Problems For Limited Inerrancy -- By: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 18:2 (Spring 1975)
Article: Problems For Limited Inerrancy
Author: Vern Sheridan Poythress

Problems For Limited Inerrancy1

Vern Sheridan Poythress*

Richard Coleman’s recent article, “Reconsidering ‘Limited Inerrancy,’ “2 presents for our consideration some new positions on the inerrancy of Scripture. I should like to respond with some observations in defense of a more traditional view. My observations are of two kinds. First (I), almost all if not all the proffered formulations of “limitations” on inerrancy contain some disturbing vagueness. Second (II), limited inerrancy has some problems to face of which its defenders as yet show little awareness.

I. Vaguenesses about the “limitations”

Coleman’s article is vague about just how far the limitations extend. Most of the time he can be interpreted either as defending a traditional view or as making enormous concessions. Let us see how this works.

The first position that Coleman presents in an approving light is something like the following:

1. The Bible is inerrant in those things which the biblical authors intend to teach as necessary for salvation.3

A major difficulty here is with the phrase “necessary for salvation.” This could mean a number of things. (a) biblical teaching is necessary for salvation if no fallen human being can be saved without believing this teaching. (b) A biblical teaching is necessary for salvation if God saw fit to record the teaching for the sake of salvation. (c) A biblical teaching is necessary for salvation if, in some circumstances, not believing it puts one’s salvation in question. Still other interpretations are possible.

Under condition (a), none of the NT is necessary for salvation, since people were saved before it was written. Some of the NT teaching may be necessary, insofar as it simply repeats teaching in the OT. Moreover, since some people have been saved by reading the Gospel of Mark alone or the Gospel of John alone, only what is common to both is necessary. Thus, interpretation (a) makes enormous concessions. Under condition (c), everything the Bible teaches is necessary for salvation, since a person who believed that the Bible was uncondditionally God’s word and knew that it taught x, yet out of sheer stubbornness refused to acknowledge x, would thereby raise questions about whether his relation to God was a saving one.

What Coleman later says is more consistent with interpretation (b). But this would normally be put, “For the sake of our salvation.”4 Let us formulate it thus:


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