Inerrancy: John Franke

In the final essay in Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy, John Franke reframes inerrancy through the theological grids of Trinitarian mission and epistemic pluralism. He begins where many have begun, and when I say “many” I mean many people who have said things to me and who have said so in writing (including John himself), that inerrancy’s ideal is good but its use has become problematic. Namely, it is too often (1) assumed in meaning and (2) used as a theological divider on the basis of the assumed meaning, and (3) it has caused way too much division. He says it has become a “theological and political symbol” (260) and I agree. To be sure, abuse does not determine meaning until abuse gets too closely allied with meaning, and many of us think the latter line has been crossed. (More of that on Wednesday.)

Franke rightly observes that one can say inerrancy is the church’s tradition if one means the Bible is true and trustworthy, and if (a big IF) one accepts non-literal (non-historical) figurative, theological readings of the Bible. Franke sees the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as an example of “classic or strong foundationalism” (261). That is, it seeks a “universal and indubitable basis for human knowledge” (261). We are then dealing with a term (inerrancy) shaped by Enlightenment modernity. So whatever the Bible says is true (foundation) and any chink in the armor destroys the whole. Foundationalism leads to fallibilism, that is, humans are fallible and absolute certainty is impossible. He thinks the CSBI, perhaps unwittingly, is committed to classic foundationalism. Since most evangelicals are weak foundationalists he asks what inerrancy would look like in a fallibilist perspective.

Inerrancy for Franke is second-order, a construction built on biblical texts but not asserted in biblical texts (263). Article 13 of CSBI opens up the possibility of the Bible’s affirmations to be conditioned upon context (264). But Article 12 may back off from that kind of interpretive logic. He thinks CSBI is too caught up in classical foundationalism so he offers a different model:

1. The God of Scripture: God is God (and we are not), God is living and active, God is love, God is missional, and God is plurality-in-unity and unity-in-plurality.

2. Divine accommodation, Truth and Scripture: we are not God; there is an infinite qualitative distinction between us and God. The finite cannot comprehend the infinite. So God accommodates to us in revealing truth to us. Language is not divinization; language partakes of human limitations. Scripture then is a “map” (268). God is light but God’s light is beyond any light we know. God is Truth; Scripture can only be truth. By inspiration they become true and faithful. By God’s grace we can know God truly.

Therefore, inerrancy fits in the “truth” aspect of God’s Truth. It is limited to language’s own limitations. “inerrancy functions only within the limits of language alone” (270).

Spirit: the act of revelation, then the Spirit witness to revelation, and then the Spirit-guided comprehension of the witness to God’s true revelation (270). Hence, Word and Spirit must be bound together. Spirit speaks through the Scripture but exegesis cannot exhaust Spirit.

The Scripture creates world through the Spirit as God wills that world. The most real world is the eschatological reality of the kingdom. God’s mission and love are fundamental to truth as well.

For Franke it is important to emphasize diversity and plurality in God’s revelation. The Bible is polyphonic. Four Gospels, not one. Not in the sense of relativism but in the sense of multiple approaches to the one true gospel. This entails unity in the canon. Canon bounds the diversities into the unity.

Inerrancy: “Scripture is inerrant in its witness to the plurality of perspectives that are indispensable to the practice of missional Christian community” (276). It means all texts must be given their place at the table, but it also means no text is allowed to force others to conform to it. Scripture therefore creates an open and flexible tradition. It also works against a single universal systematics.

In this chp we see the first real impact of postmodernity’s chastened epistemology (Lesslie Newbigin style) on both the nature of Scripture, which Franke mediates through the big themes of Karl Barth’s view of Scripture, and the extent of our own interpretations. I’m not afraid to put words in Franke’s mouth: postmodernity’s perception of the human condition of knowing has to impact both our view of Scripture and our own articulations of theology. That is, they are limited and contextually shaped. I don’t see this in any of the other essays. I value what Franke is pointing us to consider in this regard.

On Joshua 6… he tips his hat to the core historicity (“essential”), notes the possible enlargement of the story in terms of myth (in accordance with usage of James Hoffmeier and Kenneth Kitchen, whose evangelical credentials are unquestioned)… but moves into the essential aim of Scripture: not to give these kinds of details but to form people into God’s mission. He thinks the Acts passages are not that important but does see canonical pluralism in the contrast of Deut and the words of Jesus about violence in Matthew 5.

Franke gets some serious pushback — from Mohler, Bird and Vanhoozer. Mohler for changing the whole idea of inerrancy, Bird for his incarnation analogy (I don’t see the problem here that Bird sees, as long as one doesn’t see it so much ontologically but analogically), and for the distinction of Truth from truth, and for having a pragmatic orientation to Scripture. Vanhoozer is concerned with Franke’s critique of foundationalism and for his lack of clarity on the meaning of inerrancy vs. the abuses of inerrancy. [I could wish Kevin would acknowledge how much negative impact the misuse of inerrancy has had on the meaning of the term where it has become as much a hermeneutical identity today as a statement about the power of Scripture to tell God’s truth.] He also pushes against fallibilism, which he thinks Franke connects too much to interpretations. He wants to know about Franke’s view of “sound doctrine.”

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.