Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part 4

I would encourage those who are following this series and who have not read the comments by John Hobbins (cf. Jim West and Art Boulet) to do so. Much of the discussion of inerrancy is really a matter of semantics, so though we are saying different things, much of the meaning and significance we attribute to our own articulations of Scripture is the same. I might add that since the semantic significance of inerrancy is so flexible, simply confessing inerrancy hardly fulfills the burden often placed on such confessions. If certain bodies of Christians are going to use inerrancy to define them, then we must pay particlar attention to how they are defining inerrancy. If you twist the word to fit your own understanding of Scripture and then suggest that you are in agreement with the tradition of Christianity that confesses inerrancy, particularly when you know your confession is drastically different than this larger tradition, you are masqarading as something you are not. This is a large part of why I choose to emphatically state that I am not an inerrantist. I believe I would be willing to confess, as John does, that Scripture is perfect, flawless, even inerrant–in so far as I am understood to be speaking of Scripture as I might speak of my wife (who is, after all, perfect and flawless). But if my confession of inerrancy is ultimately liturgical, then why would I place myself within the stream of tradition that does not understand inerrancy as a liturgical expression of faith? When the evangelical world insists on defining its boarders using a rational concept of inerrancy (and this is how must in my own faith tradition would understand the word), I cannot help but to polarize myself by rejecting such a confession. Perhaps in doing this, I sacrifice the term inerrancy, but I do this in order to preserve that aspect of Scripture that I believe makes it truly unique. After all, it is not the term inerrancy that is important, it is what we mean by it. While I maintain that I am not an inerrantist, I am yet someone who confesses Scripture to be God’s Word, a message that is useful for those things Paul mentions in 2 Tim 3:16-17. (This was supposed to be a brief comment preceding my main point, but I seemed to have gotten carried away. Now on to the main thesis of this post.)

4. Inerrancy assumes an external standard of truth exists against which Scripture can be examined.

I want to begin by saying that this objection to inerrancy equally applies to errancy. If you want to call yourself an errantist, by what standard of error do you examine Scripture to determine it is errant? Both inerrantists and errantists alike (I would consider myself neither) must be able to provide the standard they use to draw their conclusions regarding Scripture if those conclusions are to be taken seriously by others. Regarding those who would identify “error” in Genesis 2-3, John Hobbins writes:

The notion that Gen 2-3 is errant because Eve is made from one of Adam’s ribs and there’s a talking snake is just perverse. The notion that the story is made up if we couldn’t take a time machine back to the events recounted and make a home video of it all is no less perverse.

I wholeheartedly agree. That the ontological existence of women is not rooted in a male rib does not inevitably lead to the conclusion that the author of this text in Genesis “got it wrong.” Perhaps a more ridiculous example would be from the New Testament, Jesus’ parable of the Mustard Seed. The Gospel of Mark records Jesus as describing this seed as “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” Naturally, there are smaller seeds on the earth, but Jesus can hardly be faulted for this statement. If our everyday speech was always subjected to such ridiculous scrutiny, language would become dull and uninteresting. If the communication of truth were restricted to historical narrative (conceived of by modern standards), then many truths, even in our modern age, would cease to be told.

Returning to inerrancy, the only way for inerrantists to cogently argue that Scripture is without errors is to appeal to an external standard of truth and/or error. In this light, the Bible cannot be as it is in so many creeds and confessions, the norma normans, the norm that norms all other norms. Its function of norming might be sound, but it does not hold precedence to the norm against which it is being justified. I find it funny that those most interested in inerrancy are likely those most inclined to confess that Scripture is the norma normans. This aside, where is the external standard of truth against which Scripture can be examined? This is the crucial element missing from the confession of inerrancy, namely a standard upon which all men can reasonably agree against which Scripture can be examined for error. Because of my ignorance in this matter, I simply cannot make the empirical observation that Scripture is inerrant.


2 thoughts on “Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part 4

  1. Very nice, Joseph. You are utterly convincing in your observations about your wife. Would that we were as convincing in our observations about Scripture.

    The Reformers insisted that Scripture is its own interpreter. There is no standard of truth outside of it, except the way, the truth, and the life to which it is a witness.

    On the other hand, I think reason, tradition, and experience are God-given means of knowledge as well. What is important is to give each its proper due in its proper domain. This requires spiritual and intellectual maturity. Not everyone will agree with me that, for example, such maturity allows the believer to acknowledge that Gen 1-3 are truthful, faithful, and instructive, understood as cosmological, protological narrative, and that, evolutionary theory is a plausible scientific doctrine within the limits of biology.

  2. Thank you John. Your comments are always appreciated.

    I might add that, while I do extol the perfections of my wife, I would hardly do so while sitting in the doctor’s office with her as the doctor is examining her recurrent ear infection. If there is room for inerrancy is our vocabulary, we must be clear about where such language is appropriate, and where it is not. I liked what N.T. Wright said regarding myth in the video over at Science and the Sacred. Maybe it is time for us to start looking for “some other words.”


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