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.

6 responses to “The Extent and Varieties of Inerrancy (and Other Notions You Probably Dislike)

  1. “”Calvinism” comes in many forms, as does “inerrancy”; thus what people commonly mean (and have meant) by such terms covers a very broad spectrum indeed.”

    I understand your point and I agree that there are variations on inerrancy but I think we can agree that there is one that dominates. When I cry out against inerrancy I usually try to qualify it as “strict inerrancy” of the CSBI variety (see here, here, here, here, here, and here).

    But from my experience (and I’d venture to guess that mine is not unique by any means), when people hear and think inerrancy, this is the variety that comes to mind. Now of course there are exceptions to every rule and I think we can both agree that everyone is not as learned or as eloquent a wordsmith as the venerable John Hobbins, so most inerrantists wouldn’t nuance the doctrine in the way that John has.

    That’s why upon hearing his heavily nuanced view of inerrancy it sounds strange and not at all like what most people are used to (even those who hold to inerrancy!) — I can certainly see Hobbins being renounced as unorthodox or semi-heretical by the likes of Norm Geisler for the language he uses to define inerrancy.

    I think if everyone held a view of inerrancy similar to Hobbins’ then there would be a lot less problem with the doctrine, but the vocal majority seems to be the fundamentalistic CSBI strict variety, and let’s face it — these folks need a good kick in the posterior every now and again ;-)

    BTW, what’s the Orthodox Church’s position on the issue? Did they write it in a Catechism somewhere? ;-)


  2. I didn’t intend that “outfit” in so derogatory a fashion, but only meant to highlight that their including such an exclusionary clause in their mini-creed or whatever it’s called was unnecessary if they were intending to exclude those of us with larger canons. We don’t really have anything to do with them at that level. It’s faintly ridiculous. Like little boys having a “No Girls Allowed” sign on the outside of their rickety splintery clubhouse. There’s no danger of interest in membership there.


  3. Nick> Yes, I’ve noticed that you nearly always qualify your criticisms of inerrancy by narrowing the scope to the CSBI, which I think is quite laudable. Otherwise, you’d be guilty, the same as others, of painting with much too wide a brush!

    I do understand that most people have something like the CSBI (or some view that’s even more restrictive still) in mind when speaking of inerrancy. My point, however, is precisely that this wholly misguided, and all the more so when it comes to serious theological discussion, such as is often attempted in biblio- and theoblogdom. John’s views are not exceptional, not by a long shot, and they most certain fit under the big tent of inerrancy–no matter what radicals in that camp think, and whether their opponents agree with them on that point for whatever reason. The CSBI types and their more radical kin do not have now, nor have ever had, a monopoly on the use and meaning of this term–and like John, I’m not about to grant it to them now.

    I quite agree with you that if more people adopted views on the matter like John’s a lot of problems with the doctrine would be solved (and for the record, my own views on the matter are a tad bit stricter than his!).

    As for your question, I tremble to speak for the Church, fearing that I may only give my worthless opinion. We have no authoritative Confessions and Catechisms of the kind usually found in the Reformation traditions, and so I couldn’t direct you to a statement of that type. It seems safe to say, however, that when the Fathers (whose Faith, quite simply put, is the Faith of the Church) address such matters as the “discrepancies” in Scripture, they operate under the assumption that 1) the perfections of Scripture preclude intentional falsehood, and that 2) the claims of the various parts of Scripture are all harmonious among themselves and are absolutely trustworthy. Both these are always said to be grounded on the given (for the Fathers) of the Divine Inspiration of the Scriptures. And I dare not say much more than that!

    Kevin> I understand your comment a little better now, but I think that you’re missing the fact that the ETS isn’t only an academic association, but also a decidedly confessional one. Keeping that in mind, it’s rather strange that they’ve been able to get by for this long with their minimal Basis of Faith; Moisés Silva comments on its inadequacy even in the paper linked above, and so have many others. The need for a more precise Basis of Faith for ETS has been on the table for a long time, and has built momentum over the past few years for a variety of reasons (the least of which, incidentally, is Frank Beckwith’s conversion to Roman Catholicism). Now, for Evangelicals, the Canon of Scripture is made of 66 books, no more, no less–and this is an important point for their doctrine of Scripture. One can hardly fault ETS, then, for contemplating to state this in the Basis of Faith of their voluntary, confessional association! I don’t think the explicit purpose is to keep those of us with larger canons out, but to provide ETS with a full Evangelical confession as Basis of Faith. Of course, this does keep us out in the end, but then we’re no Evangelicals. I see nothing wrong with that!

    John> You’re quite welcome; I only regret that I didn’t get to it sooner. But please don’t kid yourself: I hardly ever know what I’m talking about! ;-)


  4. Yes, Esteban, but it’s the confessional nature of the ETS, tacit as it is, which would keep any Roman Catholics or Orthodox from actually joining. They might be “observers” but not members. That’s why I don’t see it as such a big deal. Let them say what they want among themselves. It’s not our tea party, we’re not invited, and we would politely decline to attend if we were.


  5. Regarding your footnote…

    If anything, the recent articles in JETS look very promising for the future. While the titles suggest that the articles about Goliath are about the historical question of his height. Both articles are entirely focused on Textual Criticism and are rather detailed at that. Thus, while Jim’s post was an extremely good read and quite entertaining, it missed the point of the articles themselves.


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