Thursday, January 28, 2010

No, you don't just pick and choose

As I stated before this inerrancy discussion has plenty of legs left. Glenn responds to some criticism from Jeremy by asking why is a non-inerrantist more likley to allow personal preference to interfere in interpretation that someone who holds to inerrancy?  Glenn is quite right in pointing out that we all have to do the hard work of interpretation regardless of what our particular position is.  In fact I would go as far as to say that inerrantists have a harder time of it because of the need they feel to reconcile passages which (appear to) disagree in minor details.  For the non-inerrantist this is normally going to be a waste of time. 

But Jeremy seems to think that it is just a matter of opinion which "parts" of the of Bible are intended to teach truth and which parts are a result of the texts time and culture bound character.  Jeremy paints in his post a misleading charicature of those who do not hold to inerrancy.  No serious exegete that I know thinks you can just put a red biro around various parts of the Bible that you think might contain mistakes or errors or even just irrelevances.  Rather the whole text is inspired, and the whole text has a message.  The important thing is not to confuse the medium with the message.  The mistakes are not in the Bible (hence why I would never say the Bible is "errant" or contains errors - pace Glenn) but in the interpreters who think that the medium is part of the message. 

The clearest and most obvious example of this is Genesis chapter 1.  This passage clearly is teaching about God and the relationship of creation and humanity to God.  There is huge theological weight to every verse in Gen 1 and it is (in my belief) totally and utterly true in all that it teaches.  But there is no indication in the text that it intends to teach us about evoution (or lack of it) or the age of the planet (or lack of it).  Yes that is a hermeneutical decision you have to make, but you do not make those decisions based on preference, you make it based on the way the text demands to be read in its literary and historical context.  The poetic form, and seven days structure are the medium within which the message of God's creativity, sovereignty and grace are taught to us, not the message itself.

Jeremy also argues that because inerrancy now means almost anything given how widely it is qualified by different people that if you feel unable to affirm it then there must be something wrong with you.  My only answer to such a startling suggestion is that I don't believe we should just redefine words to suit us for the express purpose of fitting in with a certain group of people (in this case those who affirm inerrancy - regardless of what they actually mean by it!).  If anything he proves my earlier point that talk about inerrancy is just plain meaningless.


  1. I'm not convinced that you're really denying inerrancy, actually. Everything you've said positively about scripture is compatible with inerrancy, and you're not really saying anything negatively that conflicts with it except that you don't want to call your view inerrancy.

    I also think one of the problems you raised in your previous post apply to your own view. You say that there are no mistakes in the Bible, but your argument doesn't allow for anything definite to be the Bible, which makes it hard to say that there are no mistakes in it. In what?

    The other problem also doesn't seem to me to be about inerrancy. You say that postulating an inerrant texts doesn't help because we're still fallible in our interpretation. No, it does help, because we can at least go back to the text and disagree about how to interpret it. There'd be no point in interpreting it if we couldn't trust it to be true. We just have to figure out (using objective methods of interpretation) the best interpretation. That means the authority is outside of us, but we aren't perfect in getting right what the authority says. It's better than the view that we have the authority, because that's arbitrary. It's better than the view that the text is errant, because then there's no authority. We need to say that the authority is in God and his message, which is contained in the scriptures, but that it's not in us and our interpretation. And that's exactly what inerrantism leads to. Now you say you have a high view of scripture (leaving aside the fact that you don't have something called scripture, on your view, to say that about), which means you're still going to face the problem of the scripture itself being the subject of this high view but our interpretation not being the subject of this high view. So if it's a problem for inerrancy, then it's a problem for your view too (not that I think you've yet said anything conflicting with inerrancy anyway). I submit that it's a problem for neither.

  2. Thanks Jeremy for the interaction and welcome to the blog :-). On one level, you are right, inerrancy as a bare concept holds few problems for me. However inerrancy as it is commonly used and as it is formulated in the Chicago statement I am completely against because it is almost always used to support a literalistic reading of scripture that does not take into account the literary character of the different books of the Bible. My objection to inerrancy language is not abstract but based on my experience of how that language gets used.

    On the other hand I do not understand how you can suggest that those who do not hold to inerrancy cannot have a scripture to talk about. The scriptures are a concrete received tradition in the form of a collection of texts. It is a book that sits on my desk, I can point to it and pick it up. It is the primary place I go to to hear God's voice and discern his will.

    Beyond that inerrancy language tends to get used to suggest the text of scripture is static and the process of interpretation mechanistic. I have a high view of scripture, but i also have a high view of the Spirit's work in interpretation, and this goes way beyond just making sure I follow the right method. Those who champion inerrancy language (in my experience) want to use the scriptures to generate absract propositional truth to answer modern questions. This is not the sort of truth that the scripture (on the whole) contain, and so the language of inerrancy with its focus on positivistic facticity tends to mislead those who are seeking to find God's truth within.

    But, you have made me question whether or not I could not really be an inerrantist after all. And as I had posted earlier (Jan 6) some definitions of inerrancy i would be quite happy with. So thanks for making me think, what sort of word could i use to qualify my inerrantism? Genre sensitive inerrancy? post modern inerrancy? critical inerrancy? pneumatological inerrancy? i don't know, suggestions welcome.

  3. Sorry for the delay. I saved this link and never got back to you.

    I think it's just plain and simple inerrancy, even if most people who hold the Chicago Statement wrongly think it implies things it doesn't (e.g. six-day creationism or Jonah as a historical account).

    From the Chicago Statement:

    "We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.
    We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities."

    "We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.
    We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations."

    There might be particular expressions you disagree with at points. If you reject a historical Adam and Eve, there are parts that would be hard for you. But saying science can't overturn the teaching of scripture on creation and the flood doesn't imply six-day creationism or a world-wide flood, depending entirely on how you take those passages. What it prohibits is a view that those passages actually teach something that science shows is wrong. Lots of people have pretended otherwise, but the Chicago Statement is compatible, as far as I can tell, with the view that God created by means of evolution, as long as there was a historical Adam who was the ancestor of all humanity. You may or may not end up considering the Chicago Statement compatible with your view, but there are certainly attempts in the Chicago Statement to capture some of the things you're saying. The disagreement would then be over how to interpret, not over whether the scripture itself is inerrant.


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