Inspiration and Inerrancy: Distinguishing Ends and Means, Process and Product

Posted By on August 11, 2008

In the last post, I focused on 2 Tim 3:17 for an answer to the question, “What was the point of the exercise of inspiration?” Paul gives us four purposes in this text, and it seems wise to me to approach the question from that perspective. I also noted that I have no interest in affirming “limited inerrancy.” All well and good, but I also think we need to let Scripture tell us what Scripture was intended for and not try to articulate what we believe about Scripture on some other basis – like our need as moderns of Enlightenment thinking to cram everything in a box or neat categories so we can pretend that all the problems are solved and all the questions have real time (OUR time) answers. So where’s the middle ground? I’m going to try and find that middle ground and then steer through it. I’d really like some critical input here, since I’m making this up as I go.

I’ll start with an analogy. (My apologies for the way TABLES do NOT work well in WordPress).

INSPIRATION

PROCESS

PRODUCT

HUMAN AGENTS

GOD

Immediate source of the text of Scripture

Ultimate source of the text of Scripture

The final form of the text of Scripture

CANONICITY

PROCESS

PRODUCT

HUMAN AGENTS

GOD

“real time” recognizers of the sacred status of the canonical books

Ultimate oversight of the recognition of canonical books

The canon

Evangelicals know that this looks like a completely human process of recognition, but we believe God was in the process, “superintending” the decisions made by humans. Hence we assign the results to providence. As readers know, I have argued inspiration should be viewed the same way. Just as no one would argue God whispered which books were “in” to those people debating such a thing, we do not need God to whisper each word into the ear or mind of the Scripture authors. There is no need for dictation or automatic writing, any more than there was a need to dictate the canon list or seize the minds of those making such decisions. It was providence.

The next obvious question is “How well did the process work?” This is another way of asking whether God preserved the human agents from making any mistakes. In the case of the canon, mistakes would mean not recognizing a book that ought to have been recognized. I exclude the notion in that statement that something got in that shouldn’t be in. That is theoretically possible, but in my mind highly unlikely, especially for the Protestant evangelicals that I’m guessing make up most or all of my readership. Evangelicalism has a minimalist canon – the smallest of the lists that emerged in any widespread Christian tradition, so the problem becomes whether something that ought to be in was excluded in what has become the evangelical Protestant Bible. Moving back to the inspiration issue, mistakes would mean errors in the text. This brings us full circle back to 2 Tim. 3:17.

We all know that human agents (whether as part of the inspiration process or the canon recognition process) are fallible. We would all agree that God could overcome such frailty if he chose to do so.

God would only approve what was consistent with his own purposes. If something in the text obstructed or obscured his purposes, he would not have allowed it. I am suggesting as a general principle that THIS PERSPECTIVE ought to be the guiding criterion for whether the Bible has errant content in it.

How does this differ from limited inerrancy? I’ll try to illustrate that – but be advised, I need input on better ways to say things here since I’m making this up!

LIMITED INERRANCY

PROCESS

PRODUCT

HUMAN AGENTS

GOD

Immediate source of the text of Scripture

Ultimate source of the text of Scripture

The final form of the text of Scripture

* were literary artists, not uncreative hacks

* had some pre-scientific beliefs

* had some cultural / patriarchal beliefs that were abhorrent to moderns

* were capable of mistakes in historical recording and use of historical sources

* God allowed literary artistry, and that is often lost on us. That said, there may still be errors in the text.

* God allowed mistakes in science to be in the text; these are errors of science

* Cultural and patriarchal features are either excusable features not to be followed, or could be construed as human failings inconsistent with the mind of God.

* God allowed such mistakes to be placed in the text of Scripture; they are errors.

A Bible that is mostly inerrant; limited inerrancy

MY OWN PARSING:

PROCESS

PRODUCT

HUMAN AGENTS

GOD

Immediate source of the text of Scripture

Ultimate source of the text of Scripture

The final form of the text of Scripture

* were literary artists, not uncreative hacks

* had some pre-scientific beliefs

* had some cultural / patriarchal beliefs that were abhorrent to moderns

* were capable of mistakes in historical recording and use of historical sources

* God allowed literary artistry, and that is often lost on us. The problem is OUR misunderstanding of the author’s technique and purpose. We have no warrant to automatically construe the text has errors; rather, we ought to seek literary reasons for things we might see. God’s purposes for the enterprise were not dependent on the absence of literary artistry. The (a) skill or ineptitude of the author in literary terms has nothing to do with (b) the content of the final form of the text fulfilling God’s purposes. The latter (b) is the end; the former (a) is a means.

* It was not God’s purpose to have Scripture teach us science. Scripture authors may argue a point that does fall under the purposes of 2 Tim 3:17 (e.g., “doctrine”) using some pre-scientific idea, but God could have cared less. Inerrancy isn’t about the means used to fulfill the purpose of the enterprise; it’s about the end purposes of the enterprise. In other words, Scripture was given to us to put forth truth to accomplish the purposes of 2 Tim 3:17 – THAT list of purposes is its self-declared focus, not science or anything else deriving from the culture or worldview of its authors. God can allowed flawed means (flawed ideas) to communicate infallible truth. Inerrancy or errancy ought to be a question that focuses on the truth statements that fall under Scripture’s own stated purposes, not on the means to those ends.

* Scripture’s stated purposes include teaching morality and chastising immoral behavior. To those ends, laws, commands, and morality tales are found in abundance in Scripture. Unless Scripture itself informs us that certain points of morality and ethics were culturally bound and intended to be temporary, those items are put forth as truth and are subject to the scrutiny of the inerrancy question. As with science, God may allow a greater point of conduct to be articulated on the basis of a temporary (and thus non-binding) worldview. Such means are not errors since they are not the point of the enterprise.

* There are problem passages in some historical comments. While it wasn’t God’s purpose to give us history, it isn’t necessary to include such issues as a focus of inerrancy or errancy. God could allow errant means in accomplishing the purposes for the enterprise. That said, the fact that we are necessarily dealing with a limited data pool (both with respect to the biblical text and secular historical sources), means that we ought not declare something errant. Some can consider an item errant, but that is more of an opinion than statement of fact.

A Bible that inerrantly accomplishes the Bible’s self-declared purposes.

Now here’s my problem. I know that this sounds like I’m just saying certain things don’t count when it comes to inerrancy. And, that’s sort of in my ballpark. But what I’m really saying is “that’s fair to say” since I think we ought to play by Scripture’s own rules – it tells us what it’s for. We ought not to judge Scripture’s errancy by standards that are well outside its own context and purposes.

We cut written and spoken material this kind of slack all the time. We know intuitively in many cases *how* a certain statement was intended to be taken (“Since the sun rises every day the way God made it to, we can believe God is faithful”). A scientifically imprecise thing to say, but it wasn’t my intent to lay down scientific fact. My point was the latter truth that extended from my colloquialism. The problem is with US – we often don’t know how a certain statement ought to be taken. And when we do know that, for example, the real point wasn’t to give us science, why not cut the Bible the same slack?1 Well, you might say, “we can’t cut it slack, since it was written by God, and he ought to know better.” Sorry – it wasn’t written by God. God was not the immediate author – the people he chose to produce it were. It is God’s thoughts in human words, and very focused, pared-down divine thoughts at that, for our sake. Let’s face it – once God made the decision to use people to produce Scripture rather than dictate content to us that would have been mostly incomprehensible to our puny minds, he had chosen a very limited resource. I imagine God looking down and shaking his head as it were, knowing the only way to communicate with us would be to use us to that end. God had specific purposes in mind and more or less said “Well, I’ll prompt them with my Spirit, other believers, and general providential intervention to get them to write down a record of my dealings with humanity, my purposes, who I am and what I’m like, how they can know me and be forgiven for their sin, how I came to them in human form and then the incarnate Son. . .” etc., etc. “I’ll make sure they get across what I want them to get across, not only for them but for all those who will follow, especially those who believe.” God knew that letting men do this would be ugly (relatively speaking, with respect to his perfection) – that they’d bring their pre-scientific ignorance to the table, along with a specific, localized cultural perspective. But hey, that’s what he chose to work with. What else would they be?

Frankly, if we believe the final product is what God approved, we ought to judge the final product by its’ self-described intent (2 Tim 3:17) – our argument for inerrant truth is therefore with God, not his human agents.

  1. And by the way – how do we know OUR scientific understanding is always (or mostly) correct? Science by its very nature goes through a process of correction as understanding increases. But we live with that, knowing it’s part of life. God could have used writers in the first millennium BC to really tell us how the universe holds together or how he made it, but what point would there be in that? The information would not only be ahead of the writers, it would be ahead of us – by how far we can scarcely imagine.

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6 Responses to “Inspiration and Inerrancy: Distinguishing Ends and Means, Process and Product”

  1. cwmyers007 says:

    Dr. Mike,

    I really like this post, this is one of the better recent ones. I still am having trouble though. Your view of, “well that doesn’t count” can only bring you so far. This is what I am still struggling with. You still affirm some of the limited inerrancy tenants: such as “God allowed mistakes in science to be in the text; these are errors of science.” You would say, yea ok, but that is because God chose to use humans to communicate his divine truths. But that does not deny the assertion, but rather affirms it and excuses it as not necessary to the matters at hand.

    But it is necessary, because you cannot run from the fact that there are untrue statements in the Bible. If you affirm that there are untrue statements in the Bible, then this must be your conclusion (which you nicely make), “A Bible that inerrantly accomplishes the Bible’s self-declared purposes.” Excellently stated! Yet, your conclusion and reasoning leaves alien (and in error) these statements:
    1. 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. (Can you pick up why you cannot affirm this?)
    2. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery. (you attempt to solve the mystery because you think it can be solved; your explanation for mode seems to be primarily anthropopneumatos in nature–we disagree here).

    3. It is impossible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated. (you must define “assertions” in a non-sensical matter in order to affirm this)

    I commend you for denying that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. You have correctly delineated that inerrancy is NOT negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations. But by affirming that the Bible is errant in its scientific propositions or that its authors have come to true assertions using fallible propositions in argument is ignoring contemplations that can avoid such conclusions and is where you may have blundered.

    If you are uncomfortable leaving the mode of inspiration a mystery, I think that is ok, but if you are going to contemplate it, I think you need to hold as one of your presuppositions the absolute uniqueness of the Spirit-filledness of the Biblical authors in contrast with our own Spirit-filledness. This is a matter that you have consistently rejected and therefore I believe it has yielded some minor faulty conclusions.

    Grace be with you,

    Chris

  2. Chet Silvermonte says:

    So we’re changing “The Bible is inerrant in what it affirms” to “The Bible is inerrant in what it purports”? I guess that is slightly better.

  3. MSH says:

    @Chet Silvermonte: Well, yes, I am saying that, and “purports” is better than “affirm” – but I’d like to say more and say it better. I just want Scripture to be taken on its own terms and not judged according to criteria that are foreign to its own purposes.

  4. MSH says:

    @cwmyers007: You’re still not following what I’m saying and what I’m not saying. I’m saying the Bible does not “teach” anything in regard to science. It makes no scientific assertions, period. And so, I cannot be guilty of saying that the Bible teaches erroneous science. It teaches NOTHING about science. Rather, its writers come from a world that is pre-scientific, and it shows occasionally. But the writers are not *teaching* anything about science. I’m saying that when a writer makes an argument about some point of theology, and uses a prescientific mindset to do it, that writer is not *teaching* anything about science, and Scripture never claims intentionally do that – and so such things should not be judged as errors. They just *are*.

    Second, the mode of inspiration is not a mystery any more than providence is generally a mystery. What I mean here is that I’d agree we cannot know how God works “all things together” – but that is not saying the same thing as there is some mystical control he exerts over people. There is too much evidence against that in terms of real data.

    Where does the Bible say the writers were Spirit-filled when they wrote? I’d guess they were, but you are using that language again for some sort of “above providence” mystical control. And you still haven’t explained to readers how you’d address the textual issues I’ve been putting forth as illustrations of why I’m arguing in certain directions. How does the textual realia fit your model (or vice versa)?

  5. Chet Silvermonte says:

    Take the following sermon outline:

    Positive people are more stable than negative people. Even nature shows this. Look at the atom. The positively charged protons sit around rock-solid, unmoved in the core of the atom, while negatively charged electrons are zipping around and around, bouncing this way and that. Therefore, be positive.

    Am I teaching science? You could argue that I am, since I’m educating my congregation on how atoms work. But you would probably argue that I am teaching the power of positive thinking, and the appeal to science is merely rhetorical. And so even if my model of the atom is proven to be wrong, the teaching to be positive could still stand, even as the argument falls. That seems to be what you are saying with scripture’s appeals to science, history and the other falsifiable things. Which is tantamount to saying scripture can be right, but for the wrong reasons.

  6. MSH says:

    @Chet Silvermonte: I’d rather say, “Scripture can accomplish its divine purposes despite poor or erroneous statements within the rhetoric used to accomplish those purposes.” The “rightness” of the rhetoric isn’t crucial to the truth claim’s veracity. And further, for the time period in which it was written (and for some time thereafter), the statements within the rhetoric would not have been considered wrong. I view this as a necessary biproduct or “cost” to divine condescension. God didn’t care about this cost, but we, as enlightenment modernistic thinkers get exorcised by it. Maybe it’s time we look at the Bible the way God apparently thought of the enterprise.

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