Theology

definitions and a history lesson, part three

definition

First, I want to send a general thank-you and shout-out to everyone who participated in my invitation to discuss fundamentalism yesterday. So many of you shared your experiences, and your thoughts, and some of the tragedies you’ve been through, and I thank you for sharing them with me. I treasure them all.

I’m going to put together a general “conclusion” post some time next week, pulling together what many of you have said– both positive and negative. In the mean time, I hope you’ll continue following this series and hashing things out with me.

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On Wednesday, I left off with German higher criticism and the concepts of inerrancy and inspiration. Some of you are way more qualified to talk about these concepts than I am, so I encourage you to correct anything I misstate or explain poorly.

But, here we go: A Very Brief Crash Course in Bibliology 101.

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Inspiration

Inspiration is a term used to describe how the Bible got written. There’s a whole host of ideas about how this possibly happened. Some believe that this issue is highly nuanced (<–excellent article you should read), while others think it’s straightforward and obvious. These perspectives run the gamut between that of it being a purely man-made document all the way through mechanical dictation (God dictated the Bible to man word-for-word). There’s two views that are commonly accepted inside Protestant orthodoxy: the verbal plenary view, and the degree view.

Verbal Plenary, has, unfortunately, been a term hi-jacked by biblical docetists and fundamentalists. It was term I heard over and over again growing up, and the way it was described to me in college falls into the “mechanical dictation” view, more or less. However, it’s important to think about the verbal plenary view in terms of the hypostatic union: the doctrinal belief that Jesus was 100% God and 100% man, simultaneously. Scripture is full of paradoxes, and this is one of them, and it’s a doctrine that’s been fairly accepted in Catholic and Protestant orthodoxy since 321 A.D.

The verbal plenary view applies a similar sort of thinking to Scripture– that it is a book written by man, and simultaneously, a book written by God. If you’re practicing good hermeneutics, you’ll approach it as a book written by man first. This is an incredibly important distinction, and I’ll get to why in a bit.

The degree view is the idea that while Scripture is inspired by God, there are degrees of inspiration in each text. This is a complicated view, and I’m not sure I understand it well, but it’s the idea that there are elements in Scripture– like the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, that are man-made stories that God used to reveal himself. I’m not a Bible scholar, but I will admit there are certain elements of this approach to inspiration that I appreciate.

The most important thing to remember when discussing inspiration is that even if the Bible is not inspired, it doesn’t completely remove the basis for Christian faith.

That might sound like a shocking statement– it was to me, the first time I time I encountered it. But, if we treat the Bible like any other ancient historical document, it is still a reliable source of information. The Gospels are some of the most reliable ancient texts we have, by any test we can put them to. They pass every single test for historical accuracy with flying colors. This means we can believe, based on just treating the Bible like an ordinary book, that Jesus lived, died, and rose again.

I’m trying to keep this brief, so if you have questions about what I’ve just said, I encourage you to read Habermas’ and Licona’s The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus.

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Inerrancy & Infallibility

A simple definition of inerrancy would be that the Scriptures are true in all that they teach. This is not the fundamentalist definition of inerrancy, it’s the Protestant orthodox one. It’s a general statement, and some believe that it is entirely too vague to be useful. I disagree– I think that this is far about far as we can go with a statement about inerrancy without getting ourselves into deep theological trouble.

A huge argument against this concept is that Scripture contains self-contradictions and historical contradictions, and thus any of these contradictions completely invalidates inerrancy. This is why it is vitally important to have a healthy view of inerrancy– it is simply dangerous to make the case that the Bible does not contain any contradictions AND to believe in biblical literalism. These two ideas cannot co-exist.

Because, if you read the Bible literally, it will contain errors.

One of the best examples I can think of as Matthew 27 and Acts 1– the death of Judas Iscariot. If you read the Bible literally, these two stories contradict. However, if you believe in the concept of inerrancy as the Bible being true in all that it teaches, the description of how he died is not a problem. In either telling, Judas killed himself in a field, and the only thing we have is how two human narrators chose to tell a true story. I highly encourage you to read this powerful rendering of Judas— Paul Faust, a colleague of mine, explains it in such a beautifully human way, and he avoids the obviously weak explanation that “he hung himself, and then he decomposed, so his guts spilled out.”

This is why it is paramount to approach Scripture as a human book first. For whatever reason, God chose to use humans to write it, and he didn’t undermine that decision by creating an “easy to swallow, theologically airtight religion.”

Here’s a simple example, but it’s one that speaks to me very well.

You’re a police officer, interviewing two witnesses. You separate them, you interview them at different times. You interview them using the same questions.

If, in the course of the interview, you get the same exact answers, what do you immediately suspect?

Collusion.

Pre-meditation.

Lies.

However, if in the course of the interview, you get a slightly different telling of the events, but two stories that contain all the same basic elements, are you more or less confident that they were telling the truth?

The same thing applies to an understanding of inspiration and inerrancy. The Bible was written by people guided by God. If everyone said the same exact thing without any variations, we wouldn’t have a book that is a complex, as deep, as rich, as full of nuance and meaning, as what we have. It would be a book written by automatons, by puppets. Personally, I find that whole idea distasteful.

This also results in a book full of “hard sayings” that aren’t necessarily easy to work out. But, I think that this is a beautiful, wondrous thing. I’m uncomfortable with dismissing every single thing that appears in the Bible that seems contradictory, or of finding the first, easiest way to “explain it away.” There’s no reason to explain it away. It’s a human book, written by humans– people who lived a long time ago, and we no longer share a culture or even a language with them. If the book were “easy,” it would be useless and probably a fraud.

Now, there are many people that also think that defining infallibility is important. Personally, I don’t. Infallibility tends to be used to align the concept of inerrancy with biblical literalism, and I shy away from that. The book of Esther is why I don’t think infallibility is something I need to struggle with. Traditionally, Esther has been labeled as “history.” However, a more modern understanding of genre in the Bible tells us that it’s a disaspora story– and thus, being perfectly historically accurate in all of it’s “facts” (which it isn’t) is unnecessary. The Bible contains myth (which doesn’t necessarily mean non-factual, just so we’re clear), poetry, romance, history, biography, law, prophecy, autobiography, and personal letters. Treating all of these components as strictly literal does irreparable damage to the text, and our understanding of it.

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Okay, now that we’re done with the theology lesson, we’ll move on in part four to how these ideas are presented in fundamentalism.

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  • Love this. A perfect treatment of the topic.

  • Carly

    Thank you so much for this. I just got into a discussion about the Bible and “inerrency” with someone on Easter. I wish I had read this first. I tried to make many of the points you so eloquently made here, and failed miserably. Maybe I’ll just email him the link.

  • Melissa

    I loved this post, but this is more a general comment. I found your blog because of the her.meneutics interview. Mostly I just wanted to say that your writing is amazing. The minute I started reading, I had to keep going, and I’ve been working my way back through every post. I don’t come from a fundamentalist background myself; I’ve had a bumpy relationship with evangelicalism and so can relate to many of your questions, but that’s not even the main reason I read- your gift as a storyteller is, and the clarity and poetry of your insights. I hope you already know this, but you have a very powerful way of writing. I hope you are working on, or will someday work on, a book!

    • Thank you. The English major in me gets a thrill anytime someone notices my writing. 🙂 I have a few ideas for a book floating around.

  • pcfaust

    Thank you so much for this Sam. It’s well nuanced and so helpful for anyone seeking a reasonable entry point to a discussion on the Bible. It seems you have the same experience I’ve had with the “if we lose one minuscule theological point we lose the whole thing” mentality. Maybe you’ve even seen the same diagram I have – the one with the removal of a literal, 6-24-hour-day-creation being removed at the bottom and our entire society crumbling at the top?
    Anyway, just wanted to say you’re doing a great job explaining these things, and watching you process through them provides such a helpful, healthy example of how to handle intellectual difficulty without completely jumping off the train and claiming not to believe anything anymore.
    Thanks for the link, but much more, thanks for your honesty and willingness to use your own story as an example of what God really wants from us in our intellectual lives.

  • I’m reminded of a sermonette I recently heard that was ostensibly about a couple of verses from the Proverbs (Chapter 9, if memory serves): after quoting the book, the talk turned into a commentary exclusively about the folly of Evolution and an old Earth and how we must have the understanding that these things are false. It was a bizarre bit of “exegesis,” to take a couple of verses out of the Proverbs and make them about Evolution and six-day Creation. That so many, with such great pains, stake so much on this one point of six-day Creation is confounding. It’s not like the Lord said On a literal six-day Creation hangs all the law and the prophets.

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  • Pebbs

    Can we get the name and author of that highly nuanced article you mentioned? The link that’s up right now is broken.