Inerrancy

In the comments section of my previous post, blog-lurker extraordinaire Tim Keller called me out for my duplicity regarding inerrancy. He’s right, I find inerrancy not merely to be “insufficient,” but actually deeply lacking theologically.

In brief, I think that the doctrine of “inerrancy” — made up by evangelicals during the second half of the 20th century (the word, itself, is an invention) — uses an extrabiblical superimposition to prop up the authority of the Scripture. That is, inerrancy appeals to the themes of logical positivism and empiricism and is thus a modernistic misstep.

Instead, I think that the biblical narrative is authoritative and truthful because of, among other things, its aesthetic and holistic truth. Thus, I proposed to my new friends at Southern Seminary, that I have a “higher” view of Scripture than an inerrantist. I believe that the Bible does not require external, foundational supports. The narrative truth of the Bible is ultimately sufficient and authoritative, thus trumping any extrabiblical theory. That is, the Bible is cogent, coherent, and existentially truthful — and, I would argue, moreso than any competing sacred text.

[UPDATE:

1) I mean no disrespect in referring to Tim Keller as a "lurker." I've said it here before: I am greatly honored that a pastor-theologian of his caliber reads and comments on my blog. I am, likewise, a lurker on many blogs. Sorry if it came off as an insult, Tim.

2) I am fully aware that by appealing to post-foundational rationalities that I am open to the accusation of hypocrisy: i.e., that I am using non-biblical arguments to refute non-biblical arrguments. But I find appeals to holism and aesthetic truth to be arguments about the internal consistency and cogency of the Scripture.

3) Tim's right, that I wasn't entirely duplicitous in my "lukewarm" attitude toward inerrancy at Southern. The fact is, "inerrancy" bends a lot of ways -- once it's qualified by phrases like "in the original manuscripts" (which we don't have), "when read faithfully," and "when interpreted within the orthodox Christian community," then "inerrancy" starts to sound a lot like "infallibility." That's why I think there are all kinds of inerrantists, some of whom are probably very close to my position.

4) Tim, if you think my hermeneutic is difficult to explain to lay people, you should try it with high school students! That's what I tried (with limited success) for 7 years!

5) Dear Anonymous, first of all, sign your posts if you want anyone to take you seriously. Secondly, if you think the fact that I have a position (n.b., my position, not Emergent's position) on Scriptural interpretation precludes my ability to have open, respectful, challenging conversations with inerrantists, then you don't know much about conversation. And if you don't like big words, find another blog to read -- I make no apologies for who I am.]

  • gareth

    nice thoughts tony… I love it when discussing hermeneutics with evangelicals when you can demonstrate that you have a higher view of the bible than them :-)

  • Anonymous

    After your last post on your meeting with Dr. Mohler et al, I was ready to drop my accusations of arrogance about you. Now, I see that it really was just an act for one day. You can get away with throwing your high sounding terms around to the hoi-polloi, but you know that scholars such as Dr. Mohler would take you apart. keep it up. You’re just showing us poor, pitiful fundamentalists how wrong your “conversation” is. You don’t really want any “conversation”. You want a church formed in your image and based on your principles. You box God in just as much as anyone you accuse of that. Keep it up.

  • monts

    i say, now you’ve got me thinking….i’ve been wrestling with inerrancy, the thought, the term the usage, the importance, etc, etc… but i’m not so sure we should throw the baby out with the bath-water. sure it’s an inadequate term, but it does help in our understanding and explanation of scripture.maybe you can explain something to me… you’ve talked about “inerrancy” being insufficient and lacking in the theological department, what about it would you say is so insufficient and lacking? just a side note–you accuse “inerrancy” (i’ve just personified it–oops) of needing extrabibilical superimposition to prop up its authority, but haven’t you done the same with your own explanation of scripture?blessings!

  • Chrismc

    Am I the only one who thought it was funny/ironic that you linked to a wikipedia entry in post on inerrancy? Thanks for the thougts Tony.

  • Anonymous

    Tony–I see why some disallow anonymous ‘lurkers’ on their blogs–e.g. the nasty and unfair comment above. By the way, there are people in the Kuyper/VanTil camp who have insisted for years that Biblical authority doesn’t need external, foundational supports, and yet they have no trouble speaking of the Bible as ‘inerrant.’ For most, simpler people (like me!) to say the Bible is authoritative and truthful is the same thing as saying it is inerrant. It would be very hard to get the distinction you make across to the average person. Tim Keller

  • Grant

    nice work, tony…and tim keller.I’ve always been wary of using words to describe the Bible that the Bible doesn’t use to describe itself.good to see that my fellow SBC’ers were pleasant to you!

  • Daniel Rudd

    That was well said Tony. Tim Keller is right that this is a hard thing to talk about, but I think this post is about as good of a start as you can find. Unfortunately, I do need to correct you on your treatment of Anonymous. HE IS signing is name. His name IS “Anonymous” (poor guy). I know this because he posts on my blog too and many others. All of these posts are clearly the same person writing. It took me a while to put 2 and 2 together. I know he is sometimes a little angry, but think of the challenges he has had to face (try not to laugh, as you imagine the situations he might find himself in–apparently someone really as to live like this). And if he sometimes comes across as a little arrogant from time to time: this too should be excused.Imagine that one of the most powerful web companies in the world create three categories by which all blog commentators would select their own categorical identity before posting a comment. Now imagine that out of the billions of ways to categorize the billions of people on the planet, Google chose to make “TONY EVANS” one of those categories. That’s right, everyone else on the planet would have to select from the other two. You however, would have your own private category. Don’t you think that would go to your head?So let’s all cut poor anonymous some slack. PS. No one should accuse me of being chauvinistic by assuming the gender of Anonymous. It is clearly a boys name.

  • Nick

    My understanding of inerrancy is that the Bible is true, by nature of its revelation. Not because of extrabiblical support coming from either archeology or textual critisms. These extrabiblical sources are merely defenses of the theory, not the substance of it. In other words: inerrancy is not the conclusion of an argument, but rather a revealed truth. I do not understand why you have a “higher” view. Your view seems to either: 1) be based on aestetic and holistic support (extrabiblical, by your own confession)2)claime that scripture is true based on the nature of its revealtion. Either way, why is your view “higher”?

  • Friar Tuck

    It has been good to see you back.As for anonymous’ comments, do people really think of Dr. Mohler as a scholar?I guess I have always thought of him as a politician. But that is in part because he forced out one of my profs in seminary from her position because she advocated women in ministry.As for the hermeneutics with teenagers….Eugene Peterson is inspirational in this regard. The greatest teachers are the ones who can take the complex concepts that they learn from theologians and teach them to the common person in your church.

  • Ranger

    Man…Anonymous, who are you? That’s not cool to be such a jerk and not even say who you are…Thank you for an outstanding post Tony. I’ve been questioning inerrancy recently, not because of doubts to whether or not it can be inerrant, but because I feel that at seminary they had to force me to view Scripture in this way. It didn’t seem natural to me, but instead like a way of forcing a modernist worldview on a clearly pre-modern text.I also feel like you do that inerrancy is an insufficient means of authority. Just because something is truthful, without any mixture of error, does not make it authoritative. It just makes it true.Thanks for the thoughts…they are much appreciated.

  • Hammy

    Tony writes, “the Bible is cogent, coherent, and existentially truthful — and, I would argue, moreso than any competing sacred text”I agree with you on the Bible have existental truth, however moreso than any competing sacred text may be a stretch. You said you’d agrue, so I assume no response to this post is a cop out and that you arn’t really prepared to defend what you write. But I want to know WHY the bible is more existentially truthful than, say for example, the Upanishads, or the Tao Te Ching. How do you know. And please try not to use christian language, but if you must you must and I understand. Thanks for the post.- Hammy

  • Mary

    Tony,Could you please define “aestehtic” truth and “holistic” truth? How would you distinguish “holistic” truth from “existential” truth. You use all these words so I assume you can dinstinguish one from the other. Like Hammy, no response to this is, I assume, saying that you can’t define the three apart from one another.Merry Christmas!Mary

  • Short Stack

    Tony,You wisely write, “I find inerrancy not merely to be “insufficient,” but actually deeply lacking theologically.”I agree, and fortuantly for us the Catholic Church determeined this about 2000 years ago. Welcome to the CC. I also agree with some of those anonymous posters, obnoxious as they are, from your other posts. I am starting to understand what they mean when they say emergent is nothing new theologically, but is just “catholic” theology re-cast in protestant language to lure evangelicals from the errounous church into better theology (i.e. catholic theology).

  • Jermaine

    anonymous wrote, “You want a church formed in your image and based on your principles. You box God in just as much as anyone you accuse of that. Keep it up.”BRILLIANT! Although I disagree with you (Mr. Anonymous) theologically, I agree with your accusation here of the pompus Captain Jones. What emergent (and Jones) doesn’t understand (or maybe they understand it but just won’t admit) is that they are, in and of themselves, a denomination – a protestant denomination. And they are disgustingly protestant, conservative and evangelical. Any yes, by setting parameters for their little “conversation” as they call it, they are boxing everyone else in – inside their pseudo-intellectual theology club. Yet, there is no theology, it is all garabage feel good evangelical stuff like Max Lucado, Chicken Soup of the soul, and the prayer of Jabez….what lame-o nonesense…never trust whitey-Jermaine

  • Smokey

    Jermaine,add the wikipedia refernce to your list of nonesense books….great post J-man

  • StorminNormin

    Holistic, existential hermenutical truth? Hmm….. sounds like the base communites of Latin America which are very very Catholic. I agree with you “Short Stack” that it is VERY VERY Catholic sounding…why doesnt’ emergent just call a spade a spade?

  • Jeremy Duncan

    Great comments Tony,I have tried to explain (sometimes feels like defend) my view of scripture to several of my friends for years. My caution with inerrancy has earned my view of scripture the dreaded “low” label but as I have explored and wrestled with my understanding I have found a new resepct for the authority of the Bible. In fact my trust in it has never been more solid.

  • Jim

    As the “Anonymous” whom you so roundly chastised, I must respond. I have no worries about my credibility. On the contrary, it is you who must be concerned. I have no stake in this except to point out flaws. You, on the other hand, as the “national coordinator of Emergent U.S.” have something to gain or lose. You continue to show an arrogance, even a distain of earlier, shall I say, fundamentalist values. I, on the other hand, only wish to show your toadying syncophants how wrong you are. Any thing I can do to point out your selfishness, whether it is anonymously or not, helps. You see, for all your talk about “living like Christ” (those may not be your words, but they get thrown about continously by the EC), you remain, at heart, just the same as all those you condemn. Every time you point out how much better you are than those out of date and out of touch evangelicals, you just heap coals on your own head. Keep it up. Pretty soon, all the sheep will realize that you are as much a false teacher as anyone you critisize.

  • jason

    Thanks for your post Tony. I was quite suprised (to say the least) that you were invited to Southern. Anyway, I thought your clarifications regarding the inerrancy issue quite helpful.I was curious what you make of the work people like Kevin Vanhoozer are doing (specifically regarding speech-act theory, _Is there a meaning in this text_, and now his new book fleshing that out doctrinally in _The Drama of Doctrine)? I would be very interested to hear your take on speech-act theory as it pertains to this conversation (sorry for disagreeing with you anonymous).He seems to be uphold a solidly high and authoritative model of Scripture while taking a very different approach to this ‘inerrancy’ issue. (In that sentence I don’t mean to imply that you do not hold a high view of scripture.)Anyway, for what it’s worth, thanks for your post.

  • Fajita

    I love how emergent is so obviosuly evangelical and protestant and so obviosuly Catholic. And for all of you anti-Jonesites, didn’t you notice that he is really Jack Bauer?

  • Scot McKnight

    Tony,On my blog I attempted to define Scripture as trustable truth, so plenty of us are working on this term.Re: Tim Keller. It is simply not true that to speak of authority and truth is to imply inerrancy. Inerrancy is a negation of a negative idea (“not” and “false”), and it arose as a counter to those who used science to disprove the Bible. So, when using “inerrancy” today we are using a term that is politically potent and has been ever since Lindsell wrote his book. It is a dividing line term, and whether or not a person lives by the Scripture is not even asked in such a term. Now, I’m all for having nice sharp and theologically-deliberated terms, but “inerrancy” doesn’t say enough about our relationship to Scripture. I prefer “identity” and “trustable truth.”

  • David Williamson

    It’s a wonderful world in which the nuances of revelation can be explored so thoroughly.Spare a thought for those of us living outside New Haven. I’ve spent over an hour talking to a dude adamant about the King James Version’s infallibility (which is a word which didn’t even make it into this debate!). What a family we’re all part of…

  • jason

    David – but isn’t New Haven so beautiful this time of year? Scot (is it appropriate to address you in this way?) – Thanks for your helpful insights in your comment. Could you give us the link on your blog to the specific conversation you are referencing? I haven’t ran across that and would like to read it. Thanks.

  • RobeFRe

    Inerrant vs authoritative and truthful? Authority is something I grant to another or take for myself by powerful imposition…it is generally futile to resist the long arm of the law,e.g.But an Islamist gives little credence to the subtleties in application of the New Testament, and so its authority comes across only past the threshold of eternity. On the other hand wouldn’t authoritative and truthful out in the open sidewalk of life have a bit of inerrancy lurking in the shadows?

  • Mike

    I hope people are still reading this thread. I wonder if someone could explain what it means that scripture is aesthetically true… I’m a little fuzzy on that.I wonder also if I could pose another question. How is it that the hermeneutic we’re discussing should be seen as a positive explanation, rather than as a strategic retreat? I sometimes get the impression that some of the theology kicked around by the emergent crowd is a kind of admission that modernist philosophers have been right about Christianity all along. It’s like they proved that Christianity and the Bible are logically inconsistent, so now we have to talk about Scripture being holistically and asthetically true… having lost the purely cognitive arguments.Please don’t see this as a slam. This stuff is a bit much for me to wrap my brain around.

  • Hammy

    I repeat – last chance to tony:”You said you’d agrue, so I assume no response to this post is a cop out and that you arn’t really prepared to defend what you write. But I want to know WHY the bible is more existentially truthful than, say for example, the Upanishads, or the Tao Te Ching. How do you know. And please try not to use christian language, but if you must you must and I understand. Thanks for the post.”Please distginuish aestheitc truth from holistic truth from existential truth. That’s what I thought. You just throw around these words and you have little idea how they are different. But it sure does sound good doesnt it?

  • Hammy

    2 days later…That’s what I thought Tony…a bunch of amateurs around here

  • Buck Eschaton

    Inerrancy is about the meaning of words. Who is giving the words meaning? How can words be absolutized? How do we even uncover the original intention and meaning of the words? I just don’t get inerrancy, it just seems to have no basis in anything except the right here and right now. I just don’t think we get anywhere if we absolutize the meaning of anything.

  • Anonymous

    After reading all these posts I feel myself just a simple pastor, not a theologian. I don’t know how I’d say to my people 1)the Bible is true and trustworthy, but 2)some of its statements might be erroneous. Most people don’t know or care about the history of theological politics over the last 100 years, and how the term ‘inerrant’ has been a bludgeon for some in professional Christian institutions to use on others. Most people would say that’s a shame but not relevant to them. If I insisted that we can’t call the Bible ‘inerrant’ they’d want to know exactly where I thought the errors were. If I said ‘that’s not the point, I just don’t want scientific empiricism sitting in judgment on the Scripture’ they’d say they aren’t empiricists. They want to know if they have to subject their lives to all of the Bible, even the ‘texts of terror,’ or just to some of it. Of course I’d tell them that the Bible is much more than ‘inerrant,’ though not less. The Yellow Pages, theoretically, could be inerrant, and yet not have canonical authority over me. Over the years I’ve taught a lot of people about the Bible, and though many people have disagreed with me, they have at least understood me. I think the distinction that many of you on this thread want me to make would be very confusing, to say the least. Of course I may be still misunderstanding you (Tony and others,) but that’s how it appears to me.Tim Keller

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim,Because you can attribute “inerrancy” to the yellow pages is precisely, for me, the issue: we need a term that tells us more than “the Bible we read isn’t ever wrong” (that’s what inerrancy means). We need a term, or an expression, that puts it all together in an image we can live by. I propose “trustable truth.”

  • Scot McKnight

    On my blog:http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=569http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=573http://www.jesuscreed.org/?p=594If I knew how to make these things official links, I’d have done it.

  • Buck Eschaton

    Inerrant as a word to describe the Bible is meaningless. Inerrancy/errancy just aren’t categories that should be used to describe the Bible. It doesn’t matter if the Bible is absolutely, infallibly inerrant if you’re interpreting it wrong. Everything comes down to interpretation. Inerrancy, as far as I can tell, is just something to prop up one’s own interpretation. When I hear someone say the Bible is inerrant, all I’m hearing them say is that their own interpretation of the Bible is inerrant.

  • Anonymous

    Scot and Buck– I repectfully suggest that you are reading your own negative experiences onto and into this term. I am serious about both the words ‘respectfully’ and ‘suggest’–because I’m not sure I’m right. You (and others on this thread) seem to be doing more re-acting than acting. Common people expect ‘inerrancy’ to be a non-exhaustive but necessary sub-set of ‘authority.’ They believe that one entails the other. I’ve seen people try to explain to lay people that the Bible can be authoritative but still make erroneous statements and they just don’t get it. And neither do I, honestly. If you think it can be done I wonder if you are not living in a rarified atmosphere. I find it hard to get across tones of voice on these blogs and so I am wary of sounding harsh. It may be that some of you have been beaten up by evangelical institutional gate-keepers. I’m not one, and I don’t want to sound like I’m doing that. Sorry if I am frustrating you-all.Tim Keller

  • Buck Eschaton

    This will be a hastily put together metaphor. I don’t believe the Bible has any authority in and of itself. It’s like a trumpet laying on the floor. It has no music in and of itself. What matters is how it is being played. It can be made to play anything, good songs or bad songs. It can be played well or poorly. It’s the interpretation that matters. Christians not only interpret the Bible but they interpret reality. Christians must interpret reality by the holy spirit. Events can be interpreted wrongly. The Bible and events have no authority in and of themselves, they must be interpreted correctly. The interpretation is what matters. I realize the above probably doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim,Your comment did sound harsh, because my own past with inerrancy is not negative friend — I’ve had no one jam it down my throat or anything of the sort. I have read most of the books on the topic, and many of them as they came out — and I can say “I was there” when some of the big debates were going on.But, I don’t think the term does enough for us. I do respect the logical connections many make — but I don’t see our primary relationship to God to be one of submission, but one of love. If that is true, and I don’t know if you agree with me or not, but if you do, I don’t think either inerrancy or authority do the trick. It is a simplistic analogy, but perhaps a good one, to speak of the relationship of our word to our children. Does not the relationship of love and trust transcend those terms. I do think inerrancy and authority go together; phone books are authoritative because they are not wrong. But, Bible is more than that.In fact, at TEDS, as a student, one of my theology professors, and another one in private conversation, said precisely the same thing. “Inerrancy” is a negative term that does not tell us enough.My view is not a reaction, but an attempt to find a term that tells us more than that the Bible “is not wrong.”So, it’s in your court friend, and I bear no ill-will about this. I’m game for a conversation about it.

  • Scot McKnight

    Tim,One more thing: I do think the term is used far too often to measure a person’s faith. It can do that, but the first question of orthodox theology is not Scripture but the Godhead.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Scot. I appreciate all your thoughts. I don’t know there’s a ball in my court, though–I wasn’t volleying! Glad for the exchange.Tim Keller

  • Buck Eschaton

    Everyone can understand what would constitute an error or a mistake in a phone book, but the Bible is not like a phone book. What would constitute a mistake in the Bible? That’s why I don’t understand the controversy regarding inerrancy. The Bible is filled with things that can be argued about and interpreted differently. I just don’t think you can describe the Bible as either being with error or error-free, they’re just not appropriate categories. Are the great books of fiction inerrant? The Brothers Karamazov, is that inerrant? If it isn’t, then where are the errors.

  • Joe

    This is my first foray on this blog. So first off, thanks for the openness of all the comments on this blog. I do appreciate it.As for the inerrant/non-inerrant battle, I spent three-plus years in the “fundamentalist Christian” world. I was involved in PromiseKeepers. I was involved in men’s ministry as a part of it … not a leader. I have read the Scriptures — the Holy Bible — from “In the beginning …” to “The grace of Our Lord Jesus …” and find it an enthralling book.Yet I really do hope those who continue to teach/preach that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God realize that this book is a collection of 66 books, decided upon by the Council of Nicea and these men chose which books that make up the Protestant Bible and which books to dump.The Apocrypha is beautiful … and I guess the Protestant fathers were so freaking scared to make those books part of the Protestant Bible that they just axed them out. What about the Gnostic gospels? The Gospel of Thomas? You are telling me there’s not a shred of spiritual meaning in these texts? C’mon.But the inerrant/errant battle is one that will go on forever and ever, Amen. It’s good for discourse and chat. Yet some people will never, ever let go of their truth — that the Bible, word for word, jot for jot, tittle for tittle, is the way GOD meant it to be.I wonder: What if Johan Gutenberg had made a little mistake when producing his version of the Scriptures? Would a misplaced comma being moved be considered an inerrant comma? Did Jesus really speak in red letters?All that sounds ridiculous … but …I am glad that there are minds willing to embrace spirituality and God’s grace in a meaningful way.Grace and peace to you all ..Joe

  • Kevin

    If I had someone try to hold me down to ask if I believed in the Inerrancy of scripture, I wonder how I would respond…I would probably just agree and say “Yeah, if Inerrancy means without mistakes, then you are right. I don’t think there are any mistakes in the Bible.”

  • Anonymous

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