Biblical Inerrancy Debate: Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke

In the two previous posts I outlined a brief history of the doctrine of inerrancy as it developed under the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, as well as summarized the debate on inerrancy between Albert Mohler and Peter Enns. This post continues the debate as found in the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. This time, the views of Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and John R. Franke are summed up. As with any summary, these are my perceptions of their arguments. To read their views in their own words, read the book.

Meet the Contestants

Michael F. Bird received a Bachelor of Ministries from Queensland Baptist College of Ministries and earned a Ph.D. at the University of Queensland. He is Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne Ministry and Missions College. He has written numerous books, including Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission and The Saving Righteousness of God. He co-blogs at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/euangelion/. He is married and has four children.

Kevin J. Vanhoozer earned a Master of Divinity at Westminster Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from Cambridge University. He has taught at the University of Edinburgh and Wheaton College. He is currently Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Vanhoozer has written numerous books including The Drama of Doctrine and Is There a Meaning in This Text? He is married and has two daughters.

John R. Franke received a M.A. from Biblical Theological Seminary and a DPhil. in theology from the University of Oxford. He is currently Professor of Missional Theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute. He also serves as coordinator for The Gospel and Our Culture Network in North America. Among his many books are Beyond Foundationalism: Shaping Theology in a Postmodern Context and Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth.

Michael F. Bird’s Argument

The American inerrancy tradition was concerned with the “Battle for the Bible” in 20th century America and “should not be a universally prescriptive article of faith for the global evangelical church” (145). Inerrancy is too entangled in modernist constructs and creates exegetical problems. This is not to affirm an “errant” Bible, but to recognize that Christians outside of North America have gotten along fine without this particular American understanding of the nature of Scripture (146). Outside the U.S. there has not been a need to “construct a doctrine of inerrancy as a kind of fence around evangelical orthodoxy.” In fact, such constructs seem to be more divisive than unifying. What is preferable is retaining the notions of infallibility and authority of Scripture.

There is much to commend about the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but it’s freighted with assumptions about what the Bible is and how it ought to be interpreted (147). It seems to “commit to a strict literal hermeneutic that demands a literal seven-day creation and a young earth” (147). It also assumes a conflict between religion and science. Similarly, “CSBI’s focus on reconciling the minutia of detail [i.e. harmonization of discrepancies] is a dead end” (148). Those who hold to infallibility do not feel compelled to resolve all possible discrepancies; the Bible rests on the testimony of Jesus Christ. We cannot resolve all textual difficulties anyway. The belief that the original autographs (that we don’t have and won’t ever have) were free of all difficulties is a moot point, as well as naive (150). Beside, the biblical texts sometimes have secondary additions and editions rendering the notion of one singular original inspired layer problematic (152).

CSBI has ended up being a kind of theological colonialism, an American demand that everyone must accept this particular articulation of Scripture or else be guilty of offense (154). However, there are numerous churches globally that have never even heard of CSBI. Nor do they use the word “inerrancy” in their statements of faith. Global evangelical churches “have been informed by a broad creedal and confessional tradition that already had the theological heritage and hermeneutical tools to deal with challenges to the Bible without having to marry its apologetics to the philosophical terms of modernity” (155). Moreover, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy was neither international nor ecumenical. It failed to bring voices from all traditions to contribute to the formulation. American inerrantists can be paternalistic in their assertion that global churches should adopt CSBI or else be deficient. Instead of “stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue . . . we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve” (158).

The Anglicans refer to the “authority” and “sufficiency” of Scripture and leave open how it relates to history and science (160). Presbyterians hold to the Westminster Confession of Faith that affirms the “infallible truth and divine authority” of Scripture (161). The Church of South India states “the Scriptures are the ultimate standard of faith and practice.” The Baptist World Alliance says “the divinely inspired Old and New Testament Scriptures have supreme authority as the written Word of God and are fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.” The Fellowship of European Evangelical Theologians refers to “the divine inspiration of Holy Scripture and its consequent entire trustworthiness and supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.” The British Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship affirms “The Bible, as originally given, is the inspired and infallible Word of God. It is the supreme authority in all matters of belief and behavior.” None of these faith statements on Scripture make any mention of “inerrancy.” The one prominent global statement that comes the closest is the Lausanne Covenant that says Scripture is inspired, truthful and authoritative, as well as “without error in all that it affirms” (162). But even here the word “inerrant” does not appear and “without error” is qualified. The term “inerrancy” is a recent development. These other faith statements demonstrate that there has been language for referring to the reliability of Scripture apart from using the term “inerrant.”

Revelation is not just propositions about God that we have to decode (164). It is “God’s work in imparting the cognition of his person, plan, purposes, and the entire reality which he represents.” Revelation is not only for knowing facts about God, but enjoying God. Inspiration happens at the conceptual level, and while there is a degree of verbal inspiration, one should not construe verbal plenary inspiration. If the Word of God is God’s own Word, then its veracity is rooted not in personal experience, church councils, or apologetics, but in God’s own fidelity (165). However, even though the term “inerrancy” is not ideal maybe it does not need to be abandoned entirely because it carries the nuance of Scripture’s truthfulness (172).

Test Case: Deuteronomy 20:16-17 vs. Matthew 5:43-48 (Israelite destruction of the Canaanites vs. Jesus’ mandate to love our enemies).

One way of addressing this apparent discrepancy is to say God’s revelation and commands address people in particular contexts (169). Over time, God reveals more of what he expects. By adhering to progressive revelation we can say the Canaanite genocide was “a less-than-ideal option but a necessary pathway for the survival of Israel, given the way that tribal and ethnic warfare was conducted in the ancient Near East, and a way to prevent Israel from worshiping pagan deities” (170). However, God’s desire was for peace on earth and Jesus’ command is a fuller revelation. All the biblical commands are true, but some are truer than others in revealing God’s character and purpose. We can speculate about this difficult problem, but ultimately judgment is God’s prerogative (171). A hermeneutic of trust exhibits faith that God is faithful.

Responses to Bird

  • Albert Mohler: Bird affirms inerrancy, but with a few obstacles (174). Mohler says he agrees with Bird that infallibility and authority of Scripture is more important than inerrancy, as would most of the Chicago signers (175). The concern of the Chicago people was not to make inerrancy the most important facet about Scripture but to defend it against those who would deny it. “Truthfulness” and “Trustworthiness” are probably the best terms. But the truthfulness of the Bible is compromised when people say the Bible has errors (176). Inerrancy is necessary to maintain the fact that the Bible is trustworthy. Bird is incorrect when he argues that CSBI requires a young earth creationist view. Mohler believes in a literal seven day creation as do “many evangelicals,” but not all the framers of CSBI did. Bird says inerrantists confine inspiration only to the original autographs, but Mohler don’t know any who do (177). Bird’s notion that some Scriptures are “truer” than others is odd. However, overall, his arguments are consistent with inerrancy. Bird complains that inerrancy is a modernist concept. True, but modernity happened and the church had to respond (178). As for his concerns about theological colonialism, modernity spreads. And these modernity concerns will have to be addressed wherever they spread. However, it’s true that the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy did not have international representation. In any case the CSBI does not make demands that everyone everywhere sign it (179).
  • Peter Enns: Bird is spot on when he says CSBI is freighted with hermeneutical assumptions. He is also correct that the default for CSBI is genre misidentification of the creation accounts that leads to young earth creationist views (180-81). Enns agrees with Bird that inerrancy as understood by fundamentalists and evangelicals has not been the church’s doctrine throughout history. However, Enns is unsure how Bird’s view is much different than the CSBI signers. Bird says God accommodated the human authors in the writing of Scripture without capitulating to error, yet that does not demonstrate how his view is different than Mohler’s (182). Bird also resorts to common inerrantist language when he says that the discrepancies in Scripture are inconsequential because mathematical precision is not required. The challenges of the discrepancies are not inconsequential (e.g. myth, incompatible retellings of the monarchy, etc; 183). As for his interpretation of the Canaanite extermination, he minimizes the challenge with speculation and is too distant from what the text actually says (185). That God’s deeper intention is shalom is not obvious in the Old Testament.
  • Kevin Vanhoozer: It’s true that those outside the U.S. use different language, but does it follow that the doctrine of inerrancy is therefore not needed or necessary outside the U.S. (186)? It may only be a matter of time that other parts of the world will face the same issues around naturalistic scientism and skeptical historicism (190). However, it’s true that Americans need to get out of their “ghettos” more often (187). Vanhoozer agrees with Bird that inerrancy does not work best as “an apologetic strategy, but as part of a dogmatic description of the Bible’s ontology” (187-88). Bird prefers “infallibility” and “I personally prefer the term infallibility (when I get to define it) because it suggests that the Bible does not fail to achieve the purpose for which God has given it.” The problem is that in North American evangelicalism infallibility is often contrasted with inerrancy to mean true in matters of faith and practice (and not necessarily history and science). Thus in this context, “infallibility” tends to have the meaning of “limited inerrancy.” It’s important to keep track of the ways people use words. As for Bird’s concern that CSBI has to lead to certain readings of the creation narrative, that is not true (189). But ultimately, it’s not so important that Bird use the term inerrancy as he not deny a “well-versed” inerrancy (191).
  • John Franke: Franke resonates with Bird when he “points out the trend toward theological colonization” (192). CSBI did not even represent the entire North American community at its beginning (194).

Kevin J. Vanhoozer’s Arguments

The “doctrine of inerrancy must be well-versed because the textual truth of Scripture is comprised of language and literature. Well-versed inerrancy is alert to the importance of rhetoric as well as logic” (200). Poor accounts of inerrancy don’t adequately address language, literature, and literacy. There are two different trends among evangelicals (201). Infallibilists affirm the authority of Scripture for faith and practice alone. Inerrantists say it has “authority over all the domains it addresses, including history and science.” Inerrancy should not be about drawing divisive lines of who is in and who is out. Nor is it about eliminating all biblical difficulties. The value of inerrancy is that it means “God’s authoritative Word is wholly true and trustworthy in everything it claims about what was, what is, and what will be” (202). It offers some assurance that there is coherence and unity to Scripture’s teaching because God does not contradict himself. The Bible contains difficulties, but not errors. These difficulties are not indicative of a “dark side of Scripture” (203). Even if for sake of ecumenism we say inerrancy is not essential, it is nevertheless expedient (204).

The concern “about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the words of truth” (205). Inerrancy not handled properly is dangerous. We should not confuse our own idea of what a perfect book should be with what the doctrine of inerrancy is about. It’s not fair to fault CSBI because of how it has been abused (206). It does a good job of “locating the doctrine of Scripture in the doctrine of the triune God, thereby keeping it theological.” However, it does not provide an explicit definition of inerrancy (207). Vanhoozer proposes this definition of inerrancy: “the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they are making affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly).” Inerrancy has primarily gotten a bad name by those who employ literalistic interpretations (211). But inerrancy does not require that hermeneutic. It doesn’t provide a hermeneutic, it only affirms truthfulness. Well-versed inerrancy recognizes that not everything that is said in the author’s discourse is an affirmation (220). In the making of affirmations, God’s Word does so inerrantly (223).

Test Case: Deuteronomy 20:16-17 vs. Matthew 5:43-48

The Israelite conquest of the Canaanites was not about ethnic cleansing but ethic cleansing (233). The goal was to eradicate evil and keep it from spreading. It’s was about “cleansing a temple space for God to dwell with his people.” It anticipates the final judgment when God will defeat Satan forever. God also threatened Israel with death for disobedience. The reason Jesus provides a different perspective is because the conquest was a limited and unique event in the “drama of redemption.” It was not a model for how all future generations were to act toward enemies. The Old Testament violence is typological of the violence that Jesus suffered on behalf of all. There are conquest overtones in the crucifixion narrative. Jesus also engaged in some violence when he cleansed the Temple (234). The problem is that today we no longer have a strong sense of God’s holiness. God is both loving and holy. These are not contradictory. The doctrine of inerrancy is important for difficult texts like this because otherwise we would be tempted to toss it out as simply error instead of reckoning with it.

Responses to Vanhoozer:

  • Albert Mohler: Vanhoozer strongly affirms inerrancy (236). Vanhoozer’s argument is for the expediency of a well-versed inerrancy, rather than it being essential (237). But Mohler believes it is essential (241). Vanhoozer, in his concern about misconstruals of inerrancy, seems overly concerned with preventing evangelicals from claiming too much about the truthfulness of the Bible. His argument for an Augustinian approach of faith seeking understanding is helpful (238). Yet, he seems to constrict inerrancy to propositional statements/affirmations and this is inconsistent with Vanhoozer’s understanding of the pluriform literary features in the Bible (239). Surely, all Scripture, when understood properly is making some kind of affirmation. Nevertheless, Vanhoozer is right to call evangelicals to a well-versed inerrancy.
  • Peter Enns: Vanhoozer provides a helpful discussion for how Scripture works as literature and speech-act communication (242). However, Vanhoozer’s statement that inerrancy indicates the Bible is authoritative over any domain God addresses is problematic; it prevents from pressing inerrancy too far. Enns’ is unsure what “domain” is or what it means to address one or to determine it. He overstates his case when he says archaeology has resolved many issues. Actually archaeology has raised many challenges (243). Some of Vanhoozer’s arguments are not clear. For example, he says inerrancy only pertains to what Scripture asserts or affirms, but what does “assert” mean (244)? Vanhoozer’s proposal of “inerrancy of the cross” that understands truth as covenantal faithfulness and testimonial endurance is useful (244-45). Enns would add to this the concept the humiliation of the cross to inform expectations of the nature of Scripture. Vanhoozer makes the common inerrantist statement that any difficulties will eventually be resolved (245). He doesn’t grapple with the problems enough. He sidesteps historical issues and archaeological evidence that, for example, indicate no walls fell in Jericho in the manner of the biblical depiction (146-47). Vanhoozer also doesn’t do enough to address the Canaanite extermination and the fact that Yahweh acted so much like the gods of other nations. He minimizes the genuine hostility of the conquest narrative.
  • Michael Bird: Vanhoozer’s “Augustinian Inerrancy” is helpful including placing inerrancy in the domain of affirmations, God’s word is wholly true in everything it claims, inerrancy is not essential but expedient, and his rejection of an inerrancy that is based on the idea of a Perfect Being with a Perfect book, etc (250). However, he relies on a superficial approach to address difficult textual questions. Several of these difficulties are not just interpretive problems to be worked out eventually. This simplicity seemed contradictory to Vanhoozer’s otherwise sophisticated explication of literary conventions (251).
  • John Franke: Vanhoozer has depth theologically, but does not follow his positions to their logical conclusions (253). Vanhoozer holds to plurality of canonical perspectives. But Franke believes canon does not exhaust theological discourse (255). Also, Vanhoozer’s affirmation of plurality seems to contradict his assertion of a universal ontology. He only believes there can be one right answer to certain ontological questions (256).

John R. Franke’s Arguments

Franke appreciates the core idea of inerrancy—“the character of the Bible as an inspired, faithful, and trustworthy witness to the being and actions of God” (259). However, he is dismayed by the way inerrancy has been used in biblical interpretation, theology, and life of the church as a kind of panacea for resolving difficulties. Also, problematic is the way it has been used to control and assert power over others. Moreover, inerrancy gives artificial impressions of precision that are unhelpful for interpreting the Bible. CSBI is highly influential and has created boundaries of insider and outsider (260). Yet, many in the early church who affirmed the truthfulness of the Bible would not be able to affirm all the details articulated in CSBI (261). CSBI has an epistemology characterized by classical foundationalism. This approach seeks to find a “universal and indubitable basis for human knowledge.” Thus, inerrantists assume that if there is a single error anywhere in the Bible then none of it can be trusted (262). Yet, this approach has been discredited in philosophical and theological circles. Scripture provides truthful knowledge of God but is not axiomatic (264).

Revelation does not give us exact knowledge of God (265). God is “best understood as a being-in-act, meaning that God cannot be comprehended apart from God’s actions and ongoing active relations.” And that activity is one of love. God’s mission is showing love to us (266). Scripture is an act that God performs and an event (270). We, in turn, are sent on a mission (266). When God accommodated to human beings using human speech in the witness of Scripture, the result was not divinization of the text. (268). Instead it is like Jesus’ human nature that is “subject to the historical, cultural limitations and contingencies in its creaturely character.” Scripture does tell us about God, but does not eliminate the infinite distinction between us and God. Scripture is truth with a small “t” that witnesses to the Truth of God’s self-revelation (269). God’s Word is the Word revealed, written, lived and proclaimed (270). The “ultimate authority in the church is the Spirit speaking both in Scripture as well as through Scripture” (271). This means Christian faith and practice cannot be derived solely from Scripture apart from life of the believer and community. Reading Scripture is for the purpose of hearing the Spirit’s voice.

The Spirit is not bound up only in the (biblical) author’s original intent. The Spirit speaks through the Scriptures in contemporary settings. Scripture is polyphonic (275). “[T]ruth is characterized by plurality.” However, this does not mean all interpretations are true. Scripture is “inerrant in its witness to the plurality of perspectives that are indispensable to the practice of missional Christian community” (276). None of the diverse views in Scripture are to be discarded. Similarly, none of these diverse views should be forced into conformity/harmonization (277). Biblical faith is not singular, universal, and systematic, but open to the witness of “plural perspectives, practices, and experiences.” All theologies are perspectival, shaped by social conditions and contexts (278). “Inerrancy calls on us to surrender the pretensions of a universal and timeless theology” (279).

Test Case: Deuteronomy 20:16-17 vs. Matthew 5:43-48

This is a case of plurality. One possible interpretation is to say that these are both “legitimate perspectives” (285). But to address it further, the Old Testament is “a contextual accommodation to the militaristic culture of the ancient Near East” (286). This is what we would expect given the socio-cultural setting of the Hebrew Bible. Or one could also argue that biblical truth is not contained “in the particular narratives and teachings of individual texts but rather in relation to its intended purpose and function in the economy of God.” The Spirit speaks in and through the texts to bear witness to Jesus for the purpose of forming a community that “lives out God’s love in the world as a sign and foretaste of the consummation of all things in Christ.” Jesus in Matthew 5 deconstructs the previous assumptions of Deuteronomy 20. He overturns the instruction in Deuteronomy 20.

Responses to John Franke

  • Albert Mohler: Franke is proposing a fundamental change in how evangelicals define truth. This would be an abandonment of the Bible as epistemic authority in favor of church as the authority as it negotiates a plurality of theologies (288). Franke is not correct that foundationalism has been thoroughly discredited; it’s only discredited in certain circles (289). While strong foundationalism is out of fashion, there is a rise in soft forms. “I would argue that some form of foundationalism is basic, not only to the project of evangelical theology, but also to the Christian faith.” Franke doesn’t believe we should seek an inerrant foundation for human thought in the Bible (290). As for his understanding of Matthew 5, the “truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible is undermined when any Scripture is said to function ‘in a deconstructive fashion’” (291). Jesus’ teaching reflects progressive fulfillment not correction or deconstruction.
  • Peter Enns: Franke is right to point out the ethics of inerrancy—that is, how it has been used to draw boundaries between insiders and outsiders (292). He also is helpful in pointing out that inerrancy is not directly claimed in Scripture but is a second-order theological construct (293). Franke’s point about the human nature of Jesus and human language in Scripture is the same point in Enns’ book Inspiration and Incarnation. However, on the historical veracity of Jericho’s walls falling, Franke ends in the same “ditch” as the others by saying we cannot verify it one way or another (294-295). Yet, we can verify many things through archaeology. Finally, his interpretation on the Israelite conquest places it into a theologically subordinate status to Matthew. Thus, it would be helpful if he explained further how this kind of plurality reflects Scripture’s normativity (296).
  • Michael Bird: Franke makes good points including inerrancy should not be a panacea for resolving difficult questions, Scripture is true in the context of divine accommodation to the human situation, the close correlation between Word and Spirit, etcetera (297). However, Franke seems to have some a priori conceptions of God that drive his views: a relational God means a relational Bible (298). Yet this is highly selective in the same way that the inerrancy tradition is driven by the concept of a perfect God leading to a perfect Bible. This forces Scripture to fit into a particular doctrine of God. We need a “fully orbed doctrine of the triune God to be a prolegomena for our doctrine of revelation.” Bird strongly disagrees with Franke’s use of the incarnation as an analogy for Scripture (as was the problem with Enns’ view). The incarnation is a miraculous, unique event and should not be conflated (299). Franke’s distinction between little “t” truth and big “T” truth is okay in the sense that it acknowledges human language is finite, but if pressed too far it begs the question: is the truth about who God is (immanent truth) so different from who he reveals himself to be (economic truth)? There has to be some connection between the two or else revelation has not occurred. Bird is unsure where Franke sits on the “truth-theory spectrum” (300). Biblical truth is propositional (e.g. Jesus is Lord).
  • Kevin Vanhoozer: Franke seems to conflate inerrancy with its abuses (302). For Franke “Scripture is not a deposit of propositional truth (too static) but rather an instrument the Spirit uses linguistically to construct the community of God” (303). But he doesn’t clarify what truth is. Franke doesn’t provide enough evidence for how and why foundationalism has failed (304). He “conflates the Bible’s truth as a foundation for theology with a particular way of relating to that foundation (ie., foundationalism as a theory of knowledge)” (304). The Bible has many images of foundations (e.g. Christ as foundation; 1 Cor 3:11). Franke should investigate further modest foundationalists like Alvin Platinga. Franke doesn’t think we should place ultimate certainty on our interpretations, and I agree. However, inerrancy does not equate our interpretations with Scripture itself (305). He would do well to engage more with John Frame’s “multiperspectival inerrantism” (306). Franke tells us what he rejects about inerrancy and his re-envisioned idea of what inerrancy does, but never defines inerrancy or tells us what truth is (307). Is his truth “pluralistically realist” or “pluralistically pragmatist” or ?

In the following post I will examine further the question: Does the Bible Have Errors?

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