Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Is the ‘Tilling Statement’ really a statement about inerrancy?

Thank you to you all for your feedback and help as I think through these matters. Once again I am confronted by the limitations of religious language and of my intellect, the difficult art of theological thinking, and the need for critical feedback! And apologies for the hubris in the title of the statement. If anyone has a good idea as to how I could rename it ... but this is what this post is all about.

So why have I called this statement one specifically about inerrancy?

  1. I suggest that all titles, whichever one is used, are limited in their ability to appropriately describe the varied phenomenon of scripture in its diversity. In other words, I need to use something, but none can possibly 'name' scripture doctrinally. I admit that it was a bit provocative calling my statement one about inerrancy, and perhaps I should have called it a statement about the trustworthiness of Scripture, but see the next point...
  2. While I am aware that the word 'inerrancy' may not be the oldest, as well as that it may be weighed down with unhelpful connotations, my statement is at least an attempt to redeem this word as I not only respect the valuable tradition of inerrancy – in that it has encouraged many to approach the scriptures with expectancy and trust, but also because statements like the Chicago version need to be challenged on their own grounds, in my view. Besides, while the word 'inerrancy' may not be the oldest, the idea most certainly is. Clement, a first century Bishop of Rome, held that in 'the Holy Scriptures which are given through the Holy Spirit ... nothing iniquitous or falsified is written'. Augustine claimed 'none of these (canonical) authors has erred in any respect of writing'.
  3. Admittedly, my statement assumes a slightly subversive (but healthily so!) point of departure, one I didn't make explicit in the statement itself. Namely, I assume that a doctrine of inerrancy need only be a statement about the truthfulness of scripture. I am trying to understand it positively, a move justified, I believe, by the nature of the confessions one can find in scripture. For example, it doesn't claim that all scripture is not rather lamely uninspired, or that the words of the LORD are not flawed; the author of Hebrews didn't write that the word of God is not dead and not passive, not as blunt as any two-edged blunt thing!
  4. Furthermore, I am attempting to define the truth less in terms of the standalone existence of the biblical texts, and more in terms of the relation between believers and text. Truth (negatively understood as the absence of error), is to be found and defined in terms of the dynamic of the believer's confessions, practices and postures to the scripture. I have thus attempted to redraw the lines around what counts as descriptive of the truth of scripture.
  5. However, I haven't merely suggested a boring pragmatic approach; I believe that propositional statements are important (I discussed propositional revelation here and here). However, in drawing the confessions directly from the bible – for ecumenical reasons mainly – I note the limitations of religious language, the limitations of the confessions in their historical scriptural contexts, and the inability of such confessions to be stretched so as to include all of the books in the Christian canons. I do this in order to emphasise that the confessions provide a trajectory of orientation towards the significance of the Christian canons. To claim inerrancy is a sign pointing in the right direction, but Derrida's différence pushes the 'presence' of the statement not only into practices and postures, but also into the eschaton. The statement of 'inerrancy' thus doesn't attempt to describe scripture alone, but to provide a trajectory of meaning which supports healthy practice and posture. Indeed, put like this I suggest that my statement should encourage a higher view of scripture than the Chicago version, for example.

In other words, I am attempting in this statement on inerrancy, to first positively define inerrancy as the truth of scripture, then I attempt to redefine what constitutes as a statement about the truth of scripture.

Convinced? Or should I make it a statement about something else?!



At 6/20/2007 12:40 AM, Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

I still appreciate what you're trying to do. BUT, I think that "inerrant" post the whole debates of modernity and science with the Bible has acquired a meaning in most people's minds which is different from what the early tradition was trying to say. Augustine is scathing in his De Genesi ad litteram "Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics [i.e. plainly observable knowledge of the world]"
As for Clement, I can't help poiting out the consensus that Rome didn't have mono-episcopacy at the end of the first century, and while scripture (assuming you're referring to 1 Clem 45:2-3) is "true and through the Holy Spirit" Clement describes it as "wrong"(adikon - which tends to imply moral wrongness) and counterfeit (parapepoiemenon - which carries an idea of inetentional deceit). I'm not sure this quite fits into what modern versions of inerrancy mean, though it arguably rules out pseudepigraphy.

At 6/20/2007 12:42 AM, Anonymous Doug Chaplin said...

Oops, that should of course read Clement describes it as neither "wrong" ... nor "counterfeit" Trust a hasty comment to make him say the opposite of what he said!

At 6/20/2007 4:48 AM, Anonymous Ryan Jones said...

Keep going Chris! I think this is very helpful. I never cease to be amazed at how people on both sides of this issue seem to talk right past one another. As a student at an evangelical seminary where all professors are required to sign on to inerrancy, I often find myself feeling like an outsider on the left fringe of that community. On the other hand, I am an outsider to those who simply cannot fathom why anyone would want to affirm inerrancy. The church needs more mediating figures like you, even if it does mean getting shot at from both sides. Thank you.

At 6/20/2007 5:04 AM, Anonymous Looney said...

I am reminded of the Harvard Theological Seminary grad that applied for a pastorship at the Southern Baptist Church that I grew up in around about 1980. The rhetoric that he employed was along the lines of your inerrancy statement and many were praising his love for the Bible. The church leaders finally got their act together and sat down with the candidate and went through items one by one to determine what he believed and didn't believe. The answer was that he rejected most of the Bible, but a lot of resources were wasted to determine what it was that he really believed.

At 6/20/2007 1:25 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...

I think that any statement on inerrancy has to say something about the different Biblical genres. We should also beware of expecting precise scientific accuracy of the Bible. For example, it is easy to read Jesus' words about the "smallest of all seeds" and say, "Ha, a mistake!". Jesus was simply alluding to what his audience was aware of, not giving a paper on microscopic seeds to a group science experts. In Biblical revelation, God accommodates himself to us and speaks to us where we are.

But, it is not necessary to be able to find a solution to all the supposed "errors" in the Bible to affirm inerrancy. I do so primarily because of the witness of Jesus who said, "The Scripture cannot be broken."

I appreciate that in your statements you are trying to encourage an expectant, thoughtful and reverent attitude to the Bible as the Word of God. You are right to say that affirming inerrancy on its own does not guarantee that we live the Bible. But, whoever said that it did?

At 6/20/2007 3:23 PM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Helpful, Chris. I especially like that you try to include both a dimension of propositional revelation (without reducing everything to propositions, a la Carl Henry) and a relational one (without reducing everything to personal knowledge that includes no propositions, a la some of Barth's more confused followers).

While I still doubt the word inerrancy is worth much, I like the positive focus on truthfulness (and not just "truthiness"--apologies to Stephen Colbert) of Scripture. That's quite helpful. Best of luck.

Hmm. You keep up all this theologizing and they may revoke your parking privileges as a Neutestamentler! :-)

At 6/20/2007 7:06 PM, Anonymous Bob MacDonald said...

Chris - I think there is a serious problem with the doctrine named inerrancy of the Bible (or just about anything else like the pope or science etc). My brief comment is at http://stenagmois.blogspot.com/2007/06/inerrancy-believing-your-own-judgment.html

At 6/21/2007 12:53 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Hi Doug,
Thanks for your helpful comment.
“I'm not sure this quite fits into what modern versions of inerrancy mean, though it arguably rules out pseudepigraphy”
I do think that many modern formulations of inerrancy are different from their ancestors, absolutely. I agree. But this, for me, begs the question as to why I should reject inerrancy formulations based only on modern standards. This justifies my usage of inerrancy language.

Hi RT Jones,
Thanks so much for the encouragement!

I think your comment drives home for me what I want an inerrancy formulation to consider important.

Thanks for your comment and I appreciate your view.
Two points. 1) I prefer to let scripture, through inductive study, determine what “The Scripture cannot be broken" means.
2) you write: “You are right to say that affirming inerrancy on its own does not guarantee that we live the Bible. But, whoever said that it did?”
Well who said it shouldn’t? I think it could and even should. Hence my own formulation. It raises the question, to me, as to why it hasn’t been done before.

Michael WMW,
Thanks for your encouragement!

Bob, thanks for your comment and your post. I think there are problems with inerrancy formulations too. I wrote a series detailing my problems with it. My question: does my formulation redeem the doctrine for you?

At 6/21/2007 5:12 AM, Anonymous David W. Congdon said...


I think your post reinforces why the term "inerrancy" is problematic: it's a negative formulation rather than a positive one. While I respect your intention to redeem the word "inerrancy," I think you rightly show its inadequacy. Terms like the "trustworthiness" of Scripture or "truthfulness" of Scripture are much more appropriate. I support your new statement, but I don't see a lot of hope for reinvigorating this (deservingly) antiquated term.

At 6/22/2007 2:51 AM, Anonymous Stephen said...

I was going to make the same observation as D.W. You write,

I am trying to understand it positively, a move justified, I believe, by the nature of the confessions one can find in scripture. For example, it doesn't claim that all scripture is not rather lamely uninspired, or that the words of the LORD are not flawed ….

But "inerrancy" is approximately equivalent to, "the words of the LORD are not flawed". At the risk of being pedantic, "inerrant" = "not errant".

Hence I would prefer "trustworthy", "true", "God-breathed", "living", "active", "powerful" — positive statements such as these are much more robust than "inerrant".

At 6/22/2007 8:23 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks DW and Stephen, you have both hit upon a very important point. This is why I called it "slightly subversive" to start where I do. But I didn't want to reject the title outright as I wanted to take the issues I want to address into the inerrancy playground, as it were, and challenge it there. I would even hope that this statement may help people bridge over to a more health confession, as it is still claiming to be broadly about inerrancy. If it were simply a statement about "trustworthiness", for exmaple, which as you both rightly point out would be a good title, it may end up as one that for many suppliments rather than replaces some other statements of inerrancy that I would like to see replaced. In other words, I accept your point, and I'm still debating whether this is a wise move, but perhaps you can both appreciate my motivations (?).

At 6/22/2007 8:24 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Having said that, my own statement is itself woefully inadeaquate to replace much - I'm still open to change and thinking things through.


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