Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Rhetoric of Inerrancy

Some Evangelicals go out of their way to combat the term inerrancy. As I've said recently, I don't mind Evangelicals not using the term inerrancy, but I think it is problematic for Evangelicals to make the concerted effort to berate the usage of the term.

Usually, Evangelicals who berate the term inerrancy are quick to affirm the Bible as the Word of God. They might even affirm the Bible's "infallibility" (I can't really perceive much difference between the two terms) and "authoritative."

This being the case, their argument against "inerrancy" is problematic. They end up implying that the Bible has errors in it, and this is a problem for people who otherwise have such a high view of scripture.

SBL and Fellowship of the Guild

I attended the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature last week in Boston, and hope to make a few blog posts about it. This post contains some general comments about my experience of the guild.

Last year, SBL was at San Diego. One text critic who is not an American made a general comment last year about how militarised America is. Of course, he was generalising based upon his experience of San Diego which is a significant centre of military activity in the U.S. This year in Boston, I didn’t see a single military person in uniform. I suppose it is possible that Boston has largely been demilitarised since the days when its harbour was clogged with British warships and citizens were required to provide room and board for Redcoat soldiers.

One thing I’ve learned in the last several years is how gracious text critics are toward each other. There seems to be a genuine camaraderie and eagerness to fellowship with one another. I’ve especially been impressed with how accepting they’ve been of me as a very junior member of the guild. A number of senior members of our discipline have taken a genuine interest in my work and have said or written encouraging things to me. One senior member entrusted me with a paper he presented for the meeting, although he intends to publish it soon, just cautioning me about how I might cite it prior to its publication. Other significant members have seen my blog and gone out of the way to say nice things about it. Another member initiated a conversation with me on a particular issue and was very helpful in pointing out a basic misunderstanding I had of another text critic’s work.

One of my best experiences was on my first day of my first SBL annual meeting in Philadelphia in 2005. I had been out of academia for a dozen years or more and had been completely out of touch with my former associates at Regent College, and so I hardly knew anyone at the meeting. I sat down at a general orientation session coincidentally near a distinguished gentleman who kindly introduced himself to me, and we quickly discovered our mutual interest in text criticism . As it turns out, this was none other than James A. Royse whose chapter on scribal habits in the Holmes-Ehrman volume I had read before, but had forgotten his name. His gracious demeanour toward me is something I won’t ever forget.

Along these lines, I have to mention how text critic Amy Anderson encouraged me during this time. Amy teaches at North Central College in Minnesota and published an important work on a group of manuscripts known as family one. I read this work back in 2005 and zipped off a brief email to her thanking her for such a good quality work. At the time, I was in an interim pastoral ministry and was unsure of my next career move. She promptly replied and helped me see an avenue toward working on a PhD. An important element, she explained, was to attend SBL and to get to know some people. I checked into it, but the cost for non-students was so prohibitive that I simply could not afford to go, especially since I had just had a job change and was financially insecure.

Amy, however, was persistent. About a month before the meeting, she initiated another email exchange, urging that I attend SBL. She talked me into it, and this was one of the best decisions I’ve made. More than that, Amy drew me into her group of students and associates so that I was not a loner at the conference. She even included me in a lunch meeting with David Parker. I hope that I can honour her by having the same encouraging and generous spirit toward others in the years to come.

Since that time, I’ve been privileged to get to know most of the text critics who blog at Evangelical Textual Criticism. This is a special treat and has afforded me many opportunities for serious informal discussion of our guild. They are all very generous and tolerant of me even whenever I spout out stuff about which I know nothing (which is often). I always walk away better informed and feeling like I have an inside track on issues in the discipline.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Inerrancy, Authority and the Original Text

I had a good chat with a long time scholar friend who bristled at the term inerrancy. He does believe in the authority of the Bible, but argued that we should avoid the term inerrancy since we don't have the original manuscripts of the Bible.

But nonetheless, the Bible is authoritative, he assured me.

The problem with this line of argumentation is that it fails to understand that the text is something which is non-physical. The Word of God is "immaterial" and is merely reflected (more or less) in the various manuscripts of the New Testament, depending on the accuracy of the scribe and exemplars. We reconstruct the inerrant Word of God as best we can based upon these material witnesses. The physical manifestation of the text (i.e., the manuscripts) are patently not inerrant--they have errors in them; yet the ultimate reality of God's Word behind the physical manuscripts is perfect.

My friend would not accept this argument of mine, insisting that it is impractical to argue for the perfection of something which has no physicality. So I asked him what is it then that he thinks is "authoritative." He replied, "The Word of God." But I replied, "Do you mean the physical manuscripts, or the real text behind the physical manifestation of the text reflected in the manuscripts?"

This stumped him. Ultimately, if you can't have an inerrant text without the original manuscripts, neither can you have an authoritative text without the original manuscripts.

Of course, for myself, I have no problems with saying that the real text behind that which is physically manifested in the manuscripts is inerrant, and the fact that we don't have the original manuscripts doesn't impact this perception.