An Evangelical Calvinist vis-à-vis Inerrancy, and Other Things on Scripture

I wanted to provide some more, and in fact the conclusion, from Adam Nigh’s chapter in our edited book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the ChurchIn Adam’s conclusion he summarizes well how it is that an evangelical Calvinist might approach Scripture. On Facebook, a friend, Derek Rishmawy, has been speaking a lot about the doctrine of inerrancy for evangelical Christians in the 21st century; in fact Derek quotes his favorite living theologian as saying: “Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition. -Kevin Vanhoozer.” And he further points to this video presentation by Kevin Vanhoozer, which Vanhoozer made in lieu of being able to be physically present at the AAR panel discussion on inerrancy. And so given this up-tick, caused by Rishmawy, and given my reading of Adam Nigh, once again, from our edited book; I thought it apropos to quote Nigh at length, kind of in response to the kinds of categories and emphases being broached and approached once more because of Kevin Vanhoozer, Derek Rishmawy, and the rest of the panel at that AAR discussion on this topic of Scripture, and how Christians in the 21st century ought to engage with it. Adam has written (so let it be done 😉 ):

Torrance offers us a rich account of what Scripture is, giving consistent attention to its location in the divine economy, and helpful suggestions for how to interpret it according to its nature as testimony to Christ. Through his approach, Scripture neither replaces Christ as the objective reality of divine revelation nor stands irrelevant to our knowledge of God as a merely human expression of spiritual genius. Rather, it is human testimony called forth by the Spirit of God to testify to the incarnate Word and thus annexed by God to his own Word as he speaks through it to us.

How does this construal of Scripture’s ontology and the hermeneutic it engenders relate to the doctrinal concerns of Evangelical Calvinism? The differentiation between the divine Word and the human words in Scripture in their unity in God’s redemptive economy along with a focus on the personal and transcendent nature of Scripture’s content lies squarely behind Evangelical Calvinism’s focus on theo-logic over against a purely deductive logic in the work of theology. Evangelical Calvinism does not begin with logical propositions read off the surface of the biblical text and then work through deductive syllogism to systematic statements about God. Such a theological method assumes a causal necessity at work in God’s relations with his creation. Instead, Evangelical Calvinism seeks to indwell the Scriptures and grasp the inner logic of God’s gracious self revelation mediated in them, developing doctrinal formulations that faithfully reflect both the coherence and the mystery of the gospel. Therefore, for example, while Evangelical Calvinism discovers in Scripture that Christ died and accomplished atonement for all humanity, it does not affirm universal salvation, though that might be a legitimate conclusion operating on formal deductive logic, nor does it back away from the universal reach of Christ’s atonement by reading the limited subjective appropriation of atonement on behalf of humanity into the eternal will of God through a doctrine of limited atonement precisely because such conclusions assume a causal necessity determining God’s actions that is foreign to the testimony of Scripture and, indeed, to God’s being. Instead, Evangelical Calvinism recognizes that while the atonement accomplished in Christ applies to all humanity, the reality of sin that keeps so many from belief cannot be worked into a logical continuity with God’s grace but must be left unsystematized as an utter irrationality over which, however, God will ultimately triumph and against which he has struck the decisive blow in the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Of greatest importance in matters of biblical interpretation and doctrinal formulation, the majesty of God as it is exposed to us by the Spirit in the person of Jesus Christ through Scripture’s attestation of him must continually send the church into a posture of reverence and prayer before the God whose objectivity and intelligibility we can never exhaust but only enter into ever greater engagement with. [Adam Nigh, “The Depth Dimension of Scripture: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Calvinism,” in Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church eds. Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (Euguene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2012), 90-2.]

What I like about the way Adam concludes his sketch and development of a Torrancean and Evangelical Calvinist conception of Scripture, is that he doesn’t leave it in the abstract; instead he offers an example of how a lively and Christ-centered approach to Scripture ought to operate in relation to the development of Christian dogma. Usually, inerrancy, even of the kind that Vanhoozer articulates (as I understand him), comes from a conception of Scripture that too often conflates the propositions of Scripture, with the person of Scripture’s given-ness and reality. And this conflation, usually, flows from  premises about ‘revelation’ that reduces it, at least at an entry-point level, to propositions, and propositions that are seeking to be attached to the person that they bare witness. And so, usually, a schema of logical-deduction is followed wherein the propositions are squeezed for all their worth, with hopes that they will finally produce the God-revealed truth that stands behind them structurally. And so what happens is that, good intentions notwithstanding, the Scripture becomes proposition bearing instead of person bearing; they end up breaking off into our finely tuned logical deductions about what the text is intending to communicate, instead of breaking off in the reality of its triune and dynamic life revealed and given in the person of God’s Son, Jesus Christ.

So it is a matter of approach and regulation. Who gets to regulate the approach and givenness of Scripture? Is it the interpreter abstracted from the text’s reality? If so, we will have to invent logical deductive schemata, and approach Scripture as if it is a book, primarily of propositional reality. Or is it the Self-interpretation, Self-exegesis of God (cf. John 1.18) who gets to regulate the way we engage with the text of Scripture? If so, then we won’t have to invent logical deductive scheming in order to access and interpret Scripture; instead as Nigh has concluded, we will be able to live in the space presented to us by God in Jesus Christ; a space that is not able to be manipulated or ‘handled’ by our own machinations. To the contrary! It will be a space where in dialogical relation, and prayerful mode, that our thoughts, our deductions will be confronted (and, usually, contradicted) by the logic of God’s grace Self-revealed in Jesus Christ.

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. Thanks for alerting us to the Vanhoozer video — I was not aware that his ETS presentation was posted online. I was a bit surprised that he didn’t do more to situate his doctrine of inerrancy within a dogmatic framework, as he has done elsewhere. I suppose he was limited in his time.

    The speech-act approach is helpful, for which Vanhoozer is best known, but it cannot merely be the speech-act of the human author (so-called “authorial intent”). It must be the speech-act of the divine author. This was, it seems to me, a basic assumption among the evangelists and apostles when they interpreted the OT.

    Nonetheless, I am immensely sympathetic with Vanhoozer’s desire to retain and revive the doctrine of inerrancy. My difficulty with the alternative, even in its most compelling form (Barth-Torrance-Webster), is how it actually gets applied in real practice, with concrete examples from Scripture. The EC approach, that Nigh articulates so well, sounds wonderful at the theoretical level, which is surely its attraction (to me as well). But I find it nearly impossible to articulate to my fellow congregants at Westminster Presbyterian. A mere “infallibilism” becomes whatever the interpreter wants it to become, which is why Vanhoozer rightly pinpoints its increasing vagueness.

    Like

  2. Another commentary on Scripture that majors on the obscure. To have force, Nigh’s opinion needs be compared, practically, with other approaches – i.e., in any given passage, chapter, or book, how does his method differ? Or does he do this in the book? I haven’t read it yet. Another thing, what role does faith play in approaching the Scripture? We are dealing with uncertain foundational texts, incomplete knowledge about the languages themselves, copies, translations, and qualified grammarians who disagree – and yet no one seems to suggest that faith is involved in basing our whole lives on what the Scripture says about God’s person, motives, and work in Christ. I’m also concerned about your emphasis on the individual’s role in gathering truth – where is the Church and its authority/responsibility to shepherd the flock of God?

    Like

  3. @Kevin,

    I agree with you. But what I will always appreciate about the Barth-Torrance-Webster nexus on this is the dogmatic order that a doctrine and ontology of Scripture is given relative to a doctrine of God. And I do think that Vanhoozer’s proposal is helpful, and in line with where I am at. But like you, I felt that his presentation was theologically weak; as far as the way he framed (or didn’t) his discussion.

    @Steve,

    The irony of your comment is thick! TFT is usually accused of being too ecclesiocentric in his approach; indeed, this/his whole account, as developed by Adam, is rooted in the patristic regula fidei, and pardeigmata. The ground of this is not abstract individualism, but the vicarious humanity of Christ. The way in is an analogy of faith–which I detail in my chapter–and not an analogy of being (which would fit better with your individualist charge).

    If you want the church to be in charge, and if you want to give the keys to your pastor[s] or bishop[s]; I hear Rome or Constantinople has vacancies. Or the Yale school and George Lindbeck’s cultural-linguistic is always waiting with open arms. But Torrance and Barth and Webster don’t allow the church to regulate–in good Protestant (contra radical orthodoxy) form– the interpretation of Scripture, that is Christ’s prerogative; and the plenitude of His life as it is constituted in relation to the Father and Holy Spirit (so your claim about individualism and lack of faith is spurious!).

    And there is no reason that Adam had to compare Torrance with other voices on this. Not when Adam’s task was to confessionally present an approach to Scripture that is situated in the prolegomena section of the book. Why would you make such a claim?! There is a place to detail and describe a specific approach to Scripture w/o appeal to other voices; in fact it is good critical form to provide as accurate of description of possible, and then the critic is better situated to compare and contrast a well described position with others. And yet Adam’s task was not to do that! He fully succeeded in his task of explicating an Evangelical Calvinist approach to Scripture, and his invites critical engagement later.

    But before you get too critical, why don’t you actually read the chapter. I have no idea how you came to your conclusions in the way that you have based simply upon the quote.

    Like

Comments are closed.