There are two common ways of looking for authority and certainty in the Christian faith.
We can turn to the church. In this view authority is vested in the institutional church and our faith is founded on the inerrancy of church tradition and church hierarchy. This is the rock upon which we stand. The search for authority drives many converts from evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism (See Scot’s book Finding Faith, Losing Faith: Stories of Conversion and Apostasy). But when the church fails – and it often has and still does – this undermines the foundation of faith. Examples of greed, corruption, and sexual abuse from those who “should” be the most trustworthy, who have supposedly given themselves wholly to the service of God, can be devastating. An occasional bad apple can be explained, but systematic protection of the bad apples and failure to admit a problem hints to the presence of deeper problems. These problems are not limited to Roman Catholicism, of course. Similar examples are found within Protestantism, often with devastating effects for faith. But it is worse when the church is the foundation and authority.
In essence, an over-dependence on the church in any branch of Christianity is a dependence on (always faulty) human construction.
We can turn to Scripture. Here, common in the Protestant church, authority is vested in scripture and our faith is founded on scripture. Scripture is the rock upon which we stand. In the context of modernist thought this foundation is only secure if scripture is inerrant. If any piece of scripture is questioned and found wanting – all is open to question and we start down the slippery slope … Our belief in the historicity of the resurrection depends, for example, on the complete historicity of Noah or the Exodus. No distinction is possible.
This is something of a caricature I admit, but the image I am often left with is a house of cards faith. We have a construct built by taking the pages of scripture and assembling an understanding of the faith and church. If any page, any card, is removed the whole structure is shaky and may collapse, some would say will collapse. The foundation of faith is Scripture – but more than this, the foundation of faith is every jot and tittle of scripture. It leads to ever increasing attempts to fence Scripture.
Charles Ryrie’s statement on biblical inspiration (p. 76 of Basic Theology) provides a great example of this impulse to build fences.
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)
Well, Ryrie viewed them all as equally erroneous anyway. The issues couldn’t be discussed on their merit. Properly constructed fences could dispense with the need to wrestle before God. 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.
In essence, an over-dependence on the Bible in any branch of Christianity is a dependence on (always faulty) human interpretation and construction.
Aren’t we better served by a third view – our faith is founded on God alone. The rock on which we stand is God alone – and his work in this world, including the atoning work of Christ. Scripture illuminates God, his nature and his interaction with his creation.
In this view our questions about scripture do not shake the foundation. The idea that the story of Gen 3 tells important theological truths in mythic form; the suggestion that the story of the exodus from Egypt may (likely does) have elements that are not exactly historical in the modern sense of literal – factual reporting, the conquest of Canaan including the fall of Jericho likewise, even the redaction of Matthew and the authorship of 2 Timothy … these are ideas, questions, suggestions that we can consider and discuss without fear, but with reverence. We are not looking for errors in Scripture – but rather digging down to try to understand the message.
In this view we require that scripture is reliable (the lamp must give off light) – but we do not require that scripture be inerrant in the common evangelical use of the term (it is not the foundation of knowledge). A reliable scripture is consistent with the evidence and not demolished by modern biblical scholarship. And we can use modern biblical scholarship to help us better understand the text and the message. Mark Roberts’ book Can We Trust the Gospels? is an excellent readable discussion of one aspect of scripture along these lines. The Gospels are reliable. N.T. Wright’s book on Scripture Scripture and the Authority of God is also good (as is the his earlier, shorter book The Last Word).
And to go back to the notion of authority vested in the Church. The church is on the rock, but it is not the rock on which we stand. In this view the Church, the traditions, are not foundational, but paths blazed before us on the rock. We do well to take with utmost attention the wrestlings and opinions of those who have gone before us and those who stand alongside us, but we also do well to consider when and where the Church as institution has and does go astray.
Concern with inerrancy changes our focus. There is a serious consequence with the Protestant focus on inerrancy. Harmonizing strategies used to achieve concord between science (including archaeology) 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 that we use 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. We shouldn’t transform Scripture … we should be transformed by the message.
The alternative. 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 both 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.” To receive this message we have to read, listen to, and study scripture from beginning to end. We need to be immersed in the mission of God revealed in these pages and we need to be transformed by the message.
What is your rock?
What role do the Scriptures play in this?
Is it enough to affirm the inspiration of Scripture?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
(This post is an edited integration of two earlier posts on the nature of Scripture.)