Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Inspiration, Authority, Inerrancy, Infallibility...

Today in class we were trying to bring clarity to some of the words that Wesleyan Church Wesleyans use in relation to the Bible. These are words like inspiration, authority, inerrancy, and so forth. The clarity comes, I think, when we are careful about the type of literature we are talking about.

So what authority does a biblical narrative have over us--it's telling a story, not commanding us to do something? Or what does it mean to say that the psalmist is inspired when he exclaims, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Or what does it mean to say that the command to love our neighbor is inerrant? Sure, we can come up with answers to such questions, but they do not fit naturally with the genre in question. It's like asking someone if they believe you can hammer a nail with a pipe wrench. I suppose you would answer, "Yes?" but the question seems a little confused.

So here was my attempt today to line up terms with genre categories:

Infallible is an overarching category that is best defined to say that Scripture never fails to accomplish God's intended purposes, which are various (rather than the strange definition used in the 20th century that used the word to limit the "inerrancy" of the biblical texts).

Some of those purposes include:

1. truth telling passages match with the word inerrant (with caveats about metaphorical language, language of limited scope, and the place of the text in question in the flow of revelation).

2. commands match with the word authority (with caveats about differences between their time and our time, hyperbole, the scope of the command, and the place of the command in the flow of revelation)

3. promises match with the word trustworthy (with caveats about God's freedom to cancel promises on the basis of human repentance or hardheartedness). Proverbs are not promises but statements of general truth which sometimes have exceptions.

4. narratives played various roles in the history of the Bible's composition. Their primary purpose was to express theological truths about God and Israel or about Jesus and his followers. When read as Scripture, they are expressions of our Christian identity and provide the stories of our family.

It makes sense to speak of all of the above purposes as inspired, as God-breathed truths, commands, promises, and narratives, remembering their intended scope and level of literality, and their place in the flow of revelation.

5. Some texts, further, are human expressions, such as psalms of thanksgiving or prayers for God to destroy Israel's enemies, for babies to be bashed against rocks and for troubling individuals to emasculate themselves. Again, although we could no doubt think up a way to use the word "inspired" in relation to them, they seem rather to tell us that it is okay to get angry at God or be puzzled at what He is up to.

Anyway, this is what we came up with today. Any thoughts?


Bob MacDonald said...

Nice try! I would like to try some different words. It seems to me that we get many responses to the faith - some submit, some rebel, some engage, and there is much that distracts. All of us do these things some of the time. If we engage, then we have this promise of a response. Be a little mad טעם as David says, and try it out (Psalm 34 when he was a little mad טעם in front of Abimelech). It is the Bible in a playful acrostic that makes this invitation. And it is the 'good' in verse 9 as the 'good' in Genesis 1 that makes the book what it is. That's the substance of inerrancy, and all those other things. There is a tendency for us all to want to 'figure it out' - but without the foolishness of faith, such figuring is a distraction.

I'm glad I don't need to get any deeper than this in the word struggle.

Ken Schenck said...

Yes... we can wonder if these categories are very helpful. They are an artifact of the early to mid-twentieth century. All in all I suspect they more distract us from the business of hearing God in the word. I don't think they ever made anyone more godly or brought anyone to Christ. But as communities of faith, we inherit certain language and issues and as long as we are a part of those communities, they are part of our language and issues.

Marc said...

I'm quite happy with that description though some might complain it makes other books inspired too. As someone who converted by reading Lewis I say so what? Heck, have we forgotten that all Christians are inspired by definition, since they have the Spirit of God?

Apropos inerrancy I have to add that, IMO, Nietzsche is the best medicine for folks hammering on about this subject. Inerrancy is often a cloak for Protestant dogma, a part of the mediated (brokered?) institution of tradition which offers (but doesn't always deliver) access to God, Truth and Salvation through authorised channels and often for a profit.