I used to use Bill Mounce’s introductory grammar in teaching Greek, and I appreciated his attention to linguistics, though I generally wanted more. (I’ve switched to Dave Black’s Learn to Read New Testament Greek for those rare occasions when I have the opportunity to teach Greek. I’m probably prejudiced as Dave is a friend and I publish the Spanish translation of that book, Aprenda a leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento.)
In this case, however, the “ideal” translator is more “ideal” in the sense of being “not real.” No translator can convey everything. If a truly master translator, for example, conveys the precise emotional feel of a Psalm, he or she is very likely to obscure the history. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, does an outstanding job of getting the punch of a parable’s message, and the result is beautiful, almost ideal. Well, until you realize that you’re losing both the historical connection, and also in some ways the possibilities inherent in the story form itself. This is not a criticism of The Message. I love it. I like to read it. But by accomplishing some things, the translator of necessity fails to accomplish some others. Therein lies the value of multiple translations.
Therein also lies the value of sharing one’s thoughts. It is imagined that someone like me, who reads the text in the original language, has somehow truly attained and truly understands. But over and over, I read and translate a passage for myself, and then I read it in other translations and find enrichment because those translators chose different options than I did. Sometimes I’ll say, “No, I think my way is better,” while at others I might correct what I did. Sometimes I just find that the other ways of expressing the meaning round out my understanding, while I can’t really find a translation that conveys the whole.
The limited number of comments focus, as might be expected, on New Testament. In fact, it seems to me that most discussion of textual criticism tends to focus on the New Testament, and this sometimes leaves the wrong impression. For example, to a query about the reliability of the biblical text an apologist might respond with the number of manuscripts we have … of the New Testament. But what about Hebrew Scriptures?
If I were to answer the question posed (and if it’s not obvious, I’m not a practicing textual critic), I would have to say that when looking at a passage in the Greek New Testament I’m going to look at the external evidence first, and then the internal. This is for practical reasons. With the number of New Testament manuscripts, versions, and quotations available, one hopes to find the best reading somewhere in the external evidence. Internal evidence can help refine one’s choice, but in practical terms, most of the actual readings are likely to be contained in some manuscript somewhere.
I wouldn’t argue that all readings that ever existed are to be found in one of our extant manuscripts. There is a theoretical place for a conjecture. So I wouldn’t say that the external evidence places a fixed limit on where we can go with the internal evidence, but I would say that it sets a pretty fair boundary. I would require substantial evidence to go with a conjecture, and even then, it might be a conjecture about an original reading that would generate the external evidence as we have it. So it’s a line, but it’s a line in the sand. It can be moved. In my experience, however, it is rarely necessary to move it.
But when we turn to the Hebrew Scriptures/Old Testament, the situation is much different. The manuscripts we have come from a time much more removed from the composition of the texts involved, and there are less of them. I think the time between the composition of a text and the first extant manuscript receives too little attention in discussions, because the time before a text is established as sacred is when I suspect much of the variation will occur. It’s quite possible that there are a number of New Testament variations that we don’t consider simply because they are no longer represented in the manuscripts.
The shift to Old Testament textual criticism was rather interesting for me, as it seems to some extent that you travel to a different world. There are necessary differences because the nature of the external evidence is different. There are even more differences because there are more texts that are obscure. In reading commentaries, one might think that for OT texts lectiodificilior is turned on its head as one runs through possible readings, including conjectures until one finds a reading that “works.” Nobody is going to quite say it that way, but that is how it often feels. And, of course, lectio dificilior has its problems in that it’s quite possible that a difficult, yet translatable, reading could be introduced by error. So it’s not an absolute.
In the Hebrew scriptures we have more cases in which a passage is truly obscure. Nobody really knows how to translate or interpret. So you get a translation and footnotes. I had a professor in graduate school who absolutely hated the idea of conjectural emendation. He simply wouldn’t accept any. But he’d accept some very wild conjectures on how to translate the text that is actually there. He and I went a few rounds on what the difference was between arbitrarily conjecturing a text that you could then translate or arbitrarily choosing some English words you could say were a translation of the text. In either case, the meaning presented by your translation is a conjecture.
Conjectural emendation has a bad name, and there is a good reason for this. Critical commentaries on Old Testament books are often filled with conjectural reconstructions of the text that have very little basis in either an internal analysis of the text and transcriptional probabilities or in any external evidence. Often the emendations simply make the book fit some theory of composition, or better represent the theme that the commentator believes, for whatever reasons, must have been intended by the author or redactor.
Nonetheless, in theory, it is possible that a reading not contained in any manuscript could be the correct reading. The problem is always making a solid case that it is. Few conjectures have managed to gain the support of a strong consensus of scholars.
Does any of this make any difference to you and me as we try to study our Bibles? Well, yes and no. The problem, as I see it, is to acknowledge the value of textual criticism without believing one must get to that elusive “original text” in order to have good theology or be a good disciple.
I would suggest that it’s important to seek the best text of scripture simply because it’s important to seek out the best information we can on any subject. At the same time I don’t think we need to be concerned about variants, even substantial ones. We tend to take the biblical data in a selfish way, as though all the manuscripts exist in order to provide us with an accurate view of scripture. But each one of those manuscripts was (part of) someone’s Bible at some time and place. I can worry about whether the Hebrew text behind the Septuagint (LXX) is better or if the Masoretic Text is better, but early Christians lived and did theology with the LXX and the Reformation (not to mention Judaism) thrived on the MT. These aren’t just witnesses to which text I should use; they are Bibles, sacred texts, used by real people.
The much criticized Vulgate, abandoned by protestants in pursuit of the sources, was nonetheless the Bible for many people. So in modern times was the Living Bible, as flawed as I think it was as a translation.
If God desired the kind of precision that some of us seem to think is required of the biblical text, I think God would have taken a different approach. But instead of a clean process in which we can give absolute or near absolute answers to all questions about the text, we have a variety of materials produced in different ways. While we long for perfection, for the inerrant text, we don’t actually have it. The claim of inerrancy is made for the autographs, not for any text you have or are likely to have in your hands.
Which, incidentally, is why I have little use for the doctrine of inerrancy, one way or the other. And let me be clear that I do mean as expressed in the Chicago Statement. I just don’t care whether the autographs were inerrant or not. If God was happy to use an error-prone process of transmission, why must I conclude that he somehow protected the original manuscript.
Let me illustrate. Supposing that Ezekiel (my very most favorite prophet) is hearing from the Holy Spirit, and he slips and writes the wrong word on the page. It’s a mistake. The manuscript is now no longer inerrant. The autograph is flawed. Oops!
Now suppose instead that the first scribe to copy the book made the very same mistake, after which the original was destroyed. Now we have only one copy of the book of Ezekiel, and it has the very same error.
The first scenario is considered problematic. The second is OK. It’s a copyist’s error.
I disagree. God has chosen to provide God’s Word to us in written form with every evidence of human involvement all along the way. I find it amazing that the text has been preserved as well as it has been. I find it more amazing that it has been available, used, and defended by people in so many places and at so many times. Many of these people were defending texts that various modern scholars would call “corrupt.” They might have been preaching from a manuscript copied by a careless scribe. And yet preach they did! And they lived out their faith as they knew how.
It’s not just thousands of witnesses to the text. It’s thousands of Bibles used by many more thousands of people.
We ask the question of whether we can rely on the text. I think it’s the wrong question. The question is whether we can rely on God who, through the Holy Spirit, has been speaking since before anyone conceived of a Bible and who is ready to talk to us today. We’re not perfect. None of us. We don’t have perfect texts. None at all.
But we can work through the multitude of materials available to us and so communicate not only with God, but with the community of faith that God has established. It’s a community that extends across time as well as space. It’s made up of people who were never perfect but always trying and hoping.
Now don’t let the fact that we can’t get 100% of the original, perfect text keep you from getting as much of it as you can. And don’t let the fact that you can’t really know all there is to know about God keep you from trying to get to know God better.
I think that God has set this up so that in trying to know God better (vertically?) we also need to get to know and appreciate one another (horizontally). It is in community that we come to know.
Or better, it is in community that we keep on the journey toward knowing.
The Battle for the Bible by Steve Kindle
No, not the battle of Harold Lindsell. Well, yes, sort of. This essay and the two that follow it discuss why we differ widely on what we believe scripture teaches.
Books referenced tonight or at other times in the series:
Eschatology: A Participatory Study Guide by Edward W. H. Vick
This is the primary guide for this initial portion of my study. I am using it to help us look at definitions and map out the territory before we go into verse by verse studies of various passages.
From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully by Edward W. H. Vick
This is the more serious, 355 page discussion of inspiration. If you’re serious about studying what inspiration and authority are and looking at what those definitions mean for how we read the Bible, take the time to read this. I obviously also like my own book When People Speak for God, but if it had been published after From Inspiration to Understanding instead of before, it would have had dozens of footnotes to it.
History and Christian Faith by Edward W. H. Vick
“God acting in history” is a phrase that evokes many questions of definition. This little book will help you explore that idea and how it reflects in many areas.
The Adventists’ Dilemma by Edward W. H. Vick
What does it mean to say that Jesus is coming soon, if anything? This book examines the idea of a literal return of Jesus “soon” in a detailed way.
Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God by Bruce Epperly
Process theology placed on a lower shelf. Bruce Epperly doesn’t shy away from application, but talks about how we should live with a God who is directly involved and impacted by the world.
I was thinking of titling this “In Which I Annoy My Evangelical United Methodist Friends,” since so many of them are talking about the Wesleyan Quadrilateral and trying to privilege scripture within it in some way. I am not entirely in sympathy with many of these approaches.
You see, the moment I decided to take a closer look at the United Methodist Church was when I read in the United Methodist Discipline (1992, I think), about the sources of our faith. It’s not that I thought this statement was unique. Neither was it because I thought that Methodists had discovered the way to understand scripture correctly. Rather, I thought it honestly described what we actually do. And by “we” I do not mean just Methodists, but all Christians who use the Bible. We do not understand the Bible without our experience and our tradition, which is just experience collected across space/people and time. Reason ties these things together. Without our reason, we don’t come up with any interpretation of scripture at all.
What privileges scripture, to the extent that it is privileged, is that it is the most universal, most tested, and most accepted source. My personal experience may be very important to me. In fact, it is. My personal encounters with God have an enormous impact on how I understand my faith. But the fact that I believe that God has told me a certain thing doesn’t make that determinative for someone else.
Each congregation has a tradition, built on the collected experiences of that group. There will be similarities within a denomination, but there are local traditions. There are family traditions as well, collections of the experiences of members of that family over time. Denominations have traditions of their own and stand within broader tradition streams. For Methodists we have the Church of England as a source of tradition. Yes, we do carry things from that background. Then we have many who have broken off based on various elements of our own tradition.
All of these experiences have an impact, conscious or otherwise, on how we understand and apply scripture. It cannot be any other way.
This is one reason why I dislike the inerrancy debates, even though I’ve participated. I do not affirm the doctrine of inerrancy. The usual response to that is for someone who does affirm it to ask me for my list of errors with the intention of providing his or her list of resolutions for those errors. I don’t have a list of errors in scripture. I believe the Bible is what God wanted it to be. But that’s a belief that derives from my doctrine of God and not from any observations about the Bible and history or the Bible and science.
Each item on such a list of biblical errors can be translated as “My errant understanding of subject X says that my errant understanding of scripture passage Y is in error.” Where’s the inerrant standard, inerrantly understood, that lets me determine whether the Bible is actually inerrant?
So I make a different affirmation: When you’ve heard the message God has for you in scripture, that message is true. I follow it with an additional note: To the extent you need to, you can discover God’s message for you in scripture. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
I have absolute confidence that God is speaking. I have similar confidence that my hearing is defective. That goes whether I’m feeling God’s presence as I listen to Mahalia Jackson singing “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” hearing God’s voice in my head as I pray and spend silent time listening for it, or interpreting a passage of scripture.
So what advantage does scripture have over my general impressions? To paraphrase Paul, much in every way. I’m tremendously thankful to folks like Abraham who had to listen to God’s voice without having that huge body, the “great cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) whose testimony has been tested over and over again. It’s the church’s testimony and it’s of paramount importance as I work my way through my own experiences.
Here’s a discussion of this very issue. Thomas Hudgins and I don’t agree on all the details, but we do agree that these things work together to give us confidence in God.
But it’s also a training ground. Read about maturity in Hebrews 5:11-14. The Bible fails if we treat it as systematic theology, as a science text, or even as a history text. That failure is not because of some list of theological, scientific, or historical errors. Rather, it’s because God has chose to speak through the testimony (witness to experience?) of many different people at different times and places. He requires us to use discernment and to see what is right and wrong as the decisions are placed before us.
So back to the quadrilateral. I treat it both as quadrilateral and as equilateral. We can enter by any door. Any one of these elements may provide the right question and might contain the right answer. It will not always end at scripture.
But … and it’s an important but … there is a problem with the way United Methodists use the quadrilateral all too often. We tend to use it as a four lane highway. Which of the lanes can I get my idea through? If I get my idea through one, that’s enough. Instead, we need to use this as a four layer filter. Every answer we get to a question needs to interact with all elements. How does it relate to scripture? How does it fit with experience? What can we learn about this sort of thing through tradition? All of those questions will, of course, be processed by our reason. But that’s what the Spirit of Truth is for, after all, to guide us into all truth (John 16:13)! I illustrated this process with the diagram to the left in my book When People Speak for God.
I believe that the nature of scripture is absolutely intentional on God’s part. Rather than giving us easy answers to easy questions he has given us a combination of testimony to God’s action in the world and principles (embedded in the testimony) by which we can make such decisions. When Jesus says, “On these two hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:40), he provides us with such a principle of interpretation. This is not a principle that helps you discover what the historical intent of a writer was. We have quite useful techniques of exegesis for that. But it provides us a principle for how we, as Christians living in the 21st century should apply it. Sometimes it says that the people who were doing their best to follow God didn’t live up to it. We should take those stories and try to hang the lessons we think we learn from them from the two commands as Jesus said.
It’s interesting to compare the stories of Patriarchs in Hebrews 11 to their sources in Hebrew scripture. Moses left Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king (Hebrews 11:27), but he was afraid (Exodus 2:14). A biblical error? A contradiction? No! A testimony to what is seen by the eyes of faith.
We need to struggle with these stories if we’re to see where we are and where we need to be brought to greater maturity. How many of us need to learn not to fear the wrath of the king? But if we look earlier in that same passage, how many of us need to learn not to take God’s work into our own hands through violence?
Testimony, the telling of our own stories and experience, doesn’t give us the sort of systematic set of answers we might prefer. But it does train us to think, to discern, and to decide.
My guess is that’s what God was after in allowing scripture to come into being as it did.
Oh, and one more thing …
Tonight I’ll be talking with author Doris Horton Murdoch about testimonies in a Google Hangout on Air titled Lent: Season of Testimonies.
Craig Blomberg, Reviewed by Louis Markos, Commented by Mike Licona
… 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.
Speaking for God: Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation
In about a half an hour I will be leaving for church where I will teach a small Sunday School class. The class has chosen to go through my book When People Speak for God (wow!). I start my discussion in this book by looking at the human factor and the divine factor. It is not enough to claim that God has spoken. We also have to understand what it is that God has said.
This came up in a helpful e-mail exchange with a friend this week, in which I discussed certain views of certain Bible passages and whether these would be consistent with inerrancy. The discussion led me to wonder if I was ignoring the human factor in looking at others. The human factor is most directly involved in our interpretation. I don’t accept the term “biblical inerrancy” as it applies to me. What I do believe is that if we discern the message God has for us, that message is true, and we should act on it. I think it should be our goal to discern this message correctly. A true message ignored is of no value. A true message wrongly understood can be dangerous. We never get away from the need to apply our minds.
As I reread my own material, however, I was reminded of another distinction: inspiration and authority. Just because something is inspired doesn’t mean it’s necessarily authoritative for any particular person, congregation, or for the whole church. I may hear the voice of God leading me to some action. My hearing does not obligate others. This idea could be helpful for those who believe in the continuation of the gift of prophecy in the church. I’ve been asked how words received by a modern prophet relate to the Bible. Ignoring the issue of whether the modern speaker is, in fact, speaking for God, his or her words would only have authority of so discerned and accepted by the broader body, i.e. if they became part of the canon of scripture for the whole church.
I do not mean that the church would make the words authoritative. Rather, the church would recognize that the words were authoritative, and the authority would become active in that way. “Inspired” does not mean “authoritative,” and “authoritative” in one place does not mean authoritative in another place or everywhere.
I’m going to add an extract here that fleshes out some of the difference between inspiration and authority. I’m not saying precisely the same thing, but I am influence by this text. (The author is Edward W. H. Vick, and I publish the book, From Inspiration to Understanding.)
(8) A further category mistake is to relate the notion of the authority of the Bible to the process whereby the books came to be written. The writer was inspired. So the writing has authority. No! These words do not have authority because, in some manner, they issued out of a process of inspiration. They may have done so. That is a problem to be settled on the basis of appeal to the available evidence. But if they did they do not have authority because they did. They have authority because they are relevant, living words, because something happens of importance when they are read and interpreted. The event of revelation happens. These words provide the means. They are the vehicle of that happening. These words are caught up in the dynamic of God’s revelation. This means that inspiration is a less adequate and less important concept than revelation.
Since they are not the only writings to function in this way, they are unique in that they are the only words which have a unique historical connection with the original Christ-event, with the coming of Christian faith into the world. They are for this reason primary. They are the words which have in the history of the church proved to be the means for God’s continuing revelation of himself. The church asserts the historical givenness of these and not other words. It also asserts the contemporaneity of the revelation of God these words mediate. ‘The Spirit breathes upon the word and brings the truth to sight.’ God revealed himself. God reveals himself.
(Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, p. 81)
I think I place more emphasis on the recognition of the words by the church and less on their functioning. This is because I believe all inspired words will function, in their proper sphere, in similar ways. The question is whether a particular text was meant for the Church, a church, a small group, or a person, and whether it was meant for a moment in time or to have broader application.
So I’m distinguishing inspiration, authority, and interpretation/application (hermeneutics). How important is the distinction?
But I don’t think the answer is to hate the word. If we were to abandon every word that had been tainted by poor use, we’d have to remove dozens of descriptors from our lexicon, beginning with “Christian”—only to find that the replacements we brought in were also sullied over time by clumsiness, groupthink, insensitivity, and arrogance. …
Just so! It’s pretty difficult to hate a word when the word hasn’t really done anything bad. It just fell into the hands of cruel people who have tortured it a bit.
But I still have to wonder about the value of the word in the first place. As a substitute for saying that God’s word is true, it draws much of its usage from the effort to narrow down the concept of what we mean by “true.” It ties truth to a collection of facts, to data, and not to the message. Properly interpreted, the message of the books of Kings in the Hebrew scriptures can be true without being accurate in every detail of the numbers. There are serious issues in the chonology of the divided kingdom, and resolving these is an interesting hobby, but it’s not really something that impacts the truth of the Bible message.
I think inerrancy, as used—and in effect a word is the way it is used—tends to put our focus on the wrong aspect of any story. It makes our first question be “did this happen precisely as stated?” rather than “what message does God have for me in this story?” That’s unfortunate.
I think there are worse problems for inerrancy than the ages and reigns of kings, but that provides a good starting point. Once we are past that, we need to look at how God communicates. How did God send us scripture? How did God cross the gap between infinity and our finite existence?
This is one of those questions that plagues discussion of topics such as the meaning of Genesis. I believe that God communicates to us in our language, and that Genesis communicated God’s message about creation to people who believed in an earth that was flat (though round, like a dinner plate), with the waters under and the heavens above. They also believed that earth was the center of the universe and had no concept of the size of the universe. In that context, God spoke about God’s involvement in human lives.
That means that the science of Genesis is doubtless in error, when looked at from our point of view. But it’s not in error by mistake. It’s in error intentionally. By God’s intention, not by the intention of the human authors who knew no better. It’s in error in the same way as my explanation of some technical topic might be if I presented it to a child.
And lest you get the idea that I think we are on a pinnacle or knowledge, I expect that, if the world continues and we don’t set ourselves back to the stone age through our own stupidity, people a few hundred years from now may consider our view of what the universe is like to be hopelessly primitive. They’ll look for new ways to tell the story of God’s involvement.
I don’t like the word “inerrancy” because it says that the Bible is going to mean what I think it needs to mean rather than saying that the Bible gives God’s message in the way that God wanted it to be presented.
As I read it, God did very little to scratch our modern itches.
I owe a hat tip to the author of the first one for the links to the other two. All express important points, though there are certain differences of nuance between the three.
I think it is also important, however, to relate our fallible interpretation to the idea of inerrancy. If we are to be able to prove that the Bible is true, then we will have to read it correctly. (I’ll ignore another issue, that of the standard by which we judge it to be inerrant, for right now.) Here’s an extract on this point from my book:
Thus the question is not only the accuracy of the content, but rather in what is to be conveyed, and how well we are capable of understanding it. I would presume God would write his character quite perfectly in nature, and yet that may be the hardest message to interpret. Some people prefer the immediate revelation of modern prophets or of dreams and visions. I too believe that God is as capable of speaking today as ever, and as likely to do so, but in that case we have the additional burden of deciding on the authenticity of the message, and we still need to interpret what we hear, especially if it is a vision or dream. Even a verbal message must be verified as to accuracy and then applied correctly.
This is one of the reasons I believe that the doctrine of inerrancy, an evangelical standard today, is not only wrong, it is inadequate. It deals only with the source. It seems to be a way of guarding the barn door after the cattle have departed. Interpretation has gone in a thousand directions while some are arguing that the message was absolutely correct at the starting point. In addition, somehow it’s OK for us to lose part of the source in the process of copying–something acknowledged when inerrancy is postulated solely of the conveniently missing autographs–and yet if one supposes that instead something got altered on the way from God to the prophet, all revelation must immediately become suspect.
Revelation is of value when I comprehend and apply it, and assertions of its validity apart from adding the line “and you can understand it” are pointless. I think that is part of the reason why there is wisdom literature in the Bible. It’s God’s message, but you have to think about it and comprehend it. Who you are, and how you have exercised your mind will make a difference in what you will understand. Revelation is not a replacement for reason, nor in appropriate areas is reason independent of revelation.
No matter whether you are listening to a new idea, a message someone claims to have received directly from God, or the interpretation of a passage of scripture, your individual mind, enlightened by the Holy Spirit, is the final filter to separate sense from nonsense. The last person, and the decisive person, to hear from God is you. Even the firmest believer in the detailed accuracy of the text of scripture will realize that many interpretations of that scripture are nonsense. (pp. 3-4, emphasis added for this post)
I responded to this post over at Jesus Creed because the graphic seems to suggest that only those who accept inerrancy take the Bible seriously. That is simply false. I’d actually suggest, as I do in my book, that those who accept that inerrancy describes the Bible poorly are taking the Bible more seriously. They avoid making the Bible in their own image.
The comments are interesting because of the number of people with the same objection. I was seventh, I think, to object on the same grounds in the comments.