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.