Sunday, April 26, 2009

Scripture is God-breathed

The discussion of inerrancy, Bible scholarship, and the impact of Bible scholarship on faith continued recently with some related (and sometimes interacting) posts by John, James, and Scott. Follow the discussion in the comments as well to get the full effect.

John offered a four-part critique and interaction with James's earlier question on the historicity of the Conquest account in Joshua. (Find my post on the subject here.) John had weighed in the day before with a quote from Paul Ricoeur that I suspect was subtly directed at the ongoing diablogue about the nature of our understanding of Scripture, but he didn't explicitly acknowledge it. (I suppose I should read this Ricoeur guy one of these days with my interest in the problem of evil.)

My contribution to the discussion is an observation about the relationship between a Scripture text and its interpretation related to the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy.  I say "doctrines" because I think they are separate theological issues, but they are often treated as one.

The Scripture: 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
The Interpretation: Excerpts from "Inspiration, Summary" at 2 Tim 3:16 in the ESV Scofield III Study Bible
"Without impairing the intelligence, individuality, literary style, or personal feelings of the human authors, God supernaturally directed the writing of Scripture so that they recorded in perfect accuracy His comprehensive and infallible revelation to man. If God Himself had done the writing, the written Word would be no more accurate and authoritative than it is. . . . By means of divine inspiration the writers of Scripture spoke with authority concerning the unknown past, wrote by divine guidance the historical portions, revealed the law, penned the devotional literature of the Bible, recorded the contemporary prophetic message, and prophesied the future. . . . Because the Scriptures are inspired, they are authoritative and without error in their original words, and constitute the infallible revelation of God to man." (Emphasis added)
The Study Bible quite accurately sums up the essentials of what has been an evangelical/fundamentalist approach to the doctrine of Scripture - inspiration and inerrancy go hand in hand. My observation is that the logical connection between the two seems to be a non sequitur (that is, logically it does not follow). If we're discussing interpretations of Scripture, I think it's fair to ask "where is that in the text?" in response to an offered interpretation. I don't see how 2 Tim 3:16-17 supports the conclusion that the text is "perfect," "infallible," or even "accurate."  Inspired and authoritative is one thing; perfect and infallible is another.

To paraphrase, Scripture is inspired divine revelation, useful for equipping people of faith for serving God. My question for the inerrancy debate is are inerrantists attributing more to Scripture than it claims for itself? I'm not familiar with the history of interpretation for this doctrine, so maybe one of you can help me out (James? John?). When did the church start using words like perfect, infallible, and inerrant to describe Scripture? Aside from logic (God is perfect > Scripture reveals God > Scripture is perfect), what other Scriptures support the idea of a "perfect" Bible?

(Of course, one can always affirm inerrancy in the original autographs . . .)


  1. Doug,

    I think the argument typically goes like this (simplistically presented).

    1. God is perfect and cannot lie.
    2. Scripture was breathed out by God.
    3. Scripture is therefore perfect and without error.

    The reasoning is that since God-breathed out Scripture, and since God cannot be less than perfect and truthful, therefore Scripture cannot be less than perfect and truthful.

    And fundamentalism/evangelicalism (before they were different) affirmed only the inspiration of the original autographs (as argued by Gray in The Fundamentals).

  2. Larry,

    Thanks for summing up the logical argument. My question is are we only getting there from that kind of logical reasoning built on systematic theology?

    The problem is that once you've studied text criticism in the biblical languages, the appeal to "original autographs" seems to be so much "hand-waving" (a sleight-of-hand) - an easy answer to a complex problem.

  3. Doug,

    Thanks for letting me think out loud here a bit with you.

    I am not uncomfortable with "a kind of logical reasoning based on systematic theology." Part of the image of God in man is the ability to reason. If we conclude (as I think we should) that God is non-contradictory, I think we can put some stuff together fairly simply. Of course we must do it with care, acknowledging our finitude and the noetic affects of sin. But I am not uncomfortable with systematic theology that is rigidly exegetical and humble.

    It seems to me that we have to fit Titus 1:2 with 2 Tim 3:16-17 with 2 Peter 1:19-21. We can just leave "brushpiles" laying around.

    I think the appeal to original autographs is not so much as a sleight of hand, though I do understand what you are saying. The very notion of text critical study is that there is a more primitive version that can be approached through text criticism, all the way back to the autographa. The question then becomes what was the nature of the autographa. At this point, passages such as I mentioned above have to be reckoned with at some level, it seems to me.

    I think a robust bibliology can't simply punt on the issue of inerrancy because of text critical problems.

  4. Larry,

    Let's think out loud a bit more on this. I'm not uncomfortable with systematic theology or logic being used to inform interpretation. We should, of course, acknowledge the fact that interpretation is necessary, and we often need to come up with theological answers that say more than the hints that Scripture alone gives on an issue.

    I'm afraid I don't understand the "brushpiles" reference, but thanks for pointing me to the verses in Titus and 2 Peter. Though I would understand Titus in context as referring specifically to the fact that God did not lie about his promise of salvation. Not that I'm saying "God never lies" doesn't apply generally, but I'm not sure about using it for inerrancy's sake. 2 Peter seems to speak of inspiration in a similar way as 2 Tim.

    The problem of text criticism is that anything approximating an original text would look nothing like the text that is translated and found in our Bibles and used in churches today. That's why I would prefer to apply passages such as you've mentioned to the entire revelation of the canon - not just the original autographs.

    Perhaps one option is to consider the likely final form of the text when it was canonized - free of text critical errors - to be the autograph. Just thinking out loud - not sure how it would work.

    I don't think I'm punting on the inerrancy question - just trying to figure out where the idea came from.

  5. Doug,

    Thanks again for your kind response. Let me do this in an enumerated fashion.

    1. "Brushpile" theology is a term I got from my systematic professor, who talks about people having brushpiles that they never connected. He was using it to refer to the need to correlate Scripture rather than leave brushpiles laying around.

    2. Titus 1:2 seems to appeal to the unchanging nature of God as truth. While I agree that it is directly referring to salvation, the attribute of God seems applicable to whatever God says. I think I read you correctly that you agree with that, and perhaps object to it being applied directly to the inerrancy debate. .

    3. As for text criticism, there are a number of problems, and though (in my circles at least), the NT gets most of the discussion, the OT is probably more difficult in some ways. The way I understand the OT text (which could be wrong), most probably agree that there was a final form of the text that was probably post-exilic (even if you hold to Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, as I do). I don't see that as a great problem, and I don't think the Jews historically did either.

    4. I am not sure what you mean by applying these passages to the entire revelation of the canon rather than the original autographs. I don't want to jump the gun and attribute something to you when I don't understand it.

    5. I apologize if my "punting" statement seemed directed at you. It was intended to be more of a general statement directed to no one in particular that some reject or redefine inerrancy out of hand because of text critical problems (or a number of other reasons). I am unconvinced that is proper or necessary.

    Again, thanks for the space here. Feel free to ignore whatever you would like. I am enjoying thinking through this a bit more since it is a vital area.

  6. Larry,

    Regarding #4 above, I meant that ostensibly the work of text criticism has claimed (used to claim) to be working back to the autograph - the beginning, the first text, the earliest copy.

    Working in OT text criticism, you come to see that is an impossible goal and even if you succeeded, your original text would be far different from what has been accepted into the canon.

    So I was suggesting that we apply our thinking about autographs to the best text accepted as Scripture from the end of the process (that post-exilic final editing that you mention in #3) which I referred to as the "entire revelation of the canon."

    I don't know of anyone rejecting or redefining inerrancy "out of hand" because of text criticism or historical problems. Those textual and historical issues seem to me to be real problems that need to be addressed.

    If we have no autographs in the sense of original perfect texts before scribal errors crept in, then in what sense is it without error? Why should we try to pin it down on historical details if it isn't meant to be read as history? I don't have the answers, but I think those are legitimate questions that the other blogs engaging the topic are asking (esp. Ancient Hebrew Poetry and Exploring Our Matrix).

  7. Hi Guys,

    I hope you don't mind me intruding into your conversation. I am currently thinking through this issue on my own and I appreciated reading what you have said thus far.

    I do wonder if we should not consider 1 Cor 13:9-12 as well when we read 2 Tim 3:16-17. After all, we hold that both passages came from Paul.

    So he tells us, "16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work."

    But He also reminds us, "For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away."

    "For we now see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known."

    I'd be interested to read any responses you may post to this.