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A Case in Point
by Dr. Robert H. Countess

1992 / January-February

One ought to be able to apply the ICBI definition(s) of inerrancy to any page or verse or phrase or word of the Scriptures and thereupon judge whether or not the absolutist claims about inerrancy are suitable--IF, that is, one proceeds from the Lindsell-phenomena approach. (The Van Tillian presuppositionalist, by definition, will not be bothered by problems with the phenomena!)

The inerrancy debate, in my opinion, proceeds out of the discipline of Systematic Theology, a highly abstract and subjective discipline--witness the plethora of "systematic theologies" in Christianity! Instead, the debate ought to center itself in the discipline of Exegetical Theology, especially since the phenomena confront the student before systematics, although I must admit that in the brainwashing approach, this order becomes reversed.

I have selected 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 for a case study. Here, Paul asserts with the utmost clarity whom he did and whom he did not baptize of the believers at Corinth. What follows is my own highly literal translation:

I am thankful that not one of you did I baptize except Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone might say that in my name you were baptized. Now I did baptize also the Stephanas household. Besides, I know not if any other I did baptize.
I chose this passage because there are no problematic variant readings in the manuscript traditions. There are no difficult grammatical constructions; nor are there any words whose meaning-usage is in great dispute with the obvious exception of any who disagrees with me as to the historical usage of baptizo!

With the path somewhat cleared, we see "the bottom line": Paul asserted that "I baptized none of you all there at Corinth EXCEPT for two believers, and their names are Crispus and Gaius."

The problem for the ICBI definition of inerrancy as a technical term possessing the characteristics of being "totally, wholly, etc. trustworthy, true, reliable, accurate," etc. is the word "except." I would not have selected this Pauline passage had he written, "I baptized no one" (period!) and then had omitted the references to Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas.

On the other hand, as the facts of this matter apparently were, if he had written to the Corinthian church "I baptized no one," he would have erred. But even had he erred, I can imagine Crispus and Gaius musing in a mature manner as follows:

CRISPUS: "Hey, there, Paul, you baptized us!"

GAIUS: (Thoughtfully) "Crispus, he apparently forgot that he baptized us, but it is of little consequence in light of the point he's trying to make about the centrality of Christ. This oversight, this lapse of Paul's memory, doesn't make us any less baptized in Christ."

CRISPUS: "You're right, Gaius. Let's rather be glad that he baptized so few people himself. This way they can't go around boasting about having been baptized at the hand of the great Apostle Paul."

Now, in point of the manuscript tradition, Paul DID NOT WRITE, "I baptized no one" (period). On the contrary, he wrote, "I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius."

That is a simple assertion. Taken at face value, it is an assertion of universal negation but having expressly two--and only two--exceptions: Crispus and Gaius. Paul then leaves off naming the exceptions and goes on to speak of his concern about people who would place an exaggerated emphasis upon having been personally baptized by him.

It is only after the latter that his memory becomes jogged to the extent that he recalls his having baptized more than just Crispus and Gaius. He failed to include the Stephanas household. Paul then CORRECTS his earlier universal-negation-with-only-two-exceptions assertion. He adds another exception: the household of Stephanas.

The new bottom line reveals that Paul corrected himself. In doing so, he revealed that humanness to which we all seem to be subject: relative accuracy and relative fallibility. This new twist is consistent with Berkouwer's remarks on the servant character of Scripture as "relatable" to phenomena of Scripture. Paul exhibits the phenomenon of making an error in fact but then correcting it (cf. ICBI point XIV).

The ICBI proponents cannot, I judge, treat this particular phenomenon in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 without resorting to some sort of detour around their absolutist, technical definition of inerrancy. I have personally confronted several inerrancists with this passage and have universally (!) found them to employ a most interesting circumlocution: that inerrancy does not require (1) omniscience, nor (2) complete precision, nor (3) entire harmonizability. In a letter to me on this passage, Dr. Gleason Archer insisted that Paul be allowed "the liberty of expression" that we allow to each other! (Of course, I am willing to do just that, but with that concession I also allow others to be in error at times and to have to correct themselves.)

Archer concluded his defense of Paul (rather the ICBI's defense of their inerrancy theory):

He imparts this information in an informal manner, to be sure, but by the time he has finished this item he has given all of the information, and done so with accuracy.
I suggest that an analogy to this "detour-defense" might be a math student who gives incomplete information on a test, while the teacher, when marking the incorrect response with red ink, allows the student to redo the work and hand it in later and has--using Archer's words-- "done so with accuracy." In such an analogy I see both the math teacher and Archer exhibiting grace toward an erroneous student and an apostle; in Archer's case, grace takes a back seat to cover up.

Archer recently authored a book treating alleged errors in the Bible. What I wish to note is that on the passage in question, this defender of a total inerrancy appears to be content with something less than total (cf. ICBI articles III, VI, XII, XIV). Archer avoids the precise grammar of Paul's universal-negative-with-only-two-exceptions by means of transforming it into a universal positive statement to which other positive additions can be made later, and, which additions, would not point out Pauline fallibility.

The grammar of the text does not, however, allow for such a gracious detouring. One inescapably must conclude that in verse 14 Paul erred when he wrote that he had baptized no one but Crispus and Gaius. In verse 16, Paul corrected himself by the addition of the Stephanas household. I must insist that we readers are not aware of the error of verse 14 until we read of Paul's correction of that error in verse 16. Without the correction, we probably would have never become aware of the error.

What is called for by the ICBI and all would-be inerrancists is candor to admit that the phenomenon of Pauline self-correction CANNOT comport with the abstractly theological articles that Chicago's summit produced. It is my contention that the ICBI articles were produced NOT in conjunction with the phenomena of exegesis but, on the contrary, against the reality of the phenomena of exegesis. As there has been a Realpolitik, there now needs to be in evangelical circles a "Realexegese."


The ICBI does have going for it something that cannot be overcome by any critic: non-existent Scripture originals affirmed to be inerrant. The inherent safety of this position is that no critic can possibly examine for errors that which no longer exists. But a simple application of logical inference, however, can lead one to conclude that a manuscript tradition with so many errors/problems at least seems to point out that the autographs probably partook of the same humanness--unless one insists on the presupposition of immediate dictational inerrancy as with the Koran.

Even inerrancists themselves admit (with a few hardcore hold-outs) that the present manuscripts possess real errors of sorts. Thus, in the final analysis, ICBI abandons the phenomena approach when the subject of the originals comes up and jumps to the presuppositional approach (shades of Van Til), BECAUSE THE PHENOMENA APPROACH JUST WILL NOT WORK. Hence, I assert, we see two radically different methods at work: (1) the phenomena method with its powerful apologetical persuasiveness over multitudes of people, and (2) the presuppositional method when (1) cannot be employed.

I suggest that we see here at least the problem of inconsistency if not the problem of integrity. Integrity can be saved only, I believe, if the inerrancist confesses at the outset that he is going to use two different methods of persuasion, that the implications of the two are at variance, and that if he cannot persuade by means of empirical data, he will then ask the "persuadee" to assume the veracity of that which he initially said he would demonstrate empirically. (I do not know an inerrancist who will do this!)

As a critic of the ICBI position, I do well not to criticize the autographs, at least not beyond being willing to make a mild inference or two about them, for why should I engage in laborious effort to justify or attack that which all parties agree does not exist? Critics do well, I suggest, to limit themselves solely to the present manuscript tradition.


The evidentialists in evangelical apologetics enjoy attacking the "wretched presuppositionalists" (John Warwick Montgomery's term) for their circular reasoning. For an evidentialist to be accused of the latter is tantamount to being accused of being a communist. However, I have observed the following line of reasoning amongst the ICBI folks:

Our present Bibles have errors of sorts. From these Bibles or manuscript tradition, we have deduced and/or inferred what we now call inerrancy. Inerrancy applies to the whole of the Bible because Bible and God's Word are synonyms. However, this total, entire, and complete inerrancy applies in its fullest sense ONLY to that corpus of writings called "autographa." Unfortunately, the latter long ago perished, and we are not able to examine them empirically to measure our theory against them. BUT we are still justified in extrapolating from current errant Bibles back to our (allegedly) inerrant autographs.
I truly believe that I have presented a fair synopsis of ICBI reasoning.

Critics of ICBI are not all slow to point out that there is no way to demonstrate that the extrapolation is justifiable or infallible or inerrant itself. Theological extrapolations are no less precarious than astronomical or biological or geographical extrapolations. The ICBI line of circular reasoning is an example of what I have called "inferential theology" (Journal of Psychology and Theology, Summer 1977, pp. 220ff). It is not that I fault religionists for engaging in inferential theological activity; such activity is unavoidable. What I do find fault with is the dogmatism that frequently surrounds such inferring. Dogmatism is unwarranted by the nature of the so-called "problem of induction." Rather, some measure of pious agnosticism is in order.

ICBI thus assumes at the outset that the autographs are inerrant. Then ICBI extrapolates back to the autographs from a present day errant Bible text and thereupon declares quite dogmatically that this method is justifiable because faith requires an inerrant source of recorded revelation. (To me, this line of circularity is reminiscent of the papal infallibility argument that requires an infallible interpreter to convey an infallible Scripture. Certainly, the logic of both positions has a tantalizing aspect, lacking, however, in compelling logical persuasiveness.)

Of signal interest is the evangelical admissions that God can and does work through Bibles generally regarded to have failings and errors in text. Why cannot these evangelicals take the further step that God might even be able to have worked from originals with failings and errors of sorts? These evangelicals--with errant Bibles in hand--continue to preach, teach, evangelize, and missionize. Why could God not have worked similarly from fallible autographs (non-absolute documents)? This may seem to be only a rhetorical question, but its logic impresses at least me.

"A Case in Point" was excerpted from a longer paper that Dr. Countess presented on March 18, 1983, to the Society of Biblical Literature in Atlanta. The longer paper discussed and quoted several of the articles in "The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy."

(Dr. Countess's address is 120 Sagewood Circle, Toney, AL 35773.)

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