The post last Thursday (Pre-adamism and Hermeneutics) focused on the methods of biblical interpretation brought to bear in considerations of Adam and pre-adamic populations, particularly on the role concordism played and the effect of the harmonizing strategies on interpretation. The discussion of concordism and harmonizing strategies developed to keep faith with both science and scripture leads quite naturally into a broader discussion of biblical inspiration, inerrancy and the authority of scripture as the Word of God. After all, the purpose of a concordist approach is to preserve the inerrancy and thus authority of the text.
What does inerrancy have to do with inspiration and/or authority? A commenter on one of Scot’s posts on Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy brought up Charles Ryrie’s statement on biblical inspiration (the commenter found it in a Study Bible, but I also find it on p. 76 of Basic Theology):
Formerly all that was necessary to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching. (emphasis added)
Ryrie continues (also p. 76) …
The doctrine of inspiration is not something theologians have to force on the Bible. Rather it is a teaching of the Bible itself, a conclusion derived from the data contained in it.
I agree with Ryrie – inspiration is not something theologians have to force on the Bible and I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. But most of the subsequent refinements (responses to what Ryrie considered erroneous teachings), that define exactly what is meant to some people by “inspiration” culminating in “unlimited inerrancy,” do have to be forced on the text. These are not really something the Bible teaches of itself as a whole or conclusions that can be derived from the data contained in it. In fact they lead to a great deal of cognitive dissonance as many come to fear (or realize) that the text does not live up to the pronouncements.
Concern with inerrancy changes our focus. There is another consequence as well. David Livingstone pointed out that the harmonizing strategies used to achieve concord between science and the Bible transform our understanding of the message of scripture. This isn’t just true for questions of science. Harmonizing strategies within scripture also tend to fall into the same trap … strategies reconciling the details of the differing accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and 2 and even Job; the histories in Samuel, Kings and Chronicles; the details in the Gospels (there are differences both between John and the synoptic gospels and between incidents within the synoptic gospels – as with the fig tree for example: Wither the Fig Tree, Whither the Wandering Saints); Paul’s account of his post Damascus journey with the account given in Acts; and this isn’t a complete list. The harmonizing strategies used transform the notions they seek to unite. At the very least harmonizing strategies draw attention away from the core message of passages they seek to defend.
Inerrancy and all the ensuing imperatives, fine-tuned definitions, and fights, with bodies thrown off the boat, churned up in the wake, seems a largely irrelevant and sometimes destructive concept. We need to take scripture seriously – but taking scripture seriously means reading it (all of it) and living it. Neither rigid literalism nor a sifting of error from truth are appropriate.
The alternatives. When it comes to scripture the alternative to inerrant isn’t errant. I do not believe the bible is errant. But “inerrant” (at least inerrant as it has come to be defined in evangelical Christianity) is simply not a useful term to describe what scripture actually is or what it testifies about itself. We have to take the bible as we have it, with poetry, story, proverbs, history, prophecy, apocalyptic imagery, satire, ancient Near Eastern myth, anachronisms, … with all of the trappings. Here we have a faithful transmission of God’s work in his world, his law, his character and more, recorded in forms shaped by experience and context of the people involved, including authors and editors. It is foolishness (the wisdom of the world) to force it into a mold (unlimited inerrancy) of our own making.
Perhaps the best alternative to inerrant is quite simply to return to Ryrie’s first statement without all the detailed baggage he wishes to encumber upon it – I believe in the inspiration of the Bible. And we can go a step further with Paul. Paul wrote to Timothy that all scripture is God-breathed (inspired) in the context of a statement that defines the purpose for scripture. It gives “wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Jesus Christ” and it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.”
When we try to define a tighter fence we will become entangled in the rusty barbed wire we have used and we add to scripture (the message of the cross) a structure of our own human construction. See the image above.
My 2¢ for what it is worth (and I realize that some will think it worth nothing or even less than nothing).
Thoughts? Disagreements? Concerns?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.