Theology: January 2009 Archives

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.

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