The Modern Inerrancy Debate
If the purpose of theology and theological expressions, beyond affirming certain creeds, is to communicate what we understand about God to others (theos + logos = God-talk), then the terms we use ought to communicate clearly. That is as much a function of the development of language in a culture as it has to do with truth. In most contexts today, we would not normally tell people, for example, that they look gay, although I heard that exact expression used in an old "Brady Bunch" episode a couple of weeks ago. If the meaning of a theological term has shifted so that its use is no longer clear, then for the sake of communication we probably need to find terms that will communicate rather than risk being misunderstood, or not heard at all.
I think we are in such a position in our modern culture with the term "inerrant" or "inerrancy" applied to Scripture. Even though that term has been used in the past as a faith confession about the nature of Scripture on some level, usually affirming the Bible as a reliable guide for the Faith and practice of the church, it has come to mean something quite different. In many contexts it has become a shibboleth in promoting certain ideological agendas, and is being used by some as a means to divide and judge other Christians to the point that it creates more controversy and debate than it communicates anything positive about the Christian Faith or about Scripture.
In the larger social and cultural scene, the whole concept of the inerrancy of Scripture may actually be having the opposite effect than many intend. It is intended to affirm the authority and value of Scripture as the sole guide to the Christian Faith, as the source of inspired instruction for meeting the spiritual and ethical challenges of a modern world. Yet the direction in which the concept has evolved and the manner in which it is being presented today both tend toward an "all or nothing" or an "either/or" acceptance of a whole range of ideological and theological ideas linked to the concept, with a corresponding militant attitude toward those who do not accept it in toto. The result has been that in many cases beyond the narrow circles of those who promote the concept, it has weakened the credibility of Scripture and created tremendous controversy, friction, and pain within the Christian community.
I think we would be able to move further toward maintaining the credibility of the Bible to skeptics of our day, as well as providing a more positive witness to the transforming grace of God revealed in Christ, if we discard the whole concept of inerrancy, at least in the way it is advocated by many today. I think it simply creates more problems in our communication of the Gospel message than it solves. Wesleyans can affirm and defend the truth, authority, and reliability of Scripture far better on other grounds, and even other theological camps have better ways to affirm the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture.
Beyond the problem of communication, one of the main problems with the argument for inerrancy of Scripture, or even the companion argument for near total historical reliability of Scripture, is that it is based on a very modern and quite rationalistic premise. The modern debate arose between 1900 and the 1920s, and was developed into the 1970s, as a defense against historical skeptics who were launching some very scathing attacks against the authority of Scripture from the perspective of historical positivism and scientific naturalism. However, in the zeal to defend Scripture, many simply capitulated to the rationalistic mind set and tried to defend the Bible on that alien turf by ground rules set by the critics. The ensuing "battle for the Bible" is thus a battle largely fought in an area far removed from Scripture itself, and by the premises and logic of very rationalistic categories.
The scientific premise that forms the basis for modern historiography, and the basis for challenge by skeptics, is that only empirically verifiable events can be accepted as true. They contended that since many biblical events could not be verified by external documents or records or empirical data to have happened, then they never happened. Therefore, the accounts were not true and were therefore in error (I won’t address at this point the problem in equating the concepts of "true" and "without error," which are not necessarily synonymous).
The defenders, on quite different grounds than empirical evidence, assumed that the Bible was true as a starting point. No problem there, at least from the perspective of faith confession. But the defense took shape as a logical syllogism that worked backward toward the rationalists. Since the Bible is true as an assumption, and since only verifiable historical events can be true (thus accepting the premise of the rationalists), then the Bible must contain only actual and verifiable historical events and can contain no error. Thus inerrancy as a very rationalistic response to the rationalists was born.
A similar line of reasoning developed against those who assumed historical positivism as the only way of explaining human history. Historical positivism is an outgrowth of the empirical model. It assumes that truth consists only of that which can be empirically verified. It also rejects any metaphysical aspect of reality and assumes a closed world in which historical event can be explained in terms of preceding historical events and the relation of events to their cause in those preceding events.
To counter this, in addition to the above assertions about the inerrancy of Scripture, the defenders also adopted a near total metaphysical explanation of history in which God was the prime cause of all human history. He was "in control" of all human events, and there needed to be no other explanation for human history than God. Scripture, then, was just the writing down of that history, both past and future, and so was inerrant because it simply recorded what God was causing to unfold. This could lead, for example, to the often quoted definition of prophecy from that perspective as "prewritten history."
Again, the logic behind this line of defense rests on the defenders of Scripture actually accepting the premises of the rationalists, and then trying to define Scripture in such a way that it could then answer them on their own grounds. But it seems that many never asked whether or not Scripture could even fit within those rationalistic categories; that is, whether Scripture was ever intended to be provable by the canons of scientific empiricism.
One other factor came into play in the development of the inerrancy debate. Most of the "defenders" in the early stages were from the Reformed tradition, especially fundamentalist Southern Baptists (nothing at all here against Baptists; it is just a historical fact). That simply meant that the debate was cast nearly from the beginning in terms of narrowly focused theological concerns and agendas. Two closely related theological ideas from that tradition affected how the debate took shape: the emphasis on the total sovereignty of God, which works out into predestination in some circles; and the total depravity of humanity.
Wesleyans accept the basic theological idea of depravity as a way to affirm the need for God’s grace. Wesleyans would, for example, oppose Pelagianism, which holds that human beings are inherently good or can on their own choose the good. However, the idea goes much further in the Calvinistic tradition. Rooted in Greek dualism, which sees all aspects of the physical world as inherently evil, it extends to all segments of human existence. In that view, humanity can never be anything other than dominated by evil since humans live in a physical world and a physical body that is, by definition, evil and imperfect. They can be forgiven for their sinfulness, pardoned, and counted as righteous (the theological term here is "imputed righteousness"), but will always exist in this world as imperfect, flawed, and sinful creatures. Some would say that they cannot even choose God, so God in His sovereignty must choose for them (see Tulip Calvinism Compared to Wesleyan Perspectives).
Because of the total inability of human beings, the emphasis on the complete and absolute sovereignty of God thus comes to the foreground. The sovereignty of God is articulated in terms of the absolute metaphysical categories of Greek philosophy. God is understood as the absolute of everything, described in terms of "omni-" (all), infinity, perfection, and similar superlatives. Theology from this perspective is concerned with proper definitions and formulations of God that will preserve this emphasis.
God’s sovereignty in this absolute sense is seen to extend even to human decision and the flow of human history. That is, in its most severe form, nothing occurs in God’s creation without Him specifically willing that it should occur. Even in modified forms, human freedom is subsumed within God’s sovereignty, or even denied altogether.
As those ideas were worked out and applied to Scripture, they led to the view that Scripture must be written by God himself, and that their primary function was to reveal absolute descriptors (propositions) about God and the world. God could never trust sinful, flawed, and imperfect humans to have much to do with Scripture since they would introduce errors and thus destroy its reliability. So, God Himself is the sole author of Scripture. From this conclusion came theories of inspiration (see below) that emphasized God’s near total control of the production and preservation of Scripture, with the attendant theories of inspiration that would support such a view (dictation and some forms of verbal inspiration).
And then another logical syllogism came into play. Since God wrote Scripture, and since God is perfect and without error, and since God knows exactly what happened, then the Bible must be absolutely accurate, inerrant, in everything it says, and even in a lot that it doesn’t say that we now know to be fact (the earth is round, the solar system is heliocentric, matter consists of atoms, etc.). In other words, Scripture, since it is associated directly with God, must be of the same quality as God Himself: absolute, perfect, "omni," inerrant, etc.
So, this view of the inerrancy of Scripture was developed both from the pressures of culture, as well as from some very specific theological agendas. The Bible is then read through the lens of a doctrine developed totally outside Scripture itself, and often without taking seriously the evidence within Scripture. As a result, the Bible is often made to serve the doctrine of inerrancy, a move which runs counter to one of the primary tenants of the Reformation, that Scripture should be the primary authority for the faith and practice of the Christian community, not doctrines.
The reality is that the whole issue of inerrancy, as well as how some now define infallibility, is alien to the Wesleyan tradition for several theological and historical reasons. The modern concept of inerrancy, and it is a modern concept, arises out of Calvinistic based fundamentalism as it blended a basic position in predeterminism (predestination) with a narrow rationalism to defend Scripture (the "Battle for the Bible") against the excesses of scientific positivism and naturalism.
While the motive may have been entirely valid, since there certainly were some excesses from the side of naturalism and rationalistic modes of thought, I think there developed a serious overreaction in the opposite direction. The defenders of Scripture began asserting things about Scripture that neither the Bible itself nor some of the theological positions outside of a narrowly interpreted Calvinism can possibly sustain.
(This section is available separately as The Problem with Autographs)
These observations almost always lead to another area that impinges on the topic of inerrancy: the affirmation of the inerrancy of the original autographs of Scripture (autograph = the original manuscripts as they came from the hand of the original author).
Anyone who works with Scripture in the original languages knows that there are errors of spelling, grammar, and syntax in the biblical text as we have it today. It is also an easily demonstrable fact that there are hundreds of variants among the different manuscripts of the biblical text (see Sacred Words or Words about the Sacred). We sometimes forget that the Bible was not written on a word processor in English, and it is difficult to keep in mind that there is no "master text" of the Bible. We only have it in hundreds, even thousands, of manuscripts that all contain differences of greater or lesser degree. Our modern translations are based on an analysis and comparison of all these manuscripts.
On a different level, a careful examination of parallel biblical accounts, where the same story or account occurs in more than one place, reveals that in many places the accounts are different. For example, in the Gospels there are many places where the accounts of Jesus’ activity and sayings are recorded in multiple versions that vary from each other (see The Synoptic Problem).
There are places where the events are ordered differently (the cleansing of the temple or the day and time of the crucifixion in the Synoptic Gospels and John; see The Time of the Crucifixion: Chronological Issues in the Gospels), the same sayings are set in different contexts (the sermon on the mount and the sermon on the plain in Matthew and Luke), or the same event is accompanied by different sayings (the confession of Peter in Matthew and Mark). Even when all of these do correspond, there are often different Greek words attributed to Jesus, sometimes closely synonymous, sometimes giving a different nuance to the saying (for example, Matt 5:3, 6 and Luke 6:20-21). There are other places in Scripture where this occurs as well, such as the parallels between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles or between 2 Kings and Isaiah.
On a still different level, if one approaches the biblical text without the presuppositions of inerrancy, there are also historical difficulties. There are biblical accounts that do not correspond to what we know of the events, or the same events are recounted in different places within Scripture in considerably different scenarios (see History and Theology in Joshua and Judges). There are also discrepancies in the use of numbers, genealogies, Scriptural citations, etc. (see The Date of the Exodus).
To many students of Scripture these factors present no serious hindrances to accepting the Bible as the authoritative word of God, beyond needing to understand and interpret the message as it is presented with these factors. However to the inerrantist position these are potentially fatal observations. In an absolutist position, which many inerrantists take, none of these can be allowed to stand. While some of these such as the historical discrepancies can be explained by various means, the difficulties with the biblical text itself is a much more troublesome problem to inerrant views. While they are affirming the absolute inerrant nature of the biblical text, it is obvious that there are physical inaccuracies within the text.
The solution to this dilemma of wanting to maintain an inerrant text while faced with a text that is obviously not inerrant, is to affirm that it is only the original writings that were inerrant. While the inaccurate copies we have now were corrupted in the process of transmission, copying, and translation over the years, the original versions as they came from the hand of the original author were without any such inaccuracies. This position of "inerrant autographs" is a common way of maintaining inerrancy in the face of textual evidence to the contrary. In fact, some churches, for example the Wesleyan Church, incorporate such a statement into their doctrinal position on Scripture.
Now, this may be a valid move solely as a faith affirmation. But I contend that it does not really say much, and certainly does not give us any place to stand in the actual study and use of Scripture in the church beyond making affirmations about it. And it raises questions of credibility from those who do not so readily accept the faith affirmations.
There are several problems with the idea. As I have suggested, I think the main reason for affirming inerrant autographs is the simple fact that the text that we have now is obviously inaccurate in some details. So to maintain the concept of inerrancy, it is simply moved back to a context where the validity of the assertion cannot be verified since we do not have any of the autographs.
However, I find it extremely problematic to assert something about a part of the Christian faith that is as important as Scripture in a way that cannot be confirmed in the light of totally different evidence that can be confirmed. In other words, I think that smacks far too much of a rationalizing effort to bolster a fundamentally flawed idea than it does of good theology or good biblical study. Again, as a faith affirmation about the authority of Scripture, I understand what it tries to say. I just don’t think it says it very well.
There are other logical problems, as well, that drift into theological ones. If God supervised the writing of Scripture to the degree that people produced absolutely inerrant writings beyond their own capability to do so, why could God not have, or why didn’t he, just as easily superintend the transmission of that text so that it would remain inerrant as it was copied through the centuries. What is the purpose of having inerrant originals if that inerrancy is not to be maintained in some way? What purpose is served in allowing a perfect text to deteriorate?
And if we allow this, how then do we know we can trust the text we have today since it is admittedly inaccurate in some details, and since we do not have the "originals" with which to compare it? If our faith is in an inerrant text, and if that text has been allowed to deteriorate in one area to the point that it is no longer inerrant, how do we know that other areas have not likewise been corrupted? If the trustworthiness of the text depends on it being inerrant, how do we affirm that trustworthiness and reliability when the text we are using is in fact not inerrant?
In other words, if the criteria of inerrancy is to be the judge of truth, it solves nothing to push the inerrancy into the distant past since we only have the text today as it is. If that criteria is valid, then we do not have the truth.
Still another set of problems clusters around the very idea of "autographs." This assumes that there was at one time a single master copy of Scripture, or at least of individual books. But this in turn assumes a certain mode of inspiration and production of Scripture that is not totally supported by the evidence or most (not all) ways of understanding how Scripture came to be.
"Autographs" assumes Scripture (individual books) was written by a single person at a single time, the prophetic model of an inspired author. In other words, by definition and assumption, it eliminates most dynamic views of inspiration that allow a role for the community of faith over a period of time to produce Scripture as God worked within the community. This results in a circular argument. One can only affirm inerrant autographs as inspired by assuming a view of inspiration that produces inerrant autographs.
One step further in this relates to the idea of "sources" used for the Gospels or the Pentateuch. Even many conservative biblical scholars are now willing to acknowledge that the Gospels were likely written from earlier sources, either written or oral, that preserved the teachings of Jesus in the 35 or so years between his life and the writings of the first Gospels. If the Gospel writers used sources, were the sources also inerrant? If so, on what basis do we affirm that the sources are inerrant since they were not Scripture? This would leave open the logical possibility of other documents being inerrant that are not Scripture, which would undermine one of the primary reasons of affirming inerrancy in the first place: the unique authority of Scripture.
If the sources are not seen as inerrant, how can an inerrant text be produced from non-inerrant sources? What theory of inspiration do we invoke to argue that non-inerrant sources can become inerrant by being placed within a different context?
Of course, some question the very existence of sources used to write the biblical texts. Yet, the evidence of biblical passages that are shared in more than one place is undeniable when actually looking at the text apart from the idea of absolute inerrancy and its assumptions. There are many passages that share features ranging from identical word for word parallels to closely related presentation of narratives and ideas. These can be found in comparing the Synoptic Gospels, 2 Kings and Isaiah, Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah, Psalms and Samuel, and Micah and Isaiah. These commonalities are difficult to explain without using some version of shared sources or internal borrowing, both of which present complications to the idea of absolute inerrancy and a God-authored Bible.
Along the same line, there is also the issue of biblical texts that obviously quote from or refer to extra-biblical writings. The Book of Jashar, evidently a book of war poetry, is referenced twice in the Old Testament (Josh 10:13, 2 Sam 1:18). Throughout the Books of Kings and Chronicles, official annals are mentioned 36 times. The book of Jude quotes from the Book of Enoch (Jude 9, 14-15). There seems to be several places where Paul or the Pauline tradition is quoting from or referring to popular writings of his time. For example, Titus 1:12 quotes from the Greek philosopher Epimenides. If inerrancy is the primary way to conceptualize Scripture, what standard of inerrancy do we apply to such obviously extra-biblical sources that become part of Scripture?
There are other points that could be made, but perhaps this is enough to illustrate that pushing inerrancy back to the original manuscripts actually creates even more problems for the position than it solves.
There is one other facet of this topic that often comes up in this discussion at this point. It again relates to the sovereignty of God and how we see that working out in relation to Scripture. It is often affirmed that just as God can reveal Himself in the world in quite extraordinary ways that transcend human ability to understand, for example the Incarnation, so God can create and preserve an inerrant text as a medium of revelation of the absolute truth about everything. Again, this is certainly valid on one level as faith affirmation about the nature of God, but it probably does not help us much in understanding Scripture.
The greatest problem here is the logic in assuming that simply because God can do something then that is, in fact what he does do. There is a great deal of difference between saying that God could do something, and affirming that He did or does, in fact, do it. To say that He could is no proof that He did. This is where the issues often get confused. For example, working from the sovereignty of God, one might ask if God could, because of human incapability of choosing the good, choose the good for a person. Theoretically, the answer is yes. Yet, Wesleyans affirm that God does not, in fact, do what He clearly could do. And there still remains the evidence that the text that we actually have is not, in fact, absolutely inerrant.
So again, the problem here is in asserting something about the Bible based on doctrinal or creedal confessions about the nature of God or ultimate reality or some other assertion that has very little to do with Scripture itself as we actually have it.
(This section is available separately as Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture)
Part of the difficulty in all of the inerrancy debate is a problem, even apart from all the other doctrinal and ideological agendas and presuppositions at work, in understanding the nature of Scripture as we have it in terms of God’s self revelation in history, and in terms of what we mean by inspiration. These are complicated topics, but let me try to raise some of the issues in relation to the inerrancy debate. What follows is not intended to be definitive or exhaustive; only my own perspectives on one way to address the issue of the nature of Scripture and move beyond the inerrancy debates.
There are two issues at stake here: revelation and inspiration of Scripture. It is important that these are not confused, since some of the issues that become battlegrounds arise from interchanging the two.
The concept of revelation lies at the heart of the Christian Faith. We believe that God has uniquely revealed Himself to humanity in the arena of human history. Christians do not believe that we seek God and then find Him (as, for example, in Buddhism). We believe that God chose to reveal Himself to us. Both Judaism and Christianity are responses to God’s self-disclosure within human history.
It is important here to note that the content of revelation is not information or data (propositions), but God Himself (or, in philosophical categories, knowledge about God, although I would prefer to leave God as the subject of revelation rather than its object, or to leave it in relational categories rather than ontological ones). That is, it is a self-revelation, or self-disclosure, not revelation about things or ideas. Much of the early church following Augustine, who was himself influenced by neo-Platonic idealistic philosophy that saw the world in terms of absolute ideas, understood all knowledge to be revealed by God. This was in contrast to Aristotle who held that some knowledge can be apprehended by the senses, as we do now in scientific research (interestingly enough, this was a view shared to some degree by the Israelites in the OT Wisdom traditions, for example, Proverbs).
The idea that all knowledge about everything comes by revelation from God has made its way in various forms even into modern thinking, particularly through the Calvinistic tradition that uses the sovereignty of God as a primary theological category. This has relevance in our present discussion of Scripture because some adopt this view in relation to the Bible and see Scripture itself as direct revelation by God covering all knowledge and data. In this view Scripture is seen in absolute categories. It is from that perspective that the terms inerrant and infallible are most often used to describe Scripture.
However, I do not view Scripture in those terms. I do not understand the Bible itself to be direct revelation, and I do not consider it be revelation about everything. Scripture is the witness that the community of faith has borne to or about revelation.In other words, God is the content of the revelation, and Scripture tells us about and points toward that revelation, as, for example, the Gospels writers bear witness of the things they have seen and heard (Luke 1:1-4; cf. 7:22; Jn 21:24-25; cf. 3:32).
Scripture is revelatory only in the secondary or derivative sense that it is a witness and response to God’s revelation. The Bible contains not only reports about specific revelatory events such as the exodus or the incarnation (the technical term here is kergyma, "proclamation"), it also contains the communities’ response to those events, how the Communities of Faith worked out the implications of their encounters with God in doctrinal, social, ethical, and cultural ways (didache, "teaching").
For example, by analogy, the Gospels can be seen as the witness, the proclamation of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, while Paul’s writings can be seen as teaching the implications of that revelation, and guiding the community in proper response (for example, "live your life in a manner worthy of the Gospel of Christ," Phil 2:27). The same analogy can be used in seeing the connection in the Old Testament between the exodus (proclamation) and the giving of the torah at Sinai (instruction). I say "by analogy" here because they are both now Scripture for us, which makes it more difficult for us to divide the categories up so neatly.
To say this in a slightly different way, God is revealed to us today through interpreted events. God revealed Himself in history (events) and the Community of Faith interpreted those events to us in what we now have as Scripture. We have no direct access to the events themselves; we only have mediated access through the witness of the community (Scripture, and to a much less degree, tradition).
This does not eliminate any objective grounding to God’s revelation. In fact, contrary to mythical systems of religion such as popular Hinduism, it affirms the objective basis in history of God’s self-disclosure, which is why I use the term "event." But it also affirms that His self-disclosure is mediated to us through testimony, and that testimony itself is not "objective" in the same sense as was the event itself. This is because part of that testimony is also the interpreted "significance" or "meaning" of that event in relation to past events, present experience, and future implications. That is, it is theological (talking about God) in nature and, in the best modern (or actually post-modern!) sense, history ("history" here understood as connections or significance of events rather than data reporting).
This sense of testimony to significance in these three historical dimensions (past events, present experience, and future implications) can be traced biblically, especially in the instructions in Deuteronomy and other places: "When your children ask in time to come, ‘What do these things mean?’ then you shall tell them: ‘Once we were slaves in Egypt . . . .’" Especially in the Old Testament, because of the time span during which the biblical testimony was preserved and passed down, all three of these dimensions are often interwoven into a single biblical text as different communities over a 1,200 year period told and retold the "story" in light of new experiences, new revelations, new instructions, and different ways in which the various communities responded to God over the centuries.
The Scriptures as we now have them reflect this dynamic of the "story of God" as it was woven into the life of the community of Faith through the centuries. And when we read, or preach, or interpret that story we are adding yet other historical dimensions as we bring our own present and future into interaction with the text, and apprehend significance and meaning from the text in those dimensions.
This suggests that the "story of God" was told in ways that were influenced by the people who were telling the story, and that it will also be influenced by people who hear it. While we affirm that the testimony is true, the vehicle of the testimony was conditioned by the culture, language, knowledge (or lack of it), historical experience, personality, ethos, etc., of the people through the centuries who passed on the testimony, and who grappled with the implications of it in being the people of God (See Speaking the Language of Canaan). So, Scripture as we have it has a dual nature. It is the story of divine revelation (God’s word. . .) told in the vehicle of culturally conditioned literature (. . . in human words).
It also suggests that the story is likewise heard in the same culturally conditioned ways by us. That is, we bring our own culture, language, knowledge (or lack of it), historical experience, personality, ethos, etc., to the biblical text when we read it. And we grapple with its implications in living out being the people of God. If we are going to take this dual nature of Scripture seriously, we need ways of understanding Scripture and theories of inspiration of Scripture that will likewise take these two aspects, God's word in human words, seriously.
This brings us to the question of exactly how the community bore witness to God, how it understood God to be at work in these events, and how we know that their testimony is true. And it also raises in a secondary way how we can come to terms with Scripture if it is to be our story as well. So what is the role of God in shaping Scripture? Here is where the concept of inspiration of Scripture provides some help. However, how we talk about inspiration of Scripture is greatly influenced by how we understand revelation as outlined above.
There are a variety of theories of inspiration (of Scripture), and I won’t take the time to deal with them all. The basic issue in talking about inspiration is the balance between the dual nature of Scripture, the balance between God’s role and humans’ role. Usually inspiration has to do with the work of God in the process. In Christian tradition, this is usually connected with the work of the Holy Spirit as the agent of truth in the world. Thus, inspiration can be conceived, in some way, as "in-Spirited" (cf 2 Tim 3:16-17, 2 Pet 1:20-21). But this does not in itself resolve the question of balance.
On the one pole are dictation and verbal theories that affirm nearly 100% God. Usually, these are heavily influenced both by an absolute sovereignty of God model that allows little human input into anything since humans are totally contaminated by sin and cannot be trusted (with roots in Augustinian influenced Calvinism), as well as by the philosophical model mentioned earlier that equates revelation with all truth. In these views, Scripture is equated with the mind of God, and He is seen as the primary author of Scripture. Here, the physical text itself is seen as the locus of inspiration and, indeed, revelation of absolute truth.
On the other pole are elevation theories that affirm nearly 100% human. Usually, these are heavily influenced either by rationalistic, naturalistic, or deistic models that do not see God active in the world, or by atheistic or agnostic thinking that will not acknowledge anything other than humanity. In this view, Scripture is just a good book reflecting the same kind of elevated human insight that, for example, might be found in Shakespeare, J. R. Tolkien, or Star Wars. Here, the writers are the source, and most often the only source, of the writing.
Between these poles are various blends of the two. Interestingly enough, theories toward either pole claim plenary ("full") inspiration depending on whether the physical text itself is seen as fully inspired or only the writers are inspired. In any case, the mediating position is usually termed dynamic inspiration, which tries to balance the role of God and humans. In many of these perspectives (with various nuances) it is not the text that is inspired but the writers themselves, or the message. However, what the writers understand is not solely a product of their own thinking but is enabled by the activity of God, which distances this from the elevation pole.
Any adequate theory of inspiration must take into consideration three crucial factors.
The best way of understanding inspiration that takes into consideration these factors is a dynamic theory of inspiration that tries evenly to balance human and divine involvement in Scripture. For me, the method or mode of inspiration is not nearly as crucial as the fact or process of inspiration. And I see the locus of inspiration neither in the physical text itself nor in single writers, but in the message of Scripture, what it tells us about God, about ourselves, and about how we relate to God. These three factors lie at the heart of the nature of Scripture, its purpose, and its overarching content. It is not just inspiration of God in the message as a collection of facts, but inspiration operative in the message as a witness to the transforming and enabling power of God’s grace in the lives of people!
Now, without delving too deeply into various possible modes of inspiration within a dynamic understanding, let me explain how I think the process works in the production of Scripture. As mentioned above, it all begins with God revealing himself, either to the entire community in historical events such as the exodus or the incarnation, or to individuals in specific contexts who then report that encounter to the community. Those communal events may be much more specific such as the return from exile, the death of Jesus, or the resurrection. The revelation may also be to individuals within that community in specific ways, such as Abraham at Mount Moriah, Moses at the burning bush, or Paul on the road to Damascus.
However, with any revelation of God there must be a response from the community or the person. That is, they must be able not only to understand the meaning and significance of the event, but must also be able to communicate its meaning and significance to others, those who have not directly experienced the revelatory act of God. They must also translate that revelation into practical everyday living, to make some connection between God's self-revelation and the implications of that revelation for daily living.
Here is where inspiration comes into play. Not only does God reveal Himself, he helps the people understand that revelation through inspiration. Inspiration begins at the point of God enabling people, inspirit-ing them, to understand the meaning and significance of His revelatory actions for human living. However, exactly how people respond to that revelation, how they talk about, tell it, theologize about it, pass it on in tradition, incorporate it into ethical and doctrinal systems, etc., are all influenced by human factors. The culture in which they live, the language they speak, the pool of literary, cultural, and religious metaphors that are commonly understood, the religious system with which they are familiar, the societal context of which they are a part, and the historical milieu in which they live, all become factors in how response to God's revelation of himself is processed and expressed.
The people do not pass on eternal, absolute truths devoid of any context. They tell the story of God, which God has revealed to them and helped them understand, but they tell it in their own way. They translate God’s revelation into the language, metaphors, symbols, liturgy, and literature through which they can bear witness to God’s truth, and in which other people can hear and understand the testimony.
However, Scripture does not yet arise at this point. Inspiration is not the one time action of God that is only related to the original revelatory event, or to a posited "original" author. Inspiration is the ongoing work of God (Christians would say the Holy Spirit) whereby He continues to help people understand the message, the testimony. So inspiration is not static to be located at a specific point in time any more than God is static.
Inspiration, as a function of God enabling people to understand himself, is dynamic. It, or really God, is at work as the witnesses tell the story, enabling them to bear faithful testimony to God. Inspiration, God, is also at work enabling people who hear the story to understand and respond to the witness to God. In this sense, as mentioned above, there is some connection between the idea of inspiration and the Wesleyan doctrine of prevenient grace.
The work of God in enabling people to understand through the testimony extends to the entire community of Faith. God is at work in the community as a whole as He helps them to understand, not only the testimony, but also how to respond to that testimony. So as the community does its own lawmaking, or development of ethical standards, as well as constructing theology and doctrine, it is God at work in the entire community throughout the centuries helping them understand the things of God. It is a Faith community, not just because it believes a certain set of doctrines or ideas, but because God is actively at work within the community and individuals that make up that community guiding them in being the people of God.
This does not at all override the freedom of people or the community, which explains how some people or some communities can so badly distort or pervert the testimony and develop ideas or doctrines that stray from the original revelation. And it also explains the warnings in both Testaments concerning the need for faithful transmission of the story and sound doctrine. But we affirm that God has so enabled the process that even with all the vagaries of history through which the communities of Faith have passed, with all the difficulties of transmission of the story, even with all the inaccuracies and discrepancies in Scripture that we now have, we still have a reliable and trustworthy witness to the truth of God. It is not because of an inerrant text that this is so. it is because of God and his continued presence with the community and its testimony!
So, inspiration, the work of God in enabling people to understand the message, is an ongoing, dynamic process. It was at work, for example, in Moses seeing the burning bush and understanding that this was God, telling Zipporah when he got home that night, telling the Israelites what God had revealed to him, and later telling Pharaoh. But it extends far beyond that. God was still at work helping people understand as this story was told centuries later to Israelites gathered around a family Passover table in David’s kingdom, as children heard the story about God’s deliverance and recalled God’s great acts of the past.
Inspiration was at work as scribes perhaps centuries after that incorporated that faith confession into a compilation of writings telling the marvelous story of God’s deliverance and creation of a people. To that story were added priestly, liturgical instructions for proper observance of Passover, and the importance of proper response to the God who heard the cries of oppressed slaves. Still later, God was still helping the community understand as they further incorporated an analysis of their own failure as God’s people. Exilic and post exilic prophets and scribes told the story again, but in the context of the catastrophic failure that climaxed in the exile. And yet the story took on new significance a century after that as exiles returned home, and they interpreted the return from exile as a second exodus as they learned new depths of God’s grace and forgiveness.
As they collected all these stories together, God was still at work helping them understand their history. They used certain writings within the community of Faith because God has helped them understand that this way of seeing their history was a faithful interpretation of how He had worked with them over the centuries.
We could track this process even further into the development of the canon, but I won’t take the time here. But even today, as we sit in a 21st century AD living room and read the story again, there is once again the work of God the Holy Spirit helping us understand the message, to hear again the testimony to the revelation of God. And when a preacher or a bible scholar studies the passage, or proclaims it on Sunday morning, inspiration is still at work helping her understand God, and helping the people who hear it respond!
That is why I think that any reading or study of Scripture should begin with the prayer, "Lord, help me understand." It is an acknowledgment of that dynamic quality of inspiration, and a confession that finally, after we have done all we can do to understand the human dimension of Scripture, it is God who brings the testimony alive, and makes it a living and active word!
And yet, the form, the vehicle of that message is dependent upon the people themselves. So, there are cultural oddities. There are personal idiosyncrasies. There are discrepancies of fact, of science, of grammar, of spelling, of data. There are different perspectives from different people from different cultures on different continents over a span of 1,800 years. There are inconsistencies in historical data, in the use of symbols, in views about future events. Sometimes prophets were wrong in how they translated their understanding about God into their interpretation of historical events. Sometimes they even had to change their prophecies (See Ezekiel and the Oracles Against Tyre).
Sometimes leaders had to go far beyond the old law codes, and sometimes had to invent new responses to ethical challenges (Nehemiah; "Applied Torah" in Torah as Holiness). Sometimes new understandings challenged old orthodoxies (Job, Jonah). Sometimes in one historical situation one view was valid, and in another historical situation the opposite perspective was valid (Deuteronomy, Jeremiah). Sometimes they emphasized one aspect and sometimes another, and sometimes those are not directly reconcilable (Proverbs, Leviticus). As Walter Brueggemann put it, there are voices and counter voices, as very human people living in a very real world try to live and apply what they have come to understand about God in radically different and constantly changing contexts. -1- After all, the story is in human words.
But it is God’s story! Or perhaps better, it is a story of God! For me, affirming a dynamic view of inspiration allows the truth about Himself that God has revealed to us to be faithfully and accurately preserved by the community of Faith. This takes seriously the faith confession that God is active in the world, that He reveals Himself to humanity, and that there is a dimension to God that cannot be accessed by human reason or experience. In this sense, the Bible is God’s word.
However, a dynamic model that sees inspiration of Scripture as a process operating within the community of faith rather than a one time revelation of absolute truth also allows us to examine all the evidence within Scripture honestly without need for apology or rationalization. So, I can conclude that Moses did not write the Pentateuch as we now have it (JEDP: Sources in the Pentateuch), or that Ezekiel was dead wrong in his prediction about the destruction of Tyre by Nebuchadnezzar (Ezekiel and the Oracles against Tyre), or that Isaiah did not have Jesus in mind in Isaiah 7 or 9 (Immanuel in Isaiah and Matthew), without in any way whatsoever taking anything away from the message of Scripture, from its witness to God’s revelation of Himself, and the resulting call for us to respond to that revelation.
A dynamic view of inspiration is also very close to the Wesleyan perspective of the balance between God’s grace and God-granted human freedom. Contrary to some other traditions in the Christian faith, Wesleyans affirm that God’s prevenient grace makes people capable of freely responding to Him, and that his ongoing grace genuinely transforms people. Wesleyans simply do not accept the idea that human beings are so perverted and corrupted by sin that they can never be righteous or understand the things of God. We really do believe that God can work with people, and even can, by the power of His grace, enable them to be righteous rather than simply being counted as being righteous.
If we really do believe that, then surely we should believe that God can entrust people with the testimony to His grace as he continually works with them individually and communally. If he could entrust the Savior of the world to a young Jewish girl from Galilee, surely He can trust the testimony to that event to His disciples, and to the resulting community of Faith that He has called into being.
So, just as our lives reflect the working together of God’s grace and our response, I think Scripture as the testimony of God’s people also demonstrates that same working together. In some sense there is an incarnational dimension to Scripture. That is, it is truth about God incarnated into the words of human beings. And just as we were called to recognize and respond to the Incarnated Word of God in Jesus, I think we are called to recognize and respond to the incarnated word of God in Scripture. It is only then, in the recognition and response, that Scripture becomes the living and active word of God (Heb 4:12).
There are other implications of this whole perspective, such as investigation into the historical process of development of the canon and the implications that would have for understanding the nature of Scripture and its authority; the contributions that various methods of biblical study and close analysis of the biblical text itself would contribute to this issues, as well as the implications for how various biblical study methodologies might be used to better apprehend the theology of the biblical text; the implications of how such a view of dynamic inspiration would impact the practice of the church in areas such as church polity, the ordination of women, certain ethical debates, the use of the Bible in spiritual growth, and a variety of other issues.
All this simply says it might be more profitable for the church to leave the debates about inerrancy aside and concentrate more on hearing the living and active word of God speak in the community of Faith.
While I would passionately defend the authority and reliability of Scripture, most Wesleyans have never held that the biblical text is absolutely inerrant or infallible; only that the message of Scripture is reliable and trustworthy. This position has a long heritage in the church and predates the whole inerrancy debate by many centuries. In this position Nazarenes, United Methodists, Free Methodists, Evangelical United Brethren, and others along with Anglicans and Episcopalians stand much closer together in opposition to the Baptist position and the inerrancy debates.
However confusion arises in some circles because of the anachronous use of the term "inerrant." For example, the Manual of the Church of the Nazarene uses the word inerrantly in talking about Scripture.
But there are two extremely important qualifications to the concept there.
In the first place, the word "inerrant" occurs as an adverb modifying the verb "revealing." That implies that the intention in the Manual is that what is revealed in Scripture is inerrant, not all of its contents. The only way that Scripture is "inerrant" in this confession is in its function to reveal what is necessary for salvation. The Christian Faith has always affirmed that the primary revelation of Scripture is God Himself, and His offer of salvation and relationship to humanity.
Second, the content of what is inerrantly revealed is qualified as "the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation." This confirms the observation above. The technical term for this is soteriology, relating to salvation. The Manual only affirms soteriological inerrancy, which is very close to the position of Wesley.
The Free Methodist Church makes this perspective even more clear. The Book of Discipline states that the Bible is:
Both of these positions are derivative through John Wesley from the Articles of Faith of the Anglican Church. The traditional Anglican/Episcopal Article on Scripture, "Article VI, Of the sufficiency of the Holy Scripture for Salvation," reflects this (see The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion - Anglican):
The 1808 Methodist Article on Scripture from the Book of Discipline, "Article V, Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation," likewise reflects the borrowing that John Wesley did from his mother church, and emphasizes the soteriological dimension of the authority of Scripture (see The Twenty-Five Articles of Religion -Methodist):
The Evangelical United Brethren Church takes a similar position in their Article on Scripture, "Article IV.-The Holy Bible":
This demonstrates that the "Battle for the Bible" and the almost obsessive preoccupation with the inerrancy of Scripture among some strands of American Protestantism is not nor has been an important concern to churches in the Wesleyan tradition. As heirs of the Reformation, Scripture played a central role in those traditions. But the affirmations were content to focus on the message of Scripture that bears witness to the saving and transforming work of God in the world. That remains today in those traditions the primary emphasis in relation to the authority and reliability of Scripture.
Anything beyond this is personal opinion. It is certainly an option for people to believe things about anything that is more strict or narrow than the doctrinal positions of a particular church. But those beliefs should remain secondary and should never be affirmed as essential to the Christian faith, and certainly should not be a source of contention to the point of disunity. Unfortunately, some of our beliefs about Scripture have often done that, especially in the whole inerrancy debate.
Now this still leaves a lot of questions. But I would contend that inerrancy, as used in the modern context, is not a battle that Wesleyans have to fight, or should be fighting, because we can approach the issues from a totally different direction. We do not have to argue for the total historical or factual or even textual reliability of every word of Scripture, and yet can still affirm that all of Scripture is true and is God’s reliable communication (word) to us. Perhaps the best course of action is to return to the Faith confessions of our tradition, and in so doing move beyond the inerrancy debates.
For further reading: Dennis Bratcher and Dean Nelson, "How to Use and Not Abuse, the Bible," in I Believe: Now Tell Me Why, Beacon Hill, 1994, 30-41.
1. This idea was first presented in The Prophetic Imagination (Fortress, 1978) as the biblical tension between the voices of stability and the voices of change, Since then, the idea has become a central feature of Brueggemann's understanding of Old Testament theology. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament Theology, Fortress, 1992. [return]