Not everyone knows that Jeremy Pierce is blogging over at First Things now. An excellent deal all around. Not everyone knows what FT is: an ecumenical venture that unites Christians, Catholic, Orthodox, evangelical, confessional Lutheran, and so on, not to mention Jews like David Novak who have the patience of Job. FT’s agenda is clear: to bring the full intellectual resources of the classical Jewish and Christian traditions to bear in the public square, without apology and without pulling any punches. What positions do FTers take in the public square? The algorithm is easily stated: identify the politically correct position; an FTer will almost always take a position in defiance thereof.
FT is a great read. It’s put together by people who are not afraid to speak, as Karl Barth called the language of tradition, “the language of Canaan,” – wholly secular in origin, a true vernacular, subject to misunderstanding no less than any other language, but just so the language vouchsafed to us in Scripture and in its first interpreters, sacred in that sense. I don’t read FT in search of agreement, but in search of intellectual and political engagement.
Jeremy has been blogging about inerrancy. I like what he says. I just want him to go further. His view of Scripture, it seems to me, is not high enough. He says (in a comment, not his introductory post):
So if someone rejects inerrancy because they think you can’t be an inerrantist and hold to (for example) common descent with animals, the three-author view of authorship of Isaiah, or the view that Jonah is a parable, then I think they’re just wrong for rejecting inerrancy on those grounds. The inerrantist view can allow for any of those positions . . .
The view that the Bible is inerrant will affirm that the original manuscripts were produced by human authors, using their human faculties, under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit, in a way that produced nothing that says anything false by the standards of the kind of literature in the historical context and cultural setting each book was produced in.
That’s very well put. But it’s still weak and one-sided, as evangelical talk of Scripture often is. Jews and Christians traditionally have made far more grandiose claims about the words of Scripture than Jeremy does.
Not only do the texts, rightly understood, say nothing false. They lead into all truth. Furthermore, this is the case with respect to the Bible we actually read, no less than with respect to the original manuscripts (no longer available). In matters of detail, the original manuscripts and the Bible we read differ. That doesn’t change a thing. The Bible says nothing false and leads into all truth whether one reads it in (1) Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek in a form established by the canons of text criticism; (2) a traditioned form as found in various sacred language traditions of the Eastern Orthodox, traditions ultimately based on the Septuagint (and different in details great and small vis-à-vis the Hebrew and Aramaic of the Masoretic text) and on a lightly interpolated New Testament text; (3) an imperfect translation of (1) or (2).
Furthermore, the Bible, according to any truly classical understanding of how its authority works, is read within the context of a received tradition of interpretation it itself has generated. In Jewish and Christian tradition, the Bible remains the source of language, propositions, figures, narratives, theology, and understandings of nature, history, sexuality, war, government, and so on, which can and are re-appropriated in every generation in creative dialogue, and even tension with, pre-existing traditions of interpretation accorded a degree of authority of their own.
This is not a zero-sum game, as evangelicals poorly read in the Fathers and the Reformation tend to think. Just as the authority of the United States Constitution is enhanced by the fact that it is interpreted by a magisterium (the Supreme Court), and not from scratch (unless you are an activist judge) but on the basis of precedent, so the authority of the Bible is enhanced by its emplacement in a stream of interpretive tradition.
That’s why the Reformers, and by Reformers I mean people like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bucer, and Cranmer, cite Augustine, Ambrose, and other Church Fathers left and right. For them, a tradition of interpretation and practice was normative,* though they understood its normative role more dynamically and more critically than did the counter-Reformers.
Jeremy’s view of Scripture is not high enough because (1) he defines it in relation to texts we do not have (the original manuscripts); (2) he emphasizes what scripture doesn’t do (it says nothing false) at the expense of emphasizing what it does do (lead into all truth); (3) he leaves untouched the topic of Scripture as norma normans the authority of which is enhanced by the norma normata it generates.
Finally, Jeremy does not see fit to make reference to the work of the Holy Spirit [in the role referred to in John 14:26; clarification added in response to Ken's comment below], without which scripture remains a letter that kills. By virtue of the work of the Holy Spirit, Scripture leads into all truth, is a garden of delights, and transforms our beings. It is not the case that the Bible leads into all truth, or any truth at all, apart from the work of the same Spirit that inspired the Bible’s authors. The ongoing work of the Spirit enhances the original work of the Spirit of verbal plenary inspiration. The ongoing work serves to makes the original work effective. And that work does not only or even primarily take place in the context of a tête-à-tête of the text with an individual believer. It takes place in the context of the communion of saints such that the authority of Scripture is richer and more ramified than it would be if one were to read the Bible in the company of me, myself, and I, no one else.
Now maybe I’m just getting ahead of Jeremy. After all, he titled his post “Basic Inerrancy.” Still, even a basic description of what scripture is and how it works from a point of view that seeks to be catholic, reformed, and evangelical will touch on all the points discussed above.
* In this the magisterial Reformers differed from the Anabaptists, who nevertheless went on to develop traditions of interpretation and practice of their own - by God’s providence I would say, though I am not an Anabaptist.