Yesterday, our discussion of biblical inerrancy featured an interesting argument by Michael Bird that centered on the presence of a thriving global church. Today’s perspective, by theologian and professor Kevin J. Vanhoozer, takes a nuanced approach to the topic.
Well-Versed Inerrancy: On Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse
By Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Excerpted from Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Copyright © 2013 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. Some footnotes were removed from this text for ease of online reading.
Evangelicalism, as a renewal movement at the heart of Protestant Christianity, affirms Scripture’s supreme authority over belief and life. Such “biblicism” has long been thought to be a distinguishing feature of evangelicalism. However, evangelicals have come to understand biblical authority in two contrasting ways, with some emphasizing Scripture’s authority for faith and practice alone (“infallibilists”), others its authority over all domains it addresses, including history and science (“inerrantists”). Does the Bible tell us how the heavens go as well as how to go to heaven? Calvin says that if you want to learn about astronomy, you should ask the astronomers, not Moses, since his purpose was not to deliver supernatural information about the movement of planets. Evangelicals disagree about the extent of the Bible’s authoritative domain, with infallibilists limiting it to “religious” matters, and inerrantists expanding it indefinitely. The critical question at present is whether inerrancy is a divisive distraction or an essential feature, perhaps even the rallying cry, of evangelical biblicism…
Inerrancy is neither inimical nor incidental to the present and future of evangelicalism. To say it is essential is to go too far, though it is a natural outworking of what is essential (authority), and thus a mark of a person who is consistently evangelical. I agree with [J. I.] Packer: inerrancy “ought always to be held as an article of faith not capable of demonstrative proof but entailed by dominical and apostolic teaching about the nature of Scripture.” Perhaps, in order to be at peace with as many evangelicals as possible, we could agree that inerrancy, if not essential, is nevertheless expedient (there was a fourth possibility after all!)… The problem, however, is that there are various definitions, and caricatures, in circulation. What the evangelical world needs now is an account of “well-versed” inerrancy.
Accounts of inerrancy are well-versed, first, when they understand “the way the words go.” Well-versed inerrancy acknowledges that biblical truth involves form as well as content. Well-versed inerrancy thus takes account of the importance of rhetoric as well as logic for “rightly handling [orthotomeo] the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15 ESV). To be well-versed is to have a literate understanding of the literal sense. The early Christians had “an addiction to literacy.” My primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the word of truth. Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition…
In asking whether the Chicago statement is well-versed, I have four major concerns: (1) whether its definition of inerrancy is clear; (2) whether it gives primacy to a biblical-theological rather than a philosophical understanding of truth; (3) whether it is sufficiently attentive to the nature and function of language and literature; (4) whether it produced a theological novelty…
Augustine is the patron saint of well-versed inerrancy because (1) his thinking was thoroughly theological and he judged Scripture to be entirely true and trustworthy, and (2) he was not only familiar with but also proficient in the liberal arts, writing on the nature and interpretation of language, concerned for what he called the literal meaning of Genesis, but also alert and attentive to biblical figures of speech. Augustine would surely agree with the judgment expressed by my definition of inerrancy: 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).
What do you think of Vanhoozer’s argument? His lament about the lack of biblical literacy in the church today is one that’s been echoed by other Christian thinkers as well. Looking at your own church or Christian community, do you think it promotes a culture of biblical literacy—and if not, how could it go about doing so? What do you think Vanhoozer means when he warns that biblical inerrancy without biblical literacy can actually be dangerous?
If you want to dig further into Vanhoozer’s argument, see the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Tomorrow, we’ll hear from the fifth and final voice in our week-long discussion of biblical inerrancy: John R. Franke.