Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Richard Burnett and Inerrancy

Richard Burnett is a professor of systematic theology at Erskine Seminary. He has been at the forefront of the entire Erskine/ARP issue, due to his denial of the inerrancy of Scripture. Dr. Burnett has been interviewed by The Greenville News. Part of the article reads:

Many are wondering whether Erskine has “gone secular.” I certainly understand why. Many colleges in my own denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA, were secularized in the last century. This has been a terrible loss. But Erskine College and Seminary, which were founded by the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, have resisted this trend. Indeed, Erskine has become much more conservative and evangelical in the last couple decades and I know of no alumni who would disagree.

I’m firmly committed to Christian liberal arts education and believe we should certainly continue to require commitment to Christian faith for employment here at Erskine. I know no one here who wishes otherwise. The problem is that the ARP Synod has introduced a new litmus test of orthodoxy. Employees are now being asked to affirm that the Bible is “inerrant in the original manuscripts.”

The problem is that we don’t have any original manuscripts of the Bible. We’re told we should “take it on faith.” But this, I believe, is a misunderstanding of faith. Faith, according to the Reformed-Calvinistic tradition, is always a matter of knowledge based on that which has been revealed and never merely a matter of trust.

I believe, unreservedly, that the Bible is the Word of God. And based upon what it says about itself, I believe there is warrant for saying the Bible is “the only infallible rule for faith and practice,” as Presbyterians, traditionally, have been taught to believe. But we believe this not on the basis of original manuscripts but, as the Westminster Confession says, “by the inward work of the Holy Spirit.”

This new standard shifts, or at least confuses, the true source of Scripture’s authority and does so on the basis of an argument that is relatively new in the history of the Church (an appeal to “original manuscripts”). The entire Erskine seminary faculty publicly rejected this argument in 1977.

Now this argument is being resuscitated. Given its track record, I believe it will do more to undermine the Bible’s authority than to safeguard it since it seeks to establish the authority of a Bible we do not have for the Bible we do have. Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to affirm this new litmus test. But some of us cannot do this in good conscience.
Here are some of my thoughts on Dr. Burnett's comments:

1. Of course, this is just a bunch of Barthian mumbo-jumbo. Burnett says we are trying to "establish the authority of a Bible we do not have for the Bible we do have." But what sort of an authority is the Bible we do have, according to him? After all, it isn't inerrant. Inerrancy means that the very words of Scripture are inspired by God, and therefore true (plenary verbal inspiration). The reverse of that (Burnett's position) is that every actual word carries with it the possibility of being false. So then, what authority is Burnett's Bible? If any word or group of words could, in fact, be false, how are we to know what is true? By the inward illumination of the Holy Spirit, he would answer. But that is just subjectivist nonsense. The Holy Spirit confirms the Word of God. How do we know what the Word of God is? The Holy Spirit confirms it. But what if the "Holy Spirit" confirms the truth of a passage of Scripture to me, but not to Burnett (like, I don't know, Isaiah 59:21)? Whose Holy Spirit do we trust? Burnett substitutes the confirming nature of the Holy Spirit for the authority of the Word of God, itself. We judge truth by Scripture (and we judge Scripture by Scripture (WCF 1.9)), not by the confirming of the Holy Spirit.

2. Burnett says that we do not possess the original manuscripts and therefore he cannot affirm their inerrant nature. But, this is only true if one rejects the divine preservation of the text. The WCF explicitly affirms that God's word has been "kept pure in all ages" (WCF 1.8). If this is true, then we do possess "pure" copies of the original manuscripts. Will Burnett affirm one part of the Confession while denying another?

3. Lastly, I would note the redefinition of the term "infallible." Webster's 1828 Dictionary (which, I understand is not the dictionary of the Westminster Assembly) defines infallible as [emphasis added]:
1. Not fallible; not capable of erring; entirely exempt from liability to mistake; applied to persons. No man is infallible; to be infallible is the prerogative of God only.

2. Not liable to fail, or to deceive confidence; certain; as infallible evidence; infallible success.

To whom he showed himself alive after his passion, by many infallible proofs--
Webster's 1828 does not contain the word "inerrant". Why? Because it is a new word. Don't get me wrong, by our modern use of language, I affirm inerrancy and infallibility, but our modern language is not what is being questioned. The question is, what did the Westminster divines mean when they wrote of "the infallible truth" of Scripture? They meant what we would call "inerrant". So for Burnett to "agree" with the WCF on the infallibility of Scripture, but to disagree with the ARP on the inerrancy of Scripture is a contradiction. The WCF's "infallibility" is the ARP's "inerrancy."


  1. Wow what equivocation.

    "I believe, unreservedly, that the Bible is the Word of God. And based upon what it says about itself, I believe there is warrant for saying the Bible is “the only infallible rule for faith and practice,” as Presbyterians, traditionally, have been taught to believe. But we believe this not on the basis of original manuscripts but, as the Westminster Confession says, “by the inward work of the Holy Spirit.”

    The Presbyterian position is not that the proof for the divine authority of Scriptures is not the inward work of the HS, but Scripture themselves.

    "I believe, unreservedly, that the Bible is the Word of God." Is this the Bible you and I have in our hands today? No, according to Burnett he believe the original manuscript is the Word of God. ("But we believe this not on the basis of original manuscripts")

    Faith "is always a matter of knowledge based on that which has been revealed". Is an appeal to 2 Tim 3:16 the knowledge which our faith needs or do we need to find out what the original manuscripts say in 2 Tim 3:16 in order to substantiate our knowledge?

    This is not what Calvin or Turretin taught.

    Calvin: "It is not a question of the principles, or efficient cause, of faith by which we believe the divine quality of Scripture, that is, of whether or not the Holy Spirit produces it in us. This belongs to another question concerning the freedom of the will, and adversaries, such as Stapleton and Cano, agree with us. But here the question is about the argument or chief means which the Spirit uses to convince us of this truth [the Holy Scriptures are authentic and of divine quality], is it a direct (inartificialis) witness of the church, as the Roman Catholics hold, or a rational (artificialis) on based on marks (notae) in Scripture itself, as we maintain?”

    The marks in Scripture for Calvin are not the marks of the original manuscripts but of the Bible he had access to.

    Turretin: "“Just as it is possible to speak of a threefold cause of the manifestation of anything – objective, efficient, and instrumental – so a threefold question can be framed about the recognition of the diving quality of Scripture: first, the argument on account of which I believe; second, the principle, or efficient cause, by which I am led to believe; third, the means and instrument through which I believe…. So if it is asked why or on account of what I believe Scripture to be of diving quality, I will reply that this happens through Scripture itself which proves itself to be such by its marks. If it is asked how or by what it happens that I believe, I will reply, by the Holy Spirit, who produces this faith within me. Finally, if is asked by what means or organ I believe this, I will reply, through the church, which God uses in giving me Scripture.”

  2. Quoting: “But that is just subjectivist nonsense“

    Surely you’re not saying that there is anything OBJECTIVE about any of your arguments or the basis for any of your arguments. Reduced to their essence, your arguments amount to “Just because.”

    All of your arguments rest on a subjective, unprovable premise. You’re not happy that Burnett rejects your premise. Tough.

  3. Ishmael,

    Any of my arguments? You do not see anything objective about the historical definition of the word "infallible"? Or you do not see anything objective about preservation of the text of Scripture?

    My suspicion is that what you see as subjective is the self-attestation of the truth of Scripture. If that is the case, sir, I encourage you to submit your mind to Scripture and not some man-made presuppositions concerning the truth (or falsehood) thereof. I accept the validity of Scripture because Scripture claims to be valid, infallible, and inerrant (see 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19, 21; 1 John 5:9; 1 Thess. 2:13). This is the self-revelatory message of God, and therefore ought not to be questioned, but rather accepted as true. If Burnett rejects my premise (that Scripture is true because it claims as much itself), then Burnett has rejected more than my premise, he has rejected the authority of Scripture itself.

  4. The historical definitions are evidence of how the word was defined at that time in that dictionary.

    Your citing scripture to validate scripture is, of course, self-referential and finally non-supportive of your point, since ALL holy texts claim to be the inerrant word. What you’re holding up as holy is a view accepted by about 31% of American Christians — a minority view. I’m not arguing that truth is democratic; one person may be right in the face of millions, but one might think that if your point was so self-evidently valid, a majority of us would flock to it.

    Until you can offer more support for your point of view than the self-validation of scripture (selectively quoted) and your own personal predilections, you will excuse those of us who are waiting for more definitive arguments before we change our minds.

  5. Theological assertions based upon the texts of Scripture must be founded first upon diligent exegesis of those texts. To say that Scripture cannot authenticate itself by its own statements would be true if that was all that was involved. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit in our hearts to its power and authenticity settle the issue for those who have experienced regeneration by its means. "The Bible is the Word of God" is not a statement that can be proven to be true to an unregenerate person by scientific methodology. This doesn't mean that the Bible hasn't been shown to be true in scientific as well as historical matters multiple times, but it does mean we need to use the right criterion for our investigations, and recognize the limits of our own reason when tempted to sit in judgment on God's word.

  6. Your response to Dr. Burnett is amazing to me. "...due to his denial of the inerrancy of Scripture." No, it's due to his fleeing persecution from the PCUSA for his staunch defense of Scripture, taking a job at Erskine, one of the few non-liberal seminaries, and ARP people hating him irrationally and raising suspicions because he's PCUSA.

    First of all, have you read anything he's written outside of this article? How do you know that he "denies inerrancy" in this incriminating sense? He states here explicitly that he simply disagrees with this way of stating it because of the Westminster Confession, and that he does affirm Scripture in the traditional statement of its authority. You then ADD to this that he denies inerrancy, then accuse him of redefining infallibility based on that assumption. You are just refusing, under any circumstances, to give this man the benefit of the doubt because you believe other people's rumors and gossip (which, I must say, if you really believe in Scripture, you wouldn't disobey it like that). And then your second point on inerrancy totally contradicts your first one, and supports Dr. Burnett! Yes, God does preserve His Word through the ages. It is powerful and effective right now. Thus, we don't have to refer to any original manuscripts as inerrant, because what we have now is infallible in all that it affirms, just as God has preserved it, and the Holy Spirit who inspired it can make it clear to us even if we don't have its perfect textual transmission. To be theologically rigorous, though, this requires some more explication. Hence, Barth's view (which is also highly proof-texted and misunderstood in this whole debate). That people just gainsay scholars like Bruce McCormack on Barth with hardly a blink dumbfounds me. That man knows Barth backwards and forwards, has studied him for years, and directly contradicts the view being espoused by Dr. Burnett's opponents.

    I know Dr. Burnett personally. He is an evangelical servant of Christ being maliciously misrepresented by people who don't know him or care to listen to him. Your glib dismissal of his article as "Barthian mumbo-jumbo" shows me that you haven't really read much Barth, much less Burnett on Barth, because if you had, you'd realize that he interprets Barth as holding the highest possible view of Scripture, one not based in human decision on its truth or untruth, but based on the Truth of God totally apart from our decision about it. Instead, you're imputing the criticisms of other people to his position without listening to him. Barth was anti-liberal, Dr. Burnett is anti-liberal, and the people trying to take over the seminary are, ironically, much more interested in accommodating themselves to this culture with arguments from modern proofs and philosophical demonstrations. Nobody ever scrutinizes their slap-dash theology, for some reason. And, no matter what Dean B says, Calvin is more in the Burnett camp - he frequently says he could teach everything he teaches right from the Institutes, which are required reading in his classes.

    I am so ashamed of the way this church has treated the faculty at Erskine Seminary. I don't know much about the college - maybe it needed reform, but the way people talk about Drs. Burnett, Bush, etc. is just shameful. Of the ARP pastors who actually came to class and listened to Dr. Burnett, all but one that I'm aware of have given him their support and seen this slander for what it is. They are following Scripture's prescription for ecclesiastical disagreement. What are you doing?