Friday, March 31, 2006

"...for the Bible tells me so"

The famous Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth is sometimes quoted with approval by conservative evangelicals for his answer to a journalist's request to summarize his 6 million word long Church Dogmatics. Barth thought for a moment and then said: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

Barth's beguiling response though hides a rather more sophisticated view of Christian scripture:

"The Bible is God's Word to the extent that God causes it to be his Word, to the extent that he speaks through it."
(Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 109).

Barth would have argued that making claims about biblical inerrancy the foundation of theology is to take a foundation other than Jesus Christ and thus to exercise a form of idolatry.

(With thanks to the often illuminating Faith and Theology blogspot and Barth's Wikipedia entry.)


At 10:28 pm, March 31, 2006, Blogger thebluefish said...

I agree with the "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so..." but you just know I'm gonna disagree after that... question is whether or not we engage in discussion of it...

I'd love to know what you make of this:
For the Bible tells me so by David Gibson at a web project I'm involved in.

At 10:49 pm, March 31, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Give me some time to read Dave G's article. I'll get back to you...

I was rather refreshed by Barth's comment (it came to me from one of the blogs I subscribe to)!

I also found on the Wikipedia entry the fun record that Barth is supposed to have once said, "I take the Bible far too seriously to take it literally" - although that may be a legend!

At 11:37 pm, April 01, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Well Dave, I've trawled through the article, not great on the eyes on a screen being so long, but I think I get the gist.

I guess I think at heart a category error is being made. For me Christ is God's Word. As my original quotation of Barth indicates I think the Bible may become transparent to God's communication , but that is an issue of how it is 'performed'.

And in practical terms I can't think of a single Christian who doesn't in fact accept such a performance methodology - we are all able to discern what is a good sermon - i.e. a good performance of scriputre that enables us to hear God - and what is a poor one which fails.

I shall always recall a sermon on Bible Sunday which began with the preacher holding up a Bible and asking people what they could see. All sorts of answers came up ('God's word', 'love', etc etc).

Finally the preacher, said, 'No, you all need your eyes testing - all you can actually see is black ink spots on white paper'.

We learn to make sense of those splodges in communities of learning and in specific embedded contexts. We perform scripture, like a symphony - for better or worse.

The point of the Bible for me is not to have faith 'in' it, but 'through' it. The former approach treats the Bible as an idol, the latter as an icon.

Wittgenstein once wrote 'the words you utter or what you think as you utter them are not what matters, so much as the difference they make at various points in your life... Practice gives the words their sense'. (Perhaps that was what Paul was getting at when he contrasted letter and spirt, I don't know.)

The 'truth' of the Bible is not, for me at least, an issue of putative inerrancy (indeed what 'inerrancy' means in the light of the thousands of textual variations in the hundreds of biblical manuscripts is frankly beyond me - which one is inerrant?)

No, for me the 'truth' of the Bible concerns what it does when I perform it: - do I find myself getting a glimpse of Christ in it (or only of the 'demonic' - for example a Nazi performance of scripture)?

And in addition how does the Bible perfom me? - does my life as a reader look more Christ-like as a result, and does the resulting worldly community I try to create look like the Kingdom?

Like Gibson, that actually involves taking a fideist position and is an 'insider's' answer to the dilemma 'Jo' faces. The Bible is 'true' because I can see the truth in my life and in the lives of those around me. (Although in principle others can verify it's 'truth' if they can also see Christ in us and in our communities when we do successfully perform scripture.)

If one were to beg the question (as Gibson does of such an approach) by asking how might one *know* what Christ is like in the first place unless one accepts a priori the truth of the Bible? I would in part agree.

Yes, one has to accept the basic Jesus narrative. And yes, indeed, one does in effect choose one's own canon-within the canon with all the risks that entails.

But in reality every reader chooses his/her own lens through which to focus the massive diversity of Biblical texts, whether that lens is conservative evangelicalism's early twentieth-century modernist doctrinal basis or whatever.

There is no helping that, there is only an open admittance that one is indeed doing that and the importance of keeping an eye on exactly what effect that interpretative strategy is having upon the reader and their community.

It is, if you like, an hermenutical spiral. We take an initial pot-shot at reading scripture, we learn a bit about Christ and that changes us a little bit, and in turn we feed that 'sucessful' reading back into the next attempt to read and learn a bit more...

Occasionally we stub our toes and think - oops, I thought genocide was ok having read Joshua, but no, now I've read a bit more about Christ's own torture and oppression I understand that God takes the side of the victim, not the torturer... I'd better stop my work in the gas chambers - and I need to refocus, some things in the Bible are more peripheral to Christ-likeness than others.

In reality I think I'm just describing what every church community actually does (reflect: how do you yourself choose what to 'teach' small group leaders? - have you given any sermons about how one should be happily praying for God to smash the heads of one's enemy's children with rocks (cf Psalm 137:8-9)? Of course not it would be un Christ-like - although on the inerrancy argument, one would have to accept that the righteous are indeed 'blessed' when one's enemies' babies are murdered...).

If you're interested in pursuing the performance analogy, Frances Young's 'The Art of Performance' is a superb introduction.

There are a couple of other observations floating around.

One is that I get the feeling that some Christians seem to think that in terms of 'truth' Bible=Koran; that these are, as it were, rivals. Could one, for example substitute the word 'Bible' for 'Koran' in Gibson's article, and the name 'Mohammed' for 'Christ' - I suspect so, without too much difficulty.

I was struck the first time I heard it said, the equivalent of the Koran for Christians is Christ (not the Bible).

Second, I suspect the inerrancy project has a history that needs excavating. It originates in the late nineteenth / early twentieth century as a reaction to scientific higher criticism. Before that time, Christians had a far richer number of ways of reading scripture.

Ironically, though it may have won (for those who deployed it) an apparent victory, I supsect the inerrancy project invited in a trogan horse - a scientific view of what truth is, and consequently a desire to defend to the hilt the affirmation that the Bible is in all cases historically true. (I'm gald Gibson is wanting to retreat from such a position - even if the reason he does so is not because he thinks it is foolhardy, but just ineffective).

Quite honestly we're way beyond that today. Socially most of us can easily accept that scientific or historical truth is really not the only kind of truth on offer. We live in a narrative world now, framed by scepticism about the scientific modernist project. In fact we live in a pragmatic world: 'show me the truth of what you say, don't try and argue me in'.

I think that's exciting and a challenge that can be easily met by Christians - as log as they don't slip merely into apologetics.

Lastly, I wish conservative evangelicals would actually look at how Christ and Paul used their own 'scripture'. They didn't use an inerrancy methodology. They choose canons-wthin-canons, they abbreviated, reinterpreted, misquoted, added extra layers of meaning and were usually guided by a core set of values - for Jesus it was the 'Kingdom', for Paul it was Christ's death and resurrection. Quite refreshing, truly Biblical.



At 4:06 pm, April 02, 2006, Blogger thebluefish said...

I'm advised that this article is helpful to our discussion. So, I'm going to take a read and see where that takes me.... The God of Promise: Christian Scripture as Covenantal Revelation - (David Gibson)

At 5:43 pm, April 02, 2006, Blogger Dave K said...

Lots of comments I could and should make but due to the lack of time I will limit myself to one comment and a question.

The bible-as-idol argument holds some weight, and I understand what you and Barth are saying. But opposing it does not automatically mean dumping inerrancy with it. You raise up the importance of Christ as the object of our faith, and John Wenham (in his influential book of the last century 'Christ and the Bible') would agree with you. He argues that is because of our faith in Jesus as our perfect teacher that we accept the inerrancy of the bible. We accept it because Jesus taught it.

I appreciate your concern to join the hermenutical spiral, and the opservation of the canon-within-canons of scripture (eg neglect of Eccl in NT, Paul's love of 2nd Isaiah). But in seeking to let scripture mold us, and without a (sure) knowledge of Christ apart from through the bible (unlike the apostles), I wonder how you can resist the urge to make your Christ in your own image without inerrancy. I would appreciate your thoughts.

That was rushed, sorry.

I will return though...!

At 12:01 am, April 03, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Thank you Dave, as ever you are a very courteous interlocutor.

To respond with as much brevity as I can but also in the most appropriate way:

First, to your 'comment'. I've not read that particular Wenham, but I would be surprised to learn where the Gospels show us a Jesus preaching on the subject of biblical inerrancy.

On the contrary, as I indicated, I can see plenty of examples where Jesus is clearly 'errant' in his use of scripture.

Take for example the moment in Matthew 23:35 where Zechariah is called 'son of Berekiah'. Zechariah would seem, in fact, to have been the son of Jehoida (2 Chronicles 24:20ff).

Then there are the times when Jesus reuses the scriptural tradition to say completely novel things.

The so-called 'six antitheses' in the midst of the Sermon on the Mount are an example [Mt ch.5], the most pointed of which is the one about divorce where Jesus - at least as Matthew tells it - countermands the entire tradition of Torah which permits divorce.

(Of course one person could say he is merely 'tightening up' the Torah rather than countermanding it - some say tom*a*to, others say tomato...).

I must admit though that I find the sentence 'it is because of our faith in Jesus as our perfect teacher that we accept the inerrancy of the bible' to have no discernible logical force.

Because of my faith in Jesus as the incarnation of God, I am quite happy to accept Jesus could have as much freedom to reconstrue (and technically miscontrue) the Old Testament texts as the next person...

Christians believe Jesus was God-made-human, not a computor programme regurgitating old texts. I am saved by Jesus sharing my humanity, not by his attitude to inerrancy.

To be honest I don't really want to argue about particular textual examples. My problem is with the whole concept of inerrancy, a concept that is a nineteenth century creation. It reflects the dominant historical and scientific positivist ways of thinking at the time. I think it is time to consign it to bed.

In fact, to be honest, I don't really know what the word 'inerrancy' means in the light of the fact that Jesus didn't even know what we call 'the Bible'. He certainly did not know the New Testament!

What we call the Bible came into being over several centuries. At the time of Christ there was not even a clear decision about what the limits of the 'old' Testmant were. The contents of the Torah and the Prophets were pretty stable, but the third section called the 'Writings' was still pretty fluid.

One of the exciting things about the Dead Sea Scrolls discoveries is that they reveal what contemporaries of Jesus thought were sacred texts. Curiously they did not contain the book of Esther, and they did contain lots of other texts we don't have in the OT.

Even within the NT that fluidity is evident. The author of that bizarre little letter of Jude (never heard a sermon on it yet!)seems to think that a text we call the 'Assumption of Moses' is holy enough to be quoted (v.9).

(My NIV study Bible coyly footnotes this but suggests the author did not think it was 'inspired'. How the NIV editor can see into 'Jude's' mind I can't say. It seems to me a classic case of refusing to let the text say what it wants to say, even when it is uncomfortable. I digress...)

Furthermore, what we call 'the Bible' is an edition drawing on an amalgamation of dozens of texts: Hebrew, Greek, Old Latin, with smatterings of Aramiac, Ethiopic and Syriac. All of that is conveniently translated into a common tongue and sandwiched between two neat boards and labelled 'the Bible'.

Given the textual history of the Bible and its multiple diverse manuscript traditions, applying the concept of inerrancy baffles me. It only works it one's starting point is a nice clean translation with all the messiness hidden. (I have a grudging respect for Christians who only accept the KJV as inspired - atleast they realise that if one wants to be conservative one needs an authorised agreed translation to be conservative about)

Jesus of course would have seen various scrolls in various synagogues. (In fact, most likely each scroll would have had minor textual variants). Though there is an indication that Jesus could read (Lk 4:16ff), his was an oral not a written culture. He would have taught from memory, not with a text in front of him.

Given that his - and Paul's - religious cultures were oral, not written, 'inerrancy' (which is a textual category) would seem to have no place. Jesus and Paul shot from the hip when they argued and taught, not from the concordance!

By the way this oral culture explains why if one tries to chase up the exact Greek words of *any* of the quotes Paul or other NT writers take from the OT, there are always variations from the Septuagint. Afterall - they were quoting from memory most of the time, or in a few cases from their local version of the text.

A lovely example of this is the way Matthew 3:3 rereads Isaiah 40:3. Isaiah seems to have written 'A voice cries: "make a path for the Lord in the desert"'. Whereas Matthew has "A voice calls in the desert "Make a path...". Matthew's version lovingly rereads Isaiah so that it fits better with the story he wants to tell about John the Baptist in the wilderness. Of course to inerrancy pedants, Matthew is being heretical!

In sum, inerrancy doesn't seem to have even crossed Jesus's radar, not that of his culture, nor for that matter that of any other Christian reader for many centuries afterwards. It woudl have baffled them all, as it does me. It is a modern invention.

On your second 'question'. I agree. All of us run the risk of turning Jesus into our own image. Welcome to the risky journey of faith!

Of course, as an orthodox Christian my performance of scripture is guided by the historic Creeds, the wisdom of past orthodox writers, the company of my fellow Christians and the guidance of reason.

But for all that it is still risky and still a journey. I don't know where it will end - well I do, in a 'fact to face' encounter!

With such guidance the best one can do is humbly to seek the face of God with 'fear and trembling'. And accept that one must expect to make mistakes.

Invoking inerrancy to my mind is a red herring. Which inerrant version of scripture should I believe? There are hundreds of Conservative Evanglicals all claiming their own interpretation is the true one. If only they'd all be more honest...

Let me finish by speaking more personally - at the end of this over long response, sorry!

After a profound experience of the Risen Christ at Spring Harvest I came to devour huge chunks of scripture. My NIV Bible of the time has more ink from underlining in it than the orginal text had. I ate Josh MacDowell, showered with Francis Schaeffer.

After a while though I found that I was being asked to take too much for granted. My mind was being straight-jacketed. The glory and messiness of Scripture was being rode rough shod over and replaced by a cardboard Christianity.

For a while it was a bit like living an intellectually schizophrenic life. Around me I could see people dropping out of church/faith because of the overly high expectations they were being made to have about the claimed inerrancy of scripture (how many leave CUs for this reason?).

I can still vividly remember the day I consciously decided to accept the fact that I couldn't in all honesty hold onto inerrancy any longer. I was terrified.

And yet the sky did not fall in. My faith grew. My love of scripture increased, my respect for it knows no bounds (hell, if I didn't have a high regard for scripture I wouldn't have sat typing at this computer for the past hour!.

Hey Dave, it's warm in the pool. Jump in.


At 10:28 pm, April 03, 2006, Blogger Dave K said...

Careful you don’t confuse the Dave you haven’t ever met (me), with the wise one, who wisely is taking time over making a considered response, especially as I will attempt again to make a decent comment.

You pulled apart my weak arguments pretty fairly, so I will try and be a bit more precise this time.

Firstly, I should admit to not being a fan of the form of inerrancy you attack, largely because it is too inflexible and unimaginative to deal with the variety of the biblical witness as we have it. Your problem with inerrancy, as regards the difficulty in determining the original state (as much as there ever could have been one) of the biblical books, is understandable, and understood too by many evangelicals. When inerrantists argue with Jesus that every jot and title is inspired, and meant to be there, it is only fair to read them as charitably as you do Jesus. Moving above the very popular level, there has always been a recognition in the best inerrantists that the inspired writers (or preachers like Jesus) were only inerrant to the degree that what they were saying was the message they were trying to pass on. So Psalmists inaccurate cosmology (by scientific standards) was not their message, and so not as accurate as that we would demand if we were looking to them for scientific information. Similarly if we (or Jesus/the evangelist) cared who was Zechariah’s father, it may have been an issue that there was confusion over his identity. Perhaps I should not hold onto the term inerrancy, as truthfulness carries all the meaning I want, especially as the negative term leads to a looking for errors, whereas the positive ones leads to a more listening approach.

Listening is what scripture demands, and specifically a listening to the main thrusts of the various writers and the One who stands behind them all. Jesus is ruthless in his attacks on those in his day who listened to the details but not the main point, so distorting the whole message. He never suggests that not listening to some parts is the way forward, rather a more careful listening of the whole is the way he suggests. This is exactly what he does in Matt 5 with divorce. You seem to believe that there is little difference between ‘countermanding’, which suggests going in the opposite direction, and ‘tightening up’, which suggests following the lead already pointed. There is however a huge difference, and it is clear that it is the latter that is the logic behind Jesus’ argument.

Because I haven’t spent much time describing what I mean by inerrancy I probably deserved a criticism over false logic but I do believe Wenham’s argument holds some force. Of course we are saved by Jesus’ incarnating action but we should not cut his teaching loose from this – his disciples never did. All actions require interpretation, and the disciples would have been unable to appreciate (and maybe not even participate in his saving act) were it not be for the many hours he saw fit to devote to teaching. Even if his knowledge was incomplete, we will never find a better teacher than Jesus, and we neglect to listen to ALL he had to say at our peril. The passages which show Jesus’ assumption of the consistent truthfulness of the OT could be easily multiplied, and should not be neglected when considering his more creative interpretations of it. In your comment you again seem to assume that the difference between reconstruing a text and misconstruing it is negligible, but I do not see that it is. Much work over the centuries has been done to see and appreciate how Jesus’ interpretation of the OT to be all about him was no misinterpretation, but gloriously and insightfully true. This applies to both the verses (understood in their context) and the metanarrative of the whole.

I sympathise with you distaste for much of the positivistic interpretations of the bible over the past century or two. But the positivistic interpretations of the worst of modern inerrantists is an uncharitable way to judge a doctrine that has been believed throughout much of church history. I am no church historian but what I have read of Calvin, and Augustine especially clearly shows they have a more narrow view of inerrancy than is found in evangelical scholarship today. I cannot put up much of a fight to the old chestnut that it originated with the Princeton theologians, but you will have to show me the evidence to show that it originated in the 19th century to convince me it did.

You are right that the canon was pretty fluid until quite late, but the extent of the canon is assumed and not argued by the doctrine of inerrancy. And without wanting to go into it here, I think your argument’s destination may be somewhere you do not even want to be. You also seem to assume that inerrancy is a textual category, but I don’t see where that comes from, accept maybe some bad experiences in the past.

Your comment that inerrancy pedants would hold Matthew heretical, makes me wonder why you bring the passage up, unless it is inerrancy pedants who are who you are opposing. In which case why travel all the way to Barth, and instead rest with inerrantist of a more broad sort as can be found easily in both church history and modern evangelical seminaries?

Inerrancy may not have crossed Christ’s radar but it has crossed ours (largely because of modern religious studies), but Scripture as a guide to life was a serious concern of Jesus in his context. He had to combat misreadings of Scripture, not a variety of doctrines of its truthfulness. Since the church fathers however, Scripture has not been universally accepted by the message of the Gospel and it has been necessary to engage doubts about it’s consistent usefulness. You previously argued that only the person of Jesus is the Word of God. He is its clearest expression, but the scripture clearly refers to the Gospel and various parts of it as words of God. An suspicion of parts of scripture is a suspicion of certain aspects of the Word of God par excellence, and so it must be on our radar if there is a possible threat to it within the church.

I must leave it there, although there is more I would like to pontificate on. But before I go I want to emphasise that I know what you are rejecting and I want to join you in that pool out of the cold. I just don’t want to go as far as you go, because I do not think it is necessary or helpful. I listened to a lecture on my mp3 player today, which warned of some popular evangelical doctrines of scripture, which had as their root the desire to own and control the truth and not to be transform and judged (or performed) by it. I agree with that lecturer, and with your plea for evangelical honesty, but I wonder if dumping inerrancy totally simply leads to the same disease but just lays aside using scripture as one of the bats with which to beat your opponents.

I still wonder about how you can (always) sit at the feet of scripture as the pre-eminent witness to the truth while simultaneously being sure that it is regularly mistaken, and in need of correction.

By the way: The Wenham who wrote ‘Christ and the Bible’ is the father of the two famous ones…and one less famous vicar.

At 11:12 am, April 04, 2006, Blogger David said...

If we are keeping the focus on generalities and not specific textual issues of supposed errancy/inerrancy, then just 2 quick points:

1) The argument about inerrancy being a nineteenth century conception is the thing that has in fact been consigned to bed.

There is a difference between the origination of the word 'inerrancy' and the concept which the word expresses i.e. Scripture's complete truthfulness and trustworthiness. The former is even later than C19 but the latter is there throughout the tradition from its earliest days.

The best treatment of this is John D. Woodbridge's analysis: 'Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal' (Zondervan, 1982). Woodbridge traces the concept throughout the Patristic and Middle Ages, the Reformation, RC and Protestant apologetics in the C16 and early C17 centuries ... and right through to the C19 Princetonians who are largely blamed for its invention. Woodbridge's book is a devastating critique.

2) The general discussion of the textual history of the Bible and its multiple diverse manuscript traditions etc above is massively simplistic about the kind of problems these issues pose for contemporary inerrantists.

All I can do here is refer you to a blog like: where a number of British NT scholars (along with others), committed to the concept of inerrancy, are engaging with and discussing textual criticism at the highest level. There have been a number of recent posts on the subject of inerrancy and a number of these scholars whose main work is to study and assess textual variations and mauscript histories do not see this as a threat to 'inerrancy'. Some of the detailed posts on the topic explain how and why.

On the closely related issue of NT citing OT and all the issues of use of MT and LXX, one of the best books is that edited by Greg Beale: 'The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the OT in the New' (Baker, 1994).

At 5:01 pm, April 04, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Oh my goodness – there are now a Trinity of Dave’s/Davids!

My profound apologies to Dave and Blue Fish for the error! (I know what it is like, though – both my father and father-in-law are Daves, and then we have our own family trinity of Mike, Mark and Marcus which causes endless problems!)

Dave, you are a generous man. Let me respond to a few of your considered points.

1) “there has always been a recognition … that the inspired writers (or preachers like Jesus) were only inerrant to the degree that what they were saying was the message they were trying to pass on”.

That’s fine, you helpfully indicate a useful distinction between what I could call a ‘hard’ doctrine of inerrancy (which you and I both reject), and a ‘soft’ doctrine – which I quote above (I hope you don’t mind the categories).

I don’t really have a problem with that soft version, I could probably use the term myself, it’s just I don’t think it really means very much.

You, me, Adolf Hitler, the author of Matthew’s Gospel, all of us might on such terms be theologically inerrant, if that simply means that when we wrote about God we did it in the way that was most honest to our sense of what we were being ‘called’ to pass on (even if it was clothed in peripherally inconsequential matter – slips of language, cosmologies, etc). Does that really help us very much?

Certainly that way one could hang on to the word ‘inerrancy’, but I don’t think it would make much real difference. It would still leave enormous issues to be faced.

For example, the authorial intention behind the Book of Jonah – is it a ‘straight’ work of prophesy akin to Zechariah, or an ironic prophetic novella in which Jonah is the fall-guy? On either reading the term ‘inerrancy’ could be invoked. Both versions could be accepted. The latter being a case of an author wanting to pass on God’s message about the narrowness of his contemporaries’ view of faith and using a particular literary form to accomplish this. (If you think I’m being off the wall, the latter reading of Jonah is pretty mainstream now, and releases a lot of the humour in the text!).

2) “Perhaps I should not hold onto the term inerrancy, as truthfulness carries all the meaning I want, especially as the negative term leads to a looking for errors, whereas the positive ones leads to a more listening approach.”

Yep, I’d prefer that. And especially if by ‘truth’ we can accept that there are various ways of revealing ‘truth’ – mythical, moral, ironic, scientific, historical, poetic etc etc

3) “You seem to believe that there is little difference between ‘countermanding’… and ‘tightening up’”.

Let me bring the scriptures to bear on this. I think I would love to be a fly on the wall when the authors of the Gospels of Matthew and Mark meet for a beer! Presumably Matthew’s author based his Gospel in part on Mark’s text – but ‘he’ (could have been a she?) chose to make some significant changes in ‘his’ version of Jesus.

Mark’s Jesus ‘declares all foods clean’ thus going against many of the Torah’s laws, whereas Matthew’s Jesus talks about the ‘jots and tittles’ of Torah remaining. How do we square it? What was Jesus doing - countermanding (Mark) or tightening up (Matthew) the Law?

I think first of all we have to be honest about the problems here. Then we can make hypotheses about their various authors, their outlooks and their communities (Is Mark’s a more gentile free-telling of the gospel that reflects the kind of openness to innovation in the Spirit? Is Matthew wanting to reign in the message and reaccommodate it to Jewish ears? St Paul once talked about ‘becoming all things to all people’ (I quote from memory) I think there are various tellings of the good news about Jesus which say different things about Jesus’s own attitude to different parts of old Testament.

That’s not to be completely agnostic about what Jesus’s own view about the Jewish scriptures, we can get some way towards that through historical reconstruction. But it does mean that it probably shouldn’t concern us to much if the Gospels themselves don’t major on it.

4) “Even if his knowledge was incomplete, we will never find a better teacher than Jesus, and we neglect to listen to ALL he had to say at our peril. The passages which show Jesus’ assumption of the consistent truthfulness of the OT could be easily multiplied, and should not be neglected when considering his more creative interpretations of it.”

Well, as I think I’ve just discussed, whether there is a ‘consistent’ approach to the OT is a moot point in the gospels. May be Jesus accepted some things, thought some things were peripheral, and rejected others?

But hey, I’m a Christian, of course I don’t think there’s any other better teacher. He teaches, shows and instantiates who God is. He is not a professor of Old Testament studies, though.

5) “…Augustine especially clearly shows … a more narrow view of inerrancy than is found in evangelical scholarship today”

Read Augustine’s De Doctrina Christiana (‘On Christian Teaching’).

It’s a hundred page essay on how Christians should read the Bible. Yes, it accepts divine inspiration for scripture. But it doesn’t look anything like most modern readings at all. It has been called the first book of semiotics (a theory of words as signs)

Of course Augustine starts (in Book 2) with the way that words can function ‘literally’, but then he talks about other tropes (e.g. irony, metaphor etc etc, stuff we’d accept without even thinking about that is not, strictly speaking, ‘literal’), and also adds that the insights of history, astronomy, geography, etc should be taken into consideration.

Then he moves on to when one should read something figuratively, rather than literally. Augustine considers this particularly important when a moral issue is at stake. He writes that when a ‘good’ character appears to say or do something morally abhorrent, a literal reading is inappropriate and the text should be understood figuratively (I’ve not checked, but my guess is that is how he would have read the grisly ending of Psalm 137).

Let me quote the great Christian himself:

“So all, or nearly all, of the deeds contained in the books of the Old Testament are to be interested not only literally but also figuratively; but (in the case of those which the reader interpret literally) if the agents are praised but their actions do not agree with the practices of the good men who since the Lord’s coming in the flesh have been the guardians of the divine precepts, one should take up the figurative meaning into the understanding but not take over the deed itself into one’s behaviour…

The greatest care must be taken to determine whether the expression that we are trying to understand is literal or figurative. When we have worked out that it is figurative, it is easy to study it from various angles, using the rules we set out…”

(De Doct. Chr., Book 3, XXIII – I think, the system of chapters is unclear in my Penguin edition!).

In other words, Augustine sees multiple layers of meanings in scripture, and the particular layer one should privilege is determined by a number of rules. In addition, what guided the appropriateness of a reading was ultimately Christological: does it lead me to the God made known in Christ? (Which takes me back to the Barth quote with which this blog began).

In practise, if one picks up a commentary of Augustine – or any other writer in the following fifteen hundred years - one sees a wonderfully rich way of reading scripture. Thomas Aquinas summarises by distinguishing between the ‘literal’ and the ‘spiritual’ senses of scripture. Among the latter are: ‘anagogical’ (what a text foreshadows), ‘tropological’ (the moral sense) and ‘allegorical’. This came to be known as the ‘four-fold’ method.

How does inerrancy fit in? Well, the word is not used, and rightly so, it would be pretty meaningless since what might seem errant on one interpretative level (e.g. the literal) might turn out to be meaningful on another (e.g. the allegorical).

6) “I cannot put up much of a fight to the old chestnut that it originated with the Princeton theologians, but you will have to show me the evidence to show that it originated in the 19th century to convince me it did.”

David admits in his comment (above) that the term isn’t used until the C19. Have I convinced you the word is also inappropriate as a description of the practise of medieval writers in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas?

Another tack might be: go visit an historian in a university department (I’m one myself, as is my wife). Ask them when ‘history’ as a discipline involving an attempt by careful documenting of sources and objective impartiality to retell what happened in the past began. They will answer that it is a creation of the Enlightenment that comes to fullness in the C19. The categories of ‘error’ and ‘inerrancy’ in this sense pertain to a fairly modern approach to the world. (That’s not to say other writers before hand didn’t try to be accurate…)

7) “but the scripture clearly refers to the Gospel and various parts of it as words of God.

Indeed there are various kinds of statement about various parts of scripture at various times… But what does ‘Word of God’ mean? Is it a word ‘about’ God, a direct quote of words ‘from’ God, a general sense of what God might ‘say’? All of the above, I expect and many more versions. (I don’t think, for example, that Paul thought he was writing down ‘words from God’).

As I’ve written before, I think the key thing for us today is to accept the Bible as a gist and then perform it / allow it to perform us. I’d rather go with a performative sense of scripture becoming God’s word because I see it as happening within the NT church itself. It is of course what the story of the Journey to Emmaus in Luke is all about: the Risen Christ comes alongside and breathes through apparently unimportant, irrelevant texts to give us life.

8) An suspicion of parts of scripture is a suspicion of certain aspects of the Word of God par excellence”.

As for suspicion: one can be suspicious about a description, without necessarily being suspicious about the thing described. I’d rather go with Augustine’s rigorous questioning and hard reading than remove my questioning brain (there’s a lovely quote by the way of Augustine’s about problematic verses of scripture being there to make us think harder – the Bible as a mental gymnasium…!)

9) “I still wonder about how you can (always) sit at the feet of scripture as the pre-eminent witness to the truth while simultaneously being sure that it is regularly mistaken, and in need of correction”

I sit at the feet of Christ as the pre-eminent witness to God. I do that in dialogue with Scripture as God comes to me and I to God. I don’t seek to ‘correct’ scripture, I seek to hear God in it. And I do that in the company of the saints and with the guidance of the creeds, in the context of worship and of confession. I fail to see in practical terms what else one can one do? What do you do that is so different?

Many thanks Dave.

Then: David

1) The argument about inerrancy being a nineteenth century conception is the thing that has in fact been consigned to bed.

Are points 5) and 6) above illustrative of a legitimate position to take? What do you do with an Augustinian approach to scripture? Would you be happy with it?

2) The best treatment of this is John D. Woodbridge's analysis: 'Biblical Authority…’

I’ve had a peek on Amazon.Com’s free-view. Would I be right in thinking that JDW would wish to say the Bible was not only inerrant but also infallible? They seem to be wanting to criticise Rogers-Kim for wanting to say that scripture in not infallible, and that one should not accommodate to issue of science. Augustine, for one, would have disagreed. (But perhaps I’ve got the wrong end of the stick, what does he say, have you read it?)

3) I’ve had a look at ‘’. Fine. Good on them.

They seem to want to retreat from talking about the ‘Bible’ as opposed to ‘the scriptures’ which they accept are fraught with textual issues, some of which may never be got to bottom of. Does it help to believe that somewhere ‘out there’ there is an inerrant version of scriptures, but we’ve just never seen it? I’d rather just work with what we’ve got…

Not had time to check out: Greg Beale. Perhaps you could summarise?

At 9:25 pm, April 04, 2006, Blogger Dave K said...

Phew this is getting exhausting. One happy thing is the way discussion between Christians so often leads to a realisation that we have far more in common than divides us. However I my typing fingers are itching to respond you clear response to by comment, which got a bit unclear towards the end. I’ll try and comment on each of your points again as I am not quite up to a broad based response.

1) When I articulate my ‘soft’ inerrancy I am not arguing that

“when we wrote about God we did it in the way that was most honest to our sense of what we were being ‘called’ to pass on”

I am saying that when the biblical writers wrote about God they did it in a way that could not be faulted, and was a sure guide in a dark world. As you note that sort of understanding of inspiration would not help us very much. The scriptures claims to be a truthful witness to God’s actions, or a reliable tradition about God’s relationships and it would contridict it’s own claims to usefulness if that was not true. I would not call myself ‘soft’ because I believe that inerrantist pedantry does not take seriously what scripture reveals about itself, my line is at least trying to stick strongly to scriptures own inerrant claims, not secretly wish the scriptures were in a less problematic form.

Sticking strongly to listening to what scripture wants to say (inerrantly) I too lean towards Jonah as ‘ironic prophetic novella’, although because the truth of the message of the novella relies on the truth of the prophecy it narrates, I too believe that prophecy to be inerrant too. I think you bring up Jonah to show that there is more to biblical interpretation than proclaiming ‘it’s inerrant!’… but that doesn’t mean it does not include that.

If the above made any sense you are doing well. Anyhow…

2) I can join echo the ‘yep’ here, although I don’t see the needs for the scare-quotes around ‘truth’, as if we are not really sure what it means.

3) That Jesus emphasised at various time the deep roots, and newness of his message at various times does not change the fact that these two emphases are woven together throughout his teaching (and that of the whole NT). I don’t think inerrantists are blind to the biblical writers sensitivity to their context, and the partial nature of their teaching. It is you who insist that to be always true the same thing must be said whatever the situation, accepting some modernist assumptions, not the inerrantists I know of. To say that either Jesus or the Gospels didn’t major on OT interpretation seems quite blind to the evidence to me. In the very early days there wasn’t much more the apostles did either than interpret scripture in the synagogues with Christ as their guide.

4) Again you seem to be carrying a modernist assumption that to be ‘consistently’ true is to say the same thing whatever the circumstances. In fact Jesus knew, and we know from experience that the opposite is true.

It seems strange to me that in just one paragraph you say both that there is no better teacher than Jesus and seem to downplay the point in following his approach because he ‘is not a professor of Old Testament studies’. I am not quite sure where you are going there.

5) I did once read ‘On Christian Teaching’ but I think I’ve forgotten it all. When I brought him and Calvin into the argument I had in mind how they bent over backwards to harmonise the historical details of the gospels etc, when the best inerrantists would move on to more useful tasks, and seak to listen to the individual writers.

Augustine’s exegisis may look little like modern scholarship, but he didn’t deny anything inerrantists would affirm. ‘when a ‘good’ character appears to say or do something morally abhorrent’ we must assume from that the author of the book disapproved with us and intended us to condemn the character (not the author himself). This in fact is the ‘literal’ meaning of the text if understood in the context of both the book and the canon. Psalm 137 is a different kettle of fish as the author is propogating the end we might dislike (because we have not understood it). Augustine in his commentary does not do as you suggest because it is the divine author’s desire, not just the Psalmist’s.

I am not making much sense but I don’t think proper interpretation of multiple layers of meaning should contradict the lower levels. I don’t think it is necessary.

It is easy to condemn the end of Psalm 137 when in our comfortable lives we do not have enemies, and do not sing lamenting songs of the suffering of God’s people. Perhaps if I had suffered like the inspired Psalmist I might dare question him, but I think I have much to learn from singing his song. However, interestingly, I think in the 21st century UK it would contradict the very truth of Psalm 137 to sing the song in the street (true consistency demands sensitivity).

I’ll try to be more brief as I proceed as I can feel the coherency slipping already.

6) “The categories of ‘error’ and ‘inerrancy’ in this sense pertain to a fairly modern approach to the world.”

That may be true, but it is you who are assuming that inerrancy demands that history is about bare historical facts. Packer (in his God has spoken) knew better and so do decent modern day inerrantists. Nevertheless the category of error (and so inerrancy) has never been unknown to any culture least of all Israel’s.

7) In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 Paul clearly shows he believes his words are God’s too. However, inerrancy does not depend on the writers believing that they were writing ‘scripture’ rather it depends on them believing they are writing truth (first of all), and then moves to inspiration as all truth comes from God.

8) Scripture does demand questioning of itself, but the reason for this is because it believes it is true and asks to be proclaimed in public as such – inviting questioning as the appropriate response to real interaction. But questioning does not require suspicion.

9) “What do you do that is so different?” Aww why do you have to answer such a difficult question right at the end.

I guess the short answer is when I come to the end of Psalm 137 and find it initally repulsive I question it and myself (because it demands to be accepted as a good thing to say implicitly). I seek to ask why it is that I have a problem with it, and come to a number of (preliminary) answers:

a)I do not have a sufficient understanding of the seriousness of sin.
b)I have a far to individualistic understanding of responsibility.
c)I underestimate the destruction evil can inflict.
d)I forget that perfect justice is to come, not here already.
e)I am more likely to be the oppressor deserving revenge than the oppressed so have trouble understanding the reactions of the oppressed to oppression.
f)I live in a unreal world were real suffering and real emotional responses to such exists.
g)Maybe more (or less)….

Hmmm....Lots to think about.

At 9:41 pm, April 04, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

On reflection, a couple of additions and corrections:

There's an infamous question that is impossible to answer truthfully with a simple 'yes' or a 'no' answer.

It is: "Have you stopped beating your wife?"

As someone who has never beat his wife (except at Monopoly) how do I answer - if I say 'yes' the implicit sense is that I used to beat her. If I say no, it seems as if I still am!

It feels like I am facing a similar question from the three Daves:

"As a faithful Christian have you stopped believing in the Bible's inerrancy?"

It is the wrong type of question - most Chrsitans never have.

As an Anglican I stand by the 6th article of the Anglican Church's 39 Articles:

"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation..."

I'm very happy with that. For the record I don't think, to quote Dave, "the Bible is regularly mistaken and in need of correction". I think it is good enough for 'salvation' but messy enough to make make a claim for inerrancy incredible.

Now some corrections (uptight person that I am):

section 6) in the first block of the two Augustine quotes, it should have the word 'interpreted' rather than 'interested'.

And I should have said 'thousand years' rather than 'fifteen hundred'.

Secton 7) 'Bible as a gist' should read 'Bible as a gift'!

Sorry didn't have time to proof read it...

(PS there's a nicer version of the wife-beating question I use with my son to get him into bed. Rather than argue about whether he wants to go to bed, I simply ask 'we're going to be now, which toy do you want to take with you?'. It changes the basis of the conversation entirely away from what he wants to argue about and forces him to accept my premise. He falls for it every time... very sweet!).

At 10:41 pm, April 04, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Dave, what an uncommonly nice guy you are. We should stop tip-tapping and get down to some serious face-to-face coffee drinking ;-)

Thank you for your kind words. It is unusual to combine gentleness with disagreement, isn't it?

I think there is a significant closing of the gap between us.

A few rough edges may still be there.

Thank you for chasing up Augugustine on Ps 137. I wonder if you are satisfied with what he does by allegorising the death-wish as the Christian's struggle with lust? ("What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. For there are, who have to fight with inveterate lusts. When lust is born, before evil habit giveth it strength against thee, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. But thou fearest, lest though dashed it die not; “Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ")

Do you think the author intended that? And does it mater if he did not?

Also I wonder whether I perhaps would add an i) to you list of responses:

the scriptures testify to an unfolding relationship with God that develops, initialy from a certain cruder undertanding to a more perect one (and not always in a lineal direction)? So for example, while Ps 137 and other similar passages might think it legitimate for God to destroy one's enemies, the revelation of what god is really about climaxes in 'Father forgive them...'?

What do you think? Is that a legitimate response, too? And how would that fit with the inerrancy of any of the texts along that developing continuum?

On this score, you quote me:
"‘when a ‘good’ character appears to say or do something morally abhorrent’" and you say "we must assume from that the author of the book disapproved with us and intended us to condemn the character (not the author himself)".

Are you sure? Are there not perhaps times when the author assumed we should accept his/her moral position, but in fact we cannot?

Re: my 'Jesus is not a Prof' quip. As I'm typing this I see why you query me. I was going to write 'I just meant he came to reveal God more fully, not to give a perfect lessons on what the OT means'! - ironically I get the point, and it might in fact reinforce my Emmaus comment!

But I think I still want to say, some of the things Jesus taught about are out of kilter with what came before, that his coming inauguarates a new understanding (and relationship) with God.

I don't what to be supercessionist in regard to Judaism, but nor do I want to say that Jesus fits perfectly in his context. There has to be something unique about him, otherwise the religious intelligentsia of his day wouldn't have turned against him. No?

Ironically there's some comments on a blog I saw today on Jesus and Torah which concern whether a Gallilean version of Judaism was generally more relaxed about some things than a central Judaean version. Some of Jesus' emphasis on morality rather than rituals might reflect this...

Hey, have you ever read Gundry's commentaries on Matthew and Mark? He sounds like he might be right up your street. Enormous attention to exegetical differences and convinced that each one is of significance. I think it can be a little strained sometimes - can a Gospel writer not sometimes just plain mess up? - but I like and respect him.

At 9:04 am, April 05, 2006, Blogger David said...

Again just a few quick points from me:

1) Mark said above that I (David and not one of the Daves!) admitted that the word 'inerrancy' is not used until the C19. However, I said that the word is even later than C19. In fact, I think 'inerrancy' is strictly speaking not used until around middle of C20? I could be wrong on that. But my point has been that, whatever we call it, the concept of Scripture's entire truthfulness and complete trustworthiness has been around from the beginning.

As I understand it, inerrancy is a recent invention to shore up some of the concessions made with the term infallible. Some have wrongly argued that in the statement 'Scripture is infallible in all matters of faith and practice' the prepositional phrase limits Scripture's truthfulness i.e. it is entirely true in matters that relate to salvation and Christian living (faith and practice) but not necessarily true in matters of detail i.e. history etc. This is a modern misunderstanding of the phrase as when it was coined 'faith and practice' was intended as a catch-all term to show how Scripture was true in its entirety. So the word 'inerrancy' was coined to express the position of those unhappy with the looser understanding of infallibility.

This means that re. Woodbridge, yes, he would be saying Scripture is infallible as well as inerrant, although I am not sure I see what you are asking here.

On Augustine and whether De Doctrina Christiana affects my argument about 'inerrancy is a C19 invention' being consigned to bed ... no, I don't think this is relevant here at all.

We read this text last term in a hermeneutics seminar here in Aberdeen and I cannot easily see how it is relevant to the issue of inerrancy? Dave said above that 'I think you bring up Jonah to show that there is more to biblical interpretation than proclaiming ‘it’s inerrant!’ and I think you are doing the same with Augustine - De Doctrina shows Augustine's (often brilliant, sometimes problematic) approach to interpreting the text but says little about his beliefs re. the text's ontology. My commitment to inerrancy commits me to accepting whatever I find the text to be saying as completely truthful, but it is not the sum total of how I go about discovering what the text is in fact saying. For this I read the text as it is meant to be read - as poetry, metaphor, apocalyptic etc along with a hundred other intepretive strategies. I think De Doctrina deals with all of these latter issues and not with the text's truthfulness per se.

As Dave has suggested too, there is just no way Augustine can be used in an 'anti-inerrantist' argument. When you talk about things like differences between Matthew and Mark above, the fact is that Augustine was one of the leading advocates of attempts to reconcile the differences between the Gospels - see his 'The Harmony of the Gospels' (I, 7, 10): 'we must prove that the writers in question do not stand in any antagonism to each other'. In I, 35, 54 Augustine is at pains to point out that no 'contradictory accounts' exist in the Evangelists' verbal statements when properly interpreted. (We may not always agree with all Augustine's proposed harmony but this is beside the point - the fact is he thought such harmonisation necessary). In leter 82 to Jerome, Augustine says: 'For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it'.

Augustine is simply one witness in a vast tradition that means your question: 'As a faithful Christian have you stopped believing in the Bible's inerrancy?' is only the wrong type of question if you are looking for the word 'inerrancy' throughout church history instead of the concept. The search for the word 'inerrancy' is anachronistic, the search for the concept the word represents entirely valid and extremely fruitful.

If the questions is: 'As a faithful Christian have you stopped believing in the Bible's entire truthfulness and complete trustworthiness?' then the question expresses something about the Bible that we have recently used 'inerrancy' to refer to, but which is something that Christians down through the ages have gladly confessed.

At 9:45 pm, April 05, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Hi David,

Why am I bringing in Augustine? – partly in response to Dave’s original reference.

And in doing so, I think I am attempting by quoting his exegetical methodology to show that the sense of the meaning ‘inerrancy’ that is being presented to me by yourself David, is not one that I think you could legitimately claim to be able to share with him.

His way of reading texts included hermeneutical manoeuvres which (I suspect, though I could be wrong) you would claim are inappropriate – in particular his use of allegory.

It was only by including such manoeuvres that Augustine was intellectually able to retain that position of scriptural harmony to which you rightly draw attention to as being his wish.

So, when Augustine wanted to harmonise textual discrepancies, often he achieved this by removing the issue from the domain of historical facticity and moving it into the realm of ‘spiritual’ meaning, often this was meant treating texts allegorically.

It seems to me that if one were to strip out from Augustine’s hermeneutics the ability to read texts allegorically, then Augustine would not have been able to continue to speak of an error-free bible. (i.e. Augustine's Biblical 'ontology', to use your word, necessarily includes an acceptance of allegory).

By contrast it seems to me most conservative evangelicals would want to speak of an error free Bible, but without retaining allegory as an acceptable reading strategy. (Their Biblical 'ontology' does not incude allegory).

I suggest that this undermines an appeal to a continuous common meaning to the word inerrancy (or a common 'ontology') across the history of the Church because the ‘practice’ of the belief is different. What the practise of a belief in inerrancy looks like on the page is different.

To put it simply: though Augustine obviously believed in the Bible’s ‘truthfulness’*, I don’t think Augustine would have meant the same thing by that as you would mean.

His ability to discern truth rested on a different set of criteria as to what an acceptable 'form' that truth could take (an allegorical form, for example); and it did not include criteria that today many conservative evangelical readers would want to include in the 'form' of that term 'truth'.

(*nb to Dave: I use the quotation marks to indicate that there are a variety of meanings of the word ‘truth’ and that this issue seems to me precisely the problemmatic issue here!)

Further, given then that Augustine sets the tone of most of the exegesis that follows in the West, through Gregory the Great, Bede and Aquinas - and is broadly speaking illustrative of his own time - I am therefore suggesting that the same goes for the following millenium.

Premodern 'ontology' contrasts with the later conservative evangelical innovation.

Now, let's cut to the chase! As regards infallibility, let’s all put our cards on the table:

Do we consider the Bible accurate on all points of history or science? And is it important that it should be?

My vote is no on both counts, and it doesn’t bother me in the slightest or impair my respect for it as an icon. I don’t expect it to be so, as it is a premodern Book.

What about you guys, my twin beloveds?


ps we've also strayed a way from Barth's idea of performance... sob!

At 9:29 am, April 06, 2006, Blogger David said...


Thanks for your response. I'm afraid I need to bow out of the discussion as I just don't have the time to keep this up. But three final thoughts in relation to your one above:

1) You wrote: 'It seems to me that if one were to strip out from Augustine’s hermeneutics the ability to read texts allegorically, then Augustine would not have been able to continue to speak of an error-free bible'.

Let us grant that Augustine used allegorical interpretation to deal with perceived errors in the text. (I am not personally aware of any such e.g.'s but perhaps there are). Then let us grant, as you say, that we managed in a conversation to convince Augustine that his allegorical resolution was inadequate and that without it he is faced with an errant text.

On the basis of what he said to Jerome, I cannot see how Augustine would simply say 'Ok, you got me - if allegory's out, then the text is in error'. To Jerome he says: 'And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the MS. is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it'.

Notice how here we frames his resolution of difficulties in epistemological terms (self-ignorance) alongside some very economic hermeneutical ones (textual crit and translation), so that I think if we were to strip Augustine of allegory and thus leave him perplexed by something in a text(s) which appears opposed to truth he would simply either a) say that then we have misunderstood if we think the text(s) are in error or b) attempt to find some other strategy to reconcile them (although b is possibly conjectural).

In other words, for your argument to stand you need to prove that, stripped of allegory, Augustine would be willing to go back on his own resolve to confess ignorance in himself rather than confess error in the text.

(John Woodbridge deals at some length with Augustine and even with his conception of error. It's well worth a read).

2)Do we consider the Bible accurate on all points of history and science?

My answer: Where Scripture intends to speak on history (plenty of places) and science (no doubt there are some but I cannot think of many) then it accurately achieves its intention.

3) Back to Barth and the original issue:

I have written a paper that was published in 'Themelios' 29.3 (2004), 27-36, entitled 'The God of Promise: Christian Scripture as Covenantal Revelation'. This paper engages with Barth's doctrine of Scripture that your first post touched on and tries to outline some apsects of it that I think are problematic, with some theological and philosophical-linguistic responses.

The article is online in 'BT Articles' at

At 8:27 pm, April 06, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 8:29 pm, April 06, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

And with that tantalizing eschatological image of chewing the cud with Augustine, adieu to you David, and God's blessings on your PhD studies.

Eph 3:20-1.

At 3:42 pm, April 08, 2006, Blogger Dave K said...

Sorry for being slow to respond, I’ve suddenly got busy, so I’ll try and keep it brief.

Thanks David for putting things better than I ever could, esp with regard to Augustine.

Putting my cards on the table for you Mark. I think we should be sensitive when reading the bible to treat it how the writers wanted it to be treated. We have to look at how the scientific/historical points the bible makes are used, and not try and use them in a way in which they are not designed. Inerrancy/infallibility (I think the historical difference between the terms just muddies the waters) affirms that when the bible says x happened, therefore y in order to protect y we have to agree with the writer that x is happened. To do otherwise is not to take the texts seriously. However I believe you have to be careful you are not making assumptions about what x is for the writer. So I think it would be wrong to assume that the fact Jesus met two blind men, not one (as in different accounts), is what we should consider is x, although if he did not meet any blind men it is fair to say the story is fiction and loses it’s power.

We do the same in our everyday lives. We are trying to make scripture massively different to everyday talk (unnecessarily so) if we either make it irrelevant to Joe Bloggs trustworthiness as a teacher, that he cannot get his facts straight. But also it would be wrong to make it of any sort importance to his trustworthiness that when he is recalling a childhood story to make a point he gets a school-mate’s name wrong. So approximation, or mistakes in details not relevant to the witness, are quite possible within scripture I believe. The biblical writers (or their original hearers) would not consider them ‘errors’ in their writing, and so it would be unfair to call their writing ‘errant’ because of it.

I think it helps to imagine yourself in a conversation with the Psalmists, Luke etc, and thinking how you would treat their words in that situation. If you are quibbling over historical details, which they count as unimportant, you have stopped listening to their message, but to doubt the basis of their words in a historical event/scientific fact will mean you are no longer humbly listening.

I do not know if I have expressed myself correctly, but I am cannot afford to rewrite it.

Tim Keller is a New York pastor (his sermons are great examples of how to preach in today’s cities, by the way), and recently made some interesting comments in a lot of blog comments:

After reading all these posts I feel myself just a simple pastor, not a theologian. I don't know how I'd say to my people 1)the Bible is true and trustworthy, but 2)some of its statements might be erroneous. Most people don't know or care about the history of theological politics over the last 100 years, and how the term 'inerrant' has been a bludgeon for some in professional Christian institutions to use on others. Most people would say that's a shame but not relevant to them. If I insisted that we can't call the Bible 'inerrant' they'd want to know exactly where I thought the errors were. If I said 'that's not the point, I just don't want scientific empiricism sitting in judgment on the Scripture' they'd say they aren't empiricists. They want to know if they have to subject their lives to all of the Bible, even the 'texts of terror,' or just to some of it. Of course I'd tell them that the Bible is much more than 'inerrant,' though not less. The Yellow Pages, theoretically, could be inerrant, and yet not have canonical authority over me. Over the years I've taught a lot of people about the Bible, and though many people have disagreed with me, they have at least understood me. I think the distinction that many of you on this thread want me to make would be very confusing, to say the least. Of course I may be still misunderstanding you (Tony and others,) but that's how it appears to me.

In my heart I feel like he describes. I also want to move on, like Keller does, to living out all of the message (performing it).

A very unsatisfied,


PS. As I am often reminded (not least by Dave Bish) Christianity is a historical faith, in a God who has revealled himself in history. Our prime means of accessing this revelation, and of learning from it, is through the bible. If you start doubting the historical events they consider important (not the details they don't consider important) you have not just undermined those verses, but the whole witness - the whole bible. This is of great importance... but only because it leads to God who is of supreme importance.

PPS I anticipate some comment about how my PS sounded a little like Barth. In response to the anticipate response:

When Barth says: "The Bible is God's Word to the extent that God causes it to be his Word, to the extent that he speaks through it." I agree wholeheartly, but want to affirm that as the Church has historically recognised, God speaks through it all.

Question is: Are you going to listen?

Affirming inerrancy is not proof that you are a listener - we are not saved by uttering Shibboleths (something I have trouble remembering). But if you want to perform the whole play it does help to be willing to say so.

PPS please read my poor writing charitably.

At 9:01 pm, April 08, 2006, Blogger Dave K said...

I have just read this on inerrancy by a interesting guy called Al Roberts.

I think I broadly agree on what he says. I wonder what you think.

Interestingly it does not really touch on your original point about true foundations to build upon.


At 11:55 pm, April 08, 2006, Blogger Mark Laynesmith said...

Dave, in all our exchanges with each other you have been a most generous, patient and friendly conversation partner, thank you it does you credit.

I discover myself able to find common ground with many things that you say and also with the Al Roberts link you point to.

In terms of answering you directly, I'm not sure that is possible. It seems to me that there is such wiggle-room in your comments on the area of deciding what an author intended, that much that a suspicious/questioning person would tend to query, a less suspicious/questioning person might let pass. And the same latitude applies to your criterion of 'importance' (one person's 'error' being another person's matter of insignificance).

With such an degree of subjectivity I am thus not sure how to push the matter any further - except to wonder whether (perhaps as you hint) we are actually beginning to stray out of David's realm of ontology and into a pragmatics of performance... And that gives me hope, for I do believe that it as icon not idol (or shibboleth, as you say) that the Bible must be allowed to function - and it seems that in practical terms it does so for both of us.

Do pick up a copy of Frances Young's Art of Performance (she is a Mathodist theologian with an experience of bringing up disabled children). If I had your address, I'd send you a copy for free - perhaps you'll let me know an address? (I'd do this not to bludgeon you in to submission but in gratitude because I've enjoyed our conversation so much, and because I think you would actually rather like it and be surprised - as I have been by your own position on inerrancy). In any case, the Minster Library will have a copy if you do not wish to tell me.

Do let me know what you think if you ever do read it, will you?

I found the excerpt you quoted from the pastor who didn't know how to engage his congregation deeply saddening. Though some might (and do) characterise people like me as destructive liberals, my concern as a priest and an academic is to enable people to inhabit with their whole being, mind, body and soul, the fullness of faith. As I've mentioned before, my experience is of people struggling to do this.

In the end much of our disagreement may perhaps come down to an issue of religious traditions and personality-styles. From my perspective I still do not understand why calling one part of the Bible into question historically (or morally, or scientifically) necessarily inhibits the trustworthiness of the remainder.

Life is complex and messy, so is the story of our encounter with God. The Window of Scripture has opaque sections and flaws, but it is a window nonetheless. To appropriate a Pauline metaphor, 'now we see but through a glass darkly...'.

In fact, I would be inclined as others do, to turn this feature of Scripture into a virtue: it both prevents us from idolising it, and instills within us an escatological yearning for a true face to face encounter with God. And perhaps that is not all that far from what you say about making sense of differences between Gospels...

I pray for a time when the inerrancy term dies, or disappears from use; when religious groups stop waving it (and, I should say too its opposite) as a banner and when Christians who do indeed actually share a common discipleship not be reduced to mutual suspicion and inhibited from learning together and teaching one another.

1 Cor 13 - all of it, right to the end...


At 10:39 am, April 09, 2006, Blogger Dave K said...

Thanks, I do have membership of the Minster Library so may well take a look at that Frances Young book.

I am painfully aware of that my approach could become terribly subjective. I do mull over the issue a good deal and sometimes feel like I am wandering along a ridge with large drops to both sides of me. (I expect this makes me appear to have a quite superior view of the rightness of my own position.)

I do know better than to blanket-condemn liberal Christians as destructive (they do say things Evangelicals need to hear). Having said that though, my life experience has shown me how destructive a liberal approach to Scripture (especially) can be to a true relationship to God. I can only see massive problems resulting from an approach which can say 'we as 21st cent readers know better than this biblical writer'. I have not seen that in your comments (except on Ps 137), and perhaps we would have had a less courteous discussion if you had brought that in more, or if I had actually engaged with you questions: "What do you think? Is that a legitimate response, too? And how would that fit with the inerrancy of any of the texts along that developing continuum?".


At 3:21 pm, April 10, 2006, Blogger thebluefish said...

Sorry for no response. I've been at Spring Harvest. Not much else to add to this lengthy interesting interchange of thoughts at the moment. Keller is v.helpful.


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