A Review of “Inerrancy and Worldview” by Vern Poythress

*The following review was originally posted at Pastor Dave Online, you can find more reviews like this one at that weblog*

inerrancyI am sure you remember the old adage about “assumptions.” But assuming something does more than make you and me look foolish. Often our expectations can dictate what our outcome will be, or at least how we perceive the outcome. Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, has applied this principle to the concept of reading the Bible. He states that “People come to the Bible with expectations that do not fit the Bible, and this clash becomes one main reason, though not the only one, why people do not find the Bible’s claims acceptable” (14). In other words the worldview we start from determines at some level whether or not we will accept the concept of inerrancy. In one of the most fresh and compelling treatments of the subject that I have ever read, Poythress unpacks the ways in which our assumptions can keep us from accepting and knowing God through Scripture.

The book is broken down into ten parts. Each part focuses on one of what Poythress calls the “modern voices” challenging the inerrancy of Scripture. So, for example, he addresses challenges from religion, science, history, language, sociology and anthropology, and psychology. In each case he examines how assumptions about the universe, blind adoptions of materialism and the impersonal cloud our logic and distort our reading of Scripture. The book is not simply an apologetic for the Evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. While many apologetics works tackle the handful of verses that are commonly cited as evidence of the Bible’s flaws and errors, Poythress focuses, instead, on the underlying assumptions behind the challenges to inerrancy. He does address a myriad of verses, but his overall approach is to confront the framework out of which most challenges derive. That makes this a rather unique contribution, and a worthwhile one, in the area of defense of Scripture.

In particular, Poythress focuses on the adoption of the impersonalist worldview that permeates every domain of our culture. This assumption ultimately determines how we perceive the various related issues of reading and interpreting the Scriptures. So, for example, Poythress argues that the impersonalist assumptions of modern science necessitate its misunderstanding of the miraculous in Scripture. Poythress writes:

The common modern approach thinks of the laws of science as fundamentally impersonal. They become mechanical. Miracles are then thought to be impossible because a miracle would break through or violate the established impersonal order. This view not only misunderstands miracle by making it a violation of law; it also misunderstands the true character of law. (36)

The assumption that laws are impersonal distorts the Biblical picture. For the reality is quite different, as Poythress writes:

God’s word is personal. It is what he commands. His commandments specify the regularities, such as the phenomena of light and the movements of sun and moon and stars. He also specifies the extraordinary events that surprise us, including the resurrection of Christ. The extraordinary events, the miracles, conform to God’s word, just as do the regularities. (36)

When we read the Bible from within its own worldview, that of a personal God, we can see how its claims make sense. When we bring our own assumptions to the text and impose our Western worldview onto the text we will fail to read it rightly and fairly.

Throughout the course of the book, then, Poythress examines how the assumptions of an impersonal worldview infiltrate other areas related to reading and interpreting Scripture. He gives clear examples on how an impersonal worldview applied to linguistics can affect our reading of Scripture. Or how applied to history it can affect our understanding of similarities and differences in ancient cultures. In short, applied to any area, an impersonalist worldview will make the claims of the Bible unacceptable, because the Bible is not written from within an impersonalist world.

This is such an important book. Poythress is clearly an intellectual with all the right credentials (he has 6 degrees, including a PhD from Harvard). He has written other volumes in linguistics, science, philosophy, theology, and logic. He is a top-notch scholar and this book evidences that. And yet, for all his brilliance Poythress makes this a very accessible read. This is not a book reserved for the scholarly and academically inclined. It is a worthwhile read for any Christian. I cannot commend Inerrancy and Worldview enough. The author makes a compelling case for the fact that what we assume often dictates our outcome, and if we are unwilling to read the Bible as it was intended to be written then we will never accept its claims.

Dave Dunham is associate pastor at Revolution Church in Portsmouth, OH. He also serves as Executive Director of The Southern Ohio Pastors Coalition. He is a graduate of Ohio University (BA) and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (MDiv).

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