Walton and Sandy on “Inerrancy”

“Descriptive terms that carry rhetorical power often have a shelf life. They can be exploited, manipulated, commandeered, caricatured, distorted, sloganized and subverted so that they no longer serve the rhetorical prupose for which they were initially adapted (e.g., catholicorthodox, fundamentalism). Inerrancy is one of those terms, and it may be reaching its limits. But even if this is so, the convictions it sought to express and preserve remain important. We may need to find alternate ways to express them that will embrace faith while recognizing nuances that continuing study and discussion have necessitated. The church needs a robust expression of biblical authority and an ever-adjusting answer to skepticism in all of its varied forms.

“Inerrancy is no longer the clear, defining term it once was. Its semantic qualities have made it a strong and useful descriptor, but some have also found it almost infinitely pliable, even though extensive attempts have been made to define it. Its pliability comes largely from the fact that it is a term that pertains specifically to meaning, as is evident in the ICBI qualifier that the biblical text is inerrant ‘in all it affirms’ (i.e., in the meaning properly derived from its illocutionary direction). To know what the text affirms, an interpreter has to decide its meaning. At the same time, the term has been recognized as patently inapplicable to several genres (e.g., proverbial literature). It has been widely adopted by evangelicals mainly to protect historical narrative in reaction to the modernist controversies in which critical scholarship began to scoff at the historical claims of the Bible. Moses, Abraham and David had come to be labeled as little more than figments of the exilic imagination. The exodus became a nonevent. The historical Jesus was deemed elusive and represented in mere fragments. It is no wonder that those who believed the Bible to be the inspired, authoritative revelation of God sought terminology to express their convictions in a way that would combat these attacks.

“If we question the continued sufficiency of the term inerrancy, it is not that we now admit that the Bible has errors–it is rather that the term inerrancy may no longer be clear enough, strong enough or nuanced enough to carry the weight with which it has traditionally been encumbered. We continue to believe that if the biblical communicator shows evidence of believing that he is talking about real people and real events in a real past, we gladly affirm that he is neither deceived nor being deceptive. Truthfulness remains an important criterion. If the term inerrancy, however, has become diminished in rhetorical power and specificity, it no longer serves as adequately to define our convictions about the robust authority of Scripture.”

John H. Walton and D. Brent Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 274-275.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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