Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Clarifications on the Doctrine of Inerrancy: A Rough Draft

I thought I would re-post this to make my view of inerrancy a little clearer.

Many Christians today speak of inerrancy as though it referred to a uniform understanding of Scripture as without error in every proposition or assumption it makes.
In fact, as there are two main schools of errancy (classical and contemporary or neo-errancy), there are also two main schools of thought concerning inerrancy (classical and fundamentalist). There are actually other views of inerrancy, but these are the views held by the bulk of evangelicals. There are, of course, multiple variations within those schools, but they share enough similarities to be classified together. What is interesting to note about this is that the two extremes of fundamentalist inerrancy and neo-errancy are the two options that seem to be gaining more ground in our day, and yet, are later concepts that have less attestation within Church History. They also both appear to argue against one another as though they were the only representations of errancy or inerrancy that exist. In other words, for both groups, there exists only errancy and inerrancy of the extreme varieties. There is nothing in between (or rather, there are no other positions with integrity that claim those titles). Although I think the classical view of errancy in terms of its definitions for error is faulty from a linguistic and literary standpoint, it is irresponsible for neo-errantists to use their arguments in favor of neo-errancy without noting that one can hold to those arguments without adopting the neo-errantist position (we’ll discuss this more later). But my main concern in this book is to flesh out the classical form of inerrancy, as it is the least considered option by those who want to make an “all-or-nothing” definition of inerrancy for whatever reason one might have to do so. I will seek to do this by laying down the following corrections to misunderstandings one encounters when others often articulate the doctrine.

The first false idea one must put to rest when considering the idea of inerrancy is that inspiration and inerrancy has to do both with the human authors and the text those authors have written. This brings us to our first affirmation of the doctrine: The classical formation of inerrancy believes the human authors to be neither inspired nor inerrant. The Scripture states that “all Scripture is God-breathed [i.e., inspired],” not all authors of Scripture. Inspiration is God forming the text through the author to where the text speaks the message God wishes to convey accurately, rather than divine knowledge placed within the author himself (as though the author were given omniscience in order to produce a text that evidenced omniscience in everything that it said). Instead, we have a text that gives us sufficient truth (which is the only kind of divine truth we can handle) in terms of what it asserts, i.e., what it is attempting to actually teach us.
This is an important point, since much of what is considered to be corrosive to the doctrine of inerrancy has to do with the possible or probable assumptions of the author rather than the point the text itself is teaching. I am defending the idea here explained well in Michael Horton’s summary of the Princeton formulation of inerrancy, as it was put forth by Hodge and Warfield, that the text is inerrant, not the authors of those texts.

Because it is the communication that is inspired rather than the persons themselves, we should not imagine that the authors were omniscient or infallible. In fact, the authors themselves seem conscious enough of their limitations. “The record itself furnishes evidence that the writers were in large measure dependent for their knowledge upon sources and methods in themselves fallible, and that their personal knowledge and judgments were in many matters hesitating and defective, or even wrong.” Yet Scripture is seen to be inerrant “when the ipsissima verba of the original autographs[1] and interpreted in their natural and intended sense.[2]

Hence, the mistaken views of the authors, whether they are historical, cosmological, mythological,[3] etc. cannot be attributed to the text itself, unless it is the purpose of that text to teach those assumptions to its audience. It is my contention that nowhere do we find these assumptions as being taught as opposed to simply existing as a part of the author’s language, i.e., merely supporting what is taught.
This is an important distinction to be made, as the personal beliefs of the author may, in fact, be flawed in all sorts of things—he is, after all, likely to err—but the message that is communicated, a message that evangelicals see as both divine and human, itself is without error.

This brings us to the second consideration to be considered: The inerrancy of the message purifies the concepts that may otherwise be in error by virtue of its being used as language to communicate that message. In other words, if the intent is to communicate Message Y using Assumption X, then the truth or falsity of Assumption X is irrelevant as the means to communicate Message Y, and does not reflect the truth or falsity of Message Y itself. Hence, Assumption X’s existence within the text serves as language to convey truth, not to communicate the truth or falsity of Assumption X. In other words the words and concepts that are employed to present the message are not making separate truth claims by themselves. They, as the package in which the message comes, are serving as language to present the message to the audience that is familiar with those words and concepts. To separate them out and evaluate them as individual truth claims in and of themselves is to be overly analytical of language to the point of missing the very purpose of that language to begin with. One might call this an example of an adventure in missing the point par excellence, as it confuses the point being made with the elements of communication used to make it. To put it another way, I would like to illustrate with a story with which we are all familiar.

Imagine that a mother sits down beside the bed of her children at night to read them the story of “The Three Little Pigs.” She begins to read the story and suddenly her children begin to object. “Wait a minute,” they say, “Pigs don’t talk, and they certainly do not build houses in the manner this story describes. This story is completely erroneous.” The mother responds by saying, “Just listen.” She continues to describe the wolf, and again, the children object, “Why are you reading this to us? This story is false. Wolves do not blow down houses, and again, they do not talk. There is no reason to pay attention to this story anymore.” “Oh, but there is,” the mother replies. “You see, Children, the story isn’t about talking animals and their construction projects. It’s trying to teach us about life, and that the things we do in our lives ought to be things that last eternally, enduring things that are worth building. The wolf only represents tragedy and death. The pigs represent people who spend their time building things that have no value in the day of death and judgment and those who spend their time building things that do. So you see, My Little Ones, this is a story about life, and a true story at that.” The children, too caught up in the technical factuality of the language used to convey the message, however, cannot get past it. They ask their mother to not read it to them anymore, as they feel that she is deceiving them. The story is rejected, and the message along with it is lost.

This story illustrates the importance of distinguishing between language and the content that language seeks to communicate/assert as a truth. This is not merely an arbitrary distinction. If the Scripture is truly both divine and human, then the intent of the divine and human author meets at the message of the text, not necessarily at the language utilized to convey that message, since it could be argued that God Himself has no language to begin with (and even if He did, it would not be same as the human author’s language). That does not mean that God did not inspire the language used, in terms of moving the author to use language that would accurately convey the message, but that both the divine and human goal are clearly seen in the purposed message that the language communicates. Hence, it is possible to convey the same message in a variety of ways within Scripture and throughout its textual and translational witness that transmit the message. Inspiration and inerrancy governs the language only in so far as it accurately communicates the message, not in terms of perfecting the language itself. Hence, grammatical, syntactical, conceptual errors can be made by the human author, but since the message is conveyed accurately, it would be false to say that the text is in error. To put it more bluntly, the Bible is filled with inerrant messages that are conveyed through errant language and the conceptual world that language assumes, but this has nothing to do with whether the message, and hence the text itself, is errant or inerrant. It is simply another question to ask altogether when one inquires as to whether the Scripture is errant because the author uses human language to communicate divinely directed truths. This isn’t a matter of splitting hairs. It is a matter of understanding context. To fault a message for the language used to communicate that message is a fallacy that ignores context and assigns intent to every constituent part of the presentation of that idea. Like the child that gets hung up on whether pigs can really talk, the individual is simply pursuing an adventure in missing the point.
This brings us to a third qualification: The idea that the message must be evaluated distinctly from the language used to convey it does not mean that what might be considered as an erroneous concept, if taken as an individual assertion apart from the text, is also an error within the text when it is not meant as the point of said text.. In other words, as we have seen in the story of the “Three Little Pigs,” if a text intended to teach an erroneous idea, then the text would be in error; but if a text merely uses an idea as a part of its language, whether the author mistakenly believes this idea to be true or not, the idea cannot be said to be in error. It is simply a category error itself to read literature this way. A picture does not contain truth or error in its presentation, but may in its intended message. The two must, therefore, be separated.
One might argue that to teach one’s child that the sun moves around the earth is to teach an error, but it would be absurd to argue that to use language that assumes the idea that the sun goes around the earth, as in the phrase, “What a beautiful sunrise,”  is to communicate an erroneous idea. It, in fact, does no such thing, even if I were to believe that the sun does move around the earth. This is because the idea has now become a part of the larger linguistic picture I am presenting – a picture that communicates something other than the movement of the sun.
Here, again, context rules our understanding of what is to be considered an error. The language cannot be in error as long as it communicates the idea it is employed to communicate. Confusion between the language and the idea it intends to communicate leads one to claim that the language itself is in error, and as such, claims an absurdity akin to saying that apples talk funny. Talking does not apply to apples, and as such, one cannot comment upon how they talk. In the same way, language cannot be errant or inerrant. It’s simply language. What it communicates can be errant or inerrant, but language itself is neutral in this regard. Language used is only in error when it fails to use concepts that would present its point accurately, but this would be a communication error, not a factual one. As long as it presents the idea correctly, it cannot be said to be in error, even if the individual concepts used to express the message are not factually correct in and of themselves (i.e., if they were somehow dissected and evaluated separately from the context in which they are used).
The problem is that within Enlightenment realism, every statement is evaluated for its truthfulness separately.[4] Hence, biblical statements are divided up as though they were each separate propositions unto themselves. This is much like separating each detail of a painting and asking whether the detail corresponds to the object the painting portrays. This might be valid if the literary painting of Scripture were always attempting to portray every detail as a fact, as thought it were the painted version of a photograph, but that is far from the intent of a painting that seeks to mold details of the object depicted in an effort to communicate a message through it. The details simply contribute to a larger picture, and it is the intention of the message that picture creates which seeks to make a truth claim, the details simply serve as contributions to the larger picture, and are not separate truth claims unto themselves. Hence, it is the erroneous methodology that would dissect each statement, or even assumption, made by an author in order to evaluate its individual truthfulness that causes the interpreter of our age to falter in his or her attempt to understand the doctrine of inerrancy. Let me give an illustration to serve this point.
My two year old son watches a show called Dino Dan. The show is essentially concerned with teaching kids certain theories about dinosaurs. However, in the show, Dan, the main character, who is a young kid, goes around correcting everyone of the minutia of their statements about dinosaurs, even when it was not the intended message the individual was trying to convey. For instance, in one episode, the child’s mother refers to Pterodactyls as dinosaurs when pointing out that one is flying around in the house. Instead of receiving his mother’s point, a point that had nothing to do with classifying the animals correctly, the boy, while ignoring her point, proceeded to correct her that Pterodactyls were actually Pterosaurs, not dinosaurs. Of course, in the show, everyone concedes to Dan that they’re all idiots and humbly submits to the rebuke of his superior knowledge. In the real world, however, people would be highly annoyed, not simply because their ego was hurt by being wrong in a particular assumption they made or detail they got wrong, but because their point was ignored by the person to whom he or she was speaking in favor of his or her correcting a detail, a detail that did not need to be corrected in order to understand the point being made.
The very reason we are often annoyed at such correction is that it serves to frustrate rather than clarify the point that is being made. In essence, it is a correction that is beside the point rather than pertaining to it. In other words, instead of clarifying the point, it sidetracks, muddies the waters, and creates a red herring that rudely ignores what the speaker is really trying to say. A correction that pertains to inaccurate language (i.e., language that fails to communicate its point to its intended audience, primarily the original audience) would be welcome, but this is not the type of correction that is often employed by errantists in the evaluation of the biblical texts. Instead, a worthless dissection of every constituent part of the linguistic picture that Scripture presents, where each statement or assumption is evaluated separately for its own truthfulness, can only yield a doctrine of errancy, precisely, because all communication (including our own) uses imagery, cultural assumptions, and idioms that may not be factually correct if evaluated separately, but serve to communicate our ideas in a way that is understandable to our audience. As such, these elements exist only to contribute to the picture being painted by an author, and are not meant to stand as individual truth claims on their own.
This brings us to our fourth consideration: In order for God to communicate a message to humans, who are prone to be in error due to sin and finite knowledge, He must use language that accommodates faulty human understanding, but must also convey the message accurately through that understanding, lest He fail to accomplish His goal in communicating the wisdom that leads to salvation and equip the man of God for every good work. In other words, for those of us who believe that God has spoken through the Scripture, it logically follows that God must have done two things: (1) Used human language that assumes concepts that we, in the modern world, would see as factually incorrect if dissected from the context and made a proposition all its own; and (2) communicated His message accurately through that language. If these two premises are accepted, then it would be absurd to claim that the Bible is errant, since the language used by God has, in fact, accurately communicated His message(s) to us.
This, then, brings us to our final consideration: Even the manuscripts, translations, creeds, confessions, the sermon on Sunday, the music and lectionaries, etc. that communicate biblical truth accurately, whether the language used contains error or not, can be considered inerrant, not simply the original autographs of Scripture. What I mean by this is that if inerrancy is in the message conveyed, not separately within each individual concept or part of that language used to convey it, then as long as the biblical truth is conveyed accurately, it is without error, and should be received as such. All evaluation of errancy of a manuscript, sermon, or song ought to occupy its time with whether biblical truth has been communicated accurately, not whether the constituent parts of the language used to convey it is true or false in and of itself—again, apart from the context that serves to support the truth of another idea, rather than the truth of itself.
In other words, if the message is inerrant, and that message is communicated accurately, regardless of the linguistic clothing used to communicate it, then the doctrine of inerrancy extends to all instances where it is communicated accurately. The distinction, however, between the Scripture and a creed, confession, lectionary, sermon, song, etc. is that the former cannot err while the latter can. In other words, I am not saying that translations, creeds, sermons, etc. are inerrant, but only that, in so far as they accurately convey Scriptural truth, they are inerrant. Hence, the former is inerrant, but the latter can be inerrant only when it speaks the message the Scripture conveys accurately. We must, therefore, seek to understand and convey biblical truth, rather than truth from other means, since all other means are capable of error. The Scripture, then, must remain norma Normans, i.e., the norm that norms all other norms.

[1] Of course, I would delete this concept from Hodge and Warfield, since the point stands well without it. However, the point could be made that the idea of inerrancy in the manuscripts would prove itself vindicated if the very words of the original texts were known. Still, I would prefer to not muddy the waters by introducing this concept.
[2] Horton, The Christian Faith, 177.
[3] Let the reader understand the distinction between “mythological” and “supernatural.” The text does teach many supernatural things, but is void of asserting that the mythology it may use to support a point is literally true.
[4] Part of the problem is that the Bible has often been used as a foundational text to discover all truth about the cosmos, science, history, etc. Thus, when each statement was dissected for its truth value apart from its context, it now became a separate object of scrutiny. Such a quest was misguided, therefore, from the beginning.

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