The Inerrancy of Scripture - page 4

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From the Spring 2010 issue of Knowing & Doing:  

The Inerrancy of Scripture

by Kevin J. Vanhoozer
Blanchard Professor of Theology, Wheaton College Graduate School


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  Is every word in Scripture literally true? The problem with this question is its incorrect (and typically unstated) assumption that “literal truth” is always literalistic—a matter of referring to history or to the “facts” of nature. It is just such a faulty assumption—that the Bible always states facts—that leads certain well-meaning defenders of inerrancy desperately to harmonize what appear to be factual or chronological discrepancies in the Gospels. In the final analysis, what was new about the Princetonians’ view of Scripture was not their understanding of the Bible’s truthfulness but rather their particular view of language and interpretation, in which the meaning of the biblical text was the fact—historical or doctrinal—to which it referred. Their proof-texting was more a product of their view of language and interpretation than of their doctrine of Scripture.
  What if the intent of the Evangelists was not to narrate history with chronological precision? What if the Evangelists sometimes intended to communicate only the content of Jesus’ teaching rather than his very words? Before extending the Bible’s truth to include history or astronomy, or restricting to matters of salvation for that matter, we must first ask, “What kind of literature is this?” The question of meaning should precede the question of truth. We must first determine what kind of claim is being made before we can rule on its truthfulness. The point of biblical apocalyptic is quite distinct from the point of Jesus’ parables, from that of the Gospels themselves, or of Old Testament wisdom. We must, therefore, say that the literal sense of Scripture is its literary sense: the sense the author intended to convey in and through a particular literary form. Inerrancy means that every sentence, when interpreted correctly (i.e., in accordance with its literary genre and its literary sense), is wholly reliable.
  The older term to express biblical authority—infallibility—remains useful. Infallibility means that Scripture never fails in its purpose. The Bible makes good on all its claims, including its truth claims. God’s Word never leads astray. It is important to recall that language may be used for many different purposes, and not to state facts only. Inerrancy, then, is a subset of infallibility: when the Bible’s purpose is to make true statements, it does this too without fail. Yet the Bible’s other speech acts—warnings, promises, questions—are infallible too.
  The Bible’s own understanding of truth stresses reliability. God’s Word is true because it can be relied upon—relied upon to make good its claim and to accomplish its purpose. We may therefore speak of the Bible’s promises, commands, warnings, etc., as being “true,” inasmuch as they too can be relied upon. Together, the terms inerrancy and infallibility remind us that the Word of God is wholly reliable not only when it speaks, but also when it does the truth.

Kevin Vanhoozer has taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and at New College, home of the University of Edinburgh’s Faculty of Divinity. He is married to Sylvie, whom he met during a one-year mission stint in France. They have two daughters, both Wheaton grads.

COPYRIGHT NOTICE:  Knowing & Doing is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

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