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.