Inerrancy, and the recent non-apocalyptic discussion, at the annual Evangelical Theological Society ETS) meeting in Baltimore
by Peter Enns
November 21, 2013
I just got back from the session at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in Baltimore on the the book I recently contributed to, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. On the panel were co-authors Al Mohler, Michael Bird, John Franke, Kevin Vanhoozer (via video), and me. The discussion was moderated by the editors of the book, James Merrick and Stephen Garrett.
As I entered the room I noticed two things. First, I had never met Al Mohler, but I was immediately taken by the fact that he and I are about the same height, so, if it came to it, I think I could take him.
Second, I didn’t notice a metal detector, though I had requested–in writing–that one be installed. Neither was my flak jacket neatly folded on my seat as a backup precaution. It turned out I didn’t need them any way.
The nuclear, apocalyptic, smack down, world-ending moment many were expecting and/or hoping for (let’s face it, why else would 2000+ people sit through 3 hours of this) didn’t happen. If anything was apocalyptic it was the $10 “sandwiches” the hotel provided for lunch and charging me $11.99 for 24-hours of internet access. What is this, Siberia?
Here’s how the session was laid out. We each began with a 15 minute presentation of our views. Next, for about 45 minutes we had the chance to press each other on matters, and I’d say there was a very healthy give and take among all present. If Vanhoozer had been there, this would have further expanded the conversation, but it was already hard enough sharing 2 microphones among the 4 of us. The Q&A session that followed, for about 45 minutes, was likewise fruitful.
My general take on the session is that all panelists were very clear in expressing what they thought. Some exchanges were pointed but not remotely aggressive or disrespectful.
My main regret is that it was only as the session was ending that I felt we were all getting to know each other well enough, so to speak, that things really could have taken off. I think each of us saw patterns of responses in each other that were only identified as the patterns kept recurring over the 3 hours.
We got below the surface of the rhetoric, but it would take more effort to get at the heart of things–which for me comes down to “what kind of God are we talking about here?” What we really needed now was for the panelists to find a pub, sit across from each other, and get down to business. “Panel discussions” are too much about posturing.
As a biblical scholar who deals with the messy parts of the Bible (i.e., the Old Testament), I came away with one recurring impression, a confirmation of my experience in these matters: mainstream American evangelicalism, as codified in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), doesn’t really know what to do with the Bible as a historical text.
Historical context is more a problem to be solved than a dimension of the Bible to be embraced–unless historical matters are idiosyncratically circumscribed, as they are in CSBI.
What summed up the issue, and the divide, for me at least was when one presenter pressed me by saying, “But the Bible is not merely human.” Indeed, but, it is still throughly human—right? A CSBI model of inerrancy gives lip service to the Bible’s historical particularity, but in practice keeps at a safe distance. In a way, this is a way to frame the entire discussion: what does it mean for a thoroughly human book to be more than human?
Welcome to the mystery of the incarnation.
That was a main theme of my 15 minute presentation. The title of my essay in the book is “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” Here are some of the main points I made.
- Neither strict nor progressive inerrancy (both of which are represented in the book) describe what I see when I open the Bible and read it. Both prescribe the boundaries of biblical interpretation in ways that create conflict both inner-canonically and with respect to extra-biblical information.
- My main misgiving is that inerrancy prescribes too narrowly biblical interpretation because it prescribes too narrowly God. All inerrantists, on some level, have the following a priori: an inerrant Bible is the only type of book God would produce. The tensions within evangelicalism over inerrancy are fueled by the distance between this a priori expectation about how God and the Bible “must” behave and the persistently non-cooperative details of biblical interpretation. This distance virtually guarantees continued conflict.
- CSBI promulgates these false expectations and is also seen as an authoritative document within American evangelical culture. One example is an early assertion that speaks of God “who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only.” This early assertion links inerrancy with the very nature of God, which is, to put it mildly, a conversation-stopper.
- What is missing here is hermeneutical self-consciousness, i.e., a reflection on the nature of truth that God speaks in ancient texts though ancient authors.
- To illustrate I referred to several of the passages in the Old Testament where Israel’s God Yahweh is referred to as one among a number of gods–e.g., Psalm 82, Psalm 95, Job 1-2 (Yahweh is chairman of a heavenly council of gods) Exodus 12:12 (Yahweh fights against others gods, here Egyptian gods), Deuteronomy 32:8 (where the high god Elyon assigns to Yahweh the people of Israel as his allotment–though English translations do not reflect this). My point here is how does an inerrant Bible, wherein God only speaks “truth,” fit with these descriptions of God? To restrict inerrancy to what the Bible explicitly “teaches or affirms,” as defenders of inerrancy typically do in these cases, does not help because these texts most certainly “affirm” something about God quite clearly.
- My point is that these descriptions of God are ones that the Israelites believed to be the case, at least at some point in their history. They do not give us final, absolute, inerrant information about God but contextually expressed beliefs about God. Serious historical study of the Bible has helped us to understand the ancient, tribal world where these texts were produced. The New Testament helps us see that we are to move beyond the tribal thinking that portrays God in these ways.
- To speak this way is not to dimiss the Old Testament nor is it Marcionism. Rather, we are grappling with “Bible in context” (the historical setting of the Bible) and the canonical complexity of the problem of continuity and discontinuity between the testaments (the gospel is clearly connected to Israel’s story while at the same time does new and unexpected things).
- An incarnational model of Scripture helps reorient our expectations of the Bible so that “history” ceases being such a huge doctrinal hurdle–we expect an ancient Bible to look ancient rather than protect the Bible from how it behaves.
- Inerrancy is not a concept that describes this complex dynamic, especially given the gate-keeping function inerrancy has performed in evangelicalism. Other language should be used.
On the last point, during the Q&A, I commented that my view of Scripture is that it carries a “narratival authority.” God uses the biblical story to form followers of Christ, not simply or even primarily rationally, but in their “whole being.” The biblical story has movement, shifts, changes–as does any story–and is used by God to shape us slowly and deeply in a life-long process of being conformed more and more to the crucified and risen Christ, not simply giving us discreet self-contained “truth claims.” The Bible itself bears witness to this journey of God’s people as they grow and reflect on God in various settings and situations, which is why there is such theological diversity in Scripture, and [thus,] systematizing Scripture under a CSBI model is out of place.
OK, that’s it for now. I may expand on some of this soon, especially since the book is now available.