Monday, November 07, 2005

NBB Theology: Scripture Part II

Inspired and inerrant. Those two words rarely describe this blog, but they do describe scripture quite well. What those terms mean to different people, though, varies. I hope that the following serves to clarify what I (at least) and many other Evangelicals actually mean by those terms. If we don't have those terms clear, the conversation about salvation gets muddied.

Often we find critics of Christianity, or at least of the Evangelical and Fundamentalist varieties, ridiculing the idea of inerrancy and inspiration as literalistic naivete. It is naive to believe God dictated the scripture, the argument goes, and to believe in literalism you need to give up any sense of rationality; contradictions abound, and the man-made book of books is nothing more than fairy tales for those who can't think for themselves.

Such critics miss the point of what inerrancy and inspiration really mean. Much of this is the fault of Christians, who use the words without defining them. And much of it is a lack of training in theology and religion in America in general. In reality, the concept of inspiration is rarely understood by Christians to equate to dictation from God, and inerrancy does not equal literalism.

The concept of inspiration is drawn from II Timothy. The phrase "God breathed" in this verse is descriptive of how scripture came to be: God inspired it. Throughout the Bible we find additional claims of God's participation in the Bible's authorship.

That being said, inspiration does not necessarily equate to dictation. Sure, there are times God speaks directly: to Moses at the burning bush, to Adam and Eve in the garden, to the prophets who declare "thus sayeth the Lord." But these are the exception. All we mean by "inspired" is that God is behind the words of scripture and that He has protected and managed the writing, compilation and maintenance of it. The Holy Spirit, I don't think, whispered the words to the writers. The differences in style, language, literary devices and purpose between the various books is evidence to the contrary. However, He oversaw the work, guiding the authors to produce material that is trustworthy, sufficient, and perfect for the purposes of God's intended revelation. While we don't know the mechanism, we hold that God is behind the scriptures.

Inerrancy, likewise, is an oft-confused concept. Inerrancy does not mean "perfectly accurate down to the minutiae of every historical and scientific fact, and to be taken 100% literally." Inerrancy means that scripture is without error, yes, but "without error" is a term with some small measure of latitude. An example might clarify. There are many rather obviously round numbers in the OT. Numerical precision is not mandated by inerrancy, and where the Bible reports 150,000 men instead of 149,733 we don't take that as an error. Other examples could be taken from the poetic imagery of the poetry books and passages. A literalist view may hold that Solomon's wife really had sheep for teeth - an inerrantist realizes this is poetry, and the image is what's important.

Inerrancy does not ignore context, figures of speech, purpose or custom. Rather, inerrancy requires that the text be understood in the light of how it was written. Poetry is poetry, history is history, prophecy is prophecy and parables are parables. A literalist approach would turn the parable of the Prodigal Son into an actual happening, where an inerrantist would say Jesus did tell the parable (the inerrant part) but that the parable itself was a piece of fiction designed to make a point (the context part.)

There is much, much more that can be said about what inerrancy means, and for that I refer you to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. What I don't explain clearly is laid out pretty well in that statement.

If the Bible is inspired and inerrant, which I believe (and the discussion about the evidence on which I believe these things - as they aren't irrational decisions I've made without studying the matter - is for a different day) then what can it tell us about God? That's the next post in this little mini-series on my theology.

God bless!

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