A Review of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

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I recently blogged about the Inerrancy panel at the ETS from Nov. 2013. See https://dansalyers.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/the-inerrancy-debate/ for my blog post. I just finished reading through the book and wanted to post a review. I will note that I read the e-book on Kindle, so I have only location numbers which help no one. Therefore, any quotes will not have page citations.

This volume contains five differing perspectives (although there are degrees of overlap) on the topic of biblical inerrancy. I must praise the formatters/ editors of this volume in their structuring of the book. Each chapter has one author giving his (regrettably there are no women authors, see below) response to biblical inerrancy before the other four authors provide brief responses at the end of the chapter. This format allows for substantial engagement with and rebuttals to each chapter. Additionally, each author in their chapter must engage three passages of scripture that are seen as problematic for inerrancy. These passages are: Joshua 6 and the conquering of Jericho as opposed to archeological evidence which contradicts the account; the two narratives of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 and 22 where Paul’s companions are said to hear the voice but see no one (Acts 9) and where Paul’s companions are said to see the light but not hear the voice (Acts 22); and finally the command to conquer Canaan in Deuteronomy 20 as opposed to the “love your enemies” passage in Matthew 5. Since each author must address his position to these specific passages, it helps the reader to concretely see how each position applies to scripture.

As noted above, there is unfortunately little diversity in the authors of the volume. Regrettably, no women authors contributed to the work, nor did anyone from the margins. In fact, John R. Franke (one of the contributors) notes that not only is the ETS an overwhelmingly white, male group, but that even one of his Facebook friends noted that “they should call the book, ‘Five White Guys Talk about Inerrancy'” (Loc. 3266). Finally, while the introduction is a helpful starting point for those who do not know the background of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrrancy, the conclusion is far too long and mostly vague. I wish the editors would have reduced the conclusion to the final few pages.

The book opens with R. Albert Mohler’s position on inerrancy. His position could easily be identified as pro-inerrancy. Mohler notes, “I do not believe that evangelicalism can survive without the explicit and complete assertion of biblical inerrancy” (Loc. 404). Mohler downplays the importance of archeological evidence, citing a few, outlying archeologists who affirm the biblical account in Joshua with archeological evidence. Mohler also notes that the Bible’s authority is higher than secular scholarship, so one should not be troubled if archeology contradicts the Bible. As for the second test case, Mohler notes that not only was Luke intentional in what he wrote in Acts, but he did so to note that only Paul saw the light and Christ and heard and understood the voice, while his companions only saw a light and heard a voice. Finally, Mohler sees the command in Deuteronomy to destroy Canaan as specific to Israel for one time only. He sees the passage in Matthew as a command to Christians in the new covenant, i.e. more broadly.

Peter Enns serves as a strong foil to Mohler. He rejects inerrancy outright. He notes, “I do not think inerrancy can capture the Bible’s varied character and complex dynamics” (Loc. 1351). Enns, an Old Testament scholar, notes that the historical account in Joshua 6 is simply not historically reliable and represents fictionalized history. Enns also challenges inerrancy’s historical methods in dealing with the Acts “problem.” He notes that Acts 22 is illustrative of a call narrative, and Luke thus employs an ancient typological framework in Acts 22, which explains the difference. Finally, Enns forwards a position that the Canaanite extermination did not happen and that Deuteronomy 20 represents a tribal rhetoric which wanted God to be shown as a warrior. The Matthew account wanted to preach evangelism and grace to the nations. For Enns, inerrancy is restrictive and if one is not bound by it, the Bible’s diversity becomes more dynamic.

Michael Bird’s position is placed third in the volume and he advocates in his essay that inerrancy is a decidedly American problem. Bird, an Australian, serves the volume in that he provides a non-Western perspective. He chooses to embrace an infallibalism perspective instead, and notes that most evangelical churches globally don’t need inerrancy to flourish. Bird sees the message behind the Jericho account to be that God will take Israel into the Promised Land, and the historical facts of Joshua 6 do not matter as much. He also notes that archeology around Jericho is always changing due to erosion, so it’s simply enough to say that Israel entered the Promised Land. Similarly, the specific details in Acts do not matter so much as the fact that Paul was called to preach. Finally Bird notes that Jesus often supersedes the Old Testament Law, and Matthew 5 is another example of this. The conquest of Canaan was therefore only for the survival of Israel (Loc. 2846).

Kevin J. Vanhoozer provides a chapter about the need for well-versed inerrancy, one that considers language, rhetoric, and literature. Vanhoozer advocates right reading of scripture in order to properly apply inerrancy. He notes that “Jericho’s fall as depicted by the text owes less to a battle than to a liturgical act that ends with a shout of jubilee” (Loc. 3896). His explanation of the “problem” in Acts notes the typology of the two accounts. Acts 9 is a theophany and Acts 22 is a commissioning passage, therefore the role of the companions is reduced from chapter 9 to 22 in order to emphasize Paul’s role. Finally, Vanhoozer notes that the conquest of Canaan was a one-time event and that Jesus’ model is meant to be for all times; the violence in Deuteronomy is ended with the violence against Christ (Loc. 4000).

The final chapter is by John R. Franke. who does not find inerrancy to be a helpful term due to the “artificial notions of precision and exactitude that are decidedly unhelpful in the task of reading and understanding the Bible” (Loc. 4633). Franke notes that Joshua 6 is not focused on providing exact historical details about Jericho. He downplays the issue in Acts by simply noting, “Not every detail in the Bible is pregnant with meaning” (Loc. 5051). Franke sees the command in Matthew to love your enemies as a direct revision of the past commands to hate your enemies, like that in Deuteronomy 20.

Overall, this book has 5 distinct perspectives. I would have liked to see more diversity in the authors, but the positions are indeed diverse from one another. The order of Mohler, Enns, Bird, Vanhoozer, and Franke really helps to give the reader varying (and often opposing) perspectives on inerrancy. The responses to the biblical passages (noted above) by each author really provide the reader with concrete responses with which he or she can agree. This volume is a helpful introduction into the debate, which may lead to further publications on inerrancy, hopefully from the margins.

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