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Some Random Thoughs on Inerrancy

  1. The evangelical doctrine of inerrancy allegedly proclaims that only the autographs of Scripture were inerrant. Therefore, ironically, the doctrine of inerrancy does not offer any sort of theology that takes into account the entire phenomenon of Scripture, its canonization, transmission, etc.
  2. It is difficult if not impossible to see how the term “inerrancy” could apply to all of the many different genres in Scripture. What might it mean for a parable of an aphorism to be “without error”?
  3. Inerrancy ironically discourages the in-depth study of the Bible. When we know at the outset that the Bible is a systematically consistent whole which is completely seamless and has no internal tension, we have no need to enquire about possible contradictions, tensions, or questions of the historical formation of the Bible. Or, even if we make such inquiries, we are asked to quickly accept “harmonizations” which fail to really delve into the depths of the texts in tension.
  4. That inerrancy appears in nearly all evangelical doctrinal statements prior to the doctrine of God as Trinity is (inadvertently or not), idolatrous and theologically disastrous.
  5. Inerrancy encourages uncreative, uninteresting, and ultimately, unfaithful theology. It assumes that the questions of theology are simply givens, which the Bible must then be mined for answers to. This is why most evangelical systematic theologies sound exactly the same, even when they have different perspectives on a given issue. There is no sense in theologies written by inerrantists that perhaps the questions theology should ask are not static givens to which the Bible is a handy propositional handbook. Thus, inerrancy discourages the theologian from addressing questions that arise from the needs of the church in a given cultural setting because the questions theology must answer are always-already predetermined. This is theological unfaithfulness. The task of the theologian is to faithfully proclaim the gospel in a multitude of cultural settings, which means to always be doing theology differently than before.
  6. Whether proponents acknowledge this or not, inerrancy tends towards a view of hermeneutics that does not acknowledge the provisionality and mediated-ness of all acts of interpretation. Inerrancy encourages the assumption that an inerrant text correlates to an immediately accessible meaning contained in texts.
  7. There is an odd correlation between the Catholic doctrine of the immaculate conception and the inerrancy of Scripture. The idea that the Scriptures are inerrant sounds a lot like the doctrine that Christ did not bear a fallen human nature due to Mary’s immaculate conception.
  8. Inerrancy sees the Scriptures as constituting the foundation for a Christian epistemic framework, rather than as an element of such a framework which is constituted by the Triune God. This is highly problematic.

28 Comments

  1. Fred wrote:

    The idea that the Scriptures are inerrant sounds a lot like the doctrine that Christ did not bear a fallen human nature due to Mary’s immaculate conception.
    Post hoc ergo propter hoc? Mary’s immaculate conception was caused by Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection.

    Somehow, I am also reminded of Dillard’s Holy the Firm.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 7:24 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’m not sure what you mean, Fred. Post hoc ergo propter hoc means wrongly implying causality based on temporal succession. All I’m doing here is drawing a correlation.

    And it was T.F. Torrance who drew it before me in his book The Meditation of Christ.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 8:00 am | Permalink
  3. bobby grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    It is difficult if not impossible to see how the term “inerrancy” could apply to all of the many different genres in Scripture. What might it mean for a parable of an aphorism to be “without error”?

    It depends on what kind of innerantist one is. For example a full inerrantist recognizes genre and the fluidity of language within the scripture.

    Halden said:

    Inerrancy ironically discourages the in-depth study of the Bible. When we know at the outset that the Bible is a systematically consistent whole which is completely seamless and has no internal tension, we have no need to enquire about possible contradictions, tensions, or questions of the historical formation of the Bible. . . .

    I don’t think a full inerrantist has such a static view of scripture . . . I don’t. Inerrantists don’t believe there isn’t tension . . . harminizations in fact presuppose the reality of tension. Although I would agree if we are driven solely by the desire to flatten out tension we will artificially flatten out particular tensions, that given inspiration we should assume those so called tensions are divinely intended (i.e. there is exegetical significance in tension).

    Halden said:

    That inerrancy appears in nearly all evangelical doctrinal statements prior to the doctrine of God as Trinity is (inadvertently or not), idolatrous and theologically disastrous.

    you fail to make a critical category distinction. Inerrancy (scripture) precedes God epistemologically, while God as Trinity precedes scripture (inerrancy) ontologically. There is no idolatry there . . . just an order of knowing, so to speak.

    Halden said:

    . . . There is no sense in theologies written by inerrantists that perhaps the questions theology should ask are not static givens to which the Bible is a handy propositional handbook. Thus, inerrancy discourages the theologian from addressing questions that arise from the needs of the church in a given cultural setting because the questions theology must answer are always-already predetermined. . . .

    this may or not be a symptom of an uncritical innerantist approach . . . but I would say this is to reductionistic, and that there are other factors that have contributed to the “received theological method” such as scholastic methodology which is the heritage of Evangelical theology.

    Halden said:

    Inerrancy sees the Scriptures as constituting the foundation for a Christian epistemic framework, rather than as an element of such a framework which is constituted by the Triune God. . . .

    And you see the community of faith (the Church) constituting the foundation for a Christian epistemic framework, right? I don’t know how your fitting this into the issue of inerrancy, I think this is a separate issue.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 10:00 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    I’m not going to really debate this whole thing, Bobby, but I do appreciate your comments. I don’t think that Scripture precedes God epistemologically. Christ precedes all things epistemologically. The various witnesses to him (including Scripture) are all important, but Christ is the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdoman and knowledge. I also don’t see the community as the foundation for a Christian epistemology. As I said in the initial post, the Triune God is our sole “foundation” (if such a word is even appropriate) for our knowledge.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  5. bobby grow wrote:

    Oh I see . . . you’re not going to debate me, but you will engage in ad hominen; you called me Boobby, I see how it is Halden ;).

    Seriously, I agree, our Triune God is our sole “foundation”/object for knowledge, ontologically. Maybe someday, and I’m not being facetious, you could outline how Christ is epistemologically our sole foundation for knowledge apart from the mediation of His church or scripture (or both)—this just does not make sense to me.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 10:58 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Oops. And it’s not that I think our knowledge of Christ is not meditated. It’s just that he’s the foundation, not the witnesses. There is one mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ. This applies not only to salvation, but als to knowledge of God (in my view).

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 11:34 am | Permalink
  7. Fred wrote:

    Halden,
    Christ did not bear a fallen human nature due to Mary’s immaculate conception.

    I know that this was meant to be a cheap shot aimed at shaming fellow Protestants, but you claim that the Immaculate Conception is the teaching that Mary’s sinlessness (first) was the cause of Jesus’s sinlessness (second). You have assumed that because one thing happens first, it causes the second thing.

    In the teaching of the RCC, however, the causality is the opposite. Just as Abraham is saved by Christ though dying before Christ is born – so too is Mary saved by the merits of her Son.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 11:46 am | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Well, first of all I wasn’t talking about Jesus’ sinlessness. Both protestants and Catholics affirm that. I was talking about whether he bore “fallen” humanity, which is a different issue.

    I’m not really “claiming” anything about the immaculate conception other than that both it and the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy are uncomfortable with “fallenness” being attached to what is divine. I had no illusions that the RCC taught that Jesus sinlessness was caused by the immaculate conception.

    In other words I was not making a statement about causality at all, only about the way many shy away from seeing our fallenness and fallibility be taken on by God, both in Christ and Scripture. I understand you have a different view of the humanity of Christ than I do, but I wasn’t committing the fallacy you claim.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 12:12 pm | Permalink
  9. Derrick wrote:

    Halden, great post! Being a born and bred evangelical that concept and question of inerrancy constantly arises. I dont really have time to add anything substantial to your critique, except to say that I have noticed (in my experience, and so I can’t claim this unilaterally for all evangelical inerrantists) that the concept of the inerrancy of scripture, coupled with a misunderstood concept of claritas scriptura, and an also misunderstood “priesthood of all believers,” have inner tendencies toward an almost inevitably sectarian hermeneutic and consequently, a weak ecclessiology (which evangelicals often suffer from). The church, or a bible study, often become the assembly of an aggregate of individuals with individual conclusions about scripture. “Individual,” conclusions are not necessarily problematic, because it is always an ‘individual’ person that interprets, even if ideally this person should understand themselves as always/already embedded, but when coupled with an individual understanding of the person as a Christian who then enters the assembly of other individual believers, this (under the veil of the nieve cry “ad fonts!” or back to the [pure!] source) creates, even if intentioned otherwise, an exterior ecclesial unity based on intellectual assent of individuals, rather than a unity of lived faith through the power of the Spirit (where, admittedly, some propositions, properly understood, are inevitable). This has always been a scary tendency that I have seen, at least at my church. Just the other day I had a lady tell me about her Acts bible study, and how amazing it is “once you remove all your presuppositions and bias” how amazing methodological bible study is. I admired her conviction and passion, but all I heard was “once you remove yourself from the church, methodological bible study is amazing.” Anyway, keep up the good work Halden.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 12:32 pm | Permalink
  10. Fred wrote:

    ah. I had no idea that you believed that Christ has a fallen humanity. Wow!

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, Torance’s The Mediation of Christ addresses this issue in ways that I think are absolutely helpful. Ultimately I think our salvation depends upon Christ fully descending into our fallen reality and taking on the fullness of our alienation from God (Balthasar).

    This is not to say, however that I believe that Christ ever sinned.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 12:44 pm | Permalink
  12. bobby grow wrote:

    Derrick and Halden,

    I’m all for academic freedom and everything, but I have a question. If you guys are so dissatisfied with Evangelicalism why don’t you drop out of Multnomah and enroll at a school more commensurate with your theological sensibilities? Clearly your education at Multnomah, given their pietistic/fundy/evangelical distinctives, is at the polar extreme of where you guys are at, or are heading, theologically.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 1:09 pm | Permalink
  13. Halden wrote:

    Well, my reasons are multiple. First, I’m committed to my local church and so I want to stay in Portland. Seconb, I want to pursue a degree that’s interesting to me where I have a lot of freedom to determine my coursework and do independent studies. Multnomah allows me to do that. Third, Metzger is a good friend and a good teacher and I enjoy working with him.

    Also, my problem with inerrancy is is largely concpetual. I think for much of the Bible seeking to determine its truthfulness by establishing it as either manifest an “error” or a “non-error” is a category mistake (cf. my example of a parable or aphorism above). And it was precisely at Multnomah, in Ray Lubeck’s Text and Canon class that I learned this! I do not have a problem with saying that the Bible is true. How that relates to genre, history, etc, are all the hard questions of interpretation. But I have no problem saying that the Bible is true in everything that it seeks to communicate. And of course, what the Bible seeks to do, in my view is to bear witness to Christ, and as such it points away from itself to him…and so on.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 1:18 pm | Permalink
  14. bobby grow wrote:

    Thank you Halden.

    Halden said:

    . . . And it was precisely at Multnomah, in Ray Lubeck’s Text and Canon class that I learned this! I do not have a problem with saying that the Bible is true. How that relates to genre, history, etc, are all the hard questions of interpretation. But I have no problem saying that the Bible is true in everything that it seeks to communicate. And of course, what the Bible seeks to do, in my view is to bear witness to Christ, and as such it points away from itself to him…and so on.

    And I agree with you on this. Maybe the only difference is that I want to retain the “language” of inerrancy, and you don’t. Furthermore, to seek error or non-error as bibliology, is a negative approach, I agree, and more apologetic than theological (apologetics being a sub-set). I suppose the “positive way” of theology entails presuppositions that are “Christian” first. So I see your point on inerrancy, my desire to retain this language is probably more sentimental than it is conceptual.

    I’m glad to see you at Multnomah, I was just curious.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Permalink
  15. Derrick wrote:

    Bobby,
    I have to agree with Halden about the flexibility of Multnomah education. I also wouldn’t really want to call Multnomah “fundamentalist,” in any sense of the word, but perhaps “cautiously conservative,” would be more like it. I am also committed to my local church. I dont beleive in transferring from one area to another just because I believe my traditions are doing some things wrong, but I would rather attempt to transform them from within the personal and intellectual relationships I have already established.

    As to my problems with the “inerrency” terminology I also go the way of Halden here: I beleive that asking “error” or “not error” in regards to the “facticity” of the bible can often be illuminating (e.g. historical studies of the resurrection of Christ as posed by Wright and Pannenberg, or Bauckhams latest work of understanding the reliability of eye witness testimony) but the scope of the “inerrency” question poses a false dilemma that appears often before the material content of scripture is addressed. I also have no problem saying that the Bible is true in everything it seeks to communicate, just that the question of inerrency, in my opinion, does both too much and too little. It does too much in the sense that it assumes a unilateral epistemolgical benchmark for the facticity of statements in correspondence to what happened, but it also doesn’t do enough, in my opinion, like Halden mentions above, in accounting for the Spirit led community, the process of canonization, or even the problems of interpretation that arise. “Sola Scriptura,” if it means “without tradition, scripture alone,” is, as Robert Jenson points out, nonsensical because it was precisely the community of believers, shaped by Apostolic tradition, that gathered and submitted to these documents in the first place. Without tradition, there are no scriptures. So too, I believe, the inerrency of scripture, if this means a postivistic one to one correspondence with what is recorded and “what really happened,” relies too heavily on an archaic foundationalism and an ability to correspond in an unmediated way with a “pure” realm of uninterpreted facticity. I’m not opposed to reworking the doctrine of inerrency to account for more recent epistemological and theological advances, but then I wouldn’t be too sure we could call it cut and dry “inerrancy” anymore.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 8:03 pm | Permalink
  16. adamsteward wrote:

    Halden – I appreciate this post a good deal. This says alot of things I have felt and wished to say, but for whatever reason simply could not, or was just too lazy to have out with myself.
    Your emphasis on irony in a few places is particularly apropos (spelling?). It seems to me that the basic desire in affirming innerrancey is in securing the critical nature of the word as that which stands over and against us; that whatever our scientific or cultural advances may be, we have not come to a place where we can dictate to God what his Word ought to be. However, the effect of innerancy has often been quite the opposite, so that for us to say that the Bible is innerant, we need to know what it says, and this knowing then becomes our possession, so that we know in advance what it is that the Bible has to say to us. And there it loses its critical capacity, where it has become harmonized not just with itself, but with us, conflating its demands with what we are already doing. This is nowhere clearer in the whole gay marriage fiasco that just took place, where the implicit assumption was that the moral demands made by Scripture have first and foremost to do with someone else’s repentance.
    Also, thanks for the reasons on why you stay at Multnomah. Our conversations have been a great help in my ongoing process of trying to figure out where to go to seminary. For my part, I’d also like to add that just like you can’t choose family, you can’t choose tradition. Tradition chooses you, and I was born and raised evangelical, so there you go.

    Monday, July 2, 2007 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  17. bobby grow wrote:

    Derrick,

    thank you for the response. Inerrancy might be an antiquated term, so maybe my desire to retain the language makes me antiquted. I wouldn’t mind re-working inerrancy, of course Erickson provides a nice summary of “full inerrancy” that I am very comfortable with . . . and it actually sounds like what both you and Halden might hold to. Maybe I’ll call myself an “progressive inerrantist”, you know like “progressive creationist” and “progressive dispensationalist” ;). Anyway keep up the studies at Multnomah . . . its been good interacting.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 1:40 am | Permalink
  18. Nathan wrote:

    It seems to me that the back-and-forth between Bobby and Halden about the true or proper foundation for a Christian epistemic framework is typical of discussions in general between those for whom the concept of a foundation (which, it seems to me, starts as an analogy based on physical experience of the world, and, for this reason, undermines the philosophical primacy so often given of the concept) still makes sense and those for whom it does not. I confess it doesn’t make much sense for me ontologically or epistemologically. I think the way we understand the nature of language and discourse, and historical studies, has made it more difficult to identify anything that can best be called a foundation. Perhaps functionally we have to have foundations to our epistemic frameworks, since the human mind always seeks to order things. But that ordering is a never-ending, multi-dimensional, overlapping process. Do we, as Christians and (because I include myself here, I include all Christians who are relatively intentionally reflective about the faith) theologians need a static, universal foundation, ontologically or epistemologically? I admit that the existence of a Creator God seems akin to the philosophical concept of an ontological foundation, but to my mind all this does practically is associate the God who is made known in Christ and witnessed to in Scripture with other notions of God, such as those found in Western philosophy–the Unmoved Mover, the Pure Act, etc. God is God. To describe God, Trinity or not, as a foundation seems to restrict how we think of God’s relationship to creation more than anything else, or at least it gets ME thinking of God’s relationship to us in a very linear, simplistic fashion. To me the confession that God is Trinity undermines a static, hierarchically unified epistemic framework because that confession comes from the Church’s experience of and reflection on God’s actions and relationship with us as Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is not first a conceptual understanding of God, but a doctrine that protects us from forming our own fixed conception of the nature of God’s being and actions, so that we are faithful to God’s self-revelation. I think this is rather clear from the historical development of the doctrine. To be plain, we cannot make complete sense of God, and so, to place God as the foundation of an epistemic framework either undermines the stability of that framework or betrays God.

    Now, to be honest, I just a babe in academic theological discussion, so I don’t expect anyone here to be learning from me. I can only express what I think at this time in hopes that entering into discussion with others will help me learn more.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 12:13 pm | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    Nathan, I agree. I don’t think that the Trinity functions as an epistemic “foundation” in the sense of foundationalism. Rather, I would say that the reality of the Trinity is the epistemic context in which all knowning takes place. The Trinity itself is the dramatic-linguistic-communal “space” in which we come to know anything at all about God and creation.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  20. bobby grow wrote:

    And I do not disagree with what Halden just said, I just have a different bibliological view; relative to the centrality of scripture and witness.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 1:19 pm | Permalink
  21. Halden, great post. Obviously, we agree. Keep up the great work.

    Fred, re: the fallen human nature of Jesus, this is certainly a contentious issue but it also has some important Catholic supporters. Most recently, Thomas Weinandy has defended this view in In the Likeness of Sinful Flesh. I disagree with Weinandy on most issues, but on this one he and I are in agreement.

    Torrance holds the view only because Barth opened the way forward. It was Barth’s insistence on the assumption of a fallen human nature (i.e., our human nature) that made this topic such an important issue in the 20th century.

    Very recently, Oliver Crisp has put forward his metaphysical arguments against the view held by Barth, Torrance, and Weinandy. You can find his thoughts in IJST 6:3 or in his new book, Divinity and Humanity.

    Tuesday, July 3, 2007 at 10:17 pm | Permalink
  22. James Rinkevich wrote:

    Jesus did not have our fallen nature – that is the result of Adam’s sin, our nature lost the ability to go to Heaven. Since Jesus ascended bodily to Heaven, ipso facto, he did NOT have our fallen nature. He was NEVER apart from the piece we’re missing (the original sin) — He has a divine nature as well as a human nature, a divine will as well as a human will.

    In contrast with Evangelical doctrine, the Catholic doctrine on scriptural inerrancy doesn’t share many of the these points. The Holy Scriptures are only inerrant on what God (wanted, or desired, etc) taught. This requires reading them carefully to discern what He wanted to teach. So with regard to Catholic inerrancy, points 1-3 don’t apply. Point 4 is pointless. Further, since Catholic theology always assume mediation through the guidance of the Apostolic Church tradition, point 6 renders the issue of point 5 meaningless as the interplay of individual mediation, the Apostolic Tradition and the interpretation Holy Writ require more depth and understanding and yes, even more Grace in gaining a meaningful interpretation. Point 7 would be a faulty understanding of the scriptures: they are the result of God trying to communicate to us, and as He cannot by His nature error, they cannot have error on what He communicated. This also refutes the issue of point 8.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 12:37 pm | Permalink
  23. Halden wrote:

    James, I don’t care to debate the finer points of a Catholic theology of Scripture with you. My post was clearly addressed to evangelicals, so I’ll just leave at that.

    I also have spent plenty of time discussing the fact that Christ took on fallen humanity without sinning, so I won’t repeat that over and over again. However, I will say this about Christ’s human nature: “He made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” (2 Cor. 5:21). And, if that doesn’t do it for you, bear in mind that the fundamental feature of fallen humanity is death, and last time I checked Jesus died.

    Thursday, July 5, 2007 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  24. jake wrote:

    Chris Hedges, author of WAR IS THE FORCE THAT GIVES US MEANING and AMERICAN FASCISTS said something along the lines of:
    “We took the bible seriously and therefore could not take it literally.”

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  25. jake wrote:

    to me one of the large verbal stumbling blocks is the misunderstanding of metaphor vs. truth.
    often in discussions about inerrancy or is it all to be taken literally (which admittedly are two different discussions) I often say that sections of the Bible were written as poetry and metaphor. Someone always then asks that if it is metaphor am i saying it isnt true, that if one thing is metaphor than it all falls apart and is a slippery slope to nothingness.

    first: this is shallow faith. if youre faith is so easily broken…

    second: this is an incorrect understanding of metaphor. metaphor and poetry do not equal fiction.
    my poem of love for my girlfriend does not truly mean “her eyes are storms on the sea” but they are describing real eyes.
    in the same way saying the Genesis account of creation is a poem does not call into question whether God did create the earth? the poetry can describe a true event.
    Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain, my captain!” tells us about the real man of Lincoln. Poetry ackowledges that normal words cannot describe certain events, if we need to use a poem to describe Lincoln, than of course we would need a poem to describe the creation of the universe.
    The painting of Guernica by Picasso is abstract, cubist and not a 100% reproduction but it describes the events of the bombing of the town of the same name.

    Also by denying metaphor you insult my and your intelligence .If we need to be dumbed down to, lowest common denominator that we are idiots. We can’t understand stories? We can’t enjoy poems?

    Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 11:31 am | Permalink
  26. bob smith wrote:

    If Mary was fallen (i.e. not immaculately conceived) then Christ sinned (i.e. original sin stain would be upon Him) – one cannot have both a sinless Christ and a fallen Christ due to original sin issues.

    Also, the idea that Christ who is God and perfect and sinless could be contained in a vessel of sin (sinless Jesus in the womb of your contention of a sinner Mary) – that God can be encased in and draw sustenance from (the umbilical cord) a sinner, and also derive the egg part of the fertilization as a sinner egg – an egg contaminated with sin – is unfounded since it is contradictory to the nature of and meaning of the term “God”. Thus the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 10:38 pm | Permalink
  27. bob smith wrote:

    To believe Jesus to be God, one must believe He is sinless. To believe He is sinless, one must either accept the Immaculate Conception of Mary OR throw away the doctrine of Original Sin. One cannot have both. [To believe Jesus had a fallen nature but did not sin has no logic and is more like a 'fable' of which St. Paul speaks as coming in the future. Sounds like perhaps you are trying too hard to come up with something new in the world of theology.]

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 10:43 pm | Permalink
  28. bob smith wrote:

    To believe Jesus had a fallen nature is also the same as saying Jesus is not God.

    Friday, November 14, 2008 at 10:45 pm | Permalink

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