Picturing the Word without Caricaturing the Text: Fifteen Statements on Inerrancy and Interpretation

eduardo-pastor-pDAipmK6eRg-unsplashIn his six-volume opus, God, Revelation, and Authority, Carl F. H. Henry unpacks 15 Propositions about Revelation. These propositions include statements related to the source, nature, and purpose of God’s speech. And for anyone interested wrestling with the theological debates surrounding God’s Word and its inerrancy, this would be an excellent, if lengthy, place to begin. Henry was one of the chief architects of neo-evangelicalism and a defender of biblical inerrancy. He with 300 others authored the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978 and his enduring legacy includes not only his books on theology but his influence on other theologians. 

As noted by Kevin Vanhoozer, Henry was a part of evangelicalism’s “greatest generation,” a spin on the nickname given to the Post WWII generation (The Basics of the Faith). And in that generation, Henry and others argued against liberalism’s rejection of the Bible and for a view of the Bible that was infallibly true in “all matters upon which it touches.” This statement on inerrancy is part of the legacy that Henry and others passed on, but it also has been a legacy regularly contested.

As we should expect, the Word of God will always be questioned. “Did God really say?” is not a query left in the Garden of Eden. It is a question that persists at all times and in all fallen hearts. Thus, it is not surprising that today, those within evangelicalism and those without have raised questions about biblical inerrancy. In fact, to get a good lay of the land, just consider the book, Five Views on Biblical InerrancyIn that volume, you find two voices championing inerrancy, albeit with different terms (Albert Mohler and Kevin Vanhoozer), two voices denying inerrancy (John Franke and Peter Enns), and one voice basically affirming the contents of the Chicago Statement without giving it his international endorsement (Michael Bird).

From that volume, it is clear that the doctrine of inerrancy is not clearly understood today. That is, many who reject it fail to appreciate the nuance offered in the 1978 statement. And those who affirm it seek to provide clarity on what inerrancy is and is not. To that end, I think Kevin Vanhoozer is the most helpful. And in another of his books, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition, he lists—although by authorial intent, as far as I can tell—15 Propositions on Scripture that clarify what biblical inerrancy is and is not.

Fifteen Statement about Biblical Inerrrancy

Therefore, in order to affirm biblical inerrancy in all that it means and to deny biblical inerrancy in all that it does not mean, I offer these statements from Vanhoozer. In his book, he provides three lists—one with five points, one with three plus one more, and one with six points. Together, they total 15 statements about biblical inerrancy that I find to be a helpful run down of what inerrancy affirms, while avoiding the caricatures that opponents of inerrancy and defenders of inerrancy sometimes draw.

Warming Up Our Definition of Inerrancy

In his discussion, definition, and defense of inerrancy, Vanhoozer begins with a colorful illustration, “that Scripture itself is a canonical art gallery—an assemblage of true pictures that, together, comprise a divinely authorized biblical exhibition of the ‘collected works of the triune God’—scenes of God creating, sustaining and redeeming” (77). From this word picture, Vanhoozer explains the nature of of Scripture and concludes with these five theses.

1. Scripture is not a word from outer space or a time capsule from the past, but a living and active Word of God for the church today.

2. The Bible is both like and unlike every other book: it is both a human, contextualized discourse and a holy discourse ultimately authored by God and intended to be read in canonical context.

3. The Bible is not a dictionary of holy words but a written discourse: something someone says to someone about something in some way for some purpose.

4. God does a variety of things with the human discourse that makes up Scripture, but above all he prepares the way for Jesus Christ, the climax of a long, covenantal story.

5. God uses the Bible both to present Christ and to form Christ in us.

As Vanhoozer puts it, these are the basic ontological and teleological aspects of the Bible. And anyone who is going to rightly understand inerrancy must not misconstrue what the Bible is—namely, the living Word of God where “God the Father preach[es] God the Son in the power of God the Holy Ghost” (J. I. Packer). And that same person must also not place expectations on the Bible over what it is and what is aims to achieve. Too often opponents of inerrancy oppose a caricature of the doctrine, or at least suppose things about inerrancy that are not true to those who defend the doctrine with careful articulation. More on that below.

Defining Inerrancy from Scripture Itself 

After briefly suggesting what Scripture is and is not, Vanhoozer proceeds to address one of the most significant challenges facing the doctrine of inerrancy—the relationship between Scripture and interpretation. Holding these two items together, he makes appropriate distinctions and shows how a confusion of inerrancy and interpretation leads to any number of errors. In this place, he lists three qualifications and offers four definitions of (1) infallibility, (2) inerrancy, (3) truth, and (4) error. Hitting our benchmark of fifteen statements, I list the three qualifications and the one definition of inerrancy.

6. “Do not confuse inerrancy with ‘perfect book’ theology.”

This point compares inerrancy to the rationalistic “perfect being” theology of the philosophers. In other words, we must not define inerrancy in a rationalistic way, but in a way that responds to the revelation—i.e., what Scripture says for itself about itself. Our ideas of perfection do not govern inerrancy; instead we must learn from God how he and his Word are perfect and without error.

7. “Do not confuse literal with literalistic interpretation.”

Inerrancy is a statement about Scripture, not interpretation. How we interpret the Bible will depend on how we understand the nature and purpose Scripture, but we should not conflate Scripture with our interpretation of it. 

8. “Don’t not mistake inerrancy for a decoding device of holy enigmas or a panacea for resolving interpretive disagreements.” 

Returning to the confusion about Scripture and interpretation, Vanhoozer clarifies: “Inerrancy assures us that whatever Scripture reveals is true, but inerrancy alone does not tell us what God is saying in Scripture” (81)

When the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was written, it was followed by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics. Why? Because inerrancy does not resolve all matters of interpretation. And thus we should not require inerrancy to “resolve interpretive disputes,” even if its denial invites (but does not automatically guarantee) interpretive errors. We can admit, without threatening inerrancy, the fact that there are some who deny inerrancy and rightly interpret Scripture (or parts of Scripture). Equally, there are those who affirm inerrancy and wrongly read Scripture. Thus, we must uncouple inerrancy from interpretation, even as we keep them close on the same bookshelf.

9. “Inerrancy is a subset of infallibility” (Scripture’s incapability of error) and a word that affirms God’s Word as completely true.

Developing this doctrine, Vanhoozer offers three definitions—Paul Feinberg’s, David Dockery’s, and his (82–83). Advocating a “well-versed” inerrancy, Vanhoozer offers this definition: “Inerrancy means that the biblical authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (insofar as they make affirmations) and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right-hearted and right-minded readers read rightly)” (83).

Key to his definition is an appreciation for and recognition of Scripture’s many literary forms. He acknowledges that evangelicals have done well to recognize metaphors and poetry in the text, but they have not properly identified the various genres of Scripture and the way truth is communicated in each. Hence, inerrancy is not simply an affirmation of Scripture’s truthfulness as regards to history, though that’s part of it. Inerrancy both affirms the literal truth of Scripture, which requires a literate reader, hence his needed qualification—“when right-hearted and right-minded readers read rightly.”

All in all, these three qualifications and one definition go a long way to avoiding the caricatures that rational minds, unfamiliar with Scripture as literature bring to the text of Scripture. These four statements also introduce us to the challenge of inerrancy and interpretation. And that is where the remaining six points focus.

Distinguishing Inerrancy and Interpretation

In closely relating without conflating inerrancy and interpretation, Vanhoozer offers “six morals for interpretation.” I will list each statement with a few observations (pp. 86–92).

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

Persuasive interpretive pluralism is the fact that an inerrant Bible does not produce a single agreed-upon interpretation. Those who affirm biblical inerrancy come in many denominational shapes and doctrinal sizes. Therefore, as important as inerrancy is, it does not determine a priori any given doctrine.

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

This is a basic truth, but one that needs to be repeated. 

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

As Vanhoozer continues, he states, “The Bible is wholly true in all that it affirms when rightly interpreted by right-minded and right-hearted readers” (87). Once again, interpretation and inerrancy are related but not conflated. How one thinks about the Bible (e.g., as inerrant, authoritative, sufficient) will impact their hermeneutical endeavors. But hermeneutics are still distinct from the doctrine of inerrancy. As hard as it is to believe for some, how one interprets Genesis 1–11 (as historical record, or theological poetry, or both) does not immediately reveal their doctrine of Scripture.

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

This sounds more circuitous than it needs to be. The point is simple: truth is genre-specific. And God’s truth is communicated in various literary forms (see #14). Therefore, before we can debate whether a text is true, we need to be aware of what kind of literature we are handling. Parables do not need to be historically true, history does not need to possess modern precision, and discrepancies in the text may be intended by the authors, if they are seeking to make a theological point. Well-versed inerrancy, therefore, affirms the need to see the truth in the text in the way that the text is written.

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

Advancing his point further and returning to his master illustration of Scripture as a canonical art gallery, Vanhoozer suggests that Scripture can and does convey truth differently in different genres. Just as various maps can truly portray the world in different ways, so too Scripture. God’s authors do not all speak the same way, and they certainly do not match the technological precision of our modern world.

That said, Scripture gives a “true picture” of the world and the Word who is speaking in Scripture. And therefore, those who affirm (or deny) inerrancy cannot do so based on some extra-textual test. They must submit themselves to Scripture and learn how God speaks in human words. Those who hold to inerrancy do so because in examining Scripture, the map continues to give a true rendering of the world.

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

Finally, Vanhoozer returns to the late, great news anchor Walter Cronkite, who signed off his broadcasts with these famous words, “And that’s the way it is.” Throughout his chapter on inerrancy, Vanhoozer has sought to disabuse advocates of inerrancy of their tendency to treat every part of Scripture as a news reporter, blandly reporting the facts.

This is probably the most commendable and necessary part of his fifteen points. We must treat Scripture as God wrote it, not like we would write it or like we would expect it to be written. If we keep this in mind, it will go along way to help us avoid caricaturing this doctrine and the Word of God.

Reading the Bible Rightly . . . A Necessary Precursor and Result of the Doctrine of Inerrancy

In the end, if you have spent time in the Bible, you know it is anything but bland. Every Old Testament history is presented in the forms of Israel’s past and with hopes of Christ’s future. In short, there is no mere history in the Bible. It is prophetic history and narrative suffused with types, shadows, ironies, and poetry. In other words, there is nothing in Scripture that is “just the facts.” In the New Testament, nearly every paragraph employs imagery, words, and events from the Old Testament. And the only way to understand the stitched-together character of the Bible is to learn its ways of speaking, thinking, and writing.

Today, too many define inerrancy in ways that come from modern ideas of precision or extra-biblical assumptions that come from the rational mind more than God’s revelation. Thus, if we who affirm inerrancy come to Scripture expecting pure reporting, like that of Walter Kronkite, we will either come up with some indefensible defenses of inerrancy or we will abandon the doctrine altogether. Sadly, this departure from inerrancy is a broad path, not in small measure due to caricatured ways people have understood this doctrine.

Going back to the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, we find a nuanced doctrine of inerrancy that upholds literal truth with a literate interpretation. Indeed, even though the doctrine of inerrancy cannot be discussed without attention to interpretation, that 1978 document made the proper clarification and wrote about interpretation four years later. Following in that heritage, Kevin Vanhoozer’s defense of inerrancy, outlined here and in many other places, provides for a new generation a literate defense of inerrancy. 

Truly, this doctrine is one that continues to be threatened today and is one worth defending. Yet, how we defend this doctrine matters. And in these fifteen statements, we find a basic and biblical approach to rightly reading Scripture and articulating inerrancy.

May the Lord continue to help his church walk in his truth and defend his Word. The truthfulness of God’s Word has been questioned since the beginning and it will continue until the end. Therefore, let us who cherish the Word learn well how to defend its inerrancy and how to avoid hanging up caricatures in house of God.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

Photo by Eduardo Pastor on Unsplash

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