… or On the Meaning of Words, Particularly Inerrancy
There’s a post on First Things titled Ehrman Errant. Now criticizing Ehrman is apparently great sport, and Blomberg has replied to some of the types of criticisms Ehrman presents in a book, which Louis Markos reviews. The reason I mention Mike Licona, a colleague of Markos, is that he makes a comment on precisely the section that led me back around in a circle to the beginning of the piece. As a quick note, I previously reviewed Ehrman’s book Misquoting Jesus, but have not read either The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture or Blomberg’s book that is reviewed here. I’m basing my comments strictly on the review and the comments to it.
The problem, as I see it, is one of language and communication. How do you communicate a message to a particular person in particular circumstances? When we are communicating in a way that might later be read by others, how do we accomplish this. As a simple example, if I want a two-year-old not to fall off the porch, I might try explaining gravity, acceleration rates, and probabilities of various injuries based on the height of the porch and the nature of the ground below. Or, more intelligently, I might just close the door, or say no (and enforce it). In fact, preparing to write this led me to write a humorous (I hope) short story for my fiction blog titled Genesis Wasn’t Written This Way.
When we start talking about biblical inerrancy, however, we are by nature talking about language. What does the word “inerrancy” mean? How are people going to perceive me if I say I believe in inerrancy? What if I say I don’t? And that, in turn, depends on who you are. If you’re a professor in an evangelical seminary, it seems to me that you understand this term differently than the people in the pews of the United Methodist church I attend. So the question is this: Who am I talking to?
Let me start from the end. Louis Markos complains about Blomberg’s chapter on gender-neutral language. He says:
Blomberg, along with the translators of the NRSV, NLT, CEV, and NIV 2011, take it for granted that the convention of using “man” or “mankind” to designate the human race is merely cultural. It is not. It is God himself who originally made the designation: “When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created” (Genesis 5:1-2; ESV).
To which his colleague, Mike Licona objects in the comments:
… There are some passages that call for a gender neutral translation….
And the reason, I think, that there are passages that call for a gender neutral translation is that language changes. It is not that we have new discoveries in Hebrew and Greek that mean that we should translate gender references differently. Rather, our usage in English has changed. Markos can quote the ESV, “God created man,” but the word used was not the English “man,” but, of course, the Hebrew adam. That word refers to humanity (in this case), not just the male persons within that broader designation. So the question in translation would be how we refer to humanity today.
Similarly, consider the Greek adlephoi. It’s a plural and at one time would have been translated “brethren.” For some time, it was translated in that way and it was often understood to refer to the whole congregation, male and female together. But does it mean that to audiences now?
Some years ago I tested this with a couple of classes I was teaching on translation. The classes broke somewhere between 30 and 40 years of age. Those older than that thought “brethren” referred to the guys. Those younger thought it referred to everyone. I suspect the break point would be younger now as the culture moves.
Now you can complain about the culture, but nonetheless in those mythical “good old days” people were understanding verses that used the Greek adelphoi, translated as “brethren” to refer to both genders. If you translate that way now, you introduce an inaccuracy, because your audience doesn’t understand it the same way as their ancestors did. You can complain all day that they should. You can wish they would spend more time reading older literature and thus understand this important (to you) point. But they aren’t going to. Now if you want a scriptural admonition to refer to the whole congregation, you need to use something like “brothers and sisters.” Not all instances of adelphoi should be so translated. That depends on the intent of the writer. Who was he referring to?
I recall a pastor, a good friend, who complained to me about the NRSV because it used “brothers and sisters.” He preferred the RSV, because it kept the traditional language. The next Sunday he was preaching and read a verse from the RSV that included “brothers.” He immediately looked up and said to the congregation, “And that means you sisters too!” His pastoral instinct was better than his translation theory.
But how does this relate to inerrancy? Inerrancy is, of course, a word, and it has meaning—to people. Meaning apart from meaning to some person or group is meaningless. Somebody understands a meaning. Blomberg is arguing that there are errors in transmission, but they are not critical, they don’t damage the message or the value of the whole. But that is not the same as the absence of errors. It is an absence of important errors. Blomberg’s position isn’t some new thing. It’s pretty standard evangelical theology. If preachers, teachers, and other church leaders made this point from the pulpit or the lectern somewhat more often, we’d probably have less problems with a critic such as Ehrman. But people out there in the pews pretty generally think that “without error” means there are no errors, not that there are no errors that theologians deem important.
The same thing applies when we criticize others for using “verification system that has only existed for some 250 years” (1st paragraph). This is the verification system and the level of factual and numerical accuracy that people expect these days. If I say, “_____ is without error” they generally assume it is without error as they perceive errors. Yes, there are variations in this, but we actually tend to put words on them. It might not be precisely inaccurate for me to say it’s 80 degrees outside if it’s 78 or 79 degrees. But I’d normally be expected to say “about” if I were to mess with numbers in this way.
Well, the Bible doesn’t use numbers in the way we moderns expect them to be used, and it’s inappropriate to expect it to. Biblical literature has genre and literary standards and they are those of the time and place when those texts were written. But if you’re going to then label the Bible inerrant, a term that is itself new, you have to specify the standard by which that is measured. (I’m not claiming that the concept, depending on which concept of inerrancy is involved, is new.) So if we’re going to expect people to apply a different standard when determining whether something in the Bible is an error, then we need to make sure they understand the standard.
There is a tendency amongst scholars now to use words that mean definite things to most hearers, but then to back off and ask to be judged by a different standard. The gospels are not histories in the modern sense. Just so! They aren’t. But if they aren’t histories in the modern sense, then don’t expect to use them as such without having them judged as such. If I claim that Jesus performed miracles (and I do), I can’t say that the reason is simply that they were recorded in inerrant gospels. Why? Because I’ve also just said that those gospels don’t meet modern historical standards. Personally, I think it’s a good thing that they don’t. I think they are much more important than any document that met modern historical standards would be. Not that a modern style history wouldn’t have it’s uses, it just wouldn’t have the same uses as a gospel.
But I think that we play sleight of hand with the terminology. “The gospels aren’t modern history so you can pretty much accept their view of Jesus without judging them by modern historical standards,” is a philosophical and historical way of having your cake and eating it too. I believe in Jesus, but I do not do so because the gospels demonstrate this in a sense a modern historian could accept.
One more thing. Someone is bound to suggest to me that I should always apply the definitions used by qualified theologians. Those are the definitions that matter. I think that’s wrong. I don’t communicate with very many trained theologians. I don’t write for them, I’m never invited to speak to them (probably for good reason), so I’m not going to use words that communicate with them but not with the audience I’m actually addressing. For me, because I teach Sunday School classes in a United Methodist church and occasionally speak as a guest at various churches, the appropriate meaning of inerrancy is the one they’re going to hear when I use the term.