Saturday, December 29, 2007

Hobbins on inerrancy

John Hobbins has written a terrific response to my post on 'Fundamentalism, inerrancy and Jim West' here. It appears that he wants to affirm inerrancy because of its rich tradition in church tradition, because superlative descriptions of scripture should not be hindered by certain ‘imperfections’ in the text.

Just a few points before it gets too late here in England. First, let us not forget what Goldingay has called ‘the nineteenth-century elaboration’ of inerrancy. Today’s versions are equivalent, but not the same. I would add, in the same breath, that these modern varieties certainly are a matter of deductive logic (cf. Warfield, Geisler, Grudem etc.).

In an interesting section Hobbins writes:
“There is nothing innovative at all about speaking of scripture in language that overlooks its imperfections (‘let it pass,’ says Luther, rightly) and concentrates, in superlative terms, on its perfections. Those who wish to praise Scripture with triter language – (moderately) useful; (all other things being equal) profitable; teachable (so long as it is transposed into the categories of later tradition or the latest ideology) – have nothing in common with Gregory of Nyssa or Martin Luther”
A terrific point, and one those of us who critique inerrancy would do well to remember. I hope I take it to heart. But six responses: 1) Today, should we be happy with these ‘superlative’ inerrancy terms when they are laden with deductively prescribed and exact statements, as in the Chicago Statement – something that was not clearly on the horizon of Gregory of Nyssa, Luther etc.? 2) The ‘triter language’, as he puts it, would certainly have plenty in common with one of the most famous biblical witnesses to the nature of scripture’s inspiration, namely that in 2 Tim 3:16 (‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful ...’). 3) My own language concerning scripture in the so-called ‘Tilling Statement’, I suggest, is appropriately and deeply superlative, yet is not formulated in such a way that contradicts bare fact. 4) In light of modern formulations, such as the Chicago Statement that further define what one must consider historical (e.g. the flood), this tradition needs reformation (semper reformandum), and for the sake of the churches witness, the nature of truth in relation to scripture needs to be re-formulated. At least, I would argue so! Love always rejoices in the truth, after all. 5) The Chicago Statement, for example, has little to do with doxology, and more to do with precise definitions. I hope that my own statement, proffered on my blog a while ago, recaptures the superlative aspect Hobbins so rightly draws attention to, while avoiding the promotion of belief in a, for want of a more pertinent word, lie. My own understanding of scripture, which rejects inerrancy, does so precisely to provoke doxology (it was penned for confession by the gathered church, in worship), and not to succumb to the restraints of logical propositions. It is the modern formulation of inerrancy that is weighed down by a deductively logical weariness, not the freedom that only comes via truth. 6) Hobbins mentions ‘imperfections’. But let us be honest what they are, though. Errors. Thanks, Lord, for an inerrant text, despite these errors? Unless we today reframe these ‘truth’ matters, as I have suggested elsewhere, we will get some rather bewildered ‘Amens’!

A little later he adds:
‘“Scripture is without error in all that it affirms” (Lausanne Covenant), well, you don’t say? I can’t find “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” in the Bible either’
As noted in the comments by Drew, a fundamental difference between the Lausanne Covenant claim and the ‘God in three persons’ claim, is that the Lausanne statement is factually false. ‘Blessed Trinity’ is to be gladly worshipped as Truth.

He writes:
“Should someone object that the verses cited do not in the first instance refer to the inscripturated word of God, but to some unknown subset thereof, or to an ephemeral word of which we now have nothing: know this: you have the entire interpretive tradition of synagogue and church against you. The great tradition applied these verses to the entire sweep of scripture”
This is precisely what I have attempted to do in my own formulation (which I now consider best to concern the trustworthiness of scripture), but certainly not in the service of modern formulations of inerrancy. I think I'll re-post my now re-worked formulation here when I return to Germany.

Finally, he writes: “It’s time to engage in multi-tiered thinking, like this: the Bible affirms that God leads into error (1 Kings 22; Isa 6 [and NT actualizations thereof]; 63:17), and at the same time, that God did not err in so doing”. I applaud John’s spirit here. However, I don’t think he goes far enough. This faint strand is not enough on which to hang the nature of scripture in relation to truth. Rather than let such inerrancy concerns win such a small square of theological rational, why not recover all the masses of scriptures gathered in my own formulation, and reframe them in light of a more biblical understanding of truth?

Do give Hobbins' articulate and helpful response a read.



At 12/29/2007 8:50 PM, Anonymous T.B. Vick said...

Hobbins declares . . . "he wants to affirm inerrancy because of its rich tradition in church tradition"

I'm sorry it was difficult for me to read further after reading this. What "rich tradition" is he referring to? Historically the Church has not taken a stance on the issue of inerrancy, this is something the Reformation, several decades later, clung to. Not sure I get the the rich tradition bit.

At 12/29/2007 9:18 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

Hobbins is trying to raise the Titanic. Sure, it was pretty while it floated but it made a short journey, ran into a truthy iceberg, and sank like a rock. The same is the case with the wicked notion of infallibility. It sailed for a few days until the real theologians woke up and pointed out that it was sunk already.

At 12/29/2007 11:08 PM, Anonymous John Hobbins said...

Thanks, Chris, for continuing the discussion.

I agree with you that the Chicago inerrancy statement is infelicitous in ways you note, and more. I much prefer contemporary Catholic use of inerrancy and infallibility language, as found, for example, in Dei Verbum. I have other issues with current Catholic teaching on Scripture, but its continued use of inerrancy and infallibility language is a strength in my book, not a weakness.

T. B. Vick: Jewish and Christian tradition of all periods applies inerrancy and infallibility language to Scripture. I wish to reclaim its use for today after the manner of Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine, Thomas, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. You are wrong to suggest that the Church did not take a stance on the question before the Reformation and the Council of Trent. It is more precise to say: it didn't have to, in any council or creed, but everyone agreed that Scripture was inerrant and infallible in all important senses. Surely you know this.

Modernism's approach to truth contains a number of grave dangers. In response, anti-modernist forces in all branches of Christendom tweaked the age-old inerrancy and infallibility language in various ways, and if Jim West is suggesting that those tweaks have run aground, I think he's right.

Note that Catholicism righted itself with respect to previous anti-modernist excesses, but still applies inerrancy and infallibility language to scripture. In my view, that is the way forward.

Second best is dealing with Scripture as did Karl Barth. He avoids, I think, inerrancy and infallibility language, but adheres to its thrust. He never, so far I know, speaks of errors in scripture. You can't go on about error-ridden scripture very long and be doxological at the same time.

Truth be told, I try to be doxological when I speak about errors in and limitations to which the authors of scripture were subject. To affirm these limitations and at the same time, to confess that scripture is without error with respect to matters that touch on our salvation, is, I think, of crucial importance in a post-modernist age.

I don't think Bultmann's demythologization project is the way forward. That risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, as Barth pointed out. Ricoeur's second naivete is the way forward.

At 12/30/2007 1:08 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


You said:

"You can't go on about error-ridden scripture very long and be doxological at the same time."

But isn't this the attitude toward Scripture that has garnered accusations of idolatry in recent weeks? Should a doxological be applied to scripture at all or should it be reserved for God alone?

I'd also mention that I rarely find people who deny inerrancy or object to inerrancy language complaining that the scriptures are "error-ridden" (perhaps your experience is different than mine) -- such language seems hyperbolic at best. To assert that errors do exist in the text (which you seem to agree with) is not to say that the text as a whole is untrustworthy or anything of the like.

I think when it comes to this issue there is a lot of talking past one another. As I recently said on Esteban Vázquez's blog:

"I think if everyone held a view of inerrancy similar to Hobbins' then there would be a lot less problem with the doctrine, but the vocal majority seems to be the fundamentalistic CSBI strict variety, and let's face it -- these folks need a good kick in the posterior every now and again ;-)"

In the end, there may be different ways to understand inerrancy and use inerrancy language, but if it takes so much qualification that it doesn't resemble what people commonly understand inerrancy to be, I think we need to ask if it's really worth it.


At 12/30/2007 1:49 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


The above should read:

Should a doxological attitude be applied to scripture at all or should it be reserved for God alone?

At 12/30/2007 2:26 AM, Anonymous John Hobbins said...

Hi Nick,

as far as I can tell, we probably view scripture in very similar ways.

But I'm not comfortable saying all kinds of wonderful things about God, but not about his word. The word's three principal instantiations are, according to Luther: incarnate, inscripturated, and preached. Not that different from the more holistic, and better, Catholic approach: incarnate, inscripturated, tradition.

Historically, Christians of both East and West have waxed lyrical about Christ, Scripture, and Tradition. If you wish to say that the latter two, Scripture and Tradition are infallible and inerrant only insofar as they point to the first, I think that's well and good, so long as one has an adequate Christology (true man, true God, true Israel, etc.). It might be better to speak more globally about the Trinity.

Luther referred to scripture as infallible and inerrant, but identified its content as 'was Christum treibt' (what brings Christ out). Not too shabby, if you ask me.

But that can amount to a canon within a canon, and to the rejection of, in Luther's case, the letter of James and the Apocalypse. Later, however, Luther corrected himself.

At 12/30/2007 4:49 AM, Anonymous Cliff Martin said...

I heartily concur with John’s call to use language that “concentrates, in superlative terms, on its perfections.” After having publicly rejected the term inerrancy, I do find myself driven to publicly utilize the highest possible language to affirm my admiration of, my trust in, my submission to, and my love for the Scriptures. But I cannot call what is errant, inerrant. Words have meaning. Is it not far simpler and more honest to positively affirm all we can about the Scriptures without engaging in the dance around words, carefully parsed, nuanced and redefined; words which, for most people, have rather straightforward meanings?

John calls them “imperfections”. Another inerrantist John (Piper) calls them “discrepancies”, and he readily admits that the Bible contains “hundreds” of them. They are, in fact, errors. Will this not be perceived by plain-thinking believers (and non-believers) as pure doublespeak?

At 12/30/2007 5:45 AM, Anonymous John Hobbins said...


it's nice to know that Piper is aware of discrepancies too, without, apparently, claiming that there were none in/on the autographs.

You say, "But I cannot call what is errant, inerrant." Sure you can. You just have to qualify your statements.

We do that all the time with language. Let me give a dumb example. I might say of my wife, "she's perfect for me," and really mean it, though (1) she can't even pronounce my name correctly (not surprising, she's Italian); (2) I just fought with her over something secondary.

Furthermore, the fact as I see it that my wife is perfect for me is the only one that really matters.

The analogy with a doctrine of Scripture is not strict because, at least since the Enlightenment, it has become a plus to affirm that scripture is human enough to contain errors of various kinds, while divine enough to unerringly and infallibly point us to the source of our salvation.

It's a plus because it suggests that divine truth is communicable from one person to the next in the midst of, maybe even through our errors.

At 12/31/2007 12:26 AM, Anonymous Weekend Fisher said...

Nick was saying Should a doxological attitude be applied to scripture at all or should it be reserved for God alone?

Well, taking my cue from Psalm 19 and from Psalm 119, the Word of God (in whatever form) can stand up to a doxological attitude. One problem is separating the view of the Word of God from the view of God: if we praise Scripture without having rooted that in praise of God, that is the way to bibliolatry. But then, right along with views of Scripture, too much theology about God has also forgotten doxology.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

At 12/31/2007 11:28 AM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

John wrote:

"You say, "But I cannot call what is errant, inerrant." Sure you can. You just have to qualify your statements. We do that all the time with language. Let me give a dumb example. I might say of my wife, "she's perfect for me," and really mean it, though (1) she can't even pronounce my name correctly (not surprising, she's Italian); (2) I just fought with her over something secondary.""

A nice example. But I wonder how appropriate it is. First, with your wife you are not stating a doctrine of her perfections, that is then defended at all costs against the evidence in the cold light of day. Second, when you make your statement, you know that you are speaking superlatively (and add 'for me'). It is a speech-event the meaning of which is determined by special circumstances. However, this is not comparable with modern doctrines of inerrancy which seek to describe exactly how the text is "inerrant" (also why I don't like even the Catholic version too much, either, anymore).

(I would add that superlative expressions will be more natural for Americans, too. Come to Germany and what matters the most is truth. [It can be a bit hurtful sometimes, but at least you know where you stand!!]. To speak in such superlatives comes easier to Americans, in my experience. So a real American Christian advert runs "Nobody captures the spirit of worship like [insert worship leaders name]" When this hit the TV screen in Germany, you may not be able to imagine the response it generated)

What I have tried to do in my own statement is give space for the superlative element that avoids the problems. So we can and should proclaim "the Word of the Lord is flawelss" - but understood as a trajectory of meaning, not directly a statement about the ontology of the Christian canon (which the Catholic statement still tries in a dumbed down way - but they need not do so, I suggest). It is meaningful in as much as it provokes the right behaviour and posture to scripture.

Your contributions to this discussion are most helpful for my developing thinking. A sincere "thanks".

At 1/05/2008 2:05 PM, Anonymous cbovell said...

Using superlatives to describe something one is highly fond of seems natural and appropriate in every day parlance. But I think the sticky mess that believers get into when they grow up using superlatives to describe Scripture is that there eventually comes a time when there is other sources of knowledge that are making contrary claims. For example, the Bible seems to relate in no uncertain terms that a miraculous Exodus occurred some time in the past and that the event is somehow foundational to the "history" that ensues. Now let's just say--for argument's sake--that an overwhelming number of archaeologists (I'm not saying that this is presently happening, I'm saying for argument's sake) become overwhelmingly certain that no exodus ever took place. This seems to me to compel one to so fundamentally rethink their superlative understanding of Scripture that the superlative status of the biblical revelation is called seriously into question. Then, in order to preserve Scripture's predominant standing, an ad hoc revision must be undertaken, but then superlative quality of Scripture comes across as purely emotive, i.e., almost entirely subjective. I see here an almost undeniable constructivist account of theology in the making here and that will probably preclude any chance of a widely accepted doctrine of Scripture from being formed.


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