Friday, April 9, 2010

Context, contradiction, and human error

"Inerrancy" has always been a rather difficult concept for me, at least partly, no doubt, because I simply don't understand what is meant by it. So when I come across a clearly written explanatory essay, like this one by Michael S. Horton, I am inclined to read it. It was helpful, and what I have understood as the authority of scripture draws much closer to what Evangelicals have defined as its inerrancy. Most of the article is a summary of points made in Inspiration, by A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield [1881]. Two of them:
First, they point out that a sound doctrine of inspiration requires a specifically Christian ontology or view of reality: "The only really dangerous opposition to the church doctrine of inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God's relation to the world, of his methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process." Just as the divine element pervades the whole of Scripture, so too does the human aspect. Not only "the untrammeled play of all [the author's] faculties, but the very substance of what they write is evidently for the most part the product of their own mental and spiritual activities." Even more than the Reformers, the Protestant orthodox were sensitive to the diverse means used by God to produce the Bible's diverse literature. This awareness has only grown, Hodge and Warfield observe, and should be fully appreciated. God's "superintendence" did not compromise creaturely freedom. In fact, "It interfered with no spontaneous natural agencies, which were, in themselves, producing results conformable to the mind of the Holy Spirit." Just as the divine element pervades the whole of Scripture, so too does the human aspect.

Far from reducing all instances of biblical revelation to the prophetic paradigm, as critics often allege, Hodge and Warfield recognize that the prophetic form, "Thus says the Lord," is a "comparatively small element of the whole body of sacred writing." In the majority of cases, the writers drew from their own existing knowledge, including general revelation, and each "gave evidence of his own special limitations of knowledge and mental power, and of his personal defects as well as of his powers....The Scriptures have been generated, as the plan of redemption has been evolved, through an historic process," which is divine in its origin and intent, but "largely natural in its method." "The Scriptures were generated through sixteen centuries of this divinely regulated concurrence of God and man, of the natural and the supernatural, of reason and revelation, of providence and grace." ....

Fifth, the claim of inerrancy is that "in all their real affirmations these books are without error." The qualification "real affirmations" is important and deserves some elaboration. The scientific and cultural assumptions of the prophets and apostles were not suspended by the Spirit, and in these they were not necessarily elevated beyond their contemporaries. Nevertheless, that which they proclaim and affirm in God's name is preserved from error. For example, critics often point to Matthew 13:32, where Jesus refers to the mustard seed as "the smallest of all seeds." From the context it is clear that Jesus was not making a botanical claim but drawing on the familiar experience of his hearers, for whom the analogy would have worked perfectly well. If every statement in Scripture is a propositional truth-claim, then there are obvious errors. A reductionistic view of language is implied at this point both in many of the criticisms and defenses of scriptural accuracy. It is unlikely that in his state of humiliation, in which by his own admission he did not know the day or hour of his return, Jesus had exhaustive knowledge about the world's plant life. Whatever contemporary botanists might identify as the smallest seed, if it were unknown to Jesus' hearers, the analogy would have been pointless. We have to ask what the biblical writers are affirming, not what they are assuming as part of the background of their own culture and the limitations of their time and place. .... [more]
Modern Reformation - The Truthfulness of Scripture: Inerrancy