Inspiration, Scripture and Reason: An Appreciation of J.I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God
1. For a defence of the inspiration and authority of the Bible. I first go to B.B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible because of its solid exegetical analysis. Next, I turn to E.J. Young Thy Word is Truth for its engagement with modern criticism. Finally, I refer to John Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God for a sober and theologically integrated formulation of the doctrine that meets headlong the latest theological assaults on the authority of Scripture. However, for an engaging read, I recommend J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Eerdmans reprint, 1977).
Packer describes ‘fundamentalism’ as “maintenance in opposition to modernism, of traditional orthodox beliefs such as the inerrancy of Scripture and literal acceptance of the creeds as fundamentals of protestant Christianity.” [p. 29] **See below for a longer discussion of the definition of fundamentalism, liberalism and evangelicalism.
Packer’s book may be have been written almost 60 years ago (1958), but its lucid, closely reasoned defence of the Bible, and its sharp critique of liberalism’s treatment of the Bible remains as pertinent as ever. The quotations given below for the reader to sample and savor will persuade him or her that Packer offers a crisp analysis of the fundamentalist-liberal conflict.
2. Definition of inspiration. Inspiration is to be defined as a supernatural, providential influence of God’s Holy Spirit upon the human authors which caused them to write what He wished to be written for the communication of revealed truth to others. It was a divine activity which…effectively secured the written transmission of saving truth. [p. 77]
‘Infallible’ denotes the quality of never deceiving or misleading, and so means ‘wholly trustworthy and reliable’; ‘inerrant’ means ‘wholly true’. Scripture is termed infallible and inerrant to express that all its teaching is the utterance of God ‘who cannot lie’, whose word, once spoken, abides for ever, and that therefore it may be trusted implicitly… to assert biblical inerrancy and infallibility is just to confess faith in (i) the divine origin of the Bible and (ii) the trustfulness and trustworthiness of God. [pp. 93-94]
3. Contrast between Evangelical and Liberal Approach to Scripture
[Evangelical] Christians are bound to receive the Bible as God’s Word written on the authority of Christ, not because they can prove it such by independent enquiry, but because as disciples they trust their divine Teacher…The only biblical criticism which they can consistently regard as valid is that which takes as its starting point the Bible’s account of itself… Our business is to present the Christian faith clothed in modern terms, not to propagate modern thought clothed in Christian terms. Our business is to interpret and criticize modern thought by the gospel, not vice versa. Confusion is fatal. [pp. 109, 130, 136]
[Liberalism], like all Subjectivism [as it is grounded in human judgment rather than resting on God’s authoritative revelation], discounts the perfection and truth of Scripture in order to make room for man to contribute their own ideas to his knowledge of God, just as Medievalism discounted the perfection of Christ’s merits in order to make for man to contribute his own merits to his acceptance of God. [Liberalism discounts the authority of Christ in the understanding of inspiration of Scripture]…The real issues are: the authority of Christ and of Scripture; the relation between the Bible and reason; the method of theology and the meaning of repentance; the choice is between Evangelicalism and Subjectivism. [pp. 173, 178]
4. Toward a balanced view of inspiration, Scripture and reason
The true antithesis here, as we have seen is not between faith and reason (as if believing and thinking were mutually exclusive). The question is not whether we should think, but how we should think; whether or not our thinking should be controlled by our faith. The real difference between Evangelicals and those who call them obscurantists lies in the realm of method. [p. 140]
Packer ends his analysis with a most judicious recommendation by John Stott: In evangelism, then we need to recognize that the men to whom we preach have minds. We shall not ask them to stifle their minds, but to open them, and in particular to open them to receive a divine illumination in order to understand divine revelation. We shall not seek to murder their intellect (since it is given to them by God), but neither shall we flatter it (since it is finite and fallen). We shall endeavor to reason with them, but only from revelation, while admitting our need and theirs for the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit. [p. 137]
It would be a mistake to conclude that appealing to these classic works in defence of the evangelical doctrine of scripture results from a fortress mentality that is defensive and anti-intellectual. On the contrary, scholars like Warfield, Machen and Young were fully abreast with the most sophisticated scholarship of their times. Indeed, these scholars set out to master the latest developments in biblical criticism because of their confidence in the infallible God and his inspired Scripture. Contemporary evangelical scholars can do no better than to emulate these scholars in integrating faith and knowledge in the defence of Scripture.
** On the definition of fundamentalism, liberalism and evangelicalism.
Believing scholars need not feel embarrassed by their historical links with ‘fundamentalism’ just because the word has become a derogatory term to stigmatize fundamentalists as closed-minded Christians who live in religious ghettos. Like any complex movement, fundamentalism displays a range of theological and social outlooks. For example the twelve volumes called The Fundamentals (1910-1915) which provided the theological underpinnings for the movement submits careful argument while appreciating and critiquing the views of their liberal opponents. However, the movement adopted a defensive mindset and retreated from public forum after it suffered defeat at the Scopes Monkey Trial (1925). Naturally, observers anticipated the eventual extinction of the movement. But the movement’s withdrawal was a strategic retreat to rebuild its institutions as it re-emerged as a thriving movement ready to engage wider culture in the 1940s. For this remarkable story I recommend two significant historical analyses: (1) George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford UP, 1980, 2006) and (2) Joel Carpenter, Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism (Oxford UP, 1997).
Fundamentalism emphasizes that its doctrines are unchanged forms as they preserve spiritual truths essential for human salvation. Historically, fundamentalism stands in opposition to liberalism which views history of Christianity in terms of evolutionary progress, and is willing to revise Christian doctrine in the light modern knowledge and values as a means of achieving contemporary relevance.
It should be noted that many evangelicals distinguish themselves from the fundamentalists even though they are both committed to the defending fundamental doctrines. The reason is because fundamentalism often follows a separatist instinct as it rejects the ever changing ethos of modern life and focuses on personal piety and practice of faith in private. In contrast, modern evangelicals are open to a cultural engagement with modernity which may require them to articulate and defend their faith the public arena.