Groundbreaking, worldview-based defense of scriptural inerrancy offers a positive case for the Bible’s trustworthiness while implicitly critiquing modern materialist worldviews.
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About the Author
Vern S. Poythress (PhD, Harvard University; ThD, University of Stellenbosch) is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he has taught for nearly four decades. In addition to earning six academic degrees, he is the author of numerous books and articles on biblical interpretation, language, and science.
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How Can Only One Religion Be Right?
Let us consider one common difficulty that modern people have with the Bible: how can there be only one true religion?
The View that All Religions Are Right
People ask this question partly because they are aware of multiple religions — Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism, to name a few. How do we respond to this multiplicity? One person, whom we may call Sue, concludes that all religions are equally right. She says that they all have a common core having to do with a loving God and being kind to your neighbor. But in selecting a common core Sue shows her own personal religious preferences. Sue speaks of a loving God. But Buddhism does not believe in a personal God. So Sue has excluded Buddhism rather than being all-inclusive. She has also excluded polytheism, which believes in many gods rather than one. Sue speaks of being kind to your neighbor. But some religions have practiced child sacrifice (Deut. 18:9–10).
When Sue talks about a common core, she has also put into the background the irreconcilable differences between major religions. The Bible teaches that Jesus is the Son of God. The Qur'an says that he is not the son of God, but only a prophet. The New Testament part of the Bible teaches that Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament. Modern Judaism denies that he is. Sue implicitly disagrees with all of these convictions when she implies that they really do not matter. Christianity, Islam, and Orthodox Judaism all exclude one another by having beliefs that are denied by the other two. Sue in practice excludes all three by saying that the exclusive beliefs are not the "core." Tim Keller observes, "We are all exclusive in our beliefs about religion, but in different ways."
The View that All Religions Are Wrong
Let us consider another example. Donald looks over the field of religions and concludes that they are all wrong. He thinks that they all make arrogant, overreaching claims to know the truth. The differences between the claims show that no one really knows.
Donald's position is just as exclusive as Sue's, and just as exclusive as the claims of any one traditional religion. How so? He claims to know better than any religious practitioner the true status of religious claims. But you have to know a lot about God — whether he exists, whether he reveals himself, what kind of God he is — to make a claim that excludes all religions before seriously investigating any of them in detail. Donald thinks that religious claims are arrogant. The irony is that he is acting arrogantly in claiming to be superior to all religions.
Social Influence on Religious Beliefs
Many people in many cultures have had confidence in their religious views. But Donald does not have confidence in any religion. And today in Europe, Canada, and the United States we meet many people like him. Why? Sometimes sociology of religion has played a role. Sociologists observe that many people hold the religion of their parents or the predominant religion in their location and in their ethnic group. Religious convictions are passed on by society, and especially by parents. When Donald observes this social dimension of religion, he concludes that exclusive religious claims are a product of narrow ethnocentricity. Donald thinks that religion as a whole is suspect.
But now let us ask why Donald is so different from many people in non-Western cultures who confidently belong to a particular religion. Just like other people, Donald has received social influences, including the influence of sociology of religion. Donald's views about religion have been socially shaped. If social shaping undermines truth, it undermines the truth of Donald's views as well as everyone else's. Donald's views are just as "ethnocentric" as everyone else's, but Donald is unaware of it.
Part of the challenge in searching for the truth is that we all do so against the background of assumptions about truth. Many basic assumptions about the nature of the world fit together to form a worldview. A worldview includes assumptions about whether God exists, what kind of God might exist, what kind of world we live in, how we come to know what we know, whether there are moral standards, what is the purpose of human life, and so on. Donald and those like him have inherited many convictions from the society around them.
Most modern worldviews differ at crucial points from the worldview offered in the Bible. When we come to the Bible and try to listen to its claims, we can easily misjudge those claims if we hear them only from within the framework of our own modern assumptions. Letting the Bible speak for itself, that is, letting it speak in its own terms, includes letting the Bible speak from within its own worldview rather than merely our own.
A Personal God
I propose, then, to explore this theme of differing worldviews through subsequent chapters. But I want to focus a little more narrowly. One crucial piece in the biblical worldview concerns who God is. According to the Bible, God is the Creator and sustainer of the world, and God is personal. God's personal character makes a difference. If you want to find out about an apple sitting in a fruit bowl, there are many ways you might go about it. You might photograph it, chemically analyze it, smell it, cut it up, eat it. It is up to you; the apple has no choice in the matter. But getting to know a person is different. You are not completely in charge. You may be able to observe a stranger's actions at a distance. But for real acquaintance, you must meet the person, and the person must cooperate. It is up to the other person how much he or she will tell you.
Some of the thinking about religion makes a mistake right here. If, in our thinking, God or religion becomes like an apple, we are in charge and we do our own investigating in whatever way we please. On the other hand, if God is a person, and in fact a person infinitely greater than we, it is up to him how he chooses to meet us. Until we get to know him, we cannot say whether he makes himself known in all religions equally, or in none of them, or in one particular way that fits his character.
The Bible claims to be God's communication to us. That is an exclusive claim. But mere exclusiveness, as we have seen, does not disqualify the claim. We have to find out by reading the Bible, not by rejecting it beforehand. And we have to reckon with the fact that God as a person may be different from what we imagine him to be. Getting acquainted succeeds better if it takes place without a lot of prejudice getting in the way.CHAPTER 2
Are Moral Rules Astraitjacket?
Consider a second difficulty with the Bible. Some modern people see the moral instruction in the Bible as a straitjacket. They may disagree with some of the Bible's specific moral pronouncements. But they have a deeper difficulty: absolute moral rules seem to them to be an assault on their freedom.
The Worldview Question
People in other cultures have not found the same difficulty with the Bible. Many Christians in previous centuries have valued its instruction. So what causes the differences?
Once again, competing worldviews are one source of difference. The God of the Bible is a personal God. According to the Bible's teaching and its personalist worldview, God has a moral character. Whether or not we accept his moral guidance matters to him.
But if that is all we say, we can still feel as though moral rules are an imposition on human freedom. The Bible has a many-sided reply to this modern feeling. God made human beings in his image (Gen. 1:26–28), so that we have a moral character ourselves. We have a sense of right and wrong. And God made us with a purpose, so that we would grow in fellowship with him and find freedom and satisfaction in fellowship with him rather than in isolation.
Different worldviews lead to different conceptions of freedom. If there were no God, freedom might mean freedom to create our own purposes. It might mean freedom from all constraint, which implies, in the end, freedom from the constraints of personal relationships. The ideal freedom would be to live in isolation. On the other hand, if God exists and is personal, freedom means not isolation but joy in appreciating both other human beings and God the infinite person. God's moral order is designed by God to guide us into personal fellowship and satisfaction. It is for our good. It is for our freedom, we might say, in the true sense of "freedom." The person who goes astray from God's wise guidance burdens himself with sorrows and frustrations. In fact, he ends up being a slave to his own desires.
What Makes Sense
The person who rejects the Bible's moral guidance thinks that he has good reasons for rejecting it. It seems reasonable to him to seek "freedom" rather than the Bible's instruction, which he deems to be oppressing and confining. But his judgments about freedom and about oppression are colored by a worldview. He already has assumptions about what would be a meaningful and fulfilling life — what true freedom would mean. And his assumptions depend on his conception of whether God is relevant, and whether God is personal. Thus, he may reject the Bible not because the Bible does not make sense in its own terms, but because he is not reading it on its own terms. He is injecting his own worldview and his own agenda about the kind of freedom that he pictures for himself as ideal.
The Bible's own view of the matter has still another dimension. The Bible indicates that God created us and designed us to have personal fellowship with him and to follow his ways. But we have gone astray and rebelled. We want to be our own master. That is sin. Sin colors our thinking and makes us dislike the idea of submitting to anyone else. Even though God's way is healthy and our own way is destructive, we do not want to stop following our own way. So when we interact with the Bible, we are not just innocent evaluators. We have a destructive agenda. And that is part of the problem. The problem is not just the worldviews "out there," so to speak, but the worldviews and sinful desires "in here." Our secret desires for sin mesh with the ideological offerings of the worldviews that are "on sale" in our society.CHAPTER 3
Worldviews and Materialism
Consider a third area of difficulty. Some people say that modern science has shown us that miracles are impossible. In addition, they may say that we now know that the world consists of matter and motion and energy. God is irrelevant. These claims are at odds with the Bible. How do we approach these challenges?
Once again, awareness about differing worldviews can help. We can generalize from the examples in the previous two chapters. In the first chapter we asked whether there can be one true religion. In the second chapter we asked whether absolute moral standards put a straitjacket on human freedom. The responses to both questions show that we are influenced by our assumptions — our worldview. Most modern people have a modern worldview that is deeply at odds with the view of the world that the Bible offers.
So what is this modern worldview? In a sense, the pluralism of our time offers many worldviews. The various traditional religions still exist, and each offers answers to basic questions. What is the nature of our world? What is its basic structure and meaning? Where did it come from? What is the significance of human nature and of each individual human being? What is the goal of living? What if something is wrong with the world or human beings in it? How can the wrong be remedied? How do we know what is morally right and wrong? Is there an afterlife? What is it like? What implications, if any, does the afterlife have for the way we live now?
Alongside the answers from traditional religions come distinctly modern answers, especially answers that build on and appeal to the findings of modern science. One dominant influence is what we might call modern materialism. Materialism is a worldview that offers answers to the basic questions about the meaning of life. According to materialism, the world consists in matter and energy and motion. The world is physical in its most basic and deepest structure. Everything else is built up from complex combinations and interactions of matter and energy and motion. Elementary particles form into atoms; atoms form into molecules; molecules form into larger structures like crystals and living cells; cells form organs and organisms; and each one of us is such an organism. The structure of our brains leads to complex human actions and thoughts, and these lead to human meaning.
According to this view, the world has physical meaning that derives from matter and energy and motion. Everything else is added human meanings that we ourselves create in the process of interpreting what we experience.
According to materialism, the universe as we know it originated in the big bang. Human beings are random products of biological evolution, so we have no particular distinct significance except what we create for ourselves. The goal of living is whatever each of us as an individual chooses. But the cosmos as a whole has no goal, no purpose. And it looks as though life itself is only temporary, because the winding down of the amount of free energy in the universe will eventually make it impossible for life to exist. The universe will end up cold and inert.
According to this view, there is nothing wrong with the world — the world simply is. There is no afterlife. Morality is a by-product of the human brain in its biological structure and human social interaction.
When considered in its totality, the materialist worldview is bleak and forbidding in comparison to human spiritual aspirations. We may meet people who try to hold to it consistently. But we meet many more who are influenced by it without swallowing every piece of it. They long for human significance. They find ways of adding more comfortable extra stories onto the materialist substructure of matter and energy and motion. Some people may add a religious dimension of a pantheistic sort. They may postulate a kind of spiritual "energy" in the cosmos, with which they can commune. Nature becomes "Mother Nature." There are variations on this theme. As a society, we become pluralistic in our views of human significance, just as we are pluralistic in many other respects. We autonomously choose which ideas we wish to embrace, even when those ideas are at odds with reality.
The Difference between Natural Science and Materialism
Materialism derives most of its prestige from modern natural science. Science studies matter and energy and motion in their many configurations. The narrow and single-minded focus on matter and motion, and on larger things like cells that involve complex interactions of matter and motion, is one of the secrets for scientific success. Concentrate. Through concentration on matter and motion, scientists build up gradually more and more elaborate understandings of how they work.
But the path from natural science to materialism involves a key transition. The scientist makes a decision at the beginning of his investigation to narrow his focus. Materialism converts this scientific decision into a philosophy that says that the focus of science is not only one possible focus, but the only focus that is significant. The key idea of being the only focus is an addition. Scientific investigation, narrowly conceived, does not prove materialism. Rather, materialism arises from confusing two distinct moves: (1) the narrow scientific strategy of focusing on what is material and (2) the claim that the narrow focus is all that there is.
Materialism nevertheless has a broad influence. It influences even the people who do not adopt it as the complete story. They are tempted to think that materialism is at the bottom of the world, and much of the rest arises from human creation of meaning.
Materialism also influences our view of regularities in the world. Scientists study regularities. The more profound regularities are called laws, such as Newton's three laws of motion. These laws are regarded as impersonal. They are a kind of cosmic mechanism that keeps the world going according to general patterns.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Inerrancy and Worldview"
Copyright © 2012 Vern Sheridan Poythress.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Two Common Religious Difficulties
1 How Can Only One Religion Be Right? 19
2 Are Moral Rules a Straitjacket? 23
Part 2 Challenges From Science and Materialism
3 Worldviews and Materialism 27
4 Modern Science 34
Part 3 Challenges from History
5 The Historical-Critical Tradition 45
6 Responding to Historical Criticism 51
7 The Change from History to Structure 56
Part 4 Challenges About Language
8 Challenges from Linguistics and Philosophy of Language 61
9 Words and Meanings concerning Many "Gods" 71
10 Growth in Understanding 79
11 Contexts for Language 85
12 The Idea of Closed Language 91
13 Breaking Out of Closure in Language 95
14 Analysis of Biblical Narratives 102
Part 5 Challenges From Sociology and Anthropology
15 Challenges from Sociology 107
16 The Idea of Closure of Culture 114
17 Breaking Out of Closure in Culture 118
18 Marxism and Feminism 121
Part 6 Challenges from Psychology
19 Challenges concerning Cognition 129
20 Interaction of Minds 134
21 Thinking about the Inspiration of the Bible 140
Part 7 Challenges from Examples
22 Ordinary Life and Science 147
23 Understanding an Alleged "Contradiction" 153
24 Law in Cultural Context 158
25 Proverbs in Cultural Context 168
26 The Glory of Christ 173
Part 8 Challenges from Our Attitudes
27 Do We Need Help? 181
28 Corruption in the Mind 187
29 Counterfeiting the Truth 195
30 Truth 199
31 The Bible 205
32 The Danger of Pride 212
Part 9 Challenges From Corrupt Spirituality
33 Religious Gullibility 219
34 The Nature of Ultimate Commitments 226
35 Why Are We So Gullible? 231
Part 10 Conclusion
36 Scripture and Worldviews 237
Appendix: Human Authors of the Bible 245
General Index 259
Scripture Index 266
What People are Saying About This
“I can think of no one in the world better qualified to write a defense of biblical inerrancy than my lifelong friend Vern Poythress. This book is no ordinary defense of inerrancy that merely focuses on proposed solutions to several difficult verses (though it does examine some of them). Rather, it is a wide-ranging analysis that exposes the faulty intellectual assumptions that underlie challenges to the Bible from every major academic discipline in the modern university world. I think every Christian student at every secular university should read and absorb the arguments in this book. It is profoundly wise, insightful, and clearly written, and it will surely strengthen every reader’s confidence in the trustworthiness of the Bible as the very words of God.”
—Wayne Grudem, Research Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies, Phoenix Seminary
“Vern Poythress has written what I consider to be definitive books on many subjects, including biblical interpretation, language, science, and sociology. In Inerrancy and Worldview, he brings his insights from these disciplines and more together to address the relation of biblical inerrancy to worldview. He shows quite convincingly that the issue of inerrancy is not just a matter of asking whether this or that biblical passage is factual. Rather, our attitude toward the claim of biblical inerrancy depends on our general view of how God is related to the cosmos and to us as individuals and societies. And that general view, in turn, depends on our relationship to Jesus Christ. The book gets deeper into the question of inerrancy than any other book I know.”
—John M. Frame, J. D. Trimble Chair of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando
“Every new item that Vern Poythress writes is thoughtful, creative, and worth reading. This book is no exception. Among the many things I like about it is his emphasis on the personalist worldview of the Bible, as over against the impersonalism that dominates modern Western culture. Besides its crucial contribution to his own subject in clarifying how it is that God communicates to us through the Bible, I think this basic idea will be fruitful for a good number of other topics as well. Thanks, Dr. Poythress, and thanks, God, for giving him to the Church.”
—C. John Collins, Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Theological Seminary; author, The God of Miracles, Science, and Faith: Friends or Foes?
“Vern Poythress has provided both the church and the academy a remarkable service with Inerrancy and Worldview. Recognizing that the modern objection to Scripture is neither univocal nor objective, but rather varied and religious, he helpfully reframes the discussion in terms of competing worldviews. By surveying the various options for the allegiance of the modern mind, Poythress shows that not only is an inerrant Bible a reasonable expectation of a personal God, but our rejection of it is rooted not in evidence, but in our sinful rebellion against that God. With clear logic and pastoral care, Poythress leads us through an amazing tour of both the ‘wisdom of our age’ and the follies of our hearts, bringing us at last to the God who speaks—humbling our pride and setting our hearts free.”
—Michael Lawrence, Senior Pastor, Hinson Baptist Church, Portland, Oregon; author, Biblical Theology in the Life of the Church
“To our shame, the response of Christians to challenges to our faith can often be dismissive, shallow, defensive, or disrespectful. On the other hand, we can err too much on the side of tolerance for error when truth is under siege. In Inerrancy and Worldview, Vern Poythress shows us how to be neither fools nor cowards. Through intelligent, informed, insightful, and respectful engagement, key foundational faith defeaters taught in many disciplines at every secular university are explained and critiqued from a biblical perspective. Poythress challenges the challenges to biblical belief at the root of their assumptions. We are left with a solid basis and defense of the Christian way of thinking. Inerrancy and Worldview should be required reading for all who want to think more deeply about their faith and defend it within a skeptical culture.”
—Erik Thoennes, Professor of Biblical and Theological Studies, Chair, Biblical and Theological Studies Theology Department, Talbot School of Theology, Biola University; Pastor, Grace Evangelical Free Church, La Mirada, California