A Discussion on Inerrancy

January 15th, 2008

I’ve been thinking about posting some entries on the inerrancy of Scripture. But recently, the blogger Tim Challies has started a fairly thorough series on the subject. It has three entries so far: Are there Errors in the Bible?, What Does “Inerrant” Mean?, and Errors and Contradictions in the Bible. So, I’m going to be lazy–er, I mean maximize my resources, and just recommend them to you.

Another blogger, Michael Spencer (from the Internet Monk), posted a reply to something Challies said. Spencer denies inerrancy–though I haven’t been able to make out quite how or why. He affirms inspiration, but thinks the term “inerrancy” requires so many qualifications and clarifications and exceptions, that it’s not a meaningful word. But it’s not clear to me whether it’s just the word he has a problem with, or the definition. Does he disagree with the doctrine itself, or just the term?

So, I posted some comments in his entry. The second one got long, so I split it up in half. But then I couldn’t post the second half–his server keeps rejecting the message. I emailed him, and we think it’s due to some technical weirdness with character encodings. So, I’ve decided to post my comment here, and then post a link to it in his comment section. I can’t guarantee how much sense it will make to you, unless you go read his entry.

Here goes!

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Michael,

1.) No, I didn’t expect you to say “Adam didn’t exist,” even though some would say so. I didn’t have any expectations. I’m not familiar with you. And when I said that I was left without much of a clue of what the issue is for you, I meant it. I couldn’t make out what the difference is between your view and those of inerrantists, and I said as much. It’s a bit more clear now, but not too much.

2.) I didn’t suggest that you implied that Challies wrote a hit piece on you. That didn’t even occur to me; he was speaking generally.

When I said, “a bit of setting yourself up as the victim,” I had in mind two things. First, your assumption that Challies’ would apply his criticism to you. He might. Not if it’s just over the label “inerrancy”. But, it might have been a reasonable assumption, if you know you differ more substantively. Second, the way you were bracing yourself for yelling and screaming. Yes, there are people who will yell and scream at you, but there are just about always people who will do that–and I think it seemed to me that you were painting with a broad brush. So I got a bit annoyed.

In retrospect, that comment of mine was at least unwise (and distracting), and possibly unfair. (My apologies.)

3.) I’ll start this point by conceding something: The chronology of Jesus’ temple cleansing is a somewhat better illustration than I allowed for, because there are inerrantists whose view of inerrancy requires that there be two incidents. I understand why you used that example.

That doesn’t change the point I was making. You have not distinguished well between your view and those of inerrantists.

First, notice that I said “those of inerrantists”, not “that of inerrantists”. Keep in mind that there isn’t a monolithic view. Even among Chicago Statement inerrantists–at least, on matters it doesn’t address, and on particular cases of apparent conflict.

Second, when you were defending yourself, you threw in things that the Chicago Statement agrees with you on–and you didn’t distinguish. It sounded like you were defending your own view–you didn’t say, “We’re together on this part, but they would criticize me for this part.” (Hence the lack of clarity.) Specifically: (1) Biblical language needn’t have “perfect scientific precision”. (2) You mentioned the impact of “literary genres”. (3) Observational language like “stars falling” is allowed by inspiration. (4) The temple-cleansing.

[Note: This is where my original comment got broken in half.]

From the Chicago Statement, article XIII: “We further deny that inerrancy is negated by…lack of modern technical precision…observational descriptions of nature…the topical arrangement of metrical, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”
And from Exposition III:
“Since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. Scripture is inerrant…in the sense of making good its cims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.”

You called the temple-cleansing an error in chronology. (Or maybe you meant that others call it that.) I don’t see anything in the John account linking it into a chronology–nothing like “After this…” I see the error in assuming that the gospel writers had to put episodes in their chronological order, instead of a topical order that suits them. Or no particular order, for that matter. At any rate, the inerrancy position allows for it.

Question: Suppose John had said, “Early in his ministry, after the wedding in Capernaum, Jesus cleared out the temple before meeting Nicodemus.” That would be chronology, and might conflict with the synoptics. Would such an error matter, in your view? Or, would such an apparent error require harmonization? If it wouldn’t, then you do disagree with inerrantists. (Though I don’t see how it’s different from your Adam example, in terms of denying what Scripture says. It would help if you explained what kind of errors you allow for, and which you don’t.) But if you agree with us–if you think that it would matter, if you think that it would conflict with inspiration–then what’s the disagreement?

4.) If you think that all of this means that “inerrancy” is a poor word, due to the clarifications and explanations and qualifications required–Fine!

That is, if your objection is just to the label, then argue that. (You may even have a point. I’m not devoted to the word “inerrant”, nor–I’m sure–is Challies. It’s the definition we care about. That’s why there’s an entire document defining it, as you pointed out. If the word communicates the wrong expecations, requiring too many qualifications, then we can find a better word. Content, not labels.) If you want to change the definition, then say that–and explain by pointing out how. Point to the differences in your view. Don’t give examples that we can agree on! If you don’t want to change the definition because there are no differences that you can point to–if you just want to change the label–then say that.

If you have a good point/criticism, I want to hear and receive it. But I think you have to be more clear before your comments could have the power to edify.

5.) To close, I think the Chicago did very well when it said, “Scripture is inerrant…in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.” (bold added)

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That was it. After I sent this comment to Michael through email, he posted some links to his earlier entries on inerrancy, to provide some more clarity. I haven’t read them yet, but here’s that entry.

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5 Responses to “A Discussion on Inerrancy”

  1. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Good, apt comments Jugulum. IMHO, and just speaking from my personal interaction with the Internet Monk, he’s a bit heterodox. And I suspect that he’s rather defensive when others share with him that his theology and his reasoning is a bit off with regards to both the Living Word and the Written Word.

    He seems to have quite a following, or loyal base. I assume he’s familiar with James 3:1.

    TeamPyro had a good post on the Internet Monk with:

    http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2006/03/sendin-some-love-to-imonk.html

    On this long thread, you’ll see where Michael Spencer and I express our disagreements:

    http://teampyro.blogspot.com/2007/12/certain-uncertainty.html#3423405963456742568

  2. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Thankfully, I’m not the only one who finds the I-Monk a bit difficult to take seriously. So does Dan Phillips and the Centuri0n.

    https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=21212024&postID=7534986594314415898

  3. Tim says:

    TUaD,

    I’m not too frustrated by whatever degree of heterodoxy/nonorthodoxy/heresy/whatever he might or might not possess. I’m more frustrated by the lack of clarity.

    It reeeeeally would have helped if he would have taken the time to answer a couple of my questions or observations. He took the time to respond to people who were yelling at him…But none to respond to me.

    And it’s not that I’m feeling left out; I don’t care on personal grounds. I just think that his answers would go a long way to clarifying just what he’s saying. If he wants to edify…I wish he would answer. Instead of posting a new entry about the letter writers who angered him.

    Note: Again, he did post some links to his earlier posts on the subject, which may have been an effort to clarify his position. But answering direct questions & comments has far more power to clarify.

  4. Truth Unites... and Divides says:

    Tim,

    Lack of Clarity combined with whatever degree of heterodoxy and topped off with NOT ANSWERING your direct, relevant questions and comments is understandably a cause for being irritated with I-Monk.

    If you’d like, see this comment thread for more on I-monk: http://centuri0n.blogspot.com/2008/01/in-100-words-or-less.html

    Also, look near the end of this thread by Challies: http://www.challies.com/archives/general-news/personal/just-a-fundamentalist.php#comments

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