Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 271 pp. $17.99.
Over the past four decades, evangelicalism has seen no shortage of books defending the doctrine of inerrancy. Some have wondered aloud whether so much time and energy should be expended on this one particular issue, or if the church would be better served by turning her efforts toward other ecclesial or doctrinal matters.
Is such doctrinal fatigue warranted? In some cases, perhaps. On the whole, however, I am not convinced that Christian theologians will ever be guilty of spending too much time defending the reliability and truthfulness of the Bible. Some attempts may be better than others, but to dismiss inerrancy wholesale as an irrelevant theological fixation from a bygone era would, in my judgment, do far more damage than to zealously overemphasize. So I gladly welcome Vern Poythress’s latest work, Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible, into the discussion. Far from unbridled apologetic enthusiasm, Poythress, professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, offers a straightforward, well-reasoned defense of biblical truth.
Method for Defending Inerrancy
The primary reason I find Poythress’s volume helpful is his method for defending inerrancy. Although Poythress traverses the varied terrain of common objections to scriptural truth in order to bolster the claim that the Bible is without error, his chief goal throughout the book is to highlight how worldview ultimately determines how one approaches the biblical text. Accordingly, Poythress presents inerrancy as both an intellectual and spiritual matter.
We can begin to answer many of our difficulties in a number of areas if we make ourselves aware of the assumptions that we tend to bring along when we study the Bible. But our deepest difficulties cannot be resolved merely on a narrowly intellectual plane. Our deepest difficulty is sin, rebellion against God. We have desires in our hearts that resist the Bible’s views and what God has to say. . . . We will focus primarily on more intellectual difficulties, because these can be more directly and more easily addressed. But it is wise to remember that more stubborn difficulties lurk beneath the surface (16).
Poythress observes that the difference between a biblical worldview and most other worldviews is that the Bible presents a personal God. “According to the Bible, God is the Creator and sustainer of the world, and God is personal. God’s personal character makes a difference” (21). Since God is personal, so are language, knowledge, and truth. Worldviews constructed on the assumption that the universe is impersonal will approach language, knowledge, and truth much differently than a biblical worldview.
This distinction between a personal universe and an impersonal universe provides the framework within which Poythress answers several objections typically leveled against the trustworthiness of the Bible. He examines challenges offered by modern science, historical criticism, and linguistics, noting throughout how a person’s commitment to an impersonal worldview—like materialism, for example—will preclude his acceptance of biblical teaching. Poythress also examines protests against biblical inerrancy posited by sociology, psychology, Marxism, and feminism, observing how each academic discipline or worldview can lead to significant biases in how one approaches and handles the biblical text.
In the latter half of the book, Poythress examines a few specific problem passages while providing reasonable explanations for these “alleged contradictions” in Scripture. He concludes the book with several chapters that consider in more depth the notion—mentioned earlier in the book—that objections to inerrancy are, at their root, spiritual. Intellectual objections to the Bible’s truth claims are expressions of inner rebellion against the Creator, not the chief cause of a person’s unbelief.
Throughout the book, Poythress draws the reader continually back to biblical assumptions while answering common challenges to inerrancy. While giving careful attention to typical objections to the truthfulness of the Bible (and with requisite skill—Poythress has six earned degrees, including a PhD in mathematics), he does so within a biblical framework that provides the necessary context to make sense of textual difficulties.
For example, Poythress spends three chapters dealing with a problem found in Psalm 86:8: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.” Some modern readers may conclude that such verses in the Bible assume the existence of multiple gods and therefore do not intend to claim metaphysical exclusivity for Israel’s God. In order to answer this kind of objection, Poythress examines the greater canonical context in order to shed hermeneutical light on Psalm 86:8. Giving attention to the larger scriptural setting allows a reader to draw conclusions about the biblical text that accord with other foundational spiritual realities—like the truth that there is only one God—while giving account for the existence of other so-called gods.
While some may quibble with a few of Poythress’s generalizations—he often refers to positions as “the modern view” without any distinguishing nuance—and others may wonder if his attempt to answer objections from so many different fields of inquiry was a little too ambitious, his work will certainly benefit Christians who desires to grow in their confidence of God’s Word while gaining a better handle on how to defend biblical truth claims. Yet Poythress also writes for unbelievers. Poythress sometimes confronts the unbeliever directly; not only with the weakness of a particular argument, but also with the reality of a personal God, the pervasive effects of sin, and the need for redemption.
Inerrancy and Worldview, then, should be viewed as a pastoral effort more than an academic treatise. Although Poythress surveys a broad landscape of intellectual challenges to the Bible, he does so in a way that is accessible to those who have little to no acquaintance with areas like psychology, sociology, or Marxism, for example. Chapters are short, definitions are concise, and the footnotes are brief. And the main thesis of the book—that the conclusions we draw from our reading of the Bible ultimately depend on our respective worldviews—emerges with unmistakable clarity. The final takeaway: God’s people can retain firm confidence in their Creator’s Word, and they can offer reasonable answers to those enmeshed in impersonal worldviews while also introducing them to the personal God of truth.
Derek Brown (PhD candidate, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a small business owner, managing editor of the Journal of Family Ministry, and occasional blogger at fromthestudy.com. He and his wife, Amy, are members at 9th and O Baptist Church and reside in Louisville, Kentucky, with their son, Colton.