Taking God’s Word on Offense: Inerrancy, Apologetics, and the Proof of Gospel Preaching

aaron-burden-TNlHf4m4gpI-unsplashIt’s been said that the best offense is a good defense. However, it is also true that if your defense spends too much time on the field, they will eventually fatigue and fold. For that reason, it is equally true that the best defense is a good offense.

And when it comes to apologetics, the art and science of defending the faith, it is important to do more than play defense, but also to go on the offensive. With firm confidence that God’s Word is unbreakable (John 10:35), firmly fixed in the heavens (Ps. 119:89), unfailing in accomplishing God’s will (Isa. 55:11), and always proving itself true (Ps. 18:30; Prov. 30:5), there is no reason to merely defend God’s Word. Instead, we should positively proclaim the Scriptures as the living and active word of God.

Articulating this point forcefully with respect to biblical inerrancy, the late Philip Edgcumbe Hughes (1915–90) reminds us that Christians should do more than defend the faith, we must also proclaim the faith positively. Here’s what he says,

We who cherish the orthodox and evangelical faith have become too defensive about the Bible; we have grown accustomed to jumping from a worthy premise: “The Bible is the Word of God,” to a conclusion negative in form: “. . . therefore it is inerrant.” This, of course, is not wrong in itself, but suggest that it reflects the position into which we have allowed ourselves to be maneuvered. We must move on to the offensive, boldly wielding this powerful weapon that we know to be the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17), as we positively (and, I believe, more biblically) proclaim to the world that the Bible is the Word of God and therefore is living, dynamic, penetrating, and unfailingly effective as it cuts with the edge of redemption for the believer and with the edge of condemnation for the unbeliever (Heb. 4:12). (“The Problem of Historical Relativity,” in Scripture and Truth, 194)

Writing in a book that defends the truthfulness of Scripture, Hughes is clearly not questioning inerrancy. Rather, he is reminding us that the primary task of proclaiming Scripture is positive, not negative. This is seen in the pastoral duty outlined by Paul in Titus 1:9, which says that the overseer “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Notice the order: the faithful pastor-teacher-theologian must positively give instruction and then in service to sound doctrine, he must defend the faith by recognizing error and rebuking those who contradict the truth.

The defense of biblical inerrancy is a necessary endeavor, because there are many who question the complete truthfulness of Scripture. And thus, there is a place for defending the Bible from those who question it. Still, Hughes makes an important caveat, when he turns the defensive posture of biblical inerrantists into a positive proclamation of God’s living and active word. Recognizing the way many advocates for truth overreact and overcorrect in response to error, he observes a weakness in how many argue for inerrancy—namely, by immediately protecting inerrancy in the autographs, now extinct, of Moses, Isaiah, and Paul.

Without denying the important or inerrancy of the original autographs, he questions if immediately appealing to the autographs is really that helpful. Here’s Hughes’ seven-point argument:

The points I wish to stress are these:

(1) that even without possessing the autographs we have the Word of God, whether in Hebrew or Greek or in the form of a translation;

(2) that the Scriptures are translatable without ceasing thereby to be the authentic Word of God;

(3) that the term inerrancy is sometimes used in an ambiguous and confusing manner;

(4) that the distinction between inerrancy and infallibility as between superior and inferior concepts is open to serious question;

(5) that the “humanity” of Scripture, the fact that it involves the “weakness” inseparable from the finiteness of human language, must not be left out of account, even though by God’s grace it adequately fulfills its revelatory and redemptive purpose and there is a true harmony in the union of the “human” and the “divine”;

(6) that thanks to the providential control and guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the course of the church’s history, the integrity of the Scriptures has been essentially preserved in the transmission of the text; and

(7) that even if the autographs were to be discovered tomorrow, though this would display the authentic text and mean the end of all textual criticism, the problems and perplexities that puzzle us now would remain unresolved—the chronological questions regarding passion week, for example, or the difference in the order of Christ’s temptations as given by Matthew and Luke.

Thus, much though we would like to have the original autographs, we are not at a disadvantage for not having them. No good purpose is served by taking refuge in unavailable autographs, and it is much healthier for us to speak simply, positively, and confidently of the Bible as the Word of God without any qualification. (“The Problem of Historical Relativity,” 192–93)

This is a remarkably salient point. We have every reason to be confident in the Word of God that we do have, without having to defend the manuscripts that we don’t have. On this point, he concludes, “Rather than stretch out the arm of our human reason to steady the ark of Scripture when it seems to be in danger of falling, we should approach the Bible with simplicity, reverence, and expectancy, and always with thankfulness, knowing it to be that inexplicable mystery that is the Word of God written.” (“The Problem of Historical Relativity,” 13)

Again, to speak most precisely, there is a long established history, going back to Augustine that the words of Scripture do not err. Any errors found in the manuscripts are products of the copyists, not the original autographs. And thus, it is right and necessary to discuss the original autographs. In his chapter, Hughes affirms all this, but his larger point is well-made: We have strong reason for accepting the Bible as God’s Word, and in so doing, our first response is not to argue for its inerrancy. Instead, our first response is to respond in faith and obedience to proclaim the good news found in the Bible.

In this way, a positive approach to God’s Word is perhaps its greatest proof. As Paul declared in 1 Corinthians 2:2, he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Why? So that in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” his “speech and message” would not be proven with words of wisdom, but “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power.” Indeed, the proof of God’s Word, its truthfulness, and its power is seen in the men and women who are transformed by it. In other words, the children of God who walk in truth are the greatest testimony to God’s truth. This again does not deny the place for defending the faith from the attacks of skeptics, but it does mean that when we believe in the veracity and vitality of God’s Word, it will result in preaching, not just protecting.

With that in mind, let us give thanks that we have God’s Word and as Paul said, “let us hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” God’s Word is alive and the greatest way to prove its truthfulness is not by building arguments around it, but to unleash it, to proclaim it, to let it go on the offensive and convince all who have ears to hear that God’s Word is true! To that end, let us proclaim the truth of God’s Word, for in preaching it as true, the Spirit of truth will do the convincing.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

3 thoughts on “Taking God’s Word on Offense: Inerrancy, Apologetics, and the Proof of Gospel Preaching

  1. To distill/simplify this whole presentation: I have no doubt that “the 1st century A.D. Jesus” was well-aware that Israel’s Scriptures in His day were not only “copies of copies” (some many centuries old, which themselves were copied after the previous ones wore out), but equally copied translations (from the LXX as well as the original languages). And due to Hellenizing, rabbis surely juggled the languages they taught in/preached from. With all this being the case by c. A.D. 30, Jesus STILL pronounced “all these copies &/or translations” to be utterly reliable & faithful. He “handed His apostles SUFFICIENT TRUTH ON A SILVER PLATTER”. We have the same, in any reputable translation.

  2. David I really appreciate the gospel posture of Ephesians 6 :10ff, especially in vs 19 and 20 “ that I may speak boldly ( as an ambassador of Christ)”, Bill


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