Discerning Reader Editorial Review
Reviewed 02/23/2011 by Ian Clary.
Recommended. A devastating blow to the Rogers/McKim proposal and a gold standard for Christian historical-theological methodology.
The history of the Church has been marred from its inception with battles over Scripture. In the early days of the church the dispute was over what texts should be included in the canon; in recent days it has been over the nature of Scripture's authority.
Since the eighteenth-century and the rise of so-called higher criticism, the Bible has been scrutinized as a mere work of human agents without the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This teaching has crept into the church since that day and has embodied a number of expressions. A recent controversy in the 1970s and 1980s was Jack Rogers and Donald McKim's proposal in their The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (1979). In this work the two authors argued that representative figures of Church history - Augustine, Calvin, Luther, etc. - understood Scriptural authority to be involved only in questions of faith and salvation. That is, when the Scriptures deal with questions of salvation, it is infallible. However, when it comes to questions of scriptural relation to the natural world, the sciences or philosophy, the possibility that the Scriptures could err was likely.
Due to the historical nature of Rogers and McKim's proposal, it required an historical response. There is arguably no scholar more capable than John Woodbridge, Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, to take up the task. Woodbridge, an expert in Reformation, post-Reformation, Evangelical and modern Church history, approaches his task with balance and care. The result of his examination is a devastating blow to any theory that posits something less than the full inspiration and authority of the Bible.
What is particularly embarrassing for Rogers and McKim is that Woodbridge approaches the task primarily from a methodological perspective - which he explains in his opening chapter - and points out the basic errors that they make in their approach to the texts of history. He counts ten errors that severely detract from their work. Some errors include their over-reliance on secondary sources, their narrowly selective quotations, the "historical disjunctions" of their interpretations, which are all exposed and corrected to the degree that it renders their basic thesis inoperable.
Chapters 2 through 7 all deal with different periods in the history of the Church, beginning with the patristic and concluding with the Old Princeton school of the nineteenth-century. Woodbridge is honest with himself and recognizes his own specialty and thus some eras are dealt with sparsely, while others in greater detail. Thus, the patristic and medieval section is given less attention, whereas the Reformation and the Evangelical periods are dealt with in great detail. The most in-depth and rewarding part of his analysis involves the Princetonians Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield. He vindicates them of the charge that they invented the theory of "verbal plenary inspriation" in order to deal with the rise of higher criticism and Darwinian evolution. Instead, Woodbridge shows that their doctrine of inspiration was not novel with them, nor were they alone in espousing it in their day.
This book is a model of historical scholarship and it should be read not only for its critique of this particular proposal, but it should also be read by historians as a case-study of what careful critique, balanced use of sources and rigorous interpretation should look like. The question of the Bible's authority will likely always come under some form of scrutiny, thus Woodbridge's book will remain ever useful. But its applicability to questions of historical method also make it a book that will have continuing value.