There seem to have been some errors in my post on inerrancy. (How ironic!) I would like to take some steps to correct these.
First: the Council of Nicaea did NOT proclaim that canon of Scripture. This is a widely circulated myth (google it, and see esp. this article). In fact, the canon of Scripture we have was never proclaimed by any ecumenical council, and several books continue to be disputed (see the Catholic Encyclopedia article on "Canon of the New Testament". I'm still working on what this means theologically.
Second: as you can see from the comments, there is some dispute about what is meant by inerrancy as opposed to infallibility. Based on a quick survey, it seems that many dictionaries define the two terms interchangeably, but those that distinguish between them give something infallibility if it is impossible that it should go wrong, and inerrancy if it does not actually go wrong. However, in popular theological discourse (including at least some writings of professional theologians - at any rate, according to Theopedia F.F. Bruce, et al., in their book The Origin of the Bible argue that the Bible could conceivably be infallible without being free of error, implying that inerrancy is in fact the stronger term) the terms are often used in ways similar to my definitions below. This does indeed confuse the issue immensely. Of course, for purposes of this post you'll have to just take these terms the way I've defined them. In the future, I'll be sure not to use them without explicitly deifining them, and work harder to make sure that I'm using them in the most precise and least misleading way possible.
Original Post (4/4/2006)
World of Sven's Theology and Biblical Studies blog is responding (with general agreement) to a six part series at Chrisendom arguing against the inerrancy of Scripture (both writers are believers, and Chris at least self-identifies as an Evangelical). Since I'm coming into this discussion late (after it seems to be over, in fact) I'm going to go through each stage of the argument in turn.
First, let me begin by saying that my view of Scripture is something that I've been thinking long and hard about recently, and I am seriously struggling with the question of why exactly we should believe in it, and what else we should believe as a result. To be more clear, it is quite apparent to me, from experience, that there is something unique, miraculous, supernatural about the text of the Bible, but I am reevaluating exactly how we should understand this. I think the best argument that I have heard for belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture is something along the lines of that given in Richard Swinburne's book, Revelation. I discussed a modified version, which corrected for what I see as ecclesiological errors in Swinburne, some time ago here. The thing that has led me to a serious reevaluation of my views is the fact that this argument necessarily also establishes the authoritative (infallibe?) character of at least some elements of Christian 'tradition.' Certainly it gives at least 'quasi-scriptural status' to the proclamations of the First Council of Nicaea (325 - this is where we have the Canon of Scripture first proclaimed; the Nicene Creed as we have it today was actually proclaimed at a later council, but an early form of it, with less detail on the Church and the Holy Spirit, was proclaimed here), and I'm not at all certain how much else tradition comes along with it. The further forward in history we go, it becomes more and more difficult to identify the proclamation of the true Church, and I'm not even sure what the status of that proclamation is.
Meanwhile, back on inerrancy. Chris seems to understand inerrancy in a fairly weak form, as simply saying that the Bible is always right about everything (see part 1). I would call this something like 'total infallibility,' and oppose it to (1) qualified infallibility, or (2) inerrancy. I understand qualified infallibility to mean that the Bible is never wrong about certain things (e.g. theology, salvation, ethics, etc.) but may be wrong about other things (e.g. history, science, etc.). I understand inerrancy to mean that the Bible (whether we mean the autographs, the Masoretic Text + Textus Receptus, the Septuagint + Textus Receptus, or something else) is exactly letter-perfect what God wanted to say (what, precisely, that means as far as the content and style is questionable, but certainly, from the perspective of the Christian doctrines on the character of God, it will imply total infallibility).
A further distinction, drawn from Swinburne, is needed: if God chooses to state things in terms of false cultural assumptions, he does not err, provided that the false assumptions are part of the form and not part of the content. For instance, when English speakers say "the sun came up," we do not state what is false, despite the fact that the sun remained stationary while the earth rotated. The 'flat earth' implications of certain Scriptural passages can be, in my opinion, dismissed in this way, as can the implications that one thinks with his large intestine or feels with his spleen.
Now, as long as this proviso is taken into account, I'm committed to either inerrancy or total infallibility (I presently accept the former, but wouldn't be terribly upset if some argument persuaded me to switch to the latter), so let me see if I can respond to the objections, at least in some limited form.
First, Chris, part 1: here Chris argues that inerrancy has not always been believed by Christians. He cites Origen and Luther, which isn't going to get him anywhere with me. Both say a lot of heretical things, in my opinion. Calvin certainly believed in inerrancy, or at least total infallibility. (Note: please do not assume from the fact that I think Calvin is a much better theologian than Luther that I am a Calvinist. I am not.) Let's look briefly at what some early Christians say.
First, there is the Apostle Paul. When he refers to 'Scripture' we can assume that he means at least the Hebrew Bible (in the original Hebrew, or in the Septuagint? It isn't clear). There is reason to suppose that he also views Luke as 'Scripture,' from 1 Timothy 5:18 where he begins "For the Scripture says," and proceeds to quote first Deuteronomy 25:4 and then Luke 10:7. I suppose it is possible that Paul and Luke are quoting a common source, but if so, that source is neither the Hebrew Bible nor the Septuagint. Since Paul accepted Luke as Scripture it is likely he accepted some other early Christian writings, but we have no way of knowing which ones. Paul then gives us 2 Timothy 3:16. This verse, however, does not state inerrancy. Rather, it says that Scripture is 'God-breathed' (Gr. theopneustos) and useful for various purposes. What exactly 'God-breathed' means is a difficult question, as the compound is an apparent coinage, and the verb pneo, from which it is compounded, simply means 'breathe' and has no deep spiritual connotations in ordinary Greek. So, all we can really say about Paul is that he believes Scripture and the Holy Spirit (pneuma is indeed derived from pneo) to be intimately related, and he believes Scripture to be sufficient for our spiritual needs.
Second there are the early Patristics. (Note: I'm working from the book A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs, ed. David Bercott) Clement of Rome refers to some Scriptures being "true utterances of the Holy Spirit." (1.17) Justin Martyr says that the Holy Spirit "descend[ed] from heaven and use[d] these righteous mean as an instrument like a harp or lyre" to reveal the truth of God to us (1.276). This sounds an aweful lot like inerrancy (as opposed to either qualified or total infallibility) to me: the writers of Scripture are tools (presenting themselves willingly) used by God to present his Word. God uses, rather than ignores, their individual characteristics, but nevertheless he brings it about that his Word is written. Again, Athenagoras also uses the image of a musical instrument (2.132-133). The first clear statement of something like 'qualified infallibility' I have in my book is from the Muratorian Fragment (c. 200 AD) which says that although in the various gospels "different matters are taught us," the differences are not important because "all things are related under one imperial Spirit." (5.603) Hippolytus, a western writer of the late 2nd/early 3rd centuries, again uses the musical instrument metaphor (5.204). The Fathers have a great deal to say about Scripture, but what the above shows is that the sort of account of inspiration that leads to inerrancy is NOT new (although the explicit statement of something like inerrancy probably occurs for the first time fairly late). The early Christians (as early as the second century!) believed that the Scriptures were 'God-breathed,' and that this meant that the human writers were instruments with which God played the symphony that is Scripture. Every writer's individual character is used to good effect, but God is nonetheless the musician, the author, and the authority behind the end result.
In part 2, Chris claims that the Bible itself does not directly assert it's own inerrancy. I concede this point (see the above discussion of Paul). However, he never presents an argument for his claim that "it can be conclusively proved that scripture is not inerrant, and the bible's own witness to this is decisive!" He makes this claim again in part 6, but again fails to support it. I would be very interesting to hear this argument in more detail.
In part 3 of Chris's series, he points to a collection of alleged contradictions in Scripture. This is a topic exegetes have dealth with ad nauseam, so I'm not going to try here. Suffice it to say that nearly all of the issues brought up have, in my opinion, acceptable solutions, but the genealogical discrepancies are genuinely troubling to me. If one has strong enough reason to believe in inerrancy then the difficulties can be overcome. However, the solutions are sometimes convoluted enough as to require very strong reasons for inerrancy, so the objection is not something to be ignored.
In part 4, Chris argues that not all of the alleged errors/contradictions can be attributed to scribal mistakes. I concede. However, as I have said, I think that in general other solutions exist.
It seems to have been at this point that Sven jumped in. In Sven's post, two additional objections to inerrancy are brought up:
In part 5, Chris argues that inerrancy promotes a generally low view of Scripture, because we view all revelation as propositional and cease to have a living encounter. I do not think this criticism is valid. The Protestant/Evangelical emphasis on propositional infallibility has quite likely had this effect, but that does not make the doctrine itself flawed. It may well be true that the Bible is propositionally infallible but nevertheless "living and active." The important - even critical - truth that this criticism does point to is that the Bible is not only a repository of propositional truth but rather a living encounter with God.
Finally, in part 6, the podcast, Chris sets forth the doctrine of Scripture that he accepts, which is the proclamation of the Second Vatican Council: "The books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error, teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the sacred Scriptures." I think Chris understands this passage as a form of what I have called qualified infallibility. He understands the word 'salvation' very broadly to mean not merely a path to heaven, but God's total rescue of mankind from corruption (that is, to include both salvation and sanctification). He also points out that Scripture is (as discussed above) more than merely a repository of propositional truth. He says, "these texts, then, need to be treated as an invitation to trusting belief in that to which they point." He also asserts that the inspiration of Scripture is not simply a statement about how the texts came about, but also has to do with what happens when individuals and communities of believers read the text and God speaks through it. Chris says that a high view of Scripture will mean that we trust that God speaks to us through the text, but it doesn't necessarily mean that we can analyze the Bible scientifically or philosophically by taking it apart piece by piece with our intellect and come to absolute truth in this way. He speaks repeatedly of "the God-givenness of a generally accurate text."
In general, these arguments have not had the effect of shaking my belief in inerrancy. However, I think it is important that we engage some of the issue brought up here. In particular, we must not limit our understanding of Scripture to its propositional value. It is a tool by which God reveals himself to individuals. It is not a dead thing, but the Living Word of God. However, I believe that one of the primary reasons God chose to reveal his Word in written form was to endow the revelation with a degree of obejectivity (see my previous post), and this will fail if it is not reliable as a source of propositional truth (at least as far as I can see). If Chris were right in his characterization of Scripture, it would not be clear to me why it was put in written form at all. Furthermore, I think that Sven and Chris both limit God too much in assuming that inerrancy necessarily eliminates the human element. God is quite capable of working with the human element to bring his Word into the world without error. There is a fine line to be drawn. Scripture is both human and divine in its content, and it is both a source of objective propositional truth and an invitation to and means of experience of the Living God.
Well, I think this post is more than long enough, but it hasn't begun to address the issue. I suppose that means that more posts on this subject will have to follow. I am not presently prepared to present my view as such (it is in flux to too large a degree), but I may soon be ready to publish some speculations. Stay tuned.Posted by Kenny at April 17, 2006 8:56 AM
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