Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Eclipse of Inspiration

Flipping through John Nolland’s new commentary on Matthew today reminded me once again of something I’ve observed in a lot of contemporary “Evangelical” scholarship. Nowadays, many Evangelicals will make allowance for “minor” errors in the record of Scripture while defending its “basic” historicity or “reliability.”

Let’s call this the Neoevangelical view of Scripture. And we need to be clear on what this amounts to. Neoevangelicals have simply ditched the doctrine of inspiration. This never figures in their deliberations. They may allow for a supernatural element in the events recorded, but not in record of the events.

So the only difference between the liberal and the Neoevangelical is that the Neoevangelical regards the Bible as historical, but uninspired—while the liberal regards the Bible as both uninspired and unhistorical.

The Neoevangelical approaches the Bible in the same way he’d approach Tacitus or Josephus. The Bible writers are to be treated as serious historians who are faithful to their sources. Nevertheless, like any uninspired historian, they are fallible. Although they’re generally reliable, they make honest mistakes.

I’m not aware that there’s has been any conscious attempt to deny the doctrine of inspiration. It seems, rather, to have dropped out of sight due to the intellectual milieu in which Neoevangelicals circulate.

What this means is that there is no longer any presuppositional difference between the liberal and the Neoevangelical in terms of the process of inscripturation—only the quality of the end-product.

Now, there is an apologetic strategy, popularized by J. W. Montgomery and his spiritual protégés, in which you bootstrap from the “basic reliability” of Scripture to inerrancy via Christology. But what I’m observing is not apologetic strategy.

It is possible that Neoevangelicals would cling to some theory of partial inspiration, but not only would this be illogical, I just don’t see it in evidence. The very idea of inspiration seems to be irrelevant to the way in which Neoevangelicals approach Scripture.

To the extent that they still affirm certain miraculous events in Scripture, what we end up with is a naturalistic doctrine of Scripture grafted onto a supernaturalistic philosophy of history. God still intervenes in history, but not in the historical record.

So they have an activist theology underwritten by a deistic Bibliology. And it is only a matter of time before this unstable compromise degenerates into a more consistent Deism or atheism.


  1. An interesting book could be written about the infiltration of this view within Evangelicalism. Mark Noll wrote Between Faith and Criticism, but it is somewhat out of date.

    Some years ago, R. Gundry was "asked to leave" the ETS because of his views (the Infancy Narratives are Midrash) but his ideas are now probably centerist or conservative by today's standards.

  2. In an era when authors had no modern tools to recover "history" in the sense we use the word in the moder world, could it just possibly be said that God's inspiration led the authors to compose works of unmatched power as opposed to the accuracy of fine detail? I am thinking most particularly of the NT.

  3. Dan,

    Depends on what you mean. Either the Bible is whatever it claims to be, or else it is false. So we have to start with the self-witness of Scripture. We cannot modify the self-witness of Scripture: it is what it is; it says what it says. We can only accept it or reject it.

    The answer turns, in part, on what history the authors are trying to recover. Authors contemporaneous with events don't have to recover the distant past. They can just rely their own memory and other contemporary records and eyewitnesses.

    In other instances, a Bible writer isn't necessarily limited to sources. Direct revelation can supply what is lacking in the extant record.

    Or he can employ fallible records, but inspiration would correct for any errors in his source.

    Something can be incomplete or imprecise (vague on the details) without being erroneous. It simply says less than could be said.

    I would never oppose power to truth. The Gospels and letters and so on are powerful to the extent that they are taken to be true. If we no longer regard them as descriptive of real persons, places, and events, they lose their hold on us.