John Hobbins on Inerrancy

In a recent post at Ancient Hebrew Poetry, John Hobbins argues that conversations about inerrancy must continue. I have a few thoughts of my own on the topic that I wanted to share.

1. I think any conversation is important. I’m not about to say that conversations about inerrancy should stop. Quite the opposite, I think that within evangelical circles this very conversation needs to continue as that particular sect of Christianity figures out its stance on the issue. Still, some conversations are less beneficial than others.
2. John brings up some good thoughts on the history of interpretation and inerrancy’s importance to what interpreters have said about the text. I think this is an area that could do with some more investigation. Perhaps Earl could undertake some preliminary research on the topic. I think it would prove fascinating.
3. Alas, in the end I think that John may be mixing (confusing?) terms. Consider the following quote:

There is simply no chance that Judaism and Christianity, for example, will ever stop taking the Torah (a concept, it should be noted, that includes but extends beyond the Pentateuch) and the Bible, respectively, as anything less than the text to be read in worship and studied at home and other venues of religious instruction.

The Torah/Hebrew Bible/Bible/Scriptures being the text to be read in worship is not directly related to inerrancy. Rather, I think it has a great deal to do with the idea that the text is inspired. However, inspiration != inerrancy. To be sure, inerrancy has influenced interpreters. It has been, and in some sects still is, a major doctrine. However, inerrancy is concerned with slightly different issues than inspiration. Inspiration says that the text is somehow from God. Inerrancy says that since that text is from God it has no errors (as Hobbins rightly points out, this is variously defined). To many, inerrancy is a requirement for inspiration, though by no means does everyone agree on that.

Another relevant quote:

The vast majority of American political scientists treat the Constitution, for all practical purposes, as inerrant. There is little or no talk of downgrading either its iconic or practical importance in American political life.

I think the better word to use here would be “inspired.” The idea that the Constitution is “errant” is simply not something that comes up in political science. It says what the Founding Fathers desired it to say. Errancy or inerrancy does not enter into the conversation and is rather superfluous to said conversation. Inspiration, on the other hand, is quite relevant. That is to say, the Constitution is viewed as the standard to which all other laws are compared.

I think if conversations about inerrancy are going to continue in a fruitful way there needs to be some attempt to define what exactly it is, and how it differs from inspiration.


6 thoughts on “John Hobbins on Inerrancy

  1. Hi Calvin!

    You are quite right that inspiration and inerrancy are distinct concepts. Traditionally, however, the former has been understood to imply the latter.

    I work a lot with youth, and I’m not one to overuse either term in that context. Both words lack freshness and/or are opaque and require explanation. In general, classical theological terms require a lot of translation.

    It’s easier to begin with scripture’s own praise of God’s word. Pss 19 and 119, for example. The praise language of Zwingli for scripture is, I think, understandable by all:

    T]he word of God is to be held by us in the highest honor . . . and no word should be accorded the same faith as this one. For it is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness, it is its own interpreter and enlightens the human soul with all salvation and all grace.

    Now, if all of that is true, and I believe it is, then it’s possible to speak about the Bible in more concrete terms with great confidence. Thus, the Bible is a mirror we peer into which allows us to see ourselves as we really are. It is a spiritual map which shows us how to get from where we are to where God would like us to be. It’s a place where we learn to question God, and where we learn to hear God question us. It’s a compass which shows us where “true north” is. It is a window into a richer wider world we hardly imagined. It is a light unto our path.

    It is my contention that if we lose the ability to speak of scripture in the terms Zwingli used, we have lost something important. I’m conscious of scripture’s manifest humanness and the imperfections it contains, but I see these as ultimately contributing to its perfection. God’s strength is manifested in precisely these weaknesses. It’s the mixture of the sweet and acceptable with the bitter and unacceptable – see, e.g., Pss 110 and 137 – that keeps me going back to the Bible for fresh challenges.

  2. John, I agree with the majority of your points. I think where things get a little murky is in our modern perceptions of the word “inerrant.” It obviously means different things to different people, but I know many who feel that in order for the Bible to be inerrant it must have no errors, using a definition of errors that is very 20th century. If we can rethink/redefine inerrancy in a different way, I would be fine with it.

    I’m not too familiar with Zwingli, so I can’t comment on our ability to use his language. Nevertheless, language is constantly evolving, and if a word eventually gets to the point where it means nothing (because its definitions are so broad and varied), should we continue to use it?

    In the end, as you point out, it is my belief that Scripture is both divine and human that causes me to return to it. I love the Hebrew Bible (and, of course, the New Testament) because God’s strength is manifest in his willingness to allow his Scripture to be written by human hands.

  3. Calvin:
    Hobbins’ post, while very well written, i precisely why I steer clear of conversation of academic Biblical Studies in favor of Historical Studies. The fidelists vehemently hold that inspiration is synonymous with inerrancy and those on the opposite end of the spectrum, the ‘liberals’ if you will, mock the concept of both and thereby disqualify the fidelists from participating in conversation. Now the fidelists make absolutist statments based more on their fidelist theology than anything else, and the ‘liberals’ do the same in return.

    There is little room for genuine dialogue with either side unless you first agree with their presuppositions, otherwise they accuse you of rejecting the God (be it the God of Scripture or the God of Reason).

    When I read the Zwingli quotation all I can see is Zwingli’s bias and interpretation method being propagated as authoritative. I do believe that the Scripture will reveal ‘true north’, but what happens when my ‘true north’ is your ‘east’? Sure scripture ‘cannnot err’ but what does that mean? Somehow I’m missing the fidelists’ point because I love the idea that God lies to me occassionally- when I was learning Hebrew my prof. lying to me to make learning the language simplier (for the time being) made all the difference, my parents not telling my information I didn’t need to know made my life less complicated. Ignorance is bliss, why can’t God’s love mean He keeps us in ignorance?

    Hobbins’ blog was excellent btw.


  4. Earl,

    Most of your accusations against Biblical studies could be leveled against theology or historical studies. Any time there are people who have tied themselves to a particular system there will be the tendency to twist the facts. Personally, I think John brings up good point, but I still hold to my original position that he is seeing inerrancy and inspiration as too closely linked.

    Somehow I’m missing the fidelists’ point because I love the idea that God lies to me occassionally- when I was learning Hebrew my prof. lying to me to make learning the language simplier (for the time being) made all the difference

    The language of God lying makes me a bit nervous. I, personally, can’t remember a time when Dr. Snyder lied. He just tended to give the barest possible explanation. But normally he’d be upfront about it. I’ve no problem with God not revealing everything (of course, neither does anyone). But the language of God lying makes me uncomfortable–though I’m willing to dialog. I guess, ultimately, I see no need to use such language. One, I suppose, only needs such language if one is trying to accept a more fundamentalist definition of inspiration while simultaneously holding to critical theories. But I could be wrong.

  5. it probably could be leveled against all disciplines of study, I’m just biased because I’ve been attacked by so many fundamentalists.

    In Hebrew I was taught that there weren’t any exceptions. He would even say this is how it will always look… until it came time to learn the exceptions, sometimes a few months down the road. I’d say that is what progressive revelation is about. He told the Church what they needed to know. I’d say the precedent still stands. (btw, I don’t think what came later usually contradicts what came prior- at least in what we have currently anyways)

    Using the language of God’s ‘lying’, while completely defendable is most likely too provocative and unhelpful if my goal was open, genuine dialogue. For some reason I always gravitate towards using volatile language, I do it unintentionally. Perhaps you’re right though, my need to allow God freedom to exist outside my Biblical constructs while still being the God of the Bible my be resulting in my post-liberal fideism.

    oh yeah, and, imo, being breathed by God and without error shouldn’t be confused to be synonymous.

  6. Wow, I’m really sorry I came to this party late! But, as a law professor, I wanted to note that use of the term “inerrant” with respect to the Constitution would be ludicrous, and “inspired” would be misleading. No Constitutional scholar or jurist, even very conservative originalists such as Justice Scalia, would call the Constitution “inerrant.” Even the framers of the Constitution recognized that it is not inerrant by including within it procedures for amendment. As to “inspired,” well, yeah, the people who wrote it were geniuses, and we could say they were “inspired” in the same sense that John Coltrane played “inspired” music. But obviously, this has nothing to do with the theological category of “inspiration.”

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