Thursday, November 11, 2010

I can't see an alternative to the concept of 'Inerrancy'

Jon from the Painting Fakes blog outlines in several posts his difficulties with 'Biblical Inerrancy' as articulated by the framers  of the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy.  Although Jon and I have a couple of different presuppositions, he doesn't have a liberal axe to grind, and so his difficulties are worth mulling over. Chicago-Inerrancy (if I may coin that phrase) wants to see every biblical detail regarded as individually true and therefore contributing to a larger coherent and true whole.  Jon has essentially two main difficulties, the first of which is, what if some of those details are problematic?  Secondly Chicago-Inerrancy would take Genesis 1-11 as accurate in describing the beginning of the world,  and Jon wonders what we do with contradictory scientific information.

I blogged earlier about the possible alternatives to inerrancy and wondered about the alternative argument errancy, the presence of errors in Scripture.  Some of the commenters said this is the wrong question to ask, that we should be asking about the nature of the bible and truth.  I've thought alot about that since then and and think that this is the best way forward, possibly disagreeing with both Jon and Chicago-Inerrancy in the process.  I've returned to Tim Keller's remarks (about 5 min into this video) at a symposium about the nature of Scripture.  But one bit more of context, delving deeply into this topic requires a fairly sophisticated level of philosophical understanding about defining communication, truth and genre.  This isn't to say we can't talk coherently and succinctly at the level of a blogpost, it would be reductionist to say otherwise and betray the whole of idea thinking carefully!  But back to Keller, he says: "if I say to any layperson I believe in the authority of the Bible but not the inerrancy of the Bible, they're going to say what's the difference?"

The thrust of Jon's discomfort with inerrancy is observing the difficulties in bedding down a statement about Scripture in our particular cultural context where we assume science, communication and truth have meanings peculiar to our historical milieu. But the fascinating and ultimately disastrous problem with errancy is that it suggests Scripture is a field sown with truth and error for reasons that are not clear and in such a way that the wheat and the weeds are indistinguishable!  I could possibly accept an errancy that said there are these x or y types of errors in Scripture for w or z divine reasons.  However the former alternative requires  a complete suspension of being able to know anything with any certainty, and I can't accept self-affirming relativism.  But Keller takes us out of this cul-der-sac, he says let's affirm  the truth and authority of Scripture without getting bogged down in exact definitions, in other-words lets allow the concept of biblical truth and authority transcend cultural presuppositions and historical contexts.  So that's where I want to go with inerrancy, let's defend the concept; Scripture is true and authoritative.


Jon said...

Thanks for the post and the notice. That symposium is really interesting, and especially how they quickly move past inerrancy to how you actually use the Bible. It kind of reinforces what you were saying in your earlier post (which I agree with) that many of the problems are about interpretation. Sure it's inerrant, but what does it mean? This includes the Chicago Statement - it mixes the inerrancy of the Bible with the inerrancy of various interpretations which are highly contestable, like their interpretation of the beginning of Genesis.

Anyway I'm raving. My thought for this quick lunch-stop before I concentrate on work is this. Your question about error in the Bible is actually a form of the question - why does a good God allow evil? The answer as far as I can make out (i.e. not very far), to this question which has bothered philosophers and theologians for centuries, is that we don't know, but we know he does. So my question is - if in every other area of our experience God allows evil and fallibility, why would we expect the creation and transmission of the Bible to be different?

Jill said...


Your last sentence points back to the problem I have with the doctrine of inerrancy as articulated in the Chicago Statement. I share completely your desire to affirm that scripture is true and authoritative. But I don't believe that the opposite of a doctrine of inerrancy is a claim that scripture errs (which is what you seem to mean by 'errancy'). I'd want to stand in the tradition which claims that Scripture is a full and sufficient revelation of God, containing (as per the 39 articles) all things needed for salvation.

My concern with the Chicago doctrine of inerrancy is that too many of it's proponents want to claim the Bible to be the definitive word on subjects which it seems to me were never part of the intent of the authors, human or divine.

Radagast said...

It all hinges on what you call an "error," and therefore "inerrancy" has a number of meanings.

My personal definition of "error" has two parts:

(1) the Bible (on the basis of exegesis) says (and intends to say) P.

(2) on the basis of other information (on the basis of just logic if P has the form "Q and not Q"), P must be false.

On this definition, I believe the Bible is free of error, but my definition clearly depends on interpretation in #1.

I don't believe that Joshua 10:13 is an error, for example, because I don't believe that passage is intended to teach geocentric astronomy.

Luke said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.


Yes, I was getting tangled up between the nature of the text and the interpretation of the text. Closely related but separate questions.

Not entirely convinced by your comment that this is a subset of the question "Why does God allow evil?" I think the noetic effects of evil can be distinguished from their perpetrators. In other-words fallibility and sinfulness are not directly correlated.


If someone said do you believe in inerrancy I'd say yes and direct them to Tim Keller's comments. I don't think it'd possible to affirm the truthfulness and authority of Scripture and affirm that it has errors unless you have a tight set of definitions (limited-errancy). The alternative is that we can't tell the difference between error and truth which is theologically unpalatable.

y concern with the Chicago doctrine of inerrancy is that too many of it's proponents want to claim the Bible to be the definitive word on subjects which it seems to me were never part of the intent of the authors, human or divine.

That's a complex statement, because we'd want to affirm the universal applicability of Scripture and so therefore in principle the Bible speaks to all conceivable topics. Chicago-inerrancy would say it speaks to all topics in only this set way, a position I'm having trouble with. However the alternative that the historical context of Scripture limits it's universal applicability is also problematic.


I like the way you've put that, but I feel I'm in over my head as this topic deepens, it'll be good to talk more about it.

Jon said...

@Luke, can you explain what you mean "fallibility and sinfulness are not directly correlated"?

@Luke and Jill, on the authority of the Bible on various subjects. it occurs to me that there's three steps (hardly original to me of course)

1. What is the bible trying to say (the exegesis Radagast refers to)?

2. What would this have meant to its orginal readers (in the 1st century or earlier)?

3. How does this message translate into the 21st century (i.e. the question of hermeneutics - if it meant X to the 1st century readers, what is the equivalent of X in the 21st)?

All of this is already a strain for my tiny mind, requiring as it does a return trip on a time machine, before we even get to the question of error.

Luke said...

Like you Jon this topic is stretching my mind and part of the problem is I lack the vocabulary to properly express the nuances.

For example Jesus asks "Who touched me?" His lack of knowledge in that situation was not the result of being sinful but being human. Just as we delineate the effects of a crime from the crime itself so we should be careful before making the question of inerrancy part of the question about why God allows evil.

With you steps of interpretation why not after exegesis see the principle would have applied in a 1st century situation and then a 21st century situation. Why does the 1st century situation need to be privileged? (I'm disputing that the New Testament is a first century book, but once it's written why does that context exert more control over the application then another later context?)

Radagast said...

I guess when I said "what does the Bible intend to say" I include hermeneutics as well: does Joshua mean (1) the Sun ceased moving or (2) the Sun appeared to cease moving or (3) something else?

Similarly, one may need to distinguish which statements are intended to be true for all time, and which true for a particular location and period.

For me, inerrancy is the belief that everything the Bible actually intends to say (after addressing the above issues) is really true.

Another way of saying that is that the perfect/ideal interpretation of Scripture (which we cannot fully attain) is always 100% true.

Jon said...

Luke I wouldn't like to give too much impression of certainty about this. However, my understanding is that if a text is written in the first century then its primary audience is people living in that century. So you have to know what it would have meant to them. Perhaps this is just part of Step 1 - a proper exegesis of the text.

Step 2 is then necessary because things have changed - language, cultural context, scientific workd view, technology - so you have to find a way of transferring the 1st century meaning into the 21st century context.

If you skip understanding what it meant in the first century you tend to slip into "magic" - instead of working out what the text actually says, you assign an arbitrary meaning to it based on what it would mean if it was written yesterday..

Radagast said...

Jon, I'm not disagreeing with the need to look at context, but (in the NT at least), the bulk of statements are actually, in my opinion, intended to be truths which do not alter with the passing of two millennia, e.g. statements about the nature of God (God always is X), statements of historical fact (at time T, Y happened) or observation (at time T, I saw Z), statements of absolute morality (A is always wrong, and B is always right), and statements about the distant future (at some time in the distant future, C will happen).

Jon said...

Sorry meant Step 3 not Step 3 in the second para above.

I think the practical outcome of all this is that the term "inerrancy" actually becomes a little redundant which I think is what Keller was saying in a slightly different way. Theoretically we believe in inerrancy but the difficulties of interpretation loom so large that inerrancy only has a small practical effect. Scripture may be inerrant but our ability to read it is thoroughly errant.

Luke said...

Ohpps I meant to write:
(I'm not disputing that the New Testament is a first century book, but once it's written why does that context exert more control over the application then another later context?)

I want to affirm the historical context of Scripture, that's appropriate and unavoidable. However I'm convinced by Richard Bauckham that the old idea of reconstructing the original gospel audiences is misguided and without much basis or evidence. To use Jesus as a model, he is both Jewish and a man, which are significant, but not definitive. All that to say that I'm worried by making the 1st century application the controlling one.

Jon said...

I agree that the bible contains many absolute statements that are applicable for all time. However, we still have to know what they mean. If it's OK for them to mean something different to us than to their orginal audience, then the concept of inerrancy becomes even less meaningful. This is not to minimise the difficulty in actually working out what it might have meant to the original audience. It's fascinating to read (as I have been doing again lately) the various "lives of Jesus" written from various standpoints in recent years and see how people are able to take the same evidence and generate wildly different interpretations of it.