My Thinking on Inerrancy

*Let me repost something that I wrote a little while ago now. This is prompted by a commenter, and emailer of mine; I will follow this post up with a more direct answer to the question that this emailer has provided me with in a forthcoming post.

bible-cover-page.jpgI was recently asked by Brian LePort to fill out a questionnaire on my view of Biblical Inerrancy. He posted my responses to his questions, here. But I thought I would repost what I wrote here at my blog as well. So that’s what the following represents.

Do you use the word “inerrancy” to describe your understanding of Scripture? Why or why not? (If not, can you explain your “doctrine of Scripture?”)
 I grew up ardently advocating for this terminology; it has only been over the last few years that I have taken a different approach to my doctrine of Scripture vis-á-vis an ontology of Scripture. While maintaining my identity as an Evangelical (Reformed) Christian, and some of the received history that this entails (including the intention that inerrancy sought to capture–e.g. the trustworthiness of Scripture); I would probably eschew emphasizing the language of inerrancy relative to my position (even though I remain sympathetic to it, and those who still feel the need to use it).
In a nutshell: I see Scripture within the realm of soteriology (salvation), and no longer (as the classically Reformed and Evangelical approach does) within the realm of epistemology (or a naked Philosophy). Meaning that I think a proper doctrine of Scripture must understand itself within its proper order of things. So we start with 1) Triune God, 2) The election of humanity in the Son (Covenant of Grace), 3) Creation, Incarnation (God’s Self-revelation), 4) The Apostolic Deposit of Christian Scripture (e.g. the New Testament re-interpretation of salvation history [i.e. Old Testament] in light of its fulfillment in Christ). This is something of a sketch of the order of Scripture’s placement from a theological vantage point (I don’t think the tradition that gave us inerrancy even considers such things). So I see Scripture in the realm of Christian salvation (sanctification), and as God’s triune speech act for us provided by the Son, who comes with the Holy Spirit’s witness (through Scripture). Here is how John Webster communicates what I am after:
First, the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible. [[John Webster, “Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections,” Scottish Journal of Theology, 336]
So I see Scripture as God’s second Word (Jesus the first and last Word) for His people the Church. From this perspective inerrancy becomes a non-starter, since Scripture is no longer framed apologetically; but instead, Christically, and positive witness for the Church.
If you were to provide a brief definition of the doctrine of inerrancy what would it include?
Millard Erickson has provided the best indexing of innerancy[s]; he has: 1) Absolute Inerrancy, 2) Full Inerrancy, and 3) Limited Inerrancy (see Millard Erickson, “Introducing Christian Doctrine [abridged version],” 61). Realizing that there is nuance then when defining a given inerrancy; I would simply assert that inerrancy holds to the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture; meaning that Scripture is both Divine-human speech, or Divine revelation (or God’s Words). And since God cannot lie, Scripture must be totally without any error; because if it has error then God has lied.
Can there be a doctrine of inerrancy divorced from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy? If so, what are the “practical” consequences? If not, why?
I think the Chicago Statement, given its recognition for literary and genre analysis of the text of Scripture has effectively allowed for the possibility of qualifying inerrancy to the point that you might end up with my current view ;-).
How does your doctrine of Scripture impact your hermeneutics? Can you use Genesis 1-11 as a case study/example?
I would simply say that I see Genesis 1–11 as the first instance of the LORD’s first Word of grace; viz. we have God introduce himself as the personal God who created, and for the purpose of creation communing with him by and through the Son (Gen. 3:15). So, no, I don’t  follow Henry Morris and the Institute of Creation Research  in defending a wooden literal reading of this section of Scripture. I see it literally, but as God’s  introduction of himself to his Covenant people such that His people might know what he intends for his creation; viz. that we commune with him through the Son. It is through this purpose for creation that all other idolatrous parodies (like those in the Ancient Near East) fall by the way side and are contradicted by creation’s  true purpose, in Christ.
I would recommend John Webster’s little book: Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. His book articulates and informs my view on this like no other I have ever come across.
I would be interested in knowing what you think about my response; and like to hear what your own view is on this issue. I am highly sympathetic to the impulse that charged the construction of inerrancy (i.e. to defend the reliability of Scripture as God’s words to humanity), but I ultimately think there are better ways to frame Scripture rather than from the defensive and largely reactive posture that gave inerrancy rise. To be totally frank; when I read Scripture I still cannot but read it as if (because I believe this to be the case) it is indeed completely accurate relative to the standards of accuracy it originally intended to be accurate by ;-).

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.