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Inerrancy without the weasels

Why do formulations of inerrancy always seem to conceal the most important issue?

This article has been updated in response to helpful reader comments.

I believe the Bible is “breathed out by God”, as Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 (ESV). I think the ESV’s translation here is far superior to most other Bibles which simply say “inspired”, as if “God-breathed” is too difficult a metaphor for English-speakers to parse should it be translated literally. All kinds of books are inspired by God—Pilgrim’s Progress, for instance—but only one is breathed out by him, as someone breathes out when speaking.

Scripture’s God-breathedness has traditionally been a sufficient ground for maintaining its inerrancy. The argument is simple:

  1. All Scripture is God’s speech (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:20)
  2. God is truth and it is impossible for him to lie (John 14:6; Heb 6:18)
  3. Therefore, all Scripture is true and free from falsehood or error (John 17:17)

The problem is how this cashes out “on the ground”. Enough ink has been spilled over this topic to destroy an ocean, but Christians generally turn to certain, popular formulations of inerrancy when wanting to understand or defend or explain it.

But I think these definitions have a problem that is causing much angst among Christians today—and leading many of them away from inerrancy. That problem is weaselly language at the most crucial point of these formulations.

Let me show you what I mean:

Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (source)

When we say that the Bible is inerrant, we mean that the Bible makes good on its claims. John Frame (source)

The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, 90

Now let me illustrate the difficulty implicit in all these definitions by asking you a simple question: In Jude 1:9, is the Bible “teaching”, “claiming”, or “affirming” that the archangel Michael disputed with Satan over the body of Moses? Or, assuming Troy Martin is correct and Paul in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15 is suggesting that one would not expose one’s genitals during worship, is the Bible “teaching”, “claiming”, or “affirming” the woefully mistaken Hippocratic anatomy that Paul’s argument hinges on?

Mark Goodacre has criticized this theory, but Martin has responded very convincingly.

You see, the difficulty is that often it is far from obvious what it means for the Bible to teach, claim, or affirm something. Using this kind of language is weaselly because it slips right around how complex and difficult it is to define these key terms themselves.

Using simplistic placeholder words where what we actually need is clear-cut explanations of their meaning is not helpful to anyone. A formulation of inerrancy, above all things, should not leave it to the reader to figure out the very issue at the heart of inerrancy: namely, what it means for the Bible to teach, claim, or affirm something. This is especially true since most Christians see the simplistic words and therefore figure that their meaning is simple. They struggle to reconcile inerrancy with passages like the ones I mentioned above because their straightforward understanding of teaching/claiming/affirming leads them to think the Bible is doing these things about facts which are either questionable (Jude), or obviously wrong (Paul).

I am not saying that a good definition of inerrancy will resolve the question of what constitutes teaching, claiming, or affirming. That is a hermeneutical issue—a difficulty of interpretation, not a difficulty of doctrine. But it should at least make the difficulty clear, and point the way to finding a solution; rather than obscuring how it might be resolved, and even its existence in the first place.

A more helpful definition of inerrancy

Here is what I propose, taking for granted that we’re talking about the original manuscripts:

Inerrancy: in every passage of Scripture, God conveys through the scribe all the information he intended to, with all the accuracy and precision possible given the contrivances of human expression (genre, conventions, vocabulary, beliefs, expectations etc).

You can see that I am trying to cover some broad bases here. A scribe can be an author or a redactor, for example. But my primary concern is in recognizing that while God superintended the creation of Scripture (whether breathing out the words, or breathing out the canon—they are the same process), he used particular people with particular beliefs (many of them false), and particular expectations about what truth would look like, and particular ideas about how to convey it, to achieve his purpose.

Often that’s messier than 21st century, scientific-age Western readers would like. Sometimes it presents hard interpretive questions as we try to figure out where the message God intended to convey differs from his chosen “delivery mechanism” (as in the case of 1 Corinthians 11:13-15). To take an analogy, if human expression is like a four-pack of crayons, which seems about right, God’s communication with us will look rather different than if he had had access to a technical drawing kit. But if God was fine with that, we should be too.

18 comments

  1. Blake Reas

    “Inerrancy: in every passage of Scripture, all the information God intended to convey is as accurate and precise as its scribe intended it to be, given the conventions of his genre and the expectations of his audience.”

    1. As accurate as the scribe intended to convey? So does that mean if the bible teaches a false cosmology, then that is okay as long as it was a part of the genre considerations and expectations of the audience? How is this different from Bultmann? I am sure a follower of the German giant could easily accept this definition. I am thinking along the lines of this response: “A stupid goat-herder, writing for stupid goat-herders will have ideas of a stupid goat-herder.” Now we could try an derive some existential meaning that all religious people have or something, but I don’t think that is what you are saying. I don’t see how your definition helps anything.

    I’m on your side, I’m just trying to get at what you are trying to clarify. I don’t see much difference between what you are saying and what Peter Enns is doing.

    2. I could construe what you are saying along these lines (and I would find this acceptable): Some critical scholars think that the book of Joshua is something of a cultic text that would mark out pilgrimages for the faithful in ancient Israel. Both the author, and the audience knew that this wasn’t strict history, and both the author and the audience understood the purpose behind this text. I think John Hobbins at Ancient Hebrew Poetry holds something like this view. Now that would be hard to have a problem with, but I’m not sure I understand what you are saying. Anyway, God bless.

  2. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Blake,

    So does that mean if the bible teaches a false cosmology, then that is okay as long as it was a part of the genre considerations and expectations of the audience?

    No, because you’re leaving out the crucial antecedent in my formulation; namely, the truth God intended to convey. A false cosmology, by definition, would not be a truth God intended to convey.

    The point of the formulation I’m proposing is to emphasize the ultimate authorship of God, while simultaneously working within the constraints that he chose in terms of author and audience worldview. So, the truth God intended to convey is not conveyed in a different format than the instrumental means (author & audience) allowed. So for instance, if the cosmological depictions of Scripture are not in a scientific format, but perhaps a mytho-poetic one, then the truth God intended to convey should not be construed as scientific.

    Moreover, there may be many false ideas God did not intend to convey (like that pubes are actually semen tubules), but which were instrumental in conveying the true ideas he did intend (like how we should worship).

    Does this clarify?

  3. Blake Reas

    Yes. It did clarify a lot. So, for you would Adam and Eve be simply a mytho-poetic construct or do you think that because of Paul’s argument in Romans that they must be historical persons? Are there any hermeneutical breaks we can apply to stop from saying that everything is historically conditioned? What would those principles be?

    Better put: How do we know what propositions God intended to convey as truth? Do those need to be found out by other disciplines than theology? So, the issue of origins would need to be determined by Science?

  4. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    How do we know what propositions God intended to convey as truth?

    Well as I say, this is the million-dollar question :) But it’s an interpretive question, rather than a specifically doctrinal one like inerrancy.

    I’m just trying to formulate a definition for inerrancy that exposes this question clearly, rather than obscuring it as I think most definitions do.

    That said, Genesis is clearly historical narrative, so it would be mistaken to interpret it as mytho-poetic. There are no doubt genre conventions and motifs and authorial polemical intentions that make interpreting it less straightforward than we might like, but I think even on its own terms it can’t be interpreted as anything other than actually historical. Of course, Paul’s argument cinches it anyway. Without a first Adam, the gospel falls apart.

  5. Charles Sebold

    I would be interested in your opinion on Troy Martin’s paper. That was fascinating to me, and resolves a few things about the text… but I admit that my up-to-this-moment definition of inerrancy was giving me a bit of trouble with regard to this.

  6. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Hey Charles, yeah, it’s a really interesting piece right?

    I can’t see any reason that Troy would be wrong about this. That isn’t to say there isn’t one—I’m not an expert on this topic. So maybe I’m missing something. But his case is certainly prima facie the most plausible I’ve seen (by far).

    I think most people’s up-to-this-moment definitions of inerrancy would cause them some trouble if Troy is right. That was one of the things that prompted me to write this post (the other being Hebrew cosmology). It struck me that all the views of inerrancy I’ve seen articulated suffer from a common defect—namely, taking far too much for granted about the nature of the “instruments” God used to write Scripture. Ie, if God is going to use someone with plenty of false beliefs to nonetheless convey true propositions about himself and us, then how likely is it that those false beliefs aren’t going to appear at times in the text itself? Is that something God would consider a problem? Would he comprehensively re-educate his instruments prior to using them to author Scripture, or would he simply work with what he had, and expect us to rightly divide what he intended to convey, and what was just the accidental means to that message?

    Btw, I think it might be easy to misconstrue me as attenuating inerrancy to the point of liberalism. That’s not what I’m doing. I am actually trying to articulate the classic view of inerrancy in a more helpful way, so that when we encounter difficult passages, we can correctly identify that the problem is hermeneutical rather than doctrinal. What God intends to convey is always true, but it seems to me that in certain situations, what God intends to convey is not as obvious as most definitions of inerrancy make out with their vague term, “affirm”.

  7. B.C. Askins

    Do you think Vanhoozer’s definition has “weasels”?

    “The authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly).”

  8. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I think it is very difficult to build inerrancy around the word “affirm” because it is so ambiguous. I also think there are times we need to distinguish between what an author takes for granted, and might have affirmed if asked, and what God intends to convey.

    Tbh, Vanhoozer’s definition seems worse than most to me since it not only uses the weaselly word “affirm”, but it also doesn’t give any hint that truth is a very flexible term given various genres and worldviews, and it further fails to note the important fact that inerrancy is the product of two authors with vastly different epistemic and teleological perspectives.

  9. B.C. Askins

    Is “affirm” more weaselly than “intended”?

  10. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Well, I’ve argued that it is because it conceals an important issue :) You’re welcome to counter-argue of course.

  11. B.C. Askins

    Given the current climate of “post-everything” theological criticism, it would seem that “intention” is a tendentious term, at least. However, I suspect we would both come down on the same side of the fence regarding that issue, though, so I won’t waste either of our time shadowboxing about it.

    I do think your definition collapses divine intentionality into human author/audience intent/reception, though – meaning that your definition does not seem to take the canonical “horizon” of Scripture into consideration. This is one of the more controversial issues between Biblical Theology and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture in biblical studies right now: the relationship between divine and human authorial intent. Your definition fits well within the BT position, but I think it’s problematic – it denies a sensus plenior which I think is clearly present from a canonical perspective. I apologize for not having the time to argue that point out, but I would agree largely with Moo: http://www.djmoo.com/articles/sensusplenior.pdf

    Cheers!

  12. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I’ll check Moo out, but at first blush I find your comment surprising. I would have thought the natural objection to my definition would run in the opposite direction—along the lines of that it emphasizes the sensus plenior at the expense of the human author’s intended meaning.

  13. B.C. Askins

    That may be what you intended, but at least this member of your audience is reading it otherwise.

    If “all the information God intended to convey is as accurate and precise as its scribe intended it to be” then God’s intention is limited to the accuracy and precision of that scribe’s intents.

    If your intent is to incorporate divine super-intention upon human authorial intention then you might need to amend your definition. Maybe: “in every passage of Scripture, all the information God intended to convey is accurately and precisely conveyed by supervening upon all which the scribe intended it to convey, given the conventions of his genre and the expectations of his audience.”(?) It could bolster inerrancy by reference to inspiration. Or it could cloud the definition of inerrancy by incorporating the controversial issue of sensus plenior…

  14. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    I see your point. I was hoping to keep the definition at a relatively lay level. Introducing words like “supervening” would defeat that purpose, but I’ll have a think about how I could better solve this problem.

  15. Blake Reas

    Hey Bnonn,

    Your post has given me much to think about recently. Have you read Mark Goodacre’s critique of Troy Martin’s work?

    I also do not find the ancient cosmology arguments to be convincing. Calvin showed handily that the “windows” of the heavens and other metaphorical language in the creation account, when interpreted against the context of the Canon, can not be given the story book understanding that moderns give it. Added to that I think Noel Weeks makes some pretty damaging criticisms of the idea that the ancients had one overarching understanding of the cosmos. Why not elevate the idea of Mount Zion being the center of the world over a triple decker universe? Anyway…

    I still cannot shake the feeling that if you are correct we should dispose of the word inerrancy as used for Scripture. Maybe the suggestion of Kenton Sparks would be more appropriate where he argues that it is God who is inerrant and not the Bible. The reason I say this is simple if you are right I see no reason why we should think that Peter wrote 2 Peter. As many have argued Pseudonymous writings were common in the ancient world and no one thought anything of it. Another example would be the book of Daniel. As long as God gets his intention across it doesn’t matter about authorship. After all if the Genre considerations of Pseudonymous literature applies, then scripture doesn’t “affirm” that Peter wrote 2 Peter or some 6th century prophet wrote the book of Daniel. This all seems to undercut the narrative unity of scripture by essentially arguing that, “well, Scripture does have a narrative, but by using the critical tools we have developed we have found the “real narrative”.”

    In essence you are collapsing the Divine Author into the human authors.

    I don’t think that is what you believe, but I don’t see what use inerrancy has under your theory. Why not just dispose of the whole thing?

    One other question: Would it be safe to call your proposed solution as the “Inerrancy of Intent”?

    In Christ,
    Blake

  16. B.C. Askins

    Maybe something like: “In every passage of Scripture, all the information intended to be conveyed from the divine perspective is accurately and precisely conveyed through the human scribes’ perspectives, given their limitations, genre conventions, and the expectations of their respective audience(s).”(?)

  17. Blake Reas

    “In every passage of Scripture, all the information intended to be conveyed from the divine perspective is accurately and precisely conveyed through the human scribes’ perspectives, given their limitations, genre conventions, and the expectations of their respective audience(s).”(?)

    So should we only trust passages from the prophets in which “thus saith the Lord”? How do we know that a certain narrative is divine discourse? I don’t see how this helps anything. We are stuck with a bible that has both divine and non-divine messages. How do we know what is divine and what is human? I know that is the question, but how does that help the Christian community? Do we need a new papacy to tell us what is of God and what is not?

  18. Dominic Bnonn Tennant

    Ben, I think your proposed wording certainly removes some of the issues we’ve talked about.

    Blake,

    How do we know that a certain narrative is divine discourse?

    Well, the point of inerrancy is that all Scripture is divine discourse. But I think Ben is onto something when he suggests that God’s discourse supervenes on the discourse of the human authors.

    Remember, I am not trying to subvert the traditional view of inerrancy. I’m just trying to clarify it, so that the difficulty in figuring out what the Bible “affirms” is put on the surface, rather than hidden underneath.

    We are stuck with a bible that has both divine and non-divine messages. How do we know what is divine and what is human?

    I’m not sure I’d go that far. I’d say that the “messages” of the human authors are truthful, and are often conterminous with the “message” of God. But these messages are sometimes delivered in “packaging” that to us seems odd. For instance, Jude refers to Michael disputing with Satan over the body of Moses. Are we to think that Jude’s message to us includes the “affirmation” that this happened; or is this “packaging” which he is using to deliver the actual message?

    Asking how we know what is divine and what is human actually strikes me as a very naive question (no offense). It is the question we have to ask every time we interpret the Bible, or assess the arguments of exegetes who interpret the Bible. What is actually the divine message, and what is a mistaken human understanding? Being able to tackle that question is a fundamental part of the Christian’s job description. Usually it isn’t too difficult. Sometimes it is.

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