John Webster Laughs, He Sighs: Taking the Bible Back From The Errantists And Inerrantists

The Bible is part of God’s domain in Jesus Christ; it speaks God’s lively voice over, and often, against us. When I encounter approaches to Scripture that are premised upon a posture of sitting over Scripture through some platform ostensibly offered them by some sort of ‘pure nature’ that gives them critical space to question Scripture’s veracity as God’s deposited words to humanity; I laugh. When I come across modes of engagement with Scripture that think Scripture finds its orientation, again, from a ‘pure nature’ (meaning a non-contingent independent understanding of nature that is abstract from God’s upholding Word, and thus self-sufficient and self-possessed homo in se incurvatus); I sigh, this is childish.

John Webster laughs, he sighs:

To simplify matters rather drastically: a dominant trajectory in the modern development of study of the Bible has been a progressive concentration on what Spinoza called interpretation of Scripture ex ipsius historia, out of its own history. Precisely when this progression begins to gather pace, and what its antecedents may be, are matters of rather wide dispute. What is clear, at least in outline, is that commanding authority gradually came to be accorded to the view that the natural properties of the biblical text and of the skills of interpreters are elements in an immanent economy of communication. The biblical text is a set of human signs borne along on, and in turn shaping, social religious and literary processes; the enumeration of its natural properties comes increasingly to be not only a necessary but a sufficient description of the Bible and its reception. This definition of the text in terms of its (natural) history goes along with suspension of or disavowal of the finality both of the Bible and of the reader in loving apprehension of God, and of the Bible’s ministerial function as divine envoy to creatures in need of saving instruction. To speak of the historia Scripturae is to say that Scripture is what human persons author, and that its interpretation is what human persons do to get at the meaning so authored. In describing authoring or interpreting, language about God is superfluous, or merely ornamental, or invoked only as the remotest background condition for human communication. Further, priority is given to the generic features of the biblical writings and their interpretation – the features which they share with other texts and acts of interpretation – over the particular situation in which they function – over the particular situation in which they function – the situation, that is, of divine instruction. That situation is epiphenomenal: most basically, the ontology of the Bible and that of its readers is that of pure nature. Thus, for example, the category of ‘text’, with its linguistic, semantic and literary properties, comes to play a different role in modern study of the Bible from that which it plays in Augustine’s De doctrina christiana. For Augustine, the text’s linguistic, semantic and literary properties are signa mediating divine instruction, whereas for moderns they are not underlain by anything other than the processes of authorship or the history of religion. Even when the category of ‘text’ is supplemented by those of ‘scripture’ or ‘canon’, these refer largely to the use of and ascription of value to texts, and carry no metaphysical weight. Running parallel to the naturalization of the text there is the ‘deregionalization’ of practices of interpretation, a standardization of its operations and ends which takes its rise in a natural anthropology of the interpreter and interpretive reason. Nor are matters helped much by supplementary talk of ‘God’s “use” of the church’s use of scripture’, for here God’s agency remains consequent rather than initiatory.

Countering the hegemony of pure nature in bibliology and hermeneutics requires, appeal to the Christian doctrine of God, and thus of God’s providential ordering of human speech and reason. Within the divine economy, the value of the natural properties of texts, and of the skills and operations of readers, does not consist in their self-sufficiency but in their appointment as creaturely auxiliaries through which God administers healing to wasted and ignorant sinners. What more may be said of this economy of revelation and redemption of which Scripture is a function?[1]

What Webster is communicating would be in line with what Brevard Childs has written here, in regard to a posture toward developing an approach and standing within a mode of humility toward the text of Scripture, and its reality in Jesus Christ: “… The true expositor of the Christian scriptures is the one who waits in anticipation toward becoming interpreted rather than interpreter. The very divine reality which the interpreter strives to grasp, is the very One who grasps the interpreter. The Christian doctrine of the role of the Holy Spirit is not a hermeneutical principle, but that divine reality itself who makes understanding of God possible.”[2]

There is an dogmatic order to Scripture’s placement relative to God in Christ. Scripture comes from within a proper and Christian doctrine of creation; and a proper Christian doctrine of creation comes from a proper doctrine of God in Christ, Christ as creation’s telos or purpose (cf. Col. 1.15ff). There is no abstract intellect that is embedded within a sanitized (from God) natural history that has the capacity to construct an alien (from God) criteria (like positivism, or empiricism, etc.) that God must submit to in order to be heard. God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, He knows the number of the hairs of our head, he feeds the birds of the air, he clothes the lily of the pond, and He is the content of His written Word.

If what I just asserted (above) be so, then the errantists and inerrantists are irrelevant to the Bible.


[1] John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London/New York: T&T Clark, A Continuum Imprint, 2012), 6.

[2] Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments: Theological Reflection on the Christian Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 86-7.

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