A Review of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

9780310331360On my Christmas vacation I’ve been working through Zondervan’s Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, which came in the mail a few weeks ago. (It was just released this month, the most recent addition of their Counterpoints: Bible and Theology series, along with Four Views on the Historical Adam.) From the very outset of the book, the political dimension of inerrancy is explicitly in view. In the opening paragraph of their introduction, the editors reference the inclusion of inerrancy in the doctrinal basis of the Evangelical Theological Society, and a key event throughout both their introduction and their conclusion is the 1983 debate between Robert Gundry and Normal Geisler over inerrancy that led to Gundry’s resignation from ETS. The book’s stated purpose has this political dimension in view as well: “our project thus must be regarded as a first step toward disentangling inerrancy as the primary link to evangelical identity” (24; cf. also the first two full paragraphs on 10). I’m sympathetic to some of the editors concerns (as I discussed in a recent post), but I also felt that their comments here freighted the discussion a bit. I wonder if it would have been more even-handed to make the relation between inerrancy and evangelical identity a point of discussion within the book, rather than presenting their view on this at this outset as a purpose of the book.

I found the contributions of Vanhoozer and Bird the most helpful, and the book as a whole sharpened my understanding of inerrancy’s history, meaning, challenges, and uses. On a few points, my understanding of what inerrancy requires was modified (as I outline below). But in the last analysis, I am more deeply committed to inerrancy from having read this book. I share my evaluations here in the hope that they might be helpful to others working through this issue.

mohler1) Al Mohler, “When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy”

Mohler’s contribution is marked by its uncompromisingness and verve. He writes early on, “I will make my position plain. I do not believe that evangelicalism can survive without the explicit and complete assertion of biblical inerrancy” (31). Later, when dealing with Joshua 6 as a potential problem passage, he writes, “archaeologists will disagree among themselves. I am not an archaeologist, and I am not qualified to render any adequate archaeological argument. The point is that I do not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness of any text in all that the text asserts and claims” (51, italics his). What I admire about Mohler’s piece is the courageous desire to stand for the truth. At its best moments, that is what I saw in it. But the very uncompromisingness that gives Mohler’s piece its vigor may also carry some weaknesses along with it. Here I list six.

(I devote some space here to unpacking my concerns with Mohler’s piece because I think they bring up important issues in the debate. I hope my comments do not give the impression that my only feelings about his piece are negative. Far from it! There is much in his piece that I appreciate, and I’m ultimately on the same side as Mohler in wanting to defend a high view of the Bible, and inerrancy in particular.)

1. At times Mohler appeared a bit insensitive to the nuances involved in the definition of inerrancy, and/or unaware of the philosophical and epistemological undercurrent to the issue. From reading his piece one would not readily discern that there are different kinds of inerrancy and non-inerrancy, nor would one make much progress in conceptualizing the different definitions of truth and complex hermeneutical issues at play in the debate. His piece would have been stronger if it had sought a tone marked by both firmness and flexibility, both staunchness and sensitivity. Such a piece might, for example, contain warnings not merely against believing in a fallible text but also against assuming an infallible interpretation. (Several of the responses take issue with Mohler on this point; e.g., Vanhoozer: “boldness must be tempered with humility as concerns my interpretation” [74]; also Bird: “[Mohler] preaches the inerrancy of the text but practices the inerrancy of his interpretation [69]). In general, I got the impression that Mohler thinks the basic danger to be avoided in this discussion is compromise. The dominant tone is, “beware liberalism!” I agree that compromise is one (very real) danger, but its not the only danger. Inerrancy calls for careful self-examination as well as firm boundary markers. It is not merely a fortress to be defended, but a cavern to be explored.

2. As each of the responders poinst out, Mohler appears to equate the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) with a faithful doctrine of Scripture, and his narrative sketch is heavily focused on the 20th century United States historical backdrop to this document. At the same time, however, he frames his version of inerrancy as the “classical” one. I think his case would have had greater appeal if he had anchored it in a broader historical and international framework, and explored the relation of CSBI to that broader, more catholic tradition. Vanhoozer, though also appreciative of CSBI, reflects better balance when he acknowledges that “Chicago is not Nicaea” (212).

3. I’m not sure Mohler’s treatment of potential problem passages is the most helpful for honest questioners; it seems more designed to ward off the liberal attackers. Several of his answers seem to basically boil down to “because biblical inerrancy is true, there must be an answer to this problem, but we don’t know what it is yet.” While there is merit in being cautious, this kind of response can also come across, in my mind, as a failure of open-mindedness or sympathetic engagement with the problem. Some of his particular responses are likewise unconvincing. For example, he addresses the challenge of potential contradiction in Acts 9:7 and 22:9 by asserting that “the very fact that (Luke) left us with both accounts is evidence that he saw no contradiction and intended his readers to see none” (53). This seems to me to preclude the possibility that Luke mistakenly failed to recognize the “contradiction,” and thus beg the question.

4. I wonder if Mohler could display greater appreciation of the dangers of the misuses/abuses of inerrancy. He is keenly sensitive to the damage that theological liberalism wreaks upon the church’s witness, but does not seem as sensitive to the dangers of the wrong kind(s) of conservatism. For example, in his response to Vanhoozer, he references Vanhoozer’s concern to distinguish his “well-versed inerrancy” from “poorly versed accounts of inerrancy” (236), and then responds:

That is true, of course, but it must also be stated, with even greater forthrightness, that denials of biblical inerrancy have often caused far greater damage—in some cases leading to a repudiation of essential doctrines of the Christian faith (236).

I do not disagree with Mohler directly, but I wonder if his “bad theology radar” is so alert to liberalism that its a bit under-sensitive to other real dangers. The words “of course” in this sentence give the impression of rushing too quickly past a real problem that deserves to be lingered over. And why must the danger of liberalism be stated with even “greater forthrightness?” In my view, close-minded, legalistic, and/or flat-footed treatments of Scripture can function just as effectively as any liberal attack to erode the vital, life-giving role that God desire His Word to play in the church. The fundamentalist can evade the Spirit’s speech through the text via his fundamentalism just as the liberal can do so via his liberalism. Word without spirit ultimately get you to the same place as neither word nor spirit.

5. I wonder if the singular significance that Mohler attaches to the word inerrancy is always helpful. He claims, “inerrancy is the single issue that truly distinguishes evangelicalism from liberal Protestantism” (118), and he frequently intimates that inerrancy (particularly CSBI-style inerrancy) is a matter of faithfulness to the gospel itself (36, 43 46). I think I know what dangers Mohler is reacting against, but I wonder if this perspective might be a bit historically and globally short-sighted. In his response, Bird, writing from a non-American perspective, writes,

Mohler seems to think that the line in the sand that separates the good guys from the bad guys is drawn between those who say ‘infallible’ and those who say ‘inerrancy’ as if there were a galaxy of difference between the two terms. Well, where I live, the big challenge is among those who say that Scripture is authoritative and normative (i.e., the evangelicals) and those who say that Scripture is antiquated and negotiable (i.e., the liberals)…. When I look at the American evangelical scene, where people want to divine denominations over ‘infallible’ versus ‘inerrancy,’ the whole thing looks kind of piddly and pathetic in comparison. Its like I’m fighting the barbarians at the gate while some of you guys back in your mega-seminary sanctuaries are engaging in a ferocious fratricide over the proper length of church candles (68).

Though Bird may be exaggerating a bit here, I think this international dynamic provides some helpful perspective. More on this below in my evaluation to Bird.

6. The best part of Mohler’s piece is, in my opinion, his historical narration (29-37). He is a good story teller. When he moves from history to the Bible to make a case for inerrancy (37-39), I felt his use of proof-texts too easily associated inerrancy with other aspects of a high doctrine of Scripture. He quotes II Peter 1:21 and then concludes, “Peter’s point is that the Scripture is to be trusted at every point” (38). Personally, I agree with Mohler that inerrancy is an implication of inspiration. But I think this needs to be argued, not merely asserted/assumed. Many of the texts Mohler references, in my opinion, only get you half-way to the conclusion, but are presented as if they get you the whole way. For example, Matthew 5:17-20 is about the perpetual endurance and binding fulfillment of the Law, not inerrant autographs per se. II Timothy 3:16 is about inspiration, not inerrancy (though again, inerrancy may be a valid implication from it, but that must be shown). Hebrews 3:7 and Acts 4:25 demonstrate the Holy Spirit speaks through Scripture, but inerrant autographs require further elaboration from this. Finally, I Thessalonians 2:13 is about the preaching of the gospel by Paul and his associates to the Thessalonian church. It is not about the Bible at all, or any written text. If anything, it raises questions by widening the domain to which “the Word of God” applies (e.g., by the same theological reasoning that gets one to inerrancy, could one say Paul’s preaching to the Thessalonians was “inerrant” and even “verbally plenarily inerrant?”

Toward the end of this section, Mohler concludes, “inerrancy and inspiration are nothing more than summary affirmations of what the Scripture claims for itself” (39). Hmmm. It seems to me that inerrancy is rather a theological inference from the Bible’s claims about itself, and not directly claimed, except for perhaps in a few passages (John 10:35, Psalm 119:160). Calling it a “nothing more than a summary affirmation” seems like a stretch.

I’m grateful for Mohler’s strong stand for an uncompromising doctrine of Scripture, and I stand with him for inerrancy. But by portraying inerrancy as more obvious than it really is, and then binding it up with faithfulness to the gospel itself, I worry that Mohler’s piece displays some of the characteristics that may have inadvertently dampened the usefulness of the term.

enns_portrait 2) Peter Enns, “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does”

I thought Peter Enns raised some valid concerns and made some well-stated points, but the overall tone and slant of his piece made it hard to appreciate the good stuff. For instance, his occasional impugning of inerrantists’ motives was unhelpful and distracting. He describes Mohler’s piece as “an attempt to control the discussion” (59), and suggests that the opening lines of CSBI may have been crafted precisely to discourage critical interaction (86). I don’t have a problem with Enns making strong objections to inerrantist practices, but I think its out of bounds in Christian debate to go to motive. We do not know others’ motives (God does), and should not bring them into our argumentation except perhaps in very rare cases, and with great caution. Furthermore, Enns’ description of perceived inerrantist errors utilized slightly derisive and/or melodramatic language. He refers to those in power positions in the church who wield inerrancy as a weapon because they “prefer coercion to reason and demonization to reflection” (60); he raises a concern about “emotional blackmail” in CSBI’s linkage of inerrancy to matters of salvation (89); he suggests that inerrancy causes honest people crises of conscience (90) and faith (113); he wonders “whether inerrancy asks of its adherents to be dishonest, or at least willingly numb, in order to hold to the truth” (114).

These are strong and bracing charges. Are they helpful? Are they fair? I don’t doubt that Enns has seen real problems in the use of inerrancy, and I sympathize with some of his concerns, but his reaction seems unrestrained, and thus unfair to the countless who hold inerrancy with an open mind and an ethic of charity.

Very much related to this, I feel concern that Enns at times portrays inerrancy at its absolute worst in order to critique it. I will give two examples. First, he repeatedly claims that inerrancy necessarily shuts down dialogue and discussion. He claims that CSBI “obstructs the kind of critical dialogue clearly surfacing within evangelicalism, and therefore threatens to neutralize self-criticism” (85), and that its insistence on scientific and historical truth “rules out of bounds, as a matter of principle, any true conversation between science and faith and any historical argumentation prompted by archaeological findings” (89). Later he makes the same point about inerrancy across the board: “inerrancy prematurely shuts down rigorous inquiry into what the Bible’s ‘truthfulness’ means” (91). Certainly this can happen; but need it? I fail to see why approaching the Bible with the presupposition of its trustworthiness necessarily closes off dialogue any more than approaching it with the presupposition of its untrustworthiness. For my part, I feel no inconsistency in saying, “I believe the meaning of the text is trustworthy, so lets talk about it.” By analogy, I don’t ever feel that the meaning of a friend’s communication is unquestionable or conversation-ending simply because I consider them a trustworthy and truthful person.

A second example borders on outright caricature. Enns asks, if inerrancy is true,

shouldn’t we also cease benefiting from other scholarly and scientific pursuits altogether? Shouldn’t we stop using technology and stop seeking modern medical treatment? If the Bible alone gives us accurate knowledge, and if the methods that have produced the advancements we currently enjoy are rooted in spiritual rebellion, then why should Christians ever support any of them? (113-114).

This seems to presume a kind of close-mindedness and sacred/secular distinction that is not at all necessary to inerrancy: affirming that the Bible is completely true is in no way tantamount to affirming that it is the exclusive source of truth. Perhaps Enns intends to address here simply one occasional tendency of inerrantist thought, but then, he should distinguish his target from inerrancy proper. As Vanoozer objects, “Enns confused the definition of inerrancy with what interpreters do in its name …. He mistakenly thinks that inerrancy is joined at the hip with an unsound hermeneutic” (132).

Beyond this pervasive issue of fairness in tone and representation, I have two specific concerns with Enns’ position.

1. First, I think Enns’ incarnational model for divine communication in Scripture raises some problems. I am sympathetic to some of John Webster’s Christological concerns about the metaphor itself (cf. Bird’s reference to these on 125, from Webster’s Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch). But more basically, I was puzzled by how Enns used the metaphor. For example, drawing from this metaphor, Enns sets inerrancy at odds with God speaking within a cultural framework, idiom, and worldview (89, 115). He claims that inerrancy operates on “the assumption that God as truth-teller requires a text that is only superficially, if at all, circumscribed by the idiom of the day” (89). But its not clear to me why texts cannot be fully culturally immersed and fully trustworthy at the same time. Why must cultural idiom require error? Why can truth not break into any cultural framework or worldview, as light shines into darkness? If anything, the metaphor of the incarnation would seem to support this possibility, since Jesus’ full humanity and historical/cultural locatedness is not in tension with his his sinlessness and divine perfection.

Furthermore, Enns portrays inerrancy here as an exclusively modern interest, whereas I would say truth vs. error is a trans-cultural category, not reducible to “our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision” (84). Different cultures may have different forms of language and expression, and even somewhat different understandings of truth, but I doubt whether any culture is uninterested in accuracy.

2. I think Enns’ position fails to treat the Bible with the respect and reverence that it requires as the Word of God. This was most evident to me in his treatment of problem passages. Responding to the potential contradiction between God’s commandment to kill all the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 20:16-17) and Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48), Enns basically comes down to say that the Israelites had a tribal-warfare view of God, and Jesus corrects this erroneous theology (104-113, esp. 111-112). I think this is a disastrous response which raises more problems than it solves. First of all, I think Enns fails to grasp the missional thrust of Israel’s calling and the entire Old Testament narrative, from Abram’s calling (Genesis 12:1-3) to the giving of the Law (Deuteronomy 4:6-8) to Solomon’s Temple dedication prayer (I Kings 8:12-53) to the universal mission of the Suffering Servant as the true Israel (Isaiah 49:1-6). Enns calls Jesus’ teaching a “reversal of the Old Testament’s dominant tone of exclusivism,” and paraphrases the Sermon on the Mount as though Jesus was saying in effect, “that was then, this is now; you have heard it said, but I say to you” (112).

By pitting Jesus and Deuteronomy against each other, Enns fragments the unity of the biblical narrative, and opens the door to a quasi-Marcionite division of the two Testaments. In helpful contrast, Bird rightly points out that the tension between exclusivism and inclusivism runs across both Testaments, not between them (127). His paraphrase of Jesus is also less stark and more sensible: “it is not the case that Jesus said in effect, ‘that was then, this is now.’ More likely, Jesus was saying something in the order of, ‘Now that the kingdom of God has come, now that God’s salvation is here, this is how we live out the love we heard about in the Law’” (127).

As I see it, Enn’s willingness to countenance an errant Bible ultimately undermines not only its unity, but its authority and trustworthiness. On his view, I can no longer read Deuteronomy 20:6-7 as giving me an trustworthy portrait of the character of God, ultimately consistent with the rest of the Bible. I must stand in judgment over this text and adjudicate its claims on the basis of Jesus’ ethic of love. But once Deuteronomy 20 is dismantled from divine authority, what text is safe? What about the “violent” threats (Revelation 2:22-23) and deeds (Revelation 19:15) of Christ? Must these also be rejected on the basis of a perceived tension with his ethic of love?

Explicitly opening the door to an errant Bible like Enns does is like letting a monster into the house of theology. Once that monster is in the house, nothing is safe. It probably won’t eat all the good theology in there, certainly not all at once. But nothing is safe. Everything is up for grabs.

Bird_Michael1-233x3003) Michael F. Bird, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the U.S.A.”

Bird’s piece was probably my favorite. It is humorous and warm-spirited, and at the same time thoughtful and balanced. He criticizes many aspects of the doctrine of inerrancy, especially CSBI and how inerrancy has developed in the United States, but ultimately comes around to operate pretty similarly to an inerrantist in his treatment of the problem passages. He also strongly protests the notion of an errant Bible (146). I therefore agree with Enns (182) and Vanhoozer (186) that differences between Bird and inerrancy are more strategic than substantive, and in my view probably have more to do with the international dynamics at play in the discussion than anything else. This is the issue that his essay raised most forcefully for me, the international dynamic, or what I call the problem of American self-focus. Bird himself calls it “theological colonialism” (154). This has already come up a bit in my response to Mohler, its worth fleshing out a bit more here, because it is everywhere present in Bird’s writing on this issue.

Bird writes that CSBI

“looks to me to be mainly a conservative in-house American thing. The international council was international to the same extent that winners of the World Series or the Super Bowl are ‘world’ champions. There are a few ring-ins such as J.I. Packer, John Wenham, and Roger Nicole (all Western European males), but I detect no voices from Africa, Asia, or South America having any real input (155).”

In his response to Enns, Bird welcomes the idea of another council on the doctrine of Scripture but suggests that this time, unlike CSBI, it should be truly international:

Assemble believers from Nigeria to Norway, from Vietnam to Venezuela, then hold sessions in Beijing, Bogota, and Brisbane to shape a document about the doctrine of Scripture. To prevent any national group from dominating the council, representation should be proportional. Since North American evangelicals make up only about 5 percent of global evangelicals, they should only have 5 percent of the delegates to such a council (128).

I am sympathetic to this critique because it seems to me to a more general weakness of American theology, and certainly one I apply to myself as an American (I was born in Scotland but moved to the U.S. before I turned 2). All too often, we tend to act like the rest of the world is not as important. We are too inwardly focused.

Bird’s criticism is especially worth noting because he goes beyond mere complaint to set forth a positive construction of what an international doctrine of Scripture might look like, and where it converges with and differs from the American inerrancy tradition. (It turns out, there is a lot of overlap.) His comment here is worth quoting at length:

The 60 million Anglicans in the global south hold to the Thirty-Nine Articles, with its reference to the ‘authority’ and ‘sufficiency’ of Scripture, leaving open how Scripture relates to history and science. The 75 million Presbyterians around the world, with major concentrations in Brazil and Korea, hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith, which affirms the ‘infallible truth and divine authority’ of Scripture. The 2 million members of the Church of Southern India believe that ‘the Scriptures are the ultimate standard of faith and practice.’ The Baptist World Alliance, representing some 41 million Baptists, in their Centenary Congress of 2005 declared that ‘the divinely inspired Old and New Testament Scriptures have supreme authority as the written Word of God and are fully trustworthy for faith and conduct’ (160-161).

To keep quoting would be unwieldy, but he goes on to reference the Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians statement of faith, the Evangelical Affirmations conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1989, the British Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship (UCCF) statement of faith, the World in Action Convention in Bath, England, the Jerusalem Declaration of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, and the Lausanne Covenant—all of which neglect to use the words “inerrancy” or “inerrant” (161-162). Overall, I was impressed by Bird’s thesis: “what best represents the international view, in my opinion, is a commitment to the infallibility and authority of Scripture, but not necessarily a doctrine of Scripture conceived in the specific terms of the American inerrancy tradition as represented in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (146).

Bird also makes a case that this broader, global view of the truthfulness of Scripture has roots in church history. Some church fathers, such as Augustine, stand roughly in same trajectory of thought as a contemporary CSBI proponent, while other church fathers, such as John Chrysostom and Origen, can acknowledge without alarm that biblical authors may differ with each other on historical details or minor points (149). Taking up the current language of “inerrant” vs. “infallible,” one can find examples in both camps in church history. Bird notes that even J.I. Packer, a framer of CSBI, acknowledged that inerrancy is a minority term in the church’s historical language: “evangelicals are accustomed to speak of the Word of God as infallible and inerrant. The former has a long pedigree; among the Reformers, Cranmer and Jewel spoke of God’s Word as infallible, and the Westminster Confession of the ‘infallible truth’ of Holy Scripture. The latter, however, seems not to have been regularly used in this connection before the nineteenth century (italics his)” (162-163). From my limited knowledge, I am broadly sympathetic to what Bird proposes here. I agree with John Woodbridge’s scholarship that the basic idea of inerrancy has strong historical precedent. But it seems like there has been more latitude in church history with respect to the term, its sociological use of discrimination, and the details of how it was fleshed out.

From the vantage point of this broader, more catholic doctrine of Scripture, one can see more sympathetically Bird’s criticisms of some of the tendencies of the inerrancy tradition in the United States, and in particular some of the characteristics of CSBI. He notes, for instance, the oddly frequent juxtaposition of inerrancy with certain politically conservative beliefs, such as gun control, anti-environmental policies, and opposition to universal health care (156). (I would add, within the realm of theology, certain eschatological views.) My only push back would be to remind Bird that this association is not necessary or universal. Bird notes, in addition, that the American inerrancy tradition has been particularly burdened with the harmonization of details (148-149). I agree. In general, I think the writers of biblical narratives were more comfortable with authorial freedom to alter detail for theological or literary purposes than modern historiography would allow. In my last post I gave the example of the temptations of Christ being put in different orders by Matthew and Luke. There are many other examples as well. Even John Calvin acknowledged, “the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates” (as quoted by Bird on 149). Yet the American inerrancy tradition has often understood inerrancy to require the harmonization of details and discrepancies. I don’t think inerrancy pure and proper requires this, however, since inerrancy concerns the meaning of the text, and the text itself should determine its meaning, not modern understandings of historical narration.

Another of Bird’s criticisms is that the American inerrancy tradition has erected too strong a distinction between the original autographs and the texts as they currently stand (150-153). I’m not fully persuaded with his arguments here, since I think the concept of the original autographs can include later additions or redactions (such as the inclusion of Moses’ death at the end of Deuteronomy), or could extend to the second copy of Jeremiah’s scroll just as much as the first one that was destroyed (Jeremiah 36:26-28). However, Bird’s comments here prompted my own thought: if the foundational theological assumption undergirding the affirmation of inerrant autographs is the trustworthiness of God, couldn’t this same theological assumption be taken to argue for an inerrant transmission process? Certainly God is involved in a general, providential way throughout the entire process, from a thought arriving in the head of the biblical author all the way to the eyes of a contemporary reader glancing over a translation. It seems a bit strange to conceive of error at the beginning as total compromise, and yet error throughout the process as totally acceptable. At the very least, I think Bird raises a valid question concerning whether a tenacious defense of inerrant autographs is a bit of an awkward juxtaposition with a casual shrugging about transmission errors.

Bird’s critical interaction with CSBI is lengthy (146-157) and raises a number of heavy-hitting concerns. However, on one or two points I think its criticisms fall short. For example, Bird criticizes CSBI for promoting a warfare model of Scripture and science, and a literalistic hermeneutic of the biblical creation account (127-128, 147-148). But the section he quotes from to document this claim simply denies that scientific hypotheses may overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood. It does not specify what hypotheses are in view or what the teaching of Scripture actually is on these points. As an old-earth creationist and local flood proponent, I’m sympathetic to the danger of believing that inerrancy requires young-earth creationism and a global flood. But while some CSBI supporters have been anti-science, its not necessary to read CSBI this way. Indeed, many contemporary adherents to CSBI and ETS members are old-earthers and believe in a local flood. Moreover, many of the pioneers of the modern doctrine of biblical inerrancy at Old Princeton, such as B.B. Warfield, believed in an old-earth and limited forms of evolution.

In closing, it worth noting that, so far as I can tell, none of Bird’s criticisms are necessarily conclusive against inerrancy per se. He raises important concerns about the understanding and use of inerrancy, especially in its U.S. context, but they do not, in my opinion, require the abandoning of the term. In fact, I would say that Bird is ultimately in good standing with the heart and ethos of what is best about the inerrancy tradition. As an inerrantist, I find his essay helpful not only in its criticisms but also in its positive constructions.

Vanhoozer_Kevin 4) Kevin Vanhoozer, “Augustinian Inerrancy: Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse”

Vanhoozer’s essay was a sophisticated and compelling defense of biblical inerrancy. Overall, I felt that his articulation of inerrancy displayed the nuance and awareness that other treatments of inerrancy often lack. For him, inerrancy is a subset within the doctrine of biblical infallibility—but a necessary one because in our setting the term infallible has become diluted (204). He sides with Carl Henry over and against Harold Lindsell that inerrancy should be a test of evangelical consistency rather than evangelical identity (204). One of the most helpful characteristics of his essay is his concern throughout to distinguish what inerrancy means at its core from its various misunderstandings, abuses, and poor articulations. In fact, Vanhoozer often gives better critiques of inerrantist errors than the other contributors who reject the term do. I particularly appreciated his insistence that the Bible itself should ultimately determine truth and error, rather than our expectations of what a “perfect book” would be like. (By comparison, a Trinitarian God is quite different from how a “perfect Being” might be conceived.) Vanhoozer’s own proposal is “well-versed inerrancy,” which he fleshes out especially on 204-206.

One part of Vanhoozer’s “well-versed inerrancy” that I found particularly intriguing was his distinction between an “inerrancy of the cross” and an “inerrancy of glory” (205). For him, these categories seem to serve primarily to distinguish between natural and revealed theology, with their respectively different criteria of truth and perfection. The terms themselves impressed upon me a deeper appreciation of the function of inerrancy, which is always to humble the reader under the text, never to exalt them up into a seat of ownership and ease. Inerrancy is a wooden railing to help us climb, not a golden trophy to place on our mantle. Related to this, inerrancy should always be the servant of exegesis, never a shortcut through it. Is a map for, not transportation around, the hard work of seeking out the meaning of the text (and not the only map you need!).

Vanhoozer brings a wealth of literary and hermeneutical skill and sense to his treatment of inerrancy. His piece demonstrates that the issue of inerrancy cannot be abstracted from more general considerations of the way communication and language operate. He reminds us, for instance, of the importance of distinguishing literary truth from literal truth, and what the Bible affirms from what the Bible says (218-220). As he points out, Jesus’ assertion that the mustard seed is “the smallest of all seeds” (Mark 4:31) is true in what it affirms, despite the botanical imprecision (219). Vanhoozer asserts, “we have to first discern the literal sense before saying ‘true or false’” (222). How many other objections to inerrancy would melt away if this dictum was kept in full view!

Vanhoozer had an interesting response to the alleged discrepancy between Acts 9 and Acts 22:

Repetition with slight variations was one of the rhetorical tools ancient authors had in their arsenal to reinforce their message or to highlight certain themes (230).

I wonder if this approach might apply to other alleged discrepancies?

The one area I was not satisfied with Vanhoozer was his treatment of Joshua 6. Vanhoozer acknowledges the challenge of the archaeological evidence, but cautions that the evidence is inconclusive, and appeals to the “main thrust” of the passage (226). He argues that the genre of Joshua is historical testimony given in an artful narrative way to highlight certain theological themes, and shape God’s people to walk faithfully before Him. He argues that this entails a high degree of poetics and rhetoric. He claims, “the main proposition that Joshua 6 sets forth—what the text affirms—is that God has indeed made good on his promise to give Israel the land and that the people on their part must respond to God’s faithfulness in like manner” (227).

I find this common inerrantist tendency to appeal to the “main point” of potential problem passages a bit curious in light of inerrancy’s focus on the detailed wording of the original autographs. Why does truth about detail matter so ferociously if meaning is basically reducible to the big picture? I don’t know as much as Vanhoozer about how ancient literature operates, but is he really suggesting that all that one is required to affirm from Joshua 6 is God’s faithfulness to give Israel the land, and the need for our obedient response? This seems to leave too much open. Did the walls actually fall? Was Jericho really sacked? Granted that we must read the text according to its literary features, but if its meant to any kind of historical account, how much artistic and theological freedom can be taken before inerrancy is called into question? I’d be interested to hear more from Vanhzoozer and other inerrantists on this sometime.

John+Franke5) John Franke, “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality”

Franke opens his essay by acknowledging his mixed feelings about inerrancy (259-260). His piece tries to work through his internal conflict on inerrancy by examining it from a post-conservative, Barthian perspective, and particularly through the rubric of mission. He is particularly concerned, as really all the contributors are except Mohler, at the use of inerrancy as a political tool. He also faults CSBI, especially for its strong epistemological foundationalism (261-264), which he claims has been thoroughly discredited in philosophical circles, and actually runs counter to article 13 of CSBI itself. However, it is not exactly clear in what sense CSBI is foundationalist—his definition of this word on 261-262 is a bit amorphous, and his application of it to CSBI does not tie it to specific statements from CSBI, or anything that is, so far as I can tell, necessary from CSBI. He seems basically to catalogue a number of outdated and/or close-minded conservative views, and then criticize the idea that if one of them is false, the entire Bible is wrong. That doesn’t really sound like CSBI at all to me. Ultimately, I agree with Vanhoozer’s response that Franke has committed a category mistake by conflating “the Bible’s truth as a foundation for theology with a particular way of relating to that foundation (i.e., foundationalism as a theory of knowledge” (304, italics his). (I’m always wary of arguments which seem to place great significance on attaching a big philosophical label to the view they are debunking—they often feel facile.)

Franke analyzes inerrancy from the standpoint of the doctrine of God, emphasizing his missional love and Triunity (264-266), as well as from the standpoint of revelation, which has flavors of Barthianism and actualism throughout (266-270). He wants to emphasize the truth of the Word of God as an event, tied to the Spirit’s presence and work (270-273). He also calls attention to the eschataological nature of all true knowledge, the importance of Christian community, and missional plurality (by which he seems to mean basically that the Bible is pluriform [273-276]). Working from these points of theological reference, Franke asserts a kind of inerrancy, but a rather weak, aberrant one: “Scripture is inerrant in its witness to the plurality of perspectives that are indispensable to the practice of missional Christian community” (276). He then spends some time fleshing out how this understanding of inerrancy informs our reading of Scripture, and dealing with the same problem passages addressed by the others (276-287).

Overall, I don’t have as much to say about Franke’s piece. I see a lot of trendy theological themes here, but not as much crunchy, crisp, determinative reasoning. I suppose the one area where I would want to respond to Franke is his plural conception of truth. Despite protestations that his view is different from relativism (275), I wonder if Franke’s view of truth does fall prey to the classic charge of inconsistency against postmodern relativism. That is to say, just as the relativistic assertion that there is no absolute truth is itself an absolute truth claim, so the idea that truth is plural ultimately represents a unified view of reality. But in fairness to Franke, I probably need to read his book Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth before feeling very confident about this suspicion.

Conclusion

I’m grateful for the opportunity to have read this book. I feel I have a deeper understanding of the meaning of inerrancy, a greater sympathy for some of the ways people struggle with it, and in some ways a chastened view of inerrancy (e.g., with respect to harmonization). But ultimately, after all the important caveats about misuse and misunderstanding are in, I more committed than ever to the truthfulness of the biblical text. At its core, I find inerrancy to be a pure doctrine—a noble and important doctrine which, when yielded properly, protects the authoritative role that God’s Word is designed to have in the life of His people. The doctrinal of biblical authority is perhaps the most relevant and pressing issue for the faith and life of the church: it ensures that we remain the judged, not the judges, in our relation to God and truth. Since Christianity is a revealed religion, God’s Word has the initiative and priority in settling what Christianity is and what it is not. By putting a protective barrier around biblical authority, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy helps us hold fast to the whole gospel, in all its parts and particulars, as God reveals it to us in His Word.

I leave this book more eager to bow low before the Word of God as a corrective teacher above me, and stand firmly upon it as a solid rock beneath me.

“Therefore I love your commandments above gold, above fine gold. Therefore I consider all your precepts to be right; I hate every false way.”
“The sum of your word is truth, and every one of your righteous rules endures forever.”
“I rejoice at your word like one who finds great spoil. I hate and abhor falsehood, but I love your law. Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.”
“Your testimonies are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. I open my mouth and pant, because I long for your commandments.”                                                                                                          -Psalm 119:127-128, 160, 162-164, 129-131

12 responses to “A Review of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

  1. Finished the book last night. I grew up being taught a more Fundamentalist view than Mohler’s that was basically not very reflective. I was a bit disappointed in his view and found Bird’s and VanHoozer’s to be the best and very complementary. Enns was mad and is still reeling from his split from WTS. Franke espouses a view of plurality that he cannot distinguish from and does lead the reader to realtivism. I liked how he anchored his view in the doc of God but his correlation between the plurality of the persons of the trinity and his plurality of Scripture does is just not there. It has similar consequences to Enns incarnational view.

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  4. Gavin, thanks for this insightful and careful treatment of this book. I love this series and I am reading your post to see if I should get this book to read on a Carribbean cruise. As a Bible translation consultant, I work closely with the Biblical text on a daily basis and not just the parts I like or that are useful for me. This particular constellation of duties requires me to look closely and continually with a view to the international implications of the text. (Trudging through the guts of Ezekiel in Hebrew with an Awahdi back-translation in English, for example, is no walk in the park!) I am puzzled, however, on one point. Or, two, really. The first is that it seems very difficult to say exactly what CSBI really means about “inerrancy per se” (as you say). I can assume that attempts to translate CSBI would ultimately create more problems that it is worth. One can always, it seems, appeal either what the various signatories held independently of CSBI to define what they may have “meant,” say, on old/young earth and universal/local flood. Or one can use the ambiguities of the CSBI (in the way inerrantists like Vanhoozer does with Scriptures like Joshua 6) to argue the “general point” of the CSBI. But, starting from CSBI would seem to miss an important previous step, which would seem to be to ground the infallibility and inerrancy of the CSBI. Failing that, it would seem that a definitive discussion is doomed to a continual continual cyclical reprocessing without any real advance between the views. But that may not be a problem, after all. For I feel that on any given day (and sometimes hour of the day) I myself hold each of the views expressed in the book as you have described them. And that seems to depend upon the particular passage that I am reading in the Bible. I must confess that I can’t get comfortable enough with one view to stick with it. I’m not sure of this lack of stability on my part is due to my own inherent errancy, the errancy of various readings of CSBI (or other formulations like Kevins) as opposed to its ideal inerrancy. But I have a hunch this is the pergatory a lot of us in the scholarly guild experience. A certain loyalty to our friends and institutions calls us to affirm inerrancy as an imperative but feel forced to redefine it as we attempt to apply it in any one situation. The virtue of this vicious circle is that it allows me simultaneously to affirm and deny any view of inerrancy that is proposed, even Mohler’s (depending on the time of day or the passage of Scripture). But I feel a little guilty. Can I be an Evangelical or a “consistent” evengelical if I hold to all five of the views within any one 24 hours period? Perhpas the best I can hope for is that eventually Jesus will come and deliver me, wretched one that I am, from this Dantesque ritual dance.

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  7. “(I’m always wary of arguments which seem to place great significance on attaching a big philosophical label to the view they are debunking—they often feel facile.)”

    I don’t think you understand the problem of foundational-ism. We all have a foundation. It is based on this foundation that we ask questions or seek answers. Our foundations causes us to look for particular kinds answers and also gives us a perspective on the world which would be very different from the author of scriptures.

    You should ask if inerrancy was an issue with the early church or even among the Jews. Or maybe even ask if what they were looking for was original autographs or faithful tradition. In the end salvation of of the Jews, not of Greeks, modernists or Enlightenment etc.

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