[Theological a]djustment is achieved through “interpretation”–in theological parlance, hermeneutics… [I]f the loss of the term “inerrancy”… is fraught with sufficiently dire consequences, there will be the strongest temptation to retain these expressions while giving the Bible such “adjustive interpretation” that negatively critical approaches to it can be employed anyway. (Montgomery, 217, cited below)
The definition of inerrancy has been hotly disputed as of late. The infamous Geisler-Licona controversy, which continues to boil over at points, serves as a poignant example of this (see here for a Christianity Today article on the controversy; see also links below for a few discussions of the same). What is meant by inerrancy? Are we in a new era of Bible wars? These are the questions being asked right now.
I remember reading an essay from a book–Faith Founded on Fact–by noted Christian apologist John Warwick Montgomery entitled “The Fuzzification of Inerrancy.” The quote above comes from the essay, and it has gotten me thinking. Have lines been crossed? Where do we draw the lines anyway?
Montgomery defined “fuzzification” following James Boren. It is the “presentation of a matter in terms that permit adjustive interpretation” (217, cited below). Turning back to the quote above, the term speaks of the need to retain a specific idea essentially at all costs. Thus, when a challenge is raised to that idea, the idea is broadened or changed to incorporate the data raised by the challenge. Montgomery, originally writing in 1978, seems at times prophetic. He spoke of a time when one might see a contradiction, source theory, or even possibly an error in the Bible and simply define it as “a question of hermeneutics, not of inspiration at all!” (218); he worried about a time when “the ‘inerrancy’ with which one is left is an inerrancy devoid of meaningful content”; and he warned of the dangers of “adjustive interpretation” (227).
I wonder, at times, whether his statements have come to fruition. When I survey various works from evangelicals on interpretation or hermeneutics I find a baffling array of ways we are to understand individual passages or how we are to interpret various passages. Turning to Church Fathers, I find a number of passages in which their readings would be unrecognizable today due to the heavy use of allegory in passages we take to be literal or explicitly historical in genre. Moreover, the question of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy looms large. As with any document, questions are raised about what exactly is meant in each clause or in what way individual denials or affirmations might be meant.
It’s enough to make one wonder whether it is time to go back to a baseline understanding. “I believe the Bible is true in whatever it teaches.”*
The question that will be immediately raised, of course, is “What does the Bible teach?” The overriding desire to restrict exactly what it is the Bible teaches and prevent so-called “liberal” scholarship from finding ground to stand on in evangelicalism has led to an incessant narrowing of the definition of inerrancy, such that clause after clause is piled one atop the other to the point that it is hard to operate within such limits. Moreover, it seems some of these definitions actually prevent development within theology and squelch the impulse to question received traditions in light of new evidence.
The danger that some may think is posed by whittling the definition of inerrancy down to something like “The Bible is true in all that it teaches” may perhaps have some of the concern negated by the fact that it gets the dialogue going. If people return to this question: if someone genuinely, with open heart and mind, asks me “What does the Bible teach?” then I think that’s a glorious thing. Moreover, one may wonder at the purpose of inerrancy: is it a way to declare that the Bible is without error (as it seems to be based on the word itself); or is it a way to define how we go about reading the Bible? After all, if it is simply a declaration that the Bible is without error, should not simply declaring it as such be sufficient?
Perhaps it’s time to de-“fuzzify” inerrancy and get back to the basics. We may ask “What is the thrust of the doctrine of inerrancy?” instead of “What rival theological views may I exclude with the definition of inerrancy?”
Perhaps the danger of “fuzzification” from dehistoricizing texts, critical scholarship, and the like has in fact led to a fuzzification of the definition of inerrancy by making it over-determine the limits within which one may operate. I’m not claiming to offer all the answers, nor should it be thought that I am rejecting inerrancy. Far from it.** What I am instead rejecting is a “fuzzification” of the doctrine: when did declaring the Bible to be God’s Word and Truth become so complex that volumes of books were necessary simply to define what that means?
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
*This definition has suggested itself to me from a number of sources, including Nick Peters of Deeper Waters.
**I’m sure some people will take any questioning of current discussion about inerrancy to be denying the doctrine. However, this post is clearly written in order to defend the doctrine. What does inerrancy mean? That’s the thrust of this post, not “Inerrancy is false.” I believe the Bible is true in all it teaches.
Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!
Book Review: “Faith Founded on Fact” by John Warwick Montgomery– I review Montgomery’s well-known book on apologetic methodology.
Inerrancy– Check out my other posts on this topic. (Scroll down for more posts.)
The Geisler/Licona Debate– Nick Peters has a number of posts on this controversy if you want to read up on the topic. This post summarizes the debate and offers a thoughtful critique, in my opinion.
The Geisler/Licona Controversy– A quick, easy read on the reasoning behind the controversy.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
I don’t ask whether you think the Bible is inerrant, I ask if it can show you that you are wrong in any meaningful way. Si enim fallor, sum. “If truly I err, I am.” Is the Bible a truthmaker or at least truth-bearer to you, or is it a way for you to rationalize? Given that I am beginning to be convinced by Emil Brunner’s Truth as Encounter, I would even want to clarify that it is Bible + Holy Spirit doing the convincing: two or three witnesses are required, per Deut 17:6, 19:15, 2 Cor 13:1.
For me it all centers on the character of God and the Bible as the word of God. If it is God speaking, it is true. That simple. I trust the Bible because I trust the Holy Spirit who inspired the human writers and who spoke through them. And if I cannot trust the Bible, because I don’t believe it is inerrant, I cannot trust the One who speaks through the Bible either; how can I entrust my whole life to a message and a person that is not trustworthy? Yes, right interpretation and the illumination by the Holy Spirit is critical, but in principle I have to believe that since the God revealed in the Bible is trustworthy, his Word has to be inerrant.
I’m not an expert on church history, but it seems to me that liberalism started out clearly distinguishable from Christianity. But as such, it’s being a dead end was obvious. Subsequently then there has been a liberal shift (I think John Frame uses this term or something like it), where liberalism has tried to wear the mask of Christian orthodoxy by pretending to adopt the same conservative terms but endowing them with definitions that take steps toward the left.
From a spiritual warfare perspective, this makes strategic sense. You don’t want a position that is clearly staked out in opposition to orthodoxy. If the battle-lines are drawn clearly it’s too easy to spot the enemy. Subterfuge and attrition are far more effective.
And don’t we see many of the cults playing the same sort of game? A Mormon can sound completely orthodox.
What I’m getting at is this: the reason “inerrancy” has become so complex is because inerrancy has been under attack. In order to stave off the attack, some have sought to clarify it by way of expounding and qualification. Of course a smart enemy will try to turn such clarity/qualification against the opponent: try to make the clarification sound pedantic or make the expounding sound too complicated, assert that the qualifications make it “die the death of a thousand qualifications.”
Never underestimate human ingenuity to spin a bible passage or a confessional statement or even a term. We should consider the cults and the spin they are able to put on passages. Look at sophisticated heretics like Dale Tuggy and you can’t help but be impressed by the way he can dip and dodge around Scripture. This should cause us to be humble and pray that God will help us to not be about the same business, that we may seek the truth in honesty and with clarity.
Changing terms or making more general statements like “The Bible is true in all that it teaches” won’t throw any water onto the fires of debate currently raging. The same questions simply arise: is the Bible only concerned to teach theological truths? If Jesus said “Moses said such and such” in Genesis there will always be some who deny that Jesus taught this, rather this was an incidental statement to some broader teaching of Jesus that we are free to reject. And those who think such statements are within the bounds of “taught by Scripture” will of course object. Then we will be caught expounding and qualifying the term “taught” or “teaches.”
What’s the solution? Well there won’t be one as long as spiritual warfare continues. The enemy will continue to attack both from without and within the camp. However, it would be helpful if those who align themselves with conservative orthodoxy would just be honest about whether or not they reject the CSBI or whether they reject the idea that Scripture can be wrong about some fact of science or even what God commanded in the OT (e.g., the slaughter of the Canaanites). Take Roger Olson, for instance, they guy is usually aligned as a conservative orthodox or evangelical orthodox Christian. But he clearly rejects inerrancy and even seems to reject the idea that God actually commanded the slaughter of the Canaanites. Yet later he has also back-peddled and tried to obfuscate the issue by saying he doesn’t reject “inerrancy” *if* only you understand what inerrantists *really mean* when they say they believe in inerrancy. It should be obvious he’s just blowing smoke in our eyes, but to many people, unfortunately, it isn’t… and so the debate rages on.
Remington, what are your thoughts on Jesus telling us to judge by the fruit in others? You don’t really seem to be doing that; you seem to want to judge by professed belief, even though you admit this is basically impossible.
I think “fruit” in the passage you refer to is broader than simply their behavior. Even if this passage did have in mind a narrow sense of behavior, I would argue that other passages indicate that we don’t merely judge by behavioral-fruit but also by doctrinal-fruit. 2 John 10 marks out a person primarily by their teaching (their professed belief).
This broader scope of fruit also makes sense when you see how easy it is for other people to imitate good behavior. So you end up with the same problem: it’s impossible to know, because an atheist, a buddhist, a mormon, and a Christian can all seem equally loving–behavior wise. So either we can’t actually know people by their fruit or else we know an atheist, a buddhist, a mormon, and a Christian are all on the same right path. Of course that runs into more serious problems, I would say.
Anyway, that’s sort of beside the point. Honestly I’m not sure what exactly you’re trying to get at. Is it my remarks about Roger Olson in particular that you’re hinting at some objection to? In that case, it’s a simple matter of reason. Jesus said we are to be as wise as serpents. We should use discernment. Olson has said he is not an inerrantist and he has indicated that he doesn’t believe the OT passages about God commanding the destruction of the Canaanites accurately reflects what God said or would have said. On other occasions Olson has said he doesn’t deny “what inerrantists are really getting at by the word inerrancy” but when you look at what he *asserts* inerrantists are getting at by the word inerrancy, you see that it’s not inerrancy! So it’s obviously a bait and switch: “I believe what the inerrantists believe, they just aren’t inerrantists either.”
I think we’re allowed to exercise enough discernment to see that that’s blowing smoke. If we can’t see that, we’re being dumb as sheep, which would lead to being as harmful as serpents.
And what is “this teaching”, other than (1) walk in the truth; (2) love others? I’m reminded of C.S. Lewis’ Till We Have Faces, in which he explores (2) without (1).
I was moving in this direction, yes. I have found Olson to be a frequent target of unjust[ified] criticism. I have a friend who has similarly been a “canary in the coal mine”, and I understand quite a bit of the mechanics of how it works. What will happen is that none of Olson’s behavior is criticized, and so it is something about what he says which will be criticized, probably by alluding to inevitable bad behavior which will result, with utterly no evidence that this is true. The problem with this, of course, is that of interpretation. God has provided this thing called ‘reality’ against which to test our interpretations; if we do not avail ourselves of it, we are prone to attack people in an unjustified fashion.
This problem shows up with inerrancy: the doctrine is much weakened if interpretation itself is not inerrant. And so, Olson is disagreeing with your and others’ interpretations. But to call this in and of itself an example of violating inerrancy is only to claim that your pet interpretation of the Bible itself is [sufficiently close to being] inerrant.
Agreed. The precise nature of how one person who calls himself a Christian criticizes someone else who calls himself a Christian, especially when it comes to central theological issues, says a lot, about at least one of them.
It doesn’t change the fact that John emphasizes the person’s *teaching* and not their behavior. After all, a person could be behaving perfectly in accord with John’s commands of behaving lovingly and yet be bringing a different teaching (e.g., Christ did not come in the flesh) and that different teaching, that different doctrine, set of beliefs, would be what disqualifies them from fellowship–not their behavior.
Then you need to try demonstrating that the criticism is unjustified instead of trying to shut the critic up by relying on short slogans about judging.
So you can engage in some psychological theorizing too.
Because, as far as I know, Olson isn’t behaving badly. But what he says deserves criticism. Odd that you apparently think that’s unacceptable even though you’re attempting to do the exact same thing to me. You’re criticizing what I *say* and not my behavior… unless of course you try to get around your apparent double standard by collapsing what I say into what I do (my online writings as part of my behavior) but if you try to pull that move then the entire distinction upon which you’re responding to me falls apart.
I see you’ve allowed Olson’s straw-manning of inerrancy to cloud your vision. You might as well say that the doctrine of Christ’s bodily resurrection is much weakened since it has to be mediated through our interpretation. That interpretation is not inerrant does not weaken the doctrine of inerrancy since it’s no part of the doctrine of inerrancy that our interpretation is inerrant. This is the same tactic Olson has used on occasion: act like most inerrantists haven’t thought through such things, and then when you point to popular inerrantist documents that clearly have, act as though the qualifications kill the doctrine.
No, he’s not disagreeing with my and others interpretations (although I’m sure he does that too), rather he denies inerrancy… unless you allow him to define inerrancy broadly enough so that inerrancy means something like the purpose which God had in mind in allowing something to be recorded in Scripture. Of course that’s unrecognizable by almost anyone as the doctrine of inerrancy, which is why he doesn’t even want to call it inerrancy.
You see the twists and turns you’re engaging in right now? This is exactly the sort of thing that I had in mind when I said we need to try and be honest and clear. You don’t want Olson to be pegged as someone who denies inerrancy, even though he flat out said “I’m not an inerrantist” so you’re jumping through hoops to turn this around and soften it anyway possible.
Your response to me is itself the fuzzification of inerrancy…
I frequently don’t even know what a teaching is without seeing it acted out. People use words all the time in ways that are totally different from other people. This, I believe, is a major motivator Jesus’ parable in Mt 25:31–46, which mentions not a single doctrine. Why? Because plenty of people teach doctrines they don’t have the slightest clue about. They say the words, but the meaning doesn’t show up in their lives anywhere. Clearly words matter to God—he created reality with them after all—but I have found, time and again, that one cannot rely solely on words.
Yep, and for this there is Jn 2:18–27, among other passages. You see, at some point that person’s behavior will go out of accord with truth and love, if that person is not running hard after Jesus. So what you can do is just keep pushing him/her to help you run hard after Jesus, keep asking him/her to do the same for you, and at some point the truth will come out. I have seen it happen; I was a mentor of leadership which ejected a president of the Christian group because she demanded something against the faith (that another person be forced out because she did not like him).
What have I said that was a “short slogan”? You may look at my exegesis of Mt 7:1–5 or my thoughts on judgment if you want lots of details. I said nothing to shut you up; my online record (especially on Disqus) can attest to the fact that I never write to shut up my opponents; indeed, I often have back-and-forths that last days or weeks.
I assume you had a point? Was it that any psychological theorizing I do is invalid unless I have a degree from an accredited institution?
How we treat and talk about our fellow believers is behavior. If you want to call that “double standards”, go right ahead; I will let God and other people judge. I claim your behavior is to criticize Olson without even citing anything. What you are doing is hearsay, and it would be rejected in a civil court. There is also Proverbs 18:17.
I have no clue what you mean by ‘inerrancy’, and I have no clue what you’re talking about Olson denying it, because you didn’t cite anything. Start citing, and we can start talking in the light of evidence, instead of in the light of hearsay.
You must have been a very difficult student throughout school, constantly asking your teachers to act out the quadratic formula, prepositions, and the rape of Nanking.
And yet here you are communicating online often for days or weeks at a time! It’s a miracle!
Sorry, but it’s clear from this sort of silliness that you’re not a serious interlocutor. Sure, you can go back and forth for weeks… apparently finding absurd things to say just to have the pretense of having a response. You shift from objecting to me on the basis of not having seen Olson’s behavior to not having cited Olson. Yet you indicated you were familiar with Olson enough to know his critics were unjustified. Try doing a google search specific to Olson’s blog. I got into a similar discussion a few weeks ago on Challies website and I provided all the links to all my citations, but in that case I was convinced doing so would help the dialogue move forward. Here you pretend to have no idea what I mean by inerrancy, despite my remarks about the CSBI etc.
Again, your form of engagement here is precisely the problem I was pointing.
It is very convenient that you could switch so quickly from:
It certainly couldn’t be possible that I have multiple objections and that I don’t list them all out at once. But go ahead and demean someone who claims to be a fellow believer; I’m sure that is precisely what Jesus would do. I’m sure this is precisely what Paul meant by 1 Cor 13:1–7. When all else fails, question the person’s motives and move on.
I claim it is unacceptable to criticize someone who claims to be a fellow believer without proper quotation and citation. I claim that such unacceptable behavior is much closer to gossip and slander than truth-seeking. I claim that imputing evil motives is something that ought to be done on sufficient evidence, with demonstrated attempts to understand the person in a better light than having evil motives. I claim that we must have the priority of building up, not tearing down. (1 Cor 6:12, 10:23–24)
But go ahead and dismiss me. I have faith that the following is true:
If I am in error, I pray God will show it to me in a way I can process—your attempt to tear me down is not such a way. I understand “word” here as matching up with Yoram Hazony’s discussion of davar and emet in his The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture: a davar can be a word or a thing, which seemed deliberately ambiguous, and emet connotes trustworthiness over truth. Not all words are true; some are façades and thus the sand spoken of by Jesus in Mt 7:24–27.
Just because you cite scripture in your attempt to “tear me down” doesn’t make the essence of your behavior any different than mine. I said things you disagreed with and you tried to criticize me for saying them. You engaged in psychologizing and theorizing about movites the same as me. We’re called to be wise as serpents. In part, that means we don’t have to take fools seriously so long as the fool wears a smile and pretends to be sincere. Now I’m not calling you a fool in particular, I’m taking a clear case to make the point. Our hyper-sensitive victim-culture, which Christians have been especially keen on adopting, pretends like we have to put up with all sorts of stupidity so long as the stupidity feigns innocence.
I don’t play along with that game. And when I don’t play along I’m inevitably cast as the big meanie. And that’s fine, you can thump your chest with your proclamations all you want. Jesus also didn’t play games with some people. He was straightforward and even insulting with some. In a sense, he cut through the crap. With others he was patient and kind. Questions aren’t always sincere. Persons who engage in dialogue with you aren’t always honest in how they handle the issues. I’m not obligated to pretend like everyone is innocent, humble, sincere truth-seeker once they start engaging in silly moves to save their point. There is no Bible passage which says I have to play dumb while the other person makes statements like “I frequently don’t even know what a teaching is without seeing it acted out” just to save their point that we can’t judge someone based on their teaching alone.
Actually, I’ve been striving to get you to make solid, cited assertions about respected scholars who call themselves Christians. Without that, all you have done is gossiped. But perhaps I have been tearing you down; would you show me how I was doing it and how I could e.g. prioritize building up over tearing down, when communicating with you? It seems that if I were merely to copy your behavior and redirect it to you, you would not like it so much. So I ask what you say to do, instead of what you do do.
I will leave it to other readers to determine whether I have done “the same” as you.
You have rendered Mt 25:31–46 meaningless.
What, precisely, did I do to “cast [you] as the big meanie”? Many would surely construe my thoughts on judgment, which I cited earlier, as being a “meanie”. I am personally frustrated by the many Christians who cannot discern καλός καί κακός. I specifically use the Greek words from Heb 5:14, for the English ones have largely been destroyed.
I shall leave you with two quotations from Jacques Ellul’s Hope in Time of Abandonment, although I could also quote Francis Schaeffer, if you prefer him.
Like I said, it’s clear from the silliness in your remarks that it simply isn’t worth the time. Your ability to wax verbose shouldn’t be confused with substance. If an interlocutor doesn’t engage in verbal dancing I’m more than willing to engage them and back up my claims. You pointed to your Disqus profile as evidence that you aren’t trying to shut your opponents up (even though carrying on for days or weeks actually doesn’t provide evidence for that), well then you can see the evidence of where I’ve backed up my claims on Disqus to. As I said, I backed this up on Challies the other week. You presented yourself as someone who was familiar with Olson’s work and in a position to adjudicate whether criticism of him was valid or not. You even went so far as to try and explain how Olson’s position on inerrancy related to mine (as simply one of interpretation). Then you quickly fell apart by your third post and started making all sorts of ridiculous statements. Now you’re trying to put yourself together again and mount some substantive dialogue. Sorry, but you should have done that in your third post.
Refuse to properly cite and quote your criticisms of someone who calls himself or herself ‘Christian’, when requested, and all you are doing is gossiping and/or slandering. No excuses will cover that up.
I’ve been following this conversation only a bit and I do hope that there can be some reconciliation here. It seems like a lot of harsh words are being traded, but perhaps some seeking to understand could be in order?
I would say the key is this:
Remington does not seem interested in backing up this with proper quotes and citations, despite multiple requests. I consider this entirely unacceptable, but if course this is your blog.
As to reconciliation, I’m open for reasoned, biblical discussion. I do attempt to obey scripture as best I can; help from fellow believers is always welcomed. As I said before, I have faith that the following will be true, of all flesh: