Wednesday, September 19, 2007

On Inerrancy

My latest document recovery: an article I wrote in response to William Dembski (of intelligent design fame) back in seminary on the question of the inerrancy (BTW, I almost made an error in how I spelled "inerrancy"):

Inerrancy? Eric P. Lemonholm

January 29, 1997

William Dembski wrote an intriguing article in the March 1996 Princeton Theological Review entitled “The Problem of Error in Scripture.” Dembski’s basic position seems to be shared by many here at PTS. The question I have is this: What difference does the doctrine of inerrancy make in how we read Scripture, and in how we live as Christians? Continue here...


  1. I wish I had written and thought such things in school!

    What a great essay. Thank you for republishing it!

  2. "We must have faith in God through Christ by the Spirit, not faith in a text. The text is trusted as revelational because we already have faith in God, in the context of a Christian faith community."

    How true! This is a very good essay. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Dear Kris and David,

    Thank you for the response. Just this week, we had a Pastor’s Retreat in the NWMN Synod, and Audrey West and David Lose spoke on biblical interpretation. It was good conversation – we even got into a discussion of this Sunday’s Gospel text, Luke 16:1-13, which is a very difficult passage for me to comprehend – so hopefully my sermon tomorrow will be better because of the communal wrestling with the text.

    David Lose gave a helpful description of two different ways people view the Bible. One is to view the Bible as a chain, with each book, each passage, each verse as equal links in the chain. With this view, it is understandable that some people view any criticism of a part of the Bible as a threat to the word of God as a whole: a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. When you question the literal, historical truth of a story in Genesis 1-11, for example, you always get the question, “Well, what about the resurrection of Jesus?” On this view, any old verse in Proverbs or Chronicles is equal to John 3:16; the book of Ezra is on the same footing as the letter to the Romans.

    The alternative perspective that Lose advocates is to view the Bible as a series of concentric circles, with the cross and resurrection of Christ at the center. He justifies this view by looking at how Paul, especially (the earliest writer in the Newer Testament), puts the cross and resurrection at the center, and understands the rest of Scripture (in his case, the Older Testament) through that lens. Luther looked at Scripture this way, as the cradle of Christ. This view of Scripture is not as ‘easy’ as the chain view, which is driven by a fear of chaos and uncertainty; but it is true to the nature of Scripture, which is, in fact, a conversation across the centuries about God. The Christian church, in my view, is that community or those communities which read the Old and New Testaments through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, everyone come to the Bible with some view of the center, some lens through which the books, passages, and verse are read. The question becomes, which lens (or lenses) are most true to Scripture and the God who inspires it? Which lenses help us get to the meaning(s) of Scripture?

  4. simul justis9:34 PM


    you do posit some interesting observations on the interpretation of Scripture. Is the Bible inerrant as we confess it be to in our constitution (in matters of life and faith anyhows), or is it possible that our so-called "lenses" that we hold up and look through to scripture could themselves be of the wrong prescription.

    The biggest theological problem with the lens approach ( that somehow we all have our own unique set of lenses) is that we tend to overlook the fact that the lenses we employ to read and hence interpret scripture are themsleves a human construct.

    What we are then left with is at best theoligcal wishful thinking on the part of theologians, pastors and laity. Hardly an inerrant position from which to do theology let alone preaching from the pulpit on Sunday morning.

  5. simul justis,

    Thank you for your comment. Here is what the ELCA’s constitution says about Scripture (2.02b and 2.03):

    The canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are the written Word of God. Inspired by God’s Spirit speaking through their authors, they record and announce God’s revelation centering in Jesus Christ. Through them God’s Spirit speaks to us to create and sustain Christian faith and fellowship for service in the world.
    This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

    That is not the same as stating that the Bible is inerrant. Inerrancy is a modern concept foreign to the Scriptures. As Donald Juel once noted in a seminary class, when Paul wrote his letters, he did not assume that his words came straight from the mouth of God, so that his readers just had to accept what he wrote as inerrant or infallible. No, he had to make his case, argue his position, appeal to Scripture (for him, the OT). It is quite possible, as I do, to affirm our constitution’s view of Scripture as the inspired word of God (I like to reserve the capital ‘W’ Word for Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to avoid turning the Bible into an idol – but a capital ‘W’ for the Bible is not inappropriate), without adopting the modernist view of Scripture as inerrant.

    Scripture is a collection of reliable witnesses to the work of God in the world, especially and uniquely through Jesus the Christ, who is the one truly ‘inerrant’ Word of God. Can you accept the Bible as reliable testimony to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit, without needing to assert the Bible’s inerrancy? Inerrancy is a myth; it’s not a quality that the Bible actually has, when you actually read it. So, to base our preaching and teaching on a myth is to build our house on the sands of illusion and self-deception.

    There is a false dichotomy here: either the Bible is inerrant and we can inerrantly read it, or anything goes, and we fall into chaos, where every perspective is equally valid and there is no truth. David Lose does a good job dissecting that false dichotomy in his book Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern World (which I just started reading). The fact is, it is simply true that what we see depends in large part on where we stand. The fact is, we simply do read the Bible through lenses. This side of heaven, there is no neutral, unbiased reading of Scripture – we are finite and sinful. Yes, our lenses are human constructs; but do you read the Bible without one? That’s why it’s no surprise when Word Alone Network members read Scripture and find a socially conservative message there, and ‘progressive’ Christians read the same Scripture and find a progressive message. In both cases, what we see in Scripture tends to reflect our perspectives.
    But, that is not to say that we are stuck in our perspectives. The Bible also challenges both conservatives and liberals. The text of God’s word cannot mean everything and anything. The word of God is alive and active. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, God speaks to us through Scripture, upending our preconceived notions, challenging and expanding our perspectives. If we abandon the myth of inerrancy – which really means the abandonment of the belief that my reading of the Bible is inerrant – what we are left with, as David Lose argues, and as I argued back in college, is critical conversation. We wrestle with Scripture and with one another, seeking the truth and finding it, not in an ultimate, inerrant sense – only God is Truth with a capital ‘T’ - but truth for us today, how to live and love and serve and follow Jesus today. When I preach, I preach with confidence, confessing Jesus Christ to the congregation. But I do not preach infallibly or inerrantly. Anything I say about God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is likely to fall short of the ultimate, inerrant truth, which we’ll discover in the Kingdom of God. But it is the word of God preached to us today, it is ‘local theology’ that is reliable because, by God’s grace, it is grounded in the reliable witness of Scripture.