Earlier this semester I wrote a couple of posts on the subject of biblical inerrancy, and I continue to receive comments on the topic. In particular, a couple of biblical scholars who do not hold to inerrancy have challenged my statements as overly simplistic. They have argued that I am (1) drawing a false distinction between God’s authorship of the text and the reader’s interpretation and (2) that I am underestimating the extent to which the human authors were involved in the text and overemphasizing the divine authorship of the Bible.
(I perused the website of one of these critics and ran across the following statement: “A liberal is a fundamentalist who got an education.” The implication, of course, is that those who disagree with the liberal position on Scripture do so out of naivete and poor education. The only “real” education, then, is the liberal one. Excuse me while I gag.)
OK, I’m back — beware of anybody who dismisses his critics by calling them naive, stupid, or poorly informed. That’s generally an easy way to avoid interacting with the actual ideas being presented by one’s critics.
Let me clarify my position a bit. This might be a long post — be warned.
First, I do not deny that the reader is an active participant in understanding and interpreting the text. It’s for this reason that we do careful exegesis and instruct on the process of Bible study method. To be honest, I can’t understand why exegesis or Bible study method makes any real difference if a person doesn’t hold to the truthfulness of the text itself. Why bother to research the field of meaning of Paul’s exact words if we deny verbal inerrancy? It might be nice to know Paul’s subjective judgment, but if his judgment is in error, then it carries no authority.
The reader’s job is to find the meaning that is already present in the text, not to create meaning absent from the text. Nonetheless, readers will have different interpretations because we are finite human beings. The problem, then, is not that the text has no definable meaning or even that the text is in error. The problem is that we are often in error.
Second, I don’t make a false dichotomy between the human and divine authorship of the Bible. In my opinion, it seems that the liberal position is more guilty of that than the inerrancy position. Why? Because the liberal argument is that the Scripture is riddled with errors (made by men) but still speaks in some sense authoritatively as God’s Word. In other words, the parts that are theological and divine speak to us with authority, but the parts that are human can’t be trusted. The Bible is God’s Word to the extent that God speaks through it in the present day, but the human authors made too many mistakes, it is claimed, to be trusted.
I’ve been reading a book by Francis Schaeffer called How Should We Then Live in which Schaeffer chronicles the rise and fall of Western culture. In his discussion of Karl Barth (a Swiss theologian who sought to preserve Scripture’s authority without holding inerrancy), he mentions that Barth held an essentially existentialist understanding of Scripture.
In other words, in the realm of reason, the Bible cannot be trusted, but we can still view it as the Word of God in the way it interacts with the individual in the realm of “non-reason,” as Schaeffer puts it. So Barth argues that we seek in the Scripture an experience of God, but it doesn’t really make a difference if that experience is grounded in anything historical or technically accurate.
While this position supposedly frees us from the need to defend the Bible’s inerrancy while allowing us to use as a guide for Christian faith, it creates a whole new set of problems. And here is the key of what I’ve been trying to articulate.
If the Christian faith is not grounded in history, then it has no ultimate hope. The resurrection of Christ is a bodily, physical, historical event. It is not merely a spiritual event or a moral story that gives me an idea of God’s character. Physical resurrection, literal resurrection, is critical to the Christian faith. And yet the resurrection is one of the more difficult aspects of Christianity to believe in. It always has been — read Acts 17, for example (assuming you think Acts 17 chronicles a real event).
Now work backwards from that point. If God could accomplish something like the resurrection, then who is to say he couldn’t do some of the more unusual miracles of the Bible (e.g. make an axhead float, create the world ex nihilo by His words alone, make a donkey talk, etc.).
I recently heard N.T. Wright speak at a conference (a British scholar who holds a high view of Scripture although he doesn’t use the word inerrancy). He told a story that culminated with this line: “If God could raise Jesus from the dead, then the rest is just rock ‘n’ roll, isn’t it?” That’s basically what I’m arguing here. The historicity of the Resurrection (if it is indeed historical) argues strongly for the historicity of even the toughest parts of Scripture.
So are there challenges in interpretation? Of course. Are there places where textual variants and lack of manuscript evidence and poor knowledge of the ancient near east create problems for the inerrantist? Sure.
But again, inerrancy is not a naive position. We just believe that once you accept the historicity of something as bold as the Resurrection, the idea that God could use people to create a divine and perfect book…well, that doesn’t seem so impossible anymore.