Monday, June 15, 2009

Conclusion: One Wesleyan View of the Chicago Statement

It occurred to me that the somewhat scattered nature of my run through the Chicago Statement didn't really leave you with any real positive sense of what inerrancy might mean if one is not defining it narrowly in the manner of the Chicago Statement.

Here are the previous entries running through the Statement from a broader Wesleyan, rather than Calvino-Wesleyan perspective. Both perspectives can legitimately claim to be Wesleyan, although I would argue that a more open ended sense of inerrancy is more in keeping with the Wesleyan tradition in general.

1. Preface and Summary Statements
2. Articles 1-10
3. Articles 11-13
4. Articles 14-19

Where does this leave us?

The more general approach to inerrancy admits of degrees. One might, for example, allow for a little more looseness on the precise historicity of biblical stories. Yet one might still pretty much accept the biblical narratives as historical. To allow more room does not mean one will allow much more. Frankly, although most Wesleyans do not pay much attention to harmonizing accounts. I suspect most Wesleyans pretty much take the biblical accounts as they are.

And I suspect most Wesleyans, even though they don't focus much on the Bible in relation to science, probably have serious questions about evolution. And there are very few Wesleyan scholars who would see some biblical writings as pseudonymous, written under the authority of a dead figure from the past like Paul, Peter, or Daniel.

I suppose the biggest difference is the emphasis or attention. The Chicagoan tends to focus on these sorts of issues. They become defining issues. Most Wesleyans, as Wesley, the nineteenth century holiness writers, and indeed Christians throughout the centuries, have assumed these things. But there is a significant difference between assuming them and orienting one's approach to the Bible around them.

But let me tell you where I am at as a tracker of things hermeneutic. The very issue of inerrancy to some extent leaves me a bit speechless, because I think the very issue is raised on the basis of some fundamental confusion over how meaning works, particularly in relation to the library we call the Bible. I can think of three distinct ways in which the meaning of the Bible is inerrant and infallible.

1. There were the individual, distinct meanings of each book of the Bible, written at a time and place, addressing particular contexts, taking on meaning in a socio-cultural matrix of the past, in a flow of revelation.

So Genesis was written at a time and place. It seems likely that it was not simply written from beginning to end, but that sources were used, were edited. Were those sources inspired? Who used Genesis initially? If the book of the Law lay dormant in the temple for years, then I find myself wondering when books like Genesis became inspired Scripture. Was it at a point centuries after the writing? Was it when God led Jews to use it? The meanings it would have had from its inception to the time when Jews began to consider it Scripture are bound to have changed.

So when did Genesis first take on an inspired meaning, inerrant for God's purposes for a particular audience? We can say it was when it was first edited, but if it wasn't used for a few centuries later, when it would have taken on slightly different meanings, that inspired, inerrant, "original" meaning would have been directed at virtually no one. So was the first inspired meaning when it started to be used as Scripture?

Or was it the meaning it took on as Genesis became part of the Law, the Pentateuch, if indeed it was at a different time? Or was it the significance Genesis took on in the late intertestamental period? Was the meaning Genesis had as interpreted in the book of Jubilees (ca. 160BC) inspired for the Essenes of that day?

Or is the inspired meaning of Genesis the meaning it had for the New Testament authors, which is quite different from its original meaning at some points. Paul's allegory of Hagar and Sarah would have been unrecognizable to any Jew from Genesis' writing to the time of Christ.

Can you see why the question, "Is the Bible inerrant?" leaves me with a puzzled look on my face. It presumes, Moses sat down one day and wrote Genesis and was thinking the same things that Paul was when he read Genesis, which is what my pastor preached this morning. The question of whether the Bible is inerrant must yield to the question of what meaning of the Bible is inerrant.

Certainly, in God's hands, Scripture always accomplishes what God wants it to do (it is infallible) and anything God wants to communicate through it is true (it is inerrant). But the question of the Chicagoan seems a question founded on such a vast misunderstanding of the situation that I hardly know what to say. "Yes," I answer, like if my son asked me whether a touchdown is better than striking out.

2. The Christian meaning
This is where we are in Christian hermeneutics, the recognition that there is a Christian way of reading the Bible as a whole. Many evangelicals are moving in this direction, although Protestant baggage makes it hard for many to go the whole way. As a child of the nineteenth century holiness movement, I'm already there knowing where it's headed.

The problem with the canonical approach of a person like Brevard Childs or Kevin Vanhoozer is that they have difficulty recognizing that the organizing principle of a canonical reading of the Bible as a whole cannot ultimately come from the texts themselves. The texts in themselves are diverse and thus are susceptible to multiple canonical readings. What this means is that we cannot read the Bible as a unified whole without some "control" outside the biblical texts themselves.

And for this, we must look to the Christian lenses that developed in reading Scripture in the centuries following the writing of the New Testament itself. This is the bridge evangelicals find so hard to cross. But it is a hermeneutical necessity. You can either acknowledge that you read the Bible in the light of Christian glasses, as I do, or you can pretend you do not--and of course read the Bible this way anyway. Those of us who read the Bible as a unified book have a "rule of faith" that we use to organize its material.

Evangelicals and Protestants do not get their theology from the Bible alone and never have. There are rules, as we saw in relation to the NIV translation. In short, there is a reading of the Bible that Christians have actualized on the basis of common Christian tradition throughout the centuries.

Have there been variations? Certainly. Does there seem to be a commonly agreed core including things like the Trinity, creation ex nihilo, the Fall of Satan, etc? Yes. There is a Christian way to read the Bible as a whole. It is different from the original meaning of any one passage, although hopefully there is a strong degree of continuity with various parts.

Is this Christian meaning infallible, insofar as God uses it in His Church? Absolutely! Is this Christian meaning inerrant, insofar as God communicates through it to His Church? Absolutely!

You can see how far removed this "more than literal" use of Scripture is from the minutia of the Chicagoan, who is worried about jots and tittles of the original meaning of verse x. In that sense, the Chicagoan focus is worried about moss at the base of some tree in a forest over which the canonicist is flying in a helicopter.

3. Personal and Group Inspiration
And the Holy Spirit can and does speak to us as individuals, groups, and even denominations. He quickens the text, makes it become the word of God to you and me personally. Whatever He does with the text, it will not fail to be done (infallible). And whatever He communicates to you and I, it will be true (inerrant).

In short, Scripture is a sacrament of revelation, a divinely appointed meeting place between God and us. God can speak through anything, including a street sign. But He has set these words of Scripture aside especially as a place to meet with us, to make the ordinary words--like the ordinary water of baptism or the ordinary bread and wine of communion--to become the word of God.

So Scripture was the unfailing word of God to the varied contexts to which God has spoken through it in the past, and it becomes the unfailing word of God as God speaks to us through it today.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

A text must be approached in "faith", as something special, before it can be accepted by anyone. Doesn't anyone who believes in anything in "faith" act according to what they believe is "true" according to their interpretation? and their "special text"? This is why some of the religious are at odds with each other, because each believes in the "specialness" of their particular religion. And they try to "convert" others to their "form" of religious expression, believing theirs to be the "chosen" one.

What you suggest in reading Scripture as "christian", suggests that one must accept the "whole ball of wax" in reading the text, where it concerns "christian theology. So, problems of science, and de-mythologizing the text is not "approved" in this method. That is putting one's head in the "air", with no "feet on the ground". Actions were to be done because of certain theological understandings. This is where the "therefores" are in Paul's New Testament. Myths are useful for manipulation and social control.

I would much rather "do good works" without the "theological jargon" (not adhering to the label "christian", as Rodney Stark calls it "independent Christian"), because I thought that the message was first and foremost about unconditional acceptance and love, for the person, as a person. But, in reality ("feet on the ground"), there is nothing "special about any one group", as no one is "chosen", "special", "set apart". These are terms that appeal to human psychological need, when there has been an over-emphasizing message of "unspecialness".

The real socio-historical context was a tribal groupish mentality. The appeal to the Trinity was a way for the Church to give "image" to God as a "co-operative" and "peaceful" unified entity. This image was to promote an understanding of God's self-giving and to be an example to humans, as Christians.

Self-giving does not have to be identified as specifically "christian". But, I much prefer rational choice theory, as it is based on "real world" realities and not theological propositions. While I choose to believe in behavior based on "costs/benefits", I do think that people have "behaved" in certain ways because of a belief in "rewards" in the afterlife, special recognition from "god", or a desire to "become like Christ". These "reasons" are based in faith, not reason.

Ken Schenck said...

Welcome back from Europe, Angie. If you look back through the earlier posts in this series, I'm trying to define things in a way that allows us to explore truth in other realms without a straightjacket on.

Rod said...


What is the difference between infallibility and inerrancy?

Ken Schenck said...

Rod, it all depends on who's talking. In the summary of the recent symposium on Wesleyan hermeneutics, one of the General Superintendents suggested that there wasn't much of a difference between the two as far as Wesleyans are concerned.

Some would argue that infallible only means the Bible is true in matters of faith and doctrine, while inerrant means it is true in every area.

I personally like the way Kevin Vanhoozer uses the word inerrant in relation to communication of truth and infallible in terms of the Bible not failing at other purposes as well, such as expressing or predicting, etc...

Andrew said...


I would like to share with you a paradigm shift in my understanding of inspiration, which I think your questions about Genesis point vaguely toward.

Q. What is the source of truth for the bible / when did it become inspired?

The Chicagoan answer focuses on the act/event of writing. They talk about how the act of scriptures being written was supernatural one. What was written were the exact words God wanted, and the human author's beliefs, emotions, human foibles etc were relatively irrelevant. The fundamentalist / Calvinist / Chicagoan position has always talked very clearly of this inerrancy of the written originals. That, for them is where the moment of supernatural inspiration kicked in, the moment where the bible became true.

There are many, many problems with such a position. It was quite an 'aha' moment for me when I understood fully my own view of when the bible became true...

People in history experienced God's actions in the world, and told others about them and wrote them down. Wonderful acts of God in the world inspired people to write about them. There was little or no supernatural intervention during the act of writing. As Christians, we believe that God through Jesus intervened in human history in a special way... as a result of that act Christianity was created and the gospel written, and thus Christianity and the gospel accounts are inspired and true. Does this mean that every detail in Mark is going to agree with John? Of course not - people make mistakes, interpret events they hear of in their own ways etc. The truth in the bible comes from the truths that inspired the authors to write it, not the factual truth of every word of their final written accounts.

Personally, I am quite happy to let the fundamentalists / calvinists / chicagoans hijack the word 'inerrancy' and say that by their definition I am an 'errantist' because I reject their claim that the original written words of the bible contain no errors. Instead I would argue that such an idea is unhelpful, misleading and focuses on the wrong things.

Ken Schenck said...

Thanks Andrew, I thought you were going in a slightly different direction at first. I can't completely put my finger on it, but it is interesting the paradigm that looks back, back, back as the focus of inspiration. Certainly I am more than willing and eager to afford inspiration to those initial moments of biblical material reaching something like its current form. But I also wonder whether the more proper orientation should be inspiration now, now, now, since in terms of actual significance, it is the word of God for us today that is what it is really all about for us!