The Broadness of Inerrancy

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When I last hosted the Christian Carnival, I linked to Henry Neufeld's Interpreting the Bible III -- The Impact of Inerrancy. Henry does not hold to inerrancy, but he wants to point out how there's quite a variety among people who hold to a relatively high view of scripture. There's been an excellent discussion in the comments since I linked to it in the carnival, and I wanted to express some of what I've been saying there (much of which is simply modified from my comments).

My main claim is that the variety of views Henry is pointing to are not entirely but are largely available within inerrantist views. But I don't think that's because there are different views called inerrancy, as Henry's post seems to take it. There surely are different things people mean by calling a view inerrancy. But most of the variation doesn't come because people mean something different by 'inerrancy'. It's because they think the ultimate determiner of whether something counts as an error in the relevant way is the context and culture of the original human author, and disagreements often arise on that issue. That means two people can both be inerrantists in exactly the same sense but disagree about whether an inerrantist should accept a certain claim about a certain part of scripture.

There are some people who think inerrancy requires thinking of Ruth, Jonah, Daniel, and Esther (for example) as historical, and there are others who think inerrancy allows thinking of them as allegories or parables. I'm not sure it follows that these involve two different conceptions of the meaning of the term 'inerrancy'. After all, those who don't think Jonah is a parable but think it's an actual recounting of real events nevertheless have no problem thinking of Jesus' parables as parables that didn't really happen. So they have no problem with inerrancy allowing for parables. The dispute seems to me to involve books that seem on the surface just like the historical accounts elsewhere in the Old Testament, something not true of Jesus' parables. Some hold that the presumption is to take them as historical. Others do not. But they might believe the same thing about what inerrancy involves, given that a book is presumed to be historical.

I don't happen to think Jonah and the narrative portions of Daniel are parables. I don't think Isaiah 40-66 (often called Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah by scholars) were written by later authors. I think they were composed by the actual Isaiah. But I don't think you need to deny inerrancy to hold that Jonah is a parable or that Second Isaiah and Third Isaiah were written by later authors in the Isaianic tradition. I just think you have to make a mistake about the historical background and how such works could be taken in context. I'd say the same about pseudonymity in New Testament epistles. I hold that inerrancy, combined with an accurate view on historical matters, will lead to conservative positions on such issues. That means I often disagree with the majority view among scholars about questions of historicity. But it's not inerrancy itself that makes the difference. It's a judgment on such other issues. I should mention that Craig Blomberg and Tremper Longman have made similar points in published works, and they're both pretty conservative inerrantists.

One place this applies in my own thinking is that I don't think Genesis' early chapters give a chronological historical account, but I do think they teach what God did, and they do so without error. Six-day creationists claim my view is at odds with inerrancy, but it's not, and I don't think this is a different view of inerrancy. It's a different view of how inerrancy applies given of a different view about how genre works. I don't share the mainstream consensus about genre with respect to Jonah and Daniel, but I do on Genesis to some extent.

Longman has a view on the authorship of Ecclesiastes that I haven't been able to accept as very plausible. He thinks most of the book reflects the false teaching of someone called Qoholet, and the very beginning and end of the book places Qoholet's teaching in context with the true teaching of the overall book, allowing for profitable reading of the book as long as you take into account that most of the book is reporting somewhat wise but ultimately inadequate teaching. The human author of the final form of the book (and the divine endorsement of the contents) only goes as far as the fact that the opening and closing say this guy Qoholet said this stuff, although the opening and closing put it all in enough of a context that it's worth seeing the futility Qoholet came to. It's similar to most inerrantists' attitude toward Job's friends' speeches. Sometimes they offer worthwhile wisdom, but it all has to be taken with a grain of salt and aren't endorsed in their whole contents by the author or final editor of the book.

I don't find that view to be very likely, but the way Longman couches it seems to me to be perfectly in accordance with inerrancy. I just happen to think the best view on the book is that it's like Proverbs in giving general truths that have exceptions and need to be taken as part of a much larger context of scripture (and of the parts at the beginning and end the delimit its teaching somewhat). If you accept the historical and literary assumptions about the book that I favor, his view is incompatible with inerrancy. But he doesn't share those assumptions, and he remains an inerrantist despite a view that I can't as an inerrantist hold given my other views about the book. Robert Gundry does something similar with midrash in Matthew, denying things I think inerrancy requires, but he does so by denying assumptions that I think are obvious, and (to my knowledge) he remains an inerrantist once he denies them.

We see the same phenomenon with the debate between egalitarianism and complementarianism. Some egalitarians (e.g. Luke Timothy Johnson, Paul K. Jewett) agree with complementarian exegesis but deny inerrancy about the moral teaching of the New Testament. Others (e.g. most evangelical egalitarians) accept assumptions about the text that most complementarians (and many egalitarians who deny inerrancy) find implausible or even think are demonstrably false. Given those assumptions, egalitarians need not deny inerrancy as Johnson does. But he finds them implausible, as complementarians do. Given such a view, it takes denying inerrancy to be an egalitarian. But without such a view, it does not. The disagreement isn't about what inerrancy means but about other assumptions and views.

I think if we recognized this a lot more fully, we'd be fighting battles where they really should be fought and not charging people with views they don't hold or saying they deny views they do hold. I do think these are important issues. I find Gundry's view of Matthew to be really worrisome from someone who seems to accept inerrancy. I would say the same about Ernest Lucas' view of Daniel and Leslie Allen's view of Jonah, and as much as I really like Longman's work and have benefited from it, I worry about the implications of his view on the authority of the entirety of Ecclesiastes. But I would not say that any of these views require a denial of inerrancy itself, and it seems unfair that many claim they do. Henry has tried hard to show a variety of possibilities within inerrancy, even though he doesn't hold to the view, and I thought it was worth exploring this a little bit more fully given my proposal for how to think about this.

6 Comments

I've never understood the "inerrancy" shibboleth, for many Americans it seems to be the one essential marker of who is "in" and who is "out", but as all the discussion of different views about Scripture that can "count" as inerrancy the claim has no practical real use! It only serves to tell people whether So-and-so has their eyes too close together or if they can be trusted ;)

Jeremy, I'm not sure your reply to my comment quite gets the point I was seeking to make. So maybe I expressed it badly. I do not want to argue about high or low views of the Bible. I do not want to discuss whether the Bible is dependable and reliable or whether it sufficient what we need to know to be saved... I am only making a point about the way Americans use the term "inerrency" as a means of telling whether people are "in" or "out". And in my experience it is (almost?) exclusively American authors who use the term. I think it is significant that an online English dictionary http://www.chambersharrap.co.uk/chambers/index.shtml which is not from the USA does not have an entry for innerancy or innerency or innerant...

I'd be interested to see a quote from any of the European or other scholars you mention that actually uses this term. The way your reply "co-opts" Evangelical and Traditional Christians as people who "must" be "inerrantists" seems unfair to them if they themselves did not choose to use the term ;)

If being in and being out consists of having the correct view of the authority of scripture, then I see no problem in seeing inerrancy as the "in" position. If you're talking about seeing anyone who denies inerrancy as not being a genuine Christian, I haven't seen that. I certainly think the term 'evangelical' as used in the U.S. is very much a stretch when applied to someone who denies inerrancy (those who deny it are at least on the fringes of evangelicalism), but that's simply a matter of how the word is used. In the U.K. it's apparently used with much broader scope.

In addition to the post I already linked to, you can see this about the Roman Catholic view. The popes have certainly affirmed inerrancy. Several of the people I named were not just signers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy but had been involved in writing the thing to begin with (e.g. I know Packer was one of the central figures in it).

It doesn't actually matter if they use the term. It matters if they hold the view. If you hold a view and insist on calling it another name, it doesn't make it a different view. There are lots of inerrantists who don't use that term, because they don't know that the term doesn't refer to the caricature that its critics usually mean when they make fun of it.

Anyone who uses the term 'infallibility' is by implication accepting inerrancy. As I've argued before, infallibility means not having the capability of error, and inerrancy means not actually having any errors. You could have no errors by chance even though there's a capacity for error. There just turned out not to be any. But something that's infallible is incapable of error, and so infallibility implies no errors and thus inerrancy. Anyone who is using that term thus accepts inerrancy. This is so even if the strange Fuller view that says they accept infallibility but denies inerrancy. What that view is actually doing is accepting infallibility (and thus inerrancy) about certaiin kinds of statements in scripture but then denying inerrancy (and thus infallibility) about other kinds of statements in scripture. It's not, as it pretends, accepting the contradictory position of accepting infallibility but denying inerrancy. No one can do that and remain logically coherent.

I'm just being nitpicky, but neither Fee nor Packer are Canadian. Fee is from the U.S., packer from England. Both teach in Canada.

Carry on.

I didn't know that about Fee. I did know that about Packer but had momentarily forgotten.

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