Posts Tagged ‘5 Views on Biblical Inerrancy’

Franke’s concern with inerrancy as formulated in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) is that it has been used in such a way to silence the plurality of voices in Scripture in order to formulate a central system in which one must resolve all incoherent or seemingly contradictory statements in Scripture. He explains:

I have often been dismayed by many of the ways in which inerrancy has commonly been used in biblical interpretation, theology, and the life of the church, as though it served as some kind of panacea for resolving difficult and complex questions related to Christian faith and life in the world.

He is further concerned by the way inerrancy has been used to judge who is “in” and who is “out of” evangelicalism. He also does not think that inerrancy does not express “the core idea of the authority of Scripture as a witness to the mission of God.”

He says that inerrancy should:

[P]reserve the dynamic plurality contained in the texts of Scripture by ensuring that no portion of the biblical narrative can properly be disregarded or eclipsed because it is perceived as failing to conform to a larger pattern of systematic unity.

Franke’s argument rests upon his doctrine of God. He maintains the creator-creation distinction. Who God is cannot be ascertained without knowing what God does. God is therefore a being-in-act. God is love; the Trinity has eternally existed in a relationship of mutual love. God is missional. He demonstrates his love by the Father sending his Son and the Father and Son sending the Spirit.

Language is a social-cultural construct and is not able to completely describe the eternal, universal God.

As such, each language, is a particular conceptual scheme that lacks the capacity and universality required to provide a description of God or ultimate truth that can be thought of as absolute.

Since God is wholly-other, the language used to describe God is perspectival in nature. Scripture contains many voices, in their unique social cultural construction, describe God’s revelation. Scripture is a witness to that revelation.

Scripture is not static, however. Scripture, as Franke cites Goldingay, “calls a new world into being.” Franke caveats with this statement:

However, the point needs to be stressed here is that this capacity for world construction, while bound closely to the text, does not lie in the text itself. Instead this result is ultimately the work of the Spirit speaking in and through the text as the instrumentality of world creation.

The Spirit through the means of Scripture seeks to transform the world into the ideal world.

Inerrancy, as cited above, ought not to transform the text into something that it is not. Scripture is a collection of witnesses to God’s revelation. One voice is not allowed to dominate: “Inerrancy means that none of the texts of Scripture should be forced into conformity with others for the sake of systematic unity.” No one should try to construct a single system of theology since such an idea runs counter to the way the God revealed himself to humanity.

While I think Franke is right in that we must be careful not to subordinate the voices of Scripture to each other. Proof-texting is one the ways in which Scripture has been take captive and put into service in a foreign context in which it was not born to serve. Such hermeneutics have created a “diaspora” of verses to elucidate systematic formulas.

I do have two major concerns. First, I do not know how we judge when a witness is faithful or not. I don’t see how we are allowed to say “true” or “untrue” if truth does not have some relationship with, for lack of a better term, “the real world.” Secondly, Franke does not really define inerrancy. I know what it should do, but I don’t know what it actually is. I would like to know!


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Vanhoozer formulates this definition of inerrancy:

I propose the following definition: to say that Scripture is inerrant is to confess faith that the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly).

His understanding of inerrancy is based, in part, on Augustine’s famous assertion about the biblical text:

And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand.

Vanhoozer maintains that one must hold to a “well-versed” inerrancy – an inerrancy that places emphasis on the communicative acts of Scripture: “Well-versed inerrancy acknowledges that biblical truth involves form as well as content.” His form of inerrancy requires that the reader, from a position of faith (a right reader), seek to understand the form of the literature (read-rightly) in order to properly understand what Scripture is communicating.

Scripture communicates artfully; it employs irony, rhetoric, metaphor, and various other literary genres to communicate to us. We are not properly understanding the Scripture’s communicative act, if, for instance, we take irony literalistically. Such reading is naive.

Vanhoozer’s analogy of the map is a great illustration of the point:

Truth is indeed about reality, but there is more than one way to render reality in language. We have truth ‘when what is said is that this is how things are.’ The map of the Paris metro is about the Paris metro – is says, ‘This is how the Paris metro is’ – but ‘the way the words go’ (if maps could speak!) is not like the way a picture corresponds. The tracks that take tourists to the Eiffle Tower are not really orange, as they are on the map, nor are they only a centimeter wide. Most users understand the convention. Truth is the ‘fit’ between text and reality, between what is written and what is written about, but one can speak about (map) the same terrain in many ways.

Thus, one can speak about reality in different ways. If I may borrow from Moberly to add to Vanhoozer (I don’t think I am mixing threads here), fiction is not necessarily synonymous with false. Fiction also communicates truth even if it not historical. Coming back to Scripture, Scripture, especially the narratives do more than just communicate historical realities. To limit those historical narratives to the genre of Modern historicism is to turn a deaf ear (Vanhoozer’s analogy) to Scripture’s communicative act. Thus, determining the historicity of the narrative as false does not necessarily break Vanhoozer’s formulation of inerrancy.

I think Vanhoozer’s formulation is helpful because it pays close attention to the “literariness” of Scripture and lets Scripture be what it is: God’s speech-act defining, rebuking, exhorting, teaching, etc. The only question I have is does Scripture’s communicative act require that originating narrative be historically true? Michael Bird asks, “How much hyperbole or artistry would disqualify the account from being historical?” How closely must the “artistry” be tied to a historical referent?

Vanhoozer’s definition is a right-adjustment for evangelical reading. Historical questions should not be allowed shout out Scripture’s own communicative act.We must not give up on determining historical realities. We must begin, however, with hearing Scripture speak instead of assuming what it is speaking about.

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Michael Bird argues in his essay on inerrancy that as it is defined in the CSBI inerrancy is an American reaction to modernism.

Its primary function is to define American evangelicalism as a bounded set, to use inerrancy as a way of forcing conformity to certain biblical interpretations, and to weed out dissenters in denominational politics.  If, in any debate on doctrine, one plays the inerrancy card against one’s opponents, then one can effectively remove these opponents on the grounds that they are denying the prestigious moniker of inerrancy. Thus inerrancy is primarily a weapon of religious politics to define who is in and who is out. That is why some inerrantists preach the inerrancy of the text but practice the inerrancy of their interpretation.

To maintain its application on the global church, however, is to go too far since it reflects an American mindset toward the Bible. The global church by and large does not need to have inerrancy in their doctrinal statements. The truthfulness of the Bible should be grounded in the positive statement of God’s faithfulness.

 The testimony of God’s Word about itself is that God’s Word an authentic and authoritative account of  God ‘s actions in creation, redemption, and consummation. God speaks in revelation, and it is true because God identifies with and even invests his own character in his Word.

He further maintains

The Battle for the Bible was always rigged in favor of modernity, and a better strategy would have been to deconstruct modernity as its philosophical DNA.  So we shouldn’t anchor the truth of Scripture in our apologetic capabilities to beat the skeptics at their own game; I think there are better ways.

I agree with Bird’s assessment here that we cannot surrender too much to the philosophical language of modernity in our own defense of the Bible. Modernity is not ground for biblical reliability. Bird seems to affirm much of what inerrancy as defined in the CSBI maintains. He certainly draws attention to the main thing: the Bible makes good on its claims because God is the source of that revelation. He criticizes the CSBI for being too American. I am not sure he spells out exactly how it is American. If it is because of its orientation toward modernity, Kevin Vanhoozer’s critique is appropriate:

If you can find McDonald’s or Starbucks in Taiwan and Timbuktu, can Richard Dawkins or Bart Erhman be far behind?

Thus Mohler says:

But, to put it bluntly, modernity happened. And the church had to respond to modernity as it happened, answering the unique questions that modern knowledge and world views posed.

Many clarifications of Christian doctrine occurred in response to some controversy in the church (Arianism, Marcionism). I love Bird’s emphasis on God’s character as foundational for understanding biblical reliability although I don’t know what is internationalist about it. I also think his warnings about modernity controlling the debate are appropriate.

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Michael Bird argues that one of the problems with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) is that the statement places emphasis on the inerrancy on the original autographs. The problem, as my brother-in-law eloquently stated, is that we don’t have the original autographs. Bird argues:

To maintain that divine inspiration is confined to the initial autographs is a position that is textually problematic, as it is theologically indefensible.

He brings up the textual difficulties in Jeremiah, which contains many different readings  between the LXX and the MT. Also, he notes that the end of Deuteronomy, which contains the record of the death of Moses, could not have been written by Moses. Both books exhibit editorial activity which progresses the development of each book. Bird says:

Limiting inspiration to an initial autograph creates a host of problems when we realize that our biblical texts sometimes had secondary additions and subsequent editions, since it would imply that our inspired autographs have noninspired sections laid over them.

The picture of the “original” autographs especially when applied to the Old Testament is not clear-cut. We want to maintain that, in Bird’s words, God is faithful to his revelation. If, however, we consider his revelation as coterminous with “the” original documents, we have some serious evidence-to-the-contrary to contend with. Bird’s solution is to “see inspiration as extending to the human literary processes which preserved the meaning and power of God’s Word to achieve the ends for which it was given.” I agree with that assessment.

I still have questions though. What do we do with the pericope adulterae or the end of Mark, for example?  Are they editorial additions inspired by the Holy Spirit? Does the fact they do not occur in the earliest manuscripts enough to excise them from the canon? From my vantage point, what seems to work for the OT doesn’t work as well for the NT and vice versa. This issue isn’t enough to challenge my faith – I find biblical Christianity a much better explanation for the world than any other worldview. Yet, this issue remains one of the most problematic issues for biblical inerrantists.

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Peter Enns writes the next major section in this book. He believes that the evangelical formulation of inerrancy obscures the Bible for what it really is: a human book. He explains:

Scripture is a collection of a variety of writings that necessarily and unashamedly reflects the worlds in which those writings were produced. The implication of this metaphor is that an understanding of those historical settings can and should affect interpretive conclusions. This process, I believe, is what is presumed when we are dealing with a God who, in Christ, seems to be quite ready and willing to walk among us rather than keep his distance.

Enns believes that the evidence stacks up against the evangelical view of inerrancy, which takes the Bible too much out of the context in which it was written and places standards upon that are unreasonable for the time period in which it was produced.

I think Enns is right that when taken too far, inerrancy can dominate a text rather than expound it. I’ve said before that Genesis 1 is not a polemic against evolution. When we read it as such, we do not allow it to speak with full force the message it intends to convey. Such are the dangers of proof-texting – making individual bits of Scripture to take on more significance outside of the narrative/poetic/epistle/gospel/etc. context in which it lies. The abuse of inerrancy can also flatten interpretation such that one piece of Scripture drives the interpretation of the whole.

I agree that we should allow Scripture to declare, with all its voices, the acts and character of God. But is maintaining that voices of Scripture speak truly about what they see really consonant with denying the humanity of Scripture? I wonder if Enns’s model denies God his own voice. God’s self-revelation to people in actual history has an effect on those people; it changes them. He intended that his revelation shape the way they view, himself, themselves, and the world they live in. Thus, the Bible isn’t just another text. The Bible is a reliable testimony to God’s character and acts in actual history.

The Bible was written in the past by a people of much different culture than ours. Scripture was written for them and by them. We should honor that. Yet, Scripture was also written for us. The significance of that fact does not mean that we stand at a distance in appreciation of the thoughts and expressions of the ancients about the Deity but recognize that such thoughts are inappropriate for us today. Scripture speaks truly about God in the cultural forms of the ancient Israelites and the early Christians, and those forms are an accurate description of who God is and what he has done in history.

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Bird voices a concern about a view of biblical inerrancy combined with a rationalistic interpretation of the Bible. He says that such a view is “pastorally dangerous:”

In their theological training, [Erhman and Bell] were given shallow and terse multiple-choice answers to deep questions and were never equipped with a proper hermeneutical tool kit to deal with the ambiguity or complexity that they can be confronted with in scriptural study and application.

Inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy does not provide a detailed hermeneutic on how to interpret the Bible. Often, the doctrine of inerrancy is used to support rationalistic/modern interpretations of Scripture. The Bible, however, does not support that worldview. Instead of changing the interpretation, which the interpreter perceives as hand-in-hand with inerrancy, the interpreter rejects unreservedly the doctrine of biblical reliability.

Bird provides an apt description of this view of biblical inerrancy: “It produces not a faith seeking understanding, but a rationalism seeking certainty.” The character of God as testified to in Scripture identifies Scripture as a reliable document; it is, after all, God’s word. But we should not be reductionistic in our application of inerrancy. Let the Bible speak for itself.

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I started reading Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. It was heavily discounted at SBL ($8). It was also the subject of debate at ETS this year. Here’s one thought-provoking quote from the book:

Here inerrancy is not a conclusion drawn from exhaustive investigation into the veracity of Scripture’s claims but a rule for reading Scripture in ways consistent with the conviction that God is truthful. Inerrancy establishes both a set of expectations about the text and the condition of sound readings of the text.

For Geisler, this definition of inerrancy, which is established on the truthfulness of God and the identification of Scripture as God’s word, precludes the biblical authors from using certain genres. So basically, just suggest midrash and gospel in the same sentence and you will raise a firestorm of debate.

I have a confession. I am an inerrantist. I think the doctrine makes sense with the teachings of Scripture. I also think that genre gives us rules for reading too. Genesis 1 is not a scientific account about the beginning of the world; reading it as such breaks the rules for reading this text (Genesis 1 says a lot more!). If the creation of the world did not occur the way Genesis 1 lays it out, I don’t think that sinks inerrancy. Moses may not have intended that text to be read that way.

So the question is: does that definition of inerrancy provide the absolute answer for what genres can and cannot be used? I don’t think it does. While I don’t think the gospel writers employed midrash, I don’t think it’s helpful to argue against that interpretation with the assertion that it violates inerrancy. Provide a better interpretation too.

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