That Scripture leads into all truth, that Scripture leads out of error, that Scripture achieves the purposes God foreordained for it – these are typical, essential assumptions that underlie all exegesis in the Jewish and Christian traditions up until the period of the Enlightenment. Since the Enlightenment, a few strands of Judaism and Christianity no longer hold to these assumptions. Still, for most believers, in public and private devotion miqra or reading Scripture is about “hearing the word of God with reverence and proclaiming it with faith.” I wonder, though, if some evangelical teachers have forgotten that a high view of Scripture entails precisely that. In this post, I express my bewilderment at recent posts by Michael Heiser and C. Michael Patton, characterized in my view by a strange form of scholasticism. I will offer another approach to the dilemmas they address.
The beating heart of Judaism and Christianity – with one version distinguished from another by the outer limits of the canon adopted and the amount of authority accorded to norms beyond Scripture which are nonetheless held to be normed by Scripture – is the acknowledgment that Scripture teaches “solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” This last quotation and the earlier one about hearing the word of God with reverence are culled from The Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, a Catholic document known in Latin as Dei verbum. The irony is this (I have argued this before). From a viewpoint firmly rooted in the Reformation but not without suspicions about the degree to which modern evangelicalism has been infected by the same misconceptions of truth it seeks to decry, statements like the ones just cited articulate a full-throated, unabashed, and intellectually honest devotion to Scripture better than the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. The Chicago Statement, it seems to me, ill-fits the very people whose views it is supposed to reflect.
But what I do know? It must be true that some evangelicals spend their days sweating bullets over the ways Genesis 48:22 and Genesis 34 cohere and do not cohere (did Jacob buy Shechem or take it by sword or bow: Mike Heiser’s example). I suppose the blood pressure of a few evangelicals does rise every time they note an inconsistency of the kind comparative study of the four gospels brings to light (for example, did Jesus heal one or two blind men at Jericho; this is the sort of discrepancy Michael Patton has in view).
Here’s the problem with Heiser’s approach. Given the definition of error he works with, he cannot but conclude that in Gen 48:22 “I don’t know whether there is an error or not.” Strictly speaking then, Michael Heiser, in his own words, does not believe in inerrancy. He takes an agnostic view.
Michael Patton’s approach is no less unsatisfactory. The point of Patton’s post is the absurdity of a hyper-skeptical stance over against the discrepancies one runs across in the comparative study of the gospels. I agree the hyper-skeptical stance is absurd, but the question remains: Is a believer to be a minimalist when it comes to the import of divergences in detail? We are left wondering whether the believer needs to burn the midnight oil seeking a solution, any solution, to the discrepancies.
Michael doesn’t offer help in this sense: maybe he will in a future post. For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume that the two Michaels work with closely similar definitions of error, such that Patton, too, is not, strictly speaking, a believer in inerrancy. The most he can affirm, based on the style of argumentation he adopts, is that Scripture might be inerrant. It might be the case that none of the gospels, when they differ in detail, do not actually get any details wrong. For example, if one gospel says that Jesus healed one blind man at Jericho, another gospel two, it will be pointed out that he might have healed two, with the account saying he healed one to be understood as incomplete. Okay, but there is a limit to such an assertion: we cannot know if such a might corresponds to an actual was. It might, and then again, it might not. I don’t see how Patton can avoid coming to the same conclusion Heiser does: “I don’t know whether there is an error or not,” - in Matthew 20:30, Mark 10:46, or both.
What is wrong with this picture? What Heiser and Patton do is (1) disjoin the doctrine of inerrancy from the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and (2) define “error” in a way that brings a false set of expectations to the biblical text.
Classical Christian teaching on inerrancy – there are analogies to this in Judaism, but I leave them aside for the purposes of this post – conceives of inerrancy as a feature of Scripture that is activated through the work of the Holy Spirit. Error and the absence of error is qualified in terms of what the Holy Spirit teaches. Here is Zwingli, one of the Reformers, on inerrancy:
. . . so ist das unsere Meinung: Daß das Wort Gottes von uns in höchsten Ehren gehalten werden soll - unter Gottes Wort ist allein das zu verstehen, was vom Geiste Gottes kommt -, und keinem Wort soll solcher Glaube geschenkt werden wie diesem. Denn das ist gewiß, es kann nicht fehlen; es ist klar, läßt uns nicht in der Finsternis irre gehen; es lehrt sich selber, erklärt sich selber und erleuchtet die menschliche Seele mit allem Heil und aller Gnade …
... our understanding is this: that the Word of God is to be held by us in the highest honor - by “Word of God” is alone meant, what comes from God’s Spirit - and no word should be accorded the same faith as this one. For 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 ...
Now, if you believe that it is part of the Holy Spirit’s teaching office to reveal to us that Jesus (say) healed two blind men at Jericho, not one; that Jacob (say) bought Shechem and then conquered it at a later time, you are claiming that the Holy Spirit speaks, not through Scripture, but through harmonizing exegetes. I oppose such outlandish claims.
The facts are other. Of course we don’t know whether Jesus healed one blind man or two at Jericho. Perhaps he healed one, and in the retelling of the event among some early Christians, the number was inadvertently raised to two. That sort of thing happens in the retelling of events. Why must we assume that the formation of biblical narrative was immune to these sorts of transformation?
Of course we don’t know whether or in what sense Jacob bought Shechem for a price and took it by sword or bow. Both accounts reflect deep cultural memories in which Jacob the individual and Jacob the tribe are collapsed into one another. The Genesis narrative which results preserves highly refracted traditions of diverse origin which cannot be reconciled without doing violence to both.
As soon as the way in which ancient genres worked is kept firmly in view, and Scripture is assumed to instantiate the genres the ancient world knew, not the genres we wished the ancient world knew, it will be clear that the expectations Michael Heiser and Michael Patton bring to the texts are inappropriate.
It is a mistake to bring to the biblical text modern anachronistic expectations, expectations which amount to assuming that the authors of scripture do not bring us treasure in earthen vessels, but treasure in vessels made of transparent plastic produced in a modern laboratory. It is time that evangelicals stop abusing Scripture by reading it against its own grain.
I self-identify as an evangelical. I affirm the inerrancy of Scripture. My salvation depends on it. I am not agnostic about it - not in the least. I think Heiser and Patton’s mental gymnastics set a bad example for believers, though such gymnastics, if they are genre-savvy, have a place in the context of historical-critical investigation of the exact nature of the events to which Scripture refers. Still, affirming the inerrancy of Scripture is not about such investigations. It is not about the original autographs either (I criique Jeremy Pierce on this here). It is doxology. It is praise-language. Anyone who reads Scripture within the context of a community of faith in which the Holy Spirit is active will be confident that Scripture is God’s flawless Word, full of truth and grace.