Pinnock on Inerrancy

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In the last post, Wink refers to the inerrancy trial at the Evangelical Theological Society for Clark Pinnock. See my comment there and the link to their final report dropping the charges for the context for this post. What I want to look at now is whether Pinnock really does accept inerrancy, based on his actual statements. I'm going to look at some very specific statements about inerrancy from him, collected by Norman Geisler. Geisler frames these under headings that don't all seem to me to be derived from Pinnock's statements, and he adds words in brackets to some of the quotes that he believes the context makes clear, but we don't have the context, so I can't evaluate those. I'm going only by what words of Pinnock I can see in his quotations and without their context. Even with that limitation, it does seem to me that some of the quotations, not nearly as many as Geisler seems to think, raise questions about whether Pinnock holds to inerrancy.

"Therefore, there are a large number of evangelicals in North America appearing to defend the total inerrancy of the Bible. The language they use seems absolute and uncompromising: 'The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own' (Chicago Statement, preamble). It sounds as if the slightest slip or flaw would bring down the whole house of authority. It seems as though we ought to defend the errorlessness of the Bible down to the last dot and tittle in order for it to be a viable religious authority" (Pinnock, SP, 127).

Now if he means to question the accuracy of every jot and tittle of every text we have, that's one thing, but he says "of the Bible", which inerrantists take to be the original text of each book. He seems thus to contradict Jesus' own use of the same phrase.

"What could truly falsify the Bible would have to be something that could falsify the gospel and Christianity as well. It would have to be a difficulty that would radically call into question the truth of Jesus and His message of good news. Discovering some point of chronology in Matthew that could not be reconciled with a parallel in Luke would certainly not be any such thing" (Pinnock, SP, 129).

Here I think he is denying inerrancy, but it's not clear that he's endorsed the claim that there are such contradictory gospel accounts. He wants to say that showing an absolute contradiction between two gospel accounts (on a very minor detail but one that is truly irreconcilable) does not call into question the overall accuracy of most of the accounts. He's right in that. If he thinks that something like that might be the reality, then he's denied inerrancy, though.

"I recognize that the Bible does not make a technical inerrancy claim or go into the kind of detail associated with the term in the contemporary discussion. But I also see a solid basis for trusting the Scriptures in a more general sense in all that they teach and affirm, and I see real danger in giving the impression that the Bible errs in a significant way. Inerrancy is a metaphor for the determination to trust God's Word completely" (Pinnock, SP, 224-225).

This is a worrisome statement, showing that he isn't using the word 'inerrancy' as evangelicals tend to use it, as a statement about the reliability of the Bible. He's using it as a statement about his own intent to trust it, and he calls that a metaphorical usage, but I'm not sure what that means.

"...despite Ezekiel, Nebuchadnezzar did not conquer the city of Tyre; despite the Baptist, Jesus did not cast the wicked into the fire; contrary to Paul, the second coming was not just around the corner (1 Thes. 4:17)" (Pinock, MMM, 51 n.66).

It would be one thing to say that Ezekiel didn't intend this precisely and that Nebuchadnezzar was not supposed to be the one to fulfill the prophecy (or that he would only fulfill it in part). It's quite another to say that the facts contradict Ezekiel's prophecy. The same goes with the other two statements.

"...despite Jesus, in the destruction of the temple, some stones were left one on the other" (Mt. 24:2)" (Pinnock, MMM, 51 n.66).

This faces the same sort of issue. He says "despite Jesus", which suggests that Jesus really meant "not one stone" literally but his prophecy was frustrated by the events that ensued, which did not completely fulfill the prophecy. It would be consistent with inerrancy to say that Jesus did not intend the words literally, and some of Pinnock's statements above give him room to say that. However, what he actually says here is at best uncareful and denying inerrancy by implication. Perhaps Pinnock is just an uncareful writer, but he shouldn't be writing theology about controversial issues while hoping to maintain the appearance of orthodoxy to those who would critique him if he doesn't know how to write in a precise and careful way (though I'd criticize Geisler's uncarefulness as well).

"We may not want to admit it but prophecies often go unfulfilled..." (Pinnock, MMM, 51, n.66).

Does he mean here that God might say "If X, then I will do Y" and then X doesn't happen so Y doesn't? Or does he mean that God says "Y will happen" but intends it to happen only if X happens, and it doesn't. The second worries me more with respect to inerrancy, and it's what I suspect he means.

So I don't think any of this shows that Pinnock clearly denies inerrancy. At most it shows that he's extremely uncareful in stating his views and that he frequently says things that by implication deny inerrancy but that he doesn't mean that way. It's frequent enough that I don't want to pass it by the way some would, but his own statements in his hearing with the ETS make me want to give him the benefit of the doubt. I don't think he clearly denies inerrancy. He may hold some things that would require him to give it up if he realized the implications of his speech, but it seems he'd rather stop saying things that way, because he claims not to intend them that way. So I do think it's beyond the evidence now, after the fact, to claim that he denies inerrancy. I don't think those who charged him with that were going beyond the evidence. The evidence did seem to point that way until he was able to clarify what he meant. So I think it's a little unfair for Wink to say people were being ridiculous for questioning Pinnock on these matters. They turned out to have been probably wrong, at least not clearly right enough for their argument to have established their claim under close examination of him and his responses to their questions, but I do think his statements were sufficiently unclear to require that examination to be sure. I don't think it's ridiculous in those circumstances to seek such an examination.

Update: For more discussion of the ETS hearing for Pinnock (and also John Sanders, whom the ETS Executive Committe did recommend for removal, though the ETS as a whole voted against that), see this discussion by Peter Leithart, who argues that the inerrancy issue is important but not the key issue. He thinks retaining inerrancy while insisting on open theism is not a way to salvage evangelicalism and wonders if inerrancy + docetism would constitute agreement with the ETS statement of faith. If so, then they need to revise the statement of faith, and he thinks open theism is similarly a denial of evangelical doctrine. I'm never sure what to think of this sort of thing. I don't think you necessarily deny the gospel by asserting something that by implication denies the gospel, because you may not see the implication. On the other hand, the Bible itself does count some things on that order as heresy, and docetism seems to be one of them, while open theism does not. Where do we draw those lines?

5 Comments

"We may not want to admit it but prophecies often go unfulfilled..." (Pinnock, MMM, 51, n.66).

I've been reading a bit from the open theist authors lately, and I doubt this is really a statement about the inerrancy of Scripture. Pinnock thinks that God's prophetic plans are recorded accurately in scripture, but that an unforeseen circumstance may cause him to change plans. This has more to do with a wrong view of the person of God than a necessarily wrong view of scripture.

So I don't think any of this shows that Pinnock clearly denies inerrancy.

It's almost as if Pinnock actually takes scripture more flatly literally than those who are more orthodox. I think he even says (and I can't find my source for this as absolute proof, but I'm almost sure this is so.) that God has a body of some sort, because scripture speaks of God's body parts. Anyway, IMO, there are way more important things wrong with what Pinnock espouses than his view of scripture.

On the other hand, the Bible itself does count some things on that order as heresy, and docetism seems to be one of them, while open theism does not. Where do we draw those lines?

Of course, we have the seriousness of the heresy of docetism recorded for us because it was one of the heresies that cropped up during the time that scripture was being written, and was a particular problem in the early church. We would not necessarily expect statements about heresies that only cropped up (or caused problems) later, would we?

I don't know where we draw the line, but I doubt if it's at inerrancy. Improper views of God or Christ, yes; the scripture, no. Of course, an improper view of scripture will probably lead to other more important improper views.

Thanks for this, have taken it up on my blog more.

I find that when you probe at all into what different evangelicals understand inerrancy to be, you find lots of important differences, even among those who think it's a quite straightforward matter.

It's perhaps handy to divide issues into those of the force of the doctrine (what exactly is it saying about what falls in its scope?) vs. those concerning the scope of the doctrine (exactly to what writings does the doctrine apply? the "sweet 66" books?). To take one messy case, it's hard to see that Martin Luther would take the doctrine of inerrancy -- at least on most of the plausible ways of understanding the force of that doctrine -- to apply to the epistle of James. Many who take a quite "conservative" stand on the doctrine would take ML to be denying it. [Or since it's perhaps a bit much to say that about Mr. sola himself, perhaps it's safer to say that they would take one of their contemporaries to be denying inerrancy, if that contemporary were to say the sorts of things ML said.]

Actually, now that I think about that, I really don't know what the more conservative ETS-ers say about that. Do you know, Jeremy? Perhaps you have a better feel for it. Would they just happily admit that ML denies the doctrine of inerrancy in the proper way of understanding the doctrine (and the way of understanding it that they would like to make a requirement for being in the ETS)?
--If not, it's going to be hard to formulate the doctrine so that it has any real teeth (teeth enough to bite the folks they're trying to get) while keeping ML in the fold, given the things ML said.
--If so, then... well, wow! I knew evangelicals were comfortable disagreeing with ML all over the place. But to claim that his views on the scripture were not just wrong but so far beyond the pale that he couldn't join your Society... well...

And even when they agree on the formulation of the doctrine, there are very unclear matters of application. So, for instance, A accuses B of a straightforward violation of the doctrine of inerrancy, and B responds that she is just understanding a certain statement to be non-literal in some way. A gets mad, exclaiming that the statement in question is very straightforward, and that to say it's meant "metaphorically" or something like that is really just to deny its plain meaning and to ascribe error to the text. But when B brings up other passages, A admits that some passages are not to be taken literally (and were never intended to be so taken). But then why not this passage? Sometimes A will resort to some formulation which includes something like "...unless it's obvious that the passage is not intended to be taken literally", but that of course is a mess to apply. The passages (mostly from the Psalms, if I remember correctly) that got Galileo in trouble (passage that say that the earth does not move) were taken by Galileo's opponents to be pretty clearly intended to be taken in a very literal and straightforward (yea, even flat-footed) manner. Now we understand them quite differently (and they expresses a more important & more profound thing on this understanding, I might add). What's obvious changes over time -- and perhaps more importantly, from person to person at a given time.

Anyway, I think if they try to get more specific on the doctrine, the ETS will find things are very messy, and it will be hard to reach any consensus.

Re the "Update":
It's no wonder that Leithart is so down on open theism: He seems to think (quite mistakenly) that it involves a denial of God's omniscience.

Just to clarify:

Hasker (GOD, TIME, AND KNOWLEDGE) claims that there are truths that God fails to know, but holds on to the claim that God is omniscient by defending an account of omniscience according to which all it requires (in addition to believing no falsehoods) is that one know all the truths that it is logically possible for one to know.

I'm not claiming that it's just a clear mistake to charge that such a form of open theism denies omniscience. One could quite sensibly contest Hasker's account of omniscience, on which one can be omniscient while failing to know many truths. And one can sensibly claim that Hasker's view denies omniscience on the correct (or best) account of that attribute. Anyone who wants to make that charge against Hasker can fight it out with him over the correct understanding of omniscience, and I'm not saying that either side of such a fight is clearly mistaken.

But open theism can be -- and I think most naturally is -- accompanied by an "Aristotelian" account of the future (note: it's very controversial whether Aristotle himself held this account) according to which "future contingents" have no truth-value. That type of open theism -- which is the type I'm attracted to -- can accept a straightforward account of omniscience on which omniscience requires knowing all truths. So there doesn't seem to be any good sense in which that type of open theist is denying omniscience (though s/he is denying "comprehensive foreknowledge"). And that's why it's just a mistake to think that open theism necessarily involves a denial of God's omniscience: the best form of the view affirms God's omniscience on every good understanding of that attribute.

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