Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Scripture as Spectacles

Scripture, as the spectacles through which we perceive Christ (Calvin), must be attuned to Christ in order to present him clearly, but no matter how strongly we articulate that attuning, be it in terms of inerrancy, infallibility, clarity, or inspiration, it is not a power in Scripture that enables it to present Christ to us but a power in God through Christ in the Spirit. It was the work of the triune God that brought the Scripture into being in the first place and in light of that we must confess its fittingness to be the vessel Christ presents himself to us through, and, moreover, our statements about this fittingness ought not to be vague and abstract but concrete and literary, according to the nature of Scripture as text. Biblically, the chief given category in which to speak of this is inspiration, but we need other terms to clarify what we mean by inspiration. The terms ‘infallibility’ and ‘inerrancy’ are two of the most common descriptions of Scripture in Protestant theology meant to concretely clarify what we mean when we speak of Scripture’s inspiration. I would argue that the preference for, and in many quarters the demand for confessing, such terms is a product of modernist scientific epistemologies that stress the antimony between certainty and the possibility of error. Such categories are not thus wrong or wholly inappropriate, but it ought to be questioned whether they are the most helpful or important descriptions of Scripture as the spectacles through which we perceive Christ.

I question these terms collectively and individually: collectively because they are both morally neutral. Scriptures fittingness for Christ’s self-presentation might be described more adequately by terms like ‘faithfulness’ and ‘obedience’, terms that recognize the inherently moral-laden character of knowledge, than ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ which fail to bring this reality to view. (‘Infallibility’ may escape this charge if it is seen as the Gospel that seeks the conversion of sinners to repentance and faith which is unable to fail.)

In regard to ‘inerrancy’ in particular, I do not question it because I think factual accuracy has nothing to do with being faithful and obedient in human testimony to Christ, but because a narrow focus on factual accuracy has often had the historical tendency to get people off on rabbit trails in quests to harmonize apparently conflicting accounts in Scripture or other such distractions. Of course being faithful and obedient to Christ must mean that the biblical authors testify in truth and not in falsehood, but the oft repeated notion that if it were proven that Scripture contained even one error we could not trust it is, whether or not such a statement is valid, quite unhelpful in the sense that it beckons us to read Scripture with an eye only to its factual accuracy and not to the Truth that calls us to repentance and faith. This is a subtle distinction and not a radical dichotomy I mean to make. We must trust the factual accuracy of Scripture because its authors were inspired by the Spirit to testify truthfully to Christ, not because its inerrancy is what it means to be inspired. Moreover, in regard to the statement about the Bible not having even one error, I think such language slips into stating the relation between truth and fact as identical where the relation might be a bit more complex than that. I’ve certainly encountered innumerable postmodern approaches to this in which truth and fact have seemingly no relation, and I adamantly resist such a position, but at the same time the fact that Matthew and Mark both have Jesus meeting with his disciples in Galilee after the resurrection while Luke and John have him meeting them in Jerusalem should force us neither to despair of the truth of Scripture nor to seek refuge in some convoluted harmony of the two accounts. There may be an inherent ambiguity and mystery here in the relation of truth and factual accuracy that simply eludes explicit articulation. We must hold firmly to the truth and accuracy of Scripture but in such a way that allows for such tensions and ambiguities. Personally, I am not uncomfortable speaking of some such tensions as errors, as long as we fully understand that in using such language we are consciously using it according to modern definition, that is, we are not foisting our standards on Scripture but simply acknowledging that if such accounts were to be composed within our modern context, we would regard at least one of them as in error. I have found that most conservative Reformed theologians, who as a category are those who tend to stress the inerrancy of Scripture most, are considerably careful in their definition of inerrancy to allow for such tensions and ambiguities, but in practice such care rarely transfers to the ministers whose training includes the reading of such theologians or even to the wider discussions about Scripture in the works of those theologians themselves. I find that when this approach trickles into ministerial contexts, the result is an overemphasis on factual accuracy which tends to produce the fruit of self-assuredness since a factually errorless book in my hands is a tool I can exploit in argumentation, rather than focusing on the Truth of the Gospel which relentlessly calls me to renounce myself in repentance and faith. Speaking of the ‘faithfulness’ and ‘obedience’ of Scripture, on the other hand, addresses not only what Scripture is but what I must be in order to understand it aright.

I question infallibility in particular because, as I said in the beginning, it is not a power in Scripture that makes us see Christ in it but a power in Christ. Spectacles do not make us see. If there is no light or if my eyes are shut, no glasses, no matter how clear, can make me see. It is the light objectively and the openness of my eyes subjectively that allow me to see – spectacles are lenses through which I am helped to see. Accordingly, that we see Christ in Scripture is due to his own divine infallibility that illuminates himself for us and opens our eyes to see him there. Scripture’s faithfulness and obedience to that infallibility allow it to share in it, but we must always recognize that infallibility is never a property which we can ascribe to Scripture in itself but only as it serves the Gospel which gave rise to it and is real independently of it.


  1. It does not necessarily follow from the claim that Scripture is true in all it affirms that:

    1) The work of interpretation is settled (inerrancy is not a hermeneutic).
    2) True statements about God in and of themselves 'present' Christ to us absent the work of the Holy Spirit.
    3) We must narrowly focus on Scripture's 'truth' to the detriment of reflection on the mechanics of its witness to the Truth (though granted people do this).
    4) We must engage in awkward harmonizations in order to prove that this claim is authentic.
    5) Non-assertive speech acts should be marginalized.
    6) The richer doctrine of Scripture toward which you gesture is precluded.

    The problem with inerrancy, as I see it, is not that the concept itself prohibits deeper doctrinal reflection; it's that it has spawned an extremely unhelpful political context in which those who wish to pursue serious work on the doctrine of Scripture have been straitjacketed from doing so.

    I would actually take a stronger critical stance toward infallibility than you, however. It does seem to be a much stronger claim to say that because Scripture simply bears the property of 'being inspired', it unfailingly accomplishes its purposes. There is much more potential for a 'divinization' problem going on there than with inerrancy, it seems to me.

    And, for what it's worth, the doctrines of infallibility and inerrancy are not just 'Protestant' doctrines, nor are they the product of 'modern scientific epistemologies (who are you studying again?). Certainly, the post-Enlightenment context has caused both notions to take on an annoying life of their own, but it's rather uncontroversial to say that, for instance, the Reformers believed that Scripture was 'without error'. You should just say that ditching inerrancy is an innovation and that that's a good thing - much like Barth did with his doctrine of election.

  2. Adam this is one of the finest,clearest, simplest pieces of writing I have read by you. I am impressed by the presentation and the respectful tone and the careful building of the case. I can the see the makings of a great writer and expositer of the faith beginning to stir.
    Plus...it was interesting.

  3. Steve - Thank you very much.

    Justin - I agree that most of your numbered statements don't 'necessarily' follow from a doctrine of inerrancy, but the concession you made on the third point, 'granted people do this', needs to be applied to the whole list. However, I'm not interested in defeating a position by attacking its weakest proponents. I tried to be clear that I'm not out to replace 'inerrancy' and 'infallibility' with 'faithfulness' or 'obedience', but that the true value of the former ought to be understood within the larger category of the latter. I'm certainly not claiming that it is not now nor has ever been the case that such understanding was found among those who vociferously demand allegiance to the claims of inerrancy; I'm just advocating repeated remembering that inerrancy and infallibility don't name everything Scripture is or does. That is to say, I'm coming to see that inerrancy and infallibility have legitimate claims and ought to be confessed, I just think such confession needs to be accompanied by a broader confession, that, I agree, they do not preclude. The political context you mentioned needs to be addressed and I am searching for the best ways to do that. I appreciate your help.

    If biblical infallibility and inerrancy are not distinctively Protestant doctrines, I'm unaware of how they express themselves in contemporary Catholicism or Orthodoxy...

    I'm not interested in ditching inerrancy, but in nuancing it. I think Barth and Torrance, in their interaction with the patristics and the Reformers, give us good reason to think that inerrancy and verbal inspiration in their current rather un-nuanced expressions are at odds with what the most important Fathers and Reformers taught. You're right that the ideas themselves aren't new, but the context of modern scientific epistemologies are what have given the ideas a life of their own and worked against nuance.