Two Books on Scripture
January 19, 2015
Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy and The Question of Canon are two very worthwhile books on different aspects of Scripture, the first doctrinal and the second historical.
J. Merrick & Stephen M. Garrett. Gen. eds, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013)
The first of these titles adds to the burgeoning 'Counterpoints' series, in which a number of authors (here five) take it in turns to set out their position in a short-ish essay, each of which is followed by a brief response from the others. The contributors here are R. Albert Mohler Jr., Peter Enns, Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer and John R. Franke. As I will explain, it seems to me that in this work there are in fact just two basic views of inerrancy on offer, but five different moods (for want of a better word) in which those views are expressed. That would be a more accurate description of the book's content, although 'Two Views in Five Moods' might be a less marketable title.
This series works best, to my mind, when the contributors' responses show them being challenged and stretched by the others' essays to go beyond what they had explicitly said in their own paper, especially in offering concessions and nuancing positions. Where the responses mainly rehearse the responder's own essay it can become rather tedious. There is certainly some of the latter in this volume (Franke was the worst offender for me here - ironically, since a good deal of his rhetoric is about the need to listen to others), but there is also enough conceding and nuancing to sustain interest (Mohler being the best example, I thought, which might not be what every reader would expect in advance).
The general editors of this volume admit in their introduction that this is not quite the book they had wanted to produce. They had asked the contributors to restrict themselves to the content of the doctrine of inerrancy itself and not to wander into discussion of the uses/abuses of the doctrinal in evangelical politics, and so admit that they were not able to achieve this entirely. For the record, Vanhoozer is the only one who stuck strictly to the brief; Enns and Bird seem to have largely ignored it, although inviting Enns to contribute but say nothing about political uses of inerrancy might have been somewhat unrealistic.
One wise move by the editors was to ask each contributor to explain how they handle three sets of texts typical of those often alleged to be problematic for inerrancy: Joshua 6 (factual in/accuracy), Acts 9.7 & 22.9 (factual in/coherence), and Dt 5 & Matt 5.38-48 (theological in/coherence). One of the most helpful contributions the book makes to the large theoretical literature on inerrancy is the extent and nature of the attention that each contributor pays to these texts. That does go some way to revealing what kind of exegesis, indeed partly what kind of preaching and teaching, would be entailed by each view/mood.
So, to each of the contributions, with the titles provided by the editors.
1. Mohler: 'When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: the Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy'
Mohler sets out three major bases for inerrancy: Scripture itself, which claims to be God's perfect revealed word; church tradition, with inerrancy only being seriously questioned in recent times; and Scripture's function in the church, since without inerrancy there can be no authoritative preaching and no confident discipleship. He wants to set up a straightforward either/or: either all of Scripture shares in God's own perfection and trustworthiness, or human criteria decide which parts do and which don't.
Overall, this is a robust setting out of an existing position. He gets into the use of inerrancy early on, agreeing with Carl Henry that inerrancy is a test of evangelical consistency rather than integrity.
I find his arguments compelling, but his claims sometimes exaggerated, for example: 'Inerrancy requires and defines verbal inspiration' (p.39). Surely it's more accurate both biblically and historically to make inerrancy the entailment of inspiration.
Vanhoozer's response to Mohler is the most interesting. He sees himself, he says, an ally of Mohler, but is troubled that Mohler doesn't distance himself from any 'interpretive abuses' of inerrancy (p.76), and that he does not concede that the 'modernist/rationalist' form of the doctrine exemplified by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) isn't exactly focused on the same thing that the Fathers were, which was God's communicative intention (p.74).
2. Enns: 'Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does'
As is well known, Enns has little time for anything resembling inerrancy. He thinks that it fails at the level of principle to take account of the fact that God often works through human weakness and error, and also that it fails in practice to take account of discoveries in history in science. I did not find much in his essay that added to the position essentially outlined in his previous writing (perhaps it was unfair to look for it). He would rather distance himself from all language of inerrancy, but offers this remarkably thin definition, if forced to retain the word: a descriptive statement of faith on the part of the reader that 'no matter what is encountered, the reader is in the presence of the wisdom and mystery of our God' (p.114).
The responses are mostly highly critical. Mohler feels that Enns has provided fulsome demonstration of his own point that once inerrancy is denied the entire structure of evangelical theology is at risk, and feels emboldened by this into what is, again, rather unwise hyperbole: 'inerrancy is the single issue that truly distinguishes evangelicalism from liberal Protestantism' (p.118). Vanhoozer's response is sharp and rather devastating. He shows that Enns' argument is hampered by the unscrutinised assumption that inerrancy is joined at the hip to an unsound hermeneutic.
3. Bird: 'Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA'
Bird is an Australian (this will be important), and he writes very entertainingly. More than once he states what is effectively a strong defence of inerrancy, for example: divine accommodation in revelation 'is never a capitulation to error. God does not speak erroneously, nor does he feed us nuts of truth lodged inside shells of falsehood' (p.159). His main beef is with those whom he accuses of using inerrancy as 'a weapon of religious politics to define who is in and who is out' (p.157), and who then necessarily practise the inerrancy of their own interpretation, as well as of Scripture - and those people are mainly Americans, says Bird. (Being myself a Brit, I'll just hold the coats and observe this fight for now.) Inerrancy is therefore a true and important statement to make about Scripture, says Bird, but making it the centre of one's affirmation of scriptural authority is a localised American game that therefore ought not be exported round the globe.
I can only say that I warmed to Mohler's response to Bird. He graciously took on the chin some of the anti-American jibes, but rightly pointed out Bird's error in saying that the CSBI requires a commitment to six-day young-earth-ism. In particular, a couple of concessions emerged which for me point the articulation of inerrancy in the right direction, serving to tone down some of the rhetoric of Mohler's essay: inspiration and authority are more important than inerrancy, he says; 'truthfulness and trustworthiness' are better terms, because they relate directly to God's character. Warfield and Hodge were indeed greatly shaped by modernity, but in modernist culture, the confession of inerrancy is always necessary. However, the tradition represented by the CSBI does not require all churches to add inerrancy to their doctrinal statements (as Bird alleges) in order to be seen as orthodox. Vanhoozer's comment on his own relation to Bird seems apposite for Mohler's too, wondering whether 'what differences that remain are less substantive than strategic, perhaps even pastoral' (p.186).
4. Vanhoozer: 'Augustinian Inerrancy: Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse'
Vanhoozer defines inerrancy thus: 'the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when readers read rightly)' (p.207). Inerrancy is therefore a subset of infallibility, asserting that Scripture is not liable to fail in its assertions. He argues against an 'inerrancy of glory', derived from culturally conditioned views of perfection, and pleads for an 'inerrancy of the cross', derived from a 'canonically conditioned concept' of perfection (p.205). This will produce a 'well-versed' inerrancy that has a literate understanding of the literal sense of Scripture; it is in this sense that Vanhoozer thinks of his approach as Augustinian.
This essay is unsurprisingly, as the responders freely acknowledged, the one presented with the greatest theological sophistication. I find it the most convincing theologically and historically, and also the most satisfying pastorally, to use Vanhoozer's word, because of his constant desire to stress the distinction between Scripture itself and our interpretation of any given text. (Full disclosure: I was a happy doctoral student of Vanhoozer's in the late 1990s.) However, two things niggle at me:
Mohler criticises Vanhoozer for seeming more concerned about those who claim too much for inerrancy than those who claim too little, although in fact far much damage is done by the latter, which, given the breadth of essays in this book seems a fair point.
In discussing the seeming contradiction between Acts 9.7 and 22.9, Vanhoozer speaks just of Luke's literary intention and not of the particular historical assertion that's in question. A hawkish reading might conclude that Vanhoozer has left a small lifeline dangling for those who don't care much about historical reference in Scripture (Bird suspects Vanhoozer might be weak here, p.251); more charitably, it might be better to conclude that Vanhoozer didn't apply his principles to the Acts passages as consistently as he could have done.
5. Franke: 'Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality'
As Vanhoozer points out, Franke says what his view of inerrancy does but fails to what it is. 'Scripture is inerrant in its witness to the plurality of perspectives that are indispensable to the practice of missional Christian community' (p.276) is about as clear a definition as we get. What does this mean in practice? Scripture, he says, is a paradigmatic human witness to revelation that invites exploration into greater plurality than can be found in Scripture, in order to allow God's love to be incarnated everywhere. I can only understand this to mean that if our surrounding culture feels that something Scripture presses on us is unloving then we can ignore it. Further, after some comments against systematisation in theology, Franke gives us the Jerusalem Council's decision in Acts 15 not to require circumcision of Gentiles as a paradigm of the handling of a biblical text (in that case Genesis 17) which the church should now be copying. This of course requires us to suppose that the details of our culture constitute an interpretation-defining event in salvation history as cataclysmic as the birth of the Messiah.
Mohler finds Franke to be heading way beyond any reasonable boundaries of evangelicalism, and Vanhoozer gives his anti-foundationalism a severe epistemological going-over.
Two views, I said, are here, not five. One holds the following: there is such as thing as an identifiable core of a doctrine that's rightly called 'inerrancy', that's been held fairly consistently through history, although with different emphases at different times. It's a biblically true doctrine, and holding onto it is important for the church. This is the view of Mohler, Bird and Vanhoozer. It comes in three moods: Mohler is bullish. He thinks that sufficient people have ended up in thoroughly liberal positions whose first articulation of a wrong step was to deny inerrancy and that strong rhetoric is needed to warn others away from that path. Bird is irenic. He fears that the strong rhetoric risks unnecessarily dividing evangelicals globally. Vanhoozer is urbane. He fears that too many who have rejected inerrancy started out by reacting badly to theologically unsophisticated expressions of it. I suspect that negotiating further between these moods would reveal that they each emerge from different a mix of location, temperament and personal experienc. Seeing these three acknowledge that they share the significant ground in common and that the 'mood' concerns of the others were partly legitimate was edifying, and a helpful warning not to allow our articulation of inerrancy to ossify into just one culturally conditioned form.
The other view holds that inerrancy is a ridiculous and dangerous position to adopt in the modern world. This is Enns and Franke. Neither disguises the strength of their distaste for it. Enns' mood is to blame it for forcing individuals into intolerable positions; Franke's is to dislike it for holding the church back from adopting positions which (in his view) would make its mission more acceptable to surrounding culture. If these two are to be taken as typical dislikers of inerrancy, they provide some evidence of the hawkish conservative view that they both object to: namely that strong denial of inerrancy is usually linked to the denial of rather more central doctrines.
Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Nottingham: Apollos, 2013)
Michael J. Kruger's The Question of Canon is an unqualified delight. It is clear-headed, attempts to be scrupulously fair to those with whom he disagrees, and is concerned to make no claims beyond what his arguments directly entail. It is a work of apologetics, responding to what Kruger takes to be the five most commonly held tenets of the liberal consensus on the history of the formation of the NT canon. This consensus view holds that the NT books were not written as canon but only became canon over time. Kruger calls this the 'extrinsic' model of the canon, as opposed to the evangelical 'intrinsic' model which sees canon as something inherent to the texts and in early Christianity themselves. The five tenets which he seeks to question are:
Tenet 1. 'A sharp distinction between the definitions of 'canon' and 'Scripture'.'
The extrinsic consensus, says, Kruger, usually defines 'canon', in contrast to 'Scripture', quite strictly as 'a final, closed list of books' (p.28). This means that canon is at the earliest a fourth-century notion. Kruger finds this approach too monochrome to describe well the organic process of canon formation. Therefore in addition we need a functional definition of canon (texts recognised and used by the church), which would have us date the canon to the second century, and also an ontological definition (texts seen as written with divine authority), according to which 'canon' is evident in the first century.
Tenet 2. 'There was nothing in early Christianity that required a canon.'
Three conditions, argues Kruger, are evident in early Christianity which collectively made what he calls (not entirely elegantly) 'the growth of a new revelational deposit' in writing likely: the OT regarded as incomplete but fulfilled in Christ; the strongly covenantal character of early Christianity; the nature of apostolic authority and the need for it to be sustained in worldwide mission beyond the apostles' deaths.
Tenet 3. 'Early Christians were averse to written documents.'
Many scholars' key objection to the canon, says Kruger, is their view of early Christianity as primarily an oral religion. His argument in response depends largely on the developing the observation that a mostly illiterate culture can still value and be determined by written texts: a focus on oral performance, based on written texts, is not the same thing as an oral culture with little place for writing. Kruger concludes: 'early Christianity was quite a "bookish" religion from the very start' (p.118).
Tenet 4. 'The NT authors were unaware of their own authority.'
Kruger marshalls a number of texts from Paul and the Gospels especially as evidence that NT authors generally understood their writings to bear supreme authority in the church. Whether or not they explicitly called them 'Scripture' is irrelevant, since in practice (as John Barton has argued) they saw them as having the same authority that holy books have. Moreover, it was clearly their understanding that apostolic authority carried with it Christ's authority.
Tenet 5. 'The NT books were first regarded as Scripture at the end of the first century.'
According to the consensus, says Kruger, Irenaeus innovatively imposed a functional canon in order to deal with Marcion. In response, he works his way backwards through a selection of writers to the NT itself, offering evidence that in the early second century the church did have books that ought to be described as functioning as 'scriptures'.
Kruger's overall conclusion is that canon is a seed evident in the church from the very beginning, which grew over time. He sees himself as having undermined the extrinsic model sufficiently to allow a fresh look to be given to the traditional intrinsic model.
Throughout, the author graciously finds as many positives as he can in the positions he critiques, while being clear about what he thinks is the solid ground for his own position. He thinks that his arguments hold water purely as history, quite apart from the views one holds on biblical inspiration. Any reader who has been taught the liberal consensus on the NT canon in a way which makes it appear to be the only viable option for a sensible historian will be hugely helped by the lucidity, charitableness and strength of the arguments implied in Kruger's probing of its shaky assumptions.
Tim Ward is Associate Director of the Proclamation Trust's Cornhill Training Course in London. His most recent book is Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God (IVP, 2009)