April 10, 2006 / David Fitch

“I’m willing to die for it” versus “The Bible is Inerrant”: How Best to Speak About the Authority of Scriptures in our Times – THEOLOGICAL ISSUE NO. 1

I consider the “inerrancy” of Scripture discussion tacky. It brings up “old debates” like dirty laundry that have little applicability to the issues we confront in today’s culture. It is tired, overworked and well-worn conversation. Yet it continues to raise ire … among us evangelicals … even the emerging churches. Regarding the first of the Big Five theological issues facing emerging churches, THE AUTHORITY OF & INTERPRETATION OF SCRIPTURE AND COMMUNITY, I believe we all are in need of better ways to speak about the authority of Scripture, its nature as a deposit of truth and the way Scripture functions within the hermeneutic of the Community of Christ. I don’t believe “inerrancy” is the key issue here but it nevertheless seems to remain the defining backdrop for how we evangelicals must go forward. So I propose the following comments in relation to “inerrancy” in order to further clarify where the issues lie for we who are looking for ways to go forward at the end of modernity. For those who want to skip the comments on “inerrancy” and get to the point, go immediately to the last paragraph.
1.) The inerrancy defense is now too “liberal” to adequately define the authority of Scripture for both us evangelicals who claim a high view of Scripture and emerging churches who need a sufficient view of authority to engage the cultural forces of postmodernity. I am using the word “liberal” here to refer to any cultural strategy which accommodates one’s beliefs and doctrine to the norms of the surrounding culture because it sees this culture as a source of authority unto itself. It is not that I am against engaging culture or finding redemptive truth/God’s work in culture. But in this case, inerrancy is an accommodation to another source of authority that inherently subordinates Scripture to its authority. This other source of authority is the modernist cultural norms of modern science and derivatives thereof. In so doing, the inerrancy strategy places the authority of Scripture beneath (under) the authority of modern science. In this way, inerrancy diminishes the authority of Scripture.

How is this so? Well, saying Scripture is “without error” inevitably begs the question “error according to whom?” Fundamentalists of the 20’s and 30’s, our evangelical ancestors, defined “error” in terms of the historical critics who were boldly asserting that the Bible had historical errors in it and therefore could not be depended upon. B.B. Warfield crafted the inerrancy defense as a response to the wave of German historical criticism at the turn of the century. He specifically targeted this inerrancy defense at those who claimed the Scripture WAS with error, based upon modern science and historiography. The answer to the question, “error according to who” for Warfield and friends was therefore modern science and historiography. Back in those days, science and historiography was king, seen as universal truth. We should all thank Warfield for his work because it got us through what we needed to get through. But I argue that today, the world of knowledge is fragmented. Science and historiography are relativized as forms of knowledge alongside all other traditions, histories and forms of knowledge. Inerrancy, therefore, by definition places one form of knowledge over Scripture – i.e. it allows science and historiography to become the judge of Scripture. This is how inerrancy diminishes the authority of Scripture.

Science relativized as a form of knowledge? What do I mean? Well, if James K A Smith is right in his characterization of Lyotard’s critique of metanarratives, the field of knowledge is not one as B B Warfield, the fundamentalist and every one else in the 1920’s assumed. Science, Lyotard says, claims to be a metanarrative in that it is absolutely foundational, self evident, requiring no other religious belief or defense. But Lyotard, in his The Postmodern Condition shows how science requires as much foundationless belief as any other form of knowledge including religious knowledge. Modern science in essence is a tradition of knowledge masquerading as a foundational enterprise. It is a limited form of knowledge several hundred years old with limitations as great as any other tradition of knowledge. Why then should we subject the Scriptures to its scrutiny in the way we do? I am sure we can learn from science, even expand our understanding of God and Scripture. But there is no need to subject Scripture to its authority as the modern critics of Germany once did. And there is no need for us to scurry about playing the science game to try to “unprove” the historical critics as the fundamentalists of the 30’s and 30’s once did. Our history in Christ and the God of Israel is 1000’s of years going. Science is new and untested relative to Scripture in the new world of knowledge after modernity.

Indeed, science and historiography have proved anything but reliable. The Third Quest for the Historical Jesus by their known admission reveals all of the agenda’s and prejudices of the previous quests. Why then would anyone continue to define the defense of Scripture’s authority in relation to places that are fragmenting and in constant flux? A liberal strategy like “inerrancy” therefore weakens Scripture because it inherently seeks to define Scripture’s authority to a moving changing target, the cultural forces of modern science. Surely we can say the Scriptures are “inerrant.” They are without error. Aquinas, Augustine and Calvin evidently all did. But they could not have possibly meant what the fundamentalists and evangelicals meant in the 20’s and 30’s when they said “inerrant according to the original autographs.” For this reason, I believe “inerrancy” fails as a current defense and descriptor of Scripture’s authority in the post modern world.

2.) The inerrancy defense turns the Bible into a dead textbook of facts. The inerrancy approach teaches us to see the Bible as a set of propositions to be analyzed for their correspondence one to one to an external reality. This is what the old Bible sciences did. I have no doubt some of the Bible can be propositions in this sense. But the fact is, the Bible is an alive and real Story, a Story that is true, that is not a dead scientific textbook of facts. We must either redefine “inerrancy” or do something to remove Scripture from the deadness of modernist rationalities that “inerrancy” is a part of. These rationalities suck the life out of Scripture harming our life with God and our ability to receive and participate in the life that flows out of history in Christ as given in Scripture. Hans Frei, Vanhoozer, Von Balthasar and Wittgenstein among others can lead us out of this trap.

3.) Where to we go from here? That is the question for we who seek to remain evangelical in these times, or for we who maybe don’t care about being evangelical but wish to maintain a high view of Scripture. Since I am out of space on this blog, I pose only a provocative thought which might give us a direction as to how we must go on beyond “inerrancy.” Stanley Hauerwas, when asked in an interview (I think at “the Door”), “what do you mean when you say ‘the Bible is true.’”? Stanley replied, “I mean I would die for it.” He then reminded us that the word “witness” to the truth comes from the Greek root, martyrion, or martyr. Perhaps this is the next fruitful direction towards a strategy for defining the authority of Scripture in the world. When we say the Bible is true, we believe it sufficiently, live it so absolutely, that we’d be willing to die for it. This of course implies that the Scriptures be embodied in a community, where its ways of life and language can only be understood together. O I know this creates all sorts of problems, which must be discussed. There are those who say, “I don’t want the truth of Scripture depending on people actually living it.” That in itself is telling. But I believe this way promises to provide the means to describe both a way to talk about truthfulness as well as a way to define Scripture as apostolic, given by God through the prophets and Jesus Christ and His apostles, to be carried in a people, protected and enlivened by the Holy Spirit until Christ returns (NT Wright can help us here). This way is unassailable in these postmodern times and becomes the means for God through his people to call the world to Christ, the way, the truth and the life.

Due to numerous problems with Blogger on this post, please post any comments to this post below. And P.S. I hope to start blogging back on my normal schedule (once a week) here after Easter. I hope next to comment on the remaining 4 theological issues of the Mar 22nd post.