Friday, November 12, 2010

Road testing the 'concept of inerrancy'

Let's take my new way of understanding inerrancy out for a road-test.  I'm following Keller's line that the it's the concept of truth and authority that is more important than bedding down exact definitions of inerrancy and that is also a better way than a doctrine of errancy.

(Matthew 13:31-32)

31 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. 32 It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

 It [the mustard seed] is the smallest of all seeds,

I like this example alot because it's something Jesus said which heightens the stakes, and it's also very specific. The traditional interpretation has always been that the Bible is true and authoritative and even faced with this difficulty there is no reason to depart from that interpretation.  But you don't need Chicago-inerrancy to say, whatever is happening in that verse it's not an error.  It could be hyperbole or it could be that Jesus' statement is qualified by the preceding statement, seeds sown by his historical audience.  By just saying "it could be ..." we're defending the truth and authority of Scripture and I'm happy with that and I think most of my readers would be as well.

Interestingly there wouldn't be many problems with a limited-errancy position here either, they would say Matthew 13:32 belongs to category x errors found in Scripture which exist for divine reason z.  You might disagree and I think I would but this position would still exist within the broader idea of Scripture being true authoritative, these folks would just be adding a tightly defined caveat.

The final alternative is disastrous, because it says that may look like an error but the whole passage could be white-anted with errors, we just haven't discovered them yet.  As I've pointed out earlier on and off line the philosophically relatively required to hold such a position is unpalatable. I don't mean to stifle discussion by that statement, just to be clear.


Jon said...

Thanks Luke, you always provide good lunchtime distraction although I shouldn't let myself get too distracted at the moment :)

I think this parable is a classic example of the limits of "Chicago inerrancy". My understanding is that within a framework of literalism there are two errors of fact in this parable. The mustard seed is not the smallest of all the seeds, and birds don't actually nest in mustard bushes because they're too small - but they do cluster around them and eat the seeds.

Judging by the commentaries I read part of this might be to do with translation of the original. However, the bigger issue is that these things only matter if you take a position that says everything in the Bible must be literally true. If you have this position, you are then required to waste time teasing out the precise botanical nuances of Jesus' statements.

In the process you end up not being able to see the garden for the mustard bushes. Jesus is not giving a botany lesson, he is giving a lesson on the kingdom of God.

The lesson is twofold. First, the Kingdom grows from small insignificant beginnings - to make his point he exaggerates the smallness of the seed. Second, it is not a monolithic tree like a cedar (an image used by the OT prophets for Israel) it is a series of self-propogating bushes, spread far afield by the birds (the common people) who come to feast and then drop the seeds far and wide. Here he parodies the mighty tree by applying the term to a clump of mustard bushes, and in the process turns the image on its head.

This is a lot of content packed into a concise parable, and a profound and challenging message. However, if you got stuck on the literal truth of the botanical statements, you would miss a lot of it and would actually sell Jesus' message short.

Andrew Bowles said...

This is good, it treats the text and words of Jesus with genuine respect instead of strip-mining them for support in modernist ideological debates. it's almost as though we care about the truth of the scriptures because they teach us about 'all things necessary to salvation' (Article 6) rather than providing a watertight epistemology to ward off any possible doubt whatsoever.

Luke said...

Good point Andrew, I agree Jon that the boundaries created by Chicago-inerrancy are problematic however I'm slightly uncomfortable with your final paragraph. Unless your a limited-errancy person, parables aren't and shouldn't be tightly packed truths wrapped in errors.

Jon said...

"Tightly packed truths wrapped in errors"

I'm not sure what you mean by this Luke. I've always been taught - even by very conservative evangelicals - that the truth of a parable doesn't consist in its circumstantial details, but in its message. The story of the Good Samaritan may or may not have happened, but what's true about Jesus telling of it is his message about what it means to love your neighbour.

This relates to the question which keeps nagging me - what does "inerrancy" mean for forms of literature like parables or poems (the latter make up a very large part of the Bible) where the literary form is never intended to convey literal truth?

Luke said...

Sorry Jon, I think I read one of Allan S.' comments into your last paragraph. Allan S. argued once that it didn't matter how many errors there were in a given parable it was the central germ of truth that mattered.

Which of course is wrong because given such wide ranging error it would be impossible to discern whatever the central truth was. I agree that the message not the details of a parable is dominate but the details are not superfluous.

I agree that Chicago-Inerrancy *tends* to push us towards taking that literal approach. However Keller's statement extracts us from such a difficulty. Inerrancy should mean that you think there is an explanation but not an error because Scripture is true and authoritative. I think the proof is in the pudding, if someone reads a passage and they say here is an error or a contradiction then they don't believe in inerrancy. (They have other difficulties such as defining what is reliable and unreliable, but that's a tangent.) Someone who believes in inerrancy (not chicago-inerrancy) says this is a difficult passage the solution could be x, y or z.

Andrew Bowles said...

"Allan S. argued once that it didn't matter how many errors there were in a given parable it was the central germ of truth that mattered.

Which of course is wrong because given such wide ranging error it would be impossible to discern whatever the central truth was."

Would you have difficulty understanding the theological point Jesus was trying to make if you believed that the mustard seed comment contained an error? There are different kinds of truth involved, so I think it is a bit overstating the matter to say that if some details may be wrong then the whole text becomes incomprehensible. Ironically this gives validity to those unsophisticated criticisms that some atheists make that attack small details like this and use them as a reason to dismiss the entire Bible.

Error is determined in different ways for different concepts. It is easy to measure the size of a mustard seed. How could you tell if the statement 'the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed' is an error?