After looking at 2 Timothy 3 and Paul’s use of θεόπνευστος (God-breathed or God-spirited), John Walton and D. Brent Sandy (The Lost World of Scripture) turn to the concept of inerrancy. While both of them affirm inerrancy, properly understood, its use in the church is often flawed and troublesome. They note at the beginning of the chapter that “Descriptive terms that carry rhetorical power often have a shelf life. … Inerrancy is one of those terms, and it may be reaching its limits.” (p. 274)
Both John and Brent agree that “the church needs a robust expression of biblical authority.” The claim that Scripture is inerrant in all that it affirms is one way to develop such a robust expression. However, “to know what the text affirms, an interpreter has to decide its meaning.” (p. 275) They go on to defend biblical authority:
If what we claim to know about God is built only on the accumulated wisdom and insight of human beings, we must admit that we know little of God. But Christianity has made a different claim – that the information we have about God comes from God himself (2 Pet 1:20-21). It is therefore absolutely essential that we embrace the Bible as the Word of God. But the question remains, How is it the Word of God?” (p. 276)
This statement by Walton and Sandy does a good job of framing the most important question as we consider the authority of Scripture – God’s self revelation. “Inerrancy” tries to deal with this question and protect both Scripture and the faith from skeptical attacks. But it is profoundly inadequate to the task (my view not John’s or Brent’s). Most expressions of inerrancy attempt to erect a fence that takes both Spirit and human engagement out of the picture. It certainly doesn’t protect the Bible from skeptical attacks or provide many of us with the necessary ground to face these attacks. As Christians we believe that God has revealed himself through his interactions with his people – Abraham, Moses, Isaiah and the rest. This is not simply the accumulated wisdom and insight of humans. If God is real his interactions with his people were (are) real and the interactions recorded in Scripture remain to guide us today. So where do we go from here?
Walton and Sandy find that the strength of inerrancy “is that it has helped evangelicals of several generations articulate their commitment to the veracity of the claims made in Scripture.” But … “The limitation of the term is that it doesn’t say enough and that it can distract us from larger statements that must be made.” (p. 278)
Our most significant path to biblical authority is found not as much in the facts that are affirmed and the instruction that is given (though those are important); it is found in how each genre of Scripture reveals God to us, and what that revelation is. Since the Bible is revelation, its authority is most invested in that revelation. … God is the hero of the Bible and it is his story. (p. 278, emphasis added)
Errors in the application of inerrancy. John and Brent list several errors – none universal, but all occurring more or less often. I summarize and paraphrase part of the list provided on p. 279.
- Modern genre criteria are applied to ancient literature.
- All aspects are placed on the same plane: there is little wisdom applied to the interpretation of different categories (events, people, composition, science, theology, …)
- The nature of literary production is misunderstood.
- Original autographs are assumed, but may have never existed.
- The ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment is unappreciated.
- The default claim of history is made, even where Scripture makes no such claim.
- Inerrancy is applied to genres (e.g. proverbs, psalms) where it offers no real clarification.
Skeptical scholarship has its own set of errors. Among these: There is a tendency to over analyze sources and dates, making pronouncements out of what would be better classified as speculation. Many are dismissive of the idea that God acts in the world and thus of the idea that God reveals himself in relationship with his people recorded in Scripture. The Old Testament is critiqued by applying modern categories rather than considering the theological and historical message in the ancient original context.
Applications. John and Brent suggest six places where inerrancy is applicable (again, I summarize and paraphrase from pp. 280-282):
- Narrative literature about real events and real people in a real past represent truth by means of its own established and recognized conventions. But it is important to discern which parts are about real events, real people, in a real past. (Is narrative history the best category for Song of Songs, Job or Jonah?)
- Inerrancy pertains to the authority figures behind books and texts, not to the authorship of manuscripts. Moses as an authority in the Exodus (Exodus to Deuteronomy) and Isaiah as a prophet were real people and important authorities. That Moses wrote the Pentateuch or Isaiah all of the book called by his name are assumptions that may not be true (probably are not true) but this doesn’t challenge the authority of Scripture or indicate error in the text.
- Reference to original autographs seems misguided in many cases, primarily in the Old Testament. It is important to worry that the concepts and ideas (the revelation of God) was accurately transmitted, not that any specific now nonexistent version was inerrant. Inerrancy applies to the message (locution).
- “We must absolutely continue in the conviction that Scripture’s theological affirmations are inerrant.” (This doesn’t mean that our creedal affirmations are inerrant.)
- Propositions are inerrant – when they really are propositions.
- The picture of God is accurate.
But … we should not apply it to interpretative conclusions (e.g. young earth, old earth, premillennialism, a specific theory of atonement …). These positions may be defensible from Scripture, but inerrancy can’t be invoked as their claim for truth.
Is inerrancy a useful category?
What are the important concepts we must affirm?
What would you change in Brent and John’s outline of errant and allowed applications of inerrancy?
If you wish to contact me directly, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
You may also comment on Pros and Cons of Inerrancy at Jesus Creed.