Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reply on Inerrancy

This got too long for a comment on my September 19, 2007 post, so I'll post it here too.

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.

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