High and Low Views of Scripture
After my last round of trinitarian ramblings I want to bring the discussion back to the doctrine of scripture. The two positions the doctrine of scripture that are on the table right now are Inerrancy (me) and Trustworthiness (Bryan, Nick, and others). I intend to argue that my position is actually a lower view of scripture than theirs and to explain why I cannot justify holding a higher view.
Does the Bible constitute special revelation? Those who hold that the Bible is trustworthy but not inerrant seem to assume that the Bible is special revelation. They will quibble as to whether this little thing or that little thing constitutes an error, but all in all if the Bible says it, they believe it. So the Bible’s authority extends beyond areas that humans normally have access to, especially in its description of the spiritual realm or the ontology of God.
I, on the other hand, have argued for a covenantal view of the Bible. Allow me to change my vocabulary slightly for the purposes of this argument. Instead of talking about a covenantal view, I shall speak of a contractual view. The Bible functions something like a contract between God and His people. To be sure, the Bible includes a lot more than the contract itself, but these things are resources to help us fulfill our part of the contract (things like models for prayer, wisdom, imagery that inspires hope, epistles that encourage when needed and rebuke when needed, etc.). Thus the Bible is absolutely inerrant in the sense that our contract (covenant) with God contains no errors.
Let’s now examine three different issues to see how we will treat them from our perspectives on scripture. First, let’s take the sermon on the mount (Matt 5-7). Would it be a problem for either position if we could prove conclusively that Jesus did not preach it word-for-word? In fact it is axiomatic in most biblical studies that the gospels do not record Jesus’ ipsissima verba, His exact words. I tend to think that the sermon on the mount would have taken hours to preach, and we are just given the ‘Cliff’s notes’. And this sermon itself is almost certainly a Matthean construct, collected from bits and pieces of Jesus’ teaching and arranged into a coherent whole. Does this constitute an error? I think it unlikely that either side would say this is an error because it is unreasonable to hold Matthew to modern standards of historiography that no one in antiquity held.
Second, the Bible holds to a three-tier cosmology: the heavens above, (flat)earth in the middle, and ‘the depths’ below. It is a geo-centric model where the sun travels around the earth. This model is incorrect. (Flat-earthers call other 6-day-creationists liberals because they compromise on this very point!) Now does this cosmology constitute an error? I assume that those who hold to the Bible’s trustworthiness only would say, yes, this constitutes an error. (If not, please provide an example that you accept to be an error.) From my perspective on inerrancy, this is not an error. The Bible was not intended to provide us with scientific information any more than a modern contract is. If I had a contract where I granted you access to my property only “from sunrise to sunset,” no reasonable person would say the contract is in error because the sun doesn’t actually rise — it is the earth’s rotation that causes the sun to appear to rise.
Finally, let’s take the proto-Trinitarian theology of the Bible. If you draw together the various biblical affirmations, you get a picture of a single God in three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Does this constitute an error in our view of God? Well even if it was an error, it’s not testable, so there’s no way to know. So the non-Inerrancy crew says it’s not an error because the Bible is trustworthy. When it gives us data on the ontology of God, it is likely to be true.
Now here’s where I find my argument escaping me. I want to ask why we should expect a contract between us and God, even an inerrant one, to give us this kind of information? We don’t hold literally to its cosmology; why should we hold to its theology? I have no good reason. To force the Bible to give us information of this sort to load it with a burden that it cannot carry – or at least I have no epistemic justification for it.
For this reason my eclectic view of the Inerrency of scripture does not lead to Trinitarianism (much as I might want it to). But I am arguing that those who reject inerrancy do not have any stronger case for the doctrine of the Trinity than I do. Only those who hold a traditional view of Inerrancy have a reason to hold to the Trinity because “if the Bible says it, they believe it, and that settles it.” But both sides find the traditional view unacceptable for obvious reasons.
So for my friends who hold that the Bible is trustworthy but not inerrant (ininerrant? uninerrant? noninerrant?), what reasons do you have to think the Bible is trustworthy when it gives us information that leads us to Trinitarianism?
Update: A few months after posting this, I did a series where I explored why we should believe in the Trinity, what we shouldn’t believe about the Trinity, and one analogy to help us understand the Trinity.