Inerrancy and Worldview

The central thesis of Vern Poythress’s Inerrancy and Worldview is that “modern people” challenge the authority of Scripture by bringing presuppositions from a materialistic worldview to its pages. That is, modern people, or those who think the Bible is errant, read it through the lens of an “impersonalistic” view of natural laws, moral properties, and regularities in thought and speech. Poythress guides the reader through topics such as the natural sciences, sociology, linguistics, historical criticism, and cognitive psychology so as to demonstrate how an impersonalistic worldview affects modern thinking, and hence the handling of Scripture as an errant human text. The antidote to this state of affairs, he says, is to recast these disciplines along the lines of a “personalistic” worldview, which envisages our lawlike world of regularity as one that is upheld by God’s sustaining word. In short, given the reality of a personal God, we should expect an inerrant Bible. Along the way, he addresses certain challenges to particular problem passages and admonishes readers to take account of their spiritual pride that might hinder one’s reading of Scripture.

If one is looking for a general overview of how materialistic thinking affects various disciplines (assuming he has represented them fairly) and the conclusions drawn from them, one might find Poythress’s book helpful. But if one is looking for a defense of inerrancy, one should look elsewhere. In my estimation, this book woefully falls short of a robust defense of inerrancy, because the assumption of a personalist worldview is not sufficient for believing in an inerrant Bible.

Perhaps Poythress only intends to show that a impersonalistic worldview is sufficient to undermine inerrancy, and that a personalistic one is necessary for upholding it. If this is the case, then his argument is rather trivial. Everyone knows that if materialism is true, the Bible errs, and that the Bible is inerrant only if God exists. But I suspect, Poythress is up to something different, namely showing the reader that, despite confessing a personalistic worldview, one might inadvertently imbibe impersonal presuppositions at work in the disciplines that furnish challenges to inerrancy. Even if this is the case, however, he gives is no good reason to believe the Bible is inerrant.

Why think he gives is no good reason to believe the Bible is inerrant? Because one can affirm all that Poythress wants us to affirm–namely that God exists as a personal subject in whom all truth, beauty, and goodness are rooted–and still deny inerrancy. Consider this argument that I will put in the fictional mouth of Bob:

[1] God exists and is morally perfect.

[2] Therefore, God would not command one nation to exterminate all the members of another nation.

[3] The Bible claims that God commanded one nation to exterminate all the members of another nation.

[4] Therefore, what the Bible claims about God is false.

[5] If what the Bible claims about God is false, then the Bible is not inerrant.

[6] Therefore, Bible is not inerrant.

Whether or not one agrees with all the premises of Bob’s argument is beside the point; Poythress shows no awareness of the fact that one of the strongest arguments for the errancy of Scripture faced by Christians today is entirely compatible with a personalistic worldview.

To be sure, the response to Bob would be to charge him with putting the judgments of unaided human reason above the judgments of Scripture and that the truthfulness of premise [2] ought to be challenged. This would be no surprise as Poythress, following Van Til, presupposes that the Bible is inerrant; to argue for the authority of Scripture without appealing to it would be to undermine it. Bob might reasonably think this just amounts to begging the question, but the response will be that everyone begs the question at some point, since everyone has to posit some ultimate authority by which truth values are judged. Suppose this is right: what should we make of this? As far as I can see, the dialectic amounts to another instance of one man’s modus ponens being another man’s modes tollens; thus neither Bob nor Poythress are more rational or irrational than the other. But stalemates do not result in victory. In any case, affirming a personalistic worldview is insufficient for establishing biblical inerrancy.

Here ends my main complaint with the book. Other complaints are relatively minor, but worth noting. Poythress spends four chapters interpreting Psalm 86:8, which obliquely refers to “gods” other than YHWH, as a text that does not affirm the existence of any such “gods.” Why does this matter? Apparently, this is some great challenge posed by Peter Enns who thinks that the ancient Israelites were probably polytheistic. Poythress develops a complex line of response that incorporates the broader context of the passage, and themes developed later on in the canon, all of which is fair and reasonable. But as I was reading this section I kept wondering, “So what if the psalter thought there were other gods?’ That doesn’t mean there are any, because the psalter’s theological beliefs do not determine the fact of the matter.” If inerrancy is at stake, then why not interpret it conditionally, “If there are other gods, YHWH is greater than all of them and therefore he alone is worthy of worship?” Logically, this comes out true if other “gods” exist or not.

One final complaint is the self-referential character of the book. Poythress references himself and his other works no less than 68 times! Thus the reader is deprived of primary resources that might better establish or represent his claims, particularly with respect to other disciplines. If the reader should be directed to his books on science, sociology and linguistics so often, why not just read those instead? Perhaps Inerrancy and Worldview is intended to be a more accessible introduction to lay people, but I maintain it is too truncated of a work to be helpful to them.