Review of Geisler’s Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of its Philosophical Roots

by John M. Frame

[Published in Westminster Theological Journal 45:2 (Fall, 1983), 441-448. Used by Permission.]


Norman Geisler (ed.): Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of its Philosophical Roots. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981. 270. $7.95.


This book is the latest of a series of volumes sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. If I may begin with a quibble, the book is not about “biblical errancy,” for the editor and essay-writers all believe that there is no such thing. Rather, they seek to examine the view (errantism, perhaps?) of some who hold that Scripture does err. Further,

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the book does not contain what one might expect—extensive discussions of contemporary errantist theologians—except in parenthetical sections here and there and in the last chapter (to my mind the worst chapter of the book). Instead, the book consists mostly of discussions about philosophers, philosophers thought to “influence” contemporary errantists.

There is a thesis implicit here which Geisler states as follows: “Hence, the rise of an errant [sic] view of Scripture did not result from a discovery of factual evidence that made belief in an inerrant Scripture untenable. Rather, it resulted from the unnecessary acceptance of philosophical premises that undermined the historic belief in an infallible and inerrant Bible” (p. 10). I find this an attractive and useful thesis, one which for many years I have instinctively believed to be true. Yet there are difficulties inherent in this idea which we should note at the outset: (1) It is not easy to demonstrate patterns of historical “influence.” To show, e.g., that Hume influenced Berkouwer, one must present a careful study of Berkouwer, analyzing his questionable views and his reasons for adopting them. Geisler’s admission (pp. 7f) that this influence may be indirect and unconscious does not make the task of demonstrating it any easier; quite to the contrary. The present volume, in my view, greatly underestimates this task. As mentioned earlier, it presents few discussions of those contemporary theologians thought to be influenced by the philosophers, and those discussions are rather inadequate. On the other hand, the discussions of the philosophers themselves are too broad in scope to aid much in supporting Geisler’s thesis. The writers seem to assume no knowledge of philosophy on the part of the reader, and so they present general surveys of each philosopher’s thought such as one might find in a history of philosophy. As surveys, these are generally well done, but they deal only in a cursory way with the specific issues surrounding inerrancy. At best they show how the philosophiesmight influence discussions of inerrancy (cf. John Feinberg’s comment, p. 166), not how they have influenced or do influence such discussions.

(2) Next, to establish Geisler’s thesis, one would have to show that the philosophical influences in question were the chief or determinative influences upon a particular theologian. After all, theological views have many “roots,” both philosophical and nonphilosophical, academic and nonacademic. I would observe that very few theologians admit to being mere camp-followers of a particular philosophy. Most theologians, even those in most obvious bondage to philosophical systems, go to great lengths to show that their philosophical commitments are warranted by, or at least permitted by, Scripture and/or Christian tradition. These would claim that their most fundamental commitments are theological, not philosophical. (This is most

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certainly the case in regard to the noninerrantist evangelicals whose views are most focally at issue here.) Now this claim may be false, but to demonstrate that falsity may be difficult. In the final analysis it may require psychological or spiritual insight into the motives of these theologians, and nothing is harder than achieving that. Certainly this book does not even attempt such an analysis.

(3) Then it ought to be noted that even if we do establish the primacy of philosophical influences upon errantism, we have not thereby shown errantism to be false. Even if we reject the philosophical arguments for errantism, the theologicai-exegetical arguments remain. But the present volume doesn’t deal with theological-exegetical arguments.

What good, then, does this book do for us? What good does it do to trace patterns of philosophical influence when those patterns are not persuasively established and when, even if established, they would not necessitate any theological conclusions? Well, the book does take a few steps towards a definitive study, and we can be thankful for that. And it contains enough good arguments against philosophical positions still fashionable among theologians that it does much to shatter errantism’s pretense of obviousness. Bultmann, e.g., makes it sound very obvious that no modern man can possibly believe in a miracle. But once we see our way out of Spinoza’s determinism and Hume’s empiricism, Bultmann’s view doesn’t seem so obvious at all. Does he have arguments other than those of Spinoza and Hume? If so, we think, he had better produce them. Much that passes for “common sense” is really obsolete philosophy, and recognition of that fact is one path to wisdom. The real value of this book is to teach us wisdom of that sort; it would have been a better book if it were more sharply focused on that goal.

As a critical history of some philosophical views, the book is pretty good. The subjects are well-chosen. After the initial chapter, which deals with Bacon, Hobbes, and Spinoza, each essay treats one philosopher: Hume, Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger. An epilogue by the editor seeks to link these figures with contemporary errantist theologians, G. C. Berkouwer, Jack Rogers, and Stephen T. Davis. Each essay is preceded by a summary and (as mentioned earlier) does not presume philosophical training, though it is definitely written for college-level and up. The text is clear, as philosophical writing goes. I noted unclarities on pp. 29, 77, 196f, 208f; in most books of this sort I would have noted many more. The authors were largely unfamiliar to me. Their curricula vitae contain references to such schools as Dallas Theological Seminary, Detroit Bible College, Liberty Baptist College, Western Conservative Baptist Seminary; but these

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also indicate training at such institutions as Oxford Univ., Boston Univ., Univ. of Chicago, Claremont School of Theology, USC, UCLA. These are, in other words, philosophers of fundamentalist background and connection, but with first-rate training and competence. (Here I use the term “fundamentalist,” not as synonymous with “evangelical,” but as a distinctive party within the evangelical orbit distinct from, say, confessional Lutheran or Reformed groups. There is some overlap. Howard Ducharme, who wrote the essay on Heidegger, is a member of the Christian Reformed Church, but also lists Trinity Divinity Schooland Campus Crusade for Christ among his past involvements.) There was a time when fundamentalism was easily equated with anti-intellectualism, especially in regard to philosophical matters, just as it was once thought to have renounced involvement in social issues. Today, however, we have seen a renascence of fundamentalist social action and also, now, of fundamentalist philosophical activity.

Some of the essays are very fine indeed. W. David Beck’s article on Kant is superb. He summarizes all the critiques and Religion very ably while carefully focusing our attention on the main issue, human autonomy. John Feinberg’s essay on Wittgenstein is very skillfully done and may be the best short introduction to Wittgenstein by an evangelical. (But John: surely you don’t mean that the early Wittgenstein objected to if-then statements, as you suggest on p. 177!) Most of the others are good too, so that I would not hesitate to recommend them to students who want introductory material on the thinkers discussed. I could have wished for more profundity (see below), but lack of that was inevitable when the decision was made to gear these essays to the introductory level.

The authors attack their philosophers from many angles, but we ought to note the three accusations which constitute the major themes of the book: (1) Anti-supernatural bias. The authors find this, not surprisingly, in most of the secular thinkers discussed (pp. 18, 21f, 39ff, 232, etc.). The discussion of Hume and positivism is especially helpful (though in the Hume article Habermas resorts to an unbiblical definition of miracle for apologetic purposes, p. 45).

(2) Science/Scripture Compartmentalizing. As one reads through the book, he is struck again by the pervasiveness in secular philosophy of the idea that Scripture and theology speak to some realm other than science, leaving science to function autonomously. Thus religion and reason, faith and science, pertain to two distinct realms. “This is called separationism” (p. 21), says Geisler. (Well, maybe so; or is that only what he calls it? If this is a common technical term, it is a new one on me!) Anyhow, the book contains some helpful discussions of this phenomenon in Bacon (p. 13), Hobbes

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(p. 16), Spinoza (pp. 17, 21), Kant (p. 73), Lessing (p. 108), Kierkegaard (p. 117). Feinberg points out an interesting contradiction in Wittgenstein on this matter: though wanting to make “language games” (such as science and theology) sharply distinct, he also wanted to avoid defining “essences” (pp. 199ff); but if essences cannot be defined, then differences between language games cannot be sharply defined either. Geisler somewhat confusingly tries to exempt Thomas Aquinas from the charge of “separationism” (p. 13) by saying that Aquinas made a “distinction” between the two realms but not an “actual separation.” What Geisler does not say (and his sympathy with Thomism is well known) is that Thomas held “natural reason” to function independently of divine revelation, thus becoming a very significant figure in the development of “separationism.” These and other interesting discussions stimulate the reader’s constructive thinking concerning the attempt in modern theology (not least in errantist evangelicalism) to remove science from the realm of biblical authority.

(3) Denial of “Objective Truth” in Religion. The authors of this volume are not only unanimous in their inerrantism and in their evangelicalism, but they also display a rare degree of unity on epistemology. Crucial to that epistemology is the concept of “objective fact” which, according to Corduan, is “the unquestionable bedrock on which knowledge must be based” (p. 99). Ducharme speaks of this view as “metaphysical realism” (p. 221), corollaries of which are “epistemological dualism” and the “correspondence theory of truth.” There are, in other words, real facts out there in the world, independent of us, the knowers. We come to know those facts by means of “representative ideas” (p. 223), ideas which represent or correspond to the facts. Truth, then, is the correspondence between our ideas and the facts. Ducharme adds to this a hermeneutical corollary: there is “one. correct meaning of a text that resides in the original author’s intention, which is cemented into propositional statements” (p. 222). To this realist epistemology is contrasted the viewpoints of the philosophers under discussion. Hegel, says Corduan, denied the existence of “objective, ontological truth” (p. 98). That is true, I think, only if we take that phrase to denote the entire position of “metaphysical realism” described above. Otherwise, Corduan’s charge would seem to be wildly overstated, as is his statement that (for Hegel, I presume) “something may be true or false simply because an individual wants it to be that way” (p. 99). Naturally this sort of critique is extended to Kierkegaard (pp. 128f), who thought Hegel was too much of an objectivist, Nietzsche (pp. 133, 143), Kant (p. 74), Heidegger (pp. 221ff). Since these thinkers have drawn a sharp line between religion and science, understandably they ascribe unique, nonscientific and therefore

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“nonobjective” characteristics to religious truth or truth about human existence. To our essay-writers, however, abandonment of “objective truth” in religion leaves scepticism or relativism as the only alternative.

There is truth in “metaphysical realism.” From a Christian perspective, reality is independent of us, because it is ultimately dependent upon God. In that sense there is “objective truth.” However, learning that truth is far more than merely comparing thoughts with reality, as the authors suggest it is by their talk of correspondence. What about the thoughts by which we compare thoughts with reality? How do we know that they correspond? By thoughts about thoughts about thoughts? Clearly this process can go on to infinity or, put differently, can never reach its termination, can never attain final certainty. And then there are all sorts of questions about criteria: on what basis do we know when an idea of ours “fits the facts”? Wittgenstein agonized over the notion that something like a photographic resemblance was involved between idea and fact; but most of us (I think including Feinberg) are grateful to Wittgenstein for showing us why that notion won’t work. It seems clear to me at least that knowledge is never mere knowledge of “facts” (except in a broad sense); it is always at the same time a knowledge of criteria, norms, law (cf. Rom 1:32). And those norms are of value only to one with sufficient personal integrity to apply them rightly, to embrace the truth rather than suppressing it (Rom 1:18–32). By oversimplifying these difficult epistemological issues, our authors are at a great disadvantage in evaluating thinkers like Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Wittgenstein who, erroneous as their views may be, have at least thought these matters through.

A more balanced epistemology would also have helped our writers to see more clearly that scepticism and relativism are not our only enemies or even, necessarily, our chief enemies. The book itself points out that modern philosophers are not mere relativists; these philosophers have their own absolutes which they prefer to the Christian absolutes: Bacon’s scientific method, Spinoza’s mathematical reason, Kant’s personal autonomy, Hegel’s absolute Spirit. The argument, then, is not over whether or not there is an absolute, but over what that absolute is, whether the God of Scripture or an idol of the philosopher’s imagination. So today, some question inerrancy because of scepticism or relativism, but others (such as Dewey Beegle and Daniel Fuller, I think) are led to it by a kind of “objectivism” not terribly different from the “metaphysical realism” described by Ducharme—a resolution to adopt a pure inductive method apart from any theological presuppositions and to follow that inductive method wherever it leads. As

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Van Til would say, the problem is not only a problem with irrationalism, but with rationalism as well.

A word now about Ducharme’s “hermeneutical corollary.” Is there “one correct meaning of a text that resides in the original author’s intention, which is cemented into propositional statements”? Well, in a sense. Gen 1:1 reads, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth.” What is the correct meaning of that? The correct meaning (assuming the accuracy of the translation) is, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and earth.” The authors (divine and human) intended, we believe, to say exactly that, in that propositional form. But generally, when someone asks about meaning, he is not asking to have the text repeated to him. He wants a paraphrase, a definition, an illustration, an application; he wants help in understanding. Can we say that there is only one correct way of giving such help, which must be expressed prepositionally? Certainly not. There is an indefinite number of ways by which we can teach the meaning of any statement. Not every way will do; in that sense there is still an objective limit. Each text (and ultimately, in one sense, the author’s intention; but do note Feinberg’s wise remarks on this, pp. 194f) determines the rightness and wrongness of its uses. But those uses are not susceptible to enumeration. We should also note that since not all texts are propositional (many are questions, commands, promises, emotive expressions, or combinations of these), not all meanings are propositional in any sense. Even in the sense of “meaning” most conducive to Ducharme’s thesis: the meaning of “Peter, do you love me?” is “Peter, do you love me?”—a question, not a proposition.

Thus I think the book’s defense of “objective truth,” while making some useful points, is rather naive epistemologically, on the whole. The best observations in this area are made by W. David Beck who, having asked about the “final basis” of Kant’s view of revelation and ethics, finds the answer in “his doctrine of the autonomy of reason” (p. 76). That, I think, is the real issue: not whether knowledge is “objective” or “subjective,” but whether the object and subject of knowledge are bound by God’s authority. What most sharply separates errantists from inerrantists is the view that human reason may function independently of God’s revelation. On that crucial issue, Biblical Errancy gives an uncertain sound. We need a book on this subject which is unambiguous in this area and which makes this question, rather than the vague question of “objectivity,” its main focus.

Finally I must comment on Geisler’s “Epilogue,” in which he seeks to apply the philosophical critiques to contemporary “errantist” evangelicals,

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Berkouwer, Rogers, and Davis. In my view, this chapter is by far the weakest in the volume. It is only six pages long, yet it attempts to deal with Berkouwer, one of the subtlest thinkers in theology, plus two others who are also worthy of far more consideration. In general I agree with Geisler’s negative evaluation of the views of these men; yet I am embarrassed by the shoddy way in which this evaluation is defended.

Geisler begins by informing us that Berkouwer changed his view of Scripture after reading Barth, and that since Barth was influenced by Kierkegaard therefore Berkouwer is influenced by Kierkegaard (p. 231). This sort of argument should alert us to the deep ambiguities in the concept of “influence.” Even if we grant that Berkouwer changed his view after reading Barth, and even if we grant (by no means the same thing) that he changed his view as a result of reading Barth, we may in no way conclude that Berkouwer is a Barthian. Doubtless anyone who reads Barth carefully and reflectively will come away from this experience asking new questions, seeking new terminology, formulating his view of Scripture differently. Any such reader will be “influenced” by Barth in a sense, but will not necessarily be a Barthian; he may in fact be more strongly opposed to Barth than before. My own view is that although Berkouwer’s second book on Barth was far more sympathetic than the first, it still included some severe criticism. And though there are many inadequacies in Berkouwer’s Holy Scripture, these are not very well explained as the result of Barthian influence. There is in that book some terminology reminiscent of Barth (Scripture as “witness,” as “taken into service”); but the overall thrust of the book is only obscured by assimilating it to Barthianism, let alone to Kierkegaard.

Then Geisler links Berkouwer to Hume of all people because Berkouwer criticizes “supernaturalistic” and “miraculous” accounts of inspiration (p. 232). In fact, anyone with the slightest understanding of Berkouwer knows that he does not have any general prejudice against the supernatural, and the Humean arguments play no role in his thinking whatsoever. Berkouwer does not doubt the virgin birth or the feeding of the 5000 or the resurrection. He is, however, reluctant to describe biblical inspiration as a miracle because, in his view, Scripture does not at all downplay the “natural” role of the human authors in the writing of biblical books. I think Berkouwer is somewhat confused here (his own account of the nature of miracle in The Providence of God would have turned him in a more useful direction). But the thing to note is that Berkouwer’s argument is a theological argument, an exegetical one. Geisler’s point about Hume is entirely irrelevant. Here, cf. my prefatory comment (2) at the beginning of this review. Geisler seems to ignore the possibility that Berkouwer’s construction has any “roots” other

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than the philosophical roots he has uncovered. But in ignoring the theological motivations of Berkouwer, he robs his argument of all force.

Then Geisler tells us that Berkouwer denies verbal inspiration (p. 232), ignoring all of the discussion in Berkouwer on the ambiguities of the concept (Holy Scripture, 156-61, and passim). He quotes Berkouwer’s denial that Paul taught “timeless propositions concerning womanhood” (p. 233) and concludes from that that Berkouwer denied the divine authority of Paul’s utterance. Then he tells us that Berkouwer “retreats to both a relativistic and an intentionalistic view of truth,” evidently finding him insufficiently in tune with “metaphysical realism.” In all of this, he ignores all of Berkouwer’s subtle distinctions and all the difficulties we mentioned earlier which complicate the question of “metaphysical realism.”

Most of the rest of the Epilogue is similarly objectionable. There is no evidence of careful analysis, no recognition of important distinctions, no anticipation of objections to Geisler’s evaluations. He treats all three subjects as if they were mere philosophers, ignoring their theological and exegetical arguments, the arguments upon which these men themselves put the most weight.

Geisler is not a stupid man. He is a well-trained philosopher and a zealous Christian. But this Epilogue would be unworthy of a first-year seminarian. My opinion is that Geisler has been spreading himself much too thin. He has been publishing far too many books, going on far too many debating trips. His other writings indicate that he is capable of careful thought. He ought to clear his schedule sufficiently so that he can think carefully more often.

I recommend the book, therefore, with much reservation. Buy it for the essays which introduce you to important modern philosophers. But don’t regard it as an adequate account of biblical epistemology or as a definitive critique of errantism. Use it to shatter errantism’s pretense of “obviousness” and to chart the sad effects of the principle of rational autonomy.

John M. Frame
Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California

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