Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Five Views of Inerrancy (Book Review Part 1)

Zondervan was kind enough to give me an advanced copy of the new, Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy.  This is the first of two posts in review.

1. About ten years ago, before 9-11 had sunk in, I saw things exactly as Robbert Webber observed in The Younger Evangelicals:

Traditional evangelicals had fought to the death over inerrancy in the 70s. The boomer, pragmatic evangelicals, had largely not been interested in the subject because they were focused on church growth. Webber wrote of the "younger evangelicals" at the turn of the millennium, whom he believed were not interested in fighting over propositions but in focusing on the person of Jesus Christ and in making a concrete difference in people's lives in the world.

Since 9-11 we have seen a conservative backlash in America. The youngrestless, and Reformed are on the rise, typified by the Gospel Coalition. It is no surprise that the debates of the 70s are resurfacing. Indeed, for good or ill, the Christian generation that was just coming to consciousness after 9-11 and during the Iraq War may eventually spit Webber's younger evangelicals out of their mouth.

Ironically, this Fall is also the 30th anniversary of the year Norm Geisler effectively pushed Robert Gundry out of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) over this issue, even though Gundry affirmed inerrancy. Gundry had written a fine commentary on Matthew but one that did not fit with Geisler's sense of inerrancy. The debate was not over the evidence. Geisler never contested the details of Gundry's interpretation! He simply believed an evangelical couldn't believe that there was Jewish midrash in the New Testament, a priori.

2. Of the authors in this book, I suspect only Al Mohler thinks that was the right decision. In general, Gundry's ouster is usually referenced as a blight on ETS and the low point of its history. Mohler is of course one of the ringleaders of the neo-Reformed movement. He is also the only one of the authors in this book who thinks the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) is anything like a sufficient definition of inerrancy.

This is an important point. Three of the evangelical writers in this book, all benchmark evangelicals who believe in inerrancy, do not think the CSBI is the best standard by which to define it. A fourth author, Peter Enns, thinks the word "inerrancy" must be so qualified that it is ultimately counterproductive to reading the books of the Bible on their own terms. The take-away from these five authors is thus important because it means no one can assume that inerrancy = CSBI.

Four of the five authors believe that CSBI is a reflection of twentieth century American cultural categories. For example, Mike Bird, who strongly affirms inerrancy, is a stalwart evangelical. But he is also an Australian who taught for a time in Scotland. As an outsider to American culture, he finds the Americanism of Mohler's position all too obvious. This brings up a very important point.

Mohler's perspective may seem like common sense to many of us because we are American Christians. That is to say, the cultural dimensions of Mohler's approach are seen most easily from the standpoint of evangelicals outside North America.

3. Mohler's perspective on inerrancy requires us 1) to see his version of inerrancy as the only legitimate position for a Christian (believe it or effectively distrust God), 2) to see his interpretation of Genesis 1 as the only possible interpretation for a true Christian, 3) to read the stories of the Bible with the same general parameters with which we read historical texts today, and 4) to allow only for readings of authorial references in the New Testament that take them as part of the revealed point.

All four of the other authors in this book consider one or more of these presuppositions to be potentially problematic. All of the critiques of Mohler are quite strongly made, and here are a few of them.

Kevin Vanhoozer teaches at Trinity and has taught at Wheaton. He is an evangelical's evangelical. His critique of Mohler, however, sounds much like what we will hear from the others. "The Chicago statement is not quite the same proposition that the early church affirmed" (72). It reflects a development of understanding.

A second critique of Vanhoozer is that Mohler runs the risk of confusing his interpretation of the Bible for the Bible itself. The CSBI actually relates to a particular interpretation of the text and is thus open to dispute and scrutiny.

Mike Bird is an Australian evangelical. By the way, all the writers in this book are also Calvinists, reflecting the origins of modern inerrantism. (It is worth noting that the forebears of this modern form of inerrancy used a different hermeneutic than my church's abolitionist forebears, and they used their hermeneutic to argue anti-abolitionism from Scripture, just as Mohler uses a similar hermeneutic today to argue against women in ministry).

Bird agrees strongly with Vanhoozer that the inerrancy before the CSBI, ETS, and even the Princeton Calvinists of the 1800s was different from modern inerrantism, even if analogous. It is thus only a half-truth for Mohler to say that "inerrancy was the affirmation and theological reflex of the church until the most recent centuries" (56).

Bird has a problem with Mohler's "line in the sand," when Calvin and the Westminster Confession do not use the words "without error" any more than Fuller's doctrinal statement. "As a global evangelical, I could not find the enthusiasm to denounce as dangerous to the evangelical faith a person whose doctrine of Scripture is at its essence the same as my own."  The options are not as black and white as Mohler makes them out to be.

The unanimity with which all the other evangelical voices in this book critique Mohler is striking. Franke also notes that the sort of inerrancy affirmed throughout church history "was not that of the historical-grammatical interpretation, a literal reading of the Bible, and the CSBI" (77). This is part of the cultural myopia of Mohler. Throughout history, the truthfulness of Scripture often involved non-literal interpretations, which Mohler eschews.

For example, Clement of Alexandria considered the truthfulness of Scripture to come in part through allegorical meaning. (I have also pointed out that 2 Timothy 3:16 included non-literal understandings of the OT.) Franke's closing words in his critique mirror those of the others: "Might it be that the CSBI is more reflective of a particular set of North American hermeneutical and theological assumptions than is appropriate in light of the biblical narrative?" (81).

Enns is the only one in this book who has stopped using the word inerrancy, although he used to. His main critiques of Mohler have to do with his tone and the a priori nature of his assumptions. Mohler simply assumes that a true Christian will have the same views as he does. All evidence must be shoved into that mould, no matter what.  It is, according to Enns, a "strategy designed to insulate Mohler and his views from criticism" (60).

Enns has a couple other critiques of Mohler. One is that God revealed himself in the cultural categories of the biblical audiences. Thus the truth of the Bible was culturally embedded. Accordingly, there is a greater degree of progressive revelation in the pages of the Bible than Mohler would allow.

4. So what is good in Mohler's position?  Christians throughout the centuries have affirmed the complete truthfulness of Scripture.  When the Bible speaks, God speaks!  The debate is thus over how God has spoken that truth in Scripture.


Susan Moore said...

The inerrancy of the Bible rests in The Common Language of God. They’re not getting the whole meaning because they’re not seeing the whole picture.
Finished my first day of work as an R.N. today, after the 2.5 year growth spurt.
The last week or so I’ve been getting increasingly heebee-geebeeish over going back. Last night I was totally second guessing myself and miserable. What an idiot. Maybe I didn’t hear God right, maybe He didn’t really want me to do that kind of work anymore. I failed in my faith and asked Him for a sign, “Make it clear as day, Lord; yes means yes and no means no.”
My boss suddenly switched the subject during orientation and started starting about a clinical scenario, and immediately my hands got red hot, even up past my wrists. I’m thinking, “No way, this is just a class.” My hands get hot like that when the Lord uses me to heal someone. A minute later she changed the subject to something administrative my hands immediately cooled off, which is unusual to cool off so immediately. A few minutes later she went back to something clinical and they immediately fired up, and I laughed to myself.
Good to know, His Word is inerrant; and He remains (for the believer!) Faithful and True.

Ken Schenck said...

Success! One step at a time...

Phil said...

Thanks for the review Ken. I look forward to reading the entire book. I wonder if your parenthetical regarding the anti-abolition roots of the Southern
Baptist hermeneutic is based on something in Bird's essay or another of the contributors, or if it's your own insight. Either way, it's a valuable one.

Ken Schenck said...

The comment is a cross between Mark Noll and Don Dayton.

Ken Schenck said...

BTW, Fred Clark ran with the parenthetical comment above yesterday to describe Al Mohler's version of inerrancy as a "form of white theology developed by white American Christians to defend slavery." I will let you decide what you think...

Barry said...

"It is worth noting that the forebears of this modern form of inerrancy used a different hermeneutic than my church's abolitionist forebears, and they used their hermeneutic to argue anti-abolitionism from Scripture, just as Mohler uses a similar hermeneutic today to argue against women in ministry"

They weren't arguing 'anti-abolitionism'; they were arguing *for* *slavery*.