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Inerrancy: Peter Enns

I was at Tyndale House in the early 80s when a well-known evangelical theologian came by to speak about the importance of inerrancy. It was a good and encouraging address, but after the paper a veteran NT scholar leaned over to me and said something like this: “It is easy for systematicians to claim inerrancy because they don’t have to live with critical scholarship on the Bible.” The veteran scholar here was not an Old Testament scholar but a NT scholar, and he didn’t specialize in the Gospels either. I have since appreciated any view of Scripture that works from the ground of the texts up.

Peter Enns, in the volume Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, has a chp with a descriptive title: “Inerrancy, however defined, does not describe what the Bible does” (I deleted the upper case letters for a chp title). And that is what the chapter is all about.

Enns’ essay is largely critical of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), which he chooses as a paradigm of how inerrancy is understood and preached about, though the essay by Paul Feinberg on the “Meaning of Inerrancy” in N. Geisler (ed.), Inerrancy, would have been a better paradigm — even if one might say most haven’t read him and many do tend to parrot the rougher edges of the CSBI statement. I could have wished for a more positive constructive theory of Scripture. Further, he seems intent on pressing how inerrancy is used for ill in interpretive moves rather than defining what inerrancy means and how his approach to the Bible frames a doctrine of Scripture and its authority in the church. I can’t see that the tradition of inerrancy requires how to interpret a text but only that, when interpreted aright, it is true.

Enns’ own model of Scripture is called the “incarnational” view, a view he articulated in a book called Inspiration and Incarnation, a book that more or less got him onto the hot seat at Westminster Theological Seminary and he was eventually pushed off the hotseat to find another job. (That’s another conversation.) Enns also has a book about to come out with the cheeky title The Bible Tells Me So . This essay reflects his continuing reaction to his WTS days. But, once again, he wants to press us all to let the Bible be what it is. I applaud any effort to do just that.

OK, now to his essay. Other than to say it is jarring to move from Mohler’s overly a priori approach to Enns’ overt reaction to inerrancy. In fact, it is indeed odd that Enns has a chp here — he doesn’t embrace inerrancy — but he does keep the other essayists a bit more on their toes.

What is clear in Enns in comparison with Mohler is that focus Enns gives to the problem passages assigned. Enns, in fact, builds his view of Scripture on such passages.

CSBI is not the best example (I think Feinberg’s essay is, to repeat the point). A friend of mine, however, once told me you can drive the standard Errancy Mack Truck through Article XIII, which reads:

WE AFFIRM the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

And notice this clarification by the CSBI members:

We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.

In other words, common accusations against inerrancy are bracketed as not constituting error. In particular, most issues can fit inside the “according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose” — and one would then have to bring in historical context. Which leads Enns precisely to the point Mohler doesn’t want: using ancient standards to assess “purpose” or “intent” in the text. Maybe I’m attributing to much to Enns, but that’s how I read this one. The text, they are claiming, is true when interpreted properly.

This post could get long easily and I’ll do my best to stay within normal boundaries for my posts. Enns thinks “inerrancy” has become rhetorical and political, a term used to assess others and to draw lines. He’s right in how many have used it. The term has value if one is doing some disinterested theology. More important to Enns is this: the tensions over inerrancy are created by “the distance between a priori theological assertions about God and how his book should behave and the Bible we meet once we get down to the uncooperative details of the text itself” (84). In other words, “God” is understood to have composed the Bible in a way that conforms to how God is understood. God is perfect, therefore God’s Word is perfect. Simple a fortiori logic. The problem is that there is no reason to assume if God is perfect God had to have a perfect Bible. There are other views of inerrancy and many are not so deductive in logic. I suspect Bird and Vanhoozer will move in these categories.

Enns focuses on the CSBI and presses it hard for the image of the Bible it creates, though I’m not so sure Article 13 is as inflexible as Pete suggests. He wants more on “the manner in which God speaks truth, namely, through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors” (87). Again, maybe Article 13 does this? I have always read it that way.

Literalism is the default mode of interpretation; very true. Joshua 6 says the walls fell; therefore the walls fell. And he points to the common slippery slope logic often used in connection with inerrancy. He sees “emotional blackmail” (89). Inerrancy, he thinks cannot be nuanced to cover the problems.

His study on Joshua 6 places on the table the well-known conclusions: an early date for the exodus (15th Century BC) is not confirmed by the evidence of Jericho, and a later date (13th Century) is strained too much. So he suggest the moderate inerrantists say there is a historical core that may have been mythologized. At the time of the exodus Jericho was “at most a small settlement and without walls” (93). So he thinks the approach of folks like James Hoffmeier of mythological features in the exodus is used to give possible help to Joshua 6. If a core is history with some mythologization is within inerrancy’s boundaries, would he embrace the term?

In my judgment, the only way to counter this for the inerrantists is to prove that the historical and archaeological evidence supports that account as it is in Joshua 6. So folks like Richard Hess have proposed erosion, which is probably a step forward in that it affirms more the archaeological evidence.

Here is a pungent conclusion: “A defense of inerrancy that rests on the impossibility of disproving the possibility of historicity, in my view, is entirely circular and therefore demonstrates the implausibility of the premise and is its own refutation” (95). Another one: “For inerrantists [at least some], an ‘errant’ Bible is a greater theological threat than a God who orders the extermination of an entire people, since an entire theological system rests on the former” (105).

I will avoid fuller descriptions… read the essay yourself. But I have a methodological approach I’d like to toss out. We should be historically responsible in assessing the archaeology and go with the evidence; if it proves our interpretative history of Joshua 6 untenable, can we not at that point reconsider our interpretation? What’s wrong with that? Sometimes those who defend inerrantist interpretations, however ironic, make the Bible flat-out wrong. In other words, a text that appears to be teaching one thing (a parrot bird) might actually be something else (a human being in parrot dress with an arm over the head to look like a crest; see image above).

Enns says inerrancy can function as a good term if it is descriptive of what one might find in the Bible but not prescriptive of what must be there. Bird and Vanhoozer will probe this.

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