Is God restricted by what the Bible says?

Is God restricted by what the Bible says? September 23, 2013

Today we feature another guest post by Carlos Bovell, a third in what we might begin calling a series on Yahweh’s “evolving” character in the Old Testament (see here and here, and his earlier posts on Scripture here). His most recent book is Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012). (Click here for complete book list.)

Kent Sparks’s God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship is classified by Robert Yarbrough as a “shift story” (in his contribution to Do Historical Matters Matter to Faithan edited volume aimed at critiquing Sparks’s book). A shift story is presented as an account of a biblical scholar changing his/her view of scripture over time.

According to Yarbrough, biblical scholars have basically two incompatible bibliological positions to choose from: one that acknowledges “the results of biblical criticism” and another that accepts “the high view of Scripture upheld by Christian scholars over the centuries” (329). He claims that Sparks’s book is an example of the former, going “from a high view of Scripture’s veracity to a reduced one” (331), “from greater affirmation of Scripture’s truthfulness to lesser” (334). By virtue of Yarbrough’s stark contrasts, one would be forgiven for concluding that he thinks a “high view” (i.e., inerrancy) is a sine qua non of faith.

Are there really only two bibliological positions available to believers who are involved in biblical studies? To say the least, Yarbrough’s rhetoric tends toward oversimplification. His essay is a good illustration of the polarizing ideology that conservatives like to use.

I think Nicholas Wolterstorff did a great service for evangelicals when he drew attention to this common, inerrantist strategy in his book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks. Wolterstorff begins by observing that in order to make sense of the Psalms, believers—and it doesn’t matter whether they have Yarbrough’s “high” view of scripture or not—understand that God is not the one lamenting in the psalms of lament. If God is speaking through these psalms, therefore, it must be by appropriating them for other purposes than the ones the human authors had in mind.

Yarbrough, however, would force one to choose between the results of biblical criticism and the trustworthiness of scripture. But there is no compulsion to choose. The results of biblical criticism can be accepted as interpretation of what the human authors were saying, which leaves the task of discerning what God “says” to a more synthetic theological and hermeneutical discussion.

If there is a difference in approach between inerrantists and non-inerrantists, the difference can be traced back to what Wolterstorff calls the exceptional principle. The exceptional principle holds that “false and unloving speech is never attributed to God.” Inerrantists appeal to the principle in an effort to protect the human authors of scripture from teaching error. Non-inerrantists appeal to the same principle but their main concern is to protect the divine author (228).

In other words, all readers who are believers make exceptions for biblical texts that attribute to God false and unloving speech. The difference is that inerrantists protect God by protecting the human authors.  Non-inerrantists don’t see a theological reason to do this since what the human authors say is not always the same thing as what God is saying.

So, let’s tie this all back to our recent posts on Mark Smith’s historical research on the early history of Yahweh. There is evidence that the biblical picture of Yahweh was updated late in post-exilic times by priest-scribes. Does accepting that this happened mean that we are succumbing to a shift story?

Not necessarily. From a hermeneutical standpoint, it only means that in this area of biblical studies the human authors might be saying something different from what God is saying. What God “says” he says through appropriation.

The natural inerrantist response is to do what John Oswalt does in The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? He asserts that a straightforward reading of the OT as history is “the biblical explanation” and that “Smith’s explanations for the way in which the Yahwism of the Bible arose simply have too many unanswered questions in them” (184). Oswalt is trying to protect the biblical authors from “false and unloving speech” by insisting that priest-scribes did not update Yahweh: it was the Israelite perspective “from the beginning” (97).

Another way forward—a more fruitful way, I might add—would be to remain genuinely open to Smith’s evidence suggesting that Yahweh was updated by post-exilic priest-scribes while remaining confident that this research does not attribute to God false speech. Much rather, God appropriated Israelite propaganda for the purposes of revealing himself to the Israelites and the world. Thus God was (and is) speaking in the OT but not “saying” exactly what the biblical writers say.

Yarbrough’s main concern is that “a ‘believing criticism’ [what Sparks embraces] as such will do [little] more for us than adulterate the ‘believing’ that is necessary to keep discerning, rigorous thought from devolving into apostasy” (340). On one level, this is an understandable pastoral concern. But we should also remind ourselves that how we use the exceptional principle is not an indication of whether we trust God. In the present case, it is an attempt to interact fairly and honestly with the evidence irrespective of what it indicates about the human authors of scripture. What we conclude about the human authors will not impugn God.

As a part of the cultural world and literature of the ANE, we have a responsibility before God to “assimilate the useful methods and reasonably assured results of biblical criticism to a healthy Christian faith” (Sparks, 356).

Showing the Bible to be human and accepting the extent to which it is human does not in and of itself constitute a shift from belief to unbelief as Yarbrough would have us believe. The shift could also be one that moves from faith to faith, i.e., from a faith in scripture as the ground for our salvation to one that trusts in God as surety for our faith.

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  • James

    I think I follow and affirm most of this line of thought–up to the shift “from faith to faith” at the end. I’m not sure how to move from a ‘lower’ faith in scripture to a ‘higher’ faith in God as surety. Unless it is something like the distinction N T Wright makes: “Authority of scripture is shorthand for God’s authority exercised through Scripture.” (Scripture and the Authority of God) Once again we are up against the complexity of divine-human communication. A rather unique but exciting exchange!

    • C Bovell

      John Warwick Montgomery once wrote that he was disappointed in “the faint of heart who question the place of inerrancy in historic Christian theology.” His understanding of inerrancy famously centered on the “historical soundness and factual consistency possessed by the Word.” He insisted that believers needed to uphold “the historic Christian confidence in the entirely trustworthy Bible.” I, for one, feel better when the word “Bible” is replaced with “God” in this last sentence (and others that are like it).

    • Bev Mitchell

      On your last point, have a look at Greg Boyd’s newest book “Benefit of the Doubt”, especially the very helpful contrast he makes between faith as covenant relationship and faith as contract. The former is between two people who trust each other the latter between two people who don’t.

  • What are possible agendas for putting the authors of the Bible on such high pedestals? I think one is that anyone who does this and teaches the contents of the Bible gets some of that high pedestal-ness himself/herself. Another is that certainty is so much easier than having to test the nature of things.

    By the way, Aristotelian logic is probably to blame for much of this. Something is either true or false, and if there is even a single contradiction, any premise can be subsequently proven to be true. This is how most mathematical systems operate, but this is not a tenable modus operandi, at least if one wishes to gain increased understanding of God and his creation.

    • Hello Labreuer, I don’t really understand your view of inspiration. Do you hold fast on a form of inerrancy?

      Friendly greetings from Europe.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      • I believe God gave us the Bible he wanted us to have, in line with his consequent will. The consequent/antecedent will comes from his stated desires that none should die [without coming to a saving knowledge of him]—either universalism is true, or God doesn’t get everything that he wanted from the beginning. But he’s ‘sufficiently happy’ with how he lets things turn out, or he wouldn’t let them turn out that way! So I thin he’s ‘sufficiently happy’ with exactly the Bible we have now.

        The above view is very different from the enlightenment/modern philosophy approach of coming to the Bible with preconceived notions of what it is like, and insisting that it is like those notions, even if nothing in the Bible can really be construed to sustain that view. An example I often use is: if one pixel is wrong in a TV screen, can you still understand the movie? Of course! God works through fallible agents, and I’m not convinced he makes them temporarily infallible. They’re just ‘good enough’.

  • Dear Carlos,

    many thanks for this very useful summary of the way conservative and progressive Evangelicals understand their belief in Biblical inerrancy.

    Chicago inerrantist believe that the human authors cannot err why people like Nicholas Wolterstorff allow for this possibility.

    This difference has become very clear after conservative Evangelicals Paul Copan and William Lane Craig defended the moral goodness of divine genocides: among the passionate reactions to their claim, Randal Rauser said that the Israelites attributed atrocities to God without calling into question his belief that God intended the story to be part of a supernatural Canon.

    I have no doubt that this approach is much more in touch with
    reality and our basic moral intuitions.

    But this begs the question: why should we accept that God singled
    out the books which are now parts of the Canon whereas we find no
    difference whatsoever with many other religious texts?

    I articulate a third position with respect to the Bible which is
    held by countless young and older Christians all over the world.

    I’d be glad to respond to questions or criticism there and it is my hope this might be of help for struggling Cristians even if they end up disagreeing with me.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • dangjin

    Only someone who does not believe would ask such a question. If you cannot believe that the Bible is God’s word then you have no way for God to reveal anything to us. His revelation would be a divine miracle each and every time and very subjective. Plus God would have to repeat himself billions of times.

    Then if you declare the Bible a human work, then you call into question John 3:16. You cannot say that that verse and salvation is divine while the parts you do not like are human. That is cherry picking.

    All of the Bible is God’s word or none of it is and if you choose the latter, then you have removed all hope for mankind.

    Please stop calling yourself a Christian because you do not believe God.

    • C Bovell

      Thank you for taking time to comment. I regret that you cannot count me a Christian, but please note how you may be in danger of making an idol out of scripture by seemingly placing your eternal hope in it:

      “All of the Bible is God’s word or none of it is and if you choose the latter, then you have removed all hope for mankind.”

      I would be more inclined to say something like: “If you choose to believe that JESUS is not God’s Word, then you have removed all hope for mankind.”

      And I believe such a proclamation is unqualifiedly Christian.

    • Plus God would have to repeat himself billions of times.

      Is this not exactly what God does in scripture? There’s a lot of redundancy in scripture.

    • Andrew Dowling

      Your comment about no revelation being possible without the Bible echoes what some Pharisees declared about Jesus. How conservatives can’t see the overlap boggles my mind.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Thanks for this series.

    “God is not the one lamenting in the psalms of lament.” Good one! The divide and conquer, black vs. white strategy is long overdue for a dicotectomy, and I’m not talking botany. I guess it’s used because it works so well. It plays to fear and promises to avoid hard work. In fact, it makes laziness a virtue. But most serious of all it’s unbalanced. How can we proceed with Scripture, tradition, reason and experience without balance? Sooner or later lack of balance will tear anything that moves apart. If things are out of balance, the only safe move is to stand still.

    On a positive note, the way forward is clear. Speak up like you are doing, do the hard work, make your points as clearly as possible, ignore the torpedoes. People are listening and reading. People are changing. The ‘slippery slope’ is far less fearsome because of what people like Sparks, Enns, Olson, Boyd, Wright, McKnight etc. are writing and speaking. Forty years ago, we largely lacked this kind of evangelical voice, now we thankfully have them. Arguing with the fearful only makes them more afraid – they can do that well enough on their own. Just keep making the case. Our prayers are with all of you.

    “….from a faith in scripture as the ground for our salvation to one that trusts in God as surety for our faith.” Indeed!

    • “God is not the one lamenting in the psalms of lament.”

      Yeah it’s true that Scripture itself refutes the Chicago statement on inerrancy. Are lectures of progressive Evangelicals available as mp3s?

      Friendly greetings from Europe.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      • Rick

        Progressive Evangelicals, or the names Bev listed above?

  • C.M. Granger

    Do you then reject God as revealed in Scripture by the human authors?

    • A way of turning this question back on you would be: “Do you reject the idea that God may have progressively revealed himself to the Israelites, such that their initial impressions of him contained errors, and yet were recorded in holy scripture?” Phrased this way, the presupposition being questioned becomes clear.

      • C.M. Granger

        Yes, I do reject that idea.
        My question was directed to Carlos, but you are free to answer it as well.

        • Why do you reject it? I struggle to find biblical reasons for that rejection. I do not struggle to find preconceived notions which would lead to it, but one of the reasons we needed the Bible was to challenge our wrongly held, preconceived notions. So we must be careful to discern between what we read out of it and what we read into it.

          (In case it was not clear, I reject a premise behind your question, making it impossible for me to answer your question as-is with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’.)

          • C.M Granger

            It’s a yes or no question. You are welcome to qualify your answer with an explanation
            I reject it because God’s self-revelation cannot contain error, otherwise it is not “God-breathed”. To say otherwise is to drive a wedge between what God says and who He is. That is, quite frankly, a rejection of the God revealed in Scripture. It is a replacing of the God who is there with another god formed by the moral intuitions of the one reading Scripture.

          • “Can God create a stone so heavy he cannot lift it?” is also a yes or no question.

            My answer is that scripture tells us about what God is like, to the extent that a finite text can tell one about an infinite being whose ways and thoughts will always be higher than ours. If Jesus was telling the truth in John 17:3 and “eternal life is to know God”, then there must be a process by which we know God more and more—a process which exhausts the contents of scripture. Does it make more sense for scripture to contain a perfectly coherent and final description of God, or a description of how people came to know him better and better?

            Scripture being God-breathed doesn’t mean it matches with our conception of what scripture ought to look like! It means that scripture, as it is, accomplishes the goals God wants it to accomplish—not our goals! You are imposing your view of what scripture is, onto scripture, and then finding your view in scripture. God does not mislead (or lie to) the humble, but he’s happy for the arrogant to be misled.

          • C.M Granger

            Yes, it is and no, He can’t.
            God can be revealed in words, He is a speaking God who communicates. The fact that His thoughts are higher than ours, etc. does not change the fact that He is knowable. If Scripture tells us what God is like, as you say, then the content of Scripture is self-authenticating. It is not like having to sift out the silt from a muddy river in order to drink the water. If you assert the Bible contains error, you undermine your ability to quote John 17:3 or any other text for that matter. For once quoted, your opponent can simply respond “And how do you know that is true?” God’s word and God Himself cannot be separated.
            I never said that the Scriptures being “God-breathed” means they match with our conception of what Scripture ought to look like. You seem to think you’re not bringing any presuppositions to this matter, while asserting I am. That is simply not true, all of us have presuppositions. Yours is that God could not possibly be like this (insert text), therefore the Bible cannot be inerrant.
            If I am imposing my view onto scripture, can you show me where it doesn’t line up with Jesus’ own words in the Scriptures? And, conversely, can you show me where yours does?

          • If one pixel is screwed up in a TV screen, I can see the movie just fine—there is so much redundancy that the one pixel being bad does no harm to the overall message. Or to use your water analogy, water can contain certain levels of arsenic and still be safe to drink. The choice between 100% pure water and muddy river water is a false dichotomy.

            God’s word and God Himself cannot be separated.

            God is bigger than his word. I suggest you read Deut 30:11-14, Not in Heaven, then Rom 9:30-10:13. While you didn’t say this directly, it seems that you’re in danger of saying that God never speaks to us apart from his word—this would match the other things you’ve said. The whole “what if there’s a single wrong verse” worry gets a lot less if you accept that the New Covenant means the Holy Spirit wants to talk to us, and not just in Bible verses.

            You seem to think you’re not bringing any presuppositions to this matter

            Incorrect. [I hope] My most fundamental presupposition is that any of my presuppositions might be wrong, due to Total Depravity. Why should I claim that God would never engage in progressive revelation? The very process by which I read my Bible is progressive—I get more out of it each time I read it. Sometimes, I find that previous readings had set up wrong ideas in my head. For example, many people grammatically slaughter Mt 13:45-46, making the subject of the verb ‘buy’ (‘a merchant’), the object. They say that “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls…” means that we sell everything we have to buy the pearl of great price. This not only contradicts “Or what can a man give for his life?”, it goes against plain old grammar. I had to unlearn that false interpretation of Jesus’ words.

            Yours is that God could not possibly be like this (insert text), therefore the Bible cannot be inerrant.

            I don’t think God contradicts himself; I think he’s utterly consistent. If he seems to have changed, it’s because something else actually did—like the will of one or more human beings.

            If I am imposing my view onto scripture, can you show me where it doesn’t line up with Jesus’ own words in the Scriptures? And, conversely, can you show me where yours does?

            Your viewpoint doesn’t deal well with Jesus quoting from the Septuagint vs. the Masoretic text—since they sometimes contradict, only one can be correct, right? Which one? Note that the LXX excludes quite a few proverbs.

            The idea that the Israelites’ conception of Yahweh changed over time is something that cannot be observed by looking at the conception of Yahweh by a single person—especially if that person is Jesus. So your second question has “No” as an answer, because it is a bad question.

          • C.M. Granger

            You’re stretching the analogy beyond the point it was meant to convey.
            How do you suggest God speaks to us apart from His word, at least authoritatively? I’m not saying God doesn’t communicate with us in other ways. It would not be fair to attribute my position with “fear” of there being a wrong verse in the Bible. It’s as if there isn’t a compelling scriptural reason to hold to inerrancy.
            I do believe in progressive revelation, of course, but not in the way you have framed it. God progressively revealed Himself as His redemptive plan unfolded in history. And we also learn more about Him as we follow Christ in our own experience, also growing in our understanding of Scripture. I’ve had to unlearn wrong interpretations, etc. as well. Who hasn’t?
            I don’t think God contradicts Himself either, therefore the text has to be interpreted accordingly. You are in one breath asserting the authority of the text (e.g. citing John 17:3) while in the next denying the authority of it (asserting error in other texts). You do not see this? Any biblical position you assert based on the authority of scripture is easily refuted with a simple “and how do you know this verse is correct?” Your position is self-defeating.
            Lastly, I have utmost confidence in how Jesus chooses to use the LXX. Does He assert error in the text?

          • How do you suggest God speaks to us apart from His word, at least authoritatively?

            One needs the kind of ‘authoritative’ documents you describe if we think God never talks to us in other ways (e.g. if we accept the Not in Heaven doctrine), or if what God says can’t be tested by living life. Don’t get me wrong—I respect the Bible above anything else. I just don’t think it has to be inerrant according to your model of inerrancy, for it to accomplish God’s [consequent] will.

            I’ve had to unlearn wrong interpretations, etc. as well. Who hasn’t?

            I don’t think God contradicts Himself either, therefore the text has to be interpreted accordingly.

            So if we see what really look like differing theologies expressed in the OT, do we try to mush them together, or do we say that different people understood God differently, and this was recorded in the Bible—perhaps to teach us how the whole “getting to understand God better” thing works? Do we expect the Bible to reflect the life we experience—where sometimes we get God wrong—or do we expect it to be Docetic, with no such ‘human’ characteristics?

            Lastly, I have utmost confidence in how Jesus chooses to use the LXX. Does He assert error in the text?

            The LXX certainly has some distinct differences from the Masoretic text. I don’t think your model of inerrancy can tolerate such differences? I mean, which is authoritative when they differ?

          • C.M. Granger

            You will have to explain to me how God speaks to us authoritatively outside of Scripture. You seem to give a special place to the Bible, but I can’t determine what that place is. You have also not address my point about your position actually undercutting biblical authority and being self-contradictory.
            You will also have to elaborate on this “Not in Heaven” doctrine.
            The “different” theologies in the OT that you refer to are simply growing stages of progressive revelation. They can be harmonized into a unified theology as God’s redemptive plan unfolds. You are choosing to view them as different theologies because that fits well with your presupposition about the nature of Scripture. Revelation doesn’t “get God wrong”. If it does, the individual reader of the Bible is the final determiner of who God is and what He requires of us, and, quite frankly, the Bible is of little value. And I’m failing to see why the Bible must contain error because humans were involved. The whole endeavor of inscripturation and preservation was superintended by the Holy Spirit. Why must human involvement mean there has to be error? Is God constrained by human sin and frailty?
            The differences you refer to between the LXX and the Masoretic text are not substantial. They don’t contradict each other and no doctrines of the faith are changed by either. That has no bearing on inerrancy, which is not as wooden as you suppose.

          • I do not understand your ‘authoritatively’. Why is it needed so badly, according to you? The Holy Spirit is supposed to live inside us speak to us, convict us, direct us, etc. If anything, the Bible exists to get us enough of a head start. Or do you not believe that the Holy Spirit really is the seal of the new covenant, the speaker of law into our hearts (where law belongs), etc.?

            The “Not in Heaven” bit was explained by the Wikipedia article I linked to (it is a short article), and it is dealt with by Paul in Rom 9:30-10:13. If you read Deut 30:11-14, you’ll see Paul’s use of it in the Romans passage.

            I think we’re at a standstill with respect to the other stuff you say. I need to research the LXX MT correspondence a bit more before saying too much about it; otherwise I’m just parroting what other people have said, and even though I respect them, I’d like to have a better handle on the stuff, myself. I should not have brought it up.

          • C.M Granger

            Only Scripture is universally authoritative. Should your personal experience with God be authoritative communication from God to other believers? The Holy Spirit never contradicts the Word.
            I read the article you linked to, but I’m not sure what point you’re intending to make by it. How does it refute inerrancy?
            I’m sorry for being dense, it’s not intentional….

          • You are arguing that the following two things are connected:

            1. The authority of the OT and NT over anything else.
            2. God would never let the OT or NT get him wrong in any aspect: either they are correct on a matter or they are silent.

            I gave my “one pixel busted” argument to show that #2 is not required for us to have #1; there is plenty of redundancy in scripture. Furthermore, I think it makes sense that God would allow incorrect but improving conceptions of him to be recorded in scripture. Learning about this is useful for us, just like Plato’s dialogues are useful.

            Your model of ‘authority’ seems to be something you’re not allowed to question or grapple with—at least once the humans who correctly interpret it have spoken. Furthermore, if the Holy Spirit actually talks with us, the absolute need for the kind of authoritative text you seem to want is eliminated. Honestly, you kinda sound like a fundamentalist with your need for something of absolute, universal authority—vs. someone.

          • C.M Granger

            “One busted pixel” is not an argument. It’s an illustration, and not one that refutes inerrancy. Redundancy in scripture also doesn’t refute inerrancy.
            I don’t need to grapple with the authority of the text. It is a logical necessity, not to mention it’s asserted by Jesus Himself. Do you wish to assert that your personal experience is universally authoritative for all believers? Dangerous indeed.
            Your model of “authority” is self-contradictory and self-defeating, which you have made no attempt to address. Please explain how some texts, which you like, have authority (like John 17:3) and others do not? And when you do assert the authority of a text, how do you respond when your opponent asks “And how do you know this text is true?”

          • I used “one busted pixel” to demonstrate that a single error in scripture, if it is redundant in that area, does not appreciably diminish our ability to understand God. This is a defeater for certain arguments for why we must have inerrancy. Whether or not one wishes to call it an ‘argument’ per se seems unimportant.

            Would you quote some examples of what you mean when you say, “it’s asserted by Jesus Himself”?

            Your model of “authority” is self-contradictory and self-defeating, which you have made no attempt to address. Please explain how some texts, which you like, have authority (like John 17:3) and others do not? And when you do assert the authority of a text, how do you respond when your opponent asks “And how do you know this text is true?”

            You can’t just say something is “self-contradictory and self-defeating” if you wish to convince in a discussion; I don’t deny that they might be, but you have to actually show that.

            I have two many tools for understanding scripture: consistency, and finding compelling meanings for words such as ‘righteousness’ and ‘justification’, which might actually be better translated ‘righteous-ification’. Anyhow, the biggest reason I’d have to doubt John 17:3 is if a contradictory verse were to be found that seems to have more support behind it than the verses that support the idea behind John 17:3. This is a direct outworking of my “one busted pixel” illustration.

          • C.M. Granger

            “one busted pixel” doesn’t demonstrate error in Scripture. Of course, God can communicate truth in the midst of error. That’s not the point. The question is whether there is error in the text, which is not proven by your illustration. You cite no examples of error, nor posit argumentation to defend such assertions.
            Jesus everywhere asserts the authority of the text. The scripture cannot be broken, Thy Word is truth, man shall not live by bread alone, this prophecy is fulfilled in your hearing, on and on it goes. You are welcome to make the case that Jesus denied inerrancy, and the authority of Scripture.
            I haven’t just asserted your position is self-contradictory. I’ve demonstrated it. You cite John 17:3 as authoritative, you deny other texts as authoritative. What is the basis of this? Your personal judgment. However, other people don’t need to subject their consciences to your judgment. You cannot press one text as having universal authority, and others of no account. That is the contradiction.

          • I found examples of differences between Septuagint and Masoretic Text which matters to the NT: Enns’ July 1, 2003 Here’s Something about the Bible of the First Christians I Bet Many of You Didn’t Know (you’re welcome). Both the LXX and MT cannot both be right in all the examples provided in that blog post, can they?

            I’ve demonstrated it. You cite John 17:3 as authoritative, you deny other texts as authoritative. What is the basis of this? Your personal judgment.

            There is nothing besides my personal judgment. Augustine admitted this, and said that one can choose to submit oneself to another authority, based one one’s personal judgment. But which authority do I submit myself to? Calvin? Luther? No, I submit myself to the Trinity and none other. And I’m not convinced the Trinity can only, or would only choose to, communicate in the way you insist.

            There are really two categories of things at play, here:

            1. Errors which are typos, or perhaps more insidious.
            2. Errors due to finite conceptions of God—just like F = ma is wrong in certain domains, so is any particular conception of God.

            As to #1, I see redundancy and internal coherence as the solution. As to #2, it makes sense that God wants to teach us to continually refine and correct our ideas of him. The best way to do this, in my opinion, is to provide examples of that very thing happening, in canon.

            This issue comes up even in translation; compare the ESV to the other translations for Rom 9:31. Did the law Israel was supposed to obey lead to righteousness? The very next verse indicates that there was a right and wrong way to go about obeying that law, and yet most translations of v31 don’t hold open the possibility to follow the description of ‘law’ in that verse by faith.

          • C.M. Granger

            Could you elaborate on what doctrines are different between the two texts?
            If you think you submit your judgment to the Trinity and “none other” you are not very self-aware.
            You make a common mistake about inerrancy, it is not asserted about translations. It is asserted about the original autographs.

          • Here’s an example LXX – MT discrepancy, straight out of that post:

            Another interesting case is found in Jeremiah 31:27-34 (38:27-34 in the Septuagint). The Hebrew Bible highlights the unshakable faithfulness of God in spite of the disobedience of Israel. The key is in verse 32, which in the Hebrew Bible reads

            “…a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband.”

            The Septuagint, however, has

            “…because they did not abide in my covenant, and I was unconcerned for them.”

            Here, too, the Septuagint reading is the original, and the later change is theologically driven. The later editors of the Hebrew Bible thought the idea that God was “unconcerned” for Israel was out of step with his character of faithfulness claimed by other texts.

            I should think that a husband would be concerned for Israel! Now, it isn’t clear that this example affects any doctrine all that much. One could even say that it can be explored by the Calvinist-Arminian lens: did God actively punish Israel, or merely stop protecting them from evil?

            It gets more interesting when we ask, for example: what doctrines do we derive from the commanded genocides in the OT? I’m pretty sure those in the Crusades and those who converted the New World by the sword made use of those genocides in their doctrines. I don’t think many Christians do this, today. Might that be because God didn’t actually command those genocides? (We don’t have evidence they even happened—indeed, we have opposing evidence!) I’m not sure; I’m inclined to say more research is needed. Note that I’ve researched the genocide stuff a lot; for example, I’ve read through these two articles which delve into the the genocide issue quite thoroughly.

          • C.M. Granger

            As you point out, no doctrine is affected by this observation, and it doesn’t prove error in the original autographs. Therefore, I have no reason to reject inerrancy…

          • You don’t think these two things are contradictory?

            1. Being Israel’s husband.
            2. Being unconcerned for Israel.

            I’m under the distinct impression that the idea that God is Israel’s husband is to reinforce that he is always pursuing Israel (see Hosea)—there is never a moment where God is indifferent to Israel, who are his people. (N.B. We must differentiate between whether Israel considers Yahweh their god, and whether God considers them his people. This is elucidated, among other places, in the parable of the prodigal son.)

          • C.M. Granger

            This will be my final comment on this….and thanks for the discussion.
            Again, it is the original autographs that are without error, not the codices. So, while I agree there is a discrepancy, it doesn’t affect inerrancy…

          • The original autographs being without error is irrelevant if we:

            A) don’t have access to them, and
            B) don’t have guaranteed zero- or sufficiently-low error introduction in the textual transmission

          • If you think you submit your judgment to the Trinity and “none other” you are not very self-aware.

            Would you be more articulate? Perhaps what I said was more of an ideal than a fact—I may never be able to escape the cultural inertia behind me completely, but I hope to escape it to arbitrarily large extent. Surely you aren’t suggesting that I submit my judgment e.g. to Matthew Henry or John Piper? Don’t you believe in the New Covenant, with the law written on each Christian’s heart?

            You make a common mistake about inerrancy, it is not asserted about translations. It is asserted about the original autographs.

            Actually, I meant to note that many of the same methodologies which are active when one looks for a change in the biblical authors’ conception of God are also at play when discerning the truth based on lossy translations. It’s the age-old, “Who cares if the Bible is inerrant, if my interpretation of it isn’t inerrant?” What I suspect is that the world is a lot fuzzier and alloyed than some Christians would like to think. The Bible need not be perfect to be a sufficient guide.

          • C.M. Granger

            “Would you be more articulate?”
            I meant nothing more than we are all influenced by our times and what we read. There is no one without presuppositions of one kind or another.
            Of course God can communicate truth in spite of error. If it were not so, no one would understand the Bible (myself included). Perfection of understanding is not the point for that is unattainable in this life.

          • I meant nothing more than we are all influenced by our times and what we read. There is no one without presuppositions of one kind or another.

            Oh, certainly. Sometimes I treat this as so fundamental I omit stating it. A big reason I participate in discussions like this one is to try and elucidate my own presuppositions. Other people tend to be better at doing this than oneself!

  • Seraphim

    As I said in my extended comment on part two, I don’t think there are only two options. I’m not an inerrantist, and I accept that the Israelite understanding of God grew over time. But I also reject Smith’s version of how this development occurred. If we are to say that the earliest Israelite understandings of God were still divine revelation, then there must be some sort of uniqueness to that revelation. To recycle the example I used in my last post, I believe that early Israel understood the Lord to be embodied. Their understanding of transcendence was not as advanced as the kind of transcendence disclosed by the incarnation. Yet, within this early understanding, seeds of later revelation could be found. That the Lord was embodied and found on a divine council was indeed the understanding of early Israel. Yet, I believe that they understood the Lord to be the head of the council and unique among the gods, in the sense that one could not even possibly mount a successful challenge to his headship (unlike other gods in the ANE), and that He alone was uncreated (i.e. he didn’t arise from primordial chaos.)

  • Seraphim

    As an interesting piece of (admittedly somewhat subjective) evidence for this development, later books like Joshua have a more “primordial” feel in the way they understand God than earlier books like Proto-Isaiah, which is universalistic (see texts like Isaiah 19) in its outlook. The reason, I think, is because the book of Joshua documents an earlier period in Israelite history and therefore contains a less developed understanding of God. Even though Isaiah was written before Joshua, its understanding of God is quite clearly more developed.

  • Seraphim

    One final thought on the unity of Scripture in light of the idea of development:

    (Psalm 30:9) “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?

    Clearly, in the intent of the author, the answer is “no.” Yet, when viewed in light of later revelation, this Psalm (which I believe to be inspired) is profoundly ironic. Completely unknown to the original author, God answered His question “Yes” with the resurrection of Jesus. In the Orthodox Church, we recite this Psalm in praise of the resurrection, even though we know full well that the authorial intent is the opposite of what we mean when we read it. This is why banal and simplistic concepts of inerrancy utterly fail. Even so, reading things like this, I am more convinced of the overall unity of God’s witness, but in a more refined manner than that of the Chicago statement.

    • The idea of redemption was in the OT; it just wasn’t as fully-formed as it is in the New. Job says “I know that my redeemer lives / and at the last he will stand upon the earth”. Here are the ESV Study Bible notes on Job 19:25:

      The Hebrew noun (go’el) translated “Redeemer” is the same word used frequently in the OT to refer to a “kinsman-redeemer,” who had both rights and responsibilities for vindicating a family member (see Ruth 4:1–6). In the OT, God says that he will “redeem” his people from slavery (Ex. 6:6) and is thus later referred to as “the Redeemer of Israel” (Isa. 43:14; 44:6). For God as an individual’s “Redeemer,” see Gen. 48:16; Ps. 19:14 (and see note on Ps. 25:22). Job’s description of his “Redeemer” as one who “lives” (Job 19:25) and his following reference to “God” (v. 26) indicate he believes that God is the one who ultimately will vindicate him.

      Don’t get me wrong; I think the idea of progressive revelation is still valid.

      • Seraphim

        I agree with you that redemption was there in the Old Testament, but it wasn’t always articulated as a resurrection and creation renewal. I think early revelation provides the foundation for that later revelation, though. Case in point, the story of Adam’s exile from Paradise and the Tree of Life followed by Israel’s calling and election as the new humanity. The idea of a “tree of life” is common in ANE texts, but it is usually presented as something inaccessible in order to illustrate the impossibility of attaining eternal life. Genesis presents it so that humanity is created to partake of the tree of life.

        I would go further and argue that Adam’s exile from Paradise was not a creation of the authors after the Babylonian exile. Hosea 6:7, a preexilic text, presents Israel’s unfaithfulness as a recapitulation of Adam’s transgression, indicating that the Adam story was a part of Israel’s faith before her exile. Furthermore, the Tabernacle (an image of Paradise Restored) has the commandments of God guarded by cherubim in the same way that the Tree of Life was guarded by cherubim in Genesis. This all ultimately relates to Deuteronomy 30: the commandment is the way of life, but Israel cannot obey, so she will be exiled, but one day, God will circumcise her heart, Israel will obey, and she will thereby find life.

        It all comes to its climax in the New Testament, when the Messiah of Israel, in whom everything it means to be an Israelite finds its perfect expression, goes into the exile of death but returns from exile into the land of the living. All who have the cross cut into their heart (the circumcision of the heart) are enabled to embody the “faithfulness of the Messiah” by living as crucified and risen people, and therefore return from exile with Him on a glorious exodus from the present evil age into the age to come.

        All this to basically say: agreed. 🙂

        • I like much of what you say, but I’m not so sure about the claim that “Israel cannot obey” the law given in Deuteronomy. See Deut 30:11-14:

          “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

          I don’t see how to conclude anything other than:

          A) Israel could have obeyed, or
          B) God lied to the Israelites

  • Nick Jackson

    I don’t believe in inerrancy but I do have a question: if we can’t trust the Bible, what can we trust? I know people will say “Trust God” or “Trust Jesus” but that feels to me like something of a cop-out. Here’s why: it makes my subjective emotional experiences the baseline by which God is measured…I have a hard time seeing how we can test what is really from God or just man projecting bullshit and worshiping an idol…I’m not opposed to scientific progress; I believe in evolution, but I believe in evolution because the natural sciences have a well put together system to determine what is (probably) real and what isn’t and a good way to course-correct thanks to the scientific method. When it comes to theology, I worry that we might just experience drifting along with cultural fads and make Jesus into our own image, be He a gun-toting Tea Party-er or a total granola-munching hippie.

    • Andrew Dowling

      But is exclaiming to “trust Jesus” really a cop-out? If one attempts to live live according to Jesus’s precepts: treating others how we would like to be treated, having an abundance of mercy/forgiveness etc. is that not a sufficient baseline? It’s not easy but its also not rocket science. We’ve also as intelligent mammals been programmed to love receiving AND giving . . .so God has already given us some assistance via how are brains respond to stimuli.

      One can find lots of truth in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean without the Bible we’d have zero idea of what truth is. That requires a Hobbsian/Augustinian presumption of natural human evil that just doesn’t gel with what numerous scientific studies have shown about humans’ natural tendencies. We aren’t perfect and prone for massive screw-ups (hence the need for guidance/laws), but we generally like being altruistic and loving our neighbor.

  • WBC

    How does one account for Deut 18:20-22? An Israelite prophet who produces a prophecy that is partly or even mostly true but partly “false” deserves to die according to Israel’s law. Such a prophet should not be “feared” or listened to in anything he says. ????