Vern Sheridan Poythress approaches the defense of the truth of the Bible in a unique way in his recently-released duo of books, Inerrancy and Worldview and Inerrancy and the Gospels. In these works, he has applied the presuppositional approach to apologetics to the doctrine of inerrancy. Here, we’ll explore the former and analyze Poythress’ approach to the defense of Biblical authority.
Poythress has set Inerrancy and Worldview out not so much as a treatise presenting a broad-based presuppositional approach to defending inerrancy, but rather the book is laid out in stages with sections focusing on various challenges which are raised against the Bible. Each stage ends with a focus on worldview and how one’s worldview shapes one’s perception of the challenge to the Bible.
That is the central thesis of the book: our preconceived notions shape how we will view the Bible. Poythress writes:
Part of the challenge in searching for the truth is that we all do so against the background of assumptions about truth. (21)
Thus, it is critical to recognize that one’s presuppositions will in some ways guide how they view the Bible.
Poythress then introduces the materialistic worldview as the primary presupposition for the Western world which sets itself up against a Biblical worldview. The essential point here is that the world is a very different place if primary causes are personal or impersonal.
From here, Poythress dives into the various challenges which are set up against the Bible. First, he looks at modern science. The major challenges here are the Genesis account of creation, which he argues is explained by God making a “mature creation” where the world appears aged (41) and other alleged scientific discrepancies, which he argues are due to God’s condescending to use human expressions to explain the concepts in the Bible (38-39).
What of historical criticism? Again, worldview is at the center. If God exists, then history inevitably leads where God wills it. If, however, one assumes the Bible is merely human, then it is unsurprising to see the conclusions which historical critics allege about the text.
Challenges from religious language are dealt with in the same fashion. On a theistic worldview, God is present “everywhere” including in “the structures of language that he gives us.” Thus, we should expect language to refer to God in meaningful ways (101). Only if one assumes this is false at the outset does one come to the conclusion that language cannot possibly refer to God (ibid).
Sociology, psychology, and ordinary life receive similar treatments. The point which continues to be pressed is that ideologies which reject God at the outset will, of course, reject God in the conclusions.
Inerrancy and Worldview was a mixed read for me. Poythress at times does an excellent job explaining points of presuppositional apologetics, but at others he seems to be floundering in the vastness of the topics he has chosen to discuss.
There are many good points Poythress makes. Most importantly is his focus on the concept of one’s worldview as the primary challenge to Biblical authority. It seems to me that this is the most important thing to consider in any discussion of inerrancy. If theism is true, inerrancy is at least broadly possible. If theism is false, then inerrancy seems to be prima facie impossible.
The continued focus upon the fact that worldview largely determines what one thinks about various challenges to the Bible is notable and important. In particular, Poythress’ conclusion about challenges from religious language is poignant. The notion that we can’t speak meaningfully about God is ludicrous if the God of Christianity exists.
While there are numerous good points found in the book, but they all seem to be buried in a series of seemingly random examples, objections, and response to those objections. For example, an inordinate amount of space is dedicated to the OT discussing “gods” (including sections on p. 63-65; 66-70; 71-78; 79-81; 111-112; 116-117). His discussion of the Genesis creation account also left much to be desired. The “appearance of age” argument is, I believe, the weakest way to defend a Biblical view of creation.
Poythress’ discussion of feminism is also problematic. The reason is not so much because his critique of feminist theology is off-base, but rather because his definition is far too broad for the view he is critiquing. He writes, “feminism may be used quite broadly as a label for any kind of thinking that is sympathetic with gender equality. For simplicity we concentrate on the more popular, militant, secular forms” (121). But from the text it seems clear that Poythress is focused upon feminist theology more broadly speaking then secular feminism specifically. Where he does seem to express secular feminism, he still mentions the Bible in context (124). Not only that, but his definition of feminism seems to express a view which should be entirely unproblematic (“sympathy with gender equality”) yet he then spends the rest of the section as though there is some huge negative connotation with gender equality. One must wonder: is Poythress suggesting we should advocate for “gender inequality”? And what does he mean by “equality” to begin with? Sure, this section is a minor part of the book, but there are major problems here.
Furthermore, one is almost forced to wonder how this work is a defense of inerrancy. For example, the lengthy discussion of gods referenced above has little if anything to do with inerrancy. Instead, Poythress spends the bulk of this space attempting to show how the gods referenced are really idols which people worship instead of God. Well, of course! But what relevance does this have for inerrancy specifically? Perhaps it helps solve some issues of alleged errors, but solving individual errors does little to defend the specific doctrine of inerrancy.
And that, I think, is one of the major issues with the book. Poythress seems to equate rebutting specific errors with a defense of inerrancy. While this obviously has relevance for inerrancy–if there were errors, the Bible is not inerrant–it does little to provide a positive case for inerrancy.
Perhaps more frustratingly, Poythress never spends the time to develop or explain a robust doctrine of inerrancy. It seems to me that this is part of the reason the defense seems so imbalanced. Rather than clearly defining the doctrine and then defending it, he spends all his time defending the Bible against numerous and varied errors. This is important; but it does not establish inerrancy specifically. There are plenty of Christians who are not inerrantists who would nevertheless defend against particular alleged errors in the Bible.
Inerrancy and Worldview was largely disappointing for me. That isn’t because it is poorly written, but because I think Poythress could have done so much more. He never makes the connection between the actual doctrine of inerrancy and worldview. Instead, the connection is between specific errors and worldview. It seems to me presuppositional apologetics has perhaps the most resources available to defend the doctrine of inerrancy. Unfortunately, Poythress did not seem to utilize all of these resources to their fullest in the book. Interested readers: keep an eye out for my own post on a presuppositional defense of inerrancy.
I must make it clear that I am an inerrantist. The reason I do this is because I have seen other critical reviews of this work where comments are left that the author of the review must not believe inerrancy. Such an accusation is disingenuous. It is perfectly acceptable to say that a specific defense of inerrancy is insufficient while still believing the doctrine itself.
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Inerrancy, Scripture, and the “Easy Way Out”– I analyze inerrancy and why so many Christians reject it. I believe this is largely due to a misunderstanding of the doctrine.
The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til– I analyze the apologetic approach of Cornelius Van Til, largely recognized as the founder of the presuppositional school of apologetics.
The Unbeliever Knows God: Presuppositional Apologetics and Atheism– I discuss how presuppositional apologetics has explained and interacted with atheism.
Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
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“The point which continues to be pressed is that ideologies which reject God at the outset will, of course, reject God in the conclusions.”
Should it be equally unsurprising that an ideology that assumes God at the outset (which seems to be the most basic tenet or presuppositionalism) will assume God in its conclusions?
It should be equally unsurprising. That is exactly the point of the presuppositional apologist. They essentially argue that one’s “starting point” almost inevitably leads to one’s conclusions. How one deals with conflicting starting points is a matter of some debate.