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Inerrancy – Romancing the Term

I’ve previously expressed my surprise about what some people can believe about the Bible and yet call their belief “inerrancy.” As an example, I responded to Earnest Lucas’s excellent commentary on Daniel in which he maintains that one can hold both inerrancy and a late dating of Daniel. I think a good one sentence summary of the approach is to say that what is asserted by a text differs by genre, and that inerrancy refers to what the text is actually asserting.

Thus if Jonah is fictional, it is not trying to assert an actual size for the city of Nineveh (Jonah 3:3), thus this is not an error, even if that information is incorrect. Jonah is not a book about the sizes of cities, but rather a fictional account designed to deal with other issues. (Which those are is not important right now.) If Daniel relates a history of the Babylonian Empire which does not conform to history, that is not a problem, since it is a pseudonymous work of apocalyptic, and this was a common practice in apocalyptic. If Genesis does not relate well to science, it is not a problem, because Genesis is not a science textbook.

Now I have no problem with any of those statements as such, but I do have some problem with their relation to the doctrine of inerrancy, though not in equal measure. But before I discuss why I have this problem, let me refer to a post today by John Hobbins on inerrancy. In this he is discussing people with relatively similar views about the inspiration of scripture, but a disagreement about the words. (The views are not identical, but they are close enough for my purposes.)

In fact, I agree with most of what I read about inspiration on John Hobbins’ blog. I think in some cases he comes out more liberal on the issue than I am, as in this post on legend and history. It seems to me that he and some others are trying to assert that they can believe both in Biblical inerrancy and also that the Bible is a collection of myths and fairy tales.

Now I think that “myth” and “fairy tale” are actually quite complimentary terms. I have no problem with finding myth in the Bible. In fact, for many purposes I find it to be a more admirable form of literature than some sort of pure, objective, narrative history. Each has its place, but we tend to treat history as good and myth as bad.

And therein beings the problem. I must note in passing that I don’t think that the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says quite what some folks are saying it says. I keep getting told that it allows for all this flexibility, but when I go back and read it, it doesn’t look that way to me. But that is a side issue for me.

I find it odd that people who can recognize the changing meanings of words in a translation context fail so miserably in seeing the “street” meaning of a word in current usage. Apart from a few people who are trying to save the word “inerrancy” for their own use, almost nobody understands inerrancy to mean that a Bible book that claims to come from Paul might have been written by someone else after Paul was dead, or that a book can claim one author but have been written by quite a different author.

Thus when someone claims to believe in inerrancy and then writes a commentary on Daniel, for example, it is not expected that the commentator in question will say that Daniel did not write the portions attributed to him in the text. Similarly, it will not be expected that a commentary on Ephesians written by someone who espouses inerrancy will suggest that it was not written by Paul.

John Hobbins suggests a solution:

To which I would say, where evangelicalism rules the landscape, it is time for saner voices to take courage with two hands and patiently, ever so patiently, advocate for a broader and safer use of the word “inerrancy.” This is precisely what I see Michael Horton doing, and I commend him for it.

I would suggest that this is a fool’s errand. People who consider themselves intellectual leaders are constantly trying to save one or another term from the people who use it. It rarely works. If one salvaged inerrancy from those who use it, one would just have to invent another term to distinguish one from of belief in inspiration from another.

I should note that I believe that the “rescuers” of the word inerrancy have another problem, which is that I don’t think it meant quite what they claim when it was first used. But that would take a different blog post and a number of additional references, so I’m going to leave it aside for now.

For what it’s worth, my own view is that God always speaks his Word into a human matrix, to be understood by humans according to their knowledge and referents at the time. I believe that God’s Word in a situation is always true and that the Bible is precisely what God wanted it to be. But at the same time, that human matrix was not inerrant, and it impacts the message. I’m quite certain, for example, that early hearers of the story of Genesis heard it as a literal week, evidenced by references in Exodus 20, though not in the liturgy of Genesis 1. (Nonetheless, worshipers using that liturgy would not have distinguished the liturgical presentation from the historical events as I do.)

That means that the message God sends to me is different in some way from the message that was first heard. Hearing God’s message requires prayerful care and interpretation. Once you have heard God speak, that is truth. In addition, I believe that if we knew all that God knew about those to whom he first spoke, we would understand why things were said as they were.

It appears that some call that inerrancy. I think I would deceive most who heard me were I to do so.

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  1. Henry, I understand your points. Nonetheless I believe the classical substance of the doctrine of inerrancy is worth preserving. It was stated quite well by Zwingli. Referring to scripture, he said:

    “it is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace, makes it confident in God, humbles it, so that it abandons and throws away its pretensions, and places itself in God’s hands.”

    I am not for one minute denying the challenge before us as teachers to speak boldly of the truthfulness and perfections of Scripture but, at the same time, to refrain from wedding that boldness with some cockeyed commitment to obscurantist notions about science or history.

    I don’t think the challenges involved in retaining a classical teaching like inerrancy are at all unique. I also seek to retain other classical Christian teachings, for the example, the Trinity, vicarious atonement, original sin, the Second Coming, the necessity of being born again, etc. Each of these theological loci have been subject to all kinds of weird and unacceptable devolutions but I’m not going to stop teaching anyone of them. Nor are you, I imagine.

    You are not going to give up on words like atonement, election, conversion, and sin simply because they have been misused more often than used in a Gospel-honoring sense. Right?

    But I still understand if you choose to do without the word inerrancy. That is not the choice of two of the most important branches of the Christian family, Roman Catholicism, which continues to stress it, and most versions of evangelicaldom, which also continues to stress it, but it is at least an understandable pastoral choice. It reminds me of John Wesley who, for the sake of those in the movement he spearheaded, edited out of the Articles of the C of E the parts that caused endless controversy. Fine, but of course the parts Wesley omitted continue to be up for discussion, and the way we come down on them is by no means inconsequential.

    I’ll be honest and say I think you’re mostly just ticked at the divisiveness rigid inerrantists are guilty of in the body of Christ. There we agree 100 per cent. My approach has been and will continue to be that of showing how a view of Scripture that is attentive to the genres in which it was written leads to a greater, not a lesser appreciation of the perfections of Scripture. In short, I am with Ernest Lucas on this one.

  2. It occurs to me how surprised some people are that Roman Catholics teach inerrancy, but they do, and they have, though they have rightly backed from dictation theories of inspiration.

    An example: the author of the recent NIDB article entitled “Inspiration and Revelation” is Sandra M. Schneiders, a very articulate Roman Catholic.

    I am not in sympathy with everything in her essay, but she develops a high view of Scripture in which Scripture is understood as uniquely authoritative and normative; a material/sensible reality that mediates a revelatory encounter with God in person; a text which, in the context of the action of the Holy Spirit in a proclaimer and a hearer, “teaches the truth of God without error.”

    Think of the alternative. Are you going to teach that the Bible teaches a mixture of truth and untruth, and it’s up to the individual interpreter to decide which is which? That would be an utterly simplistic and self-defeating approach to interpretation. In the process of shielding ourselves from what we think are falsehoods in scripture, we end up “protecting” ourselves from its truth-claims instead.

    I figure, Henry, that we are on the same page on this. We simply choose different language to express a common commitment to hearing Scripture as God’s judging and saving word.

    1. I figure, Henry, that we are on the same page on this. We simply choose different language to express a common commitment to hearing Scripture as God’s judging and saving word.

      I’m quite certain we are in agreement on the nature of scripture. My argument is about the terminology used. I’ve read enough of your posts relating to exegesis to know I’m comfortable with your practice.

  3. I suspect a lot of evangelical Christians are trying to have their cake and eat it too, by saying “inerrancy” when they really mean “infallibility”. If I’m not mistaken, the latter allows for technical and factual inaccuracies while vouching for the accuracy of the book’s contextual meaning and intent.

  4. I believe the Bible to be inerrant to the person reading it. Our God is an individual God, who desires an individual relationship, originating from an individual choice. Since the Bible is the cornerstone of our faith, it seems to me that the Bible has a supernatural way of of individualizing itself to the reader. There is, however a very fine line between the Bible saying what you want it to say and letting the Holy Spirit read it to you…

    With that said, I do believe God authored the Bible through man, and therefore I look for what was of most importance to Him. Certainly not the language, nor the accuracy of it’s many translations, His english grammar, or phrasing. It was not speaking in tongues, snake handling, style of worship, or any other church dividing verse/small vague passage. It was in the fact that the Great I Am, creator of the universe chose to repeat Himself four times, back to back, through different personalities. The story Jesus is His main point.

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