Responding to Critiques of Inerrancy

410sPVQPOsL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_In Can We Still Believe the Bible?, Craig Blomberg offers some observations on critiques of inerrancy and the idea that inerrancy “dies the death of a thousand qualifications” (pp. 126-130).

He first employs Paul Feinberg’s definition: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.”

Blomberg says that inerrancy, then, actually has far less qualifications than most major doctrines like the Trinity or various schools within soteriology and eschatology. Feinberg’s definition has only four qualifications, all of which are left to hermeneutical and exegetical debate within these caveats. I think this should be true, but all too often inerrantists want other inerrantists to affirm whatever narrow definition they have created for themselves, leaving such little wiggle room that one wonders if inerrancy can mean anything at all. That said, Blomberg is right to fight for a healthy definition of the term rather than pretend that it is not an issue — especially here in the States.

He also argues that some people falsely consider “infallibility” or “verbal plenary inspiration” to be clearer terms. However, “the meaning of ‘inerrancy’ is morphologically straightforward: without error,” he explains. “What complicates matters is not the meaning of inerrancy, but the debate over what constitutes an error.” This gets to the heart of some of the standard external and intramural debates about inerrancy, though there is a whole hermeneutical battle being fought even within many inerrancy-affirming faculties.

Here are snippets of Blomberg’s responses to three main critiques about errors in the Bible, which I find helpful to remember in these conversations:

1.We live in a scientific world that values high degrees of precision in countless walks of life. … [H]ence by default we frequently impose modern standards of accuracy on ancient texts in hopelessly anachronistic fashion. Imagine being told one day that your job performance was going to be assessed based on standards not invented until the forty-second century, or shortly before. You’d be outraged. But often without realizing it, we impose on ancient documents twenty-first-century standards that are equally inappropriate. …

To this day, we use round numbers; ancient cultures did so regularly. … A grammatical or spelling “error” in any culture refers simply to nonstandard writing or usage of words; it is not as if there is some divinely mandated correct way to turn oral speech into letters or to arrange words to make a coherent thought. … The reporting of people’s words is a particularly significant example of where the ancients employed noticeably less precision than we moderns do. … In fact, when one historian borrowed from existing sources, it was considered good literary style and an appropriate way of owning information for oneself not to reproduce all the words verbatim…”

2. Another mistake many people make is to confuse inerrancy with literal interpretation. Even the expression ‘literal interpretation,’ as it was employed by the Reformers, meant taking the words of Scripture according to their most straightforward, intended meaning, not ignoring figurative language. … Entire passages and even whole books of the Bible may employ literary forms or genres that are misunderstood if taken completely historically. Apocalyptic literature affords a classic example. …

To affirm the inerrancy of Revelation 13:1-10 does not commit us to believing that a dragon or a beast actually exists as depicted in these verses. Instead, it means that the realities to which they point—Satan and a coming antichrist—really exist, and John really did have a God-given vision in which these individuals were represented by the creatures described. Indeed, defenders of inerrancy do not reflect often enough on what it means to say that nonhistorical genres are wholly truthful.”

3. Inerrancy does not preclude the hermeneutical need to distinguish between situation-specific and timeless commands or models in Scripture. Applying Old Testament texts in the New Testament age requires believers to filter each passage through the grid of its fulfillment in Christ (Matt. 5:17-20). Believers should not bring bulls or goats with them to church to be slaughtered to atone for sin … Christ has paid it all, as our once-for-all sacrifice for sin (e.g., Heb. 9:24-28); we obey the Levitical commands by trusting wholly in Jesus’s full and final atonement. …

When ancient Christians greeted one another with a holy kiss, they were following a culturally common and non-erotic practice of greeting friends. If kisses in certain modern cultures are not a common greeting and are likely to arouse romantic feelings, then some cultural equivalent such as a warm handshake or appropriate kind of hug should be substituted. These are all issues of proper hermeneutics and contextualization, not the direct application of a belief in inerrancy.”

The Son’s Light and Biblical Understanding

I don’t think it’s any secret that I subscribe to an Augustinian understanding of how we approach and comprehend Holy Scripture’s message to God’s people. Commonly known as “faith seeking understanding” (from the Latin fides quarens intellectum), this view says that we come to the Bible and understand its message not as blank slates, without presuppositions and with complete objectivity, but in faith. Those who read Scripture with the eyes of faith in Christ Jesus most fully comprehend what it is saying. Or, to put a finer point on it, only those who read in faith can fully understand its message.

When I espouse this epistemological approach to comprehending Scripture, I am usually asked the same question: “But what about unbelieving biblical scholars/readers from whom I (or we in the discipline) gain knowledge about the Bible’s message?” While I understand the impetus behind that question, I also think it arises from a misunderstanding about the Bible’s ultimate purpose. The Bible, as an historical document, has a series of messages written by specific people at a specific time and for a specific audience – it is in one sense, therefore, for information. But the Bible is not just for information; it is for transformation as well. Again, this aspect has an historical aspect to it, one that is particular to each book contained within the biblical canon, but the Bible’s ultimate transformative purpose, as a covenant document inspired by God the Holy Spirit, is to point to the consummate revelation of the Triune God, Jesus Christ, the incarnate person of God the Son, so that we might know him and be transformed into his image, and, through this transformative knowledge, know and love God the Father. In other words, the ultimate purpose of the one Bible, in all of its diverse parts, is to help us know God and love him. Only those who have confessed Christ as Lord by the power of his Spirit to the glory of his Father can do that.

Along these lines, I have just finished Matthew R. Crawford’s fine monograph, Cyril of Alexandria’s Trinitarian Theology of Scripture (Oxford: OUP, 2015; I’d recommend that you drop what you’re doing and read it now – it’s brilliant). In it Crawford notes (see esp. pp. 184-205) that Cyril also held to this view of biblical interpretation, and dealt with the question of how both believers and unbelievers can in some sense understand the Bible. According to Crawford, Cyril used John 1 and John 9, both instances in which Jesus is referred to as light, to distinguish between two types of illumination. The first, what Crawford calls “creative illumination,” is given to all humanity and is a function of all of creation’s participation in God, and particularly in the Son’s wisdom. (“Participation” here is not salvific, but only intended to communicate that anything that exists only exists because it is created and therefore participating in the one life-giving essence, the Triune God.) The Son is Light, and all of creation as creation necessarily lives in that light. They may reject the light, but that does not vanquish, extinguish, or turn off the light. Crawford glosses Cyril’s thoughts on this type of illumination by referring to it as “generic rationality.” As image-bearing creatures, human beings are capable of basic reasoning, and therefore of understanding Scripture in its historical sense.  In other words, because human beings can reason logically and utilize the tools of historical research, the whole Bible is to one degree understandable to all people.

But there is another type of rationality according to Cyril, a pneumatic, or spiritual rationality, that is only afforded to those who have confessed Christ and been renewed by his Spirit. It is this “redemptive illumination” (Crawford’s term) that allows readers to not only comprehend the details of individual passages and books but to see read them in light of their divine intention. By the help of the inspiring and now illuminating Spirit the Scriptures show readers Christ, and thereby they transform them into his image and make known to them the Father. There is, in other words, a creative illumination that is common to all humanity by virtue of their participation in the Son’s Light, and there is a redemptive illumination that is only given to those who have confessed Christ and received his Spirit. When we read the Bible, therefore, those who read it with us, believing and unbelieving, can come alongside and assist us in our understanding of its historical sense. But only those who confess that Jesus is Lord and receive his Spirit through repentance and faith can see him, know him, be made like him, and through him know and love the Father, when reading his Spirit-inspired Word.

The Benefits of Baptists Reading Scripture Publicly

“Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture.” -1 Timothy 4:13

Yesterday, Matt suggested some of the benefits that accrue to Baptists reading the creeds together in our worship services. Today, I want to follow up on that post by highlighting some of the benefits of the systematic, public reading of Scripture in our corporate worship gatherings. I see three main benefits to this practice:

It is biblical.

When the apostle Paul gave instructions to Timothy about what he should do in Paul’s absence, among his top priorities was “the public reading of Scripture” in the church’s worship gatherings (1 Tim. 4:13). The Greek wording used here is briefer than most English translations. Paul simply says, “Until I come, devote yourself to the reading (τῇ ἀναγνώσει). Because “exhortation” and “teaching” follow closely on the heels of this initial command in verse 13, it is fairly obvious that Paul has in mind here the reading of Scripture. And because these latter activities imply a public context, so also the first. Indeed, “reading” in an ancient context was “normally done aloud and thus involv[ed] verbalization” (Louw-Nida 33.68). This same word is used in 2 Corinthians 3:14, where it refers to the Scripture readings of the Jewish synagogues, and Paul also uses this word when he commands the churches to read his own writings publicly (Col. 4:16), implying that his apostolic teaching possessed an authority on par with the Old Testament Scriptures (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16).

It is historical.

So the early church apparently took up the synagogue practice of reading, explaining and applying Scripture in their corporate worship. This practice continued after the New Testament era as well, as evidenced by Justin Martyr’s description of a typical Christian worship service in the second century:

And on the day called Sunday all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things (Apology, 1.67)

In short, it was the practice of the apostolic and patristic church to read Scripture publicly. Over time, lectionaries (lists of Scripture readings for each week) were developed to aid the church in the systematic reading of Scripture. These took shape around the developing church year, which framed the church’s life around the life of Christ. The typical pattern was to read from each section of Scripture every Lord’s Day: the Psalms, the Old Testament, the New Testament epistles, and the Gospels. The practice of lectionary readings based on the church year continues to this day in more liturgical Christian traditions.

It is instructive.

Sadly, many Baptist and evangelical churches feature few if any Scripture readings in their services outside of the preacher’s sermon text. Many have noted the irony here: evangelicals, who are largely defined by their high view of Scripture, seem to give less attention to Scripture in their worship services than many mainline churches, who do not always share that same high view of Scripture. I’m persuaded that something needs to be done about this.

Evangelicals need more Scripture readings in their corporate worship services.

And I think we need to be more systematic about it than we sometimes are. We need more than a few verses scattered here or there. We need something more intentional, more deliberate, more comprehensive. In an age of astounding biblical illiteracy and increasing biblical infidelity, I am convinced that our churches desperately need to hear and read together the full range of the biblical narrative: the praises and laments of the Psalter, the stories of God’s faithfulness to Old Testament Israel, the exhortations of the epistles, the warnings and promises of the Apocalypse, and the glories of Christ in the Gospels. Reading Scripture together gives us the concepts and categories necessary for interpreting reality and our place within it. Without this conceptual apparatus provided by Scripture we often fall back on cliched expressions and simplistic ideas. Recounting the history of God’s redeeming acts is a practice with deep biblical and historical roots, but it is also a richly instructive practice. It gives shape to our corporate life together as a people called and commanded by God’s Word.

Reading Scripture publicly doesn’t have to look the same in every church. Not every church will seek to follow the church year with a companion lectionary. Some may opt for a more lectio continua approach: reading straight through books of the Bible week by week. We may include single readers, corporate readings, and responsive readings (why not all three?) But we need to do something to demonstrate corporately that we are indeed a people beholden to this book and that our lives are indeed shaped by its grand narrative and the glorious work of its Author and chief Protagonist.

Scripture and Tradition

My friend Ryan Godfrey, a Roman Catholic, and I have agreed to write a number of short position papers on a variety of topics. We’ve agreed to answer a few questions in each paper, but there is no set format. We’ve also agreed to keep footnotes to a minimum, although I’ll probably break that rule frequently.

These are intended to highlight areas of agreement and disagreement, not to be sweeping generalizations about where we think each other is going to end up in eternity, or who should be thrown in the stocks, etc. etc. We will each post our own position papers, after which we’ll give each other time to respond. Those responses will also be posted here.

The first of our topics is Scripture and Tradition. I’ve posted my position paper below. Ryan’s can be found here.

Enjoy.

 

Scripture and Tradition

1. What is Scripture?

Scripture is the Triune God’s self-communication to his people, inspired by the Spirit, testifying to the Son, and revealing the Father. It is the revelation of Yahweh, given in the context of his redemptive covenant,[1] and has as its end both the communication of who God is and the transformation of his people into the Son’s image. It is thus a revelatory and redemptive document. “Scripture” is synonymous with “Bible”, and by Bible I mean the 66 books of the Protestant canon (more on canon below).

The source of Scripture is ultimately the Holy Spirit, who “breathes out” the text (2 Tim. 3:16), “carrying along” the prophets and apostles, who wrote it down (1 Pet. 1:21). Because Scripture’s source is the Holy Spirit, it is infallible and inerrant in everything it says. Further, because the Spirit inspires the scriptures, their aim is bound up with the Spirit’s, namely to testify to the Son and his work (John 16:4-15), bringing conviction, judgment, and repentance. The Spirit’s inspiration of the text also places the foundation for Scripture’s authority squarely in the hands of the Triune God. While the people of God certainly passed down what was given to them, the Bible’s source is ultimately God, not men.

Scripture is not the only means by which God has revealed himself, but it is the only enduringly accessible means by which his people know him. God’s power and creative act are seen through nature (Rom. 1:20-21), but general revelation is only properly interpreted by special revelation, and namely by Scripture. Other means of special revelation include events (e.g. Moses and the burning bush), direct communication (e.g. via the prophets), and, ultimately, the person of Jesus. We should be clear that the ultimate revelation of God is found in the person of Jesus Christ, but as soon as we acknowledge this fact we are confronted with his bodily residence at the right of the Father. He is therefore only known through the scriptures that testify to him. Likewise, we only know of and understand the events and direct communication both testaments through the scriptures. Thus the Bible is the only enduringly accessible means of special revelation available to the people of God. The Bible is therefore the Spirit-inspired Word of God that gives us access to the Word, the second person of the Trinity, who in turn makes known to us the Father. It is the ultimate authoritative source for Christian doctrine and practice, teaching God’s people about him and how to live in relationship with him.

 

2. What is Tradition?

Tradition is also authoritative, but derivatively so. Its reference point is always Scripture, because Scripture gives it its aim and operation. Both of these are captured in 2 Tim. 2:2 – “. . . what you have learned in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.” Likewise in Deuteronomy 6 the people of God are instructed to pass down God’s instructions to their children. Tradition, then, is the faithful passing down of prophetic and apostolic instruction from one generation to the next. Note here, though, that this prophetic and apostolic instruction is Scripture. The prophets and apostles, or Old Testament and New Testament, are the source for the Christian tradition, and the Christian tradition is held accountable to be faithful to that source.

In the history of Christianity, this “passing down” has generally been accomplished in three ways – hermeneutically, doctrinally, and liturgically. Hermeneutically, the rule of faith has served as a summary of biblical teaching, both in terms of its redemptive narrative structure and its focus on Christ. Doctrinally, the three ecumenical creeds served as accurate summaries of biblical teaching on the nature of God and the work of Christ. Liturgically, early Christian worship was structured around scriptural patterns and ordinances (e.g. reading a Psalm, the Lord’s Prayer, celebrating the Lord’s Supper). In each of these areas, though, their authority is derived not from their ability to explain an otherwise unfathomable text but rather from warrant given by the text for their instruction. For instance, Jesus gives the disciples the rule of faith on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24:27, 44); Paul instructs Timothy and Titus to pass on sound doctrine in the Pastoral Epistles; and, as already noted, liturgical practices find their warrant and shape in Scripture.

 

3. What is the relationship between Scripture and tradition?

As is already evident by the way the previous two sections are structured and articulated, for Protestants, Scripture stands over and above tradition. Although tradition has a derivative authority in the life of the church, Scripture has the ultimate authority. Sometimes this means that parts of the tradition must be modified or rejected in light of fresh understandings of biblical teaching. Tradition certainly contains much weight, as does the community in which one practices their Christian faith, but Scripture supersedes both of these.[2]

An issue that presents itself immediately in this articulation is how to account for the canon and the rules that help us read it (regula fidei, creeds). With respect to the

canon, both Roger Beckwith for the OT[3] and, among others, David Trobisch for the NT[4] have demonstrated that the people of God recognized a distinct set of books for both testaments. I am more familiar with NT studies, and in that field MSS evidence for an early NT canon continues to grow. It is becoming commonplace in scholarship to recognize that, by the mid second century at the latest, the NT was circulating in four distinct codices – the four Gospels, Acts and the General Epistles, the Pauline Epistles, and Revelation. Given that this is the terminus ad quem for this means of circulation, it is possible, perhaps even probable, that John was responsible for the collection of the Gospel corpus (which includes his Gospel), the Acts plus General Epistles corpus (which includes his letters), and Revelation (authored by him). This leaves the Pauline letters, and many scholars recognize that Paul or one of his disciples probably collected and circulated these in a codex. In other words, the New Testament canon is not a product of fourth century council decisions, but of the recognition of the Spirit-inspired and apostolically testified character of these books by the people of God. Canonization is the church’s recognition of the inherent character of Scripture, not its decision about which books to include and exclude. It is thus a product of its source, the Holy Spirit, rather than of its recipients, the church.[5]

In terms of the rule of faith and the creeds, I’ve already noted the former’s reliance on Christ himself for its source and authority. Jesus taught the disciples to read the Scriptures, and the Spirit inspired the apostles to write that teaching down for us. Right hermeneutics is ultimately derived from the Spirit-inspired, Christ-testifying Word. Creeds, likewise, find their source in Scripture. As David Yeago has argued,[6] it is not enough to say that the three ecumenical creeds derive their teachings from Scripture; rather, we must say that their affirmations are found in Scripture. The creeds attempt to use conceptual terms to render accurate judgments about scriptural patterns of language. They are not documents that stand over Scripture, telling us how to read it, but rather the derivative summaries of Scripture’s doctrine. Thus Scripture stands as the norming norm of the creeds, and indeed of all confessions, conciliar decisions, hermeneutical methods, and Christian practices. It is the Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying Word that has ultimate authority for Christian faith and practice, and it is this Word that calls the church to Christ, shapes her faith in Christ, and patterns her practices to transform her into the likeness of Christ.

 

[1] Scott Swain, Trinity, Revelation, and Reading.

[2] See, for example, Alistair McGrath, The Genesis of Christian Doctrine. See also Heiko Obermann’s distinction between Tradition 1 and Tradition 2 (the latter of which is static and unquestionable, contra what I am arguing here).

[3] Roger Beckwith, The Old Testament Canon of the New Testament Church.

[4] David Trobish, The First Edition of the New Testament; idem, Paul’s Letter Collection. Another point to be made here is that the entire Bible is a tapestry of intertextual illusions, and it is apparent that the authoring process is one in which each book is tied textually to previous books. Thus the inherent Spirit-inspired and Christ-testifying character of Scripture is wedded together between books, making the recognition by the church of inspiration a relatively easier task.

[5] For more on this, see John Webster, “The Dogmatic Location of the Canon,” pp. 9-46 in Word and Church (London: T&T Clark, 2001).

[6] David Yeago, “The New Testament and the Nicene Dogma,” in Engaging Theological Interpretation of Scripture, ed. by Stephen Fowl.