TagBiblical inerrancy

Biblical Inerrancy: The Spoken Word or Revelation of God?

Growing up in the Christian Reformed Church (CRC), I don’t recall ever hearing the term “inerrancy,” not from the pulpit, and not in catechism classes or at youth conferences.  At Calvin College, I stayed up many nights until 3 am discussing all sorts of theological issues, and I don’t think a single one of them had anything to do with biblical inerrancy.  I didn’t know that in 1978 there had been a major conference that generated The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  You’d have thought that this sort of thing would have trickled up the highway to my dorm room by 1980.  It didn’t.  And it didn’t really come up in the following decades either.

Now, I hear the term inerrancy a lot.  Part of the reason is that I go to a different church, but it’s also because the internet has me reading what other Christians are writing.  I get the sense that those who use the word inerrancy, read the Bible differently than I do.  I struggle with embracing the idea of biblical inerrancy, not because I think the Bible is wrong, but because of something else.  I couldn’t put my finger on it until I read James R. Payton Jr.’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting some Misunderstandings (IVP Academic, 2010).

Inspiration or Revelation?

Biblical inerrancy is a bigger deal for some Christians than for others and it comes down to what you think the Bible is, revelation or inspiration.  Of course, it’s both.  It is not an either/or proposition. But they are not the same things, and one will be often (perhaps inevitably) be subordinated to the other.

After reading Payton’s book, I realized that in the CRC, as I experienced it, the Bible was revelation, more than inspiration: God reveals himself through his creation–general revelation.  He reveals himself through the written word–special revelation.  And he reveals himself through his incarnate word–his Son.  God reveals himself.  Biblical inerrancy isn’t much of a concern for those who see the Bible as revelation because the focus is on the relationship between the readers and the person we find in its pages–inerrancy is not descriptive of a relationship.

The inerrancy of scripture is necessary and logical when we see the Bible as inspiration, or “the inspired Word of God.”  In this view, God speaks to us through scripture, and because he is all knowing, and doesn’t lie, anything contained therein is objectively true.  The Bible is, therefore, inerrant.

[tweetshare tweet=”The inerrancy of scripture is logical if the Bible is inspired. But is this primarily what it is?” username=”Dryb0nz”]

These different views of the Bible have a long history. According to James R. Payton Jr., the Reformers saw the Bible as revelation.  Later, after the Reformers passed on, the Protestant scholastics emphasized the divine inspiration of scripture in order to defend Protestant ideas against Catholic attackers, who used scholastic methods to argue—a “fight fire with fire” approach.  Because of its emphasis on objective truth, the Bible as inspiration is a more useful tool in such debates.

To illustrate these different approaches, Payton uses the analogy of studying a frog:

One way is to watch frogs for hours on end, the other is to dissect the frogs.  The Reformers watched the frogs, and they kept doing so, repeatedly and at great length.  The protestant scholastics dissected the frogs and probably came to quicker conclusions about what could be said about the frogs; the frogs never jumped again, though.

These contrasting approaches have resulted in different views of scripture that are still with us today.

Although Christians generally believe that God had an active role in shaping scripture, the degree to which He was active in the process is a subject of debate.  Was it 100% God, or were the historical human authors significantly responsible for the contents?   Zondervan’s Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy explores some of the main points on the continuum.  Where you end up on the continuum has something to do with how much you take the idea of revelation into account to shape your ideas of inspiration.

Another essential question is, what is it that God inspired?  Did he inspire the text, the authors, or the overall sense or spirit of scripture?  If one starts with the primacy of revelation, the spirit or sense of scripture is the object of inspiration.  When inspiration is the starting point, the object of God’s inspiration moves from sense toward text.  And again, if God actively inspired the text of the Bible, then it can’t possibly contain erroneous information–it must be objectively true.

Those who are concerned with inerrancy will usually include the text as one of the objects of God’s direct inspiration.

Informational or Relational?

When we think of the Bible primarily as revelation, we are emphasizing the relational dimension of scripture.  The Bible is a revelation between persons–God and his people.

When we think of the Bible as the Word of God.  We think in terms of God speaking to us through scripture, telling us things that we need to know.  Scriptures are thought of, primarily, a source of true information.

Is the Bible, primarily, the Spoken Word or the Special Revelation of God?

[tweetshare tweet=”Is the Bible the Word of God, or it a Revelation of who He is?” username=”Dryb0nz”] James R. Payton Jr. says that the emphasis on the inspiration of scripture leads us to a “depersonalized” reading of the Bible.  It can have a significant effect on, among other things, the way we understand sin and faith. With a relational reading of the Bible, sin is understood as unfaithfulness to God and the effect on this relationship is like that which occurs in any broken relationship—estrangement.  These terms describe a personal relationship.  The Bible as inspired text may result in a depersonalized view of sin.  Sin is thought of as an infraction against God’s divine law and the effect is guilt.  The terms, and the feelings they describe are less personal.

How one understands faith is also affected by the relationship of revelation to inspiration.  The relational understanding of faith is thought of as “cleaving to God.”  The more depersonalized approach understands faith as the acceptance of right doctrine.  Both perspectives are found in the Bible; they don’t cancel each other out, but the emphasis of one idea over the other is not without effect.

One last example, on which I have previously written.  Do the sermons in your church end with applications or implications?  It’s not so much the word, as it is the idea behind the word.  The term application implies an impersonal adhesion of the object to the subject.  We stick the lesson onto the listeners like a band-aid onto a scraped elbow.  It makes the recipient feel better, but it doesn’t do much else.  Although implication suggests a lot more ambiguity than application, it is usually a better term because the clarity of the application is often achieved through a reduction of the truth, either factual or moral, to information.  Implication is not about how the sermon fits into, or onto, my life; it’s about how I fit into the story of the Bible and into a relationship with the person of God behind the scriptures.  Implication bridges the gap between subject and object because I enter the story and it enters me–I experience the story and in so doing, I encounter the truth.

There was a long stretch in my life where I hardly read the Bible at all.  My problem was that I thought of the Bible as if it were primarily informative and the reason for reading it was to acquire the right knowledge. I didn’t feel as if I needed more knowledge than I could glean from sermons and books about the Bible.  I’m much more inspired to read the Bible when it is about a person-to-person relationship, about finding in its pages the God who made us and loves us and seeks a relationship with us.  I have a strong desire for this relationship.

[tweetshare tweet=” Is the Bible more like an encyclopedia or a letter from a loved one?” username=”Dryb0nz”]It’s sort of like the difference between reading an encyclopedia and reading a long letter received from a distant and cherished friend or lover.  Are the contents of each true–inerrant, if you will?  Sure they are, but it is not the veracity of the information in the love letter that motivates you to devour every word–even the description of yesterday’s weather.

 

Two Kinds of Language

Rothfuss2

I have this theory that English is two languages. Maybe all languages are two languages, but I don’t really know any language but English.

I came across a passage in Patrick Rothfuss’ novel that got me thinking that English can be used in two distinct ways.

Literal Language

Language can be clear and precise.  If you want to communicate to your son exactly what you expect from him regarding the cleaning of his room before he goes outside to play, English is more than capable of communicating these expectations. Although your son will likely dash out the door before the tasks are completed, it is no fault of English. The precise nature of the language also makes it effective for writing encyclopedias; it is the language of the academic.  In this type of writing, the meaning lies mainly “on the line.”

Poetic Language

But the resources of the English language can also be turned toward more poetic purposes.  There are many types of writing which tap into the elegance of the English language. Where meanings lie between or beyond the lines.   This type of writing is inferential and is able to reach far beyond the sense of the words to other places or to transcendent meanings.

It is very important that we know which language is being used, or we may completely misunderstand the speaker.

I’ve presented a passage from The Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss before. I love the intelligence of Rothfuss’ work. This dialogue between Kvothe and his teacher Vashet as they discuss the elusive philosophy of Lethani illustrates the dual function of language.

 

Vashet leaned forward seriously. “Part of the problem is with your language,” she said. “Aturan is very explicit. It is very precise and direct. Our language is rich with implication, so it is easier for us to accept the existence of things that cannot be explained. The Lethani is the greatest of these.”

“Can you give me an example of one other than the Lethani?” I asked. “And please don’t say ‘blue,’ or I might go absolutely mad right here on this bench.”

She thought for a moment. “Love is such a thing. You have knowledge of what it is, but it defies careful explication.”

“Love is a subtle concept,” I admitted. “It’s elusive, like justice, but it can be defined.”

Her eyes sparkled. “Do so then, my clever student. Tell me of love.”

I thought for a quick moment, then for a long moment.

Vashet grinned. “You see how easy it will be for me to pick holes in any definition you give.”

“Love is the willingness to do anything for someone,” I said. “Even at detriment to yourself.”

“In that case,” she said. “How is love different from duty or loyalty?”

“It is also combined with a physical attraction,” I said.

“Even a mother’s love?” Vashet asked.

“Combined with an extreme fondness then,” I amended.

“And what exactly do you mean by ‘fondness’?” she asked with a maddening calm.

“It is . . .” I trailed off, racking my brain to think how I could describe love without resorting to other, equally abstract terms.

“This is the nature of love.” Vashet said. “To attempt to describe it will drive a woman mad. That is what keeps poets scribbling endlessly away. If one could pin it to the paper all complete, the others would lay down their pens. But it cannot be done.”

She held up a finger. “But only a fool claims there is no such thing as love. When you see two young ones staring at each other with dewy eyes, there it is. So thick you can spread it on your bread and eat it. When you see a mother with her child, you see love. When you feel it roil in your belly, you know what it is. Even if you cannot give voice to it in words.”

Vashet made a triumphant gesture. “Thus also is the Lethani. But as it is greater, it is more difficult to point toward. That is the purpose of the questions. Asking them is like asking a young girl about the boy she fancies. Her answers may not use the word, but they reveal love or the lack of it within her heart.”

“How can my answers reveal a knowledge of the Lethani when I don’t truly know what it is?” I asked.

“You obviously understand the Lethani,” she said. “It is rooted deep inside you. Too deep for you to see. Sometimes it is the same with love.”

Vashet reached out and tapped me on the forehead. “As for this Spinning Leaf. I have heard of similar things practiced by other paths. There is no Aturan word for it that I know. It is like a Ketan for your mind. A motion you make with your thoughts, to train them.”

She made a dismissive gesture. “Either way, it is not cheating. It is a way of revealing that which is hidden in the deep waters of your mind. The fact that you found it on your own is quite remarkable.”

I nodded to her. “I bow to your wisdom, Vashet.”

“You bow to the fact that I am unarguably correct.”

She clapped her hands together. “Now, I have much to teach you. However, as you are still welted and flinching, let us forbear the Ketan. Show me your Ademic instead. I want to hear you wound my lovely language with your rough barbarian tongue.” 822-824

“Just a Story”?

 

Trixieliko / Pixabay

It’s quite common for Bible detractors to derogate this or that part of scripture by saying it is “just a story.” But in the last month, I heard two different church leaders use the negative of the same phrase in their defense of the Bible’s reliability. Defending a historic Adam, they insisted that Genesis 1-3 can’t be “just a story.”

By using this phrase, both the detractors and supporters of biblical veracity are making the same error. An error rooted in the way our modern minds understand story.

We can’t do much about the detractors, but I want to steer Christians from adopting the ideas that lie behind the phrase “just a story.”

Narrative Truth

The original audience of every narrative in the Bible would be very puzzled by this use of the word “just” in relation to the stories they heard.   It is only since the Enlightenment, after which we severely limited what fell into the category we called Truth, that our use of the term “just” in conjunction with stories is possible.

Up till about the 17th century, truth came at us in many forms.  We could encounter it in dreams, through traditions and previous generations. Truth was in our experiences, and it was in the stories we told.

In the Scientific Revolution, some people realized that in some contexts–scientific ones, for instance–it was beneficial to use only objective, observable, measurable truth. All sorts of wonderful things came out of this approach—a better understanding of the universe and the human body, advances in navigation, manufacturing, and agriculture, and bifocals.

The success of this narrowing of truth to fact when doing science was so exhilarating that we began to apply it to practically everything. Subjective, narrative and experiential truth came to be thought of as unreliable because they weren’t true in the same way a quantifiable or observable fact was true.

Truth Equals Fact

Our Modern approach equates truth with fact, and we believe that the best way to transmit factual information is in simple and exact language. It follows then that plain, literal human language is the best way to describe history and human experience as well. From this perspective, the pejorative “just” makes sense. Facts are true, and stories are not true. If the Bible is true, then it can’t contain “just” stories.

Unfactual Stories and Truth

Pretty much every culture in the world, past and present, that hasn’t yet bought into our Modern way of thinking, believes that stories can be true even if unfactual.

This includes the writers of biblical narratives, who sometimes put factual information aside in order to communicate far more important truths about relationships and human experience.

The Ancient Hebrew faith is about a relationship with, and experience of, a transcendent God.  They communicate relational truths in narratives–the genre best suited to communicate such things. What’s the best way to get at the truth about your mother? Telling stories or offering a list of factual information about her.

In order to get at complex truths, we often will use the tools of literary language. The language of story is not nearly as clear, simple or exact as literal language, but it’s far better at saying things that cannot be said. It’s full of metaphor and symbol so as to help us articulate the truth about love and betrayal, beauty and death, despair and redemption. In order to communicate the truth about these subjects, we need more than literal language and fact–we need symbols and stories. This is as true now as it was a thousand years ago.

The Truth of Genesis

In the first chapters of Genesis, the original audience would have heard stories that directly challenged the dominant narratives of the ancient world. The Egyptian and Babylonian stories make it clear that mankind is nothing more than a slave whose sole purpose is to serve the gods, and their representatives, the priest-kings and pharaohs respectively.

The Adam story told its original audience that human beings are created in the image of the One God. And in a shocking turn, Adam even names the animals; in the other ancient stories, naming was something that only gods could do.

In the stories of Egypt and Babylon, women were even lower than men, but the first chapter of the Bible we find the radical idea that both Man and Woman bear the image of the creator. Think about the significance of this–here is a document that is thousands of years old which proclaims that humans are precious, and that male and female are equally valuable. Given the context of the creation stories in the ancient world, these are radical truths; truths that are the basis of our concern for human rights and equity in our culture today.

There’s are many more truths we learn from these first chapters of Genesis. We learn that all of creation was declared “very good,” and that God wants a relationship with the people He created. We learn that human beings are moral beings with a strong tendency to choose Evil and that we are responsible for our choices. We are presented the truth that we need divine action in order to live our life as it was intended to be lived. How we, deep down, want to live it. We are taught that the Creator God loves us enough to accomplish this life on our behalf. It’s not crystal clear from Genesis how this will be achieved, but we do learn that it will be by the actions of another human being who will defeat both evil and death.

These are some of the truths of the story of Adam and Eve. Communicating these all-important truths was, I believe, the purpose of the author(s). These truths are true, whether or not the people or events actually happened in the way it’s presented in the story. Truth is truth, however it is communicated.

What is true for the first audiences of these stories, is true for the modern one. We will need to have conversations about the degree to which individual biblical stories are historical, but whether they are or not the truth they contain will have nothing to do with the degree to which they conform to modern assumptions about what constitutes truth. The authors of these stories didn’t write them so that his listeners would know things; his intention was that they experience truth at the level of their identity and live them out in their lives—this is the power of story.

Whatever it is we do find in the biblical narratives, we never find “just” a story.

The Difference between Truth and Fact

Rothfuss2

 

I’ve been reading about Biblical inerrancy.  And I’m a little uncomfortable with the term.

I agree with them that the Bible is true, but I get the sense that they are using the term “true” differently than I think about it.  Their “true” is much more concrete than is mine.

Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear

I am reading Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear (The Kingkiller Chronicles: Day Two). It’s a fantasy series that occupies a region between Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.

Rothfuss writes intelligent fantasy.

Below is a passage from the book that, I think, gets at how truth is more relational than informational. And that it has to be communicated in stories full of poetic language and metaphor that transcend explanation.

“TODAY,” ELODIN SAID BRIGHTLY, “we will talk about things that cannot be talked about. Specifically, we will discuss why some things cannot be discussed.”

I sighed and set down my pencil. Every day I hoped this class would be the one where Elodin actually taught us something. Every day I brought a hardback and one of my few precious pieces of paper, ready to take advantage of the moment of clarity. Every day some part of me expected Elodin to laugh and admit he’d just been testing our resolve with his endless nonsense.

And every day I was disappointed.

“The majority of important things cannot be said outright,” Elodin said. “They cannot be made explicit. They can only be implied.” He looked out at his handful of students in the otherwise empty lecture hall. “Name something that cannot be explained.” He pointed at Uresh. “Go.”

Uresh considered for a moment. “Humor. If you explain a joke, it isn’t a joke.”

Elodin nodded, then pointed at Fenton.

“Naming?” Fenton asked.

“That is a cheap answer, Re’lar,” Elodin said with a hint of reproach. “But you correctly anticipate the theme of my lecture, so we will let it slide.” He pointed at me.

“There isn’t anything that can’t be explained,” I said firmly. “If something can be understood, it can be explained. A person might not be able to do a good job of explaining it. But that just means it’s hard, not that it’s impossible.”

Elodin held up a finger. “Not hard or impossible. Merely pointless. Some things can only be inferred.” He gave me an infuriating smile. “By the way, your answer should have been ‘music.’”

“Music explains itself,” I said. “It is the road, and it is the map that shows the road. It is both together.”

“But can you explain how music works?” Elodin asked.

“Of course,” I said. Though I wasn’t sure of any such thing.

“Can you explain how music works without using music?”

That brought me up short. While I was trying to think of a response, Elodin turned to Fela.

“Love?” she asked.

Elodin raised an eyebrow as if mildly scandalized by this, then nodded approvingly.

“Hold on a moment,” I said. “We’re not done. I don’t know if I could explain music without using it, but that’s beside the point. That’s not explanation, it’s translation.”

Elodin’s face lit up. “That’s it exactly!” he said. “Translation. All explicit knowledge is translated knowledge, and all translation is imperfect.”

“So all explicit knowledge is imperfect?” I asked. “Tell Master Brandeur geometry is subjective. I’d love to watch that discussion.”

“Not all knowledge,” Elodin admitted. “But most.”

“Prove it,” I said.

“You can’t prove nonexistence,” Uresh interjected in a matter-of-fact way. He sounded exasperated. “Flawed logic.”

I ground my teeth at that. It was flawed logic. I never would have made that mistake if I’d been better rested. “Demonstrate it then,” I said.

“Fine, fine.” Elodin walked over to where Fela sat. “We’ll use Fela’s example.” He took her hand and pulled her to her feet, motioning me to follow.

I came reluctantly to my feet as well and Elodin arranged the two of us so we stood facing each other in profile to the class. “Here we have two lovely young people,” he said. “Their eyes meet across the room.”

Elodin pushed my shoulder and I stumbled forward half a step. “He says hello. She says hello. She smiles. He shifts uneasily from foot to foot.” I stopped doing just that and there was a faint murmur of laughter from the others.

“There is something ephemeral in the air,” Elodin said, moving to stand behind Fela. He put his hands on her shoulders, leaning close to her ear. “She loves the lines of him,” he said softly. “She is curious about the shape of his mouth. She wonders if this could be the one, if she could unclasp the secret pieces of her heart to him.” Fela looked down, her cheeks flushing a bright scarlet.

Elodin stalked around to stand behind me. “Kvothe looks at her, and for the first time he understands the impulse that first drove men to paint. To sculpt. To sing.”

He circled us again, eventually standing between us like a priest about to perform a wedding. “There exists between them something tenuous and delicate. They can both feel it. Like static in the air. Faint as frost.”

He looked me full in the face. His dark eyes serious. “Now. What do you do?”

I looked back at him, utterly lost. If there was one thing I knew less about than naming, it was courting women.

“There are three paths here,” Elodin said to the class. He held up one finger. “First. Our young lovers can try to express what they feel. They can try to play the half-heard song their hearts are singing.”

Elodin paused for effect. “This is the path of the honest fool, and it will go badly. This thing between you is too tremulous for talk. It is a spark so faint that even the most careful breath might snuff it out.”

Master Namer shook his head. “Even if you are clever and have a way with words, you are doomed in this. Because while your mouths might speak the same language, your hearts do not.” He looked at me intently. “This is an issue of translation.”

Elodin held up two fingers. “The second path is more careful. You talk of small things. The weather. A familiar play. You spend time in company. You hold hands. In doing so you slowly learn the secret meanings of each other’s words. This way, when the time comes you can speak with subtle meaning underneath your words, so there is understanding on both sides.”

Elodin made a sweeping gesture toward me. “Then there is the third path. The path of Kvothe.” He strode to stand shoulder to shoulder with me, facing Fela. “You sense something between you. Something wonderful and delicate.”

He gave a romantic, lovelorn sigh. “And, because you desire certainty in all things, you decide to force the issue. You take the shortest route. Simplest is best, you think.” Elodin extended his own hands and made wild grasping motions in Fela’s direction. “So you reach out and you grab this young woman’s breasts.”

There was a burst of startled laughter from everyone except Fela and myself. I scowled. She crossed her arms in front of her chest and her flush spread down her neck until it was hidden by her shirt.

Elodin turned his back to her and looked me in the eye.

“Re’lar Kvothe,” he said seriously. “I am trying to wake your sleeping mind to the subtle language the world is whispering. I am trying to seduce you into understanding. I am trying to teach you.” He leaned forward until his face was almost touching mine. “Quit grabbing at my tits” (253-255).

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