“Poorly-versed accounts of inerrancy- accounts that fail to understand the nature of language and literature- harm the cause of biblical authority and truth.” As most objections against biblical inerrancy arise from the impoverished state of its contour, “a well-versed Augustinian inerrancy is the way forward for evangelical biblical scholars and theologians,” argues Kevin J. Vanhoozer on the occasion of 2013 Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting.
Vanhoozer agrees with J. I. Packer: inerrancy ought always to be held as an article of faith « not capable of demonstrative proof but entailed by dominical and apostolic teaching about the nature of Scripture. » Perhaps, in order to be at peace with as many evangelicals as possible, we could agree that inerrancy, if not essential, is nevertheless expedient.
To be well-versed is to have a literate understanding of the literal sense. Whereas the early Christians had « an addiction to literacy », Vanzooer’s primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling (2 Tim. 2:15: Orthotomeo) the word of truth. Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition.
In asking whether the Chicago statement is well-versed, Vanhoozer has four major concerns:
- whether its definition of inerrancy is clear;
- whether it gives primacy to a biblical-theological rather than a philosophical understanding of truth;
- whether it is sufficiently attentive to the nature and function of language and literature;
- whether it produced a theological novelty.
In contrast, Vanhoozer is much more willing to speak about Augustine as the patron saint of well-versed inerrancy, because
- his thinking was thoroughly theological and he judged Scripture to be entirely true and trustworthy, and
- he was not only familiar with but also proficient in the liberal arts, writing on the nature and interpretation of language, concerned for what he called the literal meaning of Genesis,
- but also alert and attentive to biblical figures of speech.
Vanhoozer is adamant that Augustine would agree with the judgment expressed by his definition of inerrancy: the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly).
By corollary, a well-versed Augustinian inerrancy pays special care
- first to speech-act content but also to form
- to the plurality of genres and various types of discourses in the Scripture
- more to the Speaker (the Author of the text) than to « sentence meaning »
- and inevitably to the illumination of the Holy Spirit on the part of the reader
However, given the propensity of scribes to smooth-en textual wrinkles, our insistence on textual inerrancy can be called a well-versed one only if we are willing to bear the textual problems preserved in what we [scientifically] deem the most reliable text, by typically preferring of the more difficult readings, rather than by using inerrancy as a cheap device to oppress the communicative integrity of God’s Word and circumvent hard sayings.
Now I have a question.
On the hermeneutic ethics of the discipline of textual criticism, Vanhoozer seems ambitious but becomes a bit ambivalent. What is implied yet remains unspecified here is an ethical evaluation of the scribal work:
In what way can Vanhoozer say the scribes/copyists are working along God’s communicative business in their interpretation/ »dynamic » preservation of the Scripture they receive? It seems their labors are excluded from our positive hermeneutic considerations because, on the one hand, by flattening textual problems they point to us an « easy hermeneutic road » uncharacteristic of the nature of the Cross of Jesus we are asked to bear.
On the other hand, they give our enemies a stock to hold against us that our Scripture is corrupted and unreliable (while without their works, we would never have had the chance to stand here as the people of the Word, either).
A pneumatology of textual transmission and textual criticism is thus wanted in our dealings with the doctrine of biblical inspiration and inerrancy, in my view.
Questions aside, Vanhoozer’s conclusion is a robust and ethically holistic one: that right-minded interpreters of the Scripture are necessarily its truthful witnesses that are willing to endure textual difficulties (on the intellectual/Sophia level), as well as truth-seekers capable of responding to, loving, and participating in the calling of the Scripture (on the practical/Phronesis level)- they listen to God’s Word, comprehend it, and do it.
Now available for viewing, the video features Dr. Vanhoozer outlining and explaining his position, presented more fully in Five Views. A transcript of the video is also available for Download.
Appendix: Vanhoozer on Peter Enns in Five Views on Inerrancy:
I endorse Enns’ call to conform our doctrine of Scripture to the Bible that we actually have rather than the one we think God ought to have written. My own essay contrasts an “inerrancy of glory” (aka “perfect book inerrancy,” a cultural construct) with an “inerrancy of the cross.” I draw this distinction in order to urge an inerrancy of the cross that recognizes the wisdom of God in the surprising textual form he has given it rather than the form we may think it ought to have had. Enns simply identifies inerrancy with perfect book theology, however, and then devotes most of his essay to exposing its nakedness. I agree that perfect book inerrancy, “by placing on it expectations it is not designed to bear”, fails to do justice to Scripture. However, in my own chapter, I explore a constructive alternative. I wish Enns had tried to do this too.
Instead, Enns spends most of his chapter reacting to what I judge to be a caricature of inerrancy— what David Dockery, whom I discuss in my own chapter, calls “naive” rather than “critical” inerrancy. Enns would have been better off discussing the original drawing— namely, the definitions offered by John Frame or Paul Feinberg— rather than demeaning the assumptions and interpretive practice of anonymous inerrantists. Who are these faceless villains (“ is it I, Peter”)? Enns nevertheless makes a valid point: the doctrine of inerrancy has been hijacked by various bands of exegetical pirates who insist that the gold of true Bible knowledge is secure only in their own interpretive treasure chests.
Enns thinks the core issue is “how inerrancy functions in contemporary evangelical theological discourse”. Why should the function rather than the nature of inerrancy be the crux of the matter? We don’t throw away other doctrines, like divine sovereignty or the atonement, just because some people misunderstand or misuse them. No, we try to set them right. Curiously, Enns is not interested in definitions. Even his title focuses on function: “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” This is strange. Why should inerrancy— the claim that the Bible is without error— describe what the Bible does? Enns’ essay suffers from two confusions: (1) a failure to distinguish the nature of inerrancy from its use and (2) a failure to distinguish inerrancy’s right use from various abuses.
–Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) Zondervan, 2013, 83-4 [Kindle Edition]