Inerrancy and the ETS

ETSI have just returned from the annual meeting of the venerable Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Baltimore. I have been active in ETS for about 20 years, since my time at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This was the 65th Anniversary meeting, so I have been around for about 1/3 of the ETS history.

The theme this year was “Inerrancy and Evangelicalism and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect.” Many of the papers presented were looking at the state of the doctrine of inerrancy from historical, apologetic, scriptural, and other viewpoints. I enjoyed the plenary sessions this year with speakers John Frame, D.A. Carson (my mentor), and Ben Witherington III. I also attended several interesting sessions, including a morning focused on the “Historical Adam” and a historical retelling of the inerrancy controversies in the ETS by Craig Blaising of SW Baptist Theological Seminary.

In John Frame’s plenary address, he made a statement that I wish evangelicals would take more seriously. I’m paraphrasing, but Frame said, “After all, we must admit that inerrancy is a theological presupposition. I believe it is supported by the biblical texts, but I suppose that is circular reasoning, isn’t it?” Exactly! Why are we afraid to admit that belief in inerrancy is a theological presupposition, a faith position? The idea that we can conclusively and convincingly prove the Bible is without error from the texts of the Bible itself is asking too much. Those texts that are used for this purpose must be taken on faith. All areas of academic knowledge operate on presuppositions, even the supposedly “hard” sciences. Certainly the softer disciplines like psychology do this.

Repeatedly in the sessions of this ETS meeting, we were told that belief in an inerrant Scripture is the historic position of the church, and that the idea that there are errors or mistakes in the Bible is a recent innovation. Maybe so, but I would like to say these things about my understanding of the doctrine of inerrancy as I hold it. (Please remember I am blogging this at 6 am in Starbucks, so it will not be an inerrant blog. I may need to correct some things later.)

1. While the belief in the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture is indeed the historic position of the church, the inerrancy debate itself is of more recent vintage. It did not impact the USA much until the early 20th century, so serious debate is about 100 years old. As such, the debate is historically conditioned. The players have changed. Henry Emerson Fosdick hardly reads like the vile boogeyman he was thought to be in the 1930s. Some of Carl F.H. Henry’s arguments may seem quaint now, for Bultmann is long dead and his influence has waned. This is why this was an important topic for the ETS, because we need younger scholars to engage this topic in light of the current postmodern milieu.

2. I am more convinced than ever that inerrantists cannot defend an authorless, ahistorical approach to Scripture. What we must defend is the intended meaning of the authors, not our theological projections and interpretations (no matter how cherished they might be). We must stop plucking verses out of context and using inerrancy as a cover for this practice. I still see a lot of this at ETS, especially by the theologians.

For a different perspective, you might be interested in the impressions of this meeting from current evangelical bad-boy, Peter Enns, found on his blog here.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

The Cookbook Bible

My friend, David Huskey, recently sent me a link to a Peter Enns blog post that included discussion about different approaches to interpreting the Bible. (You can see it here. The comments are about half way down the blog.)

df-barbecue-bible_300Enns contrasts what he calls a “cookbook” approach to the Bible with what he prefers, a “novel” approach to the Bible. In the cookbook approach, “It doesn’t matter where you find the recipe you’re looking for. The location of the recipe is irrelevant to its meaning.” This is what I have referred to as understanding a “flat Bible,” where every text has equal authority and is independently authoritative. I have referred to this as the “treasure box” approach or the “dictionary” approach to the Bible. The most extreme version of this was an approach to Christian counseling (sometimes called Biblical Counseling) that produced books in which a list of verses were given for every possible psychological malady. Depressed? Read these three verses. Still depressed? Here are a couple more verses. Still depressed? I guess you are beyond help. This approach is reinforced by stories in which people tell of a dark night of the soul experience in which the Bible fell open to a random verse that was read and which changed their lives.

I do not doubt that God uses his Word in ways that are ultimately mysterious and beyond easy explanation. I do not even doubt the power of single verses and the value of learning memory verses. But this does not justify the cookbook approach to interpretation. While all verses of the Bible may be equally true, not all have the same position of authority. And a verse that is unmoored from its dock loses the helpful context necessary for correct understanding.

Enns contrasts this cookbook approach to what he calls the “novel” approach to the Bible. He does not mean “novel” in the sense of new and unique, but in the context of something like a detective novel. We need to read the whole book to understand it story and message. As Enns says, “The Bible is an unfolding story, and not entirely unlike a detective novel.  As the story of God’s interactions with his people unfolds,  we learn more and more what kind of God we’re dealing with and what his plans are for humanity.  And the story culminates, in an extremely surprising way, in Jesus Christ.” To me, this is reminiscent of the work of Northrup Frye, the great Canadian literary critic who saw the Bible as “The Great Code.” For Frye, the Bible was the great story of western civilization, the archetype of all literature. All our stories are found in the texts of the Bible, and the text of the Bible is cumulatively the great story of humankind.

I like this on one level, but on another level I would prefer to confine the novel approach to single books of the Bible or to specific a specific biblical author. I think we jump too quickly to interpret Daniel using the book of Revelation, for example. And I think that in the evangelical world, we invariably use Paul to interpret everything in keeping with our Reformation heritage. This even extends to the immediate use of Matthew to interpret Mark. There is value in this, but shouldn’t we wrestle with Mark on its own terms first? Isn’t it better to use Mark 1-3 to interpret Mark 4 than to immediately jump to Matthew 13 to interpret Mark 4? Isn’t it better to use Luke to interpret Acts than Galatians? Isn’t it better to use the Gospel of John to interpret Revelation than Daniel? Just asking.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College

Literal vs. Non-Literal

The term “literal” gets thrown around a lot in biblical studies. I’m not always sure, however, what some authors mean by “literal.”

The word itself, literal, is related to our word “letter,” and has the sense of “to the letter” or “exact.” It also has the loaded connotation of “true,” with the implication that something which is seen as “non-literal” is “false.” This is tied to the world of metaphor and figurative language. A literal interpretation is often understood to be a non-metaphorical or non-figurative interpretation. A literal translation would be as close to letter for letter, or at least word for word, as possible. Some would like us to believe that “literal” translations are true, and “less-literal” translations of the Bible are unreliable, even false. Yet how do we interpret or translate when the text itself is metaphorical or figurative?

Let me back up for a minute. What is the most literal interpretation of a biblical text? We might think that it is the one that is the closest to a word for word rendering. Yet this cannot always be true. The most literal interpretation is the one that recovers the intended meaning of the original author accurately, and then explains this meaning in the language and terms of the contemporary audience.  This is the goal of biblical interpretation: recovery of the author’s intended meaning as found in the text and expressing it in understandable terms for whomever the interpreter is seeking to serve. The problem, of course, is when the text itself is metaphorical or contains idioms that resist any word for word treatment. Let me illustrate with these two depictions of the crucifixion:

il_570xN.307237259passion_of_the_christWhich of these is a literal depiction? We might choose the one on the right, taken from Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Yet this is hardly what the witnesses to the actual crucifixion would have seen. Do you notice the multi-storied apartment buildings in the background? This is nothing more than Mel Gibson’s vision of what he wanted the viewers of the movie to see, which is a mix of contemporary and ancient images. The one to the left has more blatant symbolic items, such as the INRI tattooed on the bridge of Jesus’ nose rather than on a plaque nailed to the cross. Literalness can be in the eye of the beholder. Both are interpretations of a biblical event using the media available to the author to express this interpretation.

Let us not confuse literalness with faithfulness. If a translation is tilted to a certain theological perspective without allowing room for other, valid understandings, this makes it suspect in my eyes. If a translation is being used to support an agenda, this is not faithful translation work, no matter if it is word for word or expression of the overall thought of the text.

I literally mean all of this stuff, just as the sun literally rises in the east every day.

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College