Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mohler on Inerrancy: seventeen criticisms

photoWhy 17 points? In honour of this fascinating webpage, which, among other things, states that the Pythagoreans hate the number 17. And they were complete nutters, so 17 points it is today!

I’m referring, in the following, to R. Albert Mohler’s chapter in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)

1) Mohler's chapter lacks argumentation. It is filled with assertions, but very little reasoning. When it does reason, it is shallow and misleading at best, dangerous and unpastoral at worst. This is all despite Mohler’s good intentions, no doubt.

2) His rhetoric problematically employs

  • fear tactics (those who disagree with him cannot be proper disciples, entirely faithful to God and certainly not consistent. To disagree with Mohler would effect disaster in the church),
  • (false) guilt by association (tying Kent Sparks to Marcion, despite the fact Sparks would reject Marcion!)
  • appeals to “authority” (see point 1 - he did not offer reasons for his position as much as cite authorities that agree with him)

3) He writes "The proper interpretation of the Bible comes by grammatical-historical interpretation" (47). But this hermeneutic is hugely problematic. For starters, it clearly lacks biblical support and is hardly grounded in church tradition. Despite many positives that can be associated with grammatical-historical approaches, used alone or as central they ultimately wrench Jesus Christ out of central position and are thus unfaithful to Churchly Scripture interpreting.

4) He consistently speaks of the truthfulness and trustworthiness of Scripture without reflecting on his understanding of truth. And this is truly disastrous, a problem that cuts right to the heart of his argument. His notion of “truth” is not evangelised and so it becomes a claim about the correspondence of propositions with facts. Against this stand a number of serious problems:

  • this understanding of "truth" and "error" is not always and everywhere reflected in the patristic sources, nor is it simply reflected throughout church history. For necessary nuance lacking in Mohler’s account, see, e.g., Francis Watson’s Gospel Writing; Michael Graves’, The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture, John Goldingay’s Models of Scripture, and Vanhoozer’s chapter in this book, and his response to Mohler in the same.
  • So a key question is Where does Mohler’s account of truth come from? It reflects a correspondence theory, but why is this automatically endorsed? There are other theories of truth (coherence, constructivist, pragmatic etc.). Rather, it is crucial to allow a distinctly Christian notion of truth to guide us on this issue (which would therefore be, at the very least, christological “I am the way, the truth …” and eschatological “we know in part”, says Paul, author of much of the NT!). Once again, Mohler is insufficiently scriptural.

5) Operating as he does with an unevangelised notion of truth, Mohler must proceed to what can only be described as a ridiculous conclusion. He states:

"Without the Bible as the supreme and final authority in the church, we are left in what can only be described as the debilitating epistemological crisis. Put bluntly, if the Bible is not the very Word of God, bearing his full authority and trustworthiness, we do not know what Christianity is, nor do we know how to live as followers of Christ" (43).

And it boils down to this: If we say anything in the Bible that contains “historical statements” (despite the fact that fiction, too, contains historical statements, as Enns points out in response) didn’t happen, we do not know what Christianity is. If we believe that, say, the story of Jonah is fictional, given literary conventions and analysis of the text, we cannot know how to live as followers of Christ. I hope the reader realises just how silly this position is!

6) This then feeds an amusing circular rhetorical logic: "a rejection of inerrancy entails the rejection of the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible" (45) … Go figure! Talk about stacking the cards! And why cannot one preach from, say, Joshua, aware that it does not represent undiluted historical truth, as God’s authority Word. It is only Mohler's problematic, monolithic, unnuanced, unevangelised understanding of "truth" that hinders.

7) I appreciate Mohler's concern to be pastoral, but it is wrongheaded. He (a) creates falsifiable expectations about the nature of Scripture’s veracity, and thus leads people to crises of faith when confronted with nothing but the Bible. Sadly, sit one of his followers down with a Gospel Synopsis and you will likely create doubts about their salvation! It will (b) lead to a discipleship that compartmentalises out of necessity, due to cognitive dissonance.

8) His understanding of the dogmatic location of Scripture is anaemic. He states that “sin” does not impinge on the perfection of Scripture, but why not? Surely Scripture must also be understood in terms of the doctrine of creation? And how is Mohler's grasp of the Bible's inspiration understood in terms of "revelation", Christology, God's providence, pneumatology etc.

9) He states that unless we affirm the absolute perfection of Scripture in part and in whole, this will lead to pastoral disaster and the church constantly second-guessing itself. But according to the Chicago Statement, perfection only lies in the original autographs which the church no longer has, so is it left to the textual critics to do all of the second guessing for us? Staying with Mohler and Chicago logic, this will mean that the church does not have confidence to preach from the whole Bible because there are parts that are "less than totally truthful and trustworthy" (31)! In other words, using nothing but Mohler’s own claims, I can turn his own argument back on him.

10) He writes of the faithful as those who endorse a "biblical worldview" (52). But is Scripture there to provide a “worldview”? And notice how those who speak of a "biblical worldview" often disagree what that worldview includes, which is to say that it is not self-evident, read straight from the pages of Scripture.

11) As already noted in relation to his understanding of "truth", his use of certain categories is unsophisticated at best, grossly fat fingered at worst. So he writes of those who are "committed to higher criticism" with "naturalistic assumptions" etc. This is largely rhetorical bluff. 

12) Mohler claims that the Bible says things about "itself" (37-39). But the fact remains that the Bible says nothing about itself, ever. The Bible, as we have it, as a complete and closed canon of Scripture, did not exist for hundreds of years after the writing of individual Bible texts. For example, when Revelation speaks of those who would take “away from the words of the book of this prophecy” etc (22:19), this refers to Revelation, not Genesis-Revelation (excluding the Apocrypha, of course!). The important process of canonisation has been sidelined from this discussion.

13) Further, when he leans on certain passages to try to say something about the whole Bible, he ignores what these texts imply. For example, 1 Thessalonians 2:13 is about the preached Word, the gospel message, not the whole Bible as a whole (or in part). Romans 9:17 refers to whatever Paul understood to be Scripture, thus did not include the New Testament at the very least, and perhaps included some that the church did not later endorse and perhaps excluded other parts. Even if we say these texts say “the whole bible” (which they don’t), his logic only works because of an impoverished notion of truth (see point 4 above)

14) In tackling theological plurality between Deuteronomy 20:16-17 and Matthew 5:43-48, he asserts "If we cannot trust the Bible, in all its parts, to reveal God with perfect truthfulness, how can we know him at all?" (54). Of course, this labours under the same problematic understanding of "truthfulness", which I noted above. But one must ask: what about Old Testament writers, who did not have the New Testament, and no doubt large swathes of the Old Testament. Did they know God "at all"? Sorry, Isaiah, you heathen don’t-know-God-for-toffee muppet! (saying that they simply ran with what they had doesn’t extricate Mohler from this problem. Think about it.)

15) In fact, Mohler’s attempt to deal with the "problem texts" Joshua 6; Acts 9:7 and 22:9; Deuteronomy 20:16-17 and Matthew 5:43-48), relies on rhetorical bluff, and demonstrates again why his understanding of biblical inspiration in terms of Chicago inerrancy is insufficiently biblical. It cannot look at the Bible squarely without being refuted (for more on this point, see my contribution to Enns’ “Aha” series)

16) It goes without saying that Mohler underestimates the problems associated with affirming the Chicago Statement. Of course, this applies to article 12: "we further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and flood", but its hermeneutic, lack of grounding in the phenomenon of the texts of Scripture, and lack of doctrinal placement could be noted as well.

17) Mohler opines: Not to follow his conclusion is to “set ourselves upon project of determining which texts of the Bible share those perfections, if any. We will use a human criteria judgement to decide which texts their divine authority and which texts can be trusted" (30-31)

But this does not follow. I do not affirm biblical inerrancy in the terms of the Chicago Statement (I consider it, among other things, unbiblical), yet I am not constantly trying to determine which Bible texts are the Word of God. I am happy to affirm all Scripture as fully inspired by God. It is only by adding Mohler’s unevangelised notion of "truth" into the mix that leads to problems.

Exercise: Go and preach from Jonah one week, assuming it is all historical, and the next week assuming it is all fiction, and see if it makes an ounce of difference to the message that you bring with authority in the church!

Rather, and this is where I finish, it is Mohler who has imported "human criteria" to disastrous effect into his understanding of the truth of the Bible.

I’m sure there are another few points of critique to note, and I should, no doubt, mention points of agreement, but hey, this is a blog post so I can do what I want!


At 8/19/2014 2:02 AM, Blogger Keen Reader said...

Doesn't one understand Jonah much better, and therefore preach from it much better, when one accurately identifies its literary genre?

At 8/19/2014 2:12 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Good point.

I once heard a lecturer try and exposit Jonah as "what actually happened", and this meant she could say that the Ninevites all believed Jonah and repented because he was spat out by a large fish. Of course, this took her away from the text of Jonah. In other words, her literalist hermeneutic distorted.

By and large I would think, in a normal sermon, such differences would go unnoticed, but point taken.

At 8/19/2014 3:58 AM, Anonymous Dan Holmes said...

For the sake of reference, has Sparks directly written on the difference between his position and that of Marcion anywhere?

At 8/19/2014 4:11 PM, Blogger craig.benno said...

Hi Chris. I enjoyed reading through your 17 points and found myself nodding often in agreement.

Can you tell us what you did like about Mohlers contribution.

At 8/22/2014 6:04 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Dan, will get back to you, on the fly,

Craig, I like his use of full-stops. They were correct! Joking! I like some of the concerns which drive him, so there is more in common at a deeper level than my rejection of Chicago implies.

At 8/23/2014 8:10 AM, OpenID montjoie1095 said...

What is an evangelized meaning if "truth"? You say his is unevangelized, which is why I ask

At 8/23/2014 2:35 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Tom,
Apologies where I wasn't clearer (I wrote this post after midnight!)

By "unevagelised" I mean that Mohler’s grasp of truth, so it seems to me, has not allowed itself sufficiently to be informed and shaped by the gospel. He assumes that the major concern of truth, in terms of scripture, is the correspondence of facts with propositions. So to say that Jonah is fiction, not factual, is to bring into question its very truth. But this is hardly a Christian way of thinking of truth. What is? Well, consider these examples:

(a) Christ says "I am the way, the truth ..." which means that Truth is finally a Person. One could suggest that Truth, is therefore, personal or relational (see also 1 Cor 8:1-3). (On a related note, John Stackhouse has recently made an eloquent case that Truth is bound up with our vocation as disciples of Christ. See Need to Know: Vocation as the Heart of Christian Epistemology)

(b) Truth, before Christ returns, is penultimate, never final and simple. So Paul (who wrote much of the NT) can include himself in the following: "we know in part" (1 Cor 13). Capital “T” Truth, then, calls for faith, trust in God.

(c) Truth is likewise, in the Christian gospel, contrasted not necessarily naturally with falsehood, but with "evil" (see 1 Cor 13:6).

It is important to recognise that conceptions of truth and rationality are bound up with particular forms of culture, and so have changed over time (on this, see MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality? and Hauerwas’ “The Politics of Justice”), hence also the modern plethora of theories of truth (correspondence, coherence, constructivist, pragmatic, etc.).

It follows, then, that a Christian understanding of truth needs to allow any notion of "truth" to be shaped by the contours of the gospel, or it runs the risk of simply parroting any old Zeitgeist. And when one speaks of foundational concerns, such as the truth of scripture, one needs to be all the more careful. Mohler – though he is not alone in this – has not been careful!

As Ben Fulford writes in his recent book, Divine Eloquence and Human Transformation: Rethinking Scripture and History through Gregory of Nazianzus and Hans Frei:

“[W]hat the truth of the scriptural witness (and Christian language-use more generally) involves here is more complex than a question of correspondence to the ‘facts’. It entails talking about the truth conditions of that witness in terms that begin to look Trinitarian”

Hence, a Christian grasp of the Truth of scripture will recognise and express, at the very least, the relational nature of truth, that discipleship and obedience to the gospel is a factor inherent to Christian truth, that it remains penultimate, and patient, waiting for the eschatological presence of the Triune God.

That truth can correspond to facts, present itself as coherent, etc., can be readily admitted. This is not to isolate a Christian notion of truth from others, but to settle on a (albeit uncomfortable) foundation, namely Christ himself, crucified and risen. That truth can also be expressed in propositions, I would likewise endorse. The NT is full of them, with “claims that things are such and such and so not their contradictories” (Colin E. Gunton, A Brief Theology of Revelation, 13). However, the master in our grasp of Truth, is the Lord of the gospel. The factor that gives our Christian conception of “truth” form, context and meaning, is none other than the gracious activity of the Triune God.

At 8/24/2014 12:15 AM, Blogger craig.benno said...

Interesting observation about mutual concerns. It's something I haven't really thought about in my own critiques against what I think is nuttiness.

At 9/06/2014 2:43 AM, Blogger Dw3t-Hthr said...

The thing that has always puzzled me about that sort of literalist is that they know that the Incarnation came in the form of a man who preferentially taught via illustrative fiction - through parable.

And this is not a trait that appears to inform their understanding of earlier parables/stories/texts at all.


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