Sunday, July 25, 2010

Vital Inerrancy

I recently came across an article online on the BiolLogos site entitled "After Inerrancy: Evangelicals and the Bible in a Postmodern Age." It’s a multi-part article written by Kenton Sparks, a professor of
Biblical Studies at Eastern University. Here’s how it starts:

I write for Evangelicals who either believe or suspect that our tradition has painted itself into an intellectual corner. The Church has been down this road before. In the 16th and 17th centuries it mistakenly criticized Copernicus and Galileo because their scientific views were clearly "unbiblical." And just as the evidence finally came crashing down on Church dogma in those days, so in ours, the facts are stacking up quickly against fundamentalistic beliefs in "creation science" and in the kind of "biblical inerrancy" that supports it.

While there was perhaps a period in history when Evangelicals could deny the substance of these new theories because the available evidence seemed thin, it seems to me that we’ve now crossed an evidential threshold that makes it intellectually unsuitable to defend some of the standard dogmas of the conservative Evangelical tradition. Holding fast to these old dogmas merely perpetuates the "intellectual disaster of Fundamentalism" and the "scandal of Evangelical Mind."

The intellectual cul-de-sac in which Evangelicalism finds itself can be traced back to many causes. But it seems clear, at least to me, that a fundamental cause of the scandal is its doctrine of Scripture. Often this doctrine involves a strict adherence to "Biblicism" … to a belief that the Bible provides inerrant access to the truth about everything it touches on … from biology, physics and astronomy to psychology, history and theology. In more progressive Evangelical circles inerrancy is sometimes defined more delicately, in a way that allows the non-biblical evidence to carry more weight in our reflection, but even here the subtle influence of inerrancy often engenders poor, or at least inferior, judgments about science, history, human beings and theology. In the pages that follow I will briefly explain why conventional Evangelical understandings of Scripture simply cannot be right. I will also survey some of the important resources that can help the Church get its bearings in a world without Biblicistic inerrancy.

I’m not sure what Biblicistic means, but any time you turn a word into an "ism" and then add an "istic" on top of that, it must be really bad. I’m pretty sure Biblicistic is here to make inerrancy sound as lame as possible. Later, just to be crystal clear, Sparks opines, "Biblicist inerrancy is an intellectual disaster."

Where Inerrancy?
The authority of Scripture has, for the past two or three centuries, been under almost constant attack. So it’s no surprise see it happening again. Even Christians hoping to be counted in the evangelical fold are eager to call into question the full and complete inspiration of Scripture. Is the whole Bible inspired by God? Do I have to believe all of Scripture? Does the whole Bible have a purpose, place, and authority in my life? This means it is crucial that we understand, defend, and celebrate the authority of the Bible in our homes and in our churches.

One struggles to know where to begin with Sparks’ assault on biblical authority. A single writing occasion is not the place to launch a full-on defense of inerrancy. There are many fine books and articles written in years past that do just that, including Robert Yarborough’s fair-minded, yet devastating review of Sparks’ previous work.

Another angle on the subject might look at what constitutes evangelical theology. Sparks writes from "our" evangelical tradition, and yet he disavows any notion of penal substitution and understands the Scriptures to be fallen like creation and in need of redemption. In the comments in another post, he argues, "I have no interest in preserving Christianity … I believe because, as I understand it, it makes sense of human experience. But if it turns out that Christianity fails to do that, I’ll simply turn elsewhere." I don’t know Dr. Sparks and am not an expert on his thought. I just don’t see how he can claim to speak as an evangelical scholar (to use language from his book). And with articles like this, why would evangelicals see the web site BioLogos as "one of us."
So there are a lot of things one could say, but let me simply call to mind the Apostle Peter’s assessment of Holy Scripture - And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1.19-20).

In the context, Peter is reminding his readers that the Lord will come back in fiery vengeance on the wicked – and because Christ will return, we ought to pay attention to His Word and live accordingly. The false teachers deny all this. So Peter presents two pieces of evidence for Christ’s return in judgment. First, he presents eyewitness testimony - they saw Christ’s glory on the mount of transfiguration (1.16-18). Second, he presents written evidence - the prophetic word confirms what we saw (1:19-21). Amazingly, Peter describes the prophetic word, which I take to mean all Scripture (v. 20), as "something more sure" (v. 19). In other words the Bible is more reliable than our senses (see Luke 16.31 for something similar).

More than that, the prophetic word was not produced by the will of man. Rather, men spoke by God, not in the sense of mechanical dictation (a straw man if there ever was one), but as the instruments of divine revelation. The Scripture is so much a divine book that Peter can say the men who spoke the words recorded in Scripture were "carried along by the Holy Spirit." As Calvin says, "they dared not to announce anything of their own, and obediently followed the Spirit as their guide, who ruled in their mouth as in his own sanctuary."

The verb translated "carried along" is the same word translated earlier in v.21 as “produced.” The prophetic word was not produced by man but by the Spirit. It’s surely significant that word is also used in v.17, 18 with reference to "the voice borne from heaven." The words of the prophets (known only to Peter’s audience in written form) were borne from God just as surely as the words spoken by the Father on the holy mountain. The Scripture is the Spirit’s book through and through. What Scripture says is what the Spirit says (Heb. 3:7; Acts 4:25; Rom. 9:17).

Why Inerrancy?
This is but one reason why inerrancy is denied at great peril. There are many ways to defend inerrancy, but the simplest argument is this - Scripture did not come from the will of man; it came from God. That is clear from 2 Peter 1.19-21 and 2 Timothy 3.16 (to name the classic texts). And if it is God’s Word then it must all be true because as Romans 3.4 tells us, "Let God be true though every man a liar."

All of this is so critical because when we reject inerrancy we put ourselves in judgment over God’s word - claiming the right to determine which parts of God’s revelation can be trusted and which cannot. In other words, when we deny inerrancy we are forced to make one of two conclusions - either the Scripture is not all from God, when 2 Timothy 3.16 says it is all breathed out by God, and Jesus and the Apostles assume (and teach) it speaks for God; or, second, we must conclude that God is not always dependable. Both of theses conclusions are beneath the Christian. This sort of thinking does not work for our joy and freedom in Christ, and it does not bring honor to the Spirit of God who carried along the men who wrote God’s word.