Inerrancy and Interpretation: Kevin Vanhoozer on Map-Making and the Meaning of God’s Word

What is inerrancy? And what does it mean for a picture to be true? And what does it mean for the Bible, which is filled with pictures (similes, metaphors, parables, etc.) to be inerrant?

For those who affirm biblical inerrancy, as I do, questions like these enter into a wide-ranging debate about Scripture and hermeneutics. This is especially true when we appreciate how the truth of the Bible is not grounded in logical abstractions or mathematical proofs; it is grounded in the triune God who has spoken of himself in a book that comes together as a progressively revealed story. In other words, truth in the Bible is unlike any other book. It is not only God’s truth, but in a book composed of various genres, its truth is also conveyed through forms of speech whose truth is not easily ascertained or readily appreciated.

Again, what does it mean for a picture to be true? (For an interesting look at this problem from a wholly different angle, see Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Picture Problem“).

In Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and WisdomKevin Vanhoozer has an illuminating chapter on the nature and function of Scripture with special attention to the doctrine of inerrancy. Moving the conversation about inerrancy beyond claims of veracity, he rightly documents what Scripture is (its ontology) and what Scripture does (its function).

In what follows, I want to share his nine qualifications about inerrancy and give a short summary of each point. For clarity sake, all the enumerated points below are his; the expansions are mine with multiple quotations from his chapter.

Biblical Inerrancy and Faithful Interpretation: Nine Marks of Health

After discussing what Scripture is and what it is for (see here), Vanhoozer gives three misconceptions to avoid and six morals for interpretation. Together, they form nine marks of healthy biblical interpretation that we should consider as we move from affirmations about inerrancy to practices of biblical interpretation.

Vanhoozer reminds us that believing the former does not secure the success of the latter. A true biblical ontology is only the beginning of a true practice of ascertaining biblical meaning. Thus, inerrancy is necessary for right interpretation, but it is not sufficient. And in these nine marks, we can begin to see why.

Three “Deceptions to Avoid”

1. Do not confuse inerrancy with “perfect book” theology.

“Perfect being” theology is a vehicle of natural theology that conceives of God’s perfections in the human mind and then posits them to God. The same can happen with Scripture: we can conceive of the Bible’s perfections in ways not revealed in the Bible and hence we make up and defend a view of the Bible that goes beyond (or falls below) what Scripture actually claims. An example of this would be demanding the Bible to match the scientific precision of our age. Thus, it is important that we define Scripture’s perfections in ways revealed by the Bible itself.

2. Do not confuse literal with literalistic interpretation.

Vanhoozer warns of reading the Bible like Walter Cronkite reported the news (74). The Bible is doing more than just reporting facts; Cronkite’s famous sign-off (“that’s the way it is”) does not serve well the interpreter of Scripture. Or at least, a literalistic approach to the Bible—one that fails to see the theological, rhetorical, and typological intentions of the human author—undermines biblical literacy. As a result, wooden literalism (i.e., cronkitis) misses the meaning of the Bible. We will see below what a literary, as opposed to a literalistic, approach to Scripture entails.

3. Do not mistake inerrancy for a decoding device of holy enigmas or a panacea for resolving interpretive disagreements.

“Truth is one thing; meaning another” (81). It is uncharitable (read: a violation of the Golden Rule) and unhelpful to assign differences in interpretation to competing views of the Bible. For instance, disagreements between dispensationalism, covenant theology, and progressive covenantalism are not due to differences in biblical ontology—all hold a high view of Scripture over against critical views denying inerrancy. Thus, to posit a low view of Scripture to any of these views is to misrepresent their best proponents.

In other words, “Inerrancy assures that whatever Scripture reveals is true, but inerrancy alone does not tell us what God is saying in Scripture” (81). Understanding this prevents unnecessary divisions between two sides in an interpretive debate, and it puts us back to understanding how to read Scripture (as God’s inspired Word) instead of falsely charging others with subverting God’s Word.

Six Morals for Interpretation

4. Inerrancy is not a quick fix for pervasive interpretive pluralism, nor is it a way to determine in advance what kind of truth we will discover in Scripture.

Simply put: “Inerrancy is not a full blow hermeneutic” (87). The doctrinal position is a necessary presupposition to faithful exposition of any given text, especially those that appear to contradict others. However, as stated above, diverse interpretations are not solely caused by diverse views on inerrancy. Therefore, full-throated inerrancy will not solve all theological divisions. Inerrancy requires interpreters to deal with the same data—i.e., the inspired Word of God—but it does not tell us how to interpret that data. That requires something more.

5. Inerrancy applies to the authorial discourse of Scripture, not to our interpretations of it.

This point should not be difficult to grasp: only God’s Word is inspired and inerrant; our interpretations are not. The more we remember this the more properly we will hold our doctrine, learn from others, and let Scripture reform (read: sharpen and correct) our doctrine.

6. Inerrancy does not entail a literalistic hermeneutic, but we must believe that the literal meaning, when rightly interpreted, is true.

Balancing the truth that our interpretations are not inerrant is the truth that there is a true meaning in the text. While our finite minds and sinful hearts struggle to find this meaning, and ultimately we depend on the Spirit to teach us, the infinite and omniscient author of the Bible inspired the words of Scripture with a certain meaning. Inerrancy affirms this fact and gives us reason for seeking, with the Spirit’s help, meaning in the text.

Functionally, “right interpretation requires virtuous readers, not perfect ones, and this is primarily a matter of saintly dispositions, not scholarly acquisitions. Humility is a prime interpretive virtue” (87). “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). This is true in life and in (biblical) literature. It is axiomatic that those who read the Bible well will be humble(d). Psalm 25:14 says that God shares his secrets (or friendship) with those who fear him.

Thus, understanding of the Bible is not a result of academic credentials, but humble(d) reading. In fact, it seems that one way God humbles us and entices us to keep reading the Bible is to reveal truth only in multiple readings. It is a misunderstanding of the doctrine perspicuity (Scripture’s clarity) to believe understanding is conveyed in a first-reading of a text. This is never true of any book, let alone the Bible. Thus, we should read the Bible humbly, trusting that God will reveal himself  to us over time, just as he revealed himself in the composition of the whole Bible.

In fact, understanding how God reveals himself over time actually protects us from an overly-literalistic reading of the Bible. For it requires that our understanding of any verse in the Bible is informed by the whole canon. And the only way that can happen is if we appreciate the literary nature of the Bible and read the Bible accordingly.

7. The truth of the Bible does not depend on our interpretation, but determining this truth depends on a prior determining of its meaning.

In Southern Baptist circles, the battle of the Bible (i.e., the Conservative Resurgence) led to a recovery of inerrancy—in theory. In practice, however, many ardent defenders of  inerrancy—and here, I’m speaking anecdotally—had no idea of its contents.

Vanhoozer makes the same point: “It is something of an empty victory to know that the Bible is true if we do not also know what it means. Meaning is therefore prior to an appreciation of the truth. We cannot say ‘true’ or ‘false’ until we are clear about what has been said. This is why the better definitions of inerrancy typically add some such phrase as ‘when properly interpreted.’ Similarly, literary form is prior to meaning-content. We will not know what a sentence means until we first determine what kind of a sentence it is. We should affirm the inerrancy of the Song of Songs, for example, but first we have to determine what kind of literature it is before judging its particular sentences true or false.” (88)

8. The diverse forms of biblical literature are like maps in a canonical atlas that draw the world in different ways.

The importance of this point cannot be overstated. Scripture is composed of multiple, complementary “maps.” Each (book) is true in its own right, but each is different because of differences in language (Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic), author (Moses vs. Peter), covenantal placement (before Sinai vs. after Pentecost), etc. Thus, inerrancy applies for poetry and discourse, but how this works in practice (i.e., in interpretation) will differ.


As Vanhoozer observes, divergent maps can communicate truth differently and both be “true.” Basing his point on Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground (pictured here), which reimagined the train system of that city (pictured above), Vanhoozer argues: “A map communicates something about the way the world is. It gives us a true picture. However, no one map captures everything that is true about the world. There are many kinds of maps, and each kind communicates a different type of information. . . . There is no one right way to map the world, no universal all-purpose map” (89).

It’s this tension between true pictures and different kinds of maps that make inerrancy a function of “fittedness” between word and world. In other words, metaphors about Jesus (I am the Good Shepherd) and attributes of God (God is faithful) are both true, but arising from different types of speech makes these related truths different.

Consequently, if we restrict our map-making to one kind of view map, we are liable to establish faulty premises for judging the truth of Scripture. Either we will grind metaphors into adjectival predications about God, or we risk speaking poetically about Israel’s God without dealing with his presence in the Church where Christ is present today. Whenever we preference on kind of Scripture for another, we risk letting our  literary biases (or literary ignorance) from reading all of Scripture on its own terms.

When this happens we fail to understand the biblical text, even as we affirm vehemently its truthfulness. In practice, this happens when we import meaning from other passages and/or let other passages swallow up the specifics of the text in question.

9. Inerrancy does not mean that all biblical narratives must pass the Cronkite test.

Again, cronkitis is making the Bible sound like a journalist’s report (i.e., journalism from the days of Cronkite, not today). Worse, preachers of this stripe are satisfied with simply reporting biblical facts, instead of discovering the literary force of a given passage. When this happens, orthodox preachers may miss the rhetorical argument of a biblical narrative, for instance, and settle for proving the history of an event, searching out the archaeological evidence for that event, or solving inconsistencies that arise from the passage. While all of these approaches to the text have their place and may even bolster confidence in the Bible, they do not convey the meaning of the original author.

In this way, Vanhoozer’s final qualification about inerrancy is really a point about interpretation. As he states, “There are different ways, styles, and genres of writing history. The problem with cronkitis is that it only skims the textual surface, as if the only relevant question to ask of a narrative was, “Did it actually happen?” To read only for the event is like listening to music only for the melody. However, as music is much more than a good tune, so narrative is much more than a report of who did what when” (90)

Exactly! The goal of reading, and hence the goal of preaching is not simply journalistic and/or apologetic—proving the historicity of a text. Rather, the goal of preaching is letting the text speak, so that we hear the voice of God—fully inflected! This is where the power of preaching comes from, as the Word of God is rightly interpreted according to all that it has to say in the way that it says it. 

Biblical preaching begins by affirming the veracity of the Bible, but it must not end there. We must discern meaning based on genre and literary clues in the passage. Perhaps, and this is a point Vanhoozer makes throughout his book(s), the problem stems from our modern (and modern evangelical) inability to read. The problem does not come from a denial of taking the Bible literally; the problem comes from our biblical illiteracy—and again illiteracy here is not simply factual ignorance (knowing what it is in the Bible) but literary incompetence.

Reading the Bible Better

In our day, the art of reading is not strong, nor regularly appreciated. Hence, we need to learn afresh how to hear poetry, see types, feel metaphors, and follow plot-lines. In other words, we need to stop reading narrative and poetry as if they should be grinded into a historical outline or doctrinal discourse. As Vanhoozer argues, we need to learn how to appreciate the pictures—the true pictures—that God gives us in the Bible.

In so many ways, that’s what this blog is devoted to—to reading Scripture better, so that we might see more of Christ in Scripture. In Pictures at a Theological Exhibition we find fodder for fueling such an endeavor. So, I encourage you to pick up this book and consider in more detail what it means to see the true pictures in Scripture. What hangs in the balance is not academic, it is the spiritual formation of pastors, churches, and Christians—who will either see God through his inerrant Word or will miss seeing God all the while affirming biblical inerrancy.

May we who have a high view of Scripture learn how to read that Word and proclaim Christ from all the Scriptures in order to make disciples of all the nations!

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


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