Saturday, March 28, 2015

Inerrancy, Hermeutics, and the Complexity of Biblical Interpretation

There is much that warrants sustained commentary in current discussions on biblical interpretation.  Of particular importance is that of grappling with underlying presuppositions of the various positions surrounding this issue. Among other considerations, the diversity of genres within the Bible and the role of progressive interpretation within the flow of the biblical grand narrative—that within the framework of its story, begun at creation (well before a single word of text was written) and extending echatalogically beyond our located time in history, as well as our location within that flow between the first and final coming of Christ—need to be factored into current discussions. I can only offer few points here.

There is an important interpretive stream in biblical theology that contends that God's holy Word is inscripturated within the biblical text. There is another important stream that the Word of God can be accessed through the text which becomes available to receptive and faithful readers through various means of revelation. That the original biblical writers, from their distinctive perspectives, were inspired by God, in which what they wrote was stimulated by God's spirit within them, even as what they perceived was invariably processed by the various historical conditions and natural limitations in which they wrote and received as inspiration.  

  1. In this respect, one could say that God, through the Holy Spirit is the ultimate author of Scripture, while granting that any temporal hermeneutics is (or has been) processed through an array of interpretive filters, which can be, and typically are, fallible in various significant and not so significant ways. With such limitations in mind, one might say that the Spirit of God is embedded in the text regardless of contemporary reception. That is, in contrast to certain postmodern readings, there is meaning (that is, authorial intent) in the text, as such, even as such Authorial intent needs to be filtered through the authorial intent and time and culture bound limited knowledge base of the various biblical writers.
  2. The Word of God is also mediated through the Bible, with more of an accent here on reception by interpretive communities through which the Bible, in its canonical integrity, uniquely conveys the Word of God in a manner that was not possible for other texts.   

Consequently, through this text (both in terms of particular passages, as well as through the flow of the Grand Narrative, with the emphasis on Christ as the interpretive center of the Bible), I receive the Word of God afresh as it is revealed to me in the various fallible ways that I perceive it.  Yet, given point 1, without the meaning of the text, as such, I only have a subjective basis, in which truth statements cannot be made about the Bible or revelation, itself, because there is nothing beyond the reader-based given of a potentially infinite array of perspectives.

 To put this in terms to which I have elsewhere referred, the biblical revelation as the Word of God, as referenced in both points 1 and 2, is grounded in an ontological truth claim that can only be processed through the prism of limited epistemological filters.  Though we see Jesus, we do so through a glass darkly.  I contend that acknowledging both sides of the epistemological/ ontological continuum is critical to a well-grounded faith and to a faithful biblical hermeneutics.

 Consider 2 Timothy 3:16:  "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching and reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness (ESV).
  • Is breathed (is inspired) by God.  This is not synonymous with an inerrant interpretation; only that all Scripture, as the primary source of Christian revelation, is uniquely inspired both in its textual formation and in its receptive capacity in a uniquely different way than other texts.
  • Profitable for....  I believe this speaks to the potential value of the biblical texts as a primary source of edification in all of the ways identifies by the epistle writer and more.  That is, all Scripture holds the potential for such edification in a uniquely revealing way distinct from other sources.

I agree that, as a formal doctrine, inerrancy is a modern product, grounded in the culture wars between modernism and fundamentalism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a culture conflict that continues to carry a good deal of resonance in contemporary US Protestant theology, biblical interpretation and religious culture.  I do not reject the notion that prior to the late 19th century there was nothing analogous, which gave to Scripture a central interpretive role grounded in authoritative truth claims.   However, different epistemologies were at work in different eras of church history that shaped how such claims were made, which matter significantly on how "literalistic" one may be about the meaning of such claims.

Early in his career, J. I. Packer was willing to forgo the concept of the term, inerrancy because he felt it interfered with the more important truth claim that “Scripture has complete and final authority over the Church, as a self-contained, self-interpreting revelation from God.”  He argued that the primary evangelical aim was to proclaim, “What Scripture says, God says; and what God says in the Scripture is to be the rule of faith and life in His Church” (“Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, p. 73).  Packer viewed this as an axiomatic principle, which still left room for considerable hermeneutical nuance. From his vantage point, biblical interpretation remains an unfinished process in which the revelation of God in and through Scripture can only be ultimately grasped doxologically as an article of faith, in which Scripture as a primary source of our embedded knowledge of God is an aspect of the mystery of God's revelation to humankind.

Packer builds on these premises in his collection of essays titled, Engaging the Written Word of God, to establish one of the most astute evangelical biblical hermeneutics of the mid and late 20th century. I do not argue that Packer has the last word on this, but that his is an important perspective where he tackles the issues surrounding inerrancy head on.  I encourage those who are invested in this issue, regardless as to where specifically they stand, to give his work a close look.  I maintain that there are a multitude of riches embedded in Engaging the Written Word of God that will repay the diligent reader much in terms of his or her time

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