reptiles on earth.

The author then goes on to point out these moral lessons to which he has referred: God’s punishment of sinful men; God’s justice in rewarding good and punishing evil; God’s love and mercy towards the good; man’s responsibility for his moral conduct. The Ark is supposed to be a symbol of God’s personal protection of each of us and the rainbow a pledge of His patience with us in giving us another chance when we deserve to be destroyed.

Following this discussion, other Old Testament miracles were discussed in later issues such as the miracle of Jonah’s preservation in the belly of the whale. In a very light-handed way, and with obvious chuckles, the editor dismissed the literal truth of these miracles with a wave of the hand as being beyond credibility.

The question sometimes arises how the Roman Catholic Church can be called the false Church as our fathers contended, as long as it maintains the truth of the divinity of Christ and the need for the blood of atonement. It seems more and more evident that, although the truth of Christ’s divinity is still officially maintained, this has become dead dogma with no reality in the life of the Church. To deny and so lightly play with Scripture will only aid and abet those who have no more faith in God’s Word. Our fathers may have been more correct in their evaluation of the Roman Catholic Church and their insistence that the pope is Antichrist than we are ready to admit.

The underlying reason why this question of infallibility is pushing itself into the fore in the Church world is no doubt clue to the importance given to science today. Scientists have performed many astounding feats and made huge strides in technology and the advance of knowledge. The results of their efforts are felt by all of us in the inventions that make life more comfortable, in the medicines that prolong life and alleviate suffering, in the astounding feats of space exploration.

But always science comes back to the question, “Where did this world come from? Why is it here? How did it originate?” Then the trouble begins.

In a recent article in Time these questions were discussed by the leading scientists and theologians of the day. Time correspondents asked questions and sampled scientific and theological opinion all over the U.S.

Many of these answers were given, but they can be summarized by two quotes:

I see no conflict between science and religion. The answer to the question of creation still remains in the realm of faith. In early Biblical times . . . it was believed as a matter of faith that man was created as man. Since then, science has led us back through a sequence of evolutionary events in such a way that there is no logical place to stop . . . until we come to a primeval universe made of hydrogen. But then we ask, “Whence came the hydrogen?” and science has no answer. Is it any less awe-inspiring to conceive of a universe created of hydrogen with the capacity to evolve into man than it is to accept the creation of man as man? I believe not.

Time itself then comments:

In the aftermath of Darwin, scientists grew increasingly confident that their questioning disciplines could eventually supply all answers, and were increasingly contemptuous of Genesis and all other parts of the Bible that conflict with science’s discoveries. After World War II, when science capped humanity’s plight with the hydrogen bomb, some scientists joined the nation’s postwar religious revival. But eventually, though the churches had by then conceded much to science, many of the converts found them still too laden with ceremony and dogmatism for scientific taste. 

(The above) statement implies that God set the universe in motion and then “retired,” and this is an idea now much favored by scientific believers. Many, accepting his hydrogen-God, go on perforce to reject the person-God of Christianity. (The above) credo thus seems to be central in the new terrain, though scientists’ beliefs spread both ways in a wide spectrum from atheism to total faith.

One more quote from a theologian preceded byTime’s summary:

In the long run, most theologians believe that there will prove to be no irreconcilable conflict between the discoveries of the laboratory or telescope and the revelation of God. But scientists are convinced that religion will have to undergo a vast intellectual change, to rid itself of dogmatic expressions that are no longer tenable in light of scientific progress . . . Any time religious beliefs come in conflict with the things we learn about the world, we must modify the beliefs.

In other words, there is a growing tendency among scientists to admit to the existence of some principle or power, which may perhaps be called God, and which is the final explanation of the existence and orderliness of the universe. But this is not the faith of the Church—the faith which is salvation in Christ. The error is that science becomes the ultimate standard of truth; that that which does not conform to the discoveries of science is branded as untruth; that Scripture’s teachings also must be subjected to the scrutiny of science and be discarded where science fails to turn up evidence which supports their truth. What God says in His Word is not truth unless science says the same thing—and then only because science has said it.

One can very well imagine that the religion of Antichrist will be some such religion; not atheism, but the religion described above. The science is the idol before which all men must bow.

This is, in the final analysis, a subtle way of putting man on God’s throne; for if science is enthroned as the standard of truth, man’s reason is enthroned. The lie of Satan is fast reaching its ultimate expression: “Ye shall be as God knowing good and evil.”

How urgent it then becomes that the Church cling to an infallible Bible—a Bible which is the inerrant and authoritative Word of God.

—H. Hanko