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When is an inerrancy debate not really about inerrancy?

Most of the time.

I hadn’t intended to write more about the Licona controversy and the inerrancy debate (here’s my first post), but I’ve gotten enough questions that I think I need to say a bit more. If you’d like to read more about the discussion, I’ve included some of the more important links at the bottom of this post.

The Basic Issues

  • Michael Licona understands the dead rising in Mt. 27:52-53 as a non-historical literary device rather than an actual historical event.
  • Many have argued that this is incompatible with inerrancy as defined by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) because it’s an example of “dehistoricizing” (see Article XVIII).
  • Licona claims that he believes in inerrancy and that his position on Mt. 27 is not incompatible with inerrancy. (I do not know whether Licona affirms inerrancy as defined by CSBI. But, for the sake of this post, I’ll assume that he does.)
  • Somebody is wrong.

According to CSBI, to affirm that the Bible is “inerrant” means you affirm that because God only speaks truth, and because the Bible is fully and wholly inspired by this truth-speaking God, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority” and is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” And, this infallible inerrancy extends to everything that it touches on, including “the events of world history.” So, for example, if the Bible makes a historical claim like “David was the king of Israel,” then it either must be the case that David was in fact an actual and historical king of Israel or inerrancy is false.

And CSBI is very clear in rejecting any attempt to “dehistoricize” scripture by turning historical events into non-historical events. In other words, you don’t get to dodge the Virgin Birth by turning it into a mere symbol of Christ’s unique significance. If the Bible presents it as an historical event, then it was one. You can reject the CSBI definition of inerrancy, but you can’t slip around it quite that easily.

Seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it?

Like most things, it’s a bit more complicated in practice.

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The Real Crux of the Problem: Hermeneutics

All of this hinges on whether the Bible does in fact present some event as an actual historical event. Take, for instance, the six days of creation. Although many hold that Genesis 1 is historical and must be read that way, many other evangelicals disagree. Instead, they contend that Genesis 1 is doing something else (e.g. giving theological truths about the origin of the universe, offering a poetic account of creation, etc.). But, and this is key, when evangelicals read Genesis 1 in these ways, they are not rejecting inerrancy. They can still hold that Genesis 1 is infallible and inerrant in every way. They are simply arguing that the biblical authors never intended anyone to read Genesis 1 as describing literal, historical events. So, to read them that way is to misread the text.

In other words, it’s not that they think Genesis 1 tries to describe history and fails. They don’t think it is even trying to describe history, or it’s describing history with highly poetic language. It’s not wrong; it’s just doing something different. And, whatever it’s doing, it’s doing it inerrantly.

Now, is this an example of dehistoricizing a text? Are these people simply taking an obviously historical text and turning it into non-history so that they can avoid its clear implications? If so, then even though these people might still use the word “inerrancy,” it would not be the CSBI kind of inerrancy.

I don’t think so. I think we should reserve “dehistoricizing” for situations where a story that gives no indication of being anything other than historical is suddenly re-read as being non-historical. So, for example, to read the story of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and conclude that this never really happened, and that the story actually refers to the spiritual gathering of believers in heaven, that would be an example of dehistoricizing. (I don’t know anyone who actually does that with this story.) There’s nothing in the text to suggest that this is anything other than an historical account of a real event (though described, of course, from a particular perspective). But, regardless of how you read Genesis 1, I think we should all recognize that there are reasonable arguments for reading it as something other than six literal days of creation. You can disagree with those arguments, of course. That’s where the fun is. But, let’s at least acknowledge that these people can point to many elements in Genesis 1 as indicating that this text was never intended to be read as literal history. So, they’re not simply dehistoricizing; they’re trying to read the text the way the authors intended.

In other words, this isn’t a debate about inerrancy. It’s about hermeneutics. What is the proper way to understand Genesis 1, and are there indications in Genesis 1 that it is anything other than straightforward history? What is the genre of Genesis 1, and how did the original authors intend for it to be read? These are all hermeneutical issues. And, they’re all worth discussing. But, none of them necessarily undermines inerrancy.

Now, CSBI does deal with issues of hermeneutics, but not very thoroughly. All it says is that Scripture is “to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” And this doesn’t really solve our problem. As CSBI recognizes, grammatical-historical exegesis takes into account things like genre and literary devices. So, a grammatical-historical method could still read Genesis 1 as poetry (or whatever) if there are indications that this is how the text should be read.

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Hermeneutics & the Licona Debate

What does any of this have to do with the Licona debate? Quite simply, this is not a debate about inerrancy either. Everyone involved in the discussion affirms inerrancy. And, I haven’t heard anyone say that they’re defining inerrancy in any way other than that affirmed by CSBI. So, let’s take them at their word and assume that they do in fact believe what they say they do.

As with Genesis 1, this is a debate about hermeneutics. Licona claims that Matthew intended for us to read 27:52-53 as an “apocalyptic” device that highlights the significance of Christ’s death and resurrection. According to him, this was a common literary device in Greco-Roman culture and that Matthew would have expected his readers to know this and read the text accordingly. In other words, he’s not saying that Matthew claimed that people rose from the dead and that Matthew was in fact wrong about this. He’s saying that Matthew never intended us to think that people actually rose from their graves.

So, the question is not whether Licona rejects inerrancy, but whether he is correct in his interpretation of Mt. 27:52-53. Does he in fact have good evidence for maintaining that this is how Matthew and his readers would have understood this text? In other words, can he demonstrate that “rising from the grave” was a literary device and would have been understood as such in Matthew’s day? That’s a hermeneutical question.

Now, I’ll have to be honest here, I’m not convinced by Licona’s argument. Mt. 27:52-53 sure looks and feels like a seamless part of the historical narrative in which it’s contained. So, I’m having a hard time seeing the basis for saying that these verses are a non-historical literary device, while the surrounding verses are historical. But, I haven’t studied the text myself. So, maybe there’s more to the argument than I recognize.

The point is, this is a debate about hermeneutics. It is not a debate about inerrancy. It could end up having implications for inerrancy if the hermeneutical issues are resolved and it’s concluded that this was not an accepted literary device in Matthew’s day. To continue reading the text as poetic then would be to dehistoricize the text and reject inerrancy. But, that is not where we are in the discussion at this point.

So, let me say it again. This is not a debate about inerrancy. At least, it shouldn’t be. And, escalating it into a debate about inerrancy at this juncture is neither wise nor helpful. It distracts from the real issues and prevents people from taking an honest look at what may be a legitimate interpretive possibility.

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For More Information:

I’m sure there are many others, but this should be more than enough.

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Flotsam and jetsam (1/7)

  • Matthew Flanagan has begun posting a revised version of his argument regarding the genocide of the Canaanites. Today’s post argues that Joshua should be read as hagiography rather than literal history:

Thus Joshua itself appears to be full of ritualistic, stylised, formulaic language. It therefore looks like something other than a mere literal description of what occurred. In light of these facts Wolterstorff argues that Judges should be taken literally whereas Joshua is hagiographic history; a highly-stylised, exaggerated account of what occurred, designed to teach theological and moral points rather than to describe in detail what actually happened.

  • iMonk reflects on the significance of the Christian calendar after Epiphany.

But for now, in these days following Epiphany, it is time for one remarkable Jesus-prompted surprise and delight after another! Our minds boggle and heads shake at the insightful words Jesus speaks. Our jaws drop in amazed wonder to see him exercise power over nature, bring wholeness to broken lives, and restore vitality where death once reigned. Fear and dread knot our stomachs as cosmic conflict erupts. But Christ speaks with authority, and all is peace.

  • And, here’s a list of the Top 10 Bizarre Toys for Kids. I have to warn you, some of these are seriously twisted and I’m pretty sure that I’m going to need therapy now. The “God Almighty” toy at the top of this post comes from this list.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/8)

He did, in fact, have more to say about the Trinity than most people would expect, and following the lead of what he said on the subject, it is easy enough to connect the dots in his practice. The trinitarian presupposition is there to be seen, just below the surface. Graham is a perfect example of an evangelical who is focused so much on being trinitarian in practice that he somewhat under-explains the theological presuppositions of what he is doing.

For Barth error is expected of humans—it’s built into their fallenness.  From my point of view it’s simply a truism that humans can and do err but this doesn’t necessitate that they will or must err.  More on this in my next post.

One cannot underestimate the importance of 1 Timothy 2:12 in the intra-evangelical debate over gender roles and women in ministry. There is a reason why countless articles and even an entire book have been written on the interpretation of this single verse. In many ways, this verse is the most disputed text in the debate. It is clear that Paul is prohibiting something, but just what he prohibits has been fiercely contested.

Ferrett Legging is a sport that originated in Britain, in which contestants tie their trouser leg closed, place two ferrets in their trousers (it’s Britain, people!) and then tighten their belt closed. The ferret must be fully teethed, undrugged, and the contestant cannot wear anything under their trousers. I read the wikipedia entry and laughed myself silly.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/4)

The theology that is taught in almost all theological institutions around here is an ill-fitting version of Christianity that simply does not work here. The Christianity that results is not transforming lives or churches or communities or cultures or nations. In that sense, rather than reflecting what is happening theologically, these Western theologies may actually be erecting barriers preventing people here from experiencing the transforming power of the risen Christ.

“I cannot help thinking that the incarnational analogy may be more trouble than it is worth.  Chalcedon was designed to clarify the being of Jesus Christ, not Scripture.  Please do not misunderstand: there is nothing wrong with Chalcedon, just as there was nothing wrong with the paper clip I used so cleverly in my skateboard to replace a screw.  However, that improvisation ended with a broken arm.  I wonder, then, about the wisdom of using language formulated for one truth to express another.”

Here’s our context: they are bringing the ark to the house of Obed-edom, the future site of the Temple, and they are sacrificing. The context is cultic. The modern correlation to worship (i.e., singing) is false.

  • I forgot to mention earlier, but James McGrath has posted a link to what looks like a really useful set of resources from the Wabash Center for evaluating online resources. If you’re a teacher or student, check these out.

Flotsam and jetsam (11/1)

  • Mark Galli’s article, “Insignificant Is Beautiful,” has gotten a lot of attention and is a timely warning about the dangers of aspiring for significance.

We should honor any generation that strives for significance, especially if it is a longing to make a difference in the world. Better this than striving to make money and live a comfortable life! But the human heart is desperately wicked and the human soul subject to self-deception, and this colors even our highest aspirations. Even the best of intentions mask the mysterious darkness within, which is why we need to be healed also of our best intentions.

The fact that God wishes to give grace and glory is due simply to His generosity. The reason for His willing these things that arise simply from His generosity is the overflowing love of His will for His end-object, in which the perfection of His goodness is found. The cause of predestination, therefore, is nothing other than God’s goodness. (Providence and Predestination, 116)

  • And, the October 2010 biblioblog rankings are out. We’re down a bit since classes started in September, but still doing quite well. Thanks everyone for taking the time to read and comment here.

Flotsam and jetsam (8/12)

Reading the Bible like classical literature…kind of

Justin Taylor posted a summary of Leland Ryken’s “Eight Easy Ways to Misread the Classics.” According to Ryken, each of the following is a fallacy that we often commit when reading the classics.

  1. Be sure the read the classics for their ideas.
  2. Assume without question that the classics tell the truth.
  3. Look upon the classics as “improving literature.”
  4. Regard the classics as beyond criticism.
  5. Assume that moral considerations are irrelevant to the classics.
  6. Be sure that you do not see anything in the classics that the author and original audience did not see it in it.
  7. Assume that all that matters is what a work says to you.
  8. View the classics as relics in the museum of the past.

These are all great points to consider when reading the classics. I know when I first started reading classical literature on my own, the first point was really all I had in mind. I didn’t read the classics because I enjoyed them as works of art. Instead, I mined them for ideas. Of course, their ideas are worth engaging, but reducing a classic work of art to its cognitive dimension is tragic. So, by the way, is forcing teenagers to read the classics because “it’s good for you” (fallacy #3).

As I was reading the list, though, I began to reflect on whether these same fallacies applied to the Bible. At first glance, the last four seem to hold true when discussing the Bible.  Moral considerations (#5) are never irrelevant to a holy God who judges sin and a loving God who wants the best for his people. And, we should say that the Bible is the kind of “classic” that has the ability to transcend the particular concerns of its author and to speak in new contexts and in new ways (#6). We don’t want to lose sight of the authorial context, but we can and should be open to the possibility that texts (particularly when brought into canonical relationship with other texts) might be able to speak in new and unexpected ways. And, the last two seem pretty straightforward. What the Bible says to me is important, but always secondary to what God is saying in the text. And, obviously, we can’t view the Bible as just a relic of the past.

But, what about the first four? While I agreed with each of these when I was thinking about classical literature, I realized that each needs to be nuanced in important ways when discussing Scripture.

  1. Although I would never reduce the Bible to its “ideas,” we should read the Bible to understand what it is saying about God, us, and our world.
  2. We absolutely should assume that the Bible tells the truth. There’s plenty of room for us to discuss what it means to say that the Bible is “true” and what level of confidence any of us can have that we have actually understood its truth. But none of that changes the fact that we should read the Bible as true.
  3. I’ll fudge a little here because I think it would be horrible to see the Bible as “improving literature.” The Bible does not primarily provide a message about how we can living better loves. Nonetheless, the Bible is God’s transformative message to humanity that radically shapes and continually reshapes his people.
  4. This one needs to be nuanced depending on what you mean by “criticism.” On the one hand, of course we want to engage the text critically, bringing to bear all of our intellectual resources as we wrestle with the text to understand its meaning. On the other hand, if “criticism” means (even implicitly) an attempt to avoid the Bible’s authority, placing oneself in judgment over the text, and refusing to be humbled before God’s word, then we’ve got a problem.

So, I think we read the Bible differently from other classical works, and I’m okay with that. Indeed, I think it’s essential for reading the Bible the way that it asks to be read – the way God asks us to read it.

What do you think? Would you nuance these eight fallacies differently than I have when it comes to reading Scripture? I’d be particularly interested to hear what you have to say about #2 and #4. But, feel free to comment on any/all of them.

The creation debate continues, and continues, and…

It never stops, does  it? The most recent hurrah developed around Al Mohler’s speech at this year’s Ligonier conference, “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?“, in which he unsurprisingly argues for a young earth, 24-hour day view of creation. Apparently he sees this as the only view that takes scripture seriously – i.e. it doesn’t try to “bend” scripture to fit science or cultural preconceptions.

The folks over at BioLogos responded by initiating a discussion on the subject, one that has generated quite a bit of comment so far.

  • Karl Giberson offered three questions that he would like to see Mohler respond to in more depth. Actually, this felt like one of those posts where the “questions” are really a platform for pointing out where you think the other person is wrong. But, it was still interesting.
  • Today, Peter Enns weighed in arguing that both the new atheists and the traditional creationists make the mistake of viewing Scripture as claiming to be scientifically accurate. Instead, he contends that we need to see them as ancient “fictional” narratives about who created everything, rather than “scientific” accounts of how they were created.

No wanting to be left out of the discussion, Scot McKnight offers some thoughts of his own. He’s particularly concerned about the tenor of Mohler’s speech, criticizing him for making this a battle rather than a conversation.

And, on a related note, Huffpo’s new Religion and Science discussion continues with Clay Naff’s rather unhelpful post arguing that we need to reject both the traditional view of an all-powerful God creating the universe (in any way), or the growingly popular secular notion that ours is just one of many possible universes. Instead, he argues that he most intellectually viable position is that a limited being created everything through an evolutionary process.

Flotsam and jetsam (7/1)