Beginning a Serious Discussion about Inerrancy

Posted By on June 8, 2008

I’ve been thinking about inerrancy a good bit lately–not whether I want to surrender it, or whether it’s a term that has any value or not. My thoughts have focused on the Peter Enns dismissal from Westminster. I think they made the wrong decision, and the reasoning behind the decision has troubled me as to the state of clear thinking in a theological institution I have admired for a long time. You may or may not be familiar with Enns or his dismissal or its circumstances, so I don’t want this discussion to be about Peter. That said, his book, Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament (which led to his dismissal) raised some very important issues for any coherent articulation of inspiration and inerrancy. I think he was doing the Church a great service. It’s really been appalling to see how the side opposite Enns seems to be painfully unaware of the reality of the issues the book raises and has retreated to 17th century articulations of inerrancy as authoritative, or to more recent articulations produced by scholars who seem under-informed (i.e., they aren’t in the field of OT, the ANE, and Semitics) as to what Enns is trying to address. Like me, Peter’s field is OT and ancient Near East (his PhD is from Harvard). He is quite aware of the “cost” of contextualizing the OT in its ANE environment — something everyone says they want to do and needs to be done, but few seem to take as seriously as Peter did. I guess now we know why. Unfortunately, paying lip service to contextualizing the Bible doesn’t help us articulate a coherent view of inspiration and inerrancy in light of the Bible’s very real context. Those who deny this needs to be done (those who want to say naive things like the Bible is a product ONLY of God and not an ancient cultural context) are either inept in that assertion or dishonest. I don’t want either writing theology for me. Sorry, but that’s how I see it. Peter knows what contextualizing the OT really means and wanted to serve those who take the Scriptures seriously, with conservative presuppositions, and help us make a coherent statement of these doctrines. I’m in the same boat. Since my training is in Hebrew Bible and Semitics, I carry a day-to-day awareness of how the OT is indeed a product of its culture–but I believe at the same time God broke into human history to a people in that cultural milieu to dispense revelation for all human posterity. How to marry the two and express that marriage in coherent definitions of inspiration and inerrancy is the issue. Hiding behind the work of theologians of the past who were not exposed to the ANE data we have today doesn’t make the problem go away. In fact, choosing their articulations of these doctrines over those scholars who have the same faith commitment and whom God has led to navigate the mountain of recent data bearing on the content and character of the Bible is foolhardy. It just makes those conservative in their theology look like the priests who condemned men like Galileo.

I therefore want to start a discussion on how to word the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy. I more or less know what I think, but I’m having a hard time putting it into words, and so I need your help. HOWEVER, in order for the rest of you to really get into my head on this, you need to do some reading. Below are links to articles that bring to light very real data that show how the OT and NT are products of their ancient environment. They make it evident that the Bible didn’t just drop out of the sky or ONLY from the mind of God–God used people, like he does all the time (at least according to the Bible!). I want you to read them all, and then I plan to go back to this thread in about a week. This isn’t casual reading. For the one on 1 Cor 11, it would help if you at least knew the Greek alphabet. If you haven’t read the material and want to take me or others who comment to task, you’ll be ignored. This is for people who want to help me think through the issue, not for people who want to be contentious and offer simplistic solutions. Here they are:

1. The Three-Storied Universe of the Bible – a brief overview of OT cosmology

2. Old Testament Covenants and ANE Covenants, Part 1

3. Old Testament Covenants and ANE Covenants, Part2

4. Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle instead of a Head Covering – yes, you read “testicle” correctly. This is a fascinating article with great explanatory power for a vexing passage. The article focuses on the Greek word usually translated “head covering” and the problem of knowing what the heck Paul was talking about in the chapter about a woman’s hair and long hair for men. The author traces the word back into medical literature of the day and the result is that you’ll never look at this passage the same way again — and, frankly, you won’t have to. It resolves all the problems.

Give these a read and we’ll talk in a week. I’ll wrap up the ghost thing in the meantime.

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23 Responses to “Beginning a Serious Discussion about Inerrancy”

  1. eweiss says:

    Inerrancy must also address the fact that the NT authors used the LXX for 90% of their OT quotes (per Lee Martin McDonald, The Biblical Canon). Some NT passages depend on the LXX reading for their meaning (e.g., Hebrews 10:5), and it’s the LXX that the author was likely referring to in 2 Timothy 3:16 (a verse often cited in support of inerrancy), esp. since the two OT quotes in 2 Timothy (2:19) are based on the Greek rather than the Hebrew text. The NASB doesn’t use all CAPS for these verses, I guess because the NASB doesn’t consider them to be OT quotes; however, NA-26/27 calls them OT quotes, and even cites part of one as a quote from Sirach as Scripture – which brings the Apocrypha into the inerrancy issue.

  2. MSH says:

    eweiss: Agreed- and it is precisely this kind of thing we’ll be processing toward a coherent definition. Nice post.

  3. […] Beginning a Serious Discussion about Inerrancy […]

  4. […] that the usually incendiary inerrancy debate simmered down, even with posts by Michael S. Eiser (here, here, here and here ) and Peter Enns (here, here, here and […]

  5. MSH says:

    It’s “Michael S. Heiser”

  6. oecolampadius says:

    I have read Dr. Seely’s article before. I am not going to raise any exegetical questions yet, I will save that for another post when I have the chance to sit down and concentrate. However, I would like to raise some theological questions.

    Where do we stop? We could appeal to modern critical theories that seem to point to the fictional nature of the Patriarchal legends. Do we then say that they were a naive form of ancient story telling, which really never happened? If these stories are not true how does it affect the metanarrative of the bible? I think it was Hans Frei who pointed out the crisis of separating biblical history from its theology.

  7. MSH says:

    @oecolampadius: You ask “Where do we stop?” God question — and that is what I am hoping to resolve in this whole discussion (better, creating a coherent frame of reference for handling these issues in the context of articulating a sound definition of inspiration and for inerrancy. In short — we’re trying to figure this out.

    You add: ” We could appeal to modern critical theories that seem to point to the fictional nature of the Patriarchal legends. Do we then say that they were a naive form of ancient story telling, which really never happened? If these stories are not true how does it affect the metanarrative of the bible? I think it was Hans Frei who pointed out the crisis of separating biblical history from its theology.”

    Theories don’t solve anything, and in this example, there is no epistemological necessity to conclude that the patriarchal stories are fictional. Put another way, what would compel you or anyone to draw that conclusion other than a flawed epistemology. Things like “I can’t accept what source A says unless I have a second source that says the same thing.” Really? Is that really the way we judge all of reality consistently? Do you accept as fact what your Mom or wife says only when corroboration comes along? Is this the way we really live and think? Of course not. Scholars and others only treat the OT this way because it’s old, or because they don’t like something it says, or because they don’t like the implications of its historicity, or because they don’t care to apply their theory to real life in any consistent way. I’m not impressed with scholarly theories that simply violate the way we all live life normally. It’s sophistry.

  8. PBandJ says:

    Re: Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle instead of a Head Covering

    Another interpretation:

    (Though much on this website is bunk) I found this piece insightful. What do you think?

  9. MSH says:

    @PBandJ: A few comments. First, I don’t think Paul opposed the “Jewish idea” of the angels sinning sexually. I think he accepts that, and the “testicle view” dovetails nicely with it. Second, it isn’t at clear to me what the “spiritual light of man/woman” is. Third, the testicle view is far simpler and more elegant (more explanatory power) than this. I’m a big fan of Occam’s Razor.

  10. Amatsyah says:

    First time on your blog. I am very thankful for this topic being discussed, with such unusual and refreshing honesty towards the evidence at hand. In light of the realities of what presents itself in textual criticism looking towards the Originals, I think the best term that I’ve seen yet, personally, is one used in a book that I’ve only recently come across online (so haven’t read yet). Its description utilizes a term “informed infallibility”. That just strikes me as vigorously honest, yet uncompromisingly orthodox.

    I’d like to imagine that the pre-60’s interchangeable use of ‘infallible’ with ‘inerrant’ was still true; but knowing that to not be the case, I am yet left to wonder whether in your opinion, Mr. Heiser, you think that a proposed term *informed inerrancy* might be semantically or practicably possible (or close) to wording your idea about inerrancy in light of Comparative Semitics, linguistics, and all extant recensions, etc. taken together?

    In other words, with the entire body of existing manuscriptal evidence handed down to us, composing something of a ‘textus receptus en totus’ and with the potential Autographic content contained somewhere in the mix, including the high possibility that it may never be deciphered … could it not also be possible enough to consider the pure contained within the impure to be virtuously rendered ‘inerrant’, albeit under the precursory notion of ‘informed’? Really, this leaves the reader of the Text at the mercy of the Spirit of the Text for discernment, aside from being as scholarly informed as possible.

    I suppose it smacks more of ‘infallible’ by definition and sense of subjectivity, however considering the Autographs to have been inerrant, and these received witnesses as representing their most ancient Originals, would you consider it to be a reasonable enough notion that inerrancy must be contained in such quantity so as to keep the term in whole, albeit under its qualifier ‘informed’? I’m very much interested in your opinion on the wording of this term. Thank you.

  11. MSH says:

    @Amatsyah: without knowing what the author means by the phrase, I couldn’t say whether I see it as analogous in the way you ask. Perhaps it is. I am arguing that the Bible is indeed infallible (and also does not err) in what it sets down as items to be believed as doctrinal truth or binding truth for the church at all times. I distinguish between cultural limitations of the author that might be reflected in what they right and truth that they are dispensing for all believers.

    I’m not sure I follow the pure and impure line; if you could please reword.

  12. Amatsyah says:

    As J.I. Packer points out in his God Has Spoken, “the fellowship of God with man to which it [Scripture] testifies is the most momentous reality we can ever know, and the power of the Bible in its readers’ lives, a power springing both from its precious subject-matter and from its unique divine inspiration, is overwhelming”, p.13. Put another way, “Scripture, which on the face of it is human witness to God … proves itself to be God’s authentic word by mediating God’s presence, power, and personal address to us in and by its record of men’s knowledge of Him long ago”, ibid.

    The rare and precious and honest genius of Penn which hammers straight-forward such: “It is not enough to simply say that the Bible is the word of God or that it is inspired or to apply some other label … The issue is how these descriptions of the Bible bear fruit when we touch down in one part of the Bible or another”, p.17 is, I believe, answered firstly and lastly by Packer’s testament above. Only the experience of the mediated Presence of the Bible’s God Himself, through the Bible itself, is what truly “flesh[es] out descriptions such as ‘word of God’ or ‘inspired’”, ibid; to answer Penn.

    Otherwise, the Bible’s critics can only be right. It’d merely be another Enuma Elish – another good folk tale; or perhaps redacted collection of history’s wisest sages, albeit uninspired by the Divine, contra their authors’ claims. But to naïvely embark on the jest that our Textus Receptus en Totus is “perfectus”, does grave ill to our very mediated experience of its Incarnating Presence.

    It would be to accept an imperfect and tottered clone as being as perfect as the Original (both Written and Eternal). Not that cloning the Bible is the bad part – but the ancient hands which have bequeathed it to us today, have not been faithful in doing so. We are left to pick up the pieces, searching out this great matter set before us, as though it were the glory of God in concealing it. Who knows. Perhaps it has been, after all that great time spent bearing Israel’s wickedness.

    Finally, as to the ‘problem’ of ancient Israel’s ANE affluence, Penn aptly defuses this bomb in his first chapter, which response also intimates the enameling of their cultural milieu as being very possibly and likely (and yes, really) able to carry over into all generations including our own: “How else would you have expected God to speak? In ways wholly disconnected to the ancient world? Who would have understood Him?”, p.21. “But, when God speaks, he speaks in ways we would understand”, ibid.

    So thus we are left to becoming **informed** of our forebears, their culture, their God, their God’s self-disclosed revelation of Himself and His interaction with His People through different courses of their history, and at least of as much of this primary document as is left extant to us … no matter how many jigsaw puzzle pieces it may have come down to us in. Somewhere in there, is the pure. And it is overwhelming – enough so, to be construed as “inerrant” as its Incarnated Eternal Self. Experience through its mediatorship alone can testify to this.

  13. Amatsyah says:

    Is there a way to preview or edit one’s posts? Or a word limit?

  14. Amatsyah says:

    I couldn’t get everything to go through at once. Then, the first half of my response didn’t go through. So the above content is missing a lot of answers to your questions.

  15. MSH says:

    @Amatsyah: I don’t know about previewing — but I don’t think there is any word limit.

  16. Amatsyah says:

    First Part – The author’s book I referenced is one A.T.B. McGowan’s “The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage” which I came across at CBD. Having not read it, I cannot elucidate the author’s own definition, but I found his one term as noted by the book’s description to be a unique moulding of words. Whether or not I could agree with the use of its author, simply to conjoin the term “informed” with infallibility is brilliant; I propose that conjoining it likewise to [presuppositional] “inerrancy” irons out a most succinct and accurate phrase … and in only two words.

    Wouldn’t distinguishing between doctrinal truths only, and cultural landscapes, put a lot of tension upon Jesus’ words concerning the jots and tittles of ALL Scripture? From what I read in Penn, I must say that I still retain a certain faith which is firm in “THE” Word of God, albeit a Written Word not today reflected as error-free in any extant recension. This is sad, but I do not fault the Almighty for this. I take the accounts as received, which express ancient Israel’s abhorrent behavior, and thus believe the blame for textual butchery rests on them. I am only grateful for what we DO have today, and pray for more textual critics such as C. D. Ginsburg and Paul de Lagarde.

    I think that purging the impure out of the pure will leave us finally with an incontestable recension [i.e. Autographic Content only] whose “cultural limitations’ will boil down to either us – ourselves – being presuppositionally misinformed towards the Text, or just plain biased. I know that Copernican ‘science’ is often used to illustrate this, and I won’t mention my opinion on that, but how many people I wonder realize that the first part of Psalm 19 illustrates the astounding supradimensional vorticular tetrahedral dynamics in operation? Pretty lofty observation for a ‘scientifically constrained’ prophet. Yet, his wording is not in the language of an astrophysicist; though one of these today could clearly see this in the prophet’s imagery.

    But this is not to construe the suggestion that I’m referring to ‘problem passages’ as being the impure. No; what I’m referring to as “impure” amidst the pure (or vice-versa), are the textual impurities. Strictly linguistic. I have the Master’s words in mind here. Obviously, our recensions have been added to and taken away from. If this were not so, then there wouldn’t be textual criticism, because we wouldn’t have inter-contradictive Masoretics, Pesh_ttas, Septuagints, and Vulgates. Nor would we have intra-contradictive recensions; namely having the Masoretic in mind. But surely somewhere in all this mess IS to be found THE Word of God.

    The Word of YHWH God that is; not the Word of an Assyrian god, or Babylonian god, or any other god who would’ve been nearly agelessly acquainted to the inner workings of the Yahwistic Mind’s Law-concentric mode of thinking and dictating, while having been under His suzerainty via the Council. Therefore, whatever similarities might be apparent between the Bible and its ANE climate, only the Bible claims to be the supreme god YHWH’s word, construing that whatever and however He has Self-disclosed, it is thus done so in it and thereby efficacious to mediate even His very Presence.

  17. Amatsyah says:

    Elaborating on the idea of the ‘Bible Proper’ vs. its “‘cultural limitations’ [that] will boil down to either us – ourselves – being presuppositionally misinformed towards the Text, or just plain biased”, I’d like to use Mr. Seely’s article as a great example. Wherein he does an excellent job in building the case for raqia’s traditional “firmament” idea, I interpret his conclusion on this matter as conversely equal. To judge his scientific-inerrancy statement “We find this doctrine to be a priori, a doctrine that is read into the teachings of the Bible, rather than derived from it by legitimate exegesis” by his own standards, this position is EQUALLY a priori.

    Whoever said that modern ‘science’ has the advantage in every say when it boils down to it versus the ‘Bible’s science’? Or that we always interpret the Bible’s position on scientific matters correctly? Perhaps we have a propensity these days to lean on what seems as infallible scientific deductions, when our data is really biased, inconclusive, or mistakenly derived. I’ll use the Greek word “monogenes” and its relatively recent readjusted lexical definition for a scientific (linguistic) parallel.

    Case in point, before writing off “firmament” as archaic and naïve, perhaps ALL the voices in science need to be sought out. Just because the modern consensus is that space is a vacuum, doesn’t mean that the consensus by necessity has to be right. If this were the case, then [macro] evolution should be incontestable and embraced by all Christians and non-Christians alike. And so as science would have it, not ALL scientists are persuaded by space’s vacuity. In fact, there are some points that they make which become as incontestable as the laws of thermodynamics. For starters, space contains resistance. Vacuums on the other hand, do not.

    Whereas some may consider the Bible itself to construe the earth as flat, many do not. To exegete Matt. 4:8 for instance, this is far from a solid case to build a flat-earth concept, especially when it involves the two most supernal entities in existence. More to the point of a biblical-terrestrial consensus might be Psalm 19, which acknowledges a visual **circuitous** solar effect.

    For Seely to conclude that “In writing Scripture, God takes up science at the point to which man has developed it at the time of the writing … does not give special revelation to help man fulfill the cultural mandate … His special revelation has to do with that which man cannot discover by his own efforts … His special revelation has to do with redemption” … is a flat-out presupposition! No different than a traditionalist’s a priori presumption towards Divinely-conferred inerrancy. Except in this case, it is felt by the scientist that science has found an upper-hand on some of the claims found in the Bible, thereby warranting a reassessment and rewording of HOW to define “inerrancy”. THIS is accommodation. And to snippet “redemption” out of the entire corpus at the expense of ANY other matters, whether astronomical, geographical, or what-not, is nothing short of akin to Marcion and Rabulla.

    While one cannot deny the obvious ANE affluence (vs. influence … these terms might make for an interesting debate), it also cannot be forgotten that science itself is about discovery; it’s not about creating. Men do not ‘create’ science; science is all about ‘discovering’ that which already is … leaving the interpretation of data highly biased. Why would God therefore accommodate mistruths into that which was His own truth: His speech? This is deception, not mere ‘accommodation’ [to man’s contemporary ideas].

    One cannot say that man did not write Scripture with his own hand; nor without his own mind-and-being mixed into the effort. Yet neither should it be construed that God limited Himself in His own dissertations to men for all times through It, to the weaknesses in which these men suffered – whether in knowledge or some other capacity. To do so makes ill of God, not man, and impugns the very reason for extending one’s trust towards the Words contained in the Bible … ESPECIALLY when the main case-in-point to be argued by God is concerning humanity’s redemption!

    We don’t need to possess the prophets with automatic hand writing; but neither should their own limitations force God to bow down to their cultural or other limitations when His Spirit set forth to inspire. When Seely wants to say “To insist that the Bible be inerrant every time it touches on science is to insist on an a priori doctrine that has been read into the Bible”, one has to honestly consider the converse to being every bit as much true, if not insinuatingly-more: ‘To NOT insist that the Bible be inerrant every time it touches on science is to insist on an a priori doctrine that has been read into the Bible”. Disagree?

    Really, it comes down to interpretation of the data; not a denial of it. Naïvety is not comely on ANY end of the spectrum. Seely’s heart is in the right place, but science is not nearly as ‘scientific’ as one would like to make it seem; just as neither is the textual status of the Judeo-Christian Bible we argue from. I can be laughed out of every arena, but I maintain that the Autographic covenantal Scriptures were old-school ‘inerrant’. This may not help or be appreciated here, but it has forcibly reminded me to at least maintain open eyes in seeing ALL the presuppositional propositions laid out on the table before us, including modern-paradigmatical “science”.

  18. MSH says:

    @Amatsyah: no surprise that some of this resonates with me. Your second to last paragraph seems to indicate that you realize we cannot be sure that we have the “Master’s words” in terms of what was uttered in real time (no one had a tape recorder, and the synoptic gospels have disagreements in the wordings in many cases). Yet that doesn’t deter you, which is a good thing. I’m not sure I see the import in the first paragraph, other than the workability of the phrase “Divine Authenticity” (but of course people will want that defined, no matter how much you like it – you never really get away from that). I like it, too, but it can’t shield us from the desire of others to have us explain it. The “jot and tittle” thing isn’t much of a problem in my view — it’s likely that Jesus was speaking of the specific prophecy in discussion, not every part and segment of the entire canon.

  19. MSH says:

    @Amatsyah: I agree with your judgment of Seely’s first paragraph (and you should be able to tell that my view of inerrancy is different than his). I also agree with some of your other criticisms of how he creates a straw man inerrantist to shoot at. But you seem to fall into the same problem – using Seely to set up an inerrantist view that you don’t like with the goal of dismissing terms I’ve used in the discussion (like accommodation) or ideas that I wouldn’t subscribe to (like the superiority of science). Science is only “superior” when it conforms to reality and something in opposition to it doesn’t. I’ll side with scientific reality every time, since God made that, too — but that isn’t the same as siding with science as a discipline or guild.

  20. Craig Bennett says:

    Hi Michael,
    Heard you on C2C and found your positions on present myths very interesting. Your explanation a Ezekiel’s vision however was off the mark. What most people overlook is that prophets are very critical. Most people interpret prophecy as if to defend the present religious establishment while it is saying quite the opposite.
    Ezekiel, as you were saying, had to explain why God had allowed the Temple to be destroyed. He had to disguise his reason within a metaphorical vision so as not disturb those who would not accept his conclusion. His conclusion is not pretty, the Temple had abominations withing it and God allowed it to be destroyed and the Jews sent into exile.
    The vision is describing the Molten Sea, or Bronze Sea. This thing was 40 cubits in diameter!! What’s that, around 60 feet?
    Read the description of it and you will see all of the elements. The four Oxen, facing the cardinal points. The Chariot wheels, four of them going in all directions at once.
    Revelation borrowed the living creatures as it does a lot of traditional prophetic language. What the contrast is, is that God’s Temple and throne are not based on idolatry, but are represented by the natural world, a pristine example of what mankind copies in their images and abominations.
    I’m revealing this as just an example of the misreading of prophecy. My main work is on Revelation which has also been misinterpreted because people don’t want to accept that it is a very critical piece that does not defend the Christian Church.


    • MSH says:

      I didn’t misinterpret it at all — and I’d add that I don’t disagree that the Jerusalem temple had been defiled (Ezekiel gets to that in the book). But this vision in ch. 1 wasn’t about the temple, and use of pagan images by the biblical writer isn’t idolatry either. The prophets (and wisdom literature) use pagan *literature* as well – something lifting phrases and sections word for word, but being careful to insert Yahweh in place of other deities, or to “diss” the pagan deity associated with the pagan passage. It’s a polemic technique. Same with the imagery in Ezekiel 1. It’s about the elevation of Yahweh as world sovereign so as to put Marduk in his place. That’s not my unique view, either. You can find it in a range of scholarly commentaries (e.g., Word, NICOT).

  21. Craig Bennett says:

    Well. I consider it to be typical denial that I encounter all of the time. People would rather support some theory about how it somehow relates to some Babylonian idolatry rather than admit the truth that the Molten Sea was an abomination. It is not unthinkable, Jesus criticized a great deal about how the Jewish religion was represented. Like I said, prophets were critical.
    There is one factor that supports my contention. If it were about Babyonian idolatry and the power of Yahweh over the Babylonian god, then why go through the trouble of disguising it within a metaphor and not just come out and say it? The message needed to be encrypted.
    I’m not some conspiracy theorist here. All through history we have prophets and writers disguising their their writings to keep away from the watchful eye of the religious establishment. It has become a tradition. Ezekiel’s contemporaries would not accept his conclusion just as you have rejected it.
    At least your interpretation isn’t way out there like most of the interpretations I have heard or read. You understand the elements of prophetic writing, you only have to overcome the denial that a prophet would be critical of the religious establishment and figure out why God would allow the destruction of the Temple. I respect the background you provide and consider you to be very focused. What you have said does not dismiss my interpretation however. Ezekiel is addressing the dilema of why Marduk would win and the reason for it. That would be a problem that Yahweh had with the Temple. All of the pieces of the Molten Sea are in the vision. The burning bronze, the living creatures and most importantly, the wheels.

  22. […] here we go with the inerrancy issue. Hopefully by now you have read the required readings for this discussion (yes, they are required; I have specific goals with this thread, and comments posted that make me […]

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