Sunday, 7 February 2016

Defining Inerrancy, by J.P Holding and Nick Peters

When I was at university, I read James Barr's book Fundamentalism, a classic attack on Evangelicalism. I remember he made an interesting comment about Evangelical Bible scholars, such as Donald Guthrie and I.H. Marshall. He suggested that if Evangelicals actually understood the methodology of their own scholars, they would regard them as heretics. This is almost certainly still true today.

The cover of this book is the mirror image of Defending Inerrancy, a book by Norman Geisler. To a large extent, Defining Inerrancy is a reply to the views expressed by Geisler in Defending Inerrancy. At one time Norman Geisler was one of my favorite writers, but Holding and Peters show him to have acted like a bully, sabotaging the careers of various scholars he considered suspect, most famously in his campaign to get New Testament scholar Robert Gundry expelled from the Evangelical Theological Society. In a foreword, renowned Biblical scholar Craig Blomberg details some examples of Geisler's mean-spirited behaviour.

Peters and Holding outline a debate in Evangelical scholarship, between contextualizers who believe that interpretation must take into account the full implications of literary context and genre and traditionalists, who insist tht every apparent factual statement in Scripture must be taken as historical. This is a reminiscent of the 'Battle for the Bible' that took place in Evangelical seminaries in the 1970s. The difference is that the contextualizers maintain that they hold to the full inerrancy of Scripture, even if they believe it may contain elements of fiction or non-factual statements in places.

The traditionalists maintain that they are upholding the right use of historical-grammatical interpretation, however, our authors argue that by failing to make use of the implications of literary and genre criticism they are isolating the texts from their historical context and imposing their own subjective interpretations on the texts. If the traditionalists can make use of lexicons in trying to understand the Word of God, why can they not make use of the the literary and cultural background of the Old and New Testament?

I think Holding and Peters offer a valuable contribution in showing the failure of Evangelicalism's leaders to engage with Biblical scholarship. However, I don't think the book quite does what it says on the tin. Our authors never actually define inerrancy. They say they hold to it, but it would be easy to accuse them of paying lip service to the doctrine. I would have liked to see them offering a positive explanation of how they understand inerrancy and it's importance for them. They show some ambivalence about the value of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. They could have said a little more about that. Some of the more liberal Evangelicals would suggest that if inerrancy can be reconciled with views like those of the contextualizers, it might not be all that meaningful or helpful a concept. Holding and Peters would have done well to respond to this line of thought.

The authors accuse Norman Geisler of trying to set himself up as a kind of Protestant pope, issuing arbitrary decrees on what Biblical interpretations are acceptable and which are not. To my mind this brings up the whole problem of Sola Scriptura. Evangelicals say that Scripture is their ultimate authority. Yet in practice their ultimate authority comes down to their own opinion of what Scripture teaches, or what the latest Scholarship teaches, or what their denominational confession says Scripture teaches. The Catholic on the other hand, has a sure guide to correct doctrine in Tradition and the teaching of the magisterium. In those areas where no specific interpretation of Scripture is mandated by the magisterium, such as the interpretation the days of Genesis chapter 1, the Catholic is free to hold his own opinion or to look to the latest scholarship.

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