RELIABILITY, INERRANCY, AND THE LIKE

Bill Arnold is continuing the discussions on inerrancy and the like. I took a few days off blogging and ended up with a ton to say after the conversation had begun to wind down, so I have posted my comment here. Sorry for the clumsy format. (I highly recommend reading Bill's entire blog before participating here...this is merely a snippet.)

The parables Jesus told are an obvious example of narratives that aren't meant to be taken as historical accounts. That doesn't lessen the theological impact of them. (Bill)
Yet if the telling of these parables did not actually happen—if Jesus did not tell them—does that not change their significance?

I think the earliest stories in the Bible (let's say Genesis 1-11 for the sake of this discussion) are probably not history, the way we think of history. Barth liked the word 'saga,' which he differentiated from 'myth.' …

I realize you may not agree with me, but I don't feel the need to accept those accounts as historical in order for them to have meaning. (Bill)

At face value, these accounts historically locate God as Creator, Judge, and Savior. Is God actually Creator, Judge, and Savior? If so, could he not exercise these roles in time? I honestly do not understand the motivation behind considering these as myth or saga (despite the fact that I adore Barth).

...not free from error (from a Modern standpoint) (Bill)

Honestly, I am uncertain what is meant by this. How are you defining the “Modern standpoint”?


1. scripture
2. tradition
3. reason
4. experience

I don't think anyone should reflect theologically without all of those components and I don't think of the Bible as a ‘trump card.’ (Bill)
I agree with the quadrilateral, but do hold the bible as a trump card (no surprise). The bible is the most stable of the four and it is widely recognized as such (despite text critical issues). The other three vary dramatically. On the other hand, hold in the bible as the trump card is arrived at via tradition, reason, and experience (I’m feeling a bit finite right now ;-).

Bill quoted Ballard as saying, “Why can't we say that God's inspiration of the writers was as far as was necessary to reliably communicate God's message?” (Bill)

Yes, but the bible seems to claim that creation, Eden, the flood, and Babel as historical. If they are not historical, then how can we claim the bible as dependable or infallible? I cannot wrap my brain around this.

I don't think that Jesus was necessarily making any statement about the historicity of the Jonah story, to use one of your examples. Please note that the writers of the NT sometimes referred back to the OT, but treated the stories as allegorical. (Bill)
Possibly, but does Jesus’ alleged (yes, I am hedging) allegorical interpretation call into question historicity? I guess I err toward historicity.

I would say that we shouldn't try to depend on it while excluding the other three. (Bill)

I think anyone honestly claiming this is not sufficiently self-reflective (sorry for any toes that just got stepped on). We all use all four, whether we are aware nor not. The question is not whether all four means are used. The question is, when there is conflict, what decides? (as Deborah asked). I believe the stability of the bible supports its use as the “trump card.” (NOTE: the Bible itself, not our all too unstable understandings…once again, feeling rather finite).


I agree with Deborah’s statements on the documentary errors. In my studies, inerrancy has only referred to the original manuscripts (another issue altogether, since we have no original mss). We do have an incredible number of copies, which do have scribal errors of all sorts. I have not studied nearly enough of these scribal errors to make any lofty claims, but I have investigated a goodly number. So far all can be explained as ‘trick of the eye’ or other common scribal error. Such errors (and culturally allowed ‘rounding’) do not negate inerrancy. Inerrancy is not 21st century scientific accuracy, but Ancient Middle Eastern historical accuracy, and that is an entirely different matter.

My point is that I don't need to call the Bible on the table next to me inerrant. (Deborah)
Oddly, I agree (some of my Talbot buddies just gasped…). Even though I hold to inerrancy, too often discussions about inerrancy are too much like the useless controversies that Paul warns Timothy about in Second Timothy. I absolutely believe that historical reliability is critical. However, I think that recognizing the Bible as the reliable, written revelation of God is even more critical.




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7 comments:

  1. Thanks Laura. I particularly liked your use of reliable at the end, as opposed to inerrant.

    On a side note, how did you do that really cool link to a specific comment? I've been trying to figure out if it could be done.

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  2. Thanks. Though I (obviously) believe inerrancy is important, I think reliability is more important...and easier to understand, honestly.

    The link is the date and time field at the bottom of each comment, near the name.

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  3. Hi Laura, sorry I haven't responded to this until now.

    I think the historicity of accounts found in the Bible is important, but I don't think we can use the same standards we use on Modern historical writings. I also think that the agenda of the writers shows through at times in the OT. I think we can say that the stories are framed in such a way as to make a particular point, which is different than trying to report a story without bias. On the other hand, I think all human reportage is going to have a perspective and is therefore given from a subjective vantage point.

    I think that you are right in saying that "these accounts historically locate God as Creator, Judge, and Savior." The fact that the truth of God as Creator is revealed in "saga" fashion doesn't change that fact, it only shows that God has not chosen to reveal the inner workings of nature in a scientific way. That is to say that I don't think the Gensis account claims to be a scientific explanation of how we were created. I think, rather, that it purports to teach us why we were created.

    You wrote: "I agree with the quadrilateral, but do hold the bible as a trump card (no surprise). The bible is the most stable of the four and it is widely recognized as such (despite text critical issues). The other three vary dramatically."

    I think that even if one treats the Bible as inerrant, they still have to acknowledge that they can't interpret it without the other three pieces of the puzzle. Would you agree?

    You wrote: "..the bible seems to claim that creation, Eden, the flood, and Babel as historical. If they are not historical, then how can we claim the bible as dependable or infallible?"

    I don't agree that it claims this. I think the accounts themselves, put together with historical studies, show us that they are presented in much the same way that other cultures presented their understandings of origins. I think we can still view the Bible as dependable if we reason that God never intended certian genres to go beyond the bounds of the way in which those genres are intended to operate.

    Thanks for your responses and the kind way in which you've delivered them!

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  4. Bill,

    You said, “I think we can say that the stories are framed in such a way as to make a particular point, which is different than trying to report a story without bias. On the other hand, I think all human reportage is going to have a perspective and is therefore given from a subjective vantage point.”

    Agreed. The Bible certainly seems to be theological history. No problem there. Too often, this discussion forms a false dichotomy, pitting utter relevance against 21st century scientific accuracy. The historical reliability of the Scripture is judged by the standards of the time (thus my notion of “rounding”).

    You said, “The fact that the truth of God as Creator is revealed in ‘saga’ fashion doesn't change that fact, it only shows that God has not chosen to reveal the inner workings of nature in a scientific way. That is to say that I don't think the Genesis account claims to be a scientific explanation of how we were created. I think, rather, that it purports to teach us why we were created.”

    Again, agreed. “Saga” is the genre. This has little to no effect on historicity. A poem about the Civil War can be just as true as a historical treatise, as long as each work is judged by the standards of the genre.

    You said, “I think that even if one treats the Bible as inerrant, they still have to acknowledge that they can't interpret it without the other three pieces of the puzzle. Would you agree?”

    Absolutely. The other three are necessary, but in a situation where two or more parties disagree, the one that more closely matches the plain reading of Scripture (I know, that’s a loaded phrase, forgive me) must carry more weight. This has come up in recent days in the ABC-USA/ABC-PSW issue. This is what I mean by trump card. We always view the Bible through tradition, reason, and experience. These three correct our understanding. My only non-negotiable is that they should never be allowed to change the Bible itself. On the other hand, Scripture should most certainly shape our tradition, reason, and experience.

    You said, “I think the accounts themselves, put together with historical studies, show us that they are presented in much the same way that other cultures presented their understandings of origins. I think we can still view the Bible as dependable if we reason that God never intended certain genres to go beyond the bounds of the way in which those genres are intended to operate.”

    Regarding historical studies, on what assumptions are these historical studies based? Mind you, I have not looked into many critical studies (we do not do that very much in the core classes at Talbot, also my time is stretched too thin to wander about on my own). Still, what I have come across seems to have a bias away from inspiration-inerrancy-infallibility at the start; from my perspective, it seems their bias is infecting their conclusions.

    On the other hand, though I hold to historicity, I do not believe that history was the point. The Bible is not a history book, but a revelation of God in words. I do think historicity is important because the core of our faith—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—is a historical event. History is not central, but it is important (“And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” 1 Corinthians 15:14).

    You are very welcome. Thank you for stirring up some very good thinking from a goodly number of people!

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  5. Looks like we basically agree on a bunch of things, the biggest exception being the trump card thing. I have to admit that I'm still trying ot figure that one out, though. I think the Bible can be normative, but that it can't be approached in a completely objective way.

    You wrote: "The other three are necessary, but in a situation where two or more parties disagree, the one that more closely matches the plain reading of Scripture (I know, that’s a loaded phrase, forgive me) must carry more weight."

    I agree that it's a loaded phrase and I have trouble believing in the concept of perspicuity. It seems like there's so much scholars still have yet to figure out regarding the context in which scripture was written.

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  6. Bill,

    As soon as I pushed "Publish" it hit me how much we agree (I may even consider "normative" as opposed to "trump card"...but I'd need to ponder).

    One clarification that may help is my understanding of "plain reading." I hold to the reasonable man rule (much like our justice system). It is not the plain reading of overly educated scholars (nothing against them, after all, I'm spending TONS of time and effort becoming one), but the understanding of the reasonably educated person. I am beginning to agree with John Sailhamer that the biblical writers included the information needed to get the point (I think that too often, we feel the need to get WAY behind the point in our incessant need to know the why and how of everything).

    Even given that caveat, it remains a loaded question, for there are issued like culture, language, time, textual errors, our own preconceptions, etc, that make "objective" a pipe dream. We are all subjective. Objectivity may just be clarifying and communicating one's known presuppositions (and being open to the clarifying light of discussion--like this :-)...iron sharpens iron, eh.

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