Monday, July 30, 2012

Does inerrancy die the death of a thousand qualifications?

I think John Piper’s definition of inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose” is good EXCEPT most people would not think that’s what “inerrancy” means. The vast majority of people who hear about “biblical inerrancy” THINK it means technical, precise, exact correspondence with reality with no room for estimates, rounding up or down of numbers, reliance on errant sources, etc., etc. During thirty years of teaching theology I have had the constant experience of showing students the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and conservative evangelical theologians’ qualifications (e.g., Millard Erickson’s) and having them laugh. When I asked them why they laughed they always said “That’s not ‘inerrancy’.” Exactly.

What has happened is that conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars like Piper and Erickson and others have realized, as a result of their higher educations and researches, that the Bible DOES contain what most people (including they in the past) consider “errors.” But they want to hold onto the term “inerrancy” because it is such a useful litmus test for excluding “liberals” and other undesirables from the evangelical movement. So, instead of simply discarding the term “inerrancy,” they redefine it to death. But, almost no lay person and few pastors understand that’s what’s happening. They think the leading defenders of “inerrancy” believe what THEY do. The secret is, the scholars don’t.

This is a hackneyed attack on inerrancy. Because Olson can’t think for himself, he simply parrots the cliché-ridden objection. According to this objection, inerrancy dies the death of a thousand qualifications.

But that way of broaching the issue is fundamentally misconceived. It’s not like conservatives begin with a crude, ready-made definition of inerrancy, then proceed to refine it with ad hoc qualifications. For inerrancy is, itself, a theological construct, which derives from the self-witness of Scripture. We’re not taking a generic, preexisting definition, then redefining it. We’re not adding to, or subtracting from some off-the-shelf definition.

Both liberals and conservatives bring their expectations to the Bible. Both liberals and conservatives come to the Bible with mental preconceptions or qualifications. The concept of inerrancy is no more or less qualified than the concept of errancy. Both sides have prior understanding or considered opinion of what it would mean for the Bible to be true or false. Conservatives haven’t tacked on special riders.

Olson himself clearly has a preconceived notion of what the Bible ought to be like it if were completely true. And the Bible doesn’t measure up to his expectations. So he has his own set of caveats and codicils. It’s not like he begins with a pure, value-free concept of truth.

1 comment:

  1. The Hamburglar is at it again. He's so friendly looking. But I wouldn't invite him to a barbecue.