Entries in inerrancy (1)
Accommodation: God’s Words in Human Words
As I mentioned in an earlier blog, next year I will be teaching hermeneutics again after a several year hiatus. One of the ongoing issues that we see within the evangelical community with reference to biblical interpretation is the problem of hermeneutics bumping up against the doctrine of inerrancy. Two particularly egregious examples come immediately to mind, one from my Ph.D. student days when one of my classmates, in an article on the date of the exodus of Israel from Egypt defended his conclusion of an early date for the exodus based on the doctrine of inerrancy. In the same vein the late John Walvoord, President of Dallas Seminary for over thirty years contributed to the volume Four Views on Hell (Wm. Crockett (ed.), Zondervan, 1992). In his article Walvood espoused and defended a literal concept of hell and invoked the doctrine of inerrancy as his trump card, so to speak. These two examples (although not recent) represent the problem of relating inerrancy to biblical interpretation.
Historically speaking fundamentalism and later evangelicalism made the inerrancy of Scripture the integration point of their identity. This is seen in the early 20th century adoption of inerrancy as one of the five fundamentals of the faith which functioned as the epistemic foundation for the certainty of our faith. During the 1970’s a chasm opened up between the conservative/fundamental wing of evangelicalism and the more moderate wing which has problems with the articulation of the doctrine of inerrancy as it had been historically articulated.
In the 1960s Daniel Fuller, in an unpublished monograph entitled Evangelism and Biblical Inerrancy, addressed what he called the problem of the mustard seed. Fuller wrestled with Jesus’ assertion that the mustard seed was the smallest of all seeds, noting that today we do in fact know of seeds smaller than the mustard seed. The question then became, how do we square Jesus’ statement with contemporary knowledge of botany and the understanding of inerrancy which claimed that the Bible made no scientific errors? Fuller’s proposal was that we make a distinction between revelatory scripture which is inerrant and non-revelatory scripture which is not. This position was later espoused in essence by Fuller Seminary.
Reaction to this position was swift and strident. In 1976 Harold Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible in which he argued that major Evangelical schools and denominations were abandoning inerrancy and that this abandonment amounted to the first step of the slippery-slope into liberalism and eventual abandoning of the faith. Lindsell asserted that scripture “does not contain error of any kind” and is therefore to be trusted absolutely in references to cosmogony, science and history. Lindsell’s exposition of the meaning of inerrancy was rigid, and viewed the text as largely ahistorical and atemporal to be read through the lens of contemporary standards of history, science and precision.
The unstated syllogism underlying this articulation of inerrancy runs as follows:
Major premise: God is perfect/truth.
Minor premise: The Bible is the Word of God.
Conclusion: The Bible is inerrant.
This line of argumentation is founded upon a (now largely discredited) epistemological foundationalism which has its roots in Enlightenment rationalism.
By the time I began Ph.D. study in the late 1970s, evangelicalism was in the midst of the Inerrancy Controversy (or the Battle for the Bible—round 2. Round one of the Battle for the Bible was fought in the 1880s and 90s). The Inerrancy Controversy continued through the 1980s and saw the production of much literature defending the inspiration and authority (inerrancy) of scripture largely under the umbrella of the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy. These works were far more heavily nuanced than Lindsell’s simplistic bombastic exposition. They reflected sensitivity to genre, non-literal language and standards of expression of accuracy that were within the purview of the cultures in and to which the original text was written.
The evangelical understanding of the nature of Scripture has continued to grow more nuanced and sophisticated over the last three decades. One of the areas that continues to be wrestled with is the issue of accommodation (God had not revealed absolute truth, but adapted the nature of His communication to our human concrete, historical, cultural situatedness could understand the point He wanted us to understand. ) The fact of accommodation is not a recent assertion. It has been recognized by Christians since the second century and has been addressed at length by theologians and exegetes throughout the centuries.
Recently Dr. Kenton Sparks (Ph.D., University of North Carolina), Professor of Biblical Studies, Eastern University, Pennsylvania, delivered a lecture at Taylor University College entitled “God’s Astronomy: Accommodation, Inspiration, and the Bible”
This lecture is a reworking of a chapter in his new book God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appraisal of Critical Biblical Scholarship published by Baker. His lecture is excellent and very thought provoking. It is one I plan to incorporate into my hermeneutics class next year.