Browsed by
Tag: inerrancy

Hebrews 2:6 and Inspiration

Hebrews 2:6 and Inspiration

James McGrath brings up Hebrews 2:6, where the author introduces a quote by saying “somebody somewhere says.” Dr. McGrath uses this sort of as an argument against inerrancy, though primarily as an argument for human authorship.

I have used the text in a similar way. It is not, in fact, a good argument against inerrancy, at least as generally defined by scholars who affirm it. It is not an error but rather a failure to state a fact. Is this rhetorical? One of the commenters on Dr. McGrath’s post seems to think so. I would suggest rather that the author either did not remember precisely or simply didn’t come up with a good way to introduce the passage.

But the important thing about this, in my view, is that the verse sounds distinctly human. The problem with “distinctly human” is that we don’t really have a way of knowing how God might talk about such a thing should he choose to. But arguing about this particular issue and finding a way to make it more “god-like” in tone is not the issue.

One key point I try to make in my book When People Speak for God is that we need to look at how Scripture actually was produced and how it functions in order to understand how it was produced and how it functions. Circular? Well, in a way. There’s nothing like looking at the actual object or mechanism to discover what it is and what it does.

But the tendency in creating or producing a doctrine about Scripture is often to read texts in Scripture that say what the “Word of God” is, or texts that speak of what Scripture is (circular again, anyone?), then to imagine what this would mean in practice, and finally to force the texts to fit the definition.

What does it mean for Scripture to be “god-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16)? The only way we have to really know that is to look at other things that are god-breathed, if we can find them. The difference between “All god-breathed Scripture” and “All Scripture is god-breathed” may be somewhat less substantial than people think. What we need to do is to fill in the definition of “god-breathed” by looking at Scripture, rather than concocting a definition and then imposing it on Scripture.

Besides looking at how Scripture itself came to us, we have some interesting claims regarding what God’s breath might do, such as Genesis 2:7, when God breathes into the first human being. Interestingly enough, that first human became alive. He did not, perhaps unfortunately, become inerrant.

Peter Enns on Inerrancy

Peter Enns on Inerrancy

Peter Enns (Inspiration and Incarnation) has an excellent post on inerrancy. On of my arguments in When People Speak for God is that we need to create our doctrine of inspiration primarily from observing scripture rather than by trying to extract theological statements about inspiration. The title of Dr. Enns’ post, I think someone forgot to tell the Bible, almost says enough in itself. In any case, go check out the complete article.

Loosening One’s Doctrine of Scripture (Resources)

Loosening One’s Doctrine of Scripture (Resources)

I just completed a post on my Participatory Bible Study blog which includes a couple of pages from the book When People Speak for God.

I’ve been connecting one’s understanding of inspiration and extended reading of the Bible for some time. In my view, we have tended to focus on inerrancy and simultaneously on the bits and pieces of scripture. A broader view of inspiration can go well with a broader view of scripture. This is not universal. Many advocates of inerrancy also view scripture broadly while many who oppose it tend to ignore what it says. The stereotypes tend not to work!

From Inspiration to UnderstandingI’ve used these ideas in teaching and in publishing. I started a Bible study series, co-authored a book on how to study the Bible, and wrote a book on inspiration, for which this web site is named. Then as a publisher, I published another book, From Inspiration to Understanding: Reading the Bible Seriously and Faithfully. That book could serve as the big brother to mine, even though it was written later. If it had been written earlier, it could have provided many footnotes for my own book.

In addition, I’ve written a few pamphlets, available in PDF format for downloading. You can print as many as you need free of charge.

There are a few more listed on this page.

Finally, I’ve had the idea of seeing the whole of scripture emphasized to me when editing a recent book, Creation in Scripture by Herold Weiss. What Dr. Weiss has done is look beyond Genesis in forming a scriptural doctrine of creation. It’s easy to say that one ought to go beyond Genesis, but the argument tends to stay in the first couple of chapters of Genesis even so. It’s interesting to see the broader commentary of scripture shape up.

Joel Watts on Theopneustos and Theosis

Joel Watts on Theopneustos and Theosis

Joel Watts has started a discussion on the nature of inspiration, comparing the breathing of the Spirit into the text of scripture with the coming of the Holy Spirit into the church and the individual.

Thus far he has gotten little discussion, and he think his ideas deserve some further discussion. This reminds me of a couple of paragraphs I wrote for my book When People Speak for God (which this web site supports):

. . . 2 Timothy 3:16 provides us with the word “theopneustos” or “God-breathed” which has been made to carry a great deal of freight. But when God breathed into Adam he didn’t make him inerrant, he made him alive. What exactly is the content of a text that is God-breathed? But this issue applies much more to verbal inspiration. The evidence against verbal inspiration is very strong in the text and the history itself. There are certainly words that are attributed to God, but there are also words that are clearly not attributed to God. The synoptic problem presents us with clear evidence that the gospel writers copied from one another, that there are different sources in the Pentateuch, Samuel, and Kings, just as examples (237, 238).

The breathing of the Holy Spirit finds its roots, I believe, in this earlier breath of God and thus both provide an excellent analogy for the breathing of scripture. Theopneustos itself requires more definition; it doesn’t provide an adequate definition for inspiration in and of itself.

Defining Biblical Inerrancy

Defining Biblical Inerrancy

One of the problems I have with the word “inerrancy” is that it is understood in very different ways. If I were to ask most people in my home church what biblical inerrancy means, they would probably conflate it with certain literalistic renderings.

I disagree with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, even as laid out in the Chicago statement, for example, but it is important in debating for, about, or against this doctrine to define how one is using the term.

Jacob Allee writes a post in the context of the controversy over Mike Licona. Norman Geisler, amongst others, has accused Licona of denying biblical inerrancy for suggesting that the raising of the saints in Matthew might be apocalyptic language and not literally true. (I write about this and provide some links here.)

I appreciate his simplified definition, which I do think is good, and much closer to what you would expect a biblical scholar to mean when referring to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. He also distinguishes interpretation from the actual text, which is a valuable point.

None of this changes my mind, but I think it all clarifies the debate.

Inerrancy is to Evangelicalism as Inspiration is to Christianity (or Not)

Inerrancy is to Evangelicalism as Inspiration is to Christianity (or Not)

Michael Patton has written a post arguing that inerrancy is not the linchpin of evangelicalism. This post should make me happy, and indeed I am glad that someone is making this claim. Further, Patton makes some very interesting points, including noting that we don’t throw anything else out completely just because of some error in detail, particularly if we’re dealing with eyewitness testimony.

There is a certain conflict when we argue for both any form of verbal dictation, or even verbal plenary inspiration, and at the same time try to support the historicity of events in the gospel by claiming they contain eyewitness testimony. If the Holy Spirit is dictating the words of the gospels, or even protecting them so they are not merely the Word of God, but are words of God, then the truth of those words would not be dependent on eyewitnesses. We’d have precisely one witness in the gospels, and that would be the Divine witness.

But that isn’t either the most common claim in favor of the historicity of the gospels, nor, indeed, is it the claim of the New Testament documents or of the early church regarding Jesus. The claim is not that the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are correct because they were revealed (or dictated) by the Holy Spirit, but rather they are the words of people who saw what happened and reported what they saw.

Thus minor differences in the accounts are to be expected if the claim is true, since eyewitnesses don’t generally agree absolutely in all details. Whether we admit just differences in perspective or accept outright errors of fact may well depend on what we expect. Patton says that finding such an error would not impact his faith in Christ. He says: “However, if I were to find something that I believed was a legitimate error in the Scripture, I don’t think my faith would be affected too much. Why? Because the central truths of the Christian faith are not affected by inerrancy.”

Patton believes in inerrancy, and I do not, but I would say much the same thing. I have no great desire to locate errors in scripture. In fact, I’d say that while I don’t accept the doctrine of inerrancy as stated in the Chicago Statement, for example, I don’t believe there is anything in Scripture that is there by error. Scripture is precisely what God wanted it to be. Finding errors of fact or contradictions doesn’t impact my faith because my faith didn’t come into existence based on the number of errors present or not present in the Bible.

I must note here that I sometimes frustrate opponents of inerrancy as well, because I don’t really want to make lists of errors in scripture. I think that’s entirely the wrong way to go about it. It’s much more a process of interpretation. The question is always this: What (and where) is the message God is presenting through this passage? So I don’t compare Genesis 1-2 with science as we know it today to find what is correct and what is in error. If Genesis is written with a different cosmology than we have today, I would both admit it is not scientifically accurate and also claim it is not in error. Rather, we have God’s message set in the cosmological knowledge of the time. As we continue to live in God’s world, we can reset that message in the context of the cosmological knowledge we have today. If the world is still here in 200, 2000, or a few million years, I expect our understanding of cosmology will have changed, and we’ll have to see God’s message in another set of ideas about cosmology. Why would we assume that the early 21st century has the final answer on this?

But let me return from that rabbit trail. (I’m just as bad at staying on topic when I’m speaking!) Patton continues by claiming that inspiration isn’t actually necessary for Christianity.

But I would also say Christianity is not dependent on the inspiration of the Bible either. In other words, the Bible does not even have to be inspired for Christianity to be true. We could just think of the eyewitness accounts in what we call the New Testament as twenty-seven ancient historical documents. . . .

Here is where I disagree. Fundamental to the idea of Christianity is this: God acts in history. We may disagree radically on just how subtly or openly God acts. We may disagree about how he communicates and how much he protects that communication. But without God’s acting in history and someone recognizing God’s action, there would be no Christianity. So once these historical acts or events to which Patton refers have happened, there is inspiration. The only real question is how it is going to be handled. If God sends a message, that’s inspiration.

Now it’s true that, in theory, the Bible need not have the kind of authority it has in the church. Inspiration and authority are not equal (Vick, From Inspiration to Understanding, pp. 156-163). We could give authority to the historical events rather than to the reports of them, but if God is communicating through them, they would be inspired in some sense. We can disagree about how that works, but without agreeing that it works in some way, I can’t see how Christianity could exist.

Thus while I’m not certain if a particular description of inspiration (inerrancy) is essential to evangelicalism, I’m quite certain that some form of inspiration is necessary to Christianity.

The Trials of Mike Licona

The Trials of Mike Licona

I actually didn’t know who Mike Licona was until a few weeks ago, but I’ve discovered that he is a Christian writer who is a strong supporter of the historicity of the resurrection and generally defends the historicity of the Bible.

Unfortunately for him, he recently suggested the possibility—just the possibility, mind you—that Matthew 27:51-53 (the raising of the dead saints) is apocalyptic language rather than intending to portray a historical event. I’m very pleased to see that Michael Patton has been defending Licona and calling for a great deal more generosity concerning this disagreement.

And this brings up an issue that I have with many arguments regarding biblical interpretation. Too many people are very quick to argue that their opponents are denying scripture, when they are simply interpreting it differently. There are interpretations that are so lacking in legitimacy that one may suspect that even the person who concocted them doesn’t believe them. But many arguments are between people who both have a great deal of respect for scripture, but who disagree on what scripture actually intends to communicate.

This passage is an excellent example. I can certainly how one can legitimately disagree about what Matthew is trying to convey here, starting with the veil in the temple being torn in two. Is that literal or figurative language? (I’m speaking here of Matthew’s intent in writing it, not whether one believes he is historically accurate.) Did Matthew mean that this literally happened, or was it something that happened in the spiritual realm?

It is doubtless an incredibly important spiritual point that is being made, whether the language is intended historically or not. It’s a point that can be made in either case.

I don’t think that the argument that either party (or parties) in this dispute doesn’t care about scripture. All involved are committed to the inerrancy of scripture, and understand it in a similar way, as requiring historical accuracy. There is apocalyptic language in the Bible. It’s not impossible that this language is. Indeed there are some indications that it is.

Similarly, debates about creation hinge on just how one reads the texts. If one reads the text as historical narrative, one has one set of options (accepting it as accurate, or assuming it’s pretty much useless). On the other hand, there are many elements of the creation stories (pretty much all of them) that would suggest something other than historical narrative. Yet many will accuse anyone who doesn’t take these texts as historical narrative of not believing what the Bible has to say.

My point here is simply this: You can’t tell whether someone is ignoring the meaning of scripture until you have determined its meaning. Differing regarding interpretation, as long as the interpretation is an honest attempt to understand the text, does not constitute rejection of scripture.

Imperfections in Scripture

Imperfections in Scripture

Lee at The Dubious Disciple generously and kindly reviewed my book When People Speak for God. In that review, he included the following sentence:

A discussion of inerrancy follows, and how Henry’s recognition of the Bible’s imperfections has not disturbed his reverence for God’s Word.

Now before I discuss this line, let me emphasize that this is not a critique or rebuttal of Lee’s review. I’m not saying he misunderstood me. What happened is that his particular phrasing suggested some clarifications to me, and I want to write about them now.

Let’s start with an analogy. Supposing I’m viewing a sunset with one of my grandchildren. I might discuss imaginary shapes suggested by the clouds, the beauty of the colors, and the gift of beauty that God has given us. Were a scientist to hear my description, and think I was teaching my grandchild about the technical aspects of a sunset, he might well consider that there were serious imperfections in my talk on the sunset.

In turn, if I was explaining the technical aspects to the same grandchild, discussing refraction, the composition of the atmosphere, cloud formation, the rotation of the earth, and so forth, while the scientists might be satisfied, if my wife heard the lecture, and supposed I was watching a pretty sunset, she might well consider that there were imperfections in my discussion of the sunset, which she would doubtless point out to me.

Each of these ways of talking about the sunset is good and appropriate in its proper setting, and each is severely deficient when used in the wrong context.

Now let me turn to the Bible. One of the points I endeavor to make regularly is that we must observe what the Bible is, rather than trying to predefine what the Bible should be. Instead, we often use texts such as 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 (and if we’re lucky, 17) and construct our doctrine of what the scripture should be, whereupon we set to work trying to demonstrate that it is what it should be.

I think it would be better to observe how the Bible came to be, and determine from that just how God speaks through scripture and how it is that we should hear his voice. My primary suggestion would be that everything in the Bible starts from God acting, and people experiencing God in action. From there, the writers report God’s actions in history.

This necessarily involves their perceptions and their cultural backgrounds. This comes very strongly into play as we interpret Genesis 1 & 2 along with other creation stories. On the one hand we have objectors who see the creation story as deficient because it doesn’t tell a scientific story. On the other we have those who believe it must tell a scientific story, so therefore it does tell one.

My question is just how we expect God to communicate to those who wrote this story. Should he first provide them with all the various scientific theories and data that would allow him to tell a story that we would take as scientifically accurate? What would happen then to believers a couple hundred years in the future? Might they not regard such a story as ridiculously primitive and therefore not divine?

It’s my contention that God spoke to those people in the context of their culture and their cosmology. If I look at this as a scientific treatise or an historical record, I will, indeed, see imperfections. The Bible is very imperfect at being what it is not.

While these elements of ancient cosmology may look like errors to us, they are actually “intentionals,” i.e., they are intentional elements of the way God chose to communicate with people and also chose to provide scripture.

I would add further that the way in which the Bible was transmitted also points away from this kind of accurate fulfillment of our modern desires. I’d love to have good material on which to base precise dating of the kings of Judah and Israel. But if you try to line up those numbers you’ll find they don’t work so well. A massive effort of proposing co-regencies and various differences in recording accession years can bring much of it into line, but even Edwin R. Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 1994) had to suggest that some of the final records of the northern kingdom had been lost. (I don’t have the page number, but I’ll hunt it down if anyone requests it.)

The message of the books of Kings is not lost, however, because I can’t satisfy my curiosity. Thus what is an imperfection from my perspective is not an imperfection from another.

I know this presents problems for some Christian apologists. The eternal effort to prove the Bible’s truthfulness, or at least make it highly probable, is very important to some. But the question is whether that enterprise matches God’s intent in scripture. As I mentioned earlier the benefit of 2 Timothy 3:17, which doesn’t say, “that the man of God may know history” or “that the man of God may know science.” Of course our understanding of how scripture is presented and how it came to be will impact the way we read that passage as well!

Now just because the Bible is aiming to teach those subjects doesn’t mean it doesn’t have information on those topics. That is a separate investigation. What it does mean is that if we try to evaluate the Bible as a history or science book, we’ll find imperfections, since “perfect” always relates to a goal or standard. If we’re using the wrong standard, we’ll be misled.