Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beyond Inerrancy: Towards a Meaningful Theology of Scripture

So if Inerrancy is meaningless (see previous post) how can we express a "high view" of scripture without it? Well I would suggest that the two things wrong with inerrancy need to be two things right with any other proposal, namely that the Bible we have now must be shown to be the word of God and that word must be guarded against the claims of any "authoritative interpreters."

The place I would start is Isaiah 55. This text affirms a number of things forcefully and beautifully.

In vs1-3, God calls us to come to him and listen to him for our salvation, but in vs6-7 we are told to call on God and seek him. Thus the word of God is shown to be dialogical. It both represents God's word to us and calls us into conversation with God and searching for God through that word. Then in vs8-10 the nature of God word to us is expounded. It is both alien and beyond us (vs8-9) but also purposeful, dynamic, and effective (v10).

We could then heuristically apply this as framework for our own understanding of scripture. This might have the following results:

1. Because God's word is a dynamic communication it is not stored in static historical documents no longer extant, but comes to us through the various traditions of scripture including the Septuagint, the Masoretic Text, the KJV, the Luther Bible and the Paipera Tapu (to name but a few). The changing and varied nature of these traditions are evidence of God's dynamic communication with the world, not the second best option to having the "original manuscripts."

2. Because God's word is beyond human thought no human is permitted to set themselves above the text to give an authoritative interpretation. Instead we are all called into humble searching dialogue with the text, confident that God will achieve what he wills through it (perhaps provided we "give ear" and "hear" (v3) rather than come to the text with our own assumptions) but conscious that any ultimate grasp of it is beyond our reach.

Let me know what you think :-)

P.S. This approach might also spare us from needing to talk about the "preservation of scripture" (which makes it sound like a fossil) and the "perspecuity of scripture" (which is another strong tower for those who use the Bible to beat others over the head).


  1. Hi Jonathan,

    I stumbled across your blog, and this really interested me, as I'm currently preparing a talk on 2 Peter 1:12-21.

    Just a few questions to try to clarity what you're saying, and perhaps probe a bit (if you don't mind :)

    On point 1. How then would we guard against saying that the New World Translation (for example) is not part of God's dynamic communication with the world?

    On point 2. (and with the background of your previous post) Are you saying that God could not achieve his purposes through an inerrant Bible without needing some sort of contemporary 'inerrant authority'?


  2. Good conversation starter(s), Jonathan - and great questions, Scott (esp. pt 1).

    As a side-comment of sorts, I'm sure we'd want to take a step back from the trees of the conversation about Scripture, and affirm that the Word of God was never more truly itself than it was in Jesus Christ. To use Is55, never was the Word more powerfully active and never did it accomplish that for which it was purposed than it did in Christ.

    I also quite like Wright's point in his essay 'How can the bible be authoritative?' (made into a book - 'scripture and the authority of god' or US title 'the last word') that whilst we rightly want to affirm some kind of authority for Scripture, we only can attribute a derived authority from God, who has given all authority in heaven and earth to... not 'the book that you chaps are about to go out and write', but to his Son, etc.

    for me, the 'i-battles' (inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration - esp. overly-technical definitions of the latter) seem to lose most (all?) their would-be importance in light of this?

    just my 2... err... 47 cents.


  3. Enjoyed this post and last one, Jonathan. I've been thinking about this very topic a bit lately. I really like the idea of Jesus being the central cog, the Word of God, through which we interpret the words of God.

    I also find the inerrancy debate to be a bit of waste of time.

    And Dale likes N.T. Wright... the world stops turning. :-)

  4. Hi Scott, welcome to the blog, and please do push probe criticise and whatever, that's the whole point of having a blog :-)

    1) Try this. Taking the model of dialogue to require both parties to be trustworthy and honest in their communication, I might argue that the NWT is an example of dishonesty on the human side of that conversation, deliberately distorting the voice of God. Dynamic does not mean anything goes, it just recognises that God's voice can and will sound different in different times and places.

    2) No. What I am saying is that talk of inerrancy is meaningless without an inerrant interpreter. Usually advocates of inerrancy get around this by appealing to the "literal sense" but in reality it just becomes a form of gnosis as someone has to decide what that literal sense actually is, and despite what they will tell you, it is not always obvious! Rather I would want to include in a full theology of scripture an account of the Holy Spirit's work in guiding us into truth (eg John 14) and the need for community discernment of the mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16). God's purposes are not fulfilled through a static text but through Holy Spirit working in those who respond to God's voice heard in that text (and i think this is compatible with 2 Pet 1:21). It is not that I would be happy saying "the Bible is not inerrant" it's that I think saying that it is adds nothing (positive) to the conversation.

    I hope you'll blog your talk, i'd be interested to have look.

    Dale and Rhett, thanks for your comments. yes and amen, the next place to go would need to be Luke 24:27.

  5. Thanks Jonathan. I guess I feel we shouldn't be as hesitant about God's word being bound to a particular time/place (i.e. Jesus :)

    1. Then couldn't the NWT contributors (or conversation partners?) simply argue that everyone else until that point was failing to listen carefully to the conversation? Where is the concept of scripture as the norming norm here?

    2. >>Rather I would want to include in a full theology of scripture an account of the Holy Spirit's work in guiding us into truth
    Sounds like an inerrant interpreter to me! :)

    By the way - I really liked your article on Preaching the OT. I wonder if the growth in excitement for biblical theology in NZ has failed to be grounded in a solid theological method, and often simply reverts back to the Bridging Paradigm as you describe it.

  6. Scott, don't get me wrong the texts of the Bible are particular to certain times and places and must be understood in respect of those. If anything Inerrancy has the opposite effect as it tends to make of the Bible a magic book that fell out of the sky one day.

    1. Yes they do, but that is something about which you can then have a rational argument about (in theory at least) because there are ways of judging that honesty. One of the interesting things is that JW's who study their NWT Bibles on their own (i.e. without the benefit of the watchtower or cult leadership's guidance) have been known to come to Trinitarian faith (see http://bible.geek.nz/post/2009/05/18/Dealing-with-Arians.aspx) which suggests to me God's word is efficacious even after deliberate distortions of the text.

    2. But the Holy Spirit isn't helping us interpret an inerrant text, he is helping us interpret the Bibles that we have, and our resulting interpretations are only ever provisional because we know our fallen human nature so often gets in the way. Unless we acknowledge this we just end up with a shouting match between the most "Spirit filled" interpreters instead of the most "literal." Any account must deal with the fact that historically sincere, educated and Spirit filled Christians have still come to different conclusions in some areas of interpretation (sometimes quite significant ones). I'm not advocating relativism him, only humility.

    Thanks for the feedback on the Preaching OT essay. (it is encouraging when stuff you slave over actually comes in useful for someone!)

  7. great conversation guys - exemplary for bloggers.

    Scott, until I saw Jonathan's OT preaching link in the r/h sidebar, I thought you were complimenting him on Paul's introductory monthly column over at kiwimadepreaching! ...which also uses the language of 'bridging' :)


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