Meditations on Inerrancy (Part 1)

Five Views on Biblical InerrancyLast year’s annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) was focused on inerrancy, a doctrine I’ve always taken for granted. But following a fascinating panel discussion from the contributors to the new Counterpoints Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, I picked up the book and let it sit on my shelf a few months.

In that time I’ve been wrestling with my bibliology (i.e. theology of the Bible) in a disorganized and plodding fashion. How ought I to think about revelation (the doctrine, not the end-times book) and truth and interpretation and authorial intent and . . . the list goes on. With that in mind and with my project to explore the literary dimensions of Scripture, it seemed like a good time to come back to this book and really take it seriously.

So in this post I propose to interact with the introduction (and to some degree the conclusion) to the book, both written by editors Merrick and Garrett (G&M). In the near future I’ll interact with the contributors one by one to examine the perceived merits and deficiencies of their cases.

Apologies in advance; we might be here a while!

The central concerns behind the book seem to be 1) that inerrancy is central to evangelical identity, 2) it’s uniquely important as not just a product of Scripture but a posture toward Scripture, 3) the conversation up until now has been heated and accomplishing little. In the interest of preserving evangelicalism for the future and getting such a key doctrine right, G&M propose a humble and edifying dialog.

There is a biggish constellation of doctrines tied into inerrancy that need to be thought about carefully in the process, but before they go there G&M frame the question using a 30 year old debate between Norm Geisler and Robert Gundry. This debate was formative in ETS, thus evangelicalism, and it seems to amount to this: did the biblical authors intend to be historical?

Of course no one raises this question as long as we all think the Bible is historical; then whether it’s done on purpose or not the result is the same and it is factually accurate (which is one definition of inerrancy [among many]). But when the historical record or critical thinking or anything else challenges the historicity of Scripture, the question of intent crops up.

If the biblical authors didn’t intend to be historical, then we can all mop our brows and breathe a sigh of relief. The Bible can still communicate truth in other forms, and no matter what happens the truth is preserved like in a good story. God can even be involved without tarnishing His reputation.

But if the biblical authors thought they were recording the truth but it turns out they were wrong, then at least that version of inerrancy goes out the window and we are left trying to take our stand somewhere this side of Schleiermachian liberalism.

And I think that’s another helpful way of framing the issue: evangelical scholars are trying to figure out if there’s room for orthodox Christianity somewhere between an anti-intellectual fundamentalism and an anti-supernatural liberalism. Most seem confident that there is, they just can’t quite agree where.

Now G&M lay out a few issues to form the backdrop for the discussion. What can we really say about inerrancy if we don’t have a firm grasp of:

  • Doctrine: is it fact, theory, or something deeper that affects the whole person?
  • Revelation: how does Scripture as special revelation relate to general revelation?
  • Authority: what does it mean for the Bible to be authoritative? Are facts authoritative, too?
  • Sufficiency: what does it mean to say the Bible is sufficient for salvation and obedience?
  • Reason: where does reason fit in discussions of revelation, doctrine, and fact?
  • Salvation: what do the Trinity and the missio Dei have to say about the nature and purpose of revelation?
  • Time: how does progress in revelation change the way we view timeless truth and accuracy?
  • Meaning: does authorial intent matter or is it all about the text itself?
  • Analogy: can human language communicate transcendent truths about God with precision?
  • Truth (you knew it was coming): what is the nature of truth anyway? Is “factual accuracy” ever or always right?

I hope it’s obvious this is grossly oversimplified, but these are the main concerns the editors raise. They don’t offer answers at this point because that’s what the contributors aim to do.

If you’re primarily interested in the book, you can stop reading now because that’s all I’m going to say about its content until part 2. But I’d like to close by speculating about how I would answer these difficult issues right now, before grappling with the arguments in depth.

Doctrine: I’m not keen on attacking knowledge just to give practice the advantage. Doctrines should reflect the truth and thus be factual, and in a way once they are formed they become facts themselves. Any knowledge can have implications for life, but Christian doctrine demands to be internalized and lived. Doctrine that ends with mere knowledge is not unlike what demons know and do.

Revelation: God reveals Himself in many ways, all of which are equally true and authoritative. Special revelation and general revelation will never conflict if properly interpreted.

Authority: All authority is God’s, and all of His words and works are authoritative because they are His. But they must be properly interpreted.

Sufficiency: Never spent much time on this doctrine, but it emphasizes that everything that is necessary for salvation and obedience may be found in the Bible. But this doesn’t mean it’s exhaustive or that we don’t sometimes need outside help to understand it.

Reason: Reason isn’t perfect or objective, but it is the means by which we operate. It’s involved when we read, when we write, when we articulate or receive doctrine, when we navigate the world, when we relate to others. It’s inseparable from discussions of doctrine, fact, and revelation. (I’m tempted to say it can be a source of revelation too, but that might overly complicate the discussion at this point.)

Salvation: Revelation is to be understood in the context of the triune God reaching out to man to bring salvation, but I want to be clear that salvation is not merely justification. Salvation is also about sanctification and about the restoration of all things, which means revelation concerns those things, too.

Time: I’m not sure what to say about progressive revelation. God doesn’t reveal everything at the beginning, and He does change the way things are done over time, but neither of those facts threaten my view of God’s truthfulness in and of themselves. God can be as obscure and imprecise as He wants to be and I don’t think that puts Him in any danger.

Meaning: Still wrestling with this one. I don’t believe a text can mean whatever you want, and I like the idea of interpretive communities. I understand you can’t always get at the human author’s intent, but I refuse to believe the divine author’s intent is irrelevant. But whatever we say, I believe the text (the very words!) is inspired, not the meaning.

Analogy: God has condescended to reveal Himself in human language, but human words refer to human things and God is transcendent. So we say that the words are true analogically; they correspond to reality, but not as we know it. God is not a Father in precisely the same way that my dad is a father, but the word still fits both of them. To be honest, I haven’t thought much about the implications of analogy outside of language about God.

Truth: I once heard that the truthfulness of a thing is measured in different ways according to the thing being measured. I don’t know if that’s true, but I like it. If nothing else, I believe propositions (i.e., statements, assertions) should be married to the correspondence theory of truth. But I suspect that only gets us so far in this discussion.

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