scripture: inerrancy or something else?

At the Methoblog (check it out as a place for UM conversation if you haven’t yet), this post got people fired up. In this post, his resignation from the Methoblog is announced; in this one, he explains his exit on his own blog.

I consider myself an orthodox (small “o”) Methodist. Here’s his (Jason Woolever) list of marks of orthodoxy:

1) The inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures
2)The Virgin Birth and Deity of Christ
3)The Blood Atonement of Christ on the Cross for mankind’s sins
4)The Actual Bodily Resurrection of Christ
5) Christ will return again to Earth

Much of the dialogue and debate centered on #1, “inerrancy,” which was described as “verbal inspiration” in another place–the comments section I believe.

I came too late to the conversation on the Methoblog to jump in there really, though I share concerns over the term “inerrancy.” Perhaps that’s because that understanding of the nature of Scripture is more aligned with fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism, particularly within the Reformed Evangelical stream. The author (Jason) claims to be a conservative evangelical, so offering this list as commitments he holds is fair.

It’s debateable whether this list represents the essential tenets of Christian orthodoxy. But I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to suggest that the issue of “inerrancy” is a dicey one. I recall a NT professor in seminary contending that using the category of “errors” or “not errors” is a mistake in and of itself since none of the biblical authors or their communities thought in such terms–this is a modern, Enlightenment category. Rather, thinking of the Scripture as reliable and trustworthy would be more appropriate, according to him (and remember, this is the Wesleyan evangelical Asbury Seminary).

One of the statements I find particularly puzzling (which one finds listed in belief statements of many bible churches) is the belief that the bible is “inerrant in the original monographs,” meaning the first time they were written down by the authors. This an oddly convenient claim since we have none of the “original monographs” and are highly unlikely ever to come into possession of them.

What annoys me about appeals to inerrancy and/or infallibility in statements of belief about the bible is that they imply but do not state a commitment to the bible’s authority. We assume, correctly it seems to me, that those who hold these sorts of beliefs intend for these designations to logically entail authority, but they rarely state that the bible is authoritative. However, these terms actually refer to the nature of Scripture’s inspiration, which, in turn, speaks to how it derives authority (that is, by being an inspired text/canon of texts).

For me, I think the best starting point is to state that I (we, as UMs) am committed to the authority of Scripture. That establishes my relationship to Scripture, but leaves alone, for the moment, my understanding of the nature of Scripture, how it is inspired, how it derives its authority, how its authority “works” and works itself out in guiding the Church and the disciple in the Christian Way, etc. It seems to me that to say that the Scripture is authoritative first, before saying anything else, is to take the most conservative position possible. This is because making this claim first does not automatically entail any one understanding of how the bible derives its authority and how that authority functions. Indeed, one could argue (and I tend to) that a commitment that is first to how the bible is inspired and authoritative is more of a liberal position since it places the Scripture under its conditions for its authority. Therefore, the specific position on Scriptural inspiration has greater authority than Scripture itself.

It seems to me, then, that for Scripture to truly be authoritative, we must receive it as such but be open to the why’s and how’s as to the way its authority is derived and functions. Specifically, this means reading the bible in such as way as to listen to the ways that the biblical text invites us to understand its authority for us rather than to project criteria on it for it to “live up to” such as the question, “Is it errant or not?”

As I endeavor to read the Scripture in this way, I find that Scripture exercises its authority through its many narrative episodes and overarching canonical meta-narrative. This means that, in the fantastic words of a fellow seminarian back in the day, “The bible is not pearls on a string, but cells of a living organism.” Also, the Scripture is rooted strongly in God’s revealing of himself to historical people in historical events, but Scriptural books and passages that relate events narrativally are not strictly histories, understood in the modern way (that is, objective, disinterested, and hyperfocused on getting every fact correct). Rather, they are theological histories–stories that relate true events and characters in the essential way things happened, but reserving the right to inject some well-crafted and carefully thought out theology into the the composition of the narrative. Our biblical writers were wonderful theologians. This does not mean that they went around willy-nilly making up some material to illustrate their theological points, or that they constructed wild myths to prop up their sense of identity. Rather, I beleive, they took the actual events and carefully retold them in such a way as to bring out the theological significance and proclamation in striking and insightful ways. One excellent example of this is John’s telling of the crucifixion in which Jesus does not die on Friday after sharing in the Passover meal with the disciples the night before as in the synoptics. Instead, he dies on Thursday, the day of the Passover, in such a way as to present him as the Passover lamb who takes away the sins of the world. This is so brilliant on John’s part. He’s not fabricating the crucifixion story, but he is adjusting the details in his retelling so that the amazing theological truth of Jesus’ death is perhaps more on display in his account than in the others.

There is certainly much more that can be said about this stuff, but I’ll stop there for now. Perhaps more later…whenever I get back around to this subject. It’s one I’m very interested in personally. I do have an eventful weekend upcoming at church as we welcome our community to experience first century Bethlehem in a wonderful outreach during the Advent season. But I do think I’ll come back to this.

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3 thoughts on “scripture: inerrancy or something else?

  1. If foundationalism is the correct model of knowledge, AND we think we Christians need to know something of God, we need an indubitable or absolutely certain foundation. Those are mighty hard to come by. But wait! God is indubitable and error free, thus everything he says is absolutely certain. Conveniently, we see places in the bible where it appears to be spoken of as “the word of God.” And so we have an inerrant text to meet our need for certain knowledge.

    Since I reject foundationalism, I see no need for absolute certainty (or is it the other way around?). Since I don’t need certainty (which I don’t think actually works, anyway – but that’s why I reject foundationalism and the Cartesian enterprise), I don’t need a theory of inerrancy.

    But since I reject the foundationalist account of knowledge, I also don’t need to see “religious” knowledge as some second class kind of knowledge – or set of feelings. So I also don’t need a theory of errancy – and DON’T have one. I have no need at all to search out mistakes in the bible.

    Thus if you listen to my preaching and teaching it looks alot more like inerrancy than not. But I have no theory to support it.

    And I’m happy.

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