This is the fifth and final post in a series on inerrancy. Previously, I examined the historical background, the arguments of Albert Mohler and Peter Enns, as well as the arguments of Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke. I also asked the question, does the Bible have errors? In this final post, I do a close reading of CSBI itself.
Would you sign the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy? Why or Why not? Should the statement be discarded? Revised? Affirmed? CSBI has 19 articles. The preface to CSBI states, “We invite response to this statement from any who see reason to amend its affirmation about Scripture in light of Scripture itself.” Unfortunately, this charitable attitude is often missing from the discussion and debate. People can and do get fired from jobs and barred from Christian communities for even raising questions about principles in CSBI. This is a serious and ugly problem in the conservative evangelical world that needs to be confronted. However, I have decided to take the framers of CSBI as honest men who mean what they say. Below, I have listed all the articles along with my comments. This is an unusually long post. However, if you are interested in pondering CSBI it’s worth examining each Article and reading alongside R.C. Sproul’s authorized commentary, Explaining Inerrancy. I welcome your own thoughts and reflections. Tell me what you think!
We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God. We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.
I affirm that Scripture is to be received as the authoritative Word of God.
As for denying that Scripture receives authority from any other source, Sproul clarifies: “Rome has placed alongside of Scripture the traditions of the church as a supplement to Scripture and, consequently, a second source of special revelation beyond the scope of Scripture” (1). Article I is intended to address concern that the Catholic church subordinates Scripture to church authority. I also do not see tradition as “special revelation” on the same level as Scripture. However, I do believe many Protestants err miserably by rejecting tradition. Luther and Calvin both valued tradition even though they subordinated it. That is not the case with many Protestants today who mistakenly think the Reformation was a rejection of tradition. Tradition is absolutely essential for learning from the church community across time as it has wrestled with and interpreted Scripture. It is a necessary anchor against Protestant tendencies to engage in overly personalized hermeneutics and application.
On another note, I greatly appreciate that the CSBI framers intentionally left open the number of books in the canon so as not to exclude other Christian communities. An initial draft of Article I had specifically referred to the 66 books of the Protestant canon.
We affirm that the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is subordinate to that of Scripture. We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.
I accept and affirm Article II. No comment needed.
We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God. We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity.
This Article asserts that Scripture itself is revelation and not merely a witness to revelation as maintained by neo-orthodoxy. The Article also affirms biblical revelation is propositional. Sproul explains:
Several theologians have denied that the Bible in and of itself, objectively, is revelation. They maintain that revelation does not occur until or unless there is an inward, subjective human response to that Word . . . . The spirit of these articles is to oppose a disjunction between the revelation that is given to us in the person of Christ objectively and the revelation that comes to us in equally objective terms in the Word of God inscripturated. Here the Bible is seen not merely as a catalyst for revelation, but as revelation itself. If the Bible is God’s Word and its content proceeds from Him, then its content is to be seen as revelation . . . . In the affirmation of Article III the words “in its entirety” are also significant. There are those who have claimed that the Bible contains here and there, in specified places, revelation from God, but that it is the task of the believer individually or the church corporately to separate the parts of Scripture which are revelatory from those which are not (4-5).
I have no problem affirming Article III. However, it could be interpreted as a false dichotomy. Scripture itself is revelation, but it also witnesses to revelation. For example, the prophet Isaiah had visions wherein he received certain revelation from God. This was the initial revelation. Thus, in some sense when the inspired content of those visions was written down it was the record or witness to the revelation Isaiah received. Similarly, Jesus himself is revelation. The Gospels are testimonies that witness to Jesus who is revelation. Scripture itself makes this assertion (e.g. I John 1:1). Secondly, Barth emphasized the role of the Holy Spirit in Scripture “becoming” revelation for the contemporary reader. The framers of CSBI might not like the language of “becoming” revelation. However, what Barth describes is not that different than what CSBI does assert in Article XVII (“the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures”). In essence, I affirm Article III with no qualms, but suggest it could be interpreted as an unnecessary rejection of the fact that Scripture is also witness to revelation. However, the Article does not explicitly reject Scripture as witness since “merely” and “only” leave room for flexible interpretation.
We affirm that God who made mankind in His image has used language as a means of revelation. We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.
At first glance I have no problem affirming Article IV. However, Sproul’s commentary raises questions for me:
Since the Bible was not written by God himself, but by human writers, the question has emerged again and again whether such human involvement by virtue of the limitations built in human creatureliness would, of necessity, render the Bible less than infallible. Since men are not infallible in and of themselves, and are prone to error in all that they do, would it not follow logically that anything coming from the pen of man must be errant? To this we reply, erroneousness is not an inevitable concomitant of human nature. Adam, before the fall, may well have been free from proneness to error, and Christ, though fully human, never erred. Since the fall it is a common tendency of men to err. We deny, however, that it is necessary for men to err always and everywhere in what they say or write, even apart from inspiration. However, with the aid of divine inspiration and the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the giving of sacred Scripture, the writings of the Bible are free from the normal tendencies and propensities of fallen men to distort the truth (5).
The question I have is: does Sproul conflate human limitedness with falsehood or “lies”? He seems to be saying that creatureliness does not in any way prevent truthful revelation coming to us. If that is all he is saying, I completely agree. However, if he is suggesting that inspiration somehow overrode human limitedness completely, I object. This seems to be evident when he refers to prelapsarian Adam and Jesus. In other words he seems to suggest inspiration resulted in human perfection of the author. To me that is problematic. I would prefer to use the language of a sanctified author (distinct from the perfection that characterizes Jesus). One problem with CSBI is that functionally-speaking it can seem to promote a dictation view of inspiration even though dictation is rejected (more on that in Articles below).
On another note, I would appreciate it if an updated version of CSBI used “humankind” rather than “mankind.” Half the planet’s population are not men.
We affirm that God’s revelation within the Holy Scriptures was progressive. We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings.
Though certain precepts which were obligatory to people in the Old Testament period are no longer so in the New Testament, this does not mean that they were discontinued because they were wicked in the past and now God has corrected what he formerly endorsed, but rather that certain practices have become superseded by newer practices that are consistent with fulfillment of Old Testament activities . . . . Although progressive revelation is recognized, this progressiveness is not to be viewed as a license to play loosely with portions of Scripture, setting one dimension of revelation against another within the Bible itself. The Bible’s coherency and consistency is not, vitiated by progressive revelation within it.
Sproul refers to supersession rather than correction. I would like more discussion on what “supersede” actually means. As a concrete example, how are we to think of the change in Israelite perspective on punishment of descendants? Notice the revisions in Deuteronomy 7:9-10 on transgenerational punishment compared to the original statement in Deuteronomy 5:9-10. As Bernard Levinson demonstrates in his work Legal Revision and Religious Renewal in Ancient Israel the biblical authors gradually discarded the view that descendants should be punished for the sins of the fathers (see also Deut 24:16 and Eze 18:20). I do believe progressive revelation can greater clarity and illumination on an issue—like a room that is dimly lit and one gradually sees more as the light brightens. However, I don’t see progressive revelation as strictly linear—i.e. simplistically from Old Testament to New Testament. Also, this Article needs to engage more with the differing opinions of the biblical authors. There seems to be an assumption of strict uniformity.
In terms of scholarship there is interesting discussion within redaction criticism on the question of whether or not the biblical authors rejected former tradition or merely expanded upon it. This research might be an interesting conversational partner to this Article. The fact that the biblical authors left depictions of former traditions in the sacred texts even if something was later expanded upon suggests they were aware of these variations and not troubled by them. If a correction was intended, we might expect erasure of previous statements to avoid competing views. In other words, scribes seemed comfortable with emending, but not with discarding. Tradition was respected even as it was “massaged.”
We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration. We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole.
This Article poses problems for me. I fully affirm that the whole of Scripture is inspired, but not necessarily as verbal plenary inspiration. Sproul gives the following explanation:
The fact that Article VI speaks of divine inspiration down to the very words of the original may conjure up in some people’s minds a notion of dictation of the words of Scripture by God. The doctrine of verbal plenary inspiration has often been charged with carrying with it the implication of a dictation theory of inspiration. No such theory is spelled out in this article, nor is it implied. In fact, in Article VII the framers of the statement deny the dictation theory . . . . In the doctrine of inspiration what is at stake is the origin of the message from God rather than from human initiation. The mode of inspiration is left as a mystery by these articles (cf Article VII). Inspiration, as used here, involves a divine superintendence which preserved the writers in their word choices from using words that would falsify or distort the message of Scripture. Thus, on the one hand, the Statement affirms that God’s superintendence and inspiration of the Bible applied down to the very words and, on the other hand, denies that he canceled out the exercise of the writers’ personalities in the choices of words used to express the truth revealed. Evangelical Christians have wanted to avoid the notion that biblical writers were passive instruments like pens in the hands of God, yet at the same time they affirm that the net result of the process of inspiration would be the same. Calvin, for example, says that we should treat the Bible as if we have heard God audibly speaking its message. That is, it carries the same weight of authority as if God himself were heard to be giving utterance to the words of Scripture.
Sproul recognizes the concern that verbal plenary inspiration can be associated with dictation, albeit he notes CSBI rejects the dictation view. Interestingly, he says the authors could actually choose words. I am not sure what the relationship is between God inspiring the “exact words” and the writers choosing words. This seems to be somewhat of a contradiction. However, it’s worth emphasizing the option that God did not necessarily choose exact words, so much as God revealed truth and the authors used their own words to describe how they understand that truth. If this is taken in conjunction with word choices made within particular ancient Near Eastern cultures, then I could possibly affirm this. But often it seems verbal plenary inspiration is understood as God speaking verbatim. God actually inspired the words: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9). I would like to see how Sproul would handle this verse in light of his understanding of verbal plenary inspiration. Other issues that complicate the notion of verbal plenary inspiration:
- Some revelation came through visions or dreams—that is, images and not words.
- Different versions of sacred text are affirmed and not only “one original.” For example, the New Testament authors used both Hebrew and Greek manuscripts for Scriptural citation. Generally, inerrantists affirm the Masoretic text as authoritative above the Septuagint. In Mark 10:8, Jesus quotes the Septuagint version of Genesis 2:24 which has the word “two” added (the “two” shall become one flesh). But the Masoretic text does not have “two” in Genesis 2:24. Perhaps, some inerrantists would say there was a mistake in the copying of the Masoretic text. But, the evidence seems to indicate there were two different accepted traditions. Polygamy was rejected under Greek influence and its possible “two” was added in the Greek translation for that reason. However, the Samaritan Pentateuch and most other traditions beside Masoretic have “two” as well. So, perhaps it was not an addition to the Septuagint. In any case, inerrantists would have difficulty reckoning with the various manuscript traditions and affirming one “original” (and therefore one word choice) when the New Testament authors authoritatively quote variations.
- Some Old Testament texts reflect usage of other ancient Near Eastern concepts or texts. For example, the writers of Proverbs use the Egyptian Teaching of Amenemope. And Israelite laws have similarities with other ANE legal codes (e.g. the case of the goring ox). Thus, in what sense is God inspiring concepts (or words) that pre-existed the biblical prophets and writers?
- How do we conceptualize the Psalms as prayers and songs of human beings communicating with God? Was it not possible for any of the psalmists to genuinely speak from their hearts and express themselves to God? Or was God just feeding them the script of their own laments and praise? What about the anguished cries and protests of Job? Or Qohelet’s cynicism? How do we understand inspiration that occurred when Jeremiah received an oracle versus when a psalmist bemoaned God’s absence? Are there different ways of thinking about how inspiration occurred?
This does not mean I believe some parts of Scripture are inspired and others are not. I accept the whole of Scripture, but verbal plenary inspiration does not seem to adequately describe the phenomena that are occurring in inspiration.
We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us. We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.
I can affirm Article VII.
We affirm that God in His work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.
I can affirm Article VIII. The purpose is to reject a dictation view and affirm the role of human beings in the process of creating Scripture. My only quibble is that it should go a little further. Here I think Peter Enns’ recommendation is helpful: “What should be brought explicitly to the forefront here—at the outset—is the manner in which God speaks in Scripture, namely through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors.”
We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write. We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word.
I can generally affirm Article IX with some qualifications. Sproul explains:
The affirmation of Article IX indicates that inspiration guarantees that the writings of Scripture are true and trustworthy. That is, they are not false, deceptive, or fraudulent in what they communicate . . . Thus we say that though the biblical writings are inspired, this does not imply thereby that the writers knew everything there was to be known or that they were infallible of themselves. The knowledge that they communicate is not comprehensive, but it is true and trustworthy as far as it goes . . . . The charge of biblical docetism has been leveled against advocates of inerrancy, most notably by Karl Barth. He accuses us of holding a view of inspiration in which the true humanity of the biblical writers is canceled out by the intrusion of the divine characteristics of infallibility. For Barth it is fundamental to our humanity that we are liable to error . . . [If that were the case] not only must we ascribe such error to Adam before the fall and to glorified Christians, we would also have to apply it to the incarnate Christ. Error would be intrinsic to his humanity, and it would have been necessary for Jesus to distort the truth in order to be fully human . . . . Finitude implies a necessary limitation of knowledge but not necessarily a distortion of knowledge. The trustworthy character of the biblical text should not be denied on the ground of man’s finitude (11-12).
Here, I see the same problem as in Article IV. Limitation is conflated with falsehood and distortion of truth. Barth does this too. Even though Sproul tries not to (he distinguishes finitude from intrinsic propensity to error), he still falls into equating the biblical writers with the perfection of sinless Christ. Some kind of distinction needs to be maintained between Christ who was sinless in his humanity and the biblical authors who were not sinless in their humanity, but presumably sanctified. Also, I would like to see the drafters of CSBI wrestle more with the acknowledgement of human limitation and finitude and how that relates to inspiration. I agree that the finitude of the biblical authors does not make Scripture untrustworthy or full of “errors.” But inerrantists don’t do enough to acknowledge how human finitude show ups in the attributes/nature of Scripture. As a result they tend to sound, functionally, like adherents to dictation theory.
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
The urgency to affirm inerrancy in biblical autographs we don’t have has always seemed peculiar to me. I don’t agree or disagree with this Article. I simply have a different paradigm on “original” text. This Article does not adequately engage with what we know about how the Bible came together. It seems to presume a biblical author sat down and wrote out each book and it was perfect and whole in that one sitting. But we know the books of the Bible are collections of shorter texts with different textual histories, and in fact different textual traditions existed for some books (see my series on How Did We Get the Bible?). These texts underwent scribal activity, including emendations that are part of Scripture itself and were added after the initial text was written. Sproul states:
Since we do not have the original manuscripts, some have urged that an appeal to the lost originals renders the whole case for the inspiration of the Scripture irrelevant. To reason in this manner is to denigrate the very serious work that has been done in the field of textual criticism. Textual criticism is the science which seeks to reconstruct an original text by a careful analysis and evaluation of the manuscripts we presently possess. . . . It does make a difference. If the original text were errant, the church would have the option of rejecting the teachings of that errant text. If the original text is inerrant (and the science of textual criticism must be depended upon to reconstruct that inerrant text), we have no legitimate basis for disobeying a mandate of Scripture where the text is not in doubt.
Sproul seems to place too much emphasis on textual criticism. This is not to dismiss textual criticism. It’s important and helpful to have a “clean” text with the best readings. However, we cannot base the authority of Scripture on the complicated process of textual criticism. In fact, the matter becomes more complicated when we realize the biblical authors quote variant manuscripts and not one “original.” As for affirming an inerrant original in order to give justification for obeying the Bible, this does not make a lot of sense. Whatever the “original” was (if we can speak in that manner) we do not have it. What we have are the texts in front of us. If the texts in front of us are not trustworthy, then we can all go home. But if they are trustworthy even though they are not the original, then we are obedient to them on that basis and not on the basis of a hypothetical and inaccessible original. In fact, I think this Article can inadvertently diminish the authority of Scripture by subtly downgrading the texts we do have to epitomize texts we don’t have. Moreover, this view does not adequately explain why God would be so concerned about perfect autographs and then lose interest in what happened in the preservation process. Its logically inconsistent.
We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.
The central affirmation of Article XI is the infallibility of Scripture. Infallibility is defined in this context in positive terms as implying the truthfulness and reliability of all matters that Scripture addresses. Negatively, infallibility is defined as the quality of that which does not mislead. The denial of Article XI touches a very important point of controversy, particularly in the modern era. There are those who maintain that the Bible is infallible but not inerrant. Thus, infallibility is separated from inerrancy. The denial argues that it is not possible to maintain with consistency that something is at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. To maintain such a disjunction between infallibility and inerrancy would involve a glaring contradiction (14).
I have no problem affirming the first half of Article XI. As for the second half, I can understand the concern. However, what confuses this situation is that CSBI is being used as the definer of “inerrancy.” There are Christians who hold to traditional denominational or creedal statements of infallibility, but do not ascribe to the particular “brand” of inerrancy CSBI advocates. CSBI is not the only way of conceptualizing inerrancy. However, the inerrantists’ concern that some hold to “infallibility” while functionally diminishing the authority of Scripture is a problem worth exploring in more depth.
We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
Here the drafters provide a definition of inerrancy: “An inerrant Scripture cannot contain falsehood, fraud or deceit in its teachings or assertions” (15). At this point, I would like to see a more nuanced distinction between “error” and “deceit.” The two are not synonymous in my mind. But often they seem to be equated in CSBI. Since I believe the Bible is wholly trustworthy, I agree that it’s free of falsehood and deceit. However, I can hold to that truth through traditional denominational and creedal statements without an additional doctrine of inerrancy.
The goal of this Article is to assert that the Bible is historically accurate and truthful. In other words, the events it describes actually occurred (parting of the Red Sea, exodus, exile, etc). If we deny the historical veracity of Scripture, how can we affirm the historicity of Christ’s death and resurrection—the historical events on which Christianity hangs? I believe this is a legitimate concern.
In terms of scientific accuracy, I don’t believe the biblical writers were scientists writing about science. They were prophets and Levitical scribes writing their history and theology. Thus, I don’t treat the Bible like a science book. Sproul writes: “The Bible does have something to say about the origin of the earth, about the advent of man, about creation, and about such matters that have scientific import, such as the question of the flood” (15). The thing is, I don’t believe the biblical authors are writing about the origins of the earth in modern scientific terms. Genesis is a theological statement. This does not deny the historical truth that God created the earth and humankind.
Of particular concern is that this Article says external sources (i.e. science) cannot be used to overturn a teaching in Scripture. Sproul clarifies that sometimes science does cause us to re-read Scripture when we haven’t gotten science wrong (e.g. Galileo’s discoveries). Thus, science can be used to overturn perceptions or interpretations of what the Bible teaches. Essentially, it seems CSBI is suggesting science, if it’s truly proven in a particular area, will not contradict Scripture. Science and Scripture will agree. This would suggest a healthy harmony between faith and science. But, in fact CSBI has often caused the opposite. That is because conservatives reject external sources as Sproul indicates they should, but without interrogating their own hermeneutics to consider they might be misinterpreting the text. Often the interpretation is prioritized as correct and science wrong.
Significantly, Sproul states: “What the Scriptures actually teach about creation and the flood is not spelled out by this article; but it does spell out that whatever the Bible teaches about creation and the flood cannot be negated by secular theories” (16). This indicates flexibility for various theories of creation and the flood (the extent of the flood—i.e., regional or global—is not specified). What is curious about this statement is: “whatever the Bible teaches.” How can it be determined whether or not secular theories negate Scripture if we don’t know with certainty what the Bible teaches? In other words, rejection or acceptance of science becomes contingent upon whatever biblical hermeneutic a person has. If someone reads the seven days of creation as symbolic of completion and not literal 24 hour days, certain scientific conclusions can be accepted. But if one reads the days woodenly, then science is automatically held with suspicion. This seems to be a flimsy way to handle the relationship between Scripture and science. A more constructive proposal needs to be made. That being said, I appreciate the concern that we not bow to every scientific trend and whim of the day since science can also be subjective and conclusions overturned. Nevertheless CSBI goes to far in the direction of suspicion of science.
We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
This Article addresses objections that inerrancy is not a useful theological term because there are qualifications to what counts as error. Sproul indicates qualifications are necessary precisely because of the complexity of the issues. He also writes: “It is an appropriate theological term to refer to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. That is basically what is being asserted with the term inerrancy: that the Bible is completely true, that all its affirmations and denials correspond with reality” (17). I believe in the complete truthfulness of Scripture. That I affirm. However, I am not quite persuaded that the term “inerrancy” is necessary to make that assertion. Also, I am not completely clear on what “affirmations and denials” corresponding to “reality” means. I would like concrete examples and discussion.
I generally have no objection to the denial being asserted in this Article. I do not consider the items listed to jeopardize the truthfulness of Scripture. However, I notice Sproul cites the book of Jonah as historical fact that should be affirmed. I am wondering why interpreting Jonah as parabolic or didactic would automatically be deemed problematic. This is where CSBI commitments to the veracity of historical events can lead to suspicion of literary analysis. I affirm the importance of seeing actual historical events in Scripture. However, I see a temptation toward literalism within CSBI that might result in misinterpreting didactic short story (historical novella) or parable as historical. Thus, inerrancy is tied to a particular hermeneutic in order to work if we are to accept some of Sproul’s examples and conclusions.
We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture. We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.
On the surface of this I can affirm Article XIV. While there is plurality of voices, I do not believe that plurality is a problem or detracts from the unity that is found in the text (the scribes were often intentional in how texts were pieced together). However, Sproul makes it clear that this Article attempts to force complete harmonization:
Difficulties that have not been resolved may yet be resolved under further scrutiny. This approach to the question of the resolution of difficulties may seem at first glance to be an exercise in “special pleading.” However, if any work deserves special consideration it is sacred Scripture. Before we jump to the conclusion that we are faced with an ultimately unresolvable contradiction we must exhaust all possible illuminating research (20).
I wholeheartedly agree we should wrestle with the text and come back to it again and again. However, this perspective too easily leads to forced harmonization and can impede thorough exegetical work because certain outcomes are excluded from the beginning. Inerrantists who seek to harmonize all diversity or complications, as well as critics who claim diversity is evidence of “error” or contradiction, are guilty of flattening the text. They would turn a rich concert and multi-voiced dialogue into an orchestra of single-tone tubas. The fascinating reality of the Bible is that God did not inspire only one person, but numerous people in different contexts. The Bible reflects a community of inspired voices. God’s truth is found, and not lost, in this plurality. Thus, for example, we need not try to harmonize Job with Mosaic theology, but instead ponder how Job complicates, yet does not reject, tradition.
We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration. We deny that Jesus’ teaching about Scripture may be dismissed by appeals to accommodation or to any natural limitation of His humanity.
I affirm the general intent here, but reject that everything CSBI means by “inerrancy” is taught in Scripture. Sproul writes: “Inerrancy is a corollary of inspiration inasmuch as it is unthinkable that God should inspire that which is fraudulent, false or deceitful. Thus, though the word ‘inerrancy’ is not explicitly used in the Scriptures, the word ‘inspired’ is, and the concept of inerrancy is designed to do justice to the concept of inspiration” (21). I agree that God would not inspire something deceitful. However, that truth is encompassed in most creedal and denominational statements on the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture. The framers of CSBI are trying to force biblical support for their particular understanding of inerrancy. Even Augustine did not understand inerrancy the way modern inerrantists do. The writers of CSBI are not forthcoming with how their view differs—at least in some respects—from certain views of inspiration and inerrancy in the past. In other words, there is no straight line from the Bible to CSBI as the framers insist.
Moreover, I see another example of literalistic hermeneutics in Sproul’s commentary on this Article. He expresses concern that some discount Jesus’ affirmation of Scriptural authority—I agree with his concern. However, Sproul states: “For example, [some critics say] when Jesus mentions that Moses wrote of him, he was unaware of the documentary hypothesis which would apparently demolish any serious case for Mosaic authorship of the first five books of the Old Testament” (21-22). Sproul’s statement does not reflect awareness of ancient text production and how authorship was attributed. By that I am not denying that Moses contributed to the Pentateuch if not textually then orally. But to envision Moses sitting down and writing out every word of those five books does not do justice to the evidence we have in the text themselves. It also does not adequately address the reality of ancient text production and how scribes wrote in the “school of” authoritative figures. This does not mean Jesus was in error. Rather, Jesus would have understood how books were made in antiquity. The problem is we project our own anachronistic perspective and make false assumptions about what Jesus might have understood when he referenced Moses (and this is not to deny that he was referring to Moses; it merely leaves open the possibility that “Moses” was understood under a broader concept of authorship).
We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history. We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.
It’s true that the concept of inerrancy was present in Church history. However, this Article is not transparent about the fact that many of the theologians of the past did not understand inerrancy in the same way that CSBI expresses it. For example, Augustine used allegory to handle difficulties in the text. Something CSBI does not allow.
This Article affirms that the concept of inerrancy is not new and not a result of reactivity. I agree that the concept of a Bible “without error” was not invented by the framers of CSBI. However, the particular articulation of the doctrine in CSBI is new. And it was written as a response to modern concerns. For example, it’s clear some of the Articles are designed to directly counter specific theological claims made by Barth. The framers should make this more transparent in the Article. And more than that, we should revisit whether timeless and universal doctrine on inerrancy should be couched in specific modern theological concerns.
We affirm that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures, assuring believers of the truthfulness of God’s written Word. We deny that this witness of the Holy Spirit operates in isolation from or against Scripture.
I affirm Article XVII. However, a discussion on Acts 15 and the role of the Holy Spirit in discernment would be helpful. Luke Timothy Johnson’s book—whether one agrees with all his conclusions or not—might be a good conversational starter: Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church.
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.
I am not sure why Article XVIII exists in a doctrine on inerrancy. Discussion of hermeneutical method seems better suited for a different kind of document. This represents one of the problems with CSBI: it tries to say too much and in the process creates complications. Sproul says this about grammatico-historical exegesis:
Grammatico-historical is a technical term that refers to the process by which we take the structures and time periods of the written texts seriously as we interpret them. Biblical interpreters are not given the license to spiritualize or allegorize texts against the grammatical structure and form of the text itself. The Bible is not to be reinterpreted to be brought into conformity with contemporary philosophies but is to be understood in its intended meaning and word usage as it was written at the time it was composed . . . . A verb is to be interpreted as a verb; a noun as a noun, a parable as a parable, didactic literature as didactic literature, narrative history as narrative history, poetry as poetry, and the like. To turn narrative history into poetry, or poetry into narrative history would be to violate the intended meaning of the text. Thus, it is important for all biblical interpreters to be aware of the literary forms and grammatical structures that are found within the Scripture. An analysis of these forms is proper and appropriate for any correct interpretation of the text (24-25).
I tend to engage in literary and historical critical analysis of the text. Thus, I am probably not too far from what the framers of CSBI prefer. However, I object to this being the “one right” hermeneutic. The Church has thrived on and been edified by a variety of hermeneutical methods over the centuries, including allegorical interpretation. In fact, the New Testament writers engaged in hermeneutics that CSBI would find objectionable. Similarly, the notion of “literal” interpretation has taken different forms over the years. Nicholas of Lyra, one of Martin Luther’s favorite biblical scholars, had a very different understanding of “literal” exegesis than that proffered by CSBI. Ironically, Sproul states, “The Bible is to be interpreted as it was written, not reinterpreted as we would like it to have been written according to the prejudices of our own era” (24). This statement is mind-blowing in its irony. It captures one of the problems with CSBI—the framers’ lack of awareness of how their own socio-cultural location affected their understanding of doctrine and hermeneutics. If the framers had been more self-conscious about their biases, the document might exhibit fewer problems.
Sproul also writes: “Any interpretation of a passage that yields a meaning in direct contradiction to another portion of Scripture is disallowed” (25). Given that there is plurality of perspectives in Scripture, I am concerned about how this principle might be wielded. To deny the different perspectives does not result in good or sound exegesis. A very simple example of what I mean can be found in Proverbs 26:4-5: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will also be like him. Answer a fool as his folly deserves, that he not be wise in his own eyes.” This text gives opposite and conflicting directives. But rather than seeing this type of phenomena as a “difficulty” as some inerrantists might or as a “contradiction” as some critics would, I see this as Scripture’s reflection of the complexities of life. Sometimes it’s good not to answer a fool. And sometimes it is. We see this kind of nuanced theology in Scripture in many places—and thank goodness because a one-dimensional, singular-answer, flat, pat theology on life’s complexity would not be terribly useful to us or help us to arrive at greater understanding of God.
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ. We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.
I can affirm the intent of this Article, namely, to assert the authority of Scripture. Sproul writes: “Here the functional character of biblical authority is in view. The article is affirming that the confession is not limited to doctrinal concern for theological purity but originates in a profound concern that the Bible remain the authority for the living out of the Christian life” (26). I agree that recognizing the authority of Scripture is important for living the Christian life. However, I am still not persuaded that CSBI is necessary to prevent “grave consequences.” The Church thrived before CSBI and thrives globally without CSBI. I agree with the framers’ concern that we uphold Scripture as completely truthful and trustworthy, accepted as a whole and not plucked apart into pieces. However, CSBI articulates a very particular understanding of inerrancy that is not without its problems.
My (Brief) Conclusions
The primary weaknesses in CSBI pertain to 1) inspiration and the nature of Scripture; and 2) inflexible hermeneutical commitments. CSBI inerrantists reject a dictation model of inspiration—in theory. But their concept of inspiration is functionally dictation. It does not adequately account for the role of finite human beings in the collaborative process. CSBI is rooted in a doctrine of God as perfect; thus the Bible must have the same quality as God. But this view leaves no room for the human being. Similarly, the comparison between Jesus’ humanity and human beings is not accurate since human beings have a sinful nature and Jesus was sinless. Inerrantists need to develop a doctrine of inspiration that does justice to the involvement of human beings in the writing of Scripture.
Secondly, the hermeneutical commitments of CSBI need to be evaluated. There is nothing wrong with grammatical-historical interpretation. But, there needs to be greater awareness of the complexities of interpretation, including other forms that have been used throughout Church history. One of the primary issues with the inerrantists’ approach is the hermeneutical commitment to resolve or harmonize all possible discrepancies no matter what, creating fixed outcomes. Even Vanhoozer, who tries to rehabilitate inerrancy and offers important corrections regarding literary conventions, leans toward the hermeneutical principle of complete harmonization despite saying that is not the purpose of inerrancy (202). He also unpersuasively denies that CSBI has particular hermeneutical commitments and blames the bad reputation of CSBI on abuses of the document. While there may be abuses, he does not acknowledge the real problems inherent to CSBI and what the original framers intended by it. Mohler is a more faithful representative of the original intent of CSBI.
I am not convinced “inerrancy” is a helpful term or that reinterpreting CSBI will address the problems. If CSBI is retained, it should undergo significant revision, and that revision should involve true international and ecumenical participation. Similarly, it should attend more closely to perspectives in Church history, how the biblical authors understood the way Scripture works, and the way Scripture actually does works. Moreover a doctrine on inerrancy needs to focus on universal principles and not be crafted around localized theological debates (i.e. countering Barth’s theology).
Finally, I propose a doctrine of “truthfulness” is the way forward. Scripture does not speak in the language of “error” or “inerrant.” But it does emphasize “truth” or “lie.” Part of the confusion in this conversation is the conflation of error with deception. They are not the same thing. Furthermore, Albert Mohler states “I argue in my chapter that truthfulness and trustworthiness are probably the best words in the English language to serve us . . . . Truthfulness and trustworthiness frame the perfection of the Bible in positive terms—always more easily understood—and they better communicate the personal nature of God’s assurance that the revelation he has given us in the Bible is both true and trustworthy because he is true and trustworthy” (175-76). Similarly, Vanhoozer writes, “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” (188).
Mohler and Vanhoozer provide reasons why they don’t think “truthfulness” and “infallibility” are sufficient even though they prefer them. It boils down to believing these words have been watered down. However, Vanhoozer admits that he refrains from answering whether or not he affirms the doctrine of inerrancy until he knows what the questioner means by “inerrancy.” In other words, “inerrancy” is a term fraught with misunderstanding as well. Thus, if we have to define and clarify our terms, why not do so with “truthfulness” and “infallibility” which are the traditional terms used to characterize Scripture, as well as the preferred language? When inerrancy is defined in CSBI or by Mohler and Vanhoozer it always has to do with “truthfulness.” If that is what we mean by “inerrancy” then let’s not use an artificial term like “inerrancy.” Let’s clarify and define a doctrine of “truthfulness.”