Thursday, May 28, 2009

Internet Inerrancy Debates

Call them debates or dialogues, I don't really care. There have been some discussions about inerrancy on the internet lately. I thought I would link to a few of them and make couple of comments. I fully believe in the inerrant Word of God. It is possible to be overly consummed into defending this position that we fail to listen and evaluate. I think there are issues to evaluate and weigh as to the historical complexities of the Word of God. We should seek to faithfully interpret and follow the Word of God and so I offer these thoughts on the Internet Inerrancy Debates.

Introductory Dangers
First, like so many internet debates out there it is again amazing how many of the discussions proceed as if one party is the expert and the other party does not know what they are talking about. While there are many sincere people involved in the discussion, it is too easy to become too convinced of one's own side without examining the evidence and the issues. For example, it is too easy to throw out a whole bunch of research and quotes so that it quickly becomes apparent one has really only read one side of things. It is likewise easy to say "Scripture says" without engaging the concerns of "How does Scripture say what it says."

The third danger is the danger of novelty. It is a common assumption that inerrancy is a novelty steming from Warfield or others. This argument can then become an attempt to use "history" to trump historic defenses and definitions. The third area of novelty is the danger in assuming new "historical" information into ancient research should trump the clear assertions of Scripture. I believe that historical study is invaluable for Biblical studies. Indeed, it often shapes and nuances our understanding of Scripture and informs our interpretations. But the authority of Scripture is not the background behind it (real or imagined), the background is crucial--even indespensible--for good hermeneutics but the authority of Scripture is Scripture itself. Of course Scripture must be rightly interpreted. It does little good to have an inerrant Word if we don't actually listen to what it says and pay attention to how it says what it says.

Some Reading
This list could go on forever, if I did an exhaustive search. Here are just a few. Over at GreenBaggins they've had several posts on the issue, including the first one, which lead to an extremely long (500+ comments) 'conversation'.
  1. Incoherent Inerrancy.
  2. Who ya Gonna Believe.
  3. There's Accomadation and then There's...
  4. UPDATE: Check Your Facts!, God.
On the other side of the issue, Art Boulet, who argues for errancy but defends infalibility, has begun a series:
  1. Consistent Errancy 1
  2. Consistent Errancy 2
  3. UPDATE: Consistent Errancy 3

Outside of the internet, one should be reading the Spring 2009 Westminster Theological Journal some articles on the issues including a Waltke/Enns debate. Waltke shows that Enns' "data" is not nearly as crystal clear as one might think--means there are alternate interpretations that are equally solid (and must be weighed) but those involved in the debate. Enns of course does not go as far as some involved in these internet debates. The Westminster Journal offers two articles by James Scott on the issues. The recent issue of Themelios also deals with the issues. There are of course other places one can track the debate and discussion with varying degrees of quality. The danger is to read the internet to the exclusion of reasoned arguments. There are of course the relevant books too.

There are in a sense almost three positions: Traditional Inerrancy, Modified Inerrancy (Enns and others in ETS who to varrying degrees adopt some [or much] historical-critical methods) and the errantists some who hold to infallibility. This leaves out the strict ends on the right who would be so strict on inerrancy they'd crucify Warfield and the strict left that denies the Bible is even from God.

Let more offer a few brief thoughts and propose a way forward.

First, differing interpretations does not entail a denial of inerrancy. So for example, holding that Job is not a historical story and defending such position on exegetical grounds via an analysis of the genre among other things, does not entail a denial of inerrancy. Let me quote Moises Silva:
"[T]here is a strong current of opinion in evangelical circles that says we need to tie inerrancy down to certain hermeneutical boundaries. But to speak in this way is once again to increase the conceptual confusion. It is of course true that a commitment to inerrancy entails that we will believe such interpretations are clearly demonstratable from the scriptural text, but inerrancy does not automatically settle interpretive debates... ("Old Princeton, Westminster, and Inearrancy" in Inerrancy and Hermeneutics pages 79).
Earlier Silva writes,
The doctrine of biblical infallibility [e.g. inerrancy] no more requires that certain narratives be interpreted literally than it requires that certain prophetic passages be interpreted literally That decision must be arrived at by textual evidence and exegetical argument. Now I happen to believe that the essential hisotoricity of Genesis 1-3 is a fundamental article of Christian orthodoxy...I would want to argue very strongly that the proper interpretation of the Genesis material is one that does justice to its historical claim. And yet I would want to argue just as strongly that such an interpretation is independent of my commitment to inerrancy. These are two distinct questions. Of course, once we have established exegetically that the first three chapters of Genesis teach historical facts, then our belief in infallibility requires us to accept those chapters as factual. But infallibility, apart from exegesis, does not by itself determine historicity. ("Old Princeton, Westminster, and Inearrancy" in Inerrancy and Hermeneutics pages 74-75).
Thus, as Silve concludes holding to inerrancy does not de facto require that we adopt certain interpretations. I would hastily add, as Silva would concur, so far as those interpretations do not clearly contradict what the Bible has declared (of course giving due deference to intent, hyperbole, genre, parable, context, etc. etc.).

I mention this because let's be sure we are clear what the debate is about. This would be, in my estimation a great reminder for the more traditional side that can sometimes defend all the issues on this one issue. However, the 'errant' side would be wise to consider this. For example, it is common to see writer through out the 'raqia' in Genesis one which could be translated 'dome' or 'expanse'. Prefering the former, they then argue the Bible errs because it offers a 'fact' which is clearly not a 'fact'. The argument goes that ancients clearly believed in a literal dome and the Bible reflects this. Despite the debatable interpretation, it is not in and of itself an argument for inerrancy particularly when you factor in genre. I would argue that Genesis 1 has both historical referent and literary structure and verbage. This is, of course, God accomadating to our language.

Which brings us to our second point. The issue of accomadation. I fully believe that God accomadates to speak human language. Calvin held to this as well as the Reformers since then. Warfield and Bavinck even make non-techinical illustration to Christ's incarnation as a similarity. But God's accomadation never brings him to violate his own character. It is too frequent that the oponents of inerrancy who believe the Bible is in some sense God's Word use accomadation as an excuse for justifying human error in the text. This would violate their own defense of accomadation as they connect it to Christ. Christ never sinned or lied. It is not possible for God to err. I know this defense is rather "simplistic" but some things really should be this clear. God clearly does accomadate, all who speach involves condescension on God's part (revelation is ectypal). But breaking it down for us to grasp does not de facto entail allowing it to contain errors because human's have errors. This would violate the 'God-breathed' character of those accomadated words. It violates Scriptures own clear descriptions of God and His Word.

Most defenitions of errors in the text are either apparent internal contridictions that can be explained by textual criticism, non-scientific precision, literary style or some other normal discipline for the interpretation of Scripture. Some opponents of inerrancy, and here I think of those radicals who go so far as to deny the Bible is God's Word, go so far to strain that gnat that they violate regular interpretative wisdom and ethics. This is particularly true of the fanged internet athiest who blog more than they read. The second common defense of 'errors' in the text involves the use of outside historical and textual knowledge to countermand what the Bible actual says and claims.

This brings me to my third point. There is a common attempt to use historical-critical fields to be brought to bear against Scripture. I am in no way going to speak against academic study of the text of Scripture and the ANE. Indeed, background studies is indespensible. However, there is a tendancy by the novices who use historical-criticism to defended limited errancy to treat these results as a sort of brute fact with little or no interpretive difficulty. There is a further tendancy to look down the nose as evangelical responses and interpretation as inferior and less studied as these assured results from the real masters of the discipline.

We cannot treat the historical evidence of the ANE as a sort of "brute fact' that is just there. Indeed, when one uses such evidence to reshape what one thinks about Scripture, one is making an interpretation (of Scripture) based upon what one thinks of an interpretation (of the ANE documents). This can quickly become a long path of intepretations of interpretations of interpretations which means it is not clear cut and dry as some would have us believe. I wholehearted affirm that scholars, especially envangelicals, should deal with these issues. Yet we need to be extremely careful about the bald assertions that the new evidence reshapes everything we know about Scripture.

Our understanding of the depth and background to Scripture will forever grow as our historical knowledge expands and comes to light but this is a far cry from redefining whole doctrines based upon questionable historical backgrounds. This is of course a 'messy' complex field of studies that we cannot delve into in one blog post, and I myself fully admit I am no expert in the field. Yet while the Word may be brought to light by historical studies (again: they are essential), the authority of the Word is the Word (which needs to be interpreted with hermeneutics). All to say: to allude to Van Til, Christianity provides the roof for the evidences not evidences for Christianity. How you interpret historical details and the conclusions one reach are not merely neutral assertions based on unbiased historicism. So the so called assured results of history can be driven by anti-God assumption which should causes us to question how the pieces are put together, especially when we use part of the puzzle to overturn the rest of the puzzle.

Finally, historical complexities are not neccessarily 'messiness'. It is common to speak of the 'messiness' of the Bible. I myself have used the term and heard it used. We really should be more clear. There is a difference between historical complexity and error laden messiness/dirtyness. I fully affirm the historical complexities of the Bible, its origins, the canon formation and the textual preservation. I am in no way ashamed of the Scriptures in these matters. The issues are not 'cut and dry', the complexities of history are messy in this sense. We cannot put God and the Bible in a box about how God gave it to us and say "it must be done like this, clean and easy." It has not come that way to us. However, and please hear me carefully, this is not the same as saying the messiness makes it error laden or reshapes how or what parts it is the Word of God. This is not messiness and historical complexity, this is rebellion and overturning the authority of God and his ability to use historical complexity to speak clearly and purely. To often evidence of the former is used to argue for the latter which is a clear category error.

Let me offer my brief thoughts on the way forward in the inerrancy debates:
  1. The conservative side must do better in engaging in the actual textual issues. We should defend on views of inerrancy and its subsequent entailment through dealing with the actual historical details and facts that 'trip' so many up. One side says 'see we have the evidence' and too often we are apt to say 'but your presupposition'. This second part is a needed element of the debate but we can win more favor if we couple it with the first part. Consider the examples of Warfield, Machen and Stonehouse.
  2. We should be going backward as well as forward. Yes a lot of research has come to light in the ANE. Yet we should understand the tradition and the heritage before we abandon it. Warfield should be required reading. We should understand the history of the debates as they were first undertaken before we cast off the past. Those who have come before us were not as naive as we might think. Let me give one example: Warfield has an excellent essay"The Doctrinre of Inspiration of the Westminster Divines" (The Works of B.B. Warfield, Vol 6 pp.261-333). Particularly interesting is his discussion of Lightfoot's interpretations. I think it would surprise both sides, the ridgedly conservative might be surprised by how Lightfoot interpreted certain passages. Those who opposse inerrancy might be surprised by its pedigre and interpretive intelligence. Some of the reasons for abandoning inerrancy such as 'accomadation' are precisely the things that Lightfoot held without abandoning inerrancy. We might further suggest Silva's articles on the issues.
  3. Going forward does not automatically entail abandoning the historic confessions of the church. So often progress is seen as theological ingenuity. This is true of inerrancy. We should take the ANE context of the Old Testament seriously. Taking it seriously does not (and I would argue will not) entail abandoning inerrancy. The evidence is a brute fact that if properly understood magically overturns inerrancy. That side, the Reformed conservative side should actually be careful to engage and exegetic the text. Historical exegesis will entail relevant historical background and refining our historical methods of inquiry. It may even lead us to interpret a particularly passage differently than are forebearers, but we mean know disrespect. Indeed, we respect them more fully when we deeply dig into God's Word. Digging deeper into God's Word will not undermine confessional evangelicalism or our Christianity. Historical methods are essential and yet we should ask "which historical methods" for these are hardly unbiased tools which is why I say:
  4. We need to realize the issues go much deeper than the issues. This is more than just 'following the facts'. Those zealous defenders of inerrancy need to likewise keep their own pride in check. Further, we must resist the temptation to define inerrancy by the interpretation on takes on this passage or that passage. Granted, one should not take interpretations contrary to the words of Scripture. Yet even within inerrancy there is freedom of interpretation as long as we are properly respecting God's Word.
  5. Keep in mind "Many might not be aware of this, but the inerrancy debate was not a result of the Enlightenment. Even in the seventeenth century there existed the “anti-Scripturalists”, as they were called. ("
  6. Don't loose sight of the Scripture in your zeal to defend Scripture:
I’m concerned that those of us who view the bible as God’s inerrant word do not practise what we preach.

John Biddle was the English champion of Socinianism in the seventeenth century. He is reported to have memorized in Greek vast portions of the New Testament. What this shows, of course, is that you can know a lot of Scripture and still be a heretic. Having said that, I’m not at all confident that the current generation of preachers and seminary students know their bibles all that well. The bar at Presbytery examinations has been set very low. And, judging by many sermons I hear today, a lot of preachers are more comfortable quoting movies, tv shows, and books, than they are their Bibles.

All of this is to suggest that it is not enough to believe in inerrancy and then ignore your Bible. It’s not adequate to spend 2 hours of your day debating inerrancy on a blog and neglecting to read your bible. It’s like someone saying they believe in God, but not worshipping him.(

I am sure I have solved nothing of the debate here. I have not dived into the textual and exegetical issues. My attempt has been to frame some of the discussion, offer my commentary as I study the issues and provide some suggested lines for moving forward. Let us not be consummed by debate and chatter for its own sake. Our pride is not at stake, the debate should be over the nature of God's Word and the authority and clarity of God Himself.

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