I am following the recent debate between Norman Geisler and several scholars I respect regarding inerrancy and interpretations of Bible passages. This debate was sparked in part by a book written by Geisler and Bill Roach titled Defending Inerrancy: Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a NewGeneration. The introduction to that book was written by J. I. Packer. It was enjoined by a response by J. P. Holding and Nick Peters titled Defining Inerrancy: Affirming a DefensibleFaith for a New Generation. The introduction to that response was written by Craig Blomberg, a scholar whose books have been very valuable to me.
I could not help but notice that Geisler’s book did not receive the endorsement of one person who was key in the development of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy: R. C. Sproul. The Chicago Statement is at the crux of the debate. (I also lament the fact that several of the original signatories are dead and unable to provide guidance.)
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy reads, in part:
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historicaI exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. (Article XVIII )
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, written by many of the same people who wrote the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, reads:
We affirm that awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study. (Article XIII)
We affirm the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text. (Article XV)
We affirm that legitimate critical techniques should be used in determining the canonical text and its meaning. (Article XVI)
I would also refer people to the careful Exposition of the document by J. I. Packer.
These statements do not seem to allow the hardline approach Geisler is proposing in certain places, but they also call into question some of the notable oversimplifications of the “traditionalist” position in Holding and Peters’ book. (Some of those oversimplifications are evident from the post here.)
We must let scholars work within their areas of expertise to determine the meaning of Bible texts using any and all necessary means. This includes both internal context and external context; contemporary usage and biblical usage of words; and literary forms contemporary with the Bible books and their authors. We cannot impose our modern, Western standards of interpretation on the Bible.
Lay-persons like me must be able to defer to experts in science, languages, and history to help determine the meanings of texts. I see nothing in The Chicago Statements that calls this into question. It’s a very carefully written document.
At the same time, experts must be willing to subject their interpretations to both the witness of church history and the comparison of their interpretations with the Bible as a whole. Church tradition does have a secondary authority which can guide our efforts to understand the Bible, and we should not think that expertise in early languages and literary forms is confined to our present age.
Systematic theology, the study of what the Bible as a whole says on a given subject, must also be allowed to correct major issues. There is no substitute for knowledge of the entire Bible for lay-persons like me who place a high value on the teachings of Scripture, and this knowledge makes us able to contribute to the discussions.
I pray that this debate we be profitable for the post-modern Christian church and that we will all develop a greater appreciation for each other in the process of conflict. Some people, me included, learn a lot from a good, old-fashioned argument. I hope and pray the arguments in this case do not degenerate into ‘straw-man arguments’ and name calling.