The Truth Will Out: An Historian’s Perspective On The Inerrancy Controversy -- By: Ben Witherington III

Journal: Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society
Volume: JETS 57:1 (Mar 2014)
Article: The Truth Will Out: An Historian’s Perspective On The Inerrancy Controversy
Author: Ben Witherington III

The Truth Will Out: An Historian’s Perspective On The Inerrancy Controversy

Ben Witherington III*

* Ben Witherington is Jean R. Amos Professor of NT for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, 204 N. Lexington Ave., Wilmore, KY 40390. This plenary address was delivered at the 65th annual meeting of the ETS, November 21, 2013, in Baltimore, MD.

For too long, and in too many circles, the debate about the inerrancy of the Scriptures has transpired in what I would call a historical vacuum. By this I mean that the history of the Greek text itself of the NT (and I am limiting myself to the discussion of the inerrancy of the NT), the history of the assembling of the NT canon, and even the history of understanding what phrases like “the Word of God” and the “Scriptures” meant in the NT era have been ignored, or at least neglected. I propose in this presentation to step back, take a deep breath, and talk about these important issues in so far as they affect or even possibly determine how we should approach the issue of the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture, from an historian’s point of view. First, however, I’d like to offer a long quote from J. B. Lightfoot, my Durham forebear and in many ways the mentor and model for my doctor-father C. K. Barrett. This is taken from the Introduction to his 1855 Lenten term lectures at Cambridge on the NT.

Our method of study and the system of interpretation must necessarily be dependent on the view we take of the inspiration of Holy Scripture. It will be so either consciously or unconsciously. … Now in an inspired writing there are two elements—the human and the divine or as it is sometimes expressed—the letter and the spirit[,] and the different views held of the doctrine of inspiration depend on the prominence given to one or the other of these elements, and the judgment formed of their mutual relations. Hence it will be seen that no conceivable shade of opinion is excluded, and every attempt at classifying these views must be more or less fallacious. But it will be sufficiently exact for our present purpose roughly to assume a threefold division—in the first of these the divine element being too exclusively considered, in the second this undue prominence being assigned to the human agency, and in the third and only adequate view of inspiration, each of these elements being recognized in its proper sphere, and the two harmoniously combined. The first of these views is irrational, the second is rationalistic, the third alone is in accordance alike with the highest reason and the fullest faith.1

He goes on to add,

The timidity, which shrinks from the application of modern science or criticism...

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