Sunday, 29 April 2007

What's wrong with biblical inerrancy?

With biblical inerrancy leading the current poll on “the worst theological invention,” a few people have emailed me to ask if I could explain my own view of biblical authority. I wrote a lot of posts on this topic back in September 2005 – so I thought I’d reproduce two of those posts here, on the Bible’s “authority” and “trustworthiness”:

1. The authority of Scripture

For Christian faith, the Bible is authoritative. But where does this authority come from? What sets this particular book apart from other sources of authority?

In earlier times, theologians often said that the Bible is authoritative because it is “inspired,” or because it has been authored (directly or indirectly) by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible qua text was believed to be qualitatively different from all other texts. According to this theory, the authority of the Bible is purely formal. What the Bible actually says is authoritative only because it is written in this particular book—and this book would still be authoritative no matter what it actually said.

This theory of biblical authority is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it is historically flawed: historical criticism has demonstrated that the Bible qua text is no different from other historical texts—it is just as conditioned and contingent as all other texts. On the other hand, this theory of authority is also theologically flawed. For the important thing about the Bible is precisely what it says. Any theory of inspiration or authority is legitimate only to the extent that it gives primacy to the Bible’s message.

In its text-character, the Bible is no different from other texts. The distinctive thing about the Bible is simply what it says, i.e., its message. And the authority of the Bible comes solely from this message—which means, solely from the gospel.

2. The trustworthiness of Scripture

Christian faith has always confessed that Scripture is trustworthy. But what does this mean? Here again, we need to emphasise that the important thing about Scripture is simply what it says. When we confess that Scripture is trustworthy, we are saying that the message of Scripture is trustworthy, that it is a true and reliable message.

It is especially important here to avoid lapsing into a formalised notion of a trustworthy or “inerrant” text—as though the biblical texts themselves possess miraculous properties. The Bible is trustworthy because its message is trustworthy. It is trustworthy in the way that preaching is trustworthy—and this is, of course, entirely different from the trustworthiness of scientific or historical textbooks. In short, the Bible is a trustworthy witness. It is trustworthy because the one to whom it witnesses is faithful and true.

We can take a further step, then, and affirm that Scripture’s trustworthiness lies “outside itself” (extra se). Its trustworthiness is the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ himself. It is trustworthy because it witnesses to him and proclaims him. We may even use the traditional terminology and say that Scripture is “infallible,” so long as we remember that this “infallibility” lies outside the Bible itself—it is nothing more (or rather, nothing less) than the infallibility of Jesus Christ.

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