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Biblical AuthorityA Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal
By John D. Woodbridge
ZondervanCopyright © 1982 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Rogers / McKim Proposal: Preliminary Concerns
Today a number of evangelical scholars are expending considerable energies on a renewed historical quest. They are seeking to ascertain the attitudes of the ancient Christians toward biblical authority. Their enterprise often has an apologetic and very personal impulsion. Some want to demonstrate a concordance between their own beliefs and "the historical position of the church."
Most of the Evangelicals involved in this quest acknowledge formally the principle of sola Scriptura. They agree that the Bible's self-attestation about its own authority should play the determinative role in formulating their beliefs. Nonetheless, they also understand that even if Protestants have not historically given authoritative weight to "tradition," as have Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, and Anglicans in a special way, Protestants have frequently attempted to bolster the case for their exegetical and doctrinal formulations by appealing to the witness of Christians of past centuries. From the patristic fathers in the early church, to Luther and other Reformers in the sixteenth century, to French Reformed pastors in the seventeenth, Christian theologians have tended to associate doctrinal innovation with heresy. They have struggled with the problem of determining whether a development in doctrine is a healthy clarification of the biblical data or a dangerous departure from evangelical orthodoxy. If a doctrine has a long history of acceptance by their church, or by "the church," Protestants along with Roman Catholics generally give it serious consideration.
In a similar vein some Evangelicals today believe that their own views on biblical authority will gain more credence in the evangelical community if they can demonstrate that these views have deep and sturdy roots in the rich soil of church history. Therein lies the motivation for their quest.
In The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), Jack Rogers of Fuller Theological Seminary and Donald McKim, now of Debuque Theological Seminary, challenge several well-entrenched beliefs among American Evangelicals. Evangelicals have commonly assumed that the biblical writers, inspired by God the Holy Spirit, wrote infallibly. These authors did so, not only for matters of faith and practice, but also in making incidental affirmations concerning history, geography, and the natural world. The contention of Evangelicals is usually based on the internal claims of the writers that what they had written came from God. It is also founded on an a priori premise: God cannot lie. His Word, therefore, contains no admixture of error. Evangelicals have generally affirmed that this perspective represents the historic position of the church. Moreover, Evangelicals have consistently asserted that their stance reflects Christ's teaching about the Bible's authority. Rogers and McKim want to disabuse Evangelicals of these beliefs. One of their goals, therefore, is iconoclastic.
Another one of the authors' goals is more missionary minded. Rogers and McKim seek to persuade Evangelicals and others of the validity of their own interpretation of the Bible's self-attestation. In this regard they argue that the biblical authors wrote infallibly on matters of faith and practice, but that they could and did err on occasion in statements that touched upon scientific, geographical, and historical matters, as judged by modern standards of measurement. Rogers and McKim propose that it is their own analysis that reflects the authentic, "historic" position of the church. They want their readers to join with them in affirming what they believe to be orthodox Reformed teaching concerning biblical authority.
Professors Rogers and McKim should be commended for their willingness to interact with many primary and secondary sources not commonly cited in previous evangelical studies on this subject. They have read widely and adorn their argumentation with copious footnotes. Moreover their writing style is clear and lively. Readers usually encounter little difficulty in understanding what the authors intend to say by their proposals.
The authors should also be commended for their openness to criticism of their work. In the preface of their volume, Rogers and McKim volunteer that they welcome responses and critiques. In that spirit we trust that our own assessment of their interpretation will be instructive and thereby contribute to the ongoing discussion of biblical authority by Evangelicals.
Indeed, analysis should proceed concerning this subject. Competent studies are lacking concerning large tracts of the history of biblical authority. Jacques Le Brun, Professor of Catholic History, Hautes Études (Paris), an expert in the field, recently commented about the multiple gaps in our knowledge for the seventeenth century alone. Several serious studies are presently underway. Nonetheless, a "definitive" survey of the matter seems as elusive as ever. Much of the available literature on the subject is badly dated, conceptually flawed, and thus susceptible to serious revisions. Evangelical scholars need to contribute technically reliable essays in this field.
In this chapter we will describe the central proposal that Professors Rogers and McKim set forth. We will also consider several methodological problems associated with their presentation and documentation. We are also interested in how Rogers and McKim do history. In later chapters we will offer several specific criticisms of their proposal. Our criticisms will be forthright. They are, however, designed to advance the discussion and not to inflame it. Hopefully our comments will alert the scholarly community and lay persons to several weaknesses in the approach of Rogers and McKim to writing the history of biblical authority. They should also underscore some of the strengths of their proposal. Throughout our essay we will provide correctives to Rogers and McKim's interpretation and suggest subjects for further research and investigation.
I. THE ROGERS/McKIM PROPOSAL
For Rogers and McKim, the concept of accommodation is pivotal for any understanding of biblical authority. God accommodated Himself to our human weakness and limited capacity to understand His thoughts by communicating to us through human words. The central purpose of God's written communication is to reveal salvation truth about Christ. God did not intend that the Scriptures should be read for technically correct information about the world. Indeed, the Hebrew authors of Scripture (for example) thought in word pictures. They did not reflect upon truth with the same categories of Western logic that are familiar to us. They were not concerned to describe historical and "scientific" items with great accuracy. In consequence, what we moderns consider to be the small "errors" committed by the Bible's human authors do not detract from biblical authority, for the Bible's authority is not associated with its form or words but with Christ and His salvation message to which the words point.
How do we know that the Bible is God's Word? In a mysterious way the Holy Spirit witnesses to the believer that the Bible is the Word of God. Rational deductions based on external evidences for the Bible's inspiration play only a secondary, if not minimal, role in this process, for "faith" comes before "reason" in our apperception of biblical authority.
Rogers and McKim argue that scholars with a platonic bent, ranging from Origen and Augustine in patristic times to Luther and Calvin in Reformation days, maintained this biblical perspective on the Scriptures. However, the late seventeenth century (with the emergence of science) witnessed the departure by many Protestants from this stance. Borrowing from the Aristotelian categories of their Roman Catholic opponents, a good number of Protestant theologians forged a theory of biblical authority founded on the words of Scripture (the mere form) rather than upon Christ in the Scripture. In their rationalistic attempt to fend off Catholic apologists, these Protestants extended the concept of "infallibility" to include all the words of the biblical text. Especially the Swiss theologian Francis Turretin (1632-1687), among Reformed thinkers, innovated in this regard. In the nineteenth century, Princeton Seminary professors Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge advocated Turretin's viewpoint on Scripture in the United States. In the 1880s, the Princetonians A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield propounded the thesis that only the original autographs of the Bible are inerrant. The Princetonians were obliged to retreat to this novel idea of inerrancy in the lost autographs because the impact of biblical (higher) criticism and certain developmental theories in science could no longer be ignored. Relying heavily upon Professor Ernest Sandeen's discussion of the Princetonians, Rogers and McKim refer to the Princetonians' position as one of Protestant scholasticism nourished philosophically by Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. They suggest, as does Sandeen, that the Princeton rationalistic theology shaped fundamentalism's perspectives on Scripture and ultimately those of today's conservative Evangelicals.
For present-day Evangelicals to recover a truly Reformed viewpoint on the Scriptures, Rogers and McKim urge them to return to the teachings about Scriptures proposed by the Westminster Confession, Calvin and Luther, and various church fathers (especially Augustine). Evangelicals should understand that their own beliefs about biblical inerrancv are innovative and do not accord with the church's teaching. The "central teaching" of the church has been to affirm that the Bible is infallible for faith and practice, not to propose that the Scriptures are "inerrant." In fact the words inerrancy and infallibility do not possess similar meanings. Evangelicals should declare that the Bible's purpose is to teach Christ and the Good News about our salvation and not to present infallible data about aspects of human history, geography, science, and the like. If conservative Evangelicals (and particularly a United Presbyterian readership) adopt Rogers and McKim's position, they will be able to interact more serenely with biblical criticism and modern developmental theories in science, while at the same time safeguarding a high view of biblical authority.
Excerpted from Biblical Authority by John D. Woodbridge Copyright © 1982 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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