Thursday, March 04, 2010

Inerrancy. True? Useful?

I'm really looking forward to getting my new Modern Reformation, "Inspiration and Inerrancy". My impatience got the best of me and I printed out the "Roundtable Discussion on Inerrancy" with Michael Horton, Michael Spencer (aka 'Internet Monk') and Donald Richmond of the Reformed Episcopal Church. Here's some thoughts that come out of the article.

First, there are some bad reasons to reject inerrancy. Maybe there are some good ones also, but here's some of the bad reasons offered for rejecting inerrancy.

1. "It's too complicated and requires too many qualification."
I agree that it's complicated and lots of qualifications are necessary (that's why the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is so darn long!). Some would argue that there are so many qualifications that while we affirm inerrancy we explain it away. I don't see it that way - I think those who frame statements like the Chicago Statement are looking to be precise, not explain it away. But if we rejected everything that is complicated and required precision, what would we have left? The Trinity would certainly be gone. The two nature Christology of the creeds is gone. God's omnipotence is gone.

2. "It's a new formulation."
Yes and No. The Chicago Statement is new, but the doctrine that Scripture is without error is not. For example, Horton cites Clement of Rome, "[in] the Holy Scriptures which are given throught the Holy Spirit nothing iniquitous or falsified is written." Similarly Augustine, "The evangelists are free from all falsehood, both from that which proceeds from deliberate deceit and that which is the result of forgetfulness." And Luther, "I am profoundly convinced that none of the writers have erred." Vatican I and II also affirm inerrancy. So, in Horton's words, "to say that inerrancy arose Phoenix like from the ooze of modern epistemology is wide of the mark."

Horton (who defends inerrancy in this roundtable) admits that the word inerrancy doesn't appear in the historic confessions of faith, but explains that it has become 'tragically necessary'. In the confessions, WCF in particular, the authors opted for the word 'infallible', "which used to mean not only inerrant but incapable of erring." It was a stronger word than inerrant, but was weakened in the 1970's debates. That weakening made it necessary to strengthen the language to make explicit "what would in other centuries have been a perfectly obvious confession for believers." In this sense, the teaching on inerrancy is a new teaching, but only because the church was forced to clarify what it had historically held.

3. "It's to bound up with modernist philosophy, concerns, and assumptions."
One of Richmond's main objections to the doctrine/word 'inerrancy' is that it comes with so much philosophical baggage. Well, so did 'logos' and John didn't shy away from it. He used the language and invested it which a particular Christian meaning. The same could be said for words like 'essence', 'person', etc. I like Horton's comment on this, "'This present age,' whether pre-modern, modern, or postmodern, is a minefield through which Christians must always navigate, trying in their limited and fallen (but hopefully faithful) way to articulate clearly that to which (and to whom) they are giving testimony."

4. "The earth isn't 6000 yrs. old."
Richmond and Spencer argue that when we embrace inerrancy "we are invariably brought into a position of embracing plenary verbal inspiration and an unwholesome literalism." I'm only concerned with the second part of that statement - the connection between inerrancy and 'unwholesome literalism'. To Spencer and Richmond, speaking of inerrancy means advocating literalism in the strictest possible manner. Even if it doesn't necessarily mean this, it does to 90% of the lay people who hear it. Spencer writes, "If I say 'Genesis is without error' to an audience of sharp, science-minded students, they will read Genesis and say, 'Then there is water above the firmament and the earth is the unmovable center of the universe.'"

Horton points out this is a category mistake, confusing inerrancy with interpretation/literalism. "Inerrnacy is a claim about the truth of the text and literalism is a way of misreading the Bible or any other text, inerrant or not." Again, Spencer and Richmond accuse Horton of "giving far too much credit to the general population if you think they are aware of the practical implications of genre" (which seems quite condescending and snobbish, if you ask me). Horton's reply seems correct - don't jettison the doctrine of inerrancy, teach people that it doesn't mean literalism and teach them who to approach the different genre's of Scripture properly!

5. "Inerrancy undermines the human element in Scripture."
Here again, I think there is a category mistake. Inerrancy doesn't necessarily tie one to some mechanical view of inspiration that amounts to nothing more than dictation. It is possible to fully affirm inerrancy and the human element in Scripture unless, following Barth, you assume that to be human is to err. I want to affirm that God used the individual writers unique skills, vocabulary, historic perspective, cultural conditioning, experience, etc. I'll affirm that strongly, and yet that doesn't mean they must have been in error.

Having said all of that, let me also say:
1. Holding firmly to the doctrine of inerrancy on paper doesn't ensure a high view of Scripture. There are plenty of churches/pastors who affirm Scripture as God's inerrant word and then run roughshod over it, or prove they don't really believe it by failing to obey it. We need strong affirmations and need to back them up with how we handle and obey the Word.

2. I don't believe inerrancy is a first tier doctrine. Horton writes, "I would argue that while inerrancy is not a foundational Christian doctrine, it expresses faithfully the teaching of the Scriptures themselves and the historic teaching of the church..." I agree. It has been treated as the sine qua non of evangelicalism and even Christianity. It is important, but not foundational.

In the end, I agree with Horton when he writes, "Inerrancy is a lot of trouble, but given the alternatives, it's worth it."

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