Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy – A Reflection, Not a Review

One of the greatest satisfactions I get in my job is seeing scholars argue. Really. It reminds me (1) they are regular people (not really, but they can be like regular people in some ways) and (2) there is great need out there for great scholarship. I just finished reading Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013) which features these five men:

R. Albert Mohler (Classic Biblical Inerrancy)

Peter Enns (Classic Biblical Inerrancy Doesn’t Work)

Michael F. Bird (Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA)

Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Augustinian Inerrancy)

John R. Franke (Inerrancy and Missional Plurality)

[These are my quick titles for their essays]

The term “view” in “Five Views” is a bit misleading (which is also made explicit in the introduction), as these are not really views on the same level of discourse. You might think of them as “perspectives” or “thoughts.” When you are dealing with a doctrinal monster as big and complex as “inerrancy,” its tough to break it down into mutually exclusive views.

One way that the the discussion is focused is the appeal to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (developed by conservative evangelicals in 1978). When it comes down to it, Mohler defends the CSBI without qualification. Bird and Vanhoozer accept it in spirit, but want to make sure the complexities of the nature of Scripture, hermeneutics, and Biblical interpretation are given appropriate highlighting. Franke and Enns are more critical and dismissive of the CSBI.

The second controlling feature of the book is the agreement that each contributor talk through three case studies: The fall of Jericho in light of archaeological findings, the apparent discrepancy between Acts 9 and 22 (what the companions saw/heard), and the relationship between Deut 2o (kill the Canaanites) and Matt 5 (love your enemies).

One thing you learn quickly from this discussion is that four of these guys are brilliant (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one is not) and if they can’t nail down exactly how we express the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture, than we cannot blame people for getting confused.

Much of the discussion revolves around the difference between “infallibility” and “inerrancy.” Bird feels very comfortable with “infallibility” because it can be defined in a way that approximates a healthy meaning of “inerrancy” and vice versa. Bird and Vanhoozer tend to put the focus on the primary teaching of the text, not a defense of all the little details. I think this is quite sensible, but I like that Enns pushes their line of reasoning: how far can you argue for literary license until it is no longer a true historical reporting/telling? Unfortunately, no one really answered Enns repeated concern (mostly because you weren’t allowed to respond to a response).

Now, some may think this book is passe and the topic is dull. In some ways I agree, but I think the editors picked very good contributors to generate a thoughtful discussion and, as I tell my students, this question or issue of inerrancy is not going to go away. Even if it’s passe to you, someone in your church right now is wrestling with it.

For me, while I think the book is “successful” insofar as it tackles the challenge of thinking about inerrancy, I wish they had done three more things.

(1) Reflected on the helpfulness of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. Several contributors tried to get to the bottom of questions about revelation and biblical interpretation without talking about Scripture and reason explicitly. It may have helped to frame the discussion (also) in view of whether or how reason could guide the interpretation or re-interpretation of Scripture. Can science help us re-read the Bible? (I think we all have to say yes, in the case of Copernicus at least). What about ethics and sociology? (Again, yes, in view of abolition)

(2) Reflected on the difference between factual accidental mistake, accidental mistake based on limited knowledge, inconsequential mistake, and purposeful discrepancy. Not all “errors” are alike. A factual accidental mistake could be when Mark wrote that Abiathar was high priest in David’s time when 1 Sam 21:1-9 tells us it was Ahimelech (Mark 2:26; actually Nick Perrin argues it was not a mistake after all). An accidental mistake based on limited knowledge would be if an author made a mistake but couldn’t have known better (like referring to the four corners of the earth?). Inconsequential mistakes is when the facts really don’t matter so the author was not going for perfect accuracy (like rounded numbers). What about a purposeful discrepancy? Perhaps detailing the color of Jesus’ mock robe. Was it purple or red? The color-choice (and difference) seems intentional.

I think this categorization is helpful because only a couple of these categories are really “errors” in any real sense, and it is those that we should be talking about.

(3) Reflection on the humanness of Scripture. This comes out particularly in Enns and Franke, but what does it mean that Scripture is fully human, even if we also say it is “holy” or “inspired?” If Paul is a fallible human, does he go into a different “mode” when he is writing theologically? Particularly when writing the texts we have in the NT? Does his memory all of a sudden become perfect (not really acc to 1 Cor 1:14-15)? It seems like we first have to establish what we mean by “inspiration.” It would have made the book much longer (and more tedious) to do this, but perhaps a “five views” book is necessary on the subject of inspiration.

Perhaps one of the lasting points from the book (both frustrating and relieving) is that “inerrancy” will continue to be a slippery word, even when defined by the CSBI. Thus, your Mohler’s, Bird’s, and Vanhoozer’s, and will still use it for the foreseeable future, but not all in the same way. Enns will spurn it. Beale will buy some geotextiles from Home Depot to protect it from erosion. Franke will ponder it anew. Geisler will market the “Inerrancy Study Bible.”

What about me? Well, I am with John Stott that it is proper to say that Scripture is trustworthy because God is trustworthy. Stott, however, didn’t like some of the specific entailments of the language of inerrancy. It is enough to put one’s faith in Scripture as God’s Word and then to live out the truth it proclaims. In that sense, “infallibility” is not such a dirty word.

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6 thoughts on “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy – A Reflection, Not a Review

  1. “One thing you learn quickly from this discussion is that four of these guys are brilliant (I’ll leave it to you to decide which one is not)…” Now, was that really necessary? Let’s just stay focused on the issues, buddy, and set the ad hominems aside.

      • John – normally I wouldn’t stoop to such levels, but I think this particular book and debate allow it; where (1) Mike Bird compares Enns to Kim Kardashian (in the book) and (2) where Enns mentions on his blog that he could “take” Mohler in a fight.

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