Home > Scripture, Theology > High and Low Views of Scripture

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.

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Categories: Scripture, Theology
  1. January 21, 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Ryan,

    I think I’ve answered this a few times already, but I’ll do it again. I simply don’t see inerrancy and trustworthiness as synonymous terms. Something need not be inerrant to be trustworthy. For example, I have quite a few books on the 4th century Trinitarian controversies. Now not all of these books agree on every detail of the events that led to Nicaea. They don’t all agree on what happened at Nicaea. But they do all tell the same general story and present the same core facts (as they can be reconstructed historically). So each and every book is errant in some respect, but I can still be confident that their overall presentation of the history of the 4th century controversies are trustworthy.

    Or let’s look at it like this. If I’m in school and my biology professor makes am incorrect statement regarding English literature, am I to then suppose that everything he says concerning biology is now somehow suspect? In other words, errors of history and science can exist all day without doing any real violence to theology. Generally speaking, those who prefer the language of infallibility like to say that the errors in Scripture are historical/scientific (I just prefer the term trustworthy to infallible).

    What you seem to be proposing is that if one doesn’t accept that all of the Bible is inerrant then they can’t believe that any of the Bible is trustworthy. That’s simply not the case. Like I’ve said to you in previous comments on my blog, the Bible is God’s self-revelation to us in writing. He has an overall story to tell and a big picture to paint. Little imperfections here and there don’t ruin the big picture. Whether Jesus preached his sermon on the mount or on the plain doesn’t change that he preached the sermon. Whether the cock crowed once or twice before Peter’s final denial doesn’t change that the cock crowed and that Peter denied Jesus. ANE cosmology in Scripture tells us that Scripture isn’t a completely divine book and that men did have a part to play. Even the strict inerrantists who signed the CSBI recognized this fact. (BTW, yes, ANE cosmology does constitute a real error (it’s not simply idiomatic like ‘sunrise/sunset’ — it’s just wrong), which is only problematic for people who assert that if modern science contradicts the Bible then the science is wrong.)

    So when it comes to Trinitarian theology, as I said in your last post on this issue, it’s a way of explaining what the Bible does say about God, errors of history and science and all. But Trinitarian theology is also very much experiential. We didn’t see formulated creeds in the NT about the Trinity. What we see are soteriological and devotional patterns that informed later creedal formulations. What we experience in our being drawn by the Father and coming to Christ and being filled with the Spirit bespeaks a Trinitarian theology.

    These are my initial thoughts… If I have anything to add you’ll be the second to know.

    Go Giants! 😛

  2. January 21, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Let me just say I appreciate you thinking through these questions out loud. I think one of the best places we can get to in terms of being able to grown and move forward in theology is being willing to ask questions and formulate new ways of thinking about things and not feeling constrained by particular forms of piety (i.e. being afraid to question the nature of the Bible).

    “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.”

    Because from the beginning the scriptures have been understood primarily as theological in purposes. They are about God and his ways (what’s the statement about “the Bible tells us how to get to heaven not…”). That is it is believed that what God cares about in terms of inspiring is the theological part of it. The historical and scientifically related parts of it only matter in terms of what they speak theologically (although they can be true historically and scientifically.)

    I don’t imagine that my answer has satisfied your question in any way. I just figured I would give my view and leave it at that for now before going on to say much more.

    Blessings,
    Bryan L

  3. January 21, 2008 at 4:45 pm

    Nick, I do understand what you’re saying about not needing to be inerrant in order to be trustworthy. I really do. You and I agree that the Bible is trustworthy about some things (i.e. history) and not trustworthy about other things (i.e. cosmology).

    What we’re disagreeing over is which category to put the Trinity into. You seem well convinced that it belongs in the trustworthy side, but I don’t think you’ve given compelling reasons for that. The analogy would be more like my Biology professor biffing it on science questions at a general high school level. If he doesn’t know the difference between an atom and a molecule, I have reason to think he doesn’t know what he’s talking about in higher level biology either. Similarly, if the Bible messes up its cosmology (which was not testable at the time, but is now), what in the world would make you think it is trustworthy in its theology (which was not testable at the time, and is still not testable now)?

    I see now what you are saying about being an experiential doctrine. But I would argue that I only experience being drawn to the Father by Christ through the Holy Spirit because of my prior trinitarian commitments. If a Unitarian prays and experiences God, she will experience Him as a single hypostasis. You could argue that non-Trinitarians don’t experience God, I suppose.

    But similarly, many Christians after about the time of Constantine found it experientially helpful to pray to saints. The Protestant church is almost unanimous in rejecting this as a valid devotional habit. So I think that experience can be helpful (a) to confirm a doctrine that is already held, or (b) to serve as a catalyst for reevaluating a doctrine on other grounds. But I cannot hold to the doctrine of the Trinity on the basis of experience any more than I could ever accept the authority of the Book of Mormon on the basis of experience.

    Thanks for your comments. It’s fun watching you get excited about this stuff. I can see why you were a fundamentalist back in the day. It’s a side of you we don’t see much now that you’ve shifted your focus to biblical studies (and taken up inerrancy-bashing). 🙂

    I’ll let the inerrancy thing drop now, and I’m content to stick with Trustworthy for the sake of the Trinity discussion. I think you and I mean roughly the same thing by Trustworthy. The only difference is that you are confident that the Bible is trustworthy when it points us to a Trinitarian understanding of God, and I do not think we have proper warrant to accept it’s trustworthiness in this matter. Would you agree with this summary of our positions?

  4. January 21, 2008 at 8:23 pm

    Ryan,

    Yeah, I’ll agree with the summary of our views (more or less). But let me just address the biology teacher analogy. In my analogy, biology and English lit. serve as completely different subjects. I believe that theology and history/science are completely different subjects. In your analogy, you are using different levels of the same subject so it doesn’t really address what I was saying.

    But as far as Trinitarian theology is concerned, it is something that is derived from Scripture, not something that is explicitly spelled out in Scripture, so I wouldn’t exactly say that I’m putting the doctrine of the Trinity itself into the “trustworthy side.” I would absolutely put all of the data that led to a Trinitarian understanding of God into the trustworthy category.

    I think the witness in Scripture to one true God is overwhelming. I think the witness to Jesus as the only begotten of God is overwhelming as well. And I think that the witness to the Spirit as God’s personal and empowering (to steal Fee’s term) presence among the Church is also overwhelming. Likewise, I think we can look at Church history beginning in the NT and tracing it up to Nicaea I and Constantinople I and see exactly why a full-blown doctrine of the Trinity was arrived at by observing the place given to the three persons in the life of the Church.

    So again, what I’m saying is this… the doctrine of the Trinity is the best explanation for the God we are presented with in Scripture. Sure, there’s other explanations, but I don’t think any of them takes account for all of the data. As far as Unitarians experiencing God as a single hypostasis, yes, I could (and probably would) argue that they haven’t truly experienced God. But I’d opt here to say that they’d admit to having experienced all three persons without crediting them each as either being persons and/or God. For example:

    The Unitarian of the Arian variety will admit to having experienced the Father who alone is ingenerate and eternal; Jesus who is temporally preexistent, quasi-divine, and the first and greatest of all creatures; and the Spirit who is a lesser creature than the Son, relegated almost to a force/energy.

    The Unitarian of the Sabellian variety will admit to having experienced the single person of God as the Father in creation, the Son in redemption, and the Holy Spirit in regeneration. Modern Oneness Pentecostals would simply say that Jesus is the one person who plays these three roles or fills these three offices.

    The Unitarian of the Socinian variety will admit to having experienced the Father who is the only true God, and Jesus whom the Father has sent, the sinless Messiah who was exalted to a status above all other humans but is nevertheless only human, and the Spirit who is simply another way of describing the Father. Jesus is the man that mediates between other men and the only true God, the Father.

    So we’re all acknowledging the Father, Son, and Spirit in some way, shape, or form. I just happen to think that the Trinitarian explanation is the best of the bunch. Hope this makes sense.

    Go Giants! 😛

  5. January 22, 2008 at 7:13 pm

    I would be interested to know in what category you would place a person such as myself who is prepared to argure from the evidence of Scripture that none of the major ‘orthodox’ doctrines can be found there – Trinity, Virgin Conception, Deity, Original Sin etc.

  6. January 22, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    Vynette,

    That’s quite simple. Unorthodox/Heretical. 🙂

  7. January 22, 2008 at 9:50 pm

    Huh? Yvette, you don’t believe scripture supports these things? For real or are you just messing with me? Virgin conception is found in two out of four gospels. Deity (presumably Jesus’) is found implicitly or explicitly all over the New Testament. Trinity is not there explicitly, but if Jesus is God and the Father is God (and the Spirit) but there’s only one God (not three), then you have to end up with some kind of Trinitarian doctrine to hold it all together.

    Original sin… that was Augustine’s stupid invention.

    Nick, two things. First, I changed the analogy on purpose. I see cosmology and theology as being much more closely related than you do. They are both concerned with ‘the bigger world’ outside of ourselves. Second, what about Muslim Unitarians or Jewish Unitarians? What about Hindu monotheists? …etc. Phenomenologically at least some people in these groups seem to have experienced God, or at least they are as convinced of their experiences with God as I am of mine.

  8. January 22, 2008 at 11:19 pm

    Nick Norelli,

    In the beginning, there was just the “heretical” Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. It’s about time that all these inventions of the Hellenist-Latin fathers were challenged – seriously.

    rtjones,

    I am certainly for real – not “messing” with you. I’m quite prepared to demonstrate.

    Scripture does not support any of these doctrines. The NT authors taught that Jesus was a normal man, born of normal parents, same as all of us. In fact, that’s the whole point.

    Want to start with the virgin conception?

    By the way, I’m just as convinced of my “experiences with God” as you probably are, so I’m not coming from an agnostic or atheist worldview.

  9. January 23, 2008 at 12:19 am

    Ryan,

    I thought you had in mind those who relied in the Judeo-Christian Scriptures. I would argue that unitarian Jews, Muslims, and monotheistic Hindus have not experienced God. But moreover, they haven’t claimed to experience the same God as the groups I have named. Although I would point out that Allah is supposed to be utterly transcendant so the Muslim shouldn’t claim to experience him.

    Vynette,

    Umm… 😐 Well, these ideas have been challenged from the beginning and they’ve always won out. And Jesus was no heretic as far as I can tell… just you. 😉

  10. January 23, 2008 at 2:15 pm

    Vynette, sorry. I thought you were Yvette who comments here sometimes, but just misspelled your name. It seems like she is finding her place in the post-conservative evangelical camp, so needless to say, I was quite surprised that she would deny all these things. It threw me for a real loop.

    I have to admit, I am not excited about getting into a theological debate where it is likely that neither of us will be convinced. If you have something to add to my discussion of the trinity, I am more than happy to hear what you have to say. Please note the fact that I am taking it for granted that the scriptures themselves entail the doctrine of the Trinity, and cannot be properly understood without them. The focus of my argument is ‘behind the text’ so to speak – asking what grounds the scriptures have to speak authoritatively on the issue to begin with.

    Nick, this is getting into another one of my problem points with our received Evangelical tradition — we are forced to write off the experiences with God from 2/3 of humanity because they do not fit our theological grid. The only problem is that it doesn’t seem to be corroborated by any other evidence. Even the Biblical record itself seems to hint that there are some monotheists outside of the ‘proper’ sociological groups that did experience God. Take Melchizadek, for instance. Justin Martyr seems to think Plato knew the true God, at least on some level. I’ll have to ellaborate more on this at another time, but check out my discussion about whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God.

  1. January 21, 2008 at 8:33 pm
  2. July 31, 2008 at 10:23 pm

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