"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Monday, July 30, 2007

Grammar, inerrancy, and sleepless nights

Dear friends,
As you may have noticed posting has been rather slow as of late. Given that, I'm sure many of you have been wringing your hands in distress wondering what has become of me. Let me just assure you that all is well. I'm still right here in Rice, MN. Still, all is not now as it once was.

As you may remember, I started a masters program a few months ago. The last two weeks I have been away at my first set of on campus intenives. Let's just say the name is aptly given. Because of this, Alex's mind has been feeling a bit tuckered out these days. During week two they sprung grammar on me! Apparently they feel you need at least cursory understanding of the topic in order to participate in graduate level exegetical studies. So at the moment I'm trying to relearn what a prepositional phrase is along with adverbs, infinitives, conjunctions, logical connectors and all the rest. I suppose I don't blame them, but being forced to dig around in an area that I once prided myself for being completely ignorant feels much like trying to put together a puzzle in the dark.

Aside from that, there is a certain theological issue raised by one of my professors that seems to have some pretty deep implications depending on which side of the fence you fall on the topic. It's an area that I have conveniently ignored, but now I'm being forced to deal with it. It's this idea of the inerrancy of scripture. My hermeneutics professor held this position. While he acknowledged not all of us would agree with him, he did not take the time to defend his presupposition. He simply stood there holding it. I cannot fault him though, as a reasoned defense of various doctrinal positions was simply beyond the scope of the class. Still, for a guy like me, this is absolute torture! To raise a contentious presupposition then just carry on with another topic that is in some ways directly influenced by one's stance on the aforementioned presupposition is like finger nails on a chalk board to me.

The reason I find this presupposition so disturbing is this:
My professor defined "inerrancy" as: being completely true and without error in everything the author intended to communicate. and also: being the exact words that God wanted wanted communicated to his people.

But then, within the course of my studies, I read through the entire chapter of Genesis in a single sitting. Then I sit back and think to myself... "These are the EXACT words that God wanted communicated?" Furthermore, it is generally recognized that later editors placed some finishing touches on the story after it's original composition. What does that say about the inerrancy position? Now I'd like to simply brush this aside and take a position that does not require this thorny word "inerrant", but the evangelical position tries to force the issue by saying that Jesus and the early church viewed the Pentateuch as inerrant. If one accepts this position, then if it can be shown that the pentateuch is not inerrant (which I would not be surprised at all to see happen) then Jesus himself was wrong and we all know where that goes. Is this a false dilemma? Are the evangelicals creating a problem where none need exist? I'm not sure yet, but that's what I aim to find out. I will be ordering N.t. Wright's The Last Word: Beyond the Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture this morning.

So at the moment I feel rather adrift. This is nothing new for me. It happens every time I run into an area that I don't know how to process. I'll float around in my cognitive dissonance until I can finally come to some sort of peace on the issue. At the moment I'm taking comfort in the fact that I'm far from the first to have dealt with this issue. I expect to find a reasonable position I can accept, but at the moment I'm having trouble sleeping at night.

How are all of you faring? Are all my British friends keeping dry?

P.S. Here's Adrian with a puppy. He likes the puppies. The kitties? Not so much. They bite.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Alex. Just wanted to let you know that I enjoyed reading your site today (I only read some of it) and that I love you and I'm praying for you and the family. That's not your puppy is it? Hemmingway, may our God who dwells in you and is more powerful than he that dwells in the world lead you in all your ways.

In Him,


8:36 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Well, it's been said that in order to combat the authority of the Catholic Church, the reformers needed to appeal to some greater authority and in the absence of an actual intervention by Jesus/God, the Bible itself was as good as any. The need to simplify that authority was the reason d'etre of many of the hard line reformers, as they knew that any authority which relied on a small elite for 'interpretation' (i.e. a centralised clergy) was liable to be corrupted (not an unfair point). The best way to achieve this was to simply say that the Bible was to be interpreted straighforwardly and as written; no ambiguous allegories, historical considerations or anything that might require an academic to decipher. What you see is what you get and it's completely timeless and independent of changes in cultural norms. Equally, the tense negotiations surrounding the formation of the canon were considered to have no bearing on the Bible's authenticity; God made sure the right bishops had there way, and so any bishops who disagreed were just plain wrong.

I think there is an increasing number of protestants of various denominations that are actually moving away from the unquestionable inerrancy position precisely because it does seem to have stemmed from political pragmatism. Obviously, no biblical commentator makes a claim to the scripture's inerrancy because the cannon had not yet been decided, so there is little authority to warrant such an assumption (which is a key difference between the Koran and the Bible).

IMHO, the reformation was just another one of those classic periods in human civilisation where the voices of the moderates were largely drowned out by the fir and brimstone rhetoric of the extremists. I can completely empathise with Luther's frustration with the RCC, but I can't help but sympathise more with the likes of Erasmus. I think if one accepts that the reformation was a particularly tomultuous occasion, and that a form of spiritual martial law was laid down by both sides, then one can safely tiptoe away from what I think are widely regarded as logically dubious assertions as to the literal inerrancy of the Bible (as opposed to the spiritual inerrancy, which is a whole different kettle of carp).

BTW, Alex and Timmo, I still intend to respond in the other thread, but I'm still mulling things over.

5:48 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Bishop Wright would say inerrancy was a typically American problem. He'd be a little unfair, and would then admit it.

I only have one other thing to say: I think Christians can concede that Jesus was factually fallible.

He probably believed God made things as they were 2000 years before he was born. (Yes, Jesus was probably a creationist. Hard not to be at the time.)

At some point, he probably believed he was just some prophet guy thing.

And fine, Jesus was probably an inerrantist of some sort, although I don't think the category applies to 1st century Palestinian Judaism well.

So, the inerrancy of Scripture has to be judged on its own right. It seems to me that inerrantists are forced to make ad hoc defences left, right, and centre. Maybe this isn't such a bad thing, because then we have a principled way to test our hermeneutic. But it seems a little flimsy to me.

3:13 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

Revvvvvvvd (7 Vs, is that masonic or something?),

I'm not sure I would say Jesus believed in the inerrancy of scripture in the textual sense, though. There's a lot of that allegorical thinking of Philo in some of the sayings attributed to Jesus. I'm a bit shakey on exactly what Jesus thought of some of the zanier parts of what are now the OT scriptures, but I've heard other Christians claim that he, sort of, treated the Hebrew scriptures the way Einstein treated Newtonian physics; close to, but not quite The essential message.

5:28 PM

Blogger Daniel Nairn said...

I don't think it's far off to say that the inerrancy debates were the dominant conflict among 20th century biblical scholars. It seems to be fading away now, but not necessarily because any resolution has been reached but because everyone is just tired of it.

The trouble with denying inerrancy IMHO is that you must come up with a way to arbitrate between the erroneous parts and the good parts. Any standard you use would by definition be above Scripture itself. The final result is that am individual can make the Bible say whatever he wants it to by selecting the parts he likes and rejecting any difficulties.

Although a doctrine of inerrancy was never spelled out by the early church, and certainly not within the Bible itself, I do think that a default trust has always been granted to the canonical Scriptures. Early theologians would just quote the text and assume it would be taken authoritatively.

A couple more things:

- Inerrancy doesn't mean that interpretation is entirely straight-forward.
- I think multiple writers (or redactors) can still be taken into account.

As far as a basis for biblical authority grounded in reason alone, I don't know of any. I think it is always just taken as a presupposition.

9:22 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

rev. dr. incitatus,

I have no idea what Jesus believed about Scripture (whatever that was at the time). But I wouldn't mind terribly if he was a Texan Bible Basher. No, I take that back. I would mind. But I wouldn't mind if he was a biblical inerrantist of the non-conservative evangelical persuasion.

anyway...the inerrantist's claim is, "The Bible is inerrant." These are the problems:

What is the Bible?
The Protestant canon has 66 books, the Catholics have 7 more, the Ethiopians have a little library. Is it not arbitrary to pick the canon of one tradition as "the" canon?

Once, we've decided on the canon, we have to talk about manuscripts. Are English bible inerrant? Are the Dead Sea Scrolls more inerrant than the LXX than the Masoretic text? Are older texts more inerrant than younger ones? What about oral traditions that predated the written texts? What so special about written texts anyway?

Next, what is inerrancy? Do all implicit and explicit truth claims have to be true? For example, when Mark misquotes Isaiah, what are we to make of that? Is there a non-ad hoc way to ascertain whether or not a text is making a truth claim? Or do we wait for the Darwins of history to demythologize the Genesis 1s of Scripture?

Not that I think Genesis 1 was meant to be taken literally. Anyway...

Is there really a point in talking about inerrancy, even if the Bible was inerrant? We don't even know which texts are the inerrant ones. We don't know what a lot of these inerrant words mean. We don't know how to interpret these inerrant texts.

So...who cares if they're inerrant after all?

*rant over*

I've decided, that if Richard Harries is a liberal Anglican, then I'm liberal too. Funny, I've never thought of myself as being liberal.

2:00 AM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"Not that I think Genesis 1 was meant to be taken literally. Anyway..."

Neither did Philo of Alexandra, and he makes some compelling arguments that I don't think can be easily dismissed given that he was a contemporary of the early Christian Church (albeit largely oblivious to it). It's pure speculation of course, but I wonder if Jesus was a Jew more along the lines of Philo when it came to scriptural interpretation, even if he wasn't quite as conservative as the historian in terms of strict Hebrew tradition &c...

1:04 PM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

Though Philo, from memory (we all know THAT's not inerrant, at least) was a peculiar one; trying to reconcile his neo-Platonism to his Jewishness. Although Meier did call Jesus a "marginal Jew." Must read the book...

7:57 PM

Blogger Rev. Dr. Incitatus said...

"[Philo was] a peculiar one; trying to reconcile his neo-Platonism to his Jewishness."

I'm not sure he was that peculiar though (especially not in Alexandria); I think there was a lot of that thinking going around as a result of Greek influx into the Hebrew world. I think that's what laid such fertile ground for the rise of Christianity in the first place.

7:47 AM

Blogger revvvvvvvd said...

I'll concede that, actually. You're right. :)

4:52 PM

Blogger Lord Trafalgar Rock Pigeon said...

Happy subjunctive casing.

11:05 AM

Blogger Liz said...

That is some puppy!

To say that every word of the Bible is undeniably true and factual and exactly as God intended right down to the comma on page 873 is a bit daft.

Speaking of commas, your grammar seems more than adequate without lessons.

8:36 AM


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