The Extent and Varieties of Inerrancy (and Other Notions You Probably Dislike)

In the wake of the recent inerrancy spates in Biblioblogdom (so aptly summarized by Nick Norelli), the indefatigable Rob Bradshaw has made available a very interesting piece by Gordon Lewis entitled, What Does Biblical Infallibility Mean? (Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society 6.1 [Winter 1963]: 18-27). In his conclusion to a very able (if brief) discussion, this impeccably Evangelical scholar attempts to qualify the notion of inerrancy thus:

(1) Although there is a clear distinction today between meaning and sentences, inspiration may be viewed as implying neither merely conceptual or merely verbal supervision on the part of the Holy Spirit. Inspiration in this realm of discourse applies to both content and wording, meanings and sentences.

(2) “Inerrancy” may be used most clearly for meanings which are cognitively taught by those with delegated authority as spokesmen for God, and for non-cogni­tive meanings relating to the speakers themselves.

(3) “Infallibility” most helpfully designates the verbal media of the Scriptures as effective communicators of the Spirit-intended meaning through the Biblical writings.

(4) All that is written in Scripture is infallible. All that Scripture teaches cogni­tively is objectively true. All that Scripture teaches non-cognitively is subjectively true, i.e. true of the one whose idea is expressed. This then is a plenary view of verbal inspiration; all sentences are infallible, and all meanings are inerrant for their respective purposes.

Since Rob has recently obtained permission to make available online the Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society (1958-1968), I have encouraged him to give priority to the digitization of articles such as this, which illustrate some of the early (and rather diverse) formulations of inerrancy from the founding generation of the Evangelical Theological Society1. This is particularly important, I think, because many people routinely equate the notion of “Biblical inerrancy” with its more radical proponents and, by extension, with their straw men of choice (a problem insightfully discussed by the infallible Moisés Silva in his 1997 ETS Presidential address, with particular reference to the late James Barr’s Fundamentalism). By so doing, such persons end up joining forces with their sworn fundamentalistic enemies to affirm together with them that theirs is the sole formulation of inerrancy possible. Strange bedfellows, indeed! (I mean, imagine if Jim West and the late Jerry Falwell had issued a joint statement on, well, anything.)

Our good friend John Hobbins (a notorious sectarian and communist) has caught a lot of flack for carefully nuancing his use language when it comes to such things as inerrancy and definite redemption. For instance, Doug Chaplin comments: “Of course, being John, he immediately offers an interpretation of these terms which is entirely different from anything anyone else commonly means by them.” But as I have hinted elsewhere (see here and the comments here), “Calvinism” comes in many forms, and so does “inerrancy”; thus what people commonly mean (and have meant) by such terms covers a very broad spectrum indeed. It is therefore supremely misguided to arbitrarily choose any one form and treat it as though it were the sole claimant to the broad label, while dismissing those who offer alternative formulations as trying to have their cake and eat it too. Again, such an approach makes for some excellent straw men and can accommodate every imaginable shibboleth, but it very closely borders the insufferable: it all sounds too much like a case of “I have made up my mind about (Calvinists, inerrantists, etc.); don’t bother me with the facts!” In the end, if one finds John’s formulations of inerrancy and definite redemption unrecognizable, that only speaks of one’s lack of acquaintance with (or else one’s unwillingness to recognize the very existence of) the extent and varieties of the formulation of these doctrines, and of nothing else.

I’ve been toying with the idea of blogging through some of the articles in the book Inerrancy and Common Sense in order to engage some of these diverse approaches, but the several other books I’m currently working on wouldn’t allow such an exercise until sometime after Pascha. But I do hope that as further articles from the old BETS become available, a window will be opened to a wide spectrum of learned and nuanced approaches to inerrancy, which are not exhausted by the radical views that some would make the sole representatives of the whole.


1Incidentally, contra Kevin Edgecomb’s comment here, I should like to state that the ETS is no “outfit” of miscreants
or, at any rate, it hasn’t been for most of its history. I will grant that, as Jim West mockingly suggests, the very subject of some of the articles in the latest number of JETS made one stare at the Table of Contents in disbelief. Perhaps the best of inerrantist Evangelical scholarship is behind us; I, for one, certainly hope this is not the case.

On Englishing the Bible of the Orthodox Church

In an infamous Orthodox discussion list that shouldn’t be read by anyone (and is therefore not linked here), notice was recently given regarding two active projects whose goal is translate into English the Bible of the Orthodox Church, and which are worthy of mention:

1) The Eastern / Greek Orthodox Bible (in which project a friend of ours seems to have collaborated!). The New Testament of this version is already available for purchase and even for free download1; peer review of the text is both encouraged and welcome. It laudably translates the 1904 Patriarchal Greek text, which is, for all practical purposes, the only authoritative Orthodox edition of the ecclesiastical text of the New Testament. Divergences from the modern critical text of the New Testament (NA/UBS) are marked by footnotes, as are textual variants from patristic sources. The departing point for the EOB NT was the public domain World English Bible, a revision of the American Standard Version (1901) on the basis of the Majority Text, which is very close indeed to the Greek text printed in the Patriarchal edition.

According to the website, the EOB Old Testament will be a (one hopes extensive) revision of Brenton’s translation of the Septuagint, and should appear by December 31, 2007. [UPDATE: But Kevin Edgecomb suggests in the comments that it will yet be a while before the full text of the Old Testament will be in fact available.]

2) One Michael Asser has produced a revision of the King James Version’s Psalter according to the Septuagint (also available in booklet format here). The Psalter is suitably arranged according to the traditional order of kathismata for liturgical reading, and includes the nine Biblical Odes, as well as the full order for reading the Psalter throughout the year. This is, then, a most useful Psalter for Orthodox use and deserves wide recognition. A printed edition of this text, further revised and corrected by Archbishop Chrysostomos and Hieromonk Patapios, is forthcoming from the Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies. Mr Asser states in his foreword: “If this version of the Psalter finds any favour with English-speaking Orthodox, I hope in time to produce a complete ‘KJV-Septuagint’ Old Testament.” Some of us would most certainly welcome such a volume! I intend to start using Mr Asser’s KJV-LXX Psalter at once, and look forward to the CTOS’s release of the printed version.


The EOB is being released under a limited copyright license. According to the front matter of this edition, “Permissions to use, quote, reproduce and modify for non-commercial, liturgical or scholarly purposes is [….] granted to all institutions, parishes, clergy, or lay members of SCOBA affiliated jurisdictions and agencies.” While certainly understand the desire to make the text unavailable to the self-aggrandizing posturing of deluded vagantes of various stripes, this copyright limitation to “SCOBA” (the so-called Standing Conference of [Canonical] Orthodox Bishops in the Americas) is problematic. As is well known,
SCOBA does not gather all Orthodox Bishops in the Americas: the Bishops of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Church Abroad, for instance, do not participate in this “clergy association” for Bishops (which is, in the end, all that SCOBA is). Therefore, a significant number of North American English-speaking faithful are ipso facto left out from this provision. Nor is that all: the provision also leaves out English-speaking Orthodox throughout the Commonwealth (excepting Canada)! Surely they would also (or perhaps especially) like to benefit from the permission to modify the text for liturgical use. One hopes that such difficulties are taken into account, and that more sensible copyright terms will be drafted before too long. [UPDATE: I am pleased to note that the copyright terms have indeed been modified to take the above considerations into account.]

For the Salvation of the People (Or, How Liturgy Reads the Bible)

I’m often asked, particularly in catechetical contexts, to offer a concrete example of how the liturgical texts of the Orthodox Church can illuminate a given Biblical text. (The Church’s liturgical texts, no less than the Patristic writings, are rich in theological readings and other applications of Scripture; they are, for this reason, one of the chief sources that convey to us an authentically Orthodox approach to Holy Writ.) Some time ago, while singing the Vespers of the Feast of the Conception of St John the Baptist (Sep. 23/Nov.10; cf. St Luke 1:5-25), I found a wonderful example of this, which indeed helped me understand in new light a puzzling Biblical text.

The Service for this Feast (poetically) puts the following words in the mouth of St Zechariah, the father of St John, as he disputed with the angel who appeared to him while he discharged his priestly duties:

“Strange dost thou appear to me in aspect and manner; strange also in words and tidings,” answered Zechariah. “For I have come to ask for the salvation of the people, not to gain a child, as thou dost announce. I find thee contrary to my requests and I suspect that thou mayest not speak the truth; for how will what thou sayest be confirmed? The members of Elizabeth are deadened, and my own old age now counsels disbelief.” (2nd sticheron at “Lord, I Have Called”)

Why did St Zechariah doubt the words of God’s angel? Why was it so hard for him to accept the announcement that the God who had made Abraham and Sarah fruitful in their old age would also cause him and Elizabeth to have a child? The Church calls our attention to the context in which the angelic announcement took place: Zechariah, a priest of the division of Abijah, had gone into the Temple to offer incense to the Lord (cf. Exodus 30:1-8); his priestly job there was to pray for the salvation of the people. He could not understand why the angel would say “Your prayer has been heard” and then proceed to tell him about the child to be born to him and his wife in old age. As far as he could tell, this announcement was only a distraction from his priestly duty to stand and intercede before the Lord on behalf of the people. In spite of the angel’s opening words, he could not see that the answer to the prayer he offered right there and then for the salvation of the people and his lifelong prayer for progeny were intimately connected; that, in fact, praying for the salvation of the people was praying for himself and Elizabeth to have a child, and vice versa. And so the righteous Zechariahknowing who he is, where he is, and what he is supposed to be doing there doubts the angelic message, which seemingly contradicts everything he knows about all three of these things. But as Zechariah later realized, this was not so; because while his son would not be himself the Hope of Israel, he would be “called the prophet of the Most High, for [he would] go before the Lord to prepare his ways” (cf. St Luke 1:76).

(On a side note related to the larger subject at hand, I’m thinking of contributing a short essay to one Mr Nick Norelli’s 2008 Trinity Blogging Summit on Liturgy’s Trinitarian reading of the Bible in the Service for the Feast of Theophany. So if this topic interests you, you might want to watch out for that, as well.)

Bad Habits Die Hard (Or, Why We Should Attempt to Translate Liturgical Texts Correctly from the Get Go)

One of the more recognizable Scriptural quotations in the Byzantine liturgical tradition comes from Psalm 118:27 (117:27, LXX). This is sung with great ceremony towards the beginning of Matins on Sundays and Feasts, and immediately before the Communion at the Eucharistic Liturgy. Its visibility in our liturgical tradition makes it one of the more frequently quoted Scriptural statements in our circles; but at least in the English-speaking world, it is usually quoted according to a widespread liturgical rendering influenced by the King James Version, and later printed in the widely used Psalter According to the Seventy:

“God is the Lord, and hath appeared unto us…”

The text of Rahlf’s Septuaginta, which is identical to that found in our liturgical books, reads:

Θεὸς Κύριος καὶ ἐπέφανεν ἡμῖν…
(Slavonic: Бог Господь и явися нам…)

As far as I can tell, this is a rather straightforward translation of the Hebrew text, which reads:

אֵל יְהוָה וַיָּאֶר לָנוּ

Now, Θεὸς Κύριος (Theos Kyrios) can be translated either “God [is] the Lord” or “The Lord is God,” but which of the two is the correct subject of the omitted verb ἐστι(ν) [esti(n), is]? This is one of many points in which reference to the Hebrew Vorlage of the LXX (and therefore of a great many of our liturgical texts) is fundamental. By comparison with the Masoretic Text, which in this case appears to be identical to the Hebrew text underlying the Septuagint, we learn that (as in many other places in the LXX) the anarthrous Κύριος (Kyrios) stands here for the Divine Name, the Tetragrammaton. Thus the text should read “The Lord (=YHWH) is God,” and not the other way around.

Now, my friend Isaac asks:

What about Fr. Seraphim Dedes’ [translation]: “He is God, He is Lord and has revealed Himself to us…” Where does that come from?

With due respect to Father Seraphim, such a peculiar translation can only come from a lack of acquaintance with the style of the LXX in general, and with its underlying Hebrew Vorlage in particular. It should be noted, however, that this unfortunate rendering seems to have been abandoned; recent materials from the same source (such as those seen in this page) contain the customary (but also incorrect) “God is the Lord.”

As for the second part of the text, various translations are in use. In addition to “and hath appeared unto us” (shown above), one may also hear “who hath shown us light” (cf. “and he showed us light,” NETS) as well as “and hath revealed himself to us.” Each of these seeks to capture a different sense of the verb ἐπιφαίνω (epiphainō); I myself would prefer to emphasize God’s showing himself, revealing himself, appearing to us.

Choice Vignettes from Sitemeter

I’ve been tracking visits to The Voice of Stefan through Sitemeter‘s free service, and occasionally I peek in there to find out who’s been around, and how did they get to my blog. In recent days I’ve encountered a few interesting hits which deserve public mention:

1) If you google my friends and follow the yellow brick road to my blog, I will see that you did that. Please, don’t be a creepy stalker.

2) Some gave my blog a good look from the domain Well, hello to the fine people of Baylor University Press!

3) Some concerned soul from the domain, who clearly must have read a recent post of mine in which I referred to a howler in the Grand Rapids Theological Seminary catalog that was later photoshopped for later editions thereof, decided to google “Grand Rapids Theological Seminary howler” several times to see how easily my blog came up. Of course, if you take the time to run that particular search, you will see that my blog is the very first hit. Someone must be greatly distraught indeed at the corner of East Beltline and Leonard! Now, in order to make that person’s distress complete, I shall proceed with a full exposé of the aforementioned howler.

GRTS catalogs from the mid-90’s feature a lovely picture of the late great Carl B. Hoch, Jr., Professor of New Testament at that institution from 1974 until his untimely death in 1999, in which The Great One is shown in a wholly characteristic lecturing pose. Drawn on the blackboard behind him may be seen a graphic along these lines:

All well and good, of course; clearly Dr. Hoch was explaining the eschatological tension in which live, according to St. Paul, all those who find themselves by faith in that overlapping area between “in Adam” and “in Christ.” Enter, however, the Clueless Copycat MiddlerTM and an infamous shot that also wound up in the GRTS catalog. This latter picture shows the above-named character giving a class presentation, and on the blackboard behind him may be seen a graphic that very closely resembles that in Dr. Hoch’s picture, except in one important respect. Rather than ἐν Χριστῷ, the student had written:

ἐν Χριστό

This is, of course, the preposition ἐν complemented by the Middler Case of a noun of the Nth Declension. This ghastly blunder stood for all to see, in all of its glory, in the academic catalog; but this, apparently, was not enough. Admissions displays that featured the offending picture were also created and set up not only at the lobby of the most visible building at Cornerstone University, but in other colleges and universities as well. Professor Andy Smith, a disciple of the late great Dr Hoch and my good friend, famously took his college Greek class to the on-campus display and asked them to identify what was wrong with the picture (the account of which I heard from the lips of the unrepentant culprit himself!).

Eventually, someone did catch the error at the seminary (which, incidentally, happens to have some of the stricter language requirements of any ATS-accredited institution). However, rather than remove the picture altogether from the catalog and other promotional materials, they decided to photoshop the picture instead so as to correct the pathetic goof. These shenanigans were to no avail, however, for I had already archived a number of copies of the offending picture! Now the picture was eventually dropped, but I imagine only to make space for more recent pictures in the admission materials.

4) And last, but not least, I note that there are no visits whatever from Mozambique registered on my Sitemeter. Shame on the Rev Mr Ker!

On How Best to Invite the Uninitiated to the Academic Study of Theology

The recent death of T. F. Torrance, the auspicious announcement of the upcoming release of Barth’s Church Dogmatics in a fine electronic edition, and a friend’s inquiry have got me thinking: which texts would I use if it fell upon me to teach an introductory course in systematic theology (from which fate may the Lord save me, always, now and ever, and unto the ages of ages)? After some consideration, I decided on these five:

1. Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians.
2. Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction.
3. Bishop [now Metropolitan] Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Way.
4. John Howard Yoder, Preface to Theology: Christology and Theological Method.
5. H. Ray Dunning, Grace, Faith and Holiness: A Wesleyan Systematic Theology.

Thielicke’s brief book (some fifty pages in all) would serve as the introduction to the course. I believe in the healing power of an early slap to unruly egos, the kind that are sure to arise quite early in connection with the academic study of theology. Thielicke does a wonderful job of accomplishing this task with great benevolence, but does not hold back in saying what he must even when he knows that his words may sting. I am convinced that no one should undertake theological study without being thoroughly acquainted with, and having dutifully taken to heart, the Little Exercise.

The books by Barth and Metropolitan Kallistos are complementary in many waysindeed, they even cover many of the same subjects. It seems both natural and useful, then, to read and discuss their distinct perspectives together. We are all aware, of course, of this and that problem with Barth; as an Orthodox Christian of a more traditionalist bent, I am particularly conscious of the deficiencies of Metropolitan Kallistos’ book. Yet I think that the honest and early discussion of these problems can go a long way to teach students how to weigh what they read, and not simply accept just anything on the authority of a theological author, which temptation is very common indeed. Moreover, the noble task of disabusing theological initiates from such silly ideas can also serve the salutary purpose of demolishing any notions of the student’s own infallibility. But to this end, the critique and corrective of chosen authors like Barth and Metropolitan Kallistos must be handled with a great deal of grace, charity, and humility by the instructor, who must avoid at all costs smug jokes and cheap shots at their expense: these would only communicate that instructor herself is infallible, which would surely be the undoing of what is being attempted here.

Finally, we have the volumes by Yoder and Dunning. Preface to Theology contains Yoder’s syllabus and lectures for the introductory theology course he taught at the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN from 1965 to 1981. It was long available in mimeographed format (first from the AMBS Co-Op Bookstore and then from the Cokesbury Bookstore at Duke); it was in that form that many of us were first introduced to it. After Yoder’s untimely death in 1997, Stanley Hauerwas and Alex Sider undertook the work of editing the text, and it was finally published in book form by Brazos Press in 2002. The case for the use of this older and in many ways rather outdated text is ably made by Hauerwas and Sider in their introduction: not only is it vintage JHY (i.e., brilliant), but having been prepared for classroom use, it is also an eminently teachable textbook. In fact, this book contains multiple preparation guides and exercises, and it is designed to be used along with any systematics text. Yoder himself presents a (now painfully dated) list of systematic theologies in his introduction; but as I noted above, I myself would choose Dunning’s fine work, confident that Yoder would have listed among his “systematics texts found most appropriate for parallel use.” Two salient characteristics of Dunning’s text that make it a particularly appropriate companion to Yoder’s are, firstly, that he integrates eschatology to his full-orbed theological system (rather than relegate it to a final locus dealing only with the “end times”), and secondly, that his exposition of the work of Christ is in terms of the triplex munus Christi (i.e., the triple office of Christ: Prophet, Priest and King). Both of these are things that Yoder also seeks to do in his Preface.

(Of course, those unwilling to use a Wesleyan systematic theology such as Dunning’s may profitably use others instead: for a Reformed text, one couldn’t possibly do better than Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which also approaches the work of Christ from the perspective of the triplex munus. For a Lutheran systematics, one would be hard pressed to find a richer text than that venerable standard of confessional Lutheranism, Francis Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics, which enshrines in its pages the exceptionally precise and unapologetically Chalcedonian Christology of Lutheran orthodoxy.)

Thus far my musings. I offer them here not only to answer my friend’s question, but also to gather some input on this matter from others, for which I would be most appreciative!

Sunday News

I came home from Church today to learn that the great Thomas Forsyth Torrance has died. I noted earlier that “[t]he year 2007 seems to have hit the world of biblical and theological scholarship particularly hard”; Torrance’s death only adds to the weightiness of this judgement. There was, quite simply, no surer guide to Barth and his theology: a single sentence of his on the subject provided more light, and more substance, than rivers of ink spilled by others. The arid fields of Scottish theology became lush and green at his word, and his treatments of Calvin and of Patristic thought became, for me, milestones along the way of a pilgrimage. T. F. Torrance, the father and teacher of us all, has died: may he rest in peace.