The Last Gasp of Inerrancy

In a recent book, G. K. Beale speaks of The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism. His choice of metaphor is evocative: he believes that inerrancy is like the solid land upon which the house of Evangelicalism is built. It is in danger of being eroded by outside forces, harmful elements. I’d like to suggest that Beale is wrong. Inerrancy is dying of natural causes, or perhaps to choose a better metaphor, it is being eaten up by dry rot from within because it is inherently diseased in the very fiber of its being, in its very bones.

I took a look at Beale’s book because it touches on two not unrelated subjects that interest me: the Christian doctrine of Scripture, and the relationship of the Bible’s cosmology to that of other ancient peoples and to modern science. Beale’s book will disappoint anyone who is not playing the defensive game of American conservative Evangelicalism. Such readers may take his claims on p.20 at face value, that the troubles for the conservative doctrine of Scripture arise from “eroding” influences from outside: postmodernism, and study at non-Evangelical schools. But surely, unless one wishes to posit a conspiracy to mislead and the gullibility of the students, then the study of the Bible at whatever institution ought not to have the results Beale suggests. Nor does he seem to entertain for a moment what seems to me a more plausible explanation: the doctrine of inerrancy is crumbling because thinking Evangelicals are studying the Bible more seriously, are being more honest about what it contains, and are beginning to allow their doctrine about what the Bible is to be determined by the Bible’s contents rather than vice versa.

The book proceeds with a series of case studies, which seem to indicate that Beale believes that if he can just show that his own viewpoint is not decisively disproven by the evidence, then he emerges victorious from the battle. This shows just how out of touch Beale is with contemporary Christianity.

In the chapter on the question of whether the book of Isaiah could have had multiple authors, Beale purports to be defending the Bible, but he is of course defending his doctrine of Scripture, and at times it becomes clear that he is determined to defend his doctrine of Scripture even from Scripture itself. Rather than allow the contents of this influential and powerful prophetic book to determine his conclusion, he is determined to force it into a straightjacket determined by his presuppositions about the Bible in general, and about the meaning of the New Testament when it refers to “Isaiah” in particular.

Beale regularly waves reference to “phenomenological language” as though it were a magic wand that can make outmoded cosmological language cease to be a problem. While he may be correct about the Temple connections in Israel’s thinking about creation, this does not change the fact that ancient Israel’s authors used language so similar to that of Israel’s neighbors that, if not meant literally, it opened the way for a great deal of potential confusion and misunderstanding in that context. But ultimately, the reason Beale draws the conclusions that he does is a lack of familiarity with ancient cosmologies. His discussion of whether the planets could have been embedded each in a separate dome, to account for their distinct movements, ends with the statement that “Such a view of multiple domes, however, cannot be found to have existed in the ancient world!” (p.199). Perhaps not domes, but certainly complete spheres, made of “quintessence”, in which the planets and the sun and moon were embedded. Far from being unprecedented in the ancient world, this is the very ancient viewpoint, the Ptolemaic cosmology, that came to dominate much of Europe and Asia, and persisted until the time of Galileo. Since it takes very little research to become aware of this, I can only assume that Beale’s interest is not in doing justice to questions of ancient and modern cosmologies and the Biblical context, but of defending his view of Scripture at all costs.

And yet, ironically, Beale is ultimately no friend of inerrancy. For in allowing that the Bible speaks about things as they appear, and not necessarily as they are, Beale has opened all the cans of worms he surely hoped to keep sealed up. If matters of cosmology can be described phenomenologically, then so can matters pertaining to our salvation. And perhaps in most instances this will seem fine to all but the most conservative of Christians. Jesus’ death was like a sacrifice, our experience as Christians is like being brought from death to life, getting a new start is like a new birth. But what if the early Christians’ experience of Jesus was like encountering the same human person having been physically-resurrected? Inerrancy is a zombie concept that has remarkably persisted for decades in spite of long having died the death of a thousand qualifications. The only hope for Beale and other supporters of the doctrine is that no one will ask the sorts of awkward questions or point out the awkward evidence that we’ve only scratched the surface of here. But I am persuaded that those days are gone, perhaps not for an older generation of conservative Christians, but for that which is growing up today. And if the stalwarts of the old guard want to protect their flocks from inconvenient truths, it will take not just sending them to Evangelical schools, but somehow censoring their internet access as well, not to mention protecting them from looking at the Bible’s actual contents too closely. And once conservative Evangelicalism shows itself to be able to persist only under that sort of totalitarian regime, its downfall is assured. The Bible tells me so.
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  • Thanks for this, James.This is not Beale’s best work. Despite Beale, the doctrine of inerrancy is alive and well in more reasonable versions. Online defenders of inerrancy abound, include Pete Enns himself, Chris Tilling, Mike Heiser, Michael Bird, and myself.

  • Foolish Sage

    John,I think Pete would be surprised to hear himself described as a “defender of inerrancy.” I know enough of your work and that of Pete and the others you mention to say that what you mean by “inerrancy” is something that Beale and his defenders would never recognize. Now I agree with your direction, but wonder about why you insist on clinging to a term that has been so co-opted by its conservative defenders.

  • Thanks for the comment, John! As you’ve already gathered, I think that the Chicago Declaration in particular defines inerrancy in a way that differs from what most laypeople would naturally assume the word “inerrancy” to mean (the “death of a thousand qualifications” I alluded to). I wonder what your feelings are about whether the various individuals (including yourself) seeking to develop a more reasonable view of Scripture that is also a high view of Scripture ought to also try to use a term or label that communicates more clearly to a general audience what your view is? In particular, it would be a wonderful contribution to Christianity if some of the scholars and thinkers who represent this sort of approach could come up with a term that emphasizes what the Bible is rather than what it isn’t, for a change! 🙂

  • Foolish Sage

    More on topic, thank you Dr. Mcgrath, for this very good summary of the problems with Beale’s book. I am a former student and (continuing!) friend of Peter Enns (the prinicple target of Beale’s book), and I know that your criticism’s of Erosion mirror his own.Your review serves, actually, quite well as a summary of the frustrations so many of us have had in debates with our pro-inerrancy friends. No matter how much we bring up the data, the response is always “but our Doctrine of Scripture tells us…”

  • Thanks for your comments too, Mark – I think you must have been writing them while I was writing mine, and I didn’t want you to think I was ignoring you! 🙂

  • art

    Thanks for this review Dr. McGrath. I found it very helpful and pointed out some issues that I had not even seen before in my criticisms of Beale’s book. I’ve pointed my readers to this post.

  • I appreciate your dedication to this topic and the patience you have in these debates. I myself have lost the patience for such reasoned explanations long ago, so now when anyone asks about the subject I know where to send them!

  • James,I want to second Metalepsis in appreciating your review. When Beale’s book came out I toyed with doing a review myself, but I simply have neither the time nor the energy to get into this debate (ah, the joys of dissertating).Thanks for doing the leg-work on this.

  • Good review. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. These are issues that can’t be fixed by playing the game of hear no evil, see no evil.

  • It is certainly possible to work out a doctrine of Scripture and avoid the language of inerrancy. It’s also possible to develop a soteriology in which justification by faith through grace plays little or no role. The language of the “new birth” may also be left to sappy revivalists, and the language of atonement confined to Fanny Crosby hymns. But this cannot be the route of a theology which treasures the heritage of the Reformation.With respect to a doctrine of Scripture, it is not the route that Peter Enns takes, or that of many others who affirm inerrancy and belong to ETS. It is not the route that the Roman Catholic church takes, which also continues to use the language of inerrancy in reference to Scripture.I’m not about to let Beale’s (to my mind) intellectually indefensible definition of inerrancy push me away from using traditional language about scripture. In response to Beale, I proceed on the assumption that he probably has a few things to teach us all. In that context, I would offer criticism alongside of praise. Mark, Pete has blogged at length about inerrancy and carefully argued for a qualified use of that language.James,In the tradition of the church before rationalism seeped into the groundwater of the debate, inerrancy language was doxological in nature. It is praise-language for the words of life God gives to us, identified with the words of scripture. This is clear, for example, in the writings of Zwingli. These words of the reformer of Zurich are justly famous:Finally, we conclude in the hopes of giving an answer to one and all objections – this is our opinion: that the word of God is to be held by us in the highest honor – by word of God is alone meant, what comes from God’s Spirit – and no word should be accorded the same faith as this one. For it is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace, makes it confident in God, humbles it, so that it abandons and throws away its pretensions, and places itself in God’s hands. In it, it lives; toward it, it turns. It doubts all creatures, and God alone is its trust and security. Without it, it has no rest, and in it alone it finds rest. After the example of Zwingli (though his approach to the nexus between Word and Spirit has problems of its own), the doxological use, not just of inerrancy language, but of other forms of “love-language” for scripture is the sign of a healthy theology.Excellent examples of praise-language relating to the word of God are found in Isaiah 55 and Psalms 19 and 119. There really are cogent reasons for retaining the language of inerrancy and qualifying it properly. Michael Pahl and Michael Bird have excellent posts on the topic. Michael Heiser has dedicated great energy to developing a reasoned doctrine of scripture. Chris Tilling has explained at length why “inerrancy” is a doctrine to uphold, in a theologically and intellectually compelling version.In short, I am not in favor of setting aside traditional vocabulary because it is subject to misunderstanding. If that is a sufficient reason, let’s do away with other vocabulary, such as justification, atonement, the Lordship of Christ, predestination, the Trinity . . . Oh wait: all this and more is just what some Christians think the doctor ordered.But this amounts to giving up one’s birthright for a mess of Unitarian pottage. It is also, I dare say, a sign of intellectual laziness. Every generation has to appropriate and re-contextualize the language of tradition. That includes, I would suggest, the language of inerrancy.

  • Thanks for this stimulating dialogue, John. I can’t really complain about those who feel the term “inerrancy” is worth clinging to, since I’ve been criticized for wanting to cling to the language of God when they think it should mean a highly-anthropomorphized concept that they understand it to mean.On the other hand, it does seem that the danger of misunderstanding is an important one in both cases, and it seems that it is at the very least important for those of us who use terms in ways that differ from the general perception of their meaning (even if our usage may be historically justified, perhaps even historically ‘normative’) to be clear about what we mean and why we mean it.Well, time for lunch. I’ll let you know if unitarian pottage is on the menu… 🙂

  • I took a few more minutes and expanded my previous comments into a post: do not mention Beale not only because I have not yet read his latest, but on the principle that I learned from my mother (and which I already ignore too often): if you can’t say something nice, keep quiet.

  • Foolish Sage

    John,I don’t think Enns would have any problem with the kind of inerrancy you describe above. Unfortunately, that is not what is meant by inerrancy by most of Enns’s critics, Beale included. (Mention of Beale here is fair game, as his book largely centers around criticism of Enns.)In this article Enns addresses the accusation that he denies inerrancy. In so many words, I think he’s saying, “If it’s the kind of inerrancy exemplified by the Chicago Statement and my critics, then yes, I deny it.” An actual quote:”I am among those who feel that the term inerrancy has become for Evangelicals severely overqualified because of the recognition of the tensions between older formulations of the term and the developments in our understanding of the Bible and its world. The Evangelical understanding has diversified and developed—sometimes begrudgingly, perhaps—over the last several generations, which is a fact that is both desirable and unavoidable.”I have never seen any post where Enns has vigorously defended the term “inerrancy.” Can you point me to such?

  • Mark,To my way of thinking, Enns is a vigorous defender of inerrancy precisely because he seeks to define it in a theologically and intellectually satisfying way. He shares this pursuit with Beale and others; the amount of common ground they share is enormous, though easily forgotten in the thick of polemics. Furthermore, I’m not sure the differences between Enns and his colleagues in Old Testament at institutions like Trinity and Dallas are greater than those that existed in an earlier generation between Warfield and Orr.Last time I checked, Enns is a member of ETS, and signs the Chicago Statement (with qualms attached, I imagine; many do). He recently served as as an officer in ETS. So I’m not sure your paraphrase of his position in which he would be an opponent of the Chicago Statement holds up to critical scrutiny. Enns is right that for several generations now, a range of positions on the relevant questions have been well represented among evangelicals. In fact I think that is granted by everyone. Enns may have crossed a red line from the point of view of the powers that be in the OPC, but that doesn’t make him less evangelical than OPCers. As I’ve recounted before, it wasn’t long ago that I spoke with faculty of seminaries like the ones just mentioned in which Enns would not be hired, anymore than said seminaries would hire someone who holds positions like those of F. F. Bruce or, in the context of theology, of C. S. Lewis. But I noticed that, even in the midst of disagreement, there was a recognition of the importance of Enns’ work, a sense that he is asking the right questions.It appears that Beale would not be so charitable. It is hard to see how he could be, if he believes for example that the question of the authorship of Isaiah 40-66 is settled by statements made in the New Testament. The problem here seems to be that Beale does not want to ask questions Scripture itself does not pose. (This is my way of putting it, not his.) I have some sympathy for this point of view. The questions Scripture poses to us are infinitely more important than the questions we pose to it, including the historical-critical ones.But that doesn’t and shouldn’t decide the historical-critical questions. Paradoxically, I think both sides in the debate place far too much emphasis on the importance of getting things right in terms of the questions “higher criticism” tends to deal with, questions of date, authorship, history of composition, indebtedness to cultural context. The fact is, it matters very little whether one gets these things right. The history of exegesis demonstrates this. Brevard Childs Exodus commentary, his recent Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture, the exegesis of people as diverse as Gerhard von Rad, Erich Zenger, and Jacques Ellul show in exquisite detail that the most profound exegesis of Scripture occurs independently of how one comes down on historical-critical questions.Neither side in this debate seems to have digested this truth. In the meantime, the need for persuasive theological exegesis is greater than ever.

  • Foolish Sage

    John,Thank you for your eloquent and helpful reply. I’m certain we agree on more than we disagree.Still, I think there’s a case to be made that we need to leave the term inerrancy behind. Not the things for which you have argued, but the term as hopelessly co-opted. I will let Calvin Park make that argument (from his blog, where he is responding to this comment thread):

  • Mark,Thank you for your engagement. It is a fine thing to watch how this debate plays itself out across the blogosphere. I continue to think that *how* we talk about these things matters as much as *what* we say about these things. I understand why walking away from the language of inerrancy, rather than qualifying it properly, is an attractive option in contexts in which a narrow definition has been used to disqualify transgressors thereof.In my case, I take that as one more reason not to throw in the towel. The problem is not confined to the language of inerrancy. An analogy: it is undeniable that the need to be born again is taught in John 3. Luther’s sermons on John 3 are fabulous. Nevertheless, it is tempting to stop referring to the “new birth,” given the insipid way the language is often used today. I have to admit that when I hear a revivalist ask the question, “Are you born again?”, my instinctive response is, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”We dare not cede these terms to those who fail to understand their true connotations. The fact that the Catholic Church has chosen to retain the language of inerrancy, new birth, atonement, justification, etc. ought to give evangelicals who wish to walk away from any of this language pause.All of the language just cited has healthy, non-stupid uses which are worth recovering. We find ourselves in a curious spot. Many, many people continue to believe and confess and know that Scripture is a lamp unto their feet and a light unto their path. People who believe this and confess this do so within a positive feedback loop in which, without any contribution of their own (sola gratia), Word and Spirit cooperate such that the stories of Scripture are seen to tell their story; to be a window to God and the things of God; a mirror we hold up to our face in which we see ourselves as we really are; a map which tells us where we are and where we need to go; a toolbox and storage shed full of equipment and supplies for the journey; a compass which points in the direction of true north; a lifeline to hang on to when we lose our way and find ourselves in enemy territory.Those who know and confess these things will also confess that scripture’s words are sweeter than honeycomb, more precious than fine gold. It is natural to confess from there that Scripture is flawless, exactly what God intended it to be. Not one word in it needs changing. It does not err and does not lead us into error. In scripture we find the questions God poses to us, from “Where are you?” in Genesis to “Who do you say that I am?” in Matthew. In it we find the words of life. The language of inerrancy makes sense within a confessional context of the kind I just evoked. Outside of it, the language is debased and misconstrued.

  • Just to complicate things, I thought I’d mention that the Bible (inerrant or not) does provide precedent for changing the language we use – I think, for instance, of the Gospel of John largely setting aside the language of “kingdom of God” and introducing the terminology of “eternal life”…

  • James,When I red this “Inerrancy is a zombie concept” I thought to myself, my lord, what would have James said a few years back if he had heard this said? Great, succinct and lucid review. Thanks!

  • Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (Hardcover)by Robert M. Price

  • Professor McGrath,You and your loyal readers may be interested in reading a critique of your review, “The Last Gasp of Inerrancy.” I may have motivated this critique and it’s titled “Trapped in the matrix.” You can read it in full by clicking here.Here’s an excerpt: “(McGrath) “And yet, ironically, Beale is ultimately no friend of inerrancy. For in allowing that the Bible speaks about things as they appear, and not necessarily as they are, Beale has opened all the cans of worms he surely hoped to keep sealed up. If matters of cosmology can be described phenomenologically, then so can matters pertaining to our salvation.”(Rebuttal) That’s completely equivocal.i) To begin with, a phenomenological description is still a literal description. The phenomenon is not illusory. It simply takes into account the spatial perspective of the viewer–like the difference between aerial photography and ground-level photography. ii) In addition, the distinction between appearance and reality has reference, in this case, to differences in sensory perception–depending on the position of the observer in relation to the sensible object. The fact, for example, that mountains look smaller at a distance.That has absolutely nothing to do with matters pertaining to our salvation. For example, it’s not as though the Resurrection is dependent on the position of the observer–whether he saw the Risen Lord two feet away or ten feet away, saw him at eye-level or saw him while standing on a hill, looking down. For someone who feigns intellectual superiority, McGrath’s little review is littered with basic conceptual blunders.”——————-If you wish to interact with the Triabloguers on the topic of your review, I suggest you (and your loyal readers) comment over there since they do not have comment moderation like you do.

  • “Online defenders of inerrancy abound, include Pete Enns himself, Chris Tilling, Mike Heiser, Michael Bird …”Hi John, Thanks for the mention (and I look forward to seeing you this year at SBL). I understand why you said that, but actually I am no defender of inerrancy, at least not any version which is used within descriptive theological discourse. Where it has a future, perhaps, is as part of the rhetoric of doxology, in the context of liturgical rhetoric, “Your word is flaweless” etc.James, great review.

  • “Online defenders of inerrancy abound, include Pete Enns himself, Chris Tilling, Mike Heiser, Michael Bird …”Hi John, Thanks for the mention (and I look forward to seeing you this year at SBL). I understand why you said that, but actually I am no defender of inerrancy, at least not any version which is used within descriptive theological discourse. Where it has a future, perhaps, is as part of the rhetoric of doxology, in the context of liturgical rhetoric, “Your word is flaweless” etc.James, great review.

  • Hey Chris,I look forward to seeing you in New Orleans as well. I agree with you that the natural habitat of the language of inerrancy is doxology. Our differences apparently lie elsewhere. It is seems to me that descriptive theological discourse is, at its best, doxological. It follows that the language of inerrancy will find a place in it.Secondly – and such was the case in the Reformation period, for example – it does service in the polemical register as well. The language of inerrancy will continue to play a role in that arena, almost by necessity, so long as there are theologians who say what the Bible teaches on x, y, and z is in error; this is what we should teach instead.

  • HI John,Great point and I entirely agree.I would only add that a doxologically expressed doctrine of inerrancy ought to look and feel different from the sort of stab the Chicago Statement offers.Word verification for this post was “swaxing”, by the way, which may or may not mean something profound!

  • If, as Zwingli says, the word of of God "is it's own interpreter" then why does he have to explain/interpret this supposedly Biblical concept for us? If the word of God is it's own interpreter, then every action of theologians and apologists expresses the belief that the word of God alone is in fact not sufficient and not it's own interpreter.Methinks that Zwingli and an army of theologians and apologists speak with a forked-tongue.

  • Basil,You apply stringent logic to the analysis of statements in an inappropriate way. You might as well upbraid music teachers who say (1) you don't have to know the first thing about music theory to "get" music, but go on and (2) teach music theory.(1) and (2) are not really in contradiction, except to small minds with a gift for crabbed thinking. Mutatis mutandis, theologians are like music teachers. Get over it.

  • Are there music teachers who claim that sheet music is it's own interpreter? If so, such music teachers are teaching the sufficiency of sheet music and are telling me that music teachers are really unnecessary. Yet every action of music teachers expresses the belief that sheet music alone is in fact not sufficient and not it's own interpreter.Are there theologians who claim that the word of God is it's own interpreter? If so, such theologians are teaching the sufficiency of scripture and are telling me that theologians are really unnecessary. Yet every action of theologians expresses the belief that the word of God alone is in fact not sufficient and not it's own interpreter.

  • So theologians are like music teachers. One might as well say that theologians are like those who instruct prospective plumbers, brain surgeons, insurance salesmen or practitioners in any other field of endeavor. But a plumber's teacher does not claim that a leaky drain pipe "is it's own interpreter". An instructor at a medical school does not claim that the brain or any other organ of the human body "is it's own interpreter". Similarly an instructor of prospective insurance agents will not tell his students that an actuarial table "is it 's own interpreter". Only theologians claim that the subject of their inquiry (the word of God) "is it's own interpreter. In this respect the teacher/theologian analogy does not work.If we are going to use the plumber analogy I think it would be accurate to say the scriptures are like a leaky pipe. The plumber instructor teaches a plumbing student how to patch a leaky pipe. In much the same way a theologian instructs his students how to explain away biblical ambiguity or discrepancy.

  • Basil,You really do have trouble wrapping your mind around the claims being considered.The Bible in the analogy is not to be compared with sheet music, but with a performance by a musical artist. That's what the Bible is: a series of performances by artists. It is not sheet music.Do you really want to claim that the Bible is like sheet music, as if it were a set of instructions designed to help someone perform, rather than a performance in and of itself?All of this in the name of the primacy of a magisterium, I presume. But that same magisterium, properly understood, holds that Scripture is the norma normans of its own teaching office, and the chief products of that office, the creeds, norma normata.

  • Once again, Basil,You choose ill-fitting analogies. That you would think of Scripture as a leaky pipe says something perhaps about your approach to the text. In that analogy, Scripture would be elegant Roman bath. If you want to hear a plumber's take on the pipes that make it worth, fine and dandy, but you don't need to understand the first thing about the pipes to enjoy the bath.Better analogies are provided by the history of interpretation of other texts that function as scripture, such as the Constitution. See Jaroslav Pelikan's work comparing the hermeneutics of the two. Scripture is its own interpreter in a way with some points of contact with the way the Constitution is its own interpreter. For example, an interpreter of both will seek to make sense of one passage in light of all of the others within the same document before interpreting on the basis of derivative and perhaps misleading later documents. Just an example.You are also forgetting that the doctrine of scripture throughout the church also emphasizes the essential work of the Holy Spirit in the process of interpretation. A teacher after all is involved.My guess is that you are merely interested in defending your choice to rely on the Roman Catholic magisterium to tell you what the Bible means. Even if that flies in the face of what the Bible itself is evidently saying.

  • John,You seem to think I am arguing that theologians are unnecessary and that, therefore, it is the magisterium to whom we should look to for all interpretive guidance.This is not my position at all. I am simply pointing out that it is paradoxical for theologians to claim that the Bible interprets itself. And I am only applying this thesis to the theologians who make such a claim – not to all theologians.I agree with all of your statements about the Bible – but with some qualifications. True enough, the Bible in many respects can be compared to a musical performance rather than to sheet music. One example I can think of is the way OT (musical) "themes" (shadows and types) are repeated in the NT. But, like sheet music, the Bible is also (as you said) "a set of instructions designed to help someone perform" (walk in Christ).Yes, of course the Scriptures are more than a leaky pipe. To carry the analogy further, the Scriptures (like a series of performances by artists) are like a mansion with many rooms. But even mansions require maintenance and periodic inspection.You say that I "choose ill-fitting analogies". I generally don't resort to analogy. My use of analogy was done primarily to follow your use of analogy to one possible conclusion. There really is nothing on this earth analogous to the word of God. Therefore, there are no all-encompassing analogies to illustrate how it is that theologians relate to the Scriptures.I am not seeing your point about the Roman bath. You seem to be saying "if you want to hear a theologians take on the Bible fine and dandy, but you don't need to understand the first thing about the infrastructure of the Bible to enjoy the Bible." Maybe I misunderstand your point?I think your Constitution analogy is about as close to the mark as we are going to get. To elaborate on the example you gave, I am reminded of the Constitutionalists who say in effect that, if one appeals to the intent of the founding fathers, the Constitution interprets itself. I suppose this process could be called Constitutional Sola Scriptura. So your point is well taken.However….there are, as you know, many competing principles of Biblical interpretation. So again we are back to the statement "scripture is it's own interpreter" but with one major qualification: It is man, and not Scripture, who determines the principles and methods of interpretation.BTW, I am not a Catholic. Any resemblance of my anti-empiricism to a support for the Catholic magisterium is purely coincidental.

  • Basil,Thanks for a lively conversation. I'm fine with you noting that the claim that scripture interprets itself is paradoxical. At some point, then, it is worth trying to resolve the paradox and otherwise unpack what theologians who use this terminology are trying to point to. That was my scope from the beginning, and I'm glad that you found the constitutional analogy helpful. It is worth pointing out, statements that suggest the opposite notwithstanding, that sola Scriptura interpreters are, almost without exception, far from being sola Scriptura in practice.John Wesley might claim that he was a man of "one book,' but of course he read many others, and he also read the book of life with great interest. All of the books he read impacted his reading of Scripture. But he could still properly call himself a man of one book, since he wished, within the hermeneutical circle, to read all other books in light of the one book to which he refers.I love analogies just as much as I love propositional statements, about scripture or anything else. Each style of speaking has its place. Each has its drawbacks.The Roman bath analogy is one I like, because I see many people in my faith tradition and beyond treating the Bible as a hot tub they can relax in and be rejuvenated in. Furthermore, what makes the hot tub therapeutic is that you're in it with others and, not to put too fine a point on it, you're all naked in there.As a Bible scholar and a pastor, it's my importance I'm playing down when I point out that a plumber's statements about the hot tub can safely be ignored. Of course that's hyperbole. Since I know things about the hot tub not everyone knows, I can think of a few things worth pointing out about the hot tub such that one doesn't hurt oneself by, for example, turning up the temperature too much, or staying in too long.Really, I don't think we are creative enough in our use of analogies for the Bible. The classical ones, like "light unto my path," "mirror" of our sinfulness and God's grace, "compass" pointing the way, are well and good. I find them helpful. But why not explore the sense in which the Bible is a hot tub? I ask forgiveness in advance if you find my playfulness offensive.

  • I was just reading Beale's book (parts of it) and I wanted to see some reviews. I found yours.I think you are wrong in some parts of your evaluation – especially when you talk about Beale's ignorance of ancient cosmologies. While he clearly is not an expert on these, it is also clear from the book that he has read extensively on this and has consulted with experts in the field. I think that your generalization of Ptolemaic cosmology is more worrying that his knowledge of cosmology.You also said: "And yet, ironically, Beale is ultimately no friend of inerrancy. For in allowing that the Bible speaks about things as they appear, and not necessarily as they are, Beale has opened all the cans of worms he surely hoped to keep sealed up. If matters of cosmology can be described phenomenologically, then so can matters pertaining to our salvation."I think you are on to something here and I was sincerely surprised to read his defense of the Bible's understanding of the cosmos. What surprised me even more was that Schreiner (from Southern) has endorsed this book.I do not think that this is the last grasp of inerrancy (as you say in your title), but I am surprised about the way Beale tries to reconcile science with Israel's cosmology. I am not sure if his book deals with this (his book The Temple and the Mission of the Church), but I am wondering how he interprets the 7 days of creation and how that interpretation fits with that of scholars who take a much more literal approach to Genesis. I doubt that many scholars who defend inerrancy would be comfortable with his theological/phenomenological language, but I may be wrong.If the cosmological language is phenomenological and figurative (in creation), does that mean that God did not create the world in 7 literal days? Perhaps Beale does not believe in a 7 days (24 hrs creation), but many inerrantists do (I suspect Schriner does too?). In any case – I do agree with you that by his approach (at least in some parts of the book) he does not seem to be friend of inerrancy. ANd that is ironic.Your statement: "If matters of cosmology can be described phenomenologically, then so can matters pertaining to our salvation" does not necessarily follow. Does it?This is a side issue, but I have a question about the authorship of Isaiah (this is also for John H if he reads this): If Isaiah (40-66) which makes such a big deal about a God being able to predict and plan things in advance etc (unlike the pagan gods) was not written early (by Isaiah son of Amoz) – how does liberal Christianity (I believe you are in this camp, right?) how can you rescue the God and prophets of the Old Testament. Aren't the prophets falsely trying to present a God that predicts when actually he does not etc…In other words, how can Isaiah (the II, III whatever) and his God have any integrity if things are written AFTER they took place??? I am just wondering!

  • Evedyahu (i.e., Cristian, good to hear from you!),With respect to the multiple authorship of Isa 40-66, this is a position a growing number of conservatives support. The first defense of multiple authorship from a conservative point of view came from Franz Delitzsch.Isa 40-66, if it were not for the fact that it is bundled with 1-39, would never be considered as a possible product of the 8th cent. BCE. I think intellectual honesty requires that admission.As I see it, the appeal to prophecy in Isa 40-55 is an argument in favor of a 6th cent. date. But that's because, with many others, I see Isa 13-14 as originally directed against Assyria, and only later re-utilized to predict the demise of Babylon. Isa 40-55 on this understanding harks back to the prophecies of a Habakkuk, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, all of whom delivered a prediction of Babylon's demise before it happened, and more importantly, a prediction of Israel's restoration, before that seems possible to the naked eye. If the concept of reuse and reapplication of ancient prophecy is bothersome, one might call to mind that there are plenty of examples thereof in the sectarian literature of Qumran and the NT.I hope that helps.

  • John – I will email you to continue the discussion.Cristian

  • John Hobbins,I don't know if any of the following anti-empiricist rant applies to you. I'm sure it does peripherally but I am not targeting you or any other theologians (in the generic sense). I was raised a Southern Baptist and my family (with the exception of myself) are still of that ilk. So what I write below is (I guess, since I have not studied Lutheranism) really about that version of Christianity known as Fundamentalism. You mentioned hyperbole. Perhaps Zwingli was using a bit of that when he said "the word of God is it's own interpreter"? His comment certainly works as a sound-bite. But I think William Gurnall spoke the truth with greater accuracy when he said, "compare scripture with scripture". Perhaps Zwingli and Gurnall really meant to say the same thing but Zwingli, inadvertently or not, attached a sort of magical connotation to the idea, as if the Book itself were a living entity and, drawing upon it's store of memory (the scriptures) in response to every conceivable question posed by the reader, (the Book) arrives at it's own conclusion. Sounds like something out of a Harry Potter novel. Or a Ouija Board. Or a magic eight ball.This would probably be the point in the argument where one would bring up the workings of the Holy Spirit in delivering to the reader the proper interpretation of a given scripture. I believe this really does occur. The Spirit does indeed interpret the letter. It is the Spirit that we are in which determines how the letter or anything else in the world impacts us. However, given the thousands of competing scriptural interpretations found amongst Christians, the Holy Spirit is apparently incredibly selective in deciding upon which Christians to confer the truth and which Christians to leave in the dark. Or the Holy Spirit wants us to arrive at our own conclusions.In a sense, to say "the Spirit interprets the letter" is to mix apples and oranges. This is because God's Kingdom is not a kingdom of the letter. God's kingdom is a Kingdom of the Spirit. Jesus and Paul preached over and over again about this. Paul said we were set free from letters graven in stone (or paper). Paul said we were to work out our own salvation in fear and trembling. And yet here we are, 2,000 years later, arguing over letters graven in an earthly material. Where is the Spirit in all of this (exegis)? I don't see it. What I do see is the yeast of the Pharisees.Fundamentalists have accused me of possessing "amorphous", "intangible" and "nebulous" beliefs. And this is true. This is very true. Our personal experience of Spirit (our working out of our own salvation) cannot ever be adequately put to words. We can't even define or describe the spirit we are in so how can we discuss it or debate it? And so we argue over doctrines. Welcome to the kingdom of the letter. Our individual personal experiences of God cannot ever be adequately described but they are very REAL. Fundamentalists tell me that such personal experiences are "subjective" and cannot be relied upon. The only personal experiences of God allowed for consideration are those described in the scriptures. No one else need apply. Fundamentalists rely exclusively upon scriptural interpretation for their connection to God. In this sense I find it mildly ironic that the "living" word of God also includes the "dead" letter of the law. I guess there really is life in death. Yes. The scriptures say that the scriptures are "God-breathed". But all of creation is "god-breathed" (God spoken). Romans 1:20"For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:"Scripture says that we do not need one particular set of molecules (scripture) to understand. God's general Creation is all we need to understand, to be without excuse. continued

  • continued from previous post:What makes the scriptures any different from the rest of God's "god breathed" creation? Like sunrises and waterfalls and back taxes, the scriptures, like everything else on this planet, are just another indicator of what we should be doing (God's will). And as a part of God's creation, if we understand ourselves, we understand what God wants (God's will).Believing that the Bible must be proven "inerrant" or "infallible" or any other special quality setting it apart from the rest of God's creation displays, to me, a profound lack of faith. Faith is the evidence of things not seen. Approaching one's "faith" as an empirical, materialistic, scientific and systematic study of the evidence seen (scripture) is, therefore, the opposite of Faith/Spirit. And belief that ultimate Truth or divinity resides exclusively in a material object found on this earth (whether it be a book, an idea, a statue or a person) is, by definition, "idol worship".Suffice it to say that I don't "believe in" the Bible. I don't "believe in" God. I know there is a God. I know God is real. God doesn't need explaining or defending. You either know or you don't know. Everything else is the "wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever".But he himself was brokenLong before the sky would openForsaken, almost humanHe sank beneath your wisdom like a stone

  • Basil,If you are a recovering fundamentalist, it makes sense to me that you have some post-traumatic syndrome with respect to doctrine in general and doctrine of scripture in particular. My experience is different than yours. Perhaps you will understand its logic even if it is not the logic of your experience.I was raised in a liberal denomination with strong pietistic currents in its core. I benefited and continue to benefit from both the liberal ethos and the fervent piety. I can't imagine ever having stuck with it if it were not for the revival aspect, such that I experienced conversion and a lot of associated emotional drama, and if it were not for the fact that I needed an intellectually compelling version of the faith to grapple with, which I found in the classical Christian tradition inclusive of Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin.I love the warm fuzziness of my United Methodist roots. In moderation, it is not only nice, but essential to well-being.But I don't think it's sufficient. I am not a fundamentalist, but I agree with the principle that Christianity needs to be against culture and transformative of culture, not just accommodating of it.The things fundamentalists charge off against sword in hand sometimes makes for a quaint sight. But liberalism's "Let it be, let it be" is an empty suit.