Books at a Glance: Let’s start at the bottom. What is “worldview”? And can you give us a brief, general characterization of the worldview that prevails in our society?
Poythress: A worldview consists in a person’s most basic assumptions about the nature of the world. It provides answers that help to orient us. Is there a God? What kind of God is he? Who are we as human beings? What kind of world do we live in? Is it all matter and motion or is there more? Is there purpose in the world or in us? What is the source of morality? What happens after death? Some people spend a lot of conscious effort trying to obtain answers to such questions. But many other people unconsciously accept assumptions from the culture around them, without thinking everything through. They hold a worldview without realizing it.
What worldviews occur in modern society? In a sense there are many worldviews, in accord with the pluralism that characterizes much of modern life. In my book I focus attention on the contrast between two broad worldviews, the impersonalism characterizing much in modern culture and the personalistic worldview described in the Bible. God who is personal is at the heart of the biblical worldview. God made us as persons, and he made everything around us in accord with his personal purposes.
By contrast, materialism says that the world is basically physical in its nature: it consists in matter and energy and motion. Materialism is a form of impersonalism, because it implies that at its root the world is impersonal. It is a pretty grim picture of the world. It has some vocal advocates, but many other people are influenced by it without adopting it completely. For example, humanists have human beings at the center of their picture, but ultimately human beings can still be viewed as complex arrangements of matter and motion. According to this view, we as human beings invent purposes and meanings for ourselves, but the environment around us is still impersonal, and in the end we ourselves are built up from impersonal beginnings with matter and motion. That is still a form of ultimateimpersonalism.
The point in thinking about worldviews is to observe that assumptions about an ultimate personalism or impersonalism have subtle but vast effects on how we treat the Bible and how we evaluate claims about its truthfulness.
Briefly (if this can be answered briefly!), how or why would you argue that only the biblical worldview is self-consistent and able to account for the world as it is?
God continually reveals himself and his character in what he has made (Rom. 1:18-23). Our own constitution, as people made in the image of God, bears witness to God. We cannot escape this reality. We continually rely on God in our thinking, our work, our conduct, and our sense of morality.
The issue of ethical standards is a particularly revealing one. It is difficult to make sense of how ethical standards are actually binding, unless they originate in the character of God. If there are no ethical absolutes, there is no way to judge what peopleought to do to pursue knowledge. Human knowledge threatens to disintegrate. In practice, people still rely on standards, as these are manifested in conscience. They rely on God, but they also make substitute accounts by telling themselves, for example, that the standards are impersonal.
Okay, how does worldview bear on the specific question of inerrancy?
If a person with an antibiblical worldview examines and reads the Bible, he finds many difficulties and seeming impossibilities and “errors” in the Bible. He finds errors not because the Bible actually has errors but because antibiblical assumptions affect his reading of the Bible. It is easy to illustrate the process with respect to miracles in the Bible. According to a modern materialistic or impersonalistic worldview, we live in a world of matter and motion, governed by inviolable scientific laws of a mechanistic kind. There can be no exceptions. So there can be no miracles. A person thinking this way will conclude that miracles in the Bible are instances of erroneous reporting.
But the Bible itself reports miracles within the context of a personalistic worldview, according to which God governs the world both in its regularities and in the exceptions (miracles). Miracles make perfect sense within a biblical worldview. They do not make sense within an impersonalistic worldview, and so they appear to be errors.
Where does the strongest challenge to inerrancy come from today (e.g. linguistics, history)?
For most ordinary people living in Western cultures, I think the strongest challenge comes from pronouncements made in the name of science – that is, physical science. I say “pronouncements” because the actual situation in professional work in sciences is complicated. Real sciences always includes disagreements among scientists. There is always the theoretical possibility that radical revision of scientific theories will take place at some time in the future. There are always philosophical assumptions and worldview assumptions that operate in the background in support of scientific practices, but which most practicing scientists never inspect. In addition, popular claims in the name of science simplify and often import impersonalistic assumptions about scientific law. Among other things, these imported assumptions lead to inferring the impossibility of miracles.
The average person is not aware of all this background. He feels that he just has to accept the pronouncements without question. In addition, many people are aware of the apparent discrepancies between the Bible and mainstream scientific claims concerning the days of creation and Darwinian evolution. It is tempting for people just to dichotomize their life: they think that the Bible is valuable only when it addresses “religious” issues in a narrow sense, while science rules in “real life.” That stance denies inerrancy in practice.
I address these problems in one section of my book, in order to give concise guidance about how to use an awareness of worldviews to solve problems. But the problems with respect to science are so challenging that they could take up a whole book by themselves. So in the present book about inerrancy, I direct people to an earlier book (Redeeming Science) for fuller treatment.
There is another major challenge to inerrancy that I should mention. For Bible scholars, I think that the most serious newer challenge comes from cultural anthropology and related social sciences. Social scientific study tacitly includes in its methods the attempt to exclude God, to treat God as if he were absent. Religion, of course, is there in human life and is subject to scientific study, but it is viewed as a merely human social phenomenon, one among many. This foundational decision – a worldview influence – leads in the long run to treating language and culture as “closed boxes” from which human beings can never escape. When people apply this framework to the Bible, the books of the Bible are treated as trapped in the cultures in which they originated. The Bible can never really rise above what is possible within the “box” of culture, and those possibilities are always human, always prosaic, never divine. So the Bible is drained of its transcendent claim to be the very voice of God. When people experience this kind of drain on transcendence, inerrancy is not directly disproved but is abandoned because it does not make sense – it seems to be a denial of the cultural embeddedness of the Bible that scholars can observe on nearly every page.
Bible scholars as intellectuals naturally want to use whatever “tools” have become available for the study of human society. But the main tools belong to a worldview; they are not religiously neutral, though they often claim to be. The approaches in social sciences deny at the outset the presence of God in the natural world and the human world. As a result of this early, invisible denial, they become frameworks within which inerrancy cannot survive. Christians end up having to reconstruct critically the entire body of social-scientific, historical, and literary research to avoid the process of “trapping” the Bible in culture that is conceived of as a closed box.
Many people believe that faith and science are at war. What are some basic points for Christians to keep in mind about the relationship between science and the Christian worldview?
There are several points to keep in mind. First, Christianity affirms the value of science. Genuine work in science actually fits well within a Christian worldview. God made the world and specifies its regularities. “Scientific law” is a name for the regularities. There are laws, and we can hope to understand them because we are made in the image of God who devised the laws. By contrast, it is hard to give an account that makes sense of law within a materialistic or atheistic context.
Second, science like all other human endeavors gets corrupted by human sin. And the corruptions can be subtle. One form of corruption is the replacement of God with an impersonalistic conception of scientific law as a cosmic mechanism. Then, there can be no exceptions – no miracles, no exceptional origin for the first life, and no exceptional origin for the human race.
Third, the practice of science has a corporate dimension, and this is both good and bad. It is good because we can learn from each other and build on each another’s insights. It is bad because a whole group can go astray together, and then they reassure one another that all is well. That has happened with the growth of an impersonalistic conception of natural law. We see some of the effects of corporate re-inforcement of conformity when mainstream biologists repudiate intelligent design. Advocates of intelligent design are not hired, or are fired, or vilified, or misrepresented in order to preserve what mainstream science sees as its comforting consensus in favor of an impersonalistic conception of biological evolution.
Besides science, what other academic fields do you see as potentially creating challenges for biblical inerrancy?
Earlier I mentioned social anthropology and related fields devoted to cultural analysis. In addition, historical study has been a challenging area since the nineteenth century at least. And the twentieth century has seen the rise of structural linguistics, philosophy of language, schools of psychology and psychotherapy, and various critical studies concerning ideologies. I touch on each of these fields in the different subdivisions of my book. All these fields are affected by the impersonalistic atmosphere characteristic of prevailing modern worldviews. Academic studies treat the world as if God is nonexistent or absent. And then the impersonalistic assumptions in academic studies generate clashes when people undertake academic study of the Bible.
If you had to sketch a brief response to someone endorsing the claim that the Bible is infallible but not inerrant what points would you include?
Earlier in the history of theology, the word infallible was actually a stronger word than inerrancy, when it was used to affirm the trustworthiness of the Bible. For the Bible to be infallible means that itcannot fail, not merely that it does not fail. And the failure to be truthful would be one form of failure. Next, to say that the Bible is inerrant is to say that is has no errors, that is, that is never fails to be truthful. Thus, infallibility implies inerrancy. But infallibility is stronger than that.Infallibility means not only that the Bible has no actual errors, but that itcould not have any errors. It is not even possible, given that the Bible is the very speech of God.
Unfortunately, in the course of time the word infallible began to be used in another way. Some people said that the Bible could have errors in science, history, or geography – that is, in ordinary matters of fact. But they said that the Bible was nevertheless “infallible” because it did not fail to achieve its purpose, which was allegedly to teach theology and morality. There were other variations than defined in other ways what some people thought was the “purpose” of the Bible, and therefore also the respects in which it did not fail.
My first observation about these alternatives is that the Bible itself never makes a distinction of this kind. It never suggests that it is only reliable when it happens to speak on certain topics. It never says that it only becomes the voice of God now and then, when it addresses these reserved topics. Rather, the Bible is the voice of God all the way through. And God can address whatever topics he desires. He is, after all, Lord of all. And he demands our allegiance to him in all areas of life.
So we can observe that these modern alternative uses of the word infallible really boil down in practice to saying that the Bible is neither infallible nor inerrant across the board, but can only be trusted when its speaks on certain subjects. And then of course it is up to the interpreter as to where he draws the line about what can be trusted. In the long run, and in practice, this procedure destroys the authority of the Bible. It is in deep conflict with what the Bible says about itself. In particular, it is in conflict with what Jesus teaches about the Old Testament.
Since the nature of error is often misunderstood by critics of inerrancy, I should add that inerrancydoes not mean that the Bible must always be pedantically precise. For example, the Bible does not include mounds of information about every detail in every historical episode that it describes. But in what it does say it provides us with a true account. A truthful statement, like “Paris is the capital of France,” does not need to provide us with all possible information about Paris or France in order to count as true. Likewise, the Bible does not need to provide us with massive information about Josiah in order for it to be true that “Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign” (2 Kings 22:1). Many books on inerrancy have made this point eloquently, but it continues to be misunderstood.
Is your book written primarily for Christians? If so, do you think it is relevant for non-Christians as well?
Yes, I wrote primarily for Christians, because Christians are the ones most concerned about whether the Bible is inerrant and how the Bible relates to modern culture. But I think my main points are relevant for non-Christians as well. If a non-Christian reads the Bible, he is going to find things that look like errors and things that he misunderstands. I am advising the non-Christian to understand that the Bible has to be interpreted against the background of its own personalistic worldview. This advice is not the same as asking non-Christians actually to abandon the assumptions that they have from their own worldviews. I am asking them to distinguish their assumptions from a biblical worldview and to realize that the Bible will make sense to them only when considered carefully in the context of a biblical worldview. This point is relevant also when Christians try to explain the Christian faith to outsiders. Attention to the assumptions involved in worldviews can help outsiders understand what the claims of Christianity actually are, in distinction from what they are taken to be when an alien worldview distorts them.
Thanks so much for your time. Do you have any further writing projects currently that we might keep a watch for?
I have several books in progress: Chance and the Sovereignty of God: A God-Centered Approach to Probability and Random Events; Redeeming Philosophy: A God-Centered Approach to the Big Questions; Redeeming Mathematics: A God-Centered Approach; and some whose titles are not as fixed: A Handbook for Biblical Hermeneutics; The Miracles of Jesus. There is also a booklet coming:Did Adam Exist? (for which see here).