Monday, September 17, 2007

Ben Witherington III on inerrancy

Mike Bird interviewed Ben Witherington III on his blog recently about his forthcoming book on scripture. I very much enjoy BW3's exegetical works, so I was interested to hear what he had to say. I liked what he was saying, but this bit drew my special attention:

Mike Bird: '3. What do you make of terms such as "inerrant" and "infallible"?'

BW3: 'The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects-- history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three'.

I liked everything about his response, especially the matter of making our doctrinal confessions positive – a matter discussed previously here. But I stumbled over the italicised sentence. What do you think? Do you think he is right in this last sentence? I suspect that BW3 would probably have to qualify his own position to death were he asked to unpack the nature of this 'truth'. In that sense I am not sure that simply reversing the nature of the proposition (from inerrant to truthful) really helps us here. Rather, the nature of the truth of scripture, as I have argued previously (in the New Statement of Inerrancy part 1 and part 2), needs to be redefined as to involve our posture and active response to scripture. Otherwise, - from this perspective - in the name of a supposed 'orthodoxy' we may all end up getting hung up on whether the dinosaurs entered the Ark, or some other similar monumental waste of time - all to confirm the 'truth' of scripture. But what ones thinks about such matters as the dinosaurs and the Ark is surely not the measure of an orthodox doctrine of scripture. I am guessing that BW3 would agree with me, but I am not sure how he can do so if his statement above is taken at face value.

A little later, Mike asks: '9. What are the failings of some evangelical approaches to the Bible and what are the failings of some liberal approaches to the Bible?'

Ben answers: 'Too often Evangelicals tend to treat the Bible in a Gnostic manner, as if it dropped straight from heaven, and that the human contribution to the text is nil, or unimportant'.

Did I hear an 'Amen'?!


At 9/17/2007 11:29 PM, Anonymous Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I am not sure that the Bible intends to teach us much about history--or only so much as to understand the redeeming work of God. I certainly wouldn't treat the Bible's history-like narratives as necessarily accurate in dating, order, etc.

At 9/18/2007 4:14 AM, Anonymous Nance said...

I just noticed BW3's interview over there as well, and also stopped to consider this sentence. With a *few* qualifications that I've no doubt he would also 'happily' make, I've got no quabble with the statement. I'm sure Dr. Witherington's going to unpack these qualifications in the book as well, and am pretty excited about that.
Also, thanks for the link on the dinosaurs. I've been dealing with that issue ever since the dinosaurs they brought in to film Jurassic Park showed me exactly how big those guys can get... but I'm feeling secure in the scriptures again now.

At 9/18/2007 6:58 AM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...

Clearly BW3 intentionally omitted science from his list. And I suspect that when he uses the term history he refers to those narratives which record events as they happen, or at least within the same generation: the written record of eye-witnesses, or of those who had direct contact with eye-witnesses. If this be true, then he would not consider it history when Moses relates the oral tradition of events which purportedly occurred more than a thousand years before his own day. That’s how I understood what he was saying; and I, like you, very much appreciate his approach to the issue. Rather disarming.

At 9/18/2007 8:42 AM, Anonymous Ben Byerly said...

1. Stuff happened.
2. Reflect on the bigger picture.
3. Live right.

At 9/18/2007 10:04 AM, Anonymous Phil Sumpter said...

If you want to involve our "posture and active response to scripture", then perhaps we should include choosing the right "arena" for interpretation. A historical reconstruction of the Psalms, for example, tells us more about ancient Israelite religion then the creative and living Word of God which is pushing forward for fulfillment. A focus on canonical shape, therefore, may be just as important for accessing the truth of scripture.

At 9/18/2007 8:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your thesis sounds promising....You stated you wouldn't be discussing your "dissertation" ideas on the blog site...but, could you at least give us would be helpful...

At 9/18/2007 10:29 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thanks for your comments one and all (and nice feet, Nance!)

Phil, that is a great point, I shall have to think that through.

Anon, perhaps I will do in due time. But not just yet.


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