Sunday, October 3, 2010

On Inerrancy

There is (still) a lot of debate within the evangelical world about the inerrancy of Scripture, the belief that the Bible, in its original manuscripts (autographs), is flawless and completely truthful in all its propositions, claims, and all that it affirms. Now, I don't doubt this. "All Scripture is breathed out by God" (theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16) and has the Holy Spirit as its ultimate author, though it was penned in culturally conditioned ways through fallible human authors. In reality what looks like error to us is simply the result of three main phenomena: (1) It was authored by the Spirit of God, and only the Spirit within us knows and interprets and unveils to us God's thoughts. "For who knows a person's thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God" (1 Cor. 2:11). Because we are not completely ruled and renewed by the Spirit yet, in many ways Scripture seems opaque, foggy. "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Cor. 2:14).

(2) God's revelation of himself remains under his lordship and at his discretion. Because he must breathe his Spirit into us to comprehend his breathed-out Word, we are at his mercy in all true wisdom we may gain. The fact remains that all Scripture comes from a perfect Mind which is infinitely beyond the reach of our finite, creaturely minds. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9). Only as God chooses to enable our minds to grasp the truth of his Word can we grow in grace and knowledge. The Word is God's self-disclosure, self-revelation; and as such we can never wrap our minds around it fully to make judgments upon it any more than we can scrutinize and judge our Creator. It is as if a paper doll were to lay claim to the child who cut it! The real question for us is, under God's lordship, will we be faithfully submissive to what we do understand, while praying all the while for deeper knowledge of his mysteries? "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law" (Deut. 29:29, emphasis mine).

(3) There is the obvious difficulty of our cultural differences and historical distance from the times and places where the Bible was written, and this will always occlude our view of its message. For example, many (though not all) inerrantists claim that you must believe in a single, uniquely-created Adam who was the very first of all humans, if you are to accept an unerring Bible. But that opens up many other difficulties with the Genesis account which they would need to reconcile, if they accept Adam as the original progenitor of the human race. (I am simply using this as an example, not to say what I believe about Adam.) But what if the narrative about Adam's creation wasn't meant so much as to answer the hows or whens of creation, as it was to give Adam and mankind his purpose within the world--ultimately a purpose which Israel was supposed to embody. The Genesis creation accounts could've been penned (carved?) by Moses to point Israel to her identity as the divine image-bearers of God exercising dominion over the world and bringing blessing to it. This example obviously leaves out a lot of details, but I'm simply using it to point out the gaps created by cultural distance.

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Ultimately, though, while I accept inerrancy a la B. B. Warfield and the Chicago Statement, it doesn't matter that much to me. Why not? To put it simply, I don't trust the Scriptures because I believe they're inerrant. (Though because they are inerrant and infallible, we need to accept and live by all that God reveals to us therein, because they are the instrument of his rule in our lives, his words which soar above the puny "wisdom" of man.) I believe them because they revealed to me my risen Savior Jesus Christ. I came to know and believe in Jesus long before I ever knew about the doctrine of inerrancy. And because the Bible pointed me to Jesus, I kept on reading it and found living words that read me, and I found life for my soul. No other book does that. That is why I trust the Bible and rely on it: not because it fits some sort of definition of inerrancy, but because it has brought me to a knowledge of my sin and, more so, of a redeeming God of love who bore my sin on Calvary. I believe it because only its message makes sense of my life and of the world. That is why I trust it. And because I know in my heart that the risen Jesus is living and true, and that I cannot turn away from the inescapable grip his reality has on me, I take his word as trustworthy and true. "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God" (John 6:68-69).


Richard W. Wilson said...

My how I wish and pray that fellow believers would stop misapplying Isa. 55:8-9 as if it were simply and explicitly about God being infinitely smarter than we lowly humans. It is in context, quite clearly to me, about how God is supremely more willing to forgive those who repent and return to him than we humans. Read it again and tell me if this isn't true.

As you said, repeating the cliched but mistaken understanding: "The fact remains that all Scripture comes from a perfect Mind which is infinitely beyond the reach of our finite, creaturely minds. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are my ways your ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9)

The actual intent of the text is so close to the oft parabled significance of Jesus' whole ministry that it is remarkable that it is so consistently ignored by his followers today.
All the best to all in Christ,
Richard Worden Wilson

Richard W. Wilson said...

That particular pet peeve having been vented ..... I so thoroughly affirm your focus on the necessary role of the Spirit in communicating God's truths to us as we read scripture, and on the saving role scripture has had for you (and for me) that I altogether laud your affirmation of the authority of scripture in your believing life. So, I would rather all your readers ignore my criticism and applaud my approval of your comments "On Inerrancy." Thanks so much in Jesus,
Richard Worden Wilson

Andrew said...


I do agree that in context part of what God is saying in Isa. 55:8-9 is in fact that he, unlike humans, will abundantly pardon (vv. 6-7). But (1) the principle still stands on its own that God's wisdom is above ours, even if it's being applied here to achieve a specific effect--namely, turning sinners toward his goodness in repentance. It's communicated as a stand-alone proposition. (2) I think that the greater intent of 55:8-9 is that because Judah, as sinful creatures, have failed to find food which satisfies (vv. 1-3), failed to bring about a glorious name for their nation (vv.4-5), and can't bring about what they desire or promise (vv. 10-11). God calls them to repentance because only when they submit to his superior ways (i.e., his Wisdom) can they find life and the assurance of abundance and a lasting name (vv. 12-13).

Thanks for reading and commenting.

Anonymous said...

@ Richard W. Wilson

Isaiah 55 is not about God's grace and forgiveness toward humans; it is about God testifying to his people that He is a crucial, upstanding actor and judge working in and around the drama of life.

Isaiah 55, when read in context of Isaiah 40-55, and when read in the context of the biblical story as a whole, seems to be more about God's own righteousness than anything else; his steadfastness to the covenant with his people. This echoes how God deals with other prophets as well (cf: Hosea and Jeremiah, to say the least!!).

Why is God's own righteousness important? Because of that crucial event in Gen 6:6, where God repents of his actions for sending the flood, and through this grief cuts a covenant with creation itself, promising to make things anew without violence; which paves the way for Israel; which paves the way for Christ.

This means, quite literally, that our God is a God that is dynamic, willing to change his plan of attack in order to make amends. That is much more powerful than your stock Deist god which unfortunately projects its own, distant image onto the historical and contemporary scene with atemporal/aspatial principles and moral codes.

Ted M. Gossard said...

I like where you go with this post, Andrew. As I get older I care less about all the parsing. Maybe that's a bit circumstantial in my case, and a mistake, given I just don't see the need for so much of the debate that occurs over inerrancy, Genesis, Adam, etc. We begin with Christ and end with Christ, and we see all in light of that. At any rate again, without trying to get into details I appreciate your post here.