Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Stephen R. Holmes on Evangelical Doctrines of Scriputre

Stephen R. Holmes has an interesting article in Evangelical Quarterly called, "Evangelical doctrines of Scripture in transatlantic perspective," EQ 81.1 (2009): 38-63. Basically, Holmes notes that references to "inerrancy" are basically lacking from British confessional/doctrinal statements in the last hundred years. He thus asks: "It seems to me surprising that so central a claim on one side of the Atlantic should be virtually unknown, or if known unaccepted, on the other."

Holmes does not deny that inerrancy at its most basic level is merely the confession that the Bible is without error in those things it affirms and this reflects a generally known position within Christian churches through the ages. He also refuses to buy into the view that B.B. Warfield invented inerrancy (in fact it was first articulated at Vatican I in 1870!). Holmes provides a list and analysis of British evangelical statements on Scripture and notes that "inerrancy" is noticeably absent and the main terms that have been used are authoritative, inspired, infallible, and sufficient.

In the end, Holmes thinks that the main reason for the difference is that Evangelical American Theologians have preferred a correspondence theory of truth with its emphasis on fact and meaning, while British Evangelicals have been more influenced by Romanticism with its emphasis on experience, image, and vision. He rejects the correspondence theory of truth because (a) the philosophical objections are devasting, and (b) classical Reformed theology and the nature of Scripture itself should lead us to a different account of truth. For Holmes, faith must go beyond assent to factual accuracy and requires an element of personal appropriation as well. [Incidentally several years ago Ben Myers had a very good article review of Peter Jensen's book on the doctrine of Revelation in Churchman where he pointed out that propositional and personal revelation are not mutually exclusive - MB comment].

He goes on to say that "those who want to claim inerrancy as the primary attribute of Scripture have the worst of this argument, particularly when it comes to Jn 14:6". The affirmation that God's truth takes the form of propositional statements (found in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics) leaves Holmes asking if "the framers of that article had opened a Bible" before since there is a diversity of literary forms in the Bible itself. In addition, he finds Scripture speaking about itself in profoundly dynamic terms like "living and active" and thus its power is not in the power of propositions, but in the effectiveness of the Word. Finally, he regards biblical epistemology as principally about transformation by Scripture and assimilation to Scripture.

In his conclusion he states: "So, I think there are very good reaons to resist a full-blown inerrantist account of truth as merely propositional truth and the Bible as no more than compendium of true propositions. I feel more comfortable with the British tradition of insisting that the inspired text wants to do something, or, and perhaps better, that the Holy Spirit wants to do something through the inspired texts, so that conformity of life is what the Scriptures demand ... that said, the Scriptures do make propositional claims, both vital ones ('On the third day he rose from the dead') and incidental ones ('Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodeiah repaired the old Gate'); faithfulness to the Christian tradition, and, the sort of rich account of truth I would want to embrace, leads me to believe, despite all the problems, that it is probably necessary to affirm all such propositions are true. So if asked the narrow question, 'Is the Bible inerrant?' I think I want to say that it is, but that is not an especially interesting or important claim". Holmes concludes with these words: "By graciously inspiring the original writers of Scriptures, and by gracious illuminating our minds, God has given us a written testimony of what he requries of us, a testimony which is truthful, and clear and complete in its essential points. This I offer, humbly but seriously, as a more adequate doctrine of Scripture than any I find in the Evangelical confessions, on either side of the Atlantic Ocean."

As a point of order, I would press Holmes on one issue. He says that "I would not baulk at 'inerrant', but 'truthfulness' or 'trustwrothiness' seem to me to be more comprehensive terms that cope better with the actual literary forms of Scripture". That said, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that Scripture is true and trustworthy so there is no inerrancy vs. trustworthy dichotomy that Holmes implies. You could say that one is the flip side of the other. Personally, I prefer describing how Scripture is true rather than describing how it is not untrue. But that's another matter.

Regardless of whether you agree with Holmes or not, he does make a good observation, namely, that British Evangelicalism has never really taken to using the word "inerrancy". My own tradition uses the word "infallible" and we have to ask whether the word "inerrancy" properly represents the grammar of catholic and global perspectives of the veracity of Scripture. On the one hand the concept of inerrancy clearly can be found in Church History, and yet have not the precise formulations of inerrancy from Princeton to Chicago somehow shaped by the unique American context? Can one recognize the cultural contingency of how inerrancy has developed or been expressed in the US without resorting to the assertion (or is it an accusation) that it was somehow invented by B.B. Warfield? But that, again, is another matter for some American grad student to ponder.


Andrew Cowan said...

Dr. Bird,

Thanks for posting these interesting reflections. I have two thoughts about them. One, a major reason that the word "inerrancy" gets used in the American context is that most of the other words (authoritative, inspired, infallible, sufficient) are used by those who deny what inerrancy affirms. These other words are often stretched so that one does not have to believe that all that Scripture affirms is true in order to claim them.

Second, the approach that Holmes takes sounds similar in some respects to Kevin Vanhoozer's essay "The Semantics of Biblical Literature: Truth and Scripture's Diverse Literary Forms," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon edited by Carson and Woodbridge. There, Vanhoozer argues that inerrancy is a subset of infallibility, as God's word never fails to accomplish the purpose for which he sends it, including bearing faithful witness to reality. Thus, infallibility is the main category, and includes all the different things that one may use words to do, while inerrancy reflects success in one aspect of that larger whole. In the midst of this, he also points out how a good dose of speech-act theory can help one overcome the false dichotomy between personal and propositional revelation that you noted incidentally. In the end, it seems to me that Vanhoozer already combined the best of what the Chicago Statement people have gotten at with the best insights of this new article from Holmes over 20 years ago.

Exiled Preacher said...

McGowan used similar arguments in his The Divine Spiration of Scripture. But holding that the Bible is without error us not the same thing as saying that the Bible is nothing but a set of errorless propositions. That is hopelessly reductionistic. We have to take into account God's communicative action through all the differing biblical genres, while confessing that Scripture as the written Word of God is truth. See "Words of Life" (IVP, 2009) by Timothy Ward, where he draws on speech act theory and argues in favour of inerrancy, as does Vanhoozer.

I can think of several UK confessions that include a committment to inerrancy. For exaple, the FIEC basis of faith:

"Bible as originally given is in its entirety the Word of God, without error and fully reliable in fact and doctrine"

Affinity Doctrinal Basis:

"The inspiration, inerrancy and infallibility of God’s word, the Bible, as originally given."

Inerrancy is not the theological equivalent of the Ryder Cup with American inerrantists on one side and European infallibists on the other.

Michael F. Bird said...


Have a read of Holmes' article in EQ and then comment on it on your blog. He's perfectly aware of the Affinity and FIEC statements of faith.

But, the fact of the matter is that "inerrancy" has not appeared in any evangelical statements of faith in the UK until recently. Think of the UCCF, EA, EMW, and LST statements - no inerrancy mentioned!

My question is: If the word "inerrancy" is the centre of the theological universe, then why haven't we in the UK been using it? I think you provide some of those reasons as to what happened in American denominations, but not, it happened in America and not here.

Now I don't want to play off the UK vs. USA nor do I want to play off inerrancy vs. infallibility, but you have to admit that belief in biblical veracity has not in the UK been articulated in exactly the same way that it has in the USA. The difference is cultural context, there is no denying that!

Exiled Preacher said...

I'll have to try and get hold of EQ. I was just going on your summary of his piece.

But I wouldn't want to say that inerrancy is the centre of the theological universe. It is not even central to the docrine of Scripture.

Use of the term "inerrancy" is not the important thing. It is the belief that Scripture is wholly true and reliable.

Tim Bertolet said...

I'm not sure why Holmes would pit 'propositional statements' against 'literary genre' and ask if "'the framers of that article had opened a Bible' before since there is a diversity of literary forms in the Bible itself."

The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy fully acknowledges the literary diversity of the Bible in Articles VIII and XVIII or Articles X, XIII, and XV in the Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics. It seems to me that the notion of 'propositional truth statements' doesn't negate literary style and quality (at least in the framer's intent. Rather it seems to guard against those who would use literary style to deny all reference to truth content or those who would speak of Scripture as true accounts of the author's experience while denying the author says things that are true and revelatory descriptions of God or history. The danger is of course that we can use literary style as something we have to boil away, or a husk to strip off to get to the kernel of real truth. Some popular interpretations can tend to this, but it seems that the Chicago Statement on Heremeneutics would guard against this too.

I appreciate your comment "Personally, I prefer describing how Scripture is true rather than describing how it is not untrue." I think it's right so far as it goes but you always have the 'cultured despisers' who will ask like Pilate "what is truth?" You can find two people affirming it is true but meaning two totally different things by that statement.

C Bovell said...

It would seem to me that this goes to show that inerrancy is not the center of the universe and that Americans are very much in the wrong for attempting to make it such.