Inerrancy, Inspiration, and the Authority of the Bible
Bryan E. Lewis
Historicity, Inerrancy, and Inspiration
Discussions over the textual formation and the authorship of the Bible are a matter of serious debate within the world of Biblical scholarship. On one side of the discussion, conservative-evangelical biblical scholars (not all; more specifically, “fundamentalists”) often begin with the premise that the Bible is sacred, inerrant, inspired, and historically accurate. In counterargument, critical scholars—some of whom also believe that the Bible is the word of God—do not begin with this same premise—and thus, they do not feel the need to view the Bible as historically flawless.
In twenty-first century Biblical scholarship, the overall dialogue has taken place under the terms “maximalism” and “minimalism.” Maximalists accept that most of what is recorded in the Bible is actual true history, while minimalist do not automatically assume historical accuracy unless it is first established to be so, by empirical evidence or data (archaeological, extra-biblical, et al.). Unfortunately, the rhetoric has often become too vitriolic; thus, causing much discourse on the matter to dissolve into a pooling of confusion and ignorance, which ultimately lacks in civility. Moreover, in our current biblio-academic climate, it has become standard to hear or read such nasty polarizing verbal bellicosity as: “conservatives are just green behind the ears, wide-eyed, credulous, and naïve” and “those historical critics are the devil’s servants, or evil liberals, who are only trying to destroy the word of God.”
For example, recently, a preaching minister within my own tradition1 questioned my view of inerrancy after reading my recent work. He took issue with a few points. (A) In my book, I contend that Paul is often not necessarily attempting to provide an “accurate” history per se, nor a “chronological” account of Jesus’s life and events. More specifically, as a whole, the Biblical authors were not always interested in creating a historically pristine record of things, but instead, in creating a narrative that incorporated both selective and relevant pieces of information that they had gathered from the past. (B) Additionally, in chapter three, I mention that the Bible (i.e., in context, I was referring to the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament) cannot and should not always be treated as an accurate chronological history, but instead, it is often a blend of both history and theology interacting in the creation of the writer’s narrative. I then provided a few examples of how the archeological data sometimes reveals that some parts of the Biblical narrative are embellished.
Now, to say the least, this hostile encounter with the preaching minister felt more like a heresy trial. Still yet, I do not wish to cast disparaging remarks towards the whole of my brethren, as this would be an illogical leap off the deep end. After all, I have been working on my Ph.D. at an university that is rooted in a heritage in the Churches of Christ and the Restoration Movement, and the professors there would certainly agree that any view of inerrancy that fails to acknowledge the theological motives of Biblical history is indeed a naive one (e.g., see one of my professors, Joel Stephen Williams, “Inerrancy, Inspiration, and Dictation,” Restoration Quarterly 37, no.3 (1995) pp. 158–77.) Additionally, I am aware of preaching ministers that have struggled with inerrancy for quite some time. However, with that said, this kind of interrogation is all too common from many of those preaching ministers who—usually, but not always—have only attended a preaching school rather than a university where these issues are meticulously digested and debated. My point is that there is a requisite comprehension of several key issues that is needed in order to grasp the full argument. To put it bluntly, graduate-level training in theology and Biblical studies is needed.
As I shall suggest, these interrogative and protective inclinations and their sometimes-accompanying verbosity are often superfluous. That is, this debate as a whole—on both sides of the argument—is built upon a wrong-headed view of inerrancy and inspiration. Such an “either-or approach” is too narrow-sighted and does not take into account just what the Biblical writers were trying to accomplish.
The Problem of Modern Conceptions of Historicity
The modern debate over the textual formation and the authorship of the Bible, at its heart, is a response to historical criticism. Simply put, for many (certainly not all) conservative scholars, Biblical faith is contingent upon the historicity of recorded events. Though I might add, it also is for many critical scholars who insist that the Bible must demonstrate an actual history verses a narrative history. Nevertheless, there exists a simultaneous fidelity to discerning the Bible’s theological message while also affirming or denying its factual integrity. In my opinion, this is a gratuitous endeavor; one that does not take into account just what the Biblical writers were trying to accomplish.
It is noteworthy that a common literary convention in early Hebrew writing was the lack of concern for historical accuracy and historical meaning. Instead, what was important was the meaning in which the author was able to procure from his or her sources for existing significance or relevance. As Greer and Kugal articulates:
The past was not approached in the spirit of antiquarianism but for what message it might yield, and this is necessarily predicated on an interpretive stance, indeed, a willingness to deviate from the texts’ plain sense. The words of prophets, the accounts of ancient historians, were to be “translated” into present-day significance, referred to (and sometimes distorted) in order to support a particular view of the present, or a program for the future.2
Another common literary convention in early Hebrew Bible/Old Testament writing was the practice of synthesizing an assortment of narrative elements from other ancient near eastern cultures into the narrative that was in written progress. That is, many scholars have pointed out the presence of ancient near east tradition within the Biblical narrative.3 However, we now understand that this was effectively an “expression of originality” on the writer’s part through the “recasting” of an older ancient near eastern narrative. That is, these narratives are comprised of the author’s subjective choosing of both past historical events and myth4 (vis-à-vis: sources, oral tradition, written tradition, etc.), and then, organized in such a manner as to provide a theological significance to contemporary readers and events. That is, the text reflects a specific point of view, told through a narrative. Thus, it is ultimately theological and not intended to pristinely represent an actual or chronological history.
Here, the story of Jonah could be used as an example. Was a man really swallowed by a fish? When preaching ministers and pastors are intent on arguing with Biblical scholars about the story’s historical accuracy, it shows a naiveté and lack of understanding about how early Jewish hermenuetics and Biblical history functioned. Scholars have long recognized the ancient near eastern background to Jonah.5 That is, the content of this narrative shares affinities with The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor. Here, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament writer is simply recasting an old story with new characters in order to elicit a contemporary theological significance. Although, it should also be noted that it can’t conclusively be proven that the writer was wholly and directly dependent upon that old story. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to assume that the writer’s intent was to tell the truth about history, instead his concern was often theology.
Thus, I posit that attempts to affirm the Bible’s historical-factual integrity often do not take into account just what the Biblical writers were trying to accomplish. The twofold ultimatum that the Bible must be historically pristine or it is not reliable indicates a naiveté and lack of understanding concerning early Jewish writing and hermeneutics. The truth is that no historical account is completely encyclopedic, and thus, the omission of specific historical detail should not be considered to be error. Any definition of inerrancy that does not allow for this flexibility, is deficient.
Thus, in my opinion, Biblical faith that is “wholly” conditional upon historicity is shortsighted. Scholars from Rudolph Bultmann, to Karl Barth, to Hermann Ridderbos, and to N. T. Wright have all pushed for an understanding of inspiration and inerrancy that is not contingent upon historicity, but instead, only manifest within the narrative framework of Scripture.6 To that, I say Amen!
Deficiency in the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) explicitly declares that many of the common literary methods that I just mentioned above are incompatible with inerrancy. For example article XVIII of the Chicago Statement states:
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. [HOWEVER] We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.7
Moreover, as illustrated in one recent debate, “literary forms and devices” are also denied. Here, I speak of an old debate between Norman Geisler and Michael Licona. Geisler accused Licona of violating the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, saying, he had “dehistoricized” the biblical text in his approach to the text of Matthew 27:51-54. Licona argues that it is a historical-narrative using poetic literary devices, such as, “apocalyptic imagery and allusions.8
Likewise, who could forget the Robert Gundry debacle?9 He was voted out of the Evangelical Theological Society for merely suggesting that elements of Matthew 1-2 were Jewish Midrash. That is, they are ahistorical stories based on literary devices found in the Old Testament narratives.
Unfortunately, some (not all) adherents to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy do not allow for interpretation in light of midrash, pesher, apocalyptic imagery, or literary poetic devices. Likewise, they do not accept the idea that a New Testament writer can base his interpretation off of a “sometimes-fictitious” story in the Hebrew Bible in order to bring theological significance to the overarching meta-narrative.
At the end of the day, the version of inerrancy adhered to by the Chicago inerrantists does not allow for the “dehistoricizing” of any portion of the text. Instead, it calls for a blind affirmation that all Biblical events are historical fact. Thus, in my opinion, it is deficient in that it does take into account the common literary conventions used by the early Jewish writers. Instead, it seems as if Chicago inerrantists have built their understanding of scripture wholly upon theological deduction. Once again, to employ a “doublet” or “repetition” of my own, it is a view that does not allow for an evaluation of literary genre or convention—something that is commonly taught and usually accepted in any first year graduate Hebrew Bible or Old Testament course at most universities or seminaries.
The Issue of Verbal Plenary Inspiration
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy reads:
Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.10
The issue here has to do with a quirky view of inspiration that is often conflated with inerrancy. In other words, as we see in the statement above, for Chicago inerrantists, “verbal plenary inspiration” also requires that “the events of world history” be accurate and without error. However, why do the stories need to be accurate? In my opinion, it is a grave error to define inspiration in such a manner that it necessitates inerrancy. In doing so, a false dichotomy is created that says, if the Bible is not historically accurate, then it is in no way inspired by God. This is simply wrong-headed. It fails to allow for God’s act of inspiration into the development of the text. Moreover, it fails to consider that what we are reading is exactly what God wants us to have, regardless of who, how, or in what manner it was written.
For me, Scripture in its entirety is inerrant (i.e., if we can lose the theological baggage that often accompanies the word). That is, it is free from all error, falsehood, fraud, or intentional deceit. Moreover, there is a narrative unity and internal consistency found in the Christ-centeredness of Scripture. However, this understanding of inspiration, inerrancy, and the authority of the Bible is not contingent upon historicity, but instead, is understood as only being manifest within the total narrative framework and Christ-centeredness of Scripture. To express my views more fully, I also want to affirm the sufficiency of Scripture, its authority, its moral and ethical value, and its relevance to our present-day world.
Finally, Biblical inerrancy, inspiration, and the authority of the Bible should not just be a scholarly debate among biblio-academics and theologians. It should be a debate that reaches down to every church and into the heart of every pew—being taught by those preaching ministers and pastors who have been properly trained in both theology and Biblical studies. If the preaching minister or pastor has not received such training, then perhaps, a teaching-scholar-in-residence is in order.
1 For clarity, I was raised deep in the heart of Appalachia in the Old Regular Baptist tradition. As a teenager, I transitioned to the Churches of Christ. During my early adulthood, I involved myself with interdenominational Charismatic-Renewal type churches. In my early 30s, Reformed Presbyterian. Finally, at age 40, I returned to the Churches of Christ.
2 James L. Kugel and Rowan A. Greer, Early Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1986), 38.
3 E.g., Babylonian creation epic, “Enûma Elish,” as a background to Genesis. Beyond this, there are more. An old academic adage says, “we possess a flood of flood stories.”
4 Here, I used the term “myth” to refer to a “truth that transcends time.” The ancient writers often re-casted old stories to convey a theologically significant message that transcends time.
5 See e.g., Jack M. Sasson, “Jonah” in the Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1990).
6 For further discussion see, Herman N. Ridderbos and Richard B. Gaffin, Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1988); Rudolf Bultmann and Schubert Miles Ogden, New Testament and Mythology and Other Basic Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984); Nicholas Thomas Wright, Scripture and the Authority of God: How to Read the Bible Today (New York: HarperOne, 2011).
7 See Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 181-85.
8 For more on this debate, see Daniel L. Akin, Craig L. Blomberg, Paul Copan, Michael J. Kruger, Michael R. Licona, and Charles L. Quarles, “A Roundtable Discussion with Michael Licona on The Resurrection of Jesus: a New Historiographical Approach,” Southeastern Theological Review 3, no. 1 (2012): 71-98. Also, Norman Geisler. “Licona Controversy Articles.” Licona Controversy Articles. August 1, 2011. Accessed November 1, 2014. http://www.normgeisler.com/Articles/Bible/Inspiration-Inerrancy/Licona/default.htm. See also, Michael Licona. “Mike Licona Responds to Norman Geisler.” YouTube. November 18, 2011. Accessed December 1, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TnvJu8LTsL8;
9 See Leslie R Keylock, “Evangelical Scholars Remove Robert Gundry for His Views on Matthew,” in ChristianityToday.com. November 1, 2003. Accessed November 26, 2014. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2003/novemberweb-only/11-17-42.0.html.
10 See Norman L. Geisler and William E. Nix, A General Introduction to the Bible (Chicago: Moody Press, 1986), 181-85.