Basic Inerrancy

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Matt Flanagan's Inerrancy and Biblical Authority discussed Glenn Peoples' Inerrantly Assuming Inerrancy in History. There are so many things I disagree with in the latter post that it was very hard to pull myself away from my desire to write a detailed response, but I didn't have the time.

I actually agree with much of what Matt says, if you frame it as a hypothetical, which he does: If Peoples is right that inerrancy as currently held by contemporary interrantists is not the historical doctrine of scripture throughout church history, then it's still possible to claim that the Bible is true in all God intended it to teach us. I think you lose much of what God actually did intend the Bible to teach us, but you can hold a view that God intended it to teach us less than that and still think the Bible teaches all those things.

I've written before about historical figures' attitudes toward scripture, including the biblical authors' own attitudes, and I've concluded that the mainstream Christian attitude toward scripture throughout church history has not been mere inerrancy but the stronger claim that scripture is infallible. [There are those historical revisionists today who claim that they hold to infallibility but not inerrancy, but that's logically impossible without contradiction given what these terms have historically meant. What such people are calling infallibility is not infallibility of scripture but infallibility of certain claims of scripture and not others. Inerrantists hold to the infallibility of all scripture, which entails the inerrancy of all scripture on all matters that it speaks of.]

As I was looking through the text file I keep of things to blog about, I came across a link the Bart Barber's An Errant Bible: The Gateway Heresy (ht: Russell Moore), which I never got around to posting about, but I'm using Matt's recent post as an occasion to do so. Barber's piece is excellent for a number of reasons, but one thing that struck me especially was his response to the first argument he presents from Jim Denison. Denison thinks inerrantists, in responding to objections, have brought inerrancy to the point of death by a thousand qualifications, where the view is so thin that it means hardly anything anymore. In response, Barber says the following:

Actually, Denison's argument works against him, not for him. Yes, many different people have defined "inerrancy" in different ways. And yes, several inerrantists have offered a number of qualifications of the term "inerrancy" in order to forestall misunderstanding regarding the meaning of the term. Denison has suitably demonstrated that people with an impressive array of varied beliefs about the precise nature of the Bible can all claim to be an "inerrantist" in some fashion or another. Denison's suggestion is that this complex state of affairs makes it not very meaningful for one to affirm that he is an inerrantist.
Yet even if this fact makes it mean less when someone affirms that he is an inerrantist, then it necessarily makes it mean more when someone cannot affirm that he is an inerrantist. The denial of inerrancy then means that, out of all the various definitions of inerrancy and with all of the various reasonable qualifications of inerrancy applied, a person still cannot find a way with all of that flexibility to affirm the word in any sense.
I hadn't quite thought about it that way, but I think Barber is right. I myself have argued for a lot of these qualifications. (See my The Broadness of Inerrancy and Longman, Literalism, and Genesis 1.) I don't think inerrancy really is as strong a claim as a lot of people make it out to be. There are several other things a doctrine of scripture will need to affirm to be as conservative as I think fits with what most inerrantists do believe about scripture, and inerrancy itself is only one part of that. I think Barber is right to notice that those who do end up denying inerrancy, as thin as it is given all the qualifications inerrantists bring in, says something about those who do. Their view of the authority and trustworthiness of scripture is even thinner.

This is why it's my view that inerrancy is the basic starting point for a doctrine of scripture. Those who can't hold to it in any sense seem to me to be at odds with orthodox Christian teaching on the nature of scripture. So I can agree with Matt's post only in that his hypothetical is true. If you deny inerrancy, you can still believe that aspects of the Bible's teaching are true, and if those are the only ones that God in his limited sovereignty over scripture cared to influence, then all God attempted to communicate in scripture is present in scripture's infallible teaching. But it reduces the divine role in scripture to a very thin slice of what Christians have historically held to say that God deliberately allowed errors into the Bible of the form that inerrantists deny, and I think it does raise questions of doubt. If you believe the Bible is unreliable in matters of fact that it affirms (but on the view we're considering somehow doesn't teach), then the problem is in figuring out which things it affirms but doesn't teach and which things it teaches via its affirmations. On this two-level view of the Bible, what criteria are there for sorting those out? I suggest that it will be your own preferences for what you want the Bible to teach, even if the position itself doesn't entail that (as I've seen inerrantists claim).

13 Comments

My comments on this critique are over at the Evangel blog where this is cross-posted.

Hi Jeremy,

I want to respond to your last paragraph a little bit, especially the last sentence. Why? Why will it be our own preferences?

But maybe my view is distinct enough from People's that this doesn't apply to where I'm coming from. I believe that the illocutions of the Bible are authoritative and inerrant. Any hermeneutical method that does not seek to understand the illocutions of the text is faulty as a method for interpreting the Bible as Scripture, with which I think you would agree. Thus to use an example, whether or not Mark 2:26 is affirming Abiathar as high priest (or that the author of Gen. 1 presupposes errant ancient cosmology) is irrelevant to the illocutionary force of the text and thus (in my opinion) to the question of inerrancy. I think that gives us an avenue out of the dilemma you propose.

Now lets go back to your closing sentence. The text is authoritative, but my interpretation isn't. Certainly my biases will impact what I see God doing in and through the text, but that's true of everyone else.

One thing that I think is helpful to point out is what drives people to hold views like I hold. How do you blend phenomenological observation of the text with appropriate presuppositions? I am where I am because I felt that too often I had to take exegetically unlikely (not impossible but unlikely) positions to hold to a traditional Evangelical view of inerrancy. At the same time, I needed to blend that with the assumption that Scripture is God's word. I guess I don't see why seeing the Bible as God's word forces one to hold to a traditional view of inerrancy.

Would it be an inappropriate display of vanity for me to point out that I am the author of the quoted essay (which does indeed quote Dr. Danny Akin very briefly in the opening paragraph)? Probably so.

Sorry, Bart. I misread your introduction. I thought you were presenting Akin's sermon, since you started out talking about it and then ended the introductory section with some words that could easily have meant that the rest of the post was Akin's sermon, if you ignore some of the things you said in between. I'd skimmed it too quickly and gotten the wrong impression. Funnily enough, I found a blog post when looking around for recent stuff on this that did credit you, and I thought the person had misread your introduction and given you credit for something you were just transcribing! Anyway, I'll edit the post to give you proper credit.

Marcus, maybe you misunderstand part of my argument. The two examples you give are both ones that I think inerrancy can accommodate. I've been insisting that you don't have to abandon inerrancy to take the cosmology of Genesis 1 in a way that doesn't affirm the exact times given as how long things actually took, and so on. I think it's also true that you don't have to think Jesus is affirming Abiathar as the high priest at exactly the time he's speaking of to say that it was the time of Abiathar the high priest (because it was the time of Abiathar, who later became high priest). This is what inerrantists have long said about that text. So inerrantists will say of both cases that what inerrancy affirms is not the kind of standard we would apply to someone saying those kinds of statements in English today in, say, a newspaper article. So I'm not sure from your examples that you're actually denying inerrancy. If you are, maybe you can clarify how your approach to those two texts differs from mine.

As for the closing sentence, you're right that interpretation is already one spot in the process of understanding scripture where fallibility can creep in. Presumably we will want good principles for how to interpret the Bible, then, so that we'll avoid the temptation to pick and choose among the competing interpretations according to our preferences. If the denial of inerrancy adds another spot where there's such a temptation, then what I'm saying is that we need good principles so we won't pick and choose which passages are errant according to what we'd like to be true. I'm not sure we can provide such good principles in such cases. There are good principles about how to interpret well. You need to understand the text in the context of its writer, figure out who the audience is, learn the language well, and so on. But there's nothing like that in figuring out which parts of the Bible we're going to take and which we'll leave. If some of it is errant, how will we know which parts?

Hi Jeremy,

Here's how my approach differs. I choose to locate inerrancy only in what's necessary to preserve the illocutionary force of the text. Doing this allows one to pick the exegetically most likely solution to what happened with the 'Abiathar' reference. You're not bound to take a (in my opinion) less likely interpretation over a more likely interpretation (Mark or his source screwed up). The vast majority of texts involved in the inerrancy debate involve issues like this where the point in doubt is barely relevant if at all to the point the author is trying to make. So I don't see it as problematic to define inerrancy this way, because, honestly, does it matter whether or not Mark thought Abiathar was the high priest at that time?

On the latter point, I think that I was misreading you a bit, but perhaps now too you can see what I was getting at. I think that the proposal I give above demonstrates how one might redefine inerrancy and hopefully not introduce unnecessary error into interpretation.

I think our main difference is that the interpretation you think is exegetically more likely with the Abiathar reference is the one that I think is most uncharitable, and I do wonder if it might be imposing modern standards or English standards on an ancient language and culture. It is more likely in English that "in the days of Abiathar the high priest" means in the days when Abiathar was high priest, but it can even in English mean during the lifetime of the high priest known as Abiathar. But I don't know if we should just assume one of those two more likely than the other with an ancient language, and it's uncharitable to expect an error like the one you're proposing to come from a people who are as steeped in the Hebrew scriptures as Jesus and the gospel authors.

So what do you say about the so-called errors that have more to do with the main point of the author? Do you go with the exegesis that inerrancy's critics say is so implausible?

Your comments are fair enough on the Abaithar issue. I'll just register that I still disagree. Your questions at the bottom are very good questions.

I will say up front that a correct assessment of genre mitigates many disputes so I don't think we're talking about that many cases. Beyond that I think we need to break out alleged errors into two groups, theological and historical/scientific. On the former, something like slavery is frequently cited as an example of an error in the Bible, since it seems to generally be ok with slavery. However to do so is anachronistic and there are ways to deal theologically with issues like that (as I've defended e.g., here).

But let's say that all else fails. Then yes, I would have to take the less likely interpretation. Did the Exodus have to have happened? Yes. Could it have happened in a shape fairly different from the form that it is presented in Exodus? Sure, it's very possible that not every firstborn male died, perhaps it was just a few within the royal family (I haven't studied it so I don't want to take a stance on this one - and again we don't want to be anachronistic by labeling as errors something that may be handled by correctly determining genre).

So to anticipate a possible next question, how does that mesh with my early assertion that I don't want to take an exegetically unlikely view too often? This approach provides me with a much lower level of dissonance (a level that I'm comfortable with) than an approach that requires every historical claim of the Bible to have happened just as it was reported.

How do you preserve the illocutionary force of the statements that all the Egyptian firstborns died while none of the Israelite ones did? If only the royal family did, then the contrast between the two peoples gets lost. The whole point is that God watches over his whole people, protecting them from the plague that none of the Egyptians get protected from. So I'm not sure your view can accommodate that suggestion. I'm also not sure why you'd need to try, unless you were so resistant to the possibility of miracles that you had to explain away every occurrence that might seem to be guided by an intelligent God. (It would be different if the genre isn't historical reporting, but that's a different suggestion than the one where there is a firstborn plague but one significantly different from what even the illocutionary force of the text allows.)

I don't have much in the way of dissonance over these issues. Even if it seems unlikely that two hard-to-reconcile texts can be reconciled easily (e.g. the Judas' death case), I don't see the need for dissonance. The issue for me is which views are more central and strongly-held. Consider the following argument:

1. Luke says Judas fell headlong, and his guts spilled out.
2. Matthew says Judas hung himself.
3. It's unlikely (but not impossible) that someone died by hanging himself and also fell headlong, spilling his guts out.
4. Therefore, it's unlikely that Luke and Matthew are both correct about how Judas died.

But consider also this next argument:

5. The Bible is the word of God.
6. If something is the word of God, then what it says is true.
7. Acts and Matthew are both part of the Bible.
8. What Acts and Matthew say are both true.

Assuming what I mean by saying it's true here means what an inerrantist says (which is exactly what I would mean in offering this argument), then we have the following situation. Something seems unlikely according to one line of reasoning, but it's also true according to another line of reasoning. Which line of reasoning should we be more comfortable with? Well. nothing in the first argument rules out the possibility that Judas hung himself and then fell headlong, spilling his guts out, as the rope broke or when someone tried to take him down. It does seem unlikely that each would report only one of the two, but possible explanations have been offered to explain each. So there's no contradiction, which means the first argument doesn't eliminate the second.

Should I take the unlikelihood to undermine the second argument, then? I think not, especially if my belief in the reliability of what God's word reports is strong enough that I'm surer of it than I am that the unlikelihood of both accounts being true means I should disbelieve them. The unlikelihood of the second argument being correct and Matthew or Luke being wrong is much greater than the unlikelihood of Matthew and Luke being right if the first argument is good reasoning. So if I have good reason to believe the second argument, then I have good reason to believe that some reconciliation is extremely likely. It's not likely if the only factors you consider are naturalistic concerns (which is what generates the first argument), but once you factor in the divine inspiration of both authors to the point of historical details, then I don't see why there needs to be any dissonance whatsoever.

When Lucy returns through the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, her brothers and sister don't believe her. When she returns with Edmund after the second trip in, Edmund lies and says it never happened, but she insists it did and that Edmund went too. Peter and Susan still don't believe, because it's such an outlandish tale. But when they go talk to Digory about it, he gives a pretty strong argument for overcoming their disbelief in the unlikely. It's very much against Lucy's character to lie, and it's pretty common for Edmund to lie. If the character in question is God's, then I can't myself put the fact that something naturalistically unlikely as high on the scale as the unlikelihood that God would inspire it and yet it be false. This goes for hard-to-reconcile accounts as much as for reports of miracles.

Hi Jeremy,

I think you make a good point about the Exodus story, I picked a bad example to try to illustrate my point. I think that that is an element that's required by the text, if the genre is primarily a historical one. I'm certainly not resistant to miracles either, so that's not a framework that I'm coming from. Perhaps I should have been satisfied to assert that the story about Jesus and the sabbath controversy in Mark 2 happened but perhaps that Mark or his source was incorrect in 2:26.

I think that the question that you ask is very important and very valid and I think that I can't answer that question working out of this frame worrk, and thus I will have to concede. It didn't dawn on me til now, but essentially I was arguing for a rule of faith-esque approach. I've been trying, over the last two weeks to incorporate in stuff that I've been gleaning from Drama of Doctrine into my already existing system and I think you've shown that it was unsuccessful and I need to reappraise it (you can see my prior approach outlined in basic form here if you care). Thanks for taking the time to comment back and forth, I needed to get pushed back to the drawing board.

For me, the dissonance still exists, and perhaps it may be that the methodological question you pose doesn't require a methodological answer, but certainly I must think this through again. Thanks again.

I should also add that one shouldn't judge Vanhoozer's work on the basis of my errant attempt to synthesize the way he explains biblical authority with my already existing framework (not that you would, but perhaps some reader might). His book is one of the best I've ever read and there's nothing in it that in my opinion isn't amenable to traditional Evangelical ways of viewing Scripture (and perhaps that's why I failed).

Well, the Trinity statement of faith wouldn't allow for any of their faculty to depart from inerrancy, so I wouldn't expect anything like that in Vanhoozer's book.

That's one reason I think Vanhoozer's earlier book is so good (I have no familiarity whatsoever with the new one). It's one thing for a Miroslav Volf, Yale Divinity School faculty member with evangelical leanings, to write a book extremely favorable to some key ideas in Foucault while trying to stay faithful to Christian convictions. It's quite another for an inerrantist to write a book extremely favorable to key ideas in Derrida that nonetheless doesn't sacrifice on knowledge, objective truth, and a view of the authority of scripture consistent with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. As much as I respect both of them, I think Vanhoozer's book is the more major achievement, even if Volf's Exclusion and Embrace will be more widely read.

Thanks, Jeremy. I'm not earning a living or anything by my blogging, so it's no big deal (although if you should happen to discover a way to earn a living by blogging, please let me know!). I just felt what I can only honestly describe as a prideful (and therefore likely wrongful) desire to have attribution for what I wrote.

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