Saturday, September 12, 2009

The "Inerrancy" Question

What follows is a slightly edited version of a statement I wrote last week for a Facebook group of folk who, in the light of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly's actions, are wondering about what's next for Lutheranism in North America.

I begin by recalling that "inerrancy" was a matter of significant debate in the 1980s during the discussions that led to the formation of the ELCA. In part because the word was included in the ALC's statement of faith in its constitutions and it was not in the LCA's. This is not a new question.

Here is how the Epitome of the Formula of Concord begins (using the Tappert edition):
We believe, teach, and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged, as it is written in Ps. 119:105, "Thy word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." And St. Paul says in Gal. 1:8, "Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed."

Other writings of ancient and modern teachers, whatever their names, should not be put on a par with Holy Scripture. Every single one of them should be subordinated to the Scriptures and should be received in no other way and no further than as witnesses to the fashion in which the doctrine of the prophets and apostles was preserved in post-apostolic times. (Epitome, intro 1; p. 464f.)
And further to paragraph 3 of the intro,
In this way the distinction between the Holy Scripture of the Old and New Testaments and all other writings is maintained, and Holy Scripture remains the only judge, rule, and norm according to which as the only touchstone all doctrines should and must be understood and judged as good or evil, right or wrong. (p. 465)
The Solid Declaration reads,
We pledge ourselves to the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments as the pure and clear fountain of Israel, which is the only true norm according to which all teachers and teachings are to be judged and evaluated. (SD, intro 1; p. 503f.)

If you a looking for a *Lutheran* description of the Holy Scriptures, that's it in the Formula of Concord.

This is reflected in the ELCA's Statement of Faith (much like that of our LCA and the ULCA predecessors):
This church accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.
"Inspired" comes from the Scriptures themselves, "source and norm" from the Lutheran Confessions.

So, whence "inerrancy?"

19th Century American Evangelicalism and its encounter with modernism, science, the mass immigration of Roman Catholics, and -- as the 19th was turning into the 20th -- Darwinism. "Inerrancy" didn't enter American Lutheran lingo until WWI and the use of English in Lutheran theological discourse. It was first formally adopted with the formation of the "old" ALC (1930) and the LCMS soon afterwards.

What are the problems with asserting "inerrancy?" As Wartburg Seminary's J. M. Reu argued during the discussions the led to old ALC, it goes beyond what the Bible claims for itself. If that isn't enough, it goes beyond the Lutheran Confessions themselves (see above).

Furthermore, as was pointed out in a comment on [this group's] Wall, one indeed finds factual errors in the Bible. The usual solution to this is to define the idea further as "inerrant in the original autographs." That may help some people, but the original autographs of the biblical books are, like unicorn horns and Atlantis, neither available nor recoverable.

More to the point, it is not the original autographs, but the Holy Scriptures as we have them that are the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.

Finally, the idea comes from a stream of protestantism that rejects such things as baptismal regeneration and the bodily presence of the risen Christ in the Holy Communion -- both of which are taught directly in the Scriptures and which are central to the catholic faith, particularly as Lutherans teach it. Which ought to raise the question of what "inerrancy" actually protects us from.


Anonymous said...

You need to restudy your Lutheran history.

The inspiration of the Scriptures, and their concomitant inerrancy, was firmly established by the Lutheran scholastics.

Schmid's Doctrinal Theology of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, translated by Charles Hay and Henry Jacobs of Gettysburg in 1876, was a major text in American seminaries. It firmly taught the inspiration and inerrancy of the Scriptures. It was republished in the 1960s by Augsburg.

Start reading here:

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Isn't it fair to say that inerrancy flows from inspiration? Can the Scriptures be both errant (which means literally to wander away from truth) and inspired by the Holy Spirit?

I do believe all of the ELCA's current malaise stems from the idea that Scripture is errant - whether having an erroneous view of the creation, of the service of women in the church, or of the propriety of homosexuality.

If Scripture contains errors, it frees us up to treat them like a cafeteria, picking and choosing what we like and what we don't like.

I see the motivation to avoid imposing alien words on the Bible and the confessions, but we do use all sorts of theological language (e.g. Trinity, Christology, etc.) to describe biblical doctrine. I would classify "inerrant" in this category - in the same way that we conclude God Himself is without error.

cbaggettjr said...

It must be asked in what sense is the Word inerrant. Is it necessary for salvation, or is it merely a protective for our core doctrines? One would think that infallibility is a more foundational canon in regards to orthodoxy. Are we as weak and naive as Bart Ehrman who abandoned the faith at the slightest contradictory minutiae of Biblical history? We die in Christ not inerrancy.

Steve said...

In the begining was the Bible and the Bible was with God and the Bible was God.

That's not right, is it?

The Bible is true, all of it. The Word is true even though there may be errors in some of the words?

There is a difference between "inerrant" and "infallible".

I often scratch my head and wonder how people can believe that God uses everyday, finite, and fallible things such as water, bread and wine, and the poor words of preachers and teachers...but for reason He cannot make use of a book unless it is absolutely perfect.

Lets also not forget that our Lord Himself was fully man, and fully God.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

"Lets also not forget that our Lord Himself was fully man, and fully God."

I think this is the very point that I was trying to make. Our Blessed Lord's humanity didn't make him err, but rather our Lord's divinity assured His perfection.

Can't we say the same of Scripture? Is God so weak that he is unable to speak through fallible men and using matter and yet do so without error? It just doesn't seem that hard for God. What is hard is for us to believe. I think this discussion highlights not Scriptures errancy, but our own - and our chief error is our weak faith: "Did God really say...?"

If the Word Enfleshed or the word Inscriptured can, and do, err, where do we draw the lines about what we accept as true or not true?

Again, I think this explains how two people can read the same clear words of Scripture, and one concludes that homosexuality is a sin, while the other will celebrate it as a virtue.

Who is errant, Scripture, or the person reading it?

Steve said...

The finite contains the infinite...not the other way around.

God does not need to have a perfect document to contain His perfect Word.

The whole of scripture is true. All of it.

Because one eye witness said the hit and run driver has a blue hat on and another witness said he had a brown hat on does not invalidate that a hit and run occurred.

Thousands of fragments of manuscripts go into one translation of the N.T. alone, and all those translators.

Not one error? The Lord would need to have all those parts were man had a hand to be absolutely perfect?

Why then do you or I not need to be perfect?

Did the Apostles receive the Holy Spirit in the upper room, or at Pentecost?

Who shows up at the empty tomb first?

Does it really matter?

It is actually more liberating and condusive to faith to believe that God's Word is perfect even if the words may not be.

Throwing out God's law is another matter all together.

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Steve:

I believe it does matter.

If these are purely human documents - like police reports, in which fallible people get details wrong - then how is Scripture any different (holy) than any other merely human writing?

What does it mean to be inspired, theopneustos, God-breathed (2 Tim 3:16)?

And if it contains errors, how do we decide what is erroneous, which parts to accept as divine and which parts to reject as human? And why did the early church fathers not view Scripture as error-ridden flawed documents?

The Catholic consensus of the Church is, and always has been, that Scripture is God's Word, and God cannot err. For as St. Peter writes about Scripture (by inspiration, of course) in 2 Peter 1:20-21, "men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit." These are not police reports, but God's Word.

Your argument seems to be based on the premise that the Bible is a human book that God "uses" (almost after the fact) - and that He is capable of using fallible and erroneous things for His purpose (which He is, of course).

But I believe the Scriptures themselves overwhelmingly confess that God is not just a Johnny-come-lately user, but rather the Author, of Scripture. Some passages that lead me to believe that God Himself teaches us of the Scriptures' inerrancy are: Ps 12:6; 18:30; 19:7; 19:9; 119:151; 119:160; 119:172; Pr 30:5-6; Matt 4:4; Luke 24:25; John 10:35; John 17:17; Acts 24:14.

And as our Lord Jesus said: "If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you heavenly things?" (John 3:12).

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Also, the copyist error issue is a red herring.

In the middle ages, an English edition of the Bible was printed that omitted the "not" in the sixth commandment.

The error was with the printer, not with God's Word. This is exactly why the Lord used faithful scribes and monks to check and recheck every jot and tittle. And in spite of minor differences between word order and spelling in some manuscripts, in His providence He preserved so many fragments and so many citations from the fathers in a multiplicity of languages, that we are not left hanging in confusion.

If anyone believes the Bible really says: "Thou shalt commit adultery" he is simply wrong - and is probably in rebellion against that clear prohibition of sex outside of marriage. God's Word did not err, the printer did. But people can certainly plead the copyist error to justify their own rejection of the sixth commandment.

I do think the choice is crystal clear and stark: churches that accept the inerrancy of Scripture, though far from perfect, recognize that we are to submit to what Scripture clearly has to say about matters that conflict with our culture and worldview - such as matters of gender. Those who reject inerrancy inevitably begin to pick the meat off of Scripture and are eventually left with a skeleton, a dying faith filled with doctrines that openly contradict Scripture.

The Bible is not always obvious or even easy to understand. But the whole issue of gender is clearly laid out in black and white. It takes a whole lot of tap-dancing to conclude what the ELCA assembly has concluded. And it also takes a Bible that is not inerrant.

I'm more shocked by the shock within the ELCA of the recent events than I am shocked with how the votes went. This was inevitable, and was being predicted decades ago. We've seen it happen all over the world in churches that saw the Scriptures as capable of error.

The great Swedish Lutheran bishop Bo Giertz wrote eloquently on this very topic as the Church of Sweden decided to ordain women. I believe he correctly diagnosed the problem as a lack of respect for the Scriptures. I also believe we're seeing the logical playing out of history based on the premise that the Bible is errant.

Steve said...

Father Hollywood,

I guess we will have to agree to disagree on this one.

I do not think that the Bible was dropped out of heaven with a bow tied around it.

I think that the whole of Scripture is certainly inspired by God and that it is ALL Word of God, but I don't think that the words are, or have to be perfect.

I think that the human part in putting together the Bible was a long, complex, series of events that definitely has 'human' written all over it, as well as 'God'.

I think that if God were to require a 'perfect book' (as the Muslims require) thn He would have preserved the original manuscripts.

He did not do so.

There are thousands of good and faithful Lutheran pastors and lay people that believe as I do, who are also appalled at the ELCA leadership and their disregard for God's Word.

I do think we have a different doctrine of the Word.

It is one of the reasons why it is so frustrating and sad that many of us feel that now we have nowhere to go.

Thanks, Father Hollywood.

- Steve

Steve said...

One more question.

Since the Romans and the Orthodox and the Protestants all have their own Bibles ...which one is the right one?

Rev. Larry Beane said...

Dear Steve:

I think we do need to agree to disagree for sure. And I really do appreciate the cordial discussion amidst our disagreements here - greatly so!

My objection to the premise that since the Bible is both human and divine we must draw a conclusion that it contains errors is that it is the equivalent of arguing that since our Lord is both human and divine, He must have sins and errors of His own.

I think in both cases the communication of attributes makes even the human elements sinless and without error. I think it is ultimately an article of faith.

I agree with you that the Lord's revelation of Holy Scripture was a long process, and I don't know any Lutheran pastor who thinks it "fell out of the sky" (I was certainly educated better than that anyway). But neither did Jesus "fall out of the sky" and nor is He in any way less than 100% human - and yet His Word is Truth, and He is perfect. Again, it is an article of faith.

And owing to the different recognitions of a few books by the different traditions of the faith, I cannot speak for anyone other than my own tradition. From the fact that some books are (and have been since the earliest days of the church) disputed as being part of the canon, it does not follow that the Scriptures are errant.

We humans are errant when we draw false doctrines from the Bible. *We* sinners are errant, not the Word of God itself.

Inerrancy does not assure correct doctrine, but it does prevent the teaching that one of my classmates heard at Trinity Seminary in Columbus, Ohio (from which he dropped out and left the ELCA) that the resurrection and virgin birth are myths and need not be considered literally true.

I believe you can only deny the resurrection by denying biblical inerrancy. An errant Bible is open to human mastery instead of human submission.

Thanks once again for the thoughtful and fraternal discussion!

Steve said...

Thank you, Father Hollywood!

I appreciate your cordiality as well!

Keep up the good work of handing Christ over to a pride-soaked world!

- Steve

Rev. Robert Franck said...

How about the Preface to the Book of Concord, which speaks of the "infallible truth of God's Word." Or Luther's plain declaration in the Large Catechism (Part IV, paragraph 57): "God's Word cannot err."

Steve said...

No problem there!

The Word is inerrant...the words may have some errors.

The message is absolutelty inerrant and infallible!

cbaggettjr said...

"Also, the copyist error issue is a red herring."

I don't think anyone here is concluding that textual variants prove that the Bible is errant. However, it's inadequate to say that there are no difficult passages in Scripture. The question is should we take the same interpretive tack as Terrence Fretheim?

Rev. Larry Beane said...

I'm sorry, I don't know who Terrence Fratheim is or his connection to this discussion.

And there certainly are difficult passages, to be sure. Even Peter quipped that much of Paul is difficult.

If we were God, it would be a lot easier to understand everything about His Word. But our sinful nature does interfere with our understanding of everything. Also, some of Scripture is veiled from us - especially those parts of prophecy that are yet to be fulfilled.

Our lack of understanding does not mean the Bible is errant.

There are also "errors" such as the lack of historicity of the Hittites - that is, until archaeological evidence of the Hittites was discovered.

cbaggettjr said...

I apologize. I consider Fretheim to be one of the architects of the ELCA's irresponsible hermeneutical shift towards revisionism. Forgive my hyberbole, but the eisegetic approach to interpretation advocated in his book ("The Bible As Word of God: In a Postmodern Age")would take a chain saw to Scripture. This isn't like extricating the Bible from the corruption of the gnostic gospels. It's an example of 21st century arrogance that deems the wisdom of the early church as inferior.

If we find a section of Scripture that is challenging, we should embrace it not cast it aside or twist its meaning all for the sake of glorifies postmodern tolerance that edifies the equality of truth claims rather than the equality of people.

cbaggettjr said...

Er....that should glorifying. oops

Textual variants...oy!