Is Real Communication as Perfect “Meeting of Minds” Possible? Some Radical Questions about Words like “Inerrancy”
Nineteenth century Protestant theologian Horace Bushnell famously argued that all words are metaphors and words about non-physical realities are “faded metaphors.” The only exception he would allow were in what Hume called the “analytic realm”—matters of definition. The words Bushnell was talking about were in what Hume called the “synthetic realm”—matters of experience. He, Bushnell, was especially interested in the application of his insight (not entirely original with him) to theological quarrels and controversies. The Congregational pastor-theologian thought the realization of the metaphorical nature of all language ought to inject humility into theology.
The theory of words and language Bushnell was opposing is sometimes called “essentialism.” Of course, “essentialism” also refers to the idea that objects, whether physical or metaphysical, have essential attributes by which they are what they are. In a theory of universals that is known also as “realism” (as opposed to “nominalism.”) However, in language theory “essentialism” often refers to the idea that there is or can be, should be, a one-to-one identity between a word, properly understood and used, and the object or reality it describes or names. Essentialism in language gave rise, perhaps still gives rise, to the search for “the perfect language”—pure use of words with exact correspondence between words and external reality.
Bushnell, however, rejected essentialism and would have rejected the search for “perfect language” (at least outside mathematics). In certain ways he foreshadowed postmodernism and even Wittgenstein’s theory of “language games.”
One evidence supporting Bushnell’s theory is the fact, known to anyone who has studied human languages, that, in most if not all cases, there are no two words in two human languages that perfectly match each other in terms of that to which they refer. This requires what some translators call the search for “dynamic equivalence.” The semantic range of a Hebrew word, for example, never matches perfectly the semantic range of an English word. So translators look for overlap and choose the best English word to translate an ancient Hebrew word. “Best” is the key word there.
Recently I was discussing the word “glory” with students. It’s a commonly used English word quite crucial to Christian theology—especially in the doctrine of God. “God’s glory, “glory to God,” etc. If contemporary Christians were asked to name an essential attribute of God many would say “glory.” If they were asked to describe worship many would say “giving glory to God.” But how many can describe “glory?” We were reading a Swiss theologian in English translation. We were struggling with his meaning of “the glory of God.” So a student asked for the German word translated “glory.” I didn’t have the German original at hand so I made an educated guess: “Herrlichkeit.” But I pointed out that what a native German speaker in Switzerland means by Herrlichkeit and what a modern American means by “glory” may be quite different. English translators have simply “hit on” “glory,” “splendor,” as the best dynamic equivalents. I pointed out that we might be struggling with the Swiss theologian’s exposition of God’s “glory” because our contemporary American semantic range of the word is somewhat different from the semantic range of “Herrlichkeit” in the 1940s German used in Zurich, Switzerland.
Bushnell would say both are metaphors. His point was that often, when two Christians think they are agreeing or disagreeing about a theological concept, they are, in fact, actually experiencing the metaphorical nature of all language—which in some cases lies at the root, the foundation, of disagreement. They very well may be disagreeing, but if both realized the metaphorical nature of all language they might be less likely to think that one of them has to be wrong.
Of course, one problematic word of this kind that leaps immediately to mind, because of my own religious context (“American evangelicalism” and southern Baptist), is “inerrancy.” Bushnell’s point would be that not only is there no exact, one-to-one equivalent to the English word “inerrancy” in another language (in terms of semantic ranges), but there also may be no exact, one-to-one equivalence, identity, perfect correspondence, between any two English speakers using the word “inerrancy” to describe the nature of the Bible and its accuracy.
For the past forty years I have struggled with the word “inerrancy.” I’ve explained why here several times before. I first encountered it while attending an evangelical Baptist seminary. I grew up in a form of Christian life that did not use the word “inerrancy” to describe our belief in the Bible’s accuracy and authority. I may have heard the word used of the Bible before seminary, but I had not previously experienced controversy over it with regard to belief in the Bible. Nor had I previously been taught that it was important to use the word.
I will never forget my shock upon reading theologian Harold Lindsell’s 1976 bombshell book The Battle for the Bible (Zondervan). Lindsell, then editor of Christianity Today, seemed to think he had a clear grasp of the meaning of “biblical inerrancy” and used his own meaning as a kind of theological cudgel to verbally beat up on not only evangelical Christians (to say nothing of non-evangelical Christians) who did not use the term but also to verbally beat up on evangelicals who used it but defined it differently. One example I clearly remember was his discussion of fellow evangelical Robert Mounce’s meaning of “inerrancy”—which I had read. Lindsell, as I recall, treated Mounce’s description of “inerrancy,” including many qualifications to fit the “phenomena of Scripture,” as completely inadequate to uphold the authority of Scripture.
To make a long story short (I could go into so much more detail) I then began a now almost lifelong project of studying different especially American and British evangelical theologians’ meanings of “biblical inerrancy.” That project has included many moments of disillusionment and dismay. One I will mention is when I saw that Lindsell signed the 1978 “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy” which included the very qualifications Mounce made that brought about Lindsell’s ire in The Battle for the Bible—just two years earlier. Almost two decades later I had in my files a very interesting two page essay defining “biblical inerrancy” in some detail with several qualifications and the ultimate definition of “perfection with respect to purpose.” This was written by a well-known and highly regarded evangelical scholar with impeccable “inerrantist” credentials. To the best of my knowledge then it had never been published; it was written for a hiring committee. A member of that committee passed a copy on to me. I sent it to the leading evangelical theologian of the second half of the 20th century, a leading proponent and defender of “biblical inerrancy,” and asked him to evaluate it. His response was extremely critical. He said it was well-intentioned but totally inadequate.
Here are the results of my almost lifelong study of evangelical Protestant uses of the phrase “biblical inerrancy”: No two evangelical Christian proponents and expounders of “biblical inerrancy” means exactly, precisely the same thing by the phrase. When I look at the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and its signatories I believe it is more a political (in the broad sense) statement than a clear, precise, statement of perfect agreement among the signatories. In other words, what was really going on there, in my humble opinion, was driven by a shared concern to establish and patrol “evangelical boundaries.” I will go further. I think it (the council and the statement it produced) was part of a larger, longer project led by adherents of the type of evangelical theology that looks back to Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield (“Old School Princeton Theology”) as the true prototypes of modern evangelical theology to define “evangelical theology,” if not “evangelical” itself, a certain way—the way so masterfully described by Molly Worthen in Apostles of Reason (Oxford University Press, 2014)—what might be called “conservative Reformed rationalism.”
In all such efforts, projects, there is a perceived “enemy” to be excluded. So whom do I suspect the conveners and signers of the Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy intended to exclude? My own observation and study leads me to believe the driving motive was to exclude neo-orthodoxy from evangelical ranks. What “neo-orthodoxy?” Well, when I was in seminary in the 1970s Swiss theologian Emil Brunner’s Dogmatics was being widely used as a, if not the, primary text(s) in systematic theology classes in evangelical (including Southern Baptist) seminaries around the U.S. Some evangelical heirs of the theology of Hodge and Warfield became extremely concerned that “neo-orthodoxy,” “dialectical theology,” which they came to identify as the belief that “the Bible becomes the Word of God,” was making serious inroads into evangelical circles through evangelical seminaries such as (especially) Fuller.
Just as late 19th and early 20th century fundamentalists had hit on the virgin birth of Christ and then premillennialism to define and patrol the boundaries of their concept of “true Christianity,” so some late 20th century evangelicals hit on inerrancy to define and patrol the boundaries of “true evangelicalism”—at a time when being evangelical was becoming popular. (Time had declared 1976 as “The Year of the Evangelicals.”)
It’s true, of course, that many signers of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy did not belong to evangelical traditions that used the term “inerrancy.” Some even belonged to evangelical traditions that avoided that term in favor of others such as “infallibility” or just “inspiration” to describe the Bible’s accuracy and authority. Interestingly even the National Association of Evangelicals’ own minimal doctrinal statement, intended to include rather than exclude, does not mention “inerrancy.” However, I suspect that many evangelicals who historically and theologically had not used “inerrancy” before got swept up in the fervor and political energy aroused by the “inerrancy controversy” and signed the Chicago Statement even though their own traditions did not descend from or were not especially influenced by the Old Princeton Theology of Hodge and Warfield.
What I wonder, and wrestle with, as a result of my almost lifelong study of the “inerrancy controversy,” is whether any two people, including evangelical theologians, mean exactly, precisely the same thing by “inerrancy.” I doubt it. That’s one reason I refuse to join the conservative bandwagon of making it what Carl Henry himself called “the super badge of evangelical identity” (something he denied it is).