September 5, 2008

Inerrancy VS Infallibility
An appeal for a more dynamic view of Scripture

What is the difference between I&I?

Looking at the actual words, there doesn't seem to be a lot of difference between the two concepts. One says there is nothing false in Scripture, while the other says there are no errors in Scripture, and technically speaking, there isn't a difference. However, there is a difference in emphasis. For the sake of clarity, let us define the terms as thus:

Infallibility: The belief that the Bible is perfect in content; that which the Bible teaches is 100% accurate.

Inerrancy: The belief that the Bible is perfect in content and form; the Bible is perfect in every way that a piece of writing can be perfect.

It is important to note that given this definition, inerrancy doesn't exclude infallibility. In other words, any one that believes in inerrancy also believes infallibility, but not necessarily the other way around. There are also some oddities when it comes to Inerrancy. For this post, I'm going to be arguing from a infallibility position, and against the concept of inerrancy, and you'll notice that just because the concept of inerrancy makes it sound like it is giving the Bible more authority, it is actually giving it less authority.

Some clarity on the concepts of Form and Content

Because I am trying to describe very broad concepts with the terms 'content' and 'form', I intentionally chose terms that are a bit vague.

The heart of the infallibility vs. inerrancy issue comes down to the nature of communication. In communication, there is a message to be communicated, and a medium through which it is communicated. By 'content', I simply am referring to the message: the content of Scripture is the information that God is dispensing to us.

By 'form', I simply mean the medium. In this case, the medium is literature: the written word. (And by literature, I mean anything written: fiction or nonfiction. In the case of Scripture, we are dealing with nonfiction literature) This includes all of the dynamics of language, written characters, literary genres, and cultural differentiations that are dealt with in regards to any piece of literature.

Mystery and the Incarnation

The theological principle of mystery is a rather complex issue. For the sake of this context I will define it as thus:

Mystery: An aspect of faith that is impossible to perfectly define by words, and can only be understood through prayer and meditation.

Another way of putting it is that in order to understand a mystery, one must put effort in, but language will always fall short in expressing it. But I do believe that all true mystery can be understood through prayer.

There are several key theological concepts in Christianity that are necessarily dealt with as mystery. For instance, the balance between divine sovereignty and human responsibility, the understanding of both God's love and justice, and, of course, the Trinity. However, the mystery that is more at the heart of the Christian faith than any other is the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man.

Throughout history, the incarnation has been so offensive, so irreconcilable, and yet so provocative, that it draws on and excites the human imagination. However, it also presents the constant temptation to solve the tension, and establish one nature over the other. Many fundamentalists and other conservative (or reactionary) movements have focused upon the divine nature of Christ so much, that His human nature becomes completely engulfed and Christ becomes abstract and unreachable. Meanwhile, many liberals have so focused upon Christ's human nature, that they have often taken away His uniqueness and authority. However, a proper theology always tries to maintain and proclaim both natures, and leaves the two natures in tension.

What I propose here is a similar view of Scripture: human and divine. Ironically, it is the same groups that downplay Christ's humanity that also downplay the humanity of Scripture; and it is the same groups that forgo Christ's divinity that also ignore the divine qualities in Scripture. However, I believe a true Christian view sees the written Word the same as the Logos: the Word made physical.

What I am proposing is an infallibilist view (not the only one). I believe Scripture to have a divine content: an infallibly true message and genius, and a divine intent that inspired Scripture and maintained it throughout history. However, Scripture has a human form: it was composed by a human hand from a human perspective and it is couched in frail and difficult human language. Both Scripture's divine content and human form have to be appreciated in considering and interpreting the Scripture.

I&I and Inspiration

With the inerrancy view, one tends to overemphasize the divine element. I literally once heard a person say that with divine inspiration, God not only gave the writer every word to write, but He possibly could have taken over the author's hand to insure perfection. This, of course, is not inspiration, but domination.

Now, not all inerrantists hold that extreme of a position. However, most would say that every term, every play on words, every stroke of the pen was planned and orchestrated by God in some sense and is just a necessarily upheld as the message being presented. They may take seriously that God used a human to accomplish this, and may even take seriously the life and context of that author. However, they view God as the true author, and the humans as glorified writing implements.

Someone that believes in infallibility is far more focused on what is being said, not how. Scripture is inspired by God, but written by humans. The authors' personalities, contexts, and callings are imprinted upon the books they wrote. This makes far more sense to a charismatic who is used to the Spirit entering in and guiding one's words and actions. Often I will say something in the Spirit, and have absolutely no idea how I came up with it. However, my personality and style are still most certainly there. Likewise with the writing of Scripture. There is an anointing on the writer, but this isn't to be confused with possession.

Now I need to make some commentary on historical criticism. Technically the concept of historical criticism is just taking the history of the Bible into account when you interpret. However, in the liberal community, a lot of the historical criticism is more like historical cynicism, and the very authority and content of Scripture is called into question from their methods and critiques. The result is that they limit the content of Scripture to moral teaching. I want to make it clear that this kind of view on Scripture cannot be viewed as infallibility. It is clear that Scripture intends to teach history, and even science in much of its pages. Because it is this information that is being communicated, it is to be considered part of the infallible content. It's an issue of being honest with the text: determining what it is communicating instead of forcing a passage to address the questions that I want it to answer.

I&I and Interpretation

This is the real heart of the issue: how do we interpret the Scripture. We are here to talk about how Scripture is authoritative, and its authority is defined by its use. Something is only an authority in your life if you are submitting it, not if you are using it to promote your own agenda.

Now, if I had to identify the one concept that defines the difference between the infallibility view and the inerrancy view, it is how we view the clarity of Scripture. You see, clarity is a quality of literature, and is an aspect of form. Because of this, someone that views Scripture as perfect in all qualities of literature will view Scripture as perfectly clear. They may say that one needs to the Holy Spirit to make it clear, or they may say that those that don't understand it are being intentionally deceived, but all of this is based upon an expectation that Scripture is perfectly clear to a true Christian.

This may not sound bad to you, and indeed that is not surprising. Clarity is something that many expect to find in a document that is perfect by human standards. However, there are two problems with this. First is a very simple syllogism:

Scripture is perfectly clear to those who are born again
I am born again

Therefore, Scripture is perfectly clear to me

The result of this (and this is my fundamental issue with fundamentalism and the notion of inerrancy) is that a person with an inerrancy view will consider their reading of Scripture to be just as inerrant as Scripture itself. They will tend to be unwilling to consider extra-biblical sources (even a source that is explaining Scripture), unless it is to elucidate on what they already believe to be accurate. What's scary is that this attitude is proper and logical given their view of Scriptural clarity.

The other problem is that they are wrong. The sheer diversity of Scriptural interpretation demonstrates that Scripture is difficult to interpret. The only way to solve this conflict of belief and empirical evidence is to come to the conclusion that none of the other groups have the Holy Spirit. The result is not only a refusal to consider other positions, but a condemnation of anyone holding those other positions. This is a cult attitude, and is very dangerous.

The result is that Scripture is compartmentalized and divided. The text isn't used to form one's thought or soul, but is primarily used as a proof-text to explain why "I am right and everyone else is wrong." Thus the interpreter becomes master of the Scripture: instead of God owning Scripture, you do.

A strict infallibility position views Scripture as difficult to interpret, but possible. The result is that it is easier to admit that you are wrong. The fault can never be placed on the Scripture itself, for the Scripture is never wrong. However, it is very possible that you misinterpreted. This creates humility, and humility is a more Christian attitude.

With the infallibility view, one's interpretive method becomes very dynamic. One feels comfortable using human methods of interpretation: genre, writer, historical context, etc... However, one is also very insistent on praying to God for understanding. The meaning of Scripture becomes something that you are constantly working out.

Interpretation becomes a never-ending process. Because you let yourself to be constantly challenged by Scripture, Scripture is able to form you, and a greater level of depth can be discovered. Moreover, you become more willing to read the Scripture in a spiritual way, using Scripture as a means of meeting God instead of defining Him. In the end, that is what Christianity is all about, that relationship with the Almighty God. Therefore, that is what Scripture is meant for: to enable humans to meet God. That is why He provided it, and that is why He maintains it, even today.

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