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Hi, John.

I had to read and re-read this post... and I'll confess I didn't read the posts to which you linked.. Maybe they would have shed light on a meaning I've missed.

First as a weekly consumer of that Unitarian potage - I have to insist that you drop in and share a bowl with us sometime. It's actually pretty good.

Second - on the issue of inerrancy... let me assume you acknowledge that the Bible isn't free of factual error (is this too big a leap?)... Is it responsible to cling to the language of inerrancy in spite of this? Does a commitment to the heritage of the Reformation supersede an obligation to hard truth?

Or, do I misunderstand your meaning?


Hi smijer,

First, with respect to Unitarianism, it's been some time, so far as I know, since Unitarianism has gone on record in support of much of anything, in terms of doctrine, from the biblical, patristic, medieval, and Reformation periods. It is my understanding that most Unitarians today would wish to make a "religious case against belief," to borrow the title of an amazing book by James P. Carse (if he isn't a Unitarian, he does a very good imitation of one).

Secondly, Origen, long before our time, distinguished between types of truth and held cosmologies derived from the Bible and elsewhere in creative tension. Luther, with respect to factual error of the banal variety, wisely said, "Let it pass." Neither Origen and Luther, however, ever spoke about errant Scripture. Luther in fact made a point of using the language of inerrancy, right alongside of his commitment to a canon within the canon.

None of this is strange, really.

What is strange is the insistence on the part of some that lovers refrain from using love-language, a famously hyperbolic register, in reference to that which they love.


Thanks very much for the reply.

Unitarianism may be experiencing something of a spiritual revival lately. Certainly the "language of spirit" is being discussed a lot more in all the circles that I listen to and read. Notably Christian (and oddly Trinitarian) UUism is making a resurgence, especially in the UU blogosphere.

Personally, I would be satisfied with a Unitarianism that did only make a religious case against belief - which I think it also does. I honestly think 'belief' is greatly overrated, particularly varieties of belief that do not depend on a very careful and skeletal epistemology. But that's just me. When I say come share the 'potage', I am making a sincere invitation to you to visit and share within our community.

I'm still trying to get my rationalistic head around what you are saying WRT inerrancy and "banal" error in scripture. I think I do understand more nearly what you mean now. I did read some of the links in your post, after I typed the comment, but was still rather muddled. The statement about a language of love does help clarify a great deal. While it may seem simple and not strange to you, it is something I never would have figured out for myself - so thank you for that expression.



Are you sure that inerrancy is a good word to keep? It comes with a fair amount theological and political baggage at this point. And would those who hold to inerrancy in perceived scientific and historical aspects of the Bible be willing qualify a contemporary understanding of what it means to be inerrant, if indeed it needs to be qualified?

My conception is that inerrancy is too closely tied to the modernist world view and associated battles of the last century. We need to look for ways to move beyond last century's controversies and face a whole new century of ones. I saw put a DNR on the term.



Don't you worry about not noticing that the language of inerrancy, as my Zwingli quote exemplifies, is about professing love and according honor.

Some evangelicals don't seem to notice either. They parse the language as if it issued from the mouth of a positivist philosopher, rather than from the mouth of the Jacobs of this world, who wrestle with God and prevail.

I have my doubts about Unitarianism, but not about Unitarians. There is a paleo-Protestant ethos in Unitarian contexts I'm familiar with, an inheritance from the past I would say, that strikes me as beautiful.

It is true that in these last years, I have been blessed in particular by the witness of two "recovering" Unitarians, one a colleague of mine in the United Methodist Church who switched because Christ in some hard-to-describe fashion revealed himself to her; the other, a vibrant young woman who switched to Bahaism. That is an interesting switch. It allows her to keep her progressive views on many things, a sense of including (and subsuming and relativizing) the religious heritage of all peoples, but within a context in which worship is real and powerful - something she apparently did not find in the Unitarianism she experienced.

Thanks for the invitation.

N. T. Wrong

I am in broad agreement with you John. That is, (inerrant, in some sense) Scripture is the norma normans of Christianity. Even the Holy Mother Church affirms as much, even if it seems to state the rather significant qualifier in its next breath that - ahem... 'but, of course, we get final word on what the Word really says.' Actually, the Catholics tend to want to say two things at once concerning tradition and scripture, but that's probably just the unfortunate result of a longstanding polemic with the Prods. The only real challenge to Scripture as norma normans in any mainstream Christian tradition is from the neo-reformed.

But I come back to "in some sense," because that's all important. It seems that the term is so slippery today that it risks that old problem of meaning so many different things that it means nothing at all. Talk of inerrancy, without careful definition, is humpty-dumpty talk. If I intuit you right (hmmm... is that a good expression... too bad, my backspace key is stuck) you hold to a concept of inerrancy which is a little less strict than worrying about how to reconcile the two different stories of how Judas killed himself (and you might just accept that the Evangelists came up with two contradictory stories, and maybe even that one of Papias' versions was the right one), but on the other hand you're a little less liberal than allowing the Bible to convey incorrect stuff about salvation (so you wouldn't say that the Bible got that thing about Death coming into the world because of Sin a bit wrong). But you see, I kind of have to guess this - if I've guessed it right at all, or even close. The term 'inerrancy' is just too darn slippery these days. And because it's such a contentious term, until your view justly prevails, what you're really going to need to do is include a thousand-word definition, a few dozen examples of what is 'in' and 'out' each time you bring it up, in order to avoid the conveying of gobble-de-gook. Sure, it may be ideally better if you didn't have to do this, if these alternative views didn't muddy things up, but alas - we live in a fallen world.

Secondly, I suspect that your dogmatic view of inerrancy (and I use that 'd' word in an entirely descriptive manner) actually governs your biblical interpretation. You've probably seen the comical attempts of uber-inerrantists who try to harmonize every single contradiction in the Bible. I recall reading one by Gleason Archer, which was hilarious fun. I wonder whether your own biblical studies becomes a somewhat more informed version of this, in some respects. So, when faced with genre-classification, how tempting it might be to classify the obviously parodic and ironic Jonah as a 'fiction' or 'parable', rather than an event understood by the biblical writer as a part of salvation history. Every time I see it done, I wonder whether the interpreter is really weighing up all the facts of the matter, or whether his or her interpretation is governed by a need to make the text fit with a certain refined sense of 'inerrancy.' I'm not interested here so much in points for and against the historiographic nature of Jonah, but in the methodological effect it has on the doing of biblical studies. There is after all a fine line between 'sophisticated' and 'sophistry.' The other text which is a central victim of this tendency is, clearly, Gen 1.



I agree with you that the language of inerrancy was infected with more than one virus in the course of the last two centuries.

This, furthermore, has been and is the situation with countless words of the vocabulary of faith. The list is long: repentance/penitence; confession; new birth, justification are obvious examples.

With respect to the language of inerrancy, I do not agree that the patient is dead. Note its reprise by the Catholic Church. It is sick, but a recovery is still possible.

Euthanasia, eugenics, and the rest: I do not recommend solutions of this kind. Perhaps the patient will die a natural death. But I see no sign of that happening in our time.


Hi N.T.

I agree that God and the devil are in the details on this one.

How my understanding of scripture as the word of God works out in practice can be seen on this blog in my posts on Psalm 137 (note also Bialik and Psalm 137), Genesis 1, and unfulfilled prophecy.

You probably understand in what sense I think the canon of scripture is important (if not, see Sean McEvenue's old article in Interpretation). As for history, the history scripture tells us about is the kind Jacob Neusner brings into his focus in his "Beyond Historicism, After Structuralism: Story as History in Ancient Judaism" essay.

You're right. I would not be inclined to say that the Bible got that thing about Death coming into the world because of Sin a bit wrong. I grant that if we could ask Paul what he meant by that, it stands to reason that he would reply in a way that is, based on what we know and he didn't, a bit wrong. I also agree (and this sets me apart from many exegetes, but maybe not Kaesemann) that we do not capture the full force of Paul's argument if we fail to follow him precisely in his error insofar as it is an error - and it is - from the point of view of the genesis of life and man as we understand it from other sources.

Still, I don't think Paul's connection between sin and biological death is in error. Indeed, only if the connection is made is a non-stupid notion of sin likely to be affirmed. Out of that connection we get the concept of "original sin" and its biological foundations.

Something that science and faith see pretty much eye to eye on. Inherited traits, including sociobiological ones. Konrad Lorenz docet. E. O. Wilson docet. If you get my drift.

Paul is a Picasso aware only in part of the extent to which his "art" is a lie which tells the truth. Cool if you ask me. A human being he was, as Yoda would say. Treasure is found in such earthen vessels.

How about ethics? You didn't dwell on that. Isn't it interesting to see how ethics are derived (and not derived) from scriptural foundations? But it's true: in Paul, original sin and ethics are components in a theo-anthropology of sweeping dimensions.

For the rest, I am happy for the reminder that the entailments of inerrancy as understood by someone like Gleason Archer (whom I remember meeting personally, and of whom I have fond recollections) led to weird stuff indeed.

Still, I remember how good Archer was in the classroom with his students. Somehow he seemed to have grasped the most basic and most important lessons that Scripture teaches.

Archer was a mental gymnast, a ballerina on a wire, when it came to reconciling what should not, at least in many cases, be reconciled.

But if, after all that exertion, he then turned to 1 Corinthians 13 and sought to live that passage in his life with humility, rather than dismiss the whole thing as a slave ethic as Nietzsche did, I know with whom I identify.

N. T. Wrong

Hmmmmmm... The Christian doctrine of 'Original Sin' does indeed assert 'biological' significance -- but biological significance that was not part of God's design for Creation. By contrast, the biological fact of death is a fact of life ab initio. This puts the same biological fact of death into two quite different, and quite mutually exclusive, frameworks for understanding it.

So rather than see 'eye to eye', Christian doctrine and science are completely at odds concerning 'Original Sin'/inherited traits. It's a shrewd apologetic trick to equate the two, but you'll have to do a bit better than rhetorical games if you want to persuade me.

Psalm 137 deserves nothing more than a good counter-reading - like the one the good Rev Jeremiah Wright gave 5 days after September 11, 2001.

Revelation is infinitely more vengeful in spirit than Psalm 137, because it smiles and says, 'Ha - we'll do nothing to you... but, just you wait what's in store for you.' While the saintly John the Revelator is outwardly passive, he gets his kicks from threats of eternal torment.

Interpreting Genesis 1 as 'myth' is the mistake of confusing the ancient genre with its modern genre classification. Within its ancient generic context, Genesis 1 was as literally true as Jesus resurrecting from the dead. The attempt to get around this is apologetic biblical interpretation (as widespread as that is).



Thank you kindly for cutting to the quick out of interest for the more substantial questions. I could chat all day with people like you who are not afraid to engage in Sachkritik of scripture. You make the Bible come alive in the process. The Bible is alive for me in the same way.

I entirely disagree with you about Psalm 137. The disagreement is not a minor detail. Those unable to read Psalm 137 with the grain rather than against it are guilty of what we refer to in Italian as a "fuga in avanti," a premature and false resolution of contradictions on the ground.

Let me know what your political leanings are so that I can run, as fast as possible, in the opposite direction.

As for Jeremiah Wright, I take his counter-reading to be an index of a struggle with the desire for revenge within himself. I have no problems with that.

But a reading of Psalm 137 with the grain is more urgent, now as always. In that context, really authentic struggle is more likely to occur.

I concur that it is misleading to refer to Genesis 1 as myth. At the very least, one must be careful to point out the sense in which the text demythologizes and well as remythologizes.

As I say in my posts about it, Gen 1 is better understood as science in a very strong sense, the sense in which theology, per Thomas Aquinas, is the queen of the sciences.

You certainly play an interesting game. In order to defend and protect your sense of horror at the content of the book of Revelation, you accuse those who think with Sean McEvenue that Revelation is there for us as means of grace to metabolize the horror of life, of protecting and defending.

Fine. I stand by my defense of the text and theologically acute interpretation of it, like that of Jacques Ellul or Jurgen Ebach.

You are welcome to stand by your defense of your sense of horror, not at the horror of life, but at the horror of Revelation's signification of it. Petty, if you ask me.

In many ways, Revelation is the best book of the Bible. It anticipates not one but two genres of extreme saliency by which culture metabolizes and confronts the reality of the interplay of good and evil: horror and science fiction.

With all due respect, your flippant comment that John the Divine gets his kicks out of threats of eternal torment lacks psychological insight.

Perhaps you also think that Flannery O'Connor (A Good Man is Hard to Find), the Coen brothers (No Country for Old Men; sorry, haven't read the book), Hitchcock, noir science fiction authors en masse, are sadists at heart. Some probably are. But not all. This is where you are wrong.

Perhaps you think Ivan Karamazov's insistence on justice over mercy is without merit. If so, you are a consummate goody two shoes of the kind our age seems to produce in abundance. The book of Revelation is a different animal, a roaring lion and a slain lamb all at once, not a kitty cat good for petting like you.


Revelation gives Ivan his due to the last cent but still looks forward to a new heavens and a new earth from which the kind of evil person the noir and horror genres focus on has been excluded and been given his eternal reward. Every tear will be wiped away, the gates of the city of God will remain open such that a continual flux of new arrivals will enter and find healing in the leaves of the tree of life, healing then they do not experience now.

Sorry if Revelation is not the kind of relentless pie in the sky you were hoping for.

A minor clarification. I did not equate science and the classical Christian teaching about sin. I merely noted an instance in which science and faith are in agreement: insofar as a lot of bad things, including a disposition to sin, are biologically inherited.

This is a fascinating topic research into which you seem intent on short-circuiting by distinguishing emic and etic analysis and declaring the latter out of court. However, both Judaism and Christianity emically allow etic analysis, if that makes any sense. The New Testament and the Talmud contain both emic and etic exegesis, within a fixed metanarrative such that the etic exegesis is simultaneously emic.

There is a grammar to all of this and there are rules, but they are more flexible than you seem to allow. In particular, acculturation of perpectives with heteronomic origins is admissible.

So I will go on in a direction where you fear to tread. It's true that biologists (except in "non-scientific" postscripts as it were) have not often engaged in "what if" thinking - what if a series of bad things did not obtain in the world. That's how one might describe the point of departure in Genesis 2-3. Emically, this is not a distinction that can be made. Thus far we agree. Etically, nonetheless, Genesis 2-3 is revelation of metaphysic and physic combined. Hence its incomparable explanatory power.

N. T. Wrong

While you provide much more entertainment than what I am working on, I am hurrying off somewhere, but will reply to this rhetorical question that didn't require a reply:

Let me know what your political leanings are so that I can run, as fast as possible, in the opposite direction.

I seem to be a cross between conservative pragmatist and anarchist.

And you? Do you still carry Il Manifesto with your Bible?


I continue to read Il Manifesto.

It remains the case that politics (like theology) is a realm in which the willfully blind lead the willfully blind.

So it's nice to read people whose blind spots are in different places than those of the majority.

James McGrath

I think I remember the recipe for unitarian pottage. Take whatever vegetables/issues/beliefs you have around that you consider important, and add at most one God. :)

The "mess of pottage" image always gets me thinking, and so I have posted on the subject here:


Hi James,

Very nice reflective post on your part.

It strikes me that the claims of reason belong within the bounds of faith, not the other way around. Nicholas Wolterstorff argued this persuasively in his classic, "Reason within the Bounds of Religion" (Eerdmans, 1976, second edition 1984, reprinted 1999).

On the other hand, I was taught by my professor in systematic theology, Sergio Rostagno, to allow the claims of reason to challenge the claims of faith as if they were on a par, as if they were on an equal footing.

It takes faith to do that, but faith, in the process, is the beneficiary. At least, so it seems to me.

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  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    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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