Saturday, April 24, 2010

Inerrancy - the real issue

Several times on this blog I have had cause to refer to King James Onlyism, particularly as represented by the lunatic fringe, Gail Riplinger (whose latest book has drawn forth a rebuttal from one of the very sources quoted in it). Mrs. Riplinger has grown progressively more and more extreme in her views, to the point where her latest tome explicitly rejects the authority of the original languages, which she now holds God has finished with.

But all of this arguing over the identity of the text (and here it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the differences are far more than they are, and far more important) is distracting from the real issue - which is whether or not the Bible is true in what it claims. Traditionally it has been this claim that has set apart Evangelicalism from liberalism in its view of Scripture. The liberal holds that the Bible may and does contain errors of fact, mythological accounts, and other non-factual passages. In particular the liberal teaches at least the first twelve chapters of the book of Genesis to be purely mythological, and influenced by the myths of the surrounding nations. Liberals hold to late dates for the Old Testament, danying the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch (first 5 books of the Bible), and the unity of the book of Isaiah. This needs re-stating in the light of the claims by Gail Riplinger and her ilk that anyone who disagrees with them, including B.B. Warfield, a contributor to The Fundamentals, is a liberal.

Yet this consensus no longer exists. In the latter part of the 20th century, evangelicalism as a whole has followed the same path as did the mixed denominations in the earlier part of the century. Instead of holding to the high view of Scripture found in the Princeton men, in Spurgeon, and in other Evangelical leaders, evangelicals have become 'wobbly'. Before I ever dealt with Riplinger, I reviewed here a book by A.T.B. McGowan The Divine Spiration of Scripture, and noted its defficiencies in not affirming a robust doctrine of inerrancy. Perhaps ironically, the flaw at the root of McGowan's argument was to reject (if only implicitly) the bistoric Reformed position that what is derived by good and necessary consequence from Scripture is also Biblical.

Another attack has come from America, from Peter Enns, former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary. An Old Testament scholar, Peter Enns has argued for an "Incarnational" understanding of Scripture (interestingly Dr. McGowan rejects this terminology for an entirely different reason), holding the Bible to be both a fully human document as well as a divine document. Now, there is nothing inherently wrong with the terminology - Jesus is fully human and fully divine, yet without sin or error. Yet historically the call to recognise the "human" in the Bible has often been a cover for arguing against inerrancy! The fact of the matter is that it is only ignorant fanatics like Gail Riplinger who argue that there is no "human element" in the Bible, and they are not going to be reading Peter Enns! Like B.B. Warfield, the historic Reformed christian holds the Bible to have been produced by God in such a way that the authors wrote in their own style, with their own words - there is the human element - but that the Holy Spirit so moved them that what they wrote is also the very words of God, and therefore without error or mistake in the orginal manuscripts.

Yet Peter Enns claims that some of the Genesis narratives are mythological in nature, and that the Biblical narrators naively did not know this as they made use of pagan sources. He claims that since Biblical history is not objective, the presuppositions of the narrators have led them to distort history. He claims that modern definitions of truth and error cannot be applied necessarily to the Biblical text - but never actually explains what the ancient criteria for truth and error were. Unhelfully he does not mention which model of the incarnation his "incarnational" model of Scripture follows. This is important, as some models (e.g. kenotic models) actually predicate fallibility of Jesus.

Peter Enns pleads that his aim is apologetic. While at Seminary, I engaged in an in-depth study of the down-grade in the Free Church of Scotland, and I noted that it was an apologetic method that contributed to much of it. This false view of apologetics is that its aim is to make Christianity more palatable to the academic sceptic by abandoning certain positions that are viewed as simply "outworks" of the citadel of the faith. It was this that led Marcus Dods to argue that the Old Testament contained "errors and immoralities", and will lead no doubt (and has led in some cases) modern evangelical scholars to the same conclusions.

Enns also contends that the New Testament use of the Old is not as straightforward as it seems, that passages are taken out of context to apply to things that the original text was never intended to apply to. In a fascinating case of strange bedfellows, this argument has also been used by some dispensationalists to maintain their case where the New Testament seems to work against it.

And it is this down-grade in the very conception of what the Bible is that is the great threat, not a question of which English translation we ought to use, or even, dare I say it, relatively minor textual issues. My fear is that we will allow a minor issue to distract us from the main thing - which is the question of whether or not the Bible is true. Is Genesis a myth? Or is it history? Was there only one Isaiah? Does the Biblical history record facts and then interpret them, or have the authors allowed the interpretation to distort the facts? It seems to me that these are matters of infinitely greater importance than which English Bible we prefer! Take any honestly translated English Bible, even the most hopelessly flawed one-man translation, and you will not get a different Jesus or a different God from it. But once allow that Genesis contains myth that the author did not realise was not factual, and you are not far off saying that Jesus himself repeated such myths, thinking they were true - and then you have the errancy, not only of Scripture, but also of Jesus Himself!

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