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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Fundamentalism as Foundationalism

Fundamentalism is a form of strong foundationalism, to use a philosophical and specifically epistemological term. Foundationalism is a particular way of modelling how our various beliefs relate to one another. It has been dominant in Western thought, and so is by no means unique to fundamentalists (Murphy 1996; Plantinga and Wolterstorff 1983; Wood 1998). It portrays a system of beliefs as built upon foundations which are themselves self-justifying. Within a foundationalist theory of knowledge, reasoning is conceived as working predominantly in one direction: from the foundations upwards. Beliefs are inferred or deduced from the foundations, and more ramified beliefs are inferred or deduced from more foundational ones.

This is not an uncommon way of thinking, and has affected both liberal and fundamentalist Protestantism, as it has numerous strands of thought. Liberal Protestantism posits universal religious experience as foundational, and places Scripture further up the belief structure, as manifesting the religious experience of its authors. Fundamentalism treats Scripture as foundational. Hence a fundamentalist theology invariably begins with the doctrine of Scripture, because of the conviction that the Bible must be secured before we can go on to build a theology (from it) (Harris 1998b). Within this tradition, the Bible has frequently been described as the ‘textbook’ of theology (e.g. Packer 1958: 112; Stott 1982: 188). The dominant method for inferring doctrines from Scripture has been ‘biblical induction’, by which the systematician collects relevant texts on a given topic and develops from them general conclusions (Stott 1982: 183). John Jefferson Davis's book Let the Bible Teach you Christian Doctrine (1985) exemplifies this method. It simply quotes, with some marginal comment, all the biblical verses that Davis finds relevant to particular doctrines. The method is also practised by Wayne Grudem in his Systematic Theology (1994).

For Scripture to be foundational, it must have various properties which justify its status as the basis of a belief system. Each of these properties is distinctive of fundamentalist claims about the Bible.

1. It must be unmediated. The doctrine of plenary (full) verbal inspiration is crucial in this respect. According to this doctrine, the very words of the Bible are given by God. Fundamentalists carefully avoid saying that God dictated the words, but they do want to say that the words we have in Scripture, at least in the original autographs, were not tainted by any human mediation. They assume that it makes sense to speak of original autographs, as though there was a single original version of Luke's Gospel, for example, rather than numerous related documents evolving and circulating in the primitive church, all equally authoritative before (and even after) the canon took shape (cf. Bauckham 1998; L. T. Johnson 1999; Witherington III 2004). They also believe that the human scribes of these original versions worked in such co-operation with God, whether knowingly or unknowingly, that the Scriptures communicate immediately what God has willed to communicate (Warfield, in Noll 1983: 268–88; Packer 1958: 79; Stott 1996).

2. An unmediated Bible must also be perspicuous, readily accessible by everyone, with minimal need for interpretation. Interpretation undermines Scripture's immediacy. Fundamentalists defend the ‘plain sense’ of the text and the ability of the ‘plain man’ to understand it, although in reality it is their own reading of the text that they follow. Ironically, while professing to stand under the Word, fundamentalists actually stand under the readings of their own leaders and communities (Vanhoozer 1998: 425; Boone 1989). Their suspicion of interpretation blinds them to this fact. Their assumption that Scripture teaches a doctrine of plenary verbal inspiration in 2 Tim. 3: 16 is a case in point. As Keith Ward points out, this verse teaches that all Scripture is breathed by or from God; it does not teach that all Scripture is written or spoken by God (K. Ward 2004: 4).

The fundamentalist conviction that interpretation obstructs God's clear communication is reflected well in an exchange between William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at the infamous Scopes Trial. Bryan was the prosecuting lawyer, but Darrow called him as a witness for the defence, and asked him if his readings of Scripture were not in fact interpretations:

BRYAN. I would not say interpretations, Mr. Darrow, but comments on the lesson.

DARROW. If you comment to any extent these comments have been interpretations?

BRYAN. I presume that any discussion might be to some extent interpretations; but they have not been primarily intended as interpretations.…

DARROW. Do you claim that everything in the Bible should be literally interpreted?

BRYAN. I believe everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there.

(Scopes Trial Transcript 1925: 734–5)

More recently, the British creation scientist David C. C. Watson has argued that Scripture ‘no more requires interpretation than the…cricket scores in your morning paper’ (1975, 1989: 37). If Scripture needs interpreting, the foundation of faith is shifting rather than fixed.

3. Thirdly, if Scripture is to be foundational, it must be self-justifying. To use a phrase more familiar in biblical apologetics, it must be self-authenticating—hence the circular arguments that Scripture posits its own inspiration and authority. These arguments draw most heavily, though not exclusively, on 2 Tim. 3: 16 (‘All scripture is God-breathed…’) and 2 Pet. 1: 20–1 (‘men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’), and ask us to take these verses on trust, so that from them the inspiration of the rest of Scripture can be defended (e.g. Warfield 1948; Grudem 1994: 73–7; J. J. Davis 1985: 13–18).

4. But it is not sufficient for Scripture to be immediately from God, immediately comprehensible to us, and self-authenticating. It must also be inerrant (without error); otherwise our fixed foundation is not reliable. The doctrine of inerrancy received its classic formulation in 1881 at the hands of the Presbyterian biblical scholars A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield. They stated:

the historical faith of the Church has always been that all the affirmations of Scripture of all kinds whether of spiritual doctrine or duty, or of physical or historical fact, or of psychological or philosophical principle, are without any error when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs are ascertained and interpreted in their natural and intended sense. (Hodge and Warfield 1881: 238)

Apparent contradictions in Scripture were said to be unnatural, or not in accordance with the intended sense of the passage, or based on manuscripts containing copyist errors rather than the actual words of the original manuscripts, which are no longer in existence.

Inerrancy has since been seen as the ‘watershed’ issue between evangelicals and others (Schaeffer 1984: 43–65). Indeed, it has been described as the ‘traditional evangelical cornerstone’ and ‘foundational truth’ (Oss 1989: 181). But the doctrine has become highly diverse since Hodge and Warfield's day. For many evangelicals it now means something akin to traditional affirmations of ‘infallibility’: that Scripture is a reliable guide in matters pertaining to faith and salvation. Even so, there is what James Barr calls a ‘maximal conservative’ tendency amongst evangelicals (Barr 1977: 85–9, 124–8) to let go of a factual reading only if the evidence against such a reading is overwhelming, as it was once thought to be in the case of six-day creation.

Inerrancy, Reason, and Evidence

To understand how arguments for inerrancy are constructed, and modified, we need to see how fundamentalists appeal to reason and evidence.

A fundamentalist apologetic uses both deductive (logical) and inductive (empirical) arguments to defend the Bible's authority. Therefore, despite the intention to subject all things to the authority of Scripture, fundamentalists in fact make reason more foundational than Scripture. Their deductive and inductive arguments, which potentially cancel one another out, reflect both the Protestant scholastic roots and the modern scientific heritage of biblical fundamentalism. On the deductive, scholastic side, fundamentalist apologetics rest upon a rational argument that Scripture is inspired by God word for word (plenary verbal inspiration), that God does not err, and therefore that Scripture cannot err: ‘All Scripture is the direct product of the omnipotent and omniscient God who is not subject to error’ (J. J. Davis 1985: 17 n. 20). The British evangelical theologian James Packer can conceive of no reason for asserting inspiration except to proclaim freedom from error: ‘what is the cash-value of saying Scripture “inspires” and “mediates the Word of God”, when we have constantly to allow for undetectable possibilities of error on the part of each biblical author?’ (1979: 27). Likewise, leading American evangelical theologian Carl F. H. Henry insists that the doctrines of biblical inspiration and inerrancy are inseparably linked: ‘What is errant cannot be divinely authoritative nor can God have inspired it’ (Henry 1979a: 480).

On the inductive, empiricist side, fundamentalist apologetics expect that Scripture will show itself to be the Word of God, notably by its accuracy and the harmony of its various parts. For this reason, B. B. Warfield asserted that inspiration is not the first but the last claim we make about Scripture:

[W]e first prove [the Scriptures] authentic, historically credible, generally trustworthy, before we prove them inspired. And the proof of their authenticity, credibility, general trustworthiness would give us a firm basis for Christianity prior to any knowledge on our part of their inspiration, and apart indeed from the existence of inspiration. (Warfield 1948: 210)

A more recent apologist in Warfield's line argues:

[O]ne should begin with Scripture as an ancient source book and grant it a high degree of accuracy. Based on the evidence it contains, one concludes that the miracles and resurrection of Jesus Christ are highly probable, that Christ is therefore who He claimed to be, and that therefore His testimony concerning the Scripture and the accrediting of His apostles as authoritative teachers is to be trusted; the Bible is to be received as the inspired, inerrant Word of God. The highly reliable book at the beginning of the argument is discovered at the end of the argument to be the very Word of God, partaking of divine qualities that far transcend mere empiricist reliability. (D. C. Davis 1984: 376)

By the same reasoning, the divine authorship of apocryphal literature is denied on the grounds that this literature contains ‘historical, chronological and geographical errors’ (E. J. Young, ‘The Canon of the Old Testament’, quoted in Grudem 1994: 59).

This empirical line of enquiry generally finds what it is looking for, so that a fundamentalist who sets out to establish the accuracy, and thereby the divine authorship, of Scripture is likely to read, or interpret, texts in such a way that they appear as accurate or harmonious as possible. This can involve quite complex handling of biblical passages, such as John Wenham's attempts to harmonize the resurrection narratives in Easter Enigma (1984, 1992). It may also involve renderings that seem flatly to contravene a plain reading, as when Harold Lindsell suggested notoriously that Peter denied Jesus six times, because he could find no other way of harmonizing the passion narratives (Lindsell 1976: 175–6).

An inductive approach to inspiration is important to most inerrantists because they believe that the Bible can be shown to be reliable (i.e. error-free). But inductive arguments make the Bible vulnerable to unsympathetic findings. Hodge and Warfield recognized that a ‘proved error in Scripture contradicts not only our doctrine, but the Scripture claims and, therefore, its inspiration in making those claims’ (1881: 245). But they contended that the ‘critical investigation must be made, and we must abide by the result when it is unquestionably reached’ (1881: 242). Hodge was apprehensive about the empirical search, but Warfield persisted with the procedure because he thought that sound textual criticism was bringing critics close to unearthing the original manuscripts (Letis 1991: 180–3). The British biblical scholars B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort produced an edition of the Greek New Testament, published in 1881. Influenced by their work, Warfield thought it would be possible to repristinate the autographs of biblical texts, which, he reasoned deductively, would be inerrant because verbally inspired. He expected that seeming errors would in time be proved true.

In the 1960s and 1970s Daniel Fuller, son of Charles E. Fuller, who founded the inerrantist institution Fuller Theological Seminary, shocked the evangelical world by developing a theory that the Bible is inerrant only in revelational matters (Fuller 1968, 1972, 1973). He argued that he was following Warfield in letting ‘induction control from beginning to end’ (Fuller 1973: 332). But both he and Warfield had ways of protecting the Bible's inerrant status. Warfield distinguished extant manuscripts from the original autographs, which he insisted must have been totally inerrant. Fuller distinguished revelational from non-revelational matters in Scripture, and reserved inerrancy for those that are revelational. His theory posed the problem of how to determine ‘which biblical material is revelational and which is not’ (Pinnock 1973: 334). The Canadian evangelical Clark Pinnock derisorily labelled it ‘limited inerrancy’ (Pinnock 1971: 79; 1973: 334).

The concept of inerrancy has become increasingly malleable (S. T. Davis 1977; Dorrien 1998: 103–52; Harris 1998a). The systematic theologian Donald Bloesch affirms inerrancy in G. C. Berkouwer's sense of undeceiving rather than impeccable (1978: 67; 1983: p. ix). New Testament scholar Robert H. Gundry means by inerrancy that the Bible commits no theological errors. He has abandoned the assumption that apparently historical narratives correspond to factual states of affairs. The Evangelical Theological Society in the USA dismissed Gundry in 1983 for applying redaction criticism to Matthew's Gospel and concluding that ‘subtractions, additions, and revisions of order and phraseology…represent developments…that result in different meanings and departures from the actuality of events’ (Gundry 1982: 623). Gundry begins by attributing theological rather than historical significance to the genealogy of Jesus (1982: 13 f.). From there, he suggests that Matthew ‘manipulate[s] the dominical tradition’ (1982: 35 f.) regarding the birth stories, the beatitudes, and many of the works and sayings of Christ. ETS has been described as practising ‘critical anti-criticism’, which performs biblical study in order to protect biblical inerrancy from the conclusions of faulty criticism. Such criticism is common within fundamentalist apologetics. Gundry represents a more recent approach, which has been called ‘believing criticism’ (Noll 1986: 156–73). This approach allows research to overturn traditional evangelical conclusions about the Bible without necessarily undermining beliefs in the Bible's inspiration and inerrancy. But retaining the language of inerrancy reveals a continued conviction that Scripture is the foundation of faith and therefore needs to be 100 per cent reliable, even if not factually so.

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