Inerrancy? Eric P. Lemonholm
William Dembski wrote an intriguing article in the March 1996 Princeton Theological Review entitled “The Problem of Error in Scripture.” Dembski’s basic position seems to be shared by many here at PTS. The question I have is this: What difference does the doctrine of inerrancy make in how we read Scripture, and in how we live as Christians?
Dembski distinguishes three basic perspectives on Scripture. The first position is Dembski’s own, the divine-inspiration perspective. It consists of two assertions: first, that “God is fully capable of expressing himself in human language” without error; second, that God has in fact chosen to do so in the Bible.
Second, the human-constructivist position sees Scripture as merely a construct of the human mind, without flowing from or referring to a real God. This view, of course, is not Christian. The main problem with Dembski’s treatment of the human-constructivist position is his move of summarily grouping “process, liberationist, and feminist theologies” into this perspective and then asserting that they are not Christian.
In fact, many of those theologies fit better into the third perspective, which Dembski calls the human-response perspective, wherein Scripture is conceived as “a human response to a divine revelatory act,” but is not “the very words of God.” As a human response, Scripture is a “fallible human witness to what God has done in salvation history.” This is my basic perspective, as long as it is understood that the nature of Scripture as human responses to the revelation of God does not mean that Scripture is not divinely inspired; rather, the question is the nature of divine inspiration.
The trouble I have with the so-called divine-inspiration position is threefold. First, if one grants that God is fully capable of communicating “inerrantly” in human language, the question remains whether God has in fact chosen to do so. Since Scripture is the fundamental source of our knowledge about God, we have to go and look. Would the God revealed in the Bible choose to communicate directly to us inerrantly in book form? Did God in fact do so?
Human-responsers hold that Scripture is a witness in words to the Word of God, Christ. The Bible is not a second incarnation. We human responsers generally view assertions of the inerrancy of Scripture as idolatry, since only God is inerrant, or perfect, or fully the Truth. The Bible, in fact, does not seem to be inerrant. (Dembski defines “error” narrowly, so that “only people… can be in error,” whereas “statements may be false.” If I say “There may be errors in this paper,” however, I am being perfectly clear, even if I, and not this paper, am culpable for my paper’s errors or mistakes or falsehoods.)
The God of the Bible, moreover, does not seem to be as concerned with the inerrancy of texts as he is with the love of his children. We must have faith in God through Christ by the Spirit, not faith in a text. The text is trusted as revelational because we already have faith in God, in the context of a Christian faith community. That is how we all, in fact, come to trust the truth of the scriptural witness. The Bible is God-breathed, but that does not take away its nature as a human response or witness to God’s work in Jesus the Christ. If we come to the text with the doctrine of inerrancy already in hand, we do violence to the text.
Second, what is meant when one calls Scripture inerrant? Scriptural inerrancy, I hold, is a vacuous concept. Suppose, for example, I read the Gospel of John. We can all grant that God the Father who sent his Son is inerrant, Jesus the Christ who spoke the sermon is inerrant, and the Spirit who inspired the author of John and who, I pray, speaks to us through the text, is inerrant (although inerrancy is not a particularly biblical concept). But is the text itself inerrant (or if you prefer, completely true)?
Suppose I ask if John is an inerrant record of what Jesus actually preached (let us ignore, for now, both that we have at best copies of copies of the original manuscripts, none of which are inerrant, and that there are three other Gospels). Jesus probably spoke Aramaic, and John is in Greek. There is no way of knowing for sure, on the basis of the Greek text, what Jesus actually said in Aramaic (though one can sometimes determine what Jesus might have said in Aramaic).
Even if we had a perfect transcription of Jesus’ words in Aramaic, moreover, would we be much better off? Would we know exactly what Jesus meant with every word? Could we tell what he said with a smile, and what he said with utter seriousness? Would we know his context so well, and be so wise that we could discern exactly how we are supposed to apply to our context everything Jesus said in his own context?
Of course, what is wrong in this instance is not the text, but rather my improper desire for inerrancy. The author of John writes that he (she?) wrote his Gospel not so that we can have an inerrant set of facts about Jesus, but “so that you may come to believe… and may have life in [Jesus Christ’s] name” (John 20:31). To call the Gospel of John historically “inerrant” is to make a huge assumption, an assumption contradicted by a careful reading of all the Gospels. In fact, the assumption of historical inerrancy violates the Gospel text, which has a different object.
Inerrancy always needs to be qualified as inerrancy in what respect. Is every verse of the Bible grammatically, historically, scientifically, theologically, ethically, and aesthetically inerrant? Is the Bible the perfect book, in every way we want it to be? Or is it only inerrant in some mysterious way, beyond our understanding? Let us reserve divine perfections for the Divinity.
But if scriptural inerrancy is restricted to the idea that God communicates to us in the Bible without error exactly what God wants to, and if we accepted that large, questionable doctrine, then what? Even if there were inerrant texts to read, there are no inerrant readers. We are finite, fallible, and fallen. We need to take into account the effects of total depravity in our intellectual lives, including all reading of Scripture. If the words on a page are inerrant (and if we had the lost first editions), we still need to struggle with our minds to understand their meaning, we need wisdom to discern which of a range of meanings a text may convey, and most of all we need the Holy Spirit to give us life in Christ’s name, and bring to life in our lives the dead words on the page. Only God could inerrantly read an inerrant text. Everyone else, including inerrantists, need to interpret. To think otherwise is not to take the Fall, or our finitude, seriously.
Dembski described us human-responsers as “fideists,” presumably because of our reliance on the Spirit. But then he concludes his paper by stating that
Our hermeneutic task then is, as far as is possible with the aid of the Holy Spirit, to enter the divine perspective, and thereby understand what God is teaching his Church by Scripture.
I could hardly agree more. We are all fideists, therefore, if fideism is trusting in the Holy Spirit for understanding. I would only add that for what really counts in biblical hermeneutics- being transformed into Christ’s likeness- an inerrant Scripture is neither necessary nor sufficient. What is necessary and sufficient is the loving God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Both human-responsers and divine-inspirers believe that Scripture is “God-breathed” and “useful” for the Christian life. Both groups have to struggle to understand difficult texts, and struggle to apply what they learn. Neither group seems to be wiser, more loving Christians because of their belief or disbelief in inerrancy.
When you look at it closely, the concept of inerrancy collapses into reliability: The Bible is the irreplaceable, reliable collection of written witnesses to the decisive acts of God in the history of God’s people. If your concept of God demands that the biblical witness be inerrant, than your concept of God is in error. Jesus the Christ is the only “inerrant” icon of God; the Bible is a reliable verbal icon of Christ, but it is not inerrant.
The divine-inspiration model suffers from what Richard Bernstein calls the Cartesian Anxiety, wherein one accepts this false dichotomy: Either we have a fully objective foundation to our knowledge, or everything dissolves into relativism. Either we assert biblical inerrancy as the foundation of our faith, or Christianity will fade away, if not now, then “a generation down the road” (Dembski’s phrase). This seems to be a common assumption on this campus.
Reformed thinkers Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff (and others, including fellow Christian William Alston) have demonstrated that foundationalism is untenable and unnecessary for the defense of the faith. We do not need inerrantism to prop up our faith in God or our trust in the basic reliability of Scripture. Whichever perspective you hold, trust in the reliability of the scriptural witness should be founded on the relationship of faith already established in you by the Triune God.
A final illustration. One of the scandals of Christianity, in the eyes of many Muslims, who hold the same doctrine of inerrancy (the doctrine is not unique to Christianity), is the very personal and human nature of much of the New Testament. For example, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is really a letter, a piece of human communication. Paul wrote it, apparently not conscious of his being inerrant, inspired, or writing Scripture. Yes, Romans is a human witness to Christ. No, it is not inerrant. But it is a true, reliable account of the Christian faith, however finite or incomplete, as all human works are, because it has been found to be a reliable witness by the Christian Church throughout the centuries. That Romans is a reliable witness is evidence of divine inspiration. The Spirit inspired Paul, and the Spirit speaks to us through the precious clay jars of Paul’s writings.
We do not need to prop up Romans with the myth of inerrancy. Instead, we can trust Romans as a faithful witness, because the Spirit has witnessed through it in the life of the Church, and the Spirit continues to witness to Christ through it in our lives. What more do we need? Do not make an idol of our precious Bible!