Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On ETS and Inerrancy

This post is a modified version of the comment I made on the group blog to which I contribute, but because it's some important news about a constituency of which I claim membership, I thought I'd post it here as well (that sentence sounds like it was constructed by Frasier Crane, doesn't it?):

Recently the Evangelical Theological Society has claimed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as a non-negotiable necessity for existing members. This isn't really news, in one sense, since the society has always included inerrancy, along with Trinitarianism, in its spartan self-definition. The news comes in the intended effect of such a move; namely, the expulsion of all members holding to some version of open-theism.

If you're an evangelical, as I am, you might not be shocked that they would want to do such a thing - but if you were present for the recent tribunal of Clark Pinnock and John Sanders (some of the evangelical architects of the view), you might be surprised at the ensuing discussion. Several members, most who repudiate open theism, actually opposed the motion for their removal for the same reason that I oppose the aforementioned direction the society is heading. In short, the weight being placed on the doctrine of inerrancy is far too great, doing a disservice to both the doctrine of inerrancy and the Biblical authority which evangelicals have historically defended.

The society is trying to use inerrancy to guarantee certain interpretive results, which, in the end, mutilates the doctrine. If the reliability of Scripture is functionally equated to certain theological positions there is no principal reason that, for example, Arminians couldn't be accused of denying inerrancy (they don’t believe in deterministic election). But the real problem for the largely Calvinist society is that the opposite could just as easily be said if Arminians happened to hold a more powerful persuasion. There are, of course, Arminians who hold to inerrancy, and who also happen to believe that the Scriptures inerrantly teach a certain brand of human free-will! The point is that using inerrancy to defeat their position is smuggling interpretive decisions through the back door. It's lazy at best and an egregious abuse of power at worst (which is ironic, given evangelical mistrust of ecclesiastical hierarchy).

For a good many open theists the issue comes down to differing understandings of genre and metaphor - they’re not saying that certain passages are erroneous; rather, they think that passages about God changing His mind mean what they say, and that it would be a violation of the text (!) to interpret them otherwise. Their failure, in my view (I'm not an open theist) is an interpretive failure, not a necessary denigration of the nature of Scripture. Robert Chisholm, a conservative OT scholar from Dallas Theological Seminary (also not an open theist), has made this same observation, and in various OT presentations, has been a voice of reason about the issue. The end result of this logic is that every position can claim an opposing view to be a “denial of inerrancy”, since every position will putatively be put forward as "the clear teaching of Scripture".

But the issue extends beyond the treatment of certain passages into the interpretive framework by which they are being approached. Are those who subscribe to a certain species of speech-act theory as a general hermeneutic “denying inerrancy” just because they don’t think that all language is properly binary (true/false)? Their beliefs about the nature of language make the label of “inerrant” on the whole of Scripture a simple category mistake (i.e. how can a command be “free from error”? It can be reliable toward some end, but not “true” or “false”). At this point it's clear that the doctrine of inerrancy, if used this way, has become too bloated: not only does it seek to affirm the reliability of Scripture, but a theory of language and interpretive framework as well! So not only is it the case that inerrancy shouldn’t be given a position of hermeneutical arbitration, but it can’t function in that way. Inerrancy can guard against people who say that certain texts are “wrong” in their theological import - but it can’t guard against people who say that the Bible is, in fact, infallibly claiming one thing or another.

Could I sign the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy? Absolutely. Should open theism be excluded from the society on those grounds? Emphatically not. The issue isn't whether God's foreknowledge is taught in Scripture (I believe it is), or whether its denial is theologically dangerous (it is) - the issue is the ground of such objections. The precedent of using inerrancy to combat the opposition is completely wrongheaded, and persisting in these tactics will be a course that members will live to regret.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"What the hail, Mary?! Where've you been?!"

Father forgive me, it's been almost two months since my last confession.

I keep wondering if I should just give up the ghost on this thing. It reminds me of my first few years of marriage, where I was making promises with every intent on fulfilling them, but never actually getting around to it. But I didn't pull the plug on THAT, now did I? So (look out, here comes another vain promise), I'll try to keep posting here more regularly (than never, that is). I've been thinking about posting a targum on Galatians 1, a commentary on the Haggard thing, an essay on video gaming, a reflection on Richard Dawkins, a diatribe about the Christian academy, a review of some of the books I mentioned in my last post, and a confession about my laziness.

One post down, six to go (not that any of them will be what I've mentioned here). Don't hold your breath.