Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Biblical Inerrancy & The Acting God

A reply I wrote to a blog post on Red Letter Christians about biblical inerrancy:
The question for me is: how much of God *himself* is actually bound up in what Zack is calling imperfect—such that denying the bible's inerrancy on the matter constitutes a denial of something about the identity of God himself?
Another way of putting my concern is: if as Christians we believe God's very identity to be bound up with his act, with what he has done in the history of his creation, then how can we allow for the denial of the bible's accuracy at least on certain points of history without actually denying something about God himself? It's all very well, perhaps, to say with reference to the story of Noah that the narrative reveals the "truth" that God "watches over and cares for his creation even in the midst of a storm"—but this is basically an allegorization; it treats the Noah story as a fable with a kernel of abstract and general theological truth, and not as an actual account of God's acts of judgment and merciful redemption (which is precisely what that narrative describes the flood to be, however unpalatable it might seem as history to the modern reader).
We might feel like we can get away with that to an extent when we're dealing with Noah—call it a theologically astute re-reading of ancient near eastern flood myths or something of that sort. But what about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? What about Moses and David? For the Israelite, the very identity of God was bound up with the fact that he, YHWH, had in historical fact delivered them from slavery in Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. This historical action on God's part, coupled with his historic covenantal promises at Sinai, formed the basis of Israelite faith—that God would be true to his covenant and that he would rescue his people from further disobedience. He was and is, forever, "YHWH who brought us out of Egypt." Nothing less than this is at stake for Christians too, since the central confession of our faith is precisely that within our own history, our own time and space, God himself took up our broken humanity, in order to renew and restore it through the historical events of his life and ministry, his death, his resurrection, ascension, and future coming.
In other words, biblical faith is rooted in time and in space, in the concrete action of God in time and in space to carry forward his saving purposes in the world. We confess faith by confessing what God has done. The denial that chips away gradually at his concrete and historical action amounts to nothing less than a diminution of the very identity of the living and acting God himself—for inasmuch as God's identity is bound up with his act, with his judgments and mercies in time and in space, his identity is subject to the historical veracity of those events. The God who did not really and actually bring Israel out of Egypt; the God who did not really and actually bring forth from the dead his Son, Jesus our Lord—is not the true and living God of the bible, and if we cannot trust in the actuality of these events, we cannot claim to be placing our faith in this God. We may be putting our faith in *a* god, but it could hardly be him. God has put his very identity at stake in the question of whether certain historical events have or have not happened.
The point I am making, I think, is simply that our faith does indeed have its grounding in the bible itself—in its basic historical accuracy, granted the difference between ancient and modern conventions of historiography—and that it is not for this reason anything less than faith in God himself. For God has pledged his very identity, has staked his very identity, on what he has done—on the becoming flesh of his own identity in time and in space. Perhaps what I am pleading for, at any rate, is that our discussion of inerrancy not fail to recognize that something *is* at stake when we talk about the bible's accuracy, even if that something is not what the evangelicalism of the past century or so has made it out to be. We would do well to consider the question: how much "error" can the bible admit while still giving us the same God, as anything more than a fantasy? I cannot back down from affirming the bible's truthfulness about certain things, at least, because the God I worship is none other than the God whose identity comes to expression and fulfillment in historical flesh and blood.


  1. Hey David,

    I appreciate your comments here.

    "The point I am making, I think, is simply that our faith does indeed have its grounding in the bible itself—in its basic historical accuracy, granted the difference between ancient and modern conventions of historiography—and that it is not for this reason anything less than faith in God himself."

    I think that you have honed in on the fundamental issue: modern conventions of historiography. In my perspective, classic theological liberalism and the doctrine of inerrancy that was forged in response both share the same presuppositions about historiography in the Bible. While you want to grant that a difference exists between modern and ancient conventions of historiography, I think that the significance of this difference is greater than those involved in the inerrancy debate are willing to admit. (I'll save my comments about how allegory is not always a bad thing, and can actually function within accounts of God's historical redemption ;-)

    While I personally don't subscribe to inerrancy, I tend to shy away from those who are very eager to deny inerrancy. In my mind, many who try to deny inerrancy end up buying into the terms of this late 19th/20th century debate and reproducing its assumptions about history and scientific accuracy within the Bible. "In other words, my mom is a lot like the Bible." It's liberal statements like these (liberal in the classic sense of confining God and the Bible to human experience and reason) that make me shy away from many who are eager to deny inerrancy. When someone compares the Bible to their mom, you know that something has gone seriously amiss.

    Your emphasis on God's revelation being bound in his act (I'm reformulating "God's identity being bound in his act" because I think this can potentially be misread to undermine the fact that God is utterly free, his act of creation/redemption was not something he NEEDED to do to fulfill himself but it was nevertheless fitting for the free/loving Trinitarian being that he is)...is very important. Karl Barth, in his Introduction to Evangelical Theology, said: "the object of evangelical theology is God in the history of his deeds." In Section 2 on The Word, he continues:

    "Theology responds to the Word which God has spoken, still speaks, and will speak again in the history of Jesus Christ which fulfills the history of Israel. To reverse the statement, theology responds to that Word spoken in the history of Israel which reaches its culmination in the history of Jesus Christ. As Israel proceeds toward Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ proceeds out of Israel, so the Gospel of God goes forth. It is precisely the particularity of the Gospel which is its universality. This is the good Word of the covenant of grace and peace established, upheld, accomplished, and fulfilled by God. It is his Word of the friendly communion between himself and man. The Word of God, therefore, is not the appearance of an idea of such a covenant and communion. It is the Logos of this history, the Logos, or Word, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as such, is the Father of Jesus Christ. This Word, the Word of this history, is what evangelical theology must always hear, understand, and speak of anew. We shall now try to delineate what this history declares."

    History is crucial. God acted in space and time...the Word is not the appearance of ideas or ethical principles. But *what* kind of history is this? What Barth alludes to at the end of this passage is that we will need to develop a theological account of history in order to fully appreciate and do justice to the history being communicated in the Bible. In my mind, the "scientific accuracy" of modern historiography is what remains theologically unaccounted for.

    My two cents.

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