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Ranger

Thanks for mentioning Jeremy Pierce's work. I, too, have found his comments on various topics to be extremely helpful.

In case other readers are interested, all three perspectives in this particular inerrancy discussion are from Christians with Ph.D.'s in analytic philosophy. I'm pretty sure that Matt Flanagan, Glenn Peoples and Jeremy are also (at least loosely) reformed theologically. If the typical discussion from theologians and biblical scholars bores you on this topic, this this will give a fresh perspective.

Those of us who mainly focus on biblical studies and theology are often ignorant of some of the more fundamental philosophical issues at work (often incoherently) in what we write/say. I know I am. Thus, such an outside perspective can be immensely helpful.

I particularly like the distinction (that primarily gets fleshed out in the FT comments) between infallibility/inerrancy, seeing infallibility as the stronger adjective. If I have some more time tomorrow, I'll comment further on why I think this distinction is correct.

JohnFH

I noticed that, too. Ranger.

The infallibility of God's word, as affirmed in Isa 55 for example, is, as Jeremy argues, a stronger claim than the one that says, "the text says nothing false."

Ken Brown

Jeremy actually does refer to the work of the Holy Spirit, in the very quote you include above ("under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit").

I like your point about emphasizing what scripture does do (leads to the truth) rather than what it does not do (avoids error), but I'm not sure I understand how you can affirm both of scripture so broadly understood (i.e. not just "the autographs," whatever those were, but also different textual traditions, translations, etc).

It is simple enough to understand that the truth-leading value and authority of scripture is not undermined by its transmission and translation (and one might also say, its redaction). I'd largely agree with that. Scripture is scripture whether written in Hebrew, English, or Farsi, despite whatever (inevitable) inaccuracies and biases might be present in any particular translation or texutal tradition.

But what kind of a definition of "false" could allow you to also say that none of these differences amount to saying "anything false." If nothing else, that seems to imply that none of the textual and translational variants evident in the tradition have any bearing on the truth or falsity of any particular passage, which seems absurd.

Am I misunderstanding you?

JohnFH

Ken,

Thanks for your reflections. You help carry the conversation forward.

Re: The Holy Spirit. Jeremy affirms the work of the Spirit in the inspiration of the authors, but not the essential work of the Spirit in the act of interpretation. The latter is not a given, but it is a necessity. A high view of Scripture will affirm that the Spirit has informed the interpretation of the Church over the centuries, without thereby being wedded to particular details beyond those pinned down in the creeds.

That's how any constitutional document is read. In terms of general principles derived from the document itself, and with due attention to precedent. And the Bible is the constitutional document of a host of politeumata, various dialects, as it were, of Judaism and Christianity.

I understand your concern about my making issues of canon (the core canon is agreed upon; its outer limits are not) and text (plenty of variation in macro and micro detail) non-essential. On a different level of the hierarchy of truth, I would say these things matter plenty.

Can you give an example of a textual or translational variant that has a bearing on the truth or falsity of a particular passage?

I can, but will hold my tongue for a moment.

The examples I can think of nonetheless are not questions of truth versus falsehood, but of a higher vs. a lesser truth in which the text if understood according to the presumed intentions of the author sometimes touches on a higher truth, sometimes a lesser truth, over against that of traditional interpretation (reflected, often enough, in textual and translation variants).

Ken Brown

You would ask for specifics, wouldn't you? ;)

There are simple factual errors, not all of which are due to transmission, of course, but some of which probably are. The reign of Saul in 1 Sam 13:1 springs to mind. Unless we presume that the author intended to leave an incomplete regal formula, the text is plainly corrupt (especially in the KJV, but also in the MT itself; the whole verse is missing from the LXX). Does this have any bearing on the Bible's ability to lead us towards the Truth? No doubt very little, but it is surely a false statement, which the NIV very thoughtfully smooths over for us (!).

More significant differences are also generally more debatable, but at the least the textual variants involving virtually every NT ascription of divinity to Jesus would clearly make a rather major difference to the overall teaching of scripture, even if they wouldn't necessarily indicate a falsehood. In those cases you may be right that the difference is between a lesser truth and a greater rather than a truth and a falsehood, but that seems a rather fine point to put on so central an issue as the divinity of Christ.

I could take a cheap shot and point to the New World Translation of John 1:1c, but instead I'll settle for the KJV rendering of monogenes as "only begotten," which is simply inaccurate and misleading.

P.S. I see your point about the Holy Spirit now, and yes, I agree and think it's a key point. Too often inspiration is treated as though it were primarily about the original composition of the "autographs," when it should instead be seen to cover the whole process, from composition, through redaction, to compilation, to preservation, to translation, to contemporary application, and beyond. Where we'd differ, it seems, is in the assumption that such inspiration offers any guarantee of inerrency or infallibility. It seems to me that the simply fact of massive textual variation (not to mention interpretive variation) is itself proof that accuracy of fine-detail is not affected by inspiration.

JohnFH

A discussion of examples clears the air a bit.

1 Sam 13:1 is an interesting case. It would seem that the text suffered in transmission early on. The tradition behind MT nonetheless leaves the defective text as is. Is a defective text by definition false and misleading? I don't think so.

But LXX seems to reflect a preemptive measure which eliminates uncertainty. The tradition behind it appears to remove the stumbling block by eliminating its immediate context. Many translations seek the same end by smoothing over the difficulty.

My sense is that a high view of scripture is compatible with the existence of unresolved textual difficulties of this kind. When people pointed Luther to numerical discrepancies between 1 Sam-2 Kings and Chronicles, he said, "let it pass." But he also affirmed inerrancy in the classical Augustinian formulation.

Put another way, MT 1 Sam 13:1 preaches just fine. So do LXX and the other "improved" versions, but I like my Scripture without makeup on, same way as I like my wife and daughters better that way. Of course, that's because it doesn't make sense to preach on one verse in isolation from the whole of which it is a part.

NT textual variation related to Christology is a more significant case. If you came to the conclusion that once upon a time the NT writings were completely devoid of a high Christology, that all of the passages which now evince a high Christology are the result of subsequent revision, and that a high Christology is fundamentally misleading, then for sure you must say that the NT as we have it is a false and misleading text.

But it seems to me that there are any number of passages w/o significant textual problems in e.g. Paul and John which evince a very high Christology.

The tendency in textual transmission and/or translation to want to reformulate in terms of a higher Christology is an example as I see it of tradition substituting a higher for a lesser truth.

I'm fine with a cleaned up Nestle-Aland, mind you, but I fail to see how a Greek Orthodox believer who reads his NT in a somewhat revised and interpolated version is thereby taught falsehood or led into error.

It is also the case that all translations contain mis-translations, some of which are obvious, some of which we won't know about until we converse with the authors in the new heavens and the new earth. I can't prove it anymore than I can prove to you that my wife and children love me, but but to hold to a high view of scripture entails believing that whatever mistranslations we depend on nonetheless are not sufficient to lead us away from the source of life and truth.

Yes, there is a massive number of textual variants in the transmission tradition, but are there deal-breakers or game-changers, choices to be made that are fraught with doctrinal significance? If there are, they must be very few and far between, throwoutable based on an appeal to the overall tenor of Scripture.

Here is a classic statement of the inerrancy of Scripture, authored by Zwingli the reformer of Zurich. He would be appalled to have his words applied to the New World Translation, but not, I think, to any translation in common use among Chalcedonian Christians (a mark of the preserving work of the Holy Spirit in that tradition):

"It is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace, makes it confident in God, humbles it, so that it abandons and throws away its pretensions, and places itself in God's hands.”

All of those statements apply, I submit, to the Bible in any form in which it is commonly read.

Ken Brown

I understand your overall point that scripture's ability to lead us to the Truth is not (necessarily) undermined by these kinds of text-critical issues, but I just don't get the insistence on maintaining that scripture is without error or falsehood. Saul didn't reign for two years as the MT states; he just didn't. Whether that matters to anything significant, whether we can ignore it and preach the passage fine without it, doesn't mean the error isn't an error.

If you can admit that such cases don't undermine inspiration or the ability of scripture to lead to truth, then why not admit that these really are errors?

Beyond that, however, I don't see how you can accept Zwingli's claim that "it does not let us go errant in the darkness." Doesn't it? Did centuries of Christians who took John to support anti-semiticism not "go errant in the darkness"? Did the slave traders who appealed to Leviticus not "go errant in the darkness"? I could go on. I just don't see any evidence that the inspiration of scripture offers any such guarantees against falsehood, and I don't see why we need to pretend that it does.

If, as we can both agree, scripture does lead us to the Truth (which is Christ), then why not just admit that it does so despite and even through its imperfections (and ours)?

"But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us."

JohnFH

Your questions are excellent. Just the kind of questions that run through anyone's mind unless they are brain-dead or just plain fearful of thinking through the issues.

There are very grave consequences to affirming that scripture lets us go errant in the darkness. I'm not sure you want to affirm that, but your language moves in that direction. If scripture ceases to be a criterion of truth, another criterion of truth more powerful than it inevitably takes it place, covertly or overtly.

What will it be? What aspect of modernity or post-modernity do you find yourself responding to in this fashion: "as for me and my house, we will serve _ _ _ ?" Even and especially when you know scripture leads in a very different direction?

One of Pascal's great insights was that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the god of the philosophers. Which God do you choose?

At its best, the debate about the perfections and imperfections of Scripture puts the individual before this kind of choice. At its worst, the debate has been used to force people to accept a particular and historically indefensible interpretation of scripture, to close down the hard work of interpretation in the name of a foregone conclusion which has little or no basis in Scripture itself.

I don't want to minimize the importance of working out a paradigm of Christ / culture that is not simplistic. Viewed historically, nevertheless, an affirmation of scripture's errancy is first and foremost a step taken in order to untether oneself from its truth claims in the service of truth claims that originate elsewhere. If that the journey you wish to take?

To the extent that the church has taken this path - you cite examples in which the church has listened to another voice even as it has falsely claimed to heed the voice of her Savior - the results have been nefarious. I assume you are familiar with the Barmen Declaration, which reaffirmed sola scriptura in the face of Nazi faith and practice. Every Sunday I try to preach along the same lines, to put people before a choice, that of serving the word that is preached, versus returning to the trough of delectables that
alternative narratives of liberation in the culture offer them.

I affirm that the authority of scripture is not compromised by a text like 1 Sam 13:1. I agree with you that scripture "lead[s] us to the Truth (which is Christ), . . . despite and even through its imperfections (and ours)."

Though one must be careful. As soon as one notes quite properly that scripture leads us to the truth despite and even through defective texts like 1 Sam 13:1, the admission of imperfections in scripture will be used by someone else to drive a Hummer through that hole, with self-serving and destructive results.

Unless it is clear that Christ is the one who shows us what true Godhood and true humanity actually are, and that that includes a full appreciation of the fact that the scriptures vouchsafed to Israel {not some Aryan substitute, or some other modern or post-modern liberationist metanarrative), including a text like 1 Samuel in context, are a light unto our path, the Truth = Christ equation becomes a replacement strategy, and Christ, it turns out, a disembodied cipher who is in no real sense the son of David, a sign spoken against, as true prophets are, precisely within Israel, the lamb led to slaughter, and so on.

Finally, and I think you know this, it is a misreading of what the Church means by affirming that scripture is her norma normans (the norm which norms all other norms) to suggest that that is equivalent to affirming that she has always been faithful to that norm.

She has not. The Catholic Church has gone so far as to say that those invested with the Petrine ministry, no less than everyone else within the body, have not always been faithful to the treasure vouchsafed to it in jars of clay. Very conservative Catholics were appalled. What part of the magisterium is not actually magisterium? But there really is no way around such a question. Every generation is responsible for answering it as best it can, with an ear tended to the voice of its ascended Lord.

The specific examples you raise are of the greatest interest and deserve a full discussion, obviously not possible here. I would argue that anti-Semitism is alive and well among Christians, who tend to be, contrary to what Romans 9-11 teaches, supersessionists without remainder, who delink what is scarcely delinkable: Judaism, Zionism, and the land of Israel. I would argue that modern Christians by and large are indifferent to the injustices that the current organization of the means of production generates. Injustices fraught with alienation for the mass of wage-slaves on which it is based (sorry about the terminology; can you tell that I was once a Communist; old linguistic habits die hard).

Modern Christians are asleep on these matters, unable to imagine an inconvenient truth, that the slaves to whom Paul says, "Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever" (NRSV 1 Cor 7:21) were less alienated from their own humanity than is the average WalMart cashier or Wall Street trader. For that reason and in that sense Scripture condemns the righteousness of modernity, which vaunts the abolition of slavery, the advancement of women's rights, the decriminalization of homosexuality, as so many filthy rags. Okay, take that as a rhetorical flourish, which it is, but there is a a basis in truth. That is, whereas I would be the last to deny that modernity has brought positive changes in its train, these same positives are bound up with negatives. Furthermore, no matter how often they are trumpeted as such, the changes do not constitute emancipation in the biblical sense of either the Old or New Testaments. Not as Jesus intended it, or Paul intended it.

I accept that the set of tensions the classical high view of Scripture puts in motion are precisely that: tensions that pull us in more than one direction, with particular dangers attached. But I don't see how a revision of the classical view in the direction you seem to be going leads to a more productive and life-enhancing set of tensions. So here I stand.

Ken Brown

Thanks for your excellent response, John! I think we agree more than we disagree, even if I am less willing to use the specific language of "innerency" (if all inerrentists were like you, I'd be much less hesitant!). I especially agree with your comments about the relation between Christ and Scripture, and our ongoing self-serving understandings of both.

Just a few points:

I don't see why admitting that scripture can "let us go errant" necessarily means accepting that "scripture ceases to be a criterion for truth." Even granting that scripture is innerant, that doesn't prove it cannot allow us to err. Maybe I'm not understanding your point (and Zwingli's), but this just does not follow. God is perfect, but God does not force us to be. God is the ultimate criterion of truth, but he routinely lets us err, and the history of the Church reveals that the same is true of Scripture.

Does John mean to promote antisemitism or supersessionism? Definitely not and probably not, but neither God nor scripture have prevented Christians in the past and present from inferring both, with disastrous consequences. Even if we absolve scripture itself from all blame in this case (though John's rhetoric certainly lends itself to such misunderstandings once its original Jewish context is forgotten or repressed), the fact remains that John has "let us go errant in the darkness," even if John also condemns us for our blindness.

I understand your pastoral concern not to allow the way we speak about the "imperfections" of scripture to give others an excuse to stand in judgment of scripture rather than to stand in its judgment, but is there not an equal danger that in continuing to insist on "innerrancy" when we admit such problems with the text, we will give others an excuse to dismiss scripture and us as obscurantist?

Thanks again for your thoughtful and stimulating reflections!

JohnFH

Thank you, Ken.

I think part of the problem does pivot on how to handle straight-up affirmations.

For example, what does it mean when the Psalmist says, "thy word is a light unto my path, a lamp unto my feet"?

That he sees himself as unable to ever be in the situation of Job, in which the whole world goes dark against the reflection of the abyss of unjust suffering? In which the word is no longer a light unto his path? That would be a bridge too far.

In the same way, the affirmation that the word of God inscripturated will not let us go errant in the darkness is almost tautological.

It goes without saying that if we go errant nonetheless, though we have the gift of the Word inscripturated, which is clear [in essentials], which interprets itself, etc., we place the blame squarely on ourselves.

As the saying goes: if the husband says he's listening, but the wife says he's not listening, he's not listening.

The traditional understanding of the Scripture goes like this: the word of God is given to us in three forms - the word of God incarnate; the word of God inscripturated; the word of God preached. Attempts to dissolve that unity are, on the traditional understanding, to be steadfastly resisted.

The manifest unfaithfulness of believers is not put down to error in the word of God. Any and all errors are deemed to be caused by misunderstandings on our part of the word of God incarnate / inscripturated / preached. To be clear, the preacher, too, makes errors, in a way however that the word of God incarnate and the word of God inscripturated, like us in every way except sin, do not.

Obscurantism: point taken. Plenty of obscurantism is associated with particular versions of inerrancy. It bothers me greatly. For example, the idea that a high view of Scripture excludes the possibility that a theistic version of the evolutionary explanation for the origin of the species is tenable. Too many very bright people have lost their faith when this false alternative has been forced upon them. Woe to the one who places such a stumbling block before the faith of another!

Are there alternatives to the classical high view of Scripture? Yes, there are. Liberal Protestantism on the one hand and rigid traditionalism on the other.

The former is way too confident that it knows the truth better than the Bible and tradition on the basis of its particular use of reason and its particular understanding of experience.

The latter equates truth with tradition and subsumes, at least in practice, scripture to tradition without remainder. The result: scripture no longer has sufficient room to serve (emphasis on the word "serve") as a criterion over against tradition, as it sometimes needs to be, not simply as a criterion internal to it.

Ken Brown

But surely the accuracy of the Psalmist's claim that "thy word is a light unto my path" is quite different than the accuracy of a claim that King Saul reigned for X years. Expressions of faith or hope are understood to be subjective and idealized, whereas statements of fact are not. Unless we assume that the Bible contains no history at all, there has to be some standard of truth and falsehood in cases like 1 Sam 13:1 (and even Psalm 119 implies some things that must be either true or false).

For that matter, even if the "historical" books were pure fiction, we would still expect internal consistency on matters of date and the like. If J.K. Rowling says in one place that Harry Potter was born in 1980, and elsewhere implies that he was born in 1984, the latter is an error, regardless of the fact that Harry Potter never existed at all. It makes no difference to the overall truth value of the books, but it is still an error. How is a text like 1 Sam 13:1 any different?

On the point about whether scripture lets us go errant, I still think you are blurring the lines. Even if Scripture does not lead us errant, even if the blame for our error rests solely on us, the fact that we all do go errant still means that Scripture has let us go errant. The Word is a light on the path, but it is not a moving sidewalk. I feel like we may be talking past each other on this point, as I just don't understand how you can deny this.

Further, if you admit that the word preached can be in error, and you admit that erroneous interpretive moves sometimes get codified into scripture through transmission and translation (not to mention through composition), how can you continue to insist that the word inscripturated contains no error? If God continues to speak to us through imperfect preachers, why can he not do so through an imperfect Scripture, the dangers of radical liberalism notwithstanding?

Only God is perfect, for the moment he interacts with an imperfect world God opens himself up to misunderstanding and mistransmission. That God speaks anyway is grace, but all we can ever claim--through scripture, tradition and the community of faith--is to be seeking after God's truth, not to have it in any fixed and perfect form. If nothing else, that's why the need for translation and interpretation never ceases, this side of the eschaton anyway.

terri

John

I have read many of your posts on inerrancy, as it is one of your frequent subjects.

I can never read them without feeling as if there is a little bit of a bait and switch going on in the way you talk about Scripture and inerrancy. You seem to brush aside "factual errors" as unimportant, and as things that must not be called "errors", simply because other people might use that admission to go down a path that you believe is wrong.

That seems dishonest to me.

Reading through your responses, it appears to me that what you are really promoting is a view of Scripture as a binding agent for the people of God....a starting point of understanding the relation between Humanity and God through history, tradition and the combined interpretation of past and present magisteriums.

I don't have a problem with that approach and think it's a rather reasonable one....but I wouldn't for a second call it inerrancy.

Inerrancy dies the death of a thousand qualifications every time it is discussed.

To believe in inerrancy is to believe that Scripture's authors are removed from Humanity in several ways....that they couldn't make mistakes...that their own biases couldn't make their way into texts...and that whatever they did/wrote was just what God wanted them to. I don't know any people like that...do you? Even the holiest people I have met have been very real, fallible humans with their rough edges. Even the best, most devoted preachers I have heard have uttered some mind-numbingly stupid things from the pulpit occasionally.

In the same way that we still commune with people that we don't especially like sometimes, or whom we love but have disagreements with at times,...we commune with Scripture and its authors.

These authors are our kin, our comrades if you will. They share some very important ideas that should be listened to and wrestled with.....but they are not robots directly transcribing from God...unless you want to make God the source of these little "factual errors" that find their way into the texts.

If one wants to remove God from authoring these errors, or contradictory themes, then one must consider the idea that what God wants to communicate to a believer, or a community, supersedes the text at times.

Scripture is like John the Baptist who was not himself the light, but merely came to testify to the light.

Not sure if that makes any sense.

I await the courteous tearing apart of my comment which will be sure to follow! ;-)

JohnFH

Ken,

Very good questions again. Here are some first reactions.

Re: Historiography. Whereas one might expect a novel to be internally consistent in all details, historiography may choose to mirror tensions, discrepancies, and inadequacies in its sources. In fact, most students of ancient historiography, including that found in the Bible, think they can identify examples of such. This is a feature, not a bug.

For the rest, I have no idea why you are bent out of shape by the fact that we do not know how many years Saul reigned. Why this means the passage in question says something false is not clear to me. The natural assumption is that, given that 1 Sam 13:1 as is, is incompatible with the data of its selfsame context, 1 Sam 13:1 as is, is defective. As far as I can see, literally nothing hangs on a valuation of this kind.

On a straightforward understanding of the purpose of the Primary History, the goal is to provide the reader with an explanation of the causes that led to the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its ruling class. Data transmitted along the way is a means to that end. Defective data here and there along the way has no impact on the purpose of the work. Nor does it negatively impact the degree to which these texts are profitable for growth in grace and knowledge.

In fact, it's a nice example of how knowledge is enhanced when one is aware of the limitations of the kind of raw information we have received. Some of the raw information we have with respect to a given subject matter is bound to be defective or plain incorrect. Yet we give the data a global interpretation anyway, based on the premise that the data taken as a whole is reliable enough. Surely this is a commendable way to proceed.

Re: God's perfection versus the perfections of his word. I think you put yourself in a nightmarish position by suggesting that God alone is perfect whereas the things he says to us are imperfect.

Re: The language of straight-up affirmation. As you have seen, I agree on the importance of properly qualifying inerrancy language, but that is not the same thing as giving up on it. Giving up on it would represent a decisive break with precedent Christian tradition. Perhaps that is exactly what you are after, but then, you need to argue your case carefully and explicitly.

Let me present an analogy. In the human rights tradition, a statement like this is frequent: "all men are created equal." Is this a false statement? Surely it is, unless it is parsed very carefully. People are not created equal. They are created with very unequal sets of opportunities and very unequal degrees of inbuilt emotional and intellectual gifts. Nonetheless, the statement is true. It is bedrock truth. Just for fun, I will not explain why. Come up with a plausible explanation yourself. Many statements in the Bible and about the Bible are like the statement, "all men are created equal." That is, it's very easy to construe them in such a way that they are nonsensical. Properly understood, however, they convey bedrock truths.

Another question is about logical necessity. I'm not sure it is logically necessary for scripture to be inerrant in the classical sense, which I illustrate above with a quote from the reformer of Zurich. But a confession of faith of that kind is what an actual reading of scripture has triggered in believers from time immemorial. But I agree with you that our grasp of the truth vouchsafed to us in the Word incarnate and the Word inscripturated is always imperfect. So we are in the same boat. Furthermore, we have yet to identify even one example of where scripture rightly understood leads us into error.

If you thought there were examples of that kind, we would have a substantive difference. Otherwise, I don't think we do. It's more about what language we might use to describe a text that rightly understood leads us into all truth. I'm a traditionalist; you are less of a traditionalist. I'm hoping there is a place in God's plan for both kinds.

JohnFH

Terri,

I imagine, to be honest, that if we were conversing face to face, we would find it harder to go at each other with verve. I would probably end up talking about my kids or something like that on the assumption that you are doing your level-headed best to get these things right, no less than I am. And I believe that about you. I hope you can believe the same in my direction.

I agree with you that inerrancy as defined by some of its promoters does not withstand scrutiny. That is, it rides roughshod over the givens of the text.

But I don't think the Zwingli quote I offer, or the parsing of inerrancy I offer, suffers from those problems.

Right now the Roman Catholic magisterium, a host of evangelical churches, and the evangelical rank-and-file of pluralistic churches make use of inerrancy language in teaching about scripture. This a huge chunk of Christianity.

In fact, for some odd reason it seems to be the case that as soon as people begin affirming the errancy of Scripture such that they gain a sense of cultural respectability, in their own eyes at least, the center no longer holds and the ability of scripture to stand over against us, to be our enemy when that is called for, comes to naught.

That being the case, I'm willing to handle objections of seeming dishonesty as part of a package deal that seems a whole lot better than the alternative.

I would reply in the same way, BTW, if you were to point out the seeming dishonesty of saying that "all men are created equal." It may seem dishonest, but parsed correctly, it affirms a bedrock truth I'm not giving up anytime soon. [See my comment above to Ken for background]

I think your remarks are helpful. You are expressing yourself with a commitment to honesty for sure when you say (I paraphrase):

thy word is a witness to the light,
a pointer to you, the lamp that illumines my path.

The poetry is lame, but that's not the only problem. You are putting a a wedge between God and God's word.

You see, we don't have God (unless you have bought in to a New Age spirituality that identifies an inner voice [which one?] with God's voice). But we have God's word. It is that treasure in earthen vessels that must serve as a light. Otherwise, we simply have no light except our own lights to go by.

Ken Brown

I really like your human rights analogy, but I don't think it modifies my point.

Our positions are not that far apart, once we get past the semantic issue, but I still think the semantic issue is important. I can't help agreeing with Terri that you are dancing around the issue by admitting that cases like 1 Sam 13:1 are "defective," but not admitting that they are "errors." A transcription error is still an error, and the fact (which we agree upon) that it has little or no bearing on the overall truth-value of 1 Samuel is precisely the point: the inspiration of scripture offers no guarantee against such errors, so why obscure this by the language we use?

It is one thing to declare that "all men are created equal," it is something else to insist that we not call the real inequalities between people "inequalities" because that might lead some to disrespect their fellow human beings.

terri

You see, we don't have God (unless you have bought in to a New Age spirituality that identifies an inner voice [which one?] with God's voice). But we have God's word. It is that treasure in earthen vessels that must serve as a light. Otherwise, we simply have no light except our own lights to go by.

I don't understand this comment from a Christian perspective. We don't have God? Really...that's where we are at in defending inerrancy? Aren't we supposed to have God? Isn't the whole point of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the idea of "indwelling" supposed to mean that we do have God?

That is the treasure in earthen vessels...that God would store so valuable a thing within so humble an object.

2nd Corinthians 4:6-7

6For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness,"made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

7But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

If believers can be filled with the Holy Spirit and still say and do some pretty dumb, incorrect, sinful things....how then can we affirm that Scriptures authors can't do the same?

The short answer is that we can't.

I will agree that affirming errancy starts a domino effect. I have seen it in my own life and it isn't fun to go through losing faith in inerrancy. At times it did, and sometimes still does, make me want to vomit at the sheer spiritual dizziness that it left me with.

However...I can't help but wonder how much of that dizziness has to do with the fact that everything I had been taught day in and day out in my earnest attempt to know God was tangled up with the doctrine of inerrancy. Because it was insisted upon as an article of faith, it eventually became equivalent to The Faith. That's what I think most people are struggling with when they want to talk about inerrancy. It's not just that we must believe A,B, and C about God and Jesus....but we must also believe D-Z about inerrancy and its carious implications.

Can one be a "believer" if one doesn't believe in inerrancy? Most inerrantists will give a qualified, "Yes."....but they really don't believe it.....because the bedrock of that view of God and his interaction with Humanity is a text-based view.

Incarnation. Incarnation. Incarnation. That's where it's at.

God living in us. We, being the Body.

I'm still figuring out what this all means to me....but I can't help but think that God and Humanity are inextricably intertwined and have been from the beginning, when we were said to be made in His image, and continuing up until the time that we were said to be given the gift of having a part of God dwelling within us....and being reconciled to him.

P.S. If i get irritated with you sometimes it is only because you don't agree with me! I will assume the same on your part. :-)

JohnFH

Ken,

Here's the difference. Scripture isn't any old text, even if it is like every other text ever written except for the fact that it is God's chosen means to lead us into all truth.

Because it is that instrument of grace, believers are cautious about using the "e" word about any aspect of it. Yes, there are transcriptional errors. Big deal. Let it pass. It's not going to make me start talking about an errant Bible. I confess for example that my wife is perfect (sometimes with joy; sometimes with contrition). If you were to say to me, "No, she's not," and point out this imperfection or that imperfection, I would not be too sympathetic.

But the analogy breaks down because my wife has her fair share of imperfections even if, in most contexts, it would be inappropriate for me and especially for you to dwell on them. In the case of Scripture, on the other hand, neither you nor I have pointed out a single error of substance. If you or I did, then we might have something to talk about.

There are plenty of people - not you nor I - who are convinced that the Bible does not speak the truth about who God is and who we are. That the Bible misunderstands human history, does not capture the essence of the cosmos in its cosmology, gives us a false (some people say misogynistic) view of sexuality in Song of Songs, etc. I get to read what they write all the time, since I read biblical scholars who challenge the fundamental truth-claims of the text all the time. It's a great learning experience for me. It refines my faith.

They are the ones who insist that the Bible is no less errant than preacher X in church Y. Once you do that, you leave Judaism and Christianity without a constitution. That sounds like a recipe for disaster. Polities do well - including synagogue and church - to have constitutions. Think of what it means for a nation to treat a document as its constitution, and to interpret ever after as foundational, through a magisterium (the Supreme Court) and on the basis of precedent.

Is the US Constitution inerrant? It is interpreted as if it were. It's a very interesting comparison. Perhaps I am supposed to treat a member of the Supreme Court as dodgy because she won't admit that the Constitution contains its fair share of errors. I don't think one can be on the Supreme Court and think the constitution has its fair share of errors. Whatever imperfections the Constitution has do not change the fact that is perfectly suited for the purposes to which it is put.

There is a strong sense in which God preserved the writers of the Bible from error. Stronger even than the sense in which the United States Supreme Court assumes that the writers of the Constitution did not err.

Now it may be that you have an amendment or two to propose to the Constitution of the Christian church. That would be interesting. If so, it would be fun to discuss it.

Sometimes the inerrancy of scripture is qualified so as to apply to questions of faith and practice only. I find the qualification a bit dubious myself, but let's accept it for the sake of argument. Are there any examples of errors in faith and/or practice that you find in the Bible? I can think of tons in the history of the church. I can think of tons that are recounted in the Bible, but none that are sanctioned. On the other hand, I am very committed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The god of the philosophers, not so much.

JohnFH

Terri,

I will gladly defend your choice not to use inerrancy language if that language was used in such a way that scripture was inhibited from speaking in God's voice to you.

On the other hand, I imagine you will nonetheless admit that this same language, in the case of Augustine or Zwingli, was an expression of an experience of the kind that you want as much as they did: that scripture did speak to them in God's voice.

This is a paradox that needs to be explored. The church's language about scripture is built up out of the experiences of her saints. That language is the language of praise. It is love language. Whoever wrote that thy word is a light unto my path would be a little dumbfounded by someone who said, "No, it's not. It's only a pale reflection of that light." The experience of the psalmist, and of countless other believers, has been just the opposite. It simply is non-starter to ask that the Church change its language about scripture to read, "The Scriptures are a pale and uncertain reflection of the one true God whom we know better through [his indwelling within us?]." Though it could be that this is the position of some Quakers.

It's hard to know how far you would go in arguing for an errant Bible. Are you saying that you need to do away with affirming that Scripture is a trustworthy guide to God's intentions in order to have God?

I'm thinking that you probably feel that way sometimes. I know that I do, in Job-like moments. But then I change again, as Job did.

If it's about false alternatives, such as, can I be a scientist who takes evolutionary science as my point of departure, and a Christian who understands the cosmos in a metaphysical sense on the basis of Gen 1 and the rest of Scripture, I'm with you all the way.

If you are saying that you want to practice a constitution-less Christianity, then I think you have taken a path that is more than dizzying. It leads exactly nowhere.

In that case, your experience would be the opposite of that on which the conversions of Augustine and Luther were founded. Just examples, but there are constitutive of the church's self-understanding.

How can I get a loving God? Luther wanted to know. He found the answer in scripture. Is it possible that you want to say that you find a loving God outside of scripture, but not in it?

No, I don't think we have God. Ever. Even when the Spirit dwells within us, the Spirit blows where it will. That is what I was trying to say. The traditional understanding, and I'm convinced it is the best, is that God is nearer to us that we are to ourselves, that God nonetheless is also completely beyond our grasp, and radically other.

terri

"Is the US Constitution inerrant? It is interpreted as if it were. It's a very interesting comparison. Perhaps I am supposed to treat a member of the Supreme Court as dodgy because she won't admit that the Constitution contains its fair share of errors. I don't think one can be on the Supreme Court and think the constitution has its fair share of errors. Whatever imperfections the Constitution has do not change the fact that is perfectly suited for the purposes to which it is put."

I don't agree. It's possible for someone to uphold the Constitution because they have sworn to uphold it...irregardless of their personal views or ideas about its imperfections.

The Supreme Court and the Constitution are good examples. for this discussion, actually.

One could probably very assuredly question whether Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers really believed that "all men are created equal" in the sense that we think of it.

Which men? White men.


What about women? Were they considered to be "equal"?

Not in the same sense, by any means.

Yet, we have changed the Constitution. The Supreme Court has reversed itself in certain cases.

So....the Constitution is a living document. The parts of it which serve us well have been retained, and the parts of it that did not provide for "all men" have been revised....or amended.

The Law has force because the larger US community gives it force through the agreement to be bound by it.......but it doesn't make the Constitution inerrant or those who uphold it as believers in its inerrancy.

I think the same principle applies to Scripture and how it functions in the community of believers.

We're not following Mosaic Law anymore. There have been some "amendments" made that free us from that.

"How can I get a loving God? Luther wanted to know. He found the answer in scripture. Is it possible that you want to say that you find a loving God outside of scripture, but not in it?"

Not exactly. I think a loving God can be found within Scripture.....but I think that many of the expressions of how the prophets and the Israelites perceived God aren't directly tied to revelation, but a sort of "best guess" to make sense of their circumstances.

So....if we don't have God...Ever....Then how can we assert that anyone ever has?

Maybe that's what confuses me when you blog about this subject. I often feel like your own arguments have the unintended consequence of boomeranging back at your thesis.

Anyway....I don't want to continue haranguing you. I shouldn't only comment when I disagree with bloggers. It's a bad habit I have of lurking when I agree and becoming vocal when I don't.

It's easy to criticize.

JohnFH

Terri,

I have to go to dinner right now, but can you give me an example of a justice who has pointed out the Constitution's fair share of errors? I can't think of one.

I recommend this book highly:

Jaroslav Pelikan, Interpreting the Bible and the Constitution (New Haven: Yale, 2004).

Pelikan shows in great detail why the analogy has much to teach. Of course, Pelikan would not have been caught dead saying that either the Bible or the Constitution has its fair share of errors. It's not the kind of thing one says about a constitution unless one wants to do without it. Isn't this rather obvious?

JohnFH

Okay. I'm back.

That's a very interesting difference between the Constitution and Scripture. One is subject to amendments which, however, are understood to be compatible with the base document's spirit; the other is not subject to amendments but, the interpretation of it is alive and sensitive to cultural change, such that changes in practice come about on a regular basis.

If I'm not mistaken, the extension of the right to vote to women is understood in constitutional law to be a preservative addition. It preserves and reinforces a basic principle of the Constitution even if that means contravening the letter in specific instances.

One might give all kinds of analogous examples from the practice of the church. First and foremost, of course, the creeds are understood as preservative additions. They are thought of as summaries of the rule of faith in scripture rethought in categories appropriate at the time.

Ken Brown

In the end I appreciate your understanding of inerrency as a stance towards Scripture rather than as a logically provable description of it, but I still don't like the term. It just seems reductionistic and does not seem to accurately describe the view you are actually espousing.

Beyond the semanitic issue, I think we largely agree; though perhaps we might find more to disagree about if we switched from discussing transmission and translation issues and started talking about things like slavery, racism or patriarchy in the Bible.

I'm not sure I really want to get into this at the moment, but one that has bothered me for a while now is Scripture's tendency to describe sin using feminine images. Sinners are described as adulterous wives, or warned against adulterous women far more often then they are described as unfaithful husbands or warned against rape (I'm thinking especially of Proverbs 7; Ezekiel 23; Hosea 1-2; etc). Whether this really is misogynistic may be debatable (certainly Scripture has some very good things to say about women elsewhere), but at the very least it reflects a strongly masculine-centric point of view that is rightly called into question.

This is probably a subject best left for another day, but I am curious how you would understand such tendencies within an inerrentist framework.

Thanks again for the charitable and thoughtful conversation!

JohnFH

Thank you, Ken, for a fine conversation.

I try to be a bridge-builder on this subject. I'm all for the use of a variety of positive terms in relation to the Bible. The language of the Bible itself for God's word as found in Isa 55, Psalms 19 and 119 make an excellent point of departure. I don't think it is compatible with these passages to talk about the Bible as fallible and errant, nor do I hear you wanting to do so. We both concur I think that the Bible is for the believer a beautiful gift which leads us to the truth.

That it did so in an epoch in which patriarchy and slavery were taken for granted makes me hopeful that in our epoch in which capitalism and indiscriminate killing by bunker bombs are taken for granted it is still possible for God to speak.

I don't buy into the notion that modernity all things considered marks an advance over the ancient world. We have exchanged one set of contradictions for another.

Ken Brown

Now that is a comment with which I can wholeheartedly agree!

It also reminds me of C.S. Lewis' observation in The Problem of Pain:

[D]ifferent ages excelled in different virtues. If, then, you are ever tempted to think that we modern Western Europeans cannot really be so very bad because we are, comparitively speaking, humane--if, in other words, you think God might be content with us on that ground--ask yourself whether you think God ought to have been content with the cruelty of cruel ages because they excelled in courage or chastity. You will see at once that this is an impossibility. For considering how the cruelty of our ancestors looks to us, you may get some inkling how our softness, worldliness, and timidity would have looked to them, and hence how both must look to God." (pg. 58)

Of course, in an age of terrorism and smart bombs and unprecedented income disparities, it is questionable whether we really are so much more "humane" than our ancestors at all!

terri

John

How about this....I'll find you a quote in which a Justice is using the words errors and Constitution in the same sentence as soon as you find me a quote of a Justice declaring the Constitution is inerrant.

We'd probably be more successful finding the Holy Grail.

I disagree that saying something has errors means you want to do without it. Instead I think finding "errors" or discussing them is done by people who want clarify issues or understand issues.

"One is subject to amendments which, however, are understood to be compatible with the base document's spirit; the other is not subject to amendments but, the interpretation of it is alive and sensitive to cultural change, such that changes in practice come about on a regular basis."

Doesn't the New Testament do that to the Old?

In fact, isn't Jesus' Sermon on the Mount a list of amendments that is compatible with the "base document's" Spirit. In some cases his amendments are stricter, such as declaring that lusting in one's heart is as bad as the actual committing of adultery, and in others he completely overturns them, such as replacing an eye for an eye with turning the other cheek....or outlawing divorce except in specific cases.

My only point in this conversation is not that you don't have many good points to make about church, interpretation, and finding truth in Scripture through a supporting grid-work of history, tradition, etc.....but that isn't what inerrancy is about.

You can say that's what you mean by the term inerrancy...but that isn't how the majority of people who care about inerrancy see things.

When a term can mean almost anything....then it essentially means nothing.....and that's where I think the fight over inerrancy is right now.

Lots of leaders use the term loosely, giving the impression to the average church-goer that there is widespread agreement about inerrancy and what it is.

It almost always, eventually, gets boiled down to a very basic, "The Bible is True!"....in everything and in every way and without qualification.

JohnFH

Terri,

That's an excellent point about the Bible being a self-amending text. That's part of what the Reformers meant when they emphasized that scripture is its own interpreter.

I realize that some people use the word "inerrancy" in weird ways that have nothing to do with the way Augustine or Zwingli or the Roman Catholic magisterium used and uses inerrancy language.

But I'm not going to let a group of yahoos deprive me of language like this, language that has long and deep roots in Christian tradition, simply because they misuse it.

The same holds for a ton of other things, like the need to be born again; the Second Coming; the unforgivable sin; wow, the list is almost endless.

I'll dig around and find some examples of Supreme Court Justices using doxological language in reference to the Constitution. Maybe their choice of words will provide figures of speech Jews and Christians might do well to use in relation to Scripture.

It's not about doing without or insisting on a particular expression of doxology. But it is about feeling good about praising scripture highly. Once that becomes hard to do or is done grudgingly, that's fine for an agnostic or a believer in a hard place experientially, but cannot serve as foundational language for church or synagogue.

It is important to qualify our claims about scripture, without fear of the death of a thousand qualifications. But proper qualification is not the same thing as replacing scripture as norma normans with something else as norma normans (the norm which norms all other norms). For the church or synagogue, that would be a self-undermining operation.

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    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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    Copyright © 2005 by John F Hobbins.