Tuesday, April 17, 2012

My Thoughts on Inerrancy and My Doctrine of Scripture

I was recently asked by Brian LePort to fill out a questionnaire on my view of Biblical Inerrancy. He posted my responses to his questions, here. But I thought I would repost what I wrote here at my blog as well. So that's what the following represents.

Do you use the word inerrancy to describe your understanding of Scripture? Why or why not? (If not, can you explain your doctrine of Scripture?)

I grew up ardently advocating for this terminology; it has only been over the last few years that I have taken a different approach to my doctrine of Scripture vis-á-vis an ontology of Scripture. While maintaining my identity as an Evangelical (Reformed) Christian, and some of the received history that this entails (including the intention that inerrancy sought to capture–e.g. the trustworthiness of Scripture); I would probably eschew emphasizing the language of inerrancy relative to my position (even though I remain sympathetic to it, and those who still feel the need to use it).

In a nutshell: I see Scripture within the realm of soteriology (salvation), and no longer (as the classically Reformed and Evangelical approach does) within the realm of epistemology (or a naked Philosophy). Meaning that I think a proper doctrine of Scripture must understand itself within its proper order of things. So we start with 1) Triune God, 2) The election of humanity in the Son (Covenant of Grace), 3) Creation, Incarnation (God’s Self-revelation), 4) The Apostolic Deposit of Christian Scripture (e.g. the New Testament re-interpretation of salvation history [i.e. Old Testament] in light of its fulfillment in Christ). This is something of a sketch of the order of Scripture’s placement from a theological vantage point (I don’t think the tradition that gave us inerrancy even considers such things). So I see Scripture in the realm of Christian salvation (sanctification), and as God’s triune speech act for us provided by the Son, who comes with the Holy Spirit’s witness (through Scripture). Here is how John Webster communicates what I am after:

First, the reader is to be envisaged as within the hermeneutical situation as we have been attempting to portray it, not as transcending it or making it merely an object of will. The reader is an actor within a larger web of event and activities, supreme among which is God’s act in which God speaks God’s Word through the text of the Bible to the people of God, as he instructs them and teaches them in the way they should go. As a participant in this historical process, the reader is spoken to in the text. This speaking, and the hearing which it promotes, occurs as part of the drama which encloses human life in its totality, including human acts of reading and understanding: the drama of sin and its overcoming. Reading the Bible is an event in this history. It is therefore moral and spiritual and not merely cognitive or representational activity. Readers read, of course: figure things out as best they can, construe the text and its genre, try to discern its intentions whether professed or implied, place it historically and culturally — all this is what happens when the Bible is read also. But as this happens, there also happens the history of salvation; each reading act is also bound up within the dynamic of idolatry, repentance and resolute turning from sin which takes place when God’s Word addresses humanity. And it is this dynamic which is definitive of the Christian reader of the Bible. [[John Webster, "Hermeneutics in Modern Theology: Some Doctrinal Reflections," Scottish Journal of Theology, 336]

So I see Scripture as God’s second Word (Jesus the first and last Word) for His people the Church. From this perspective inerrancy becomes a non-starter, since Scripture is no longer framed apologetically; but instead, Christically, and positive witness for the Church.

If you were to provide a brief definition of the doctrine of inerrancy what would it include?

Millard Erickson has provided the best indexing of innerancy[s]; he has: 1) Absolute Inerrancy, 2) Full Inerrancy, and 3) Limited Inerrancy (see Millard Erickson, “Introducing Christian Doctrine [abridged version],” 61). Realizing that there is nuance then when defining a given inerrancy; I would simply assert that inerrancy holds to the plenary verbal inspiration of Scripture; meaning that Scripture is both Divine-human speech, or Divine revelation (or God's Words). And since God cannot lie, Scripture must be totally without any error; because if it has error then God has lied.

Can there be a doctrine of inerrancy divorced from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy? If so, what are the practical consequences? If not, why?

I think the Chicago Statement, given its recognition for literary and genre analysis of the text of Scripture has effectively allowed for the possibility of qualifying inerrancy to the point that you might end up with my current view ;-).

How does your doctrine of Scripture impact your hermeneutics? Can you use Genesis 1-11 as a case study/example?

I would simply say that I see Genesis 111 as the first instance of the LORD's first Word of grace; viz. we have God introduce himself as the personal God who created, and for the purpose of creation communing with him by and through the Son (Gen. 3:15). So, no, I dont  follow Henry Morris and the Institute of Creation Research  in defending a wooden literal reading of this section of Scripture. I see it literally, but as Gods  introduction of himself to his Covenant people such that His people might know what he intends for his creation; viz. that we commune with him through the Son. It is through this purpose for creation that all other idolatrous parodies (like those in the Ancient Near East) fall by the way side and are contradicted by creations  true purpose, in Christ.


I would recommend John Webster's little book: Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. His book articulates and informs my view on this like no other I have ever come across. 

I would be interested in knowing what you think about my response; and like to hear what your own view is on this issue. I am highly sympathetic to the impulse that charged the construction of inerrancy (i.e. to defend the reliability of Scripture as God's words to humanity), but I ultimately think there are better ways to frame Scripture rather than from the defensive and largely reactive posture that gave inerrancy rise. To be totally frank; when I read Scripture I still cannot but read it as if (because I believe this to be the case) it is indeed completely accurate relative to the standards of accuracy it originally intended to be accurate by ;-).


  1. For what it's worth, I think you've done really well here in such a limited response. One danger I've noticed in answering the question "Inerrancy: Yes or no?" is that even though the options you are presented with are limited to two, the implications people will draw out of either are vast, and often unfair to your actual position. But people insist on a straight yes or no answer!

    Hopefully you've satisfied those who demand an answer in binary enough that they actually take in your fuller point about scripture being best understood within, as you say, the "proper order of things."

    1. Mark,

      Thank you, brother. Yes, there are certain expectations that people have in the "way" they think one must approach this issue (either totally Fundy or totally "Liberal" etc.). There is another way, one that sidesteps this whole issue; which Evangelical Calvinism is all about as well ;-).

  2. Hi Bobby!
    I too found your response helpful :). It's open ended which is fine. I'm comfortable with your response. I'm ok with agnosticism on the question as opposed to definitive "inerrancy". I stll have questions, but they may not be answerable until....

    1. Duane,

      Thank you. I think people either think one has to affirm inerrancy or not; and yet as Mark noted, this is a false dichotomy, there is an totally other Christian way (vs. Logical Positivist) to frame this issue. In the end it seems to me that the classic dichotomy here springs from sub-Christian suppostions and not vice versa.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Bobby, I've come to the conclusion that it is not helpful to assign terminology and ideas to the Bible it does not even claim for itself. No where does the Bible make a claim to be inerrant (more a reflection of modernist ideals than pre-modern realities) or free from mistakes. It does claim to be "true," which throughout the majority of history is something different than "free from error" or even "factual." Your reply in this post is both thoughtful and helpful (and also in line with Wesley ;).

    1. Of course, Cody, the response to what you've said is that scripture is inspired by God who cannot lie. So to me it requires that we flesh out what scripture means by inspire, and how that relates to scripture as God's Word (which scripture itself calls it in Hebrews 4 for example). I just don't like the conversation itself that much anymore. Some folk who follow the kind of theory of revelation that I advocate (like a Thomas Torrance, Karl Barth and John Webster approach) do press that scripture has errors etc. I am not really even interested in being antagonistic like that! I simply want to press scripture's ontology relative to God's triune speech act in Christ and the Holy Spirit. So maybe Wesley was in line with Barth, Torrance, and Webster ;-).


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.