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.

11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can...open...worms...everywhere...

TheBlueRaja said...

Notice that I'm NOT saying, though, that Sanders or Pinnock are right - or even whether they belong in the society. I'm not commenting on whether the society should or shouldn't draw tighter boundaries. I'm simply saying that making a chain of deductive inferences from inerrancy isn't the way to take on these kinds of positions, and it's a classic case of doctrinal politics.

hettinger said...

Hey S, thanks for posting this, you have me thinking. :D I was processing this a bit typing it out, so here are some rattled idears.

Obviously some issues and areas of study are more important and extensive than other areas. Though I think damage is done in the oversimplification of issues.

I can see why the issue of innerancy can be up near the top, as a discussion on veracity, perception, and faith in regards to a Christian perception will have to deal with the Scriptures and their reliability. Such issues of veracity, perception, and faith can be primary to many later theological discussions, of course.

While I think you have a valid point that sneaking theology in the backdoor isn't a good practice, it seems to me (hermeneutics proper being the art and science of biblical interpretation), one's presuppositions about the biblical texts will indeed color the rendering of those texts, and as a result the study and understanding of those presuppositions is rather important.

I haven't read the chicago statement of biblical innerancy lately, so mayhaps there is something there that has some real pricklies as far as epistimology, perception, and propositions go.

Maybe I'm thinking more along the lines of instead of "inerrancy shouldn’t be given a position of hermeneutical arbitration," something like "inerrancy shouldn’t be given a position of ultimate hermeneutical arbitration," or "inerrancy shouldn’t be given a position of epistemological arbitration."

perhaps, with a result that statements with verifiable binary content are rendered in a standard propositional manner, whereas questions/commands that don't fit true/false criteria are understood in their communicative sense, but yet all can be rendered according to the principles culled through statements found in scripture about the nature of reality, God's word, etc.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks, Tim. My point isn't that the doctrine of inerrancy doesn't affect hermeneutical considerations at all, just that it cannot act as judge for competing views. Inerrancy can guarantee the authority of what the Bible says, but it doesn't specify what the Bible says. Theological conclusions can't be ruled out on the basis of inerrancy unless the interpreter says, "passage X means Y, but I disagree". The problem, of course, is that while one can claim that passage x inerrantly means y, another can claim passage x inerrantly means z.

centuri0n said...

Let me say first that I'm glad Raja isn't sure that Pinnock and Sanders belong in ETS. I wish he was a little more firm about this, but that's me: I'm for bold statements (especially about heresy) rather than a lot of nuance which might lead people to think that I'm in favor of thinking about God as a guy who has to stumble around even though his view on things of from eternity.

That said, let me agree with Raja about something: we ought to condemn what we ought to condemn and not build rube goldberg machines to find a sneaky way to condemn what we ought to condemn. If OT/OV is heresy, let's just say, "look: the Bible Teaches us that God knows the end from the beginning, so that if you deny this, you have denied something precious about prophecy and about the promises of Christ to return. That's enough to make you not an Evangelical, even if you demand that we must call you a Christian."

I also agree that trying to make a topic like this about the inerrancy of Scripture is not quite right.

TheBlueRaja said...

Thanks Centuri0n - it's really the sneakiness and spinelessness of this kind of move that I'm objecting to. If inerrancy and trinitarianism are the only requirements, either change the doctrinal standards to fit the society's vision or abide by the ones you've got without complaining and politicking.

Anonymous said...

If inerrancy and trinitarianism are the only requirements, either change the doctrinal standards to fit the society's vision or abide by the ones you've got without complaining and politicking.

Agreed...

TheBlueRaja said...

So J.D., I'm somewhat puzzled by your comments - why would you think this post is "opening a can of worms"? I assume that the ellipsis on your "agreed . . ." comment means you have more to say - what is it? Do you agree with the use of inerrancy to expel open theists, are you thinking I'm not giving inerrancy enough of a foundational role in my characterization of it, or what?

Let her fly, dude.

Anonymous said...

I agree this way: equivocation makes inerrancy a moot point regarding using it to "throw the bums out", Chicago notwithstanding...

Also, as you implied, to do this would only mean that whoever is in power would use inerrancy as the tool of choice in removing their theological "foes"...

The "worms" are what they always are, opening up the discussion opens us up for attack by the "conservative" guard, as you well know...I am with you on this, Blue, I see waaaayyy too much of what I might call "Baskin Robbins 31 flavors of Bibliolatry" which is really nothing more than "my interpretation is better than yours", this is just another subtle form of it...

I believe in orthodoxy, creedal statements, and affirmations, and I don't believe in one man gangs and theological novelty to make up for our feelings being hurt by Paul or the other biblical writers, for sure, but I am not done studying, and I hope no one else is either...

For the record, to me Open Theism is anathema...that being said, let's do things the right way, even if it is harder and more tiresome, otherwise it will backfire on us with another issue if we don't...

TheBlueRaja said...

J.D.,

Gotcha. Just curious - thought maybe you were holding back! Thanks for your comments!

Bryan L said...

Great post!

Whenever I hear people blast Open Theism or Open Theist (not just saying they disagree with it but calling them heretics), I always wonder what exactly they've read from Open Theist. Most of the time it's just a book or article against Open Theism, or worse just a negative book review (sometimes not even that much). You can tell this when people start caricaturizing open theists' views, which anyone who's read them knows they don't believe.
Anyone interested in a good account of 1 particular strand of Open Theism should check out Greg Boyd's 2 books "God at War", and "Satan and the Problem of Evil".

I also appreciated when you said "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."

Blessings,
Bryan L