Brief Notes on Inerrancy

Inerrancy has been a topic for debate on the blogosphere over the last few weeks. Chris Tilling’s posts on the subject have received a lot of attention and interaction. I have not commented on Chris’s blog, but I thought that I would post a few very brief thoughts on the subject here. I am dissatisfied with Chris’s position, just as I am with traditional conservative evangelical positions.

1. I affirm inerrancy as a theological affirmation. The Scriptures are the Word of God. God does not lie. Therefore the Scriptures are true, and comprehensively true. I believe that we have the book that God wanted us to have, even if it is not quite the book that many evangelicals are looking for.

2. The question that we must ask, then, is not whether the Scriptures are comprehensively true, but how they are true.

3. Many of those most vocal in favour of inerrancy have an approach to Scripture that is akin to trying to use a hammer to do the task of a screwdriver. Their standard for truth is, all too often, the standard of modern historiography, or something else of the kind. Rather than understanding truth in terms of the Scriptures themselves, they are measuring the Scriptures by an alien standard. I am not convinced that the Scriptures are ‘true’ in the manner that conservative evangelicals generally presume that they must be.

4. The opponents of inerrancy do much the same thing. They also measure the Scriptures by an alien standard. They just differ from the inerrantists by claiming that the Scriptures don’t meet the mark. They claim that the hammer is faulty because it doesn’t get their screws into the wall.

5. Against both positions I hold the Scriptures as my standard of truth, not modern historiography or anything else of the kind.

6. Discussions concerning the truth of Scripture are also affected by the type of thing that we perceive the Scriptures to be. As I have argued in a recent post, since Gutenberg we have tended to think of the Scriptures primarily as a book containing facts. I believe that, if we managed to get beyond this limited conception we might be able to hold a far richer understanding of the truthfulness of Scripture. The idea that the Scriptures are essentially to be thought of as a book containing facts has skewed our discussions of inerrancy. Quite apart from anything else, it depersonalizes the sense of the Scriptures’ truthfulness.

8. Debates about inerrancy are very much played according to the rules of the game of modernity. I believe that the debate could do with a serious makeover, or we could abandon it altogether and think of some better questions to ask.

9. What about historicity? When tackling this issue we must first recognize that the Scriptures wouldn’t work if they weren’t founded in actual historical events. If the Exodus or the resurrection, for example, don’t have some sort of basis in actual events our faith is called into question.

10. That said, I am less and less convinced that the various scriptural accounts attempt to adhere to the standards that are expected of modern historiography. It seems to me that the gospels are inconsistent with each other on certain historical details. I think that the gospel authors were also probably aware of many of these inconsistencies and didn’t really care. The type of history that they were writing did not necessitate the degree of consistency that we would look for.

11. It seems to me that they were writing divinely-inspired and creative retellings of the life of Christ. Historical accuracy was more of a relative than an absolute standard for them. John Goldingay has compared this to a film like Chariots of Fire, which is based on historical fact, but does not correspond to the actual events in every respect. The one watching the film would expect a backbone of historical accuracy, but also allows for the creative freedom of the film-makers.

Whilst it has its limitations, I believe that this illustration is helpful in a number of respects. Creative retellings of history, in films or novels, for example, have the ability to put us inside history in a way that modern attempts at objective history do not. Creative retellings bring to surface the underlying themes and place the personalities of key players into sharper relief. Such ‘photoshopped’ history can serve to bring to light the most important things that might have gone unnoticed otherwise, lost in the details.

12. One could even argue that a creative retelling may even be more true to the history in certain respects than a regular historical account.

13. When you read the gospels this way, you pay attention to every detail. You do not approach the gospels as documents that have to be separated into historical wheat and chaff (as those who argue against inerrancy are in danger of doing). Every detail matters, even those that may not be directly grounded in actual historical events, because every detail is part of the creative retelling.

When I read the accounts of Judas’ death, for example, the first question I ask is not that of how the two accounts are to be harmonized. I am not sure that they can convincingly be harmonized, nor am I convinced that they were intended to be. Whilst I believe that the various gospel accounts were designed to be brought into dialogue with one another, I do not believe that this need always take the shape of harmonization. I think that evangelicals are often far too quick to harmonize and, as a result, lose sight of the many lessons that the differences and tensions between the gospels have to teach us.

The first question that I ask of the account is the role that it is intended to serve within the larger narrative. The event is recorded for a reason and serves the larger purpose of the narrative. If the history has been photoshopped, it has been photoshopped for a reason. In either case the details are important.

Anyway, I have many, many more thoughts on this subject, but I don’t have time or inclination to say anything about them just now. I am intending to write a book on Scripture sometime over the summer, probably written at a more popular level. I might say something on inerrancy in there. Perhaps not; I haven’t decided yet. By the way, on the subject of Scripture, expect some thoughts on the relationship between incarnation and inscripturation sometime in the next week or so.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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10 Responses to Brief Notes on Inerrancy

  1. Kelly Kerr says:

    Alastair, I have enjoyed your blog for along time.

    I was wondering what you might think about the following, which are my own humble thoughts. Isn’t there some sort of interplay between text and history? The Word existed before the actual creation, yet Scripture itself was written in history and records real historical events. As the kingdom comes in history, won’t it come according to the Scriptural pattern?

    I know that was short, but hopefully it made a little sense.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Al says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Kelly.

    The interplay between text and history is a very interesting area for study. I still have many questions on the subject. A point that Wright makes well is that the Scriptures do not merely act as a commentator upon history, standing on the sidelines, but are one of the principal means by which God acts in history and brings His purposes to pass.

    As God’s ultimate purpose for history is the creation of a new humanity in His Son there is an argument to be made for the position that Scripture is a means by which God works towards incarnation and Pentecost. The Scripture serves the purpose of preparing us for the coming of the eternal Word into history and serve to preserve us in relationship with Him.

    These are some themes that I hope to explore i more depth in my forthcoming post on Inscripturation and Incarnation.

  3. Jennifer says:

    Wow! I was just visiting via a link from Cadre Comments, but I love how you word this! I have had many of the same thoughts as you. I particularly agree with this:

    “The idea that the Scriptures are essentially to be thought of as a book containing facts has skewed our discussions of inerrancy.”

  4. pduggie says:

    I was intrguied when reading the Horse and his boy that when the girl is telling the story of her escape (for Caloremen are taught to tell stories the way english schoolboys are taught to write essays) she relates Hwinn’s comments to her in such a way that they sound very well spoken and grandiose. Hwinn interjects “Well, I didn’t say it anywhere near as fancy as that” or something along those lines.

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  7. Alastair, are there any books on this topic (inerrancy, historicity, harmonization) that you would recommend? I’m wanting to look into this more.

    • Nothing that comes to mind, unfortunately. I’ve disagreed with much that I’ve read on the subject. I’d also express my position on the subject slightly differently than from a decade or more ago.

      • No good books on it? I may have just found my PhD subject.

        How would you put your position now? I found this post very helpful a number of months ago when I was wrestling through the apparent historical discrepancies between the gospels and the broader question of inerrancy and historicity. I still am thinking through these issues and haven’t really arrived at a satisfactory answer. Like you stated in this post, I am not sure that some of the apparent discrepancies in historical details between the gospels are able to be harmonized. (Did the fig tree wither immediately, or the next day? Did Jesus cleanse the temple on the same day as the triumphal entry, or the day after the entry?) But this post does leave me with some questions. Particularly: where is the line? If we can say that historical accounts in Scripture don’t necessarily match up at every point with the historical happening behind Scripture, what’s to stop us from saying, for instance, that Jesus never had a conversation with the woman at the well, and he never even entered Samaria; rather, the gospel writer just wanted to express certain theological truths about Christ by means of this ahistorical, creative retelling? I could see a modern creative retelling doing that. What would stop us from going there with regard to the gospels in any number of cases?

        I also wonder about the history of harmonizing within the church. When I met with a professor at my seminary last fall to talk about these things, he told me that it isn’t “modern” to try to harmonize the gospels as it relates to their apparent historical discrepancies, but that Augustine made similar efforts.

      • I am sure that there are a great many good books on the subject, but I haven’t read them. Part of the issue here is that I tend to forge my thinking as much if not more by reading people who disagree with me. Which means that I am a terrible person to give book recommendations.

        Upholding the historical basis of the gospels and of Scripture more generally is imperative and some degree of harmonization will be necessary as part of this. However, one of my concerns is that, in doing this, we don’t try to get behind the witness of the Scripture itself, involving ourselves in contortions in order to construct some ur-narrative behind their inspired narratives, which certain harmonizations end up doing. Some harmonizations end up sapping the scriptural witnesses of their power by presenting us with explanations that leave the scriptural witnesses appear as poor witnesses, even if technically truthful ones.

        Is the different order of the temptations of Christ in the wilderness in Luke and Matthew proof of errancy, for instance? Each gospel presents a chronological sequence of temptations, but the order is different. Rather than engage in exegetical gymnastics at this point in order to harmonize them, I think we’d be much better off recognizing that the gospel writers weren’t writing according to the same historical norms. Also that the order of the temptations serve literary purposes, highlighting different theological themes in each case. Now, it is important that we believe that the events recorded occurred, but certain details, including their sequence may not have occurred in the way recorded. But these details aren’t just to be dismissed as meaningless on that account. The details are significant and clue us into key connections each gospel witness wants us to draw (Luke, for instance, in his witness to the event, wants us to connect it with Ezekiel and to connect the temptations with the events in Nazareth that follow). This is a very different thing from making stories up out of thin air, though.

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