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Friday, March 28, 2014

"Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy"

TITLE: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)
AUTHOR(s): R. Al Mohler, Peter Enns, Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2013, (336 pages).

This book touches on a core aspect of evangelicalism: Biblical Inerrancy. It is one that has generated heated debates and controversies, culminating in the departure of several prominent theologians in the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) not too long ago. The Geisler-Gundry debate and subsequent departures is one such case in point. The central issue is inerrancy or the interpretive positions on it. Core to this is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CBSI) in which all members of the ETS are to subscribe to it. Literally. For many, this foundational stance defines who and what exactly is an evangelical. As the title of this collection of essays suggests, there are at least five broad opinions, ranging from the strictly literal understanding to a loosely defined perspective.

The Format

In setting the stage for the debates, editors Stephen Garrett and J Merrick bring together five prominent theologians from different theological schools to share their views on the following:
  • How do they define Biblical inerrancy?
  • What is their take on the CBSI statement with regards to 4 aspects?
    • (1) God and his relationship to his creatures
    • (2) the doctrine of inspiration
    • (3) the nature of Scripture,
    • (4) the nature of truth.
  • How do they apply their views to three passages of Scripture?
    • Joshua 6
    • Discrepancy between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9
    • Comparing Deuteronomy 20 with Matthew 5.  

Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary kicks off the discussion with a classical statement of biblical inerrancy that states that every word in the Bible is exactly what God had said. He insists that because this doctrine is core to the evangelical belief, the evangelical movement is entirely dependent on upholding its truth, literally. Human criterion of judgment on the Bible is frowned upon, which is why he is particularly hostile to any modern scholarship that casts doubt on the texts. He asserts, echoing Dr JI Packer's words that: "is word for word God-given; its message is an organic unity, the infallible Word of an infallible God, a web of revealed truths centered upon Christ; it must be interpreted in its natural sense, on the assumption of its inner harmony; and its meaning can be grasped only by those who humbly seek and gladly receive the help of the Holy Spirit."

Peter Enns' essay comes next which flips to the other end of the spectrum. A biblical scholar, especially on the Old Testament, Enns comes out swinging, saying that while the Bible is one grand narrative, there are divergent views and theologies, and he argues that the classical understanding of inerrancy undermines the very nature of God's truth. He has harsh words, accusing proponents of the literal biblical inerrancy camp as prempting dialogue, obstructs self-criticism, and is not sufficiently nuanced to consider modern findings.

Michael Bird's essay is positioned as something in an "international perspective," although Bird hails from Australia, and strictly speaking speaks from a particular Australian Christianity standpoint. He prefers not to rank biblical inerrancy too highly, choosing to be more committed to the "infallibility and authority of Scripture" instead. The CBSI statement is not to be ranked as doctrinal. Rather, it is a statement of “total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture." In doing so, he avoids trapping himself in a literal world, and is able to nuanced the interpretations of biblical inerrancy without having to exercise harmonization of discrepancies or adopt any position of doctrinal arrogance. He makes a good point in warning us not to manipulate the theological positions o fthe former heroes of faith to justify our own positions. He has one word for American-style classical inerrancy: "Theological Colonialism."

Kevin Vanhoozer's "Augustinian Inerrancy" is a careful navigation through literary meaning, literal truth, and literate interpretation of the biblical texts. The Wheaton College professor of Theology proposes that "the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly)." His essay is intelligent, wise, and nuanced at many levels and reflect a diligent attempt to make sense and bring unity to a very divided evangelical world regarding this topic. Chief to his approach is that before any debate on biblical inerrancy, let us brush up on biblical literacy. This is so applicable and should remind those of us that the bigger problem is literacy, not scholarly definitions of biblical inerrancy.

The last essay is by John Franke, who attempts to recast inerrancy in a supposedly newer light. As a result, he is always apprehensive about defining inerrancy or debating it until he has understood what it means to his opposing party. Conflicted as such, he proceeds to present his own understanding. He sees the CSBI as something of an archaic generation, saying that modern philosophical and theological circles have moved on. We are no longer living in that era. If Mohler's position is sharp and clear, Franke's position is cloudy. Biblical inerrancy is more contextual in the generation it was written for, and not to be transcended for use in our modern times in any "absolutist language." It is the Spirit that speaks and contextualizes the Bible for us, thus authorizing "multiple perspectives." 

So What?

What truly brightens up this book is the many responses from the other contributors to each essay. Most of the contributors try to adopt a cordial appreciation of one another's inputs and various points of agreements. At various points, individual convictions get the better of them, in particular, Mohler and Enns. At one point, Mohler accuses Enns of having a "litany of intellectual crimes." Others like Bird injects wit in an otherwise tense debate. Enns himself tries to be charitable but only goes so far. Vanhoozer commands quite a lot of respect from the other contributors. These and many engaging views are there for the astute student of all thigns biblical inerrancy.

We all believe in the authority of the Bible but differ in the interpretations. We all affirm the authenticity of the Word of God, but differ in its literal extent. We all uphold the Bible's inerrancy, but falls under different meaning of what inerrancy means. In this well organized book, we read five variants of what biblical inerrancy means. Having seen how actively the contributors have interacted, I believe there are more variants of variants. At the same time, there is a chance that the contributors themselves would also evolve their positions after this project.

Contrary to popular belief, when we critique, we are actually offering opportunities for people to sharpen one another like the biblical way of iron sharpening iron. After all, it is extremely easy to express agreement and positive statements without offering much food for thought or engagement toward excellence. That is why I appreciate very much the vigorous responses by all five contributors to every main essay published in this book. I would venture to say that constructive criticisms and big compliments are both helpful and essential to the authors of these works. Kudos again to all who have contributed to make this book an enjoyable and educational journey.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me courtesy of Zondervan Academic and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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