Michael Bird on biblical inerrancy, part 1/2

I recently ordered Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy with a desire to sharpen my understanding of that topic. I appreciate the way these “Counterpoints” books encourage dialogue about theology: they feature several essays stating different views on a topic, then the author of each essay has an opportunity to respond to the others. It’s a good way to generate fresh thinking and clarity about a given topic.

In this book, five writers present their views: R. Albert Mohler Jr., President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote “When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy.” Peter Enns, who teaches at Eastern University and blogs at Rethinking Biblical Christianity, contends that “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.” Michael Bird, who teaches at Ridley Melbourne Mission and Ministry College and blogs at Euangelion, contributed “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA.” Kevin J. Vanhoozer, professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, argues for “Augustinian Inerrancy: Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse.” And John R. Franke, Executive Director at Yellowstone Theological Institute, adds “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality.”

Bird’s essay (pp. 145-73) is the one I was most interested in reading because it offered a fresh perspective from outside my own theological and especially cultural background, so when the book arrived, I started with his chapter. I will try to summarize his arguments here as best I am able.

Michael F. Bird

Bird uses the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) as something of a foil. His essay is dependent on CSBI not only as a generally contrasting view, but especially as a statement of the distinctly American Evangelical doctrine of inerrancy that he is trying to rebut. Bird calls CSBI a “robust and forthright statement of biblical authority for which I am genuinely appreciative” and with which he agrees “for the most part.” He is “quite fond of its preface,” but has some “concerns and qualifications about what is said in the section titled ‘A Short Statement’ and in the articles.” He gives four main objections:

First, CSBI has “a defective view of the genre of the biblical creation account and its relationship to scientific models” because it is “frieghted with huge and unacknowledged hermeneutical assumptions” (147). Most importantly, Bird’s reading of CSBI, particularly the Short Statement and Article 12, commit to “a strict literal hermeneutic that demands a literal seven-day creation and a young earth.” Bird objects that this goes beyond a claim that the Bible is true to a claim of how it is true. Thus, Bird asserts, CSBI goes beyond its charter and draws the boundaries of inerrancy unfairly and unnecessarily: those who do not affirm that “one particular interpretation of the biblical text” are consequently “denying the inerrancy and authority of the text.”

Second, CSBI mistakenly assumes “that biblical veracity rests on the harmonization of discrepancies” (148). While Bird “affirm[s] the unity and consistency of Scripture,” he describes the CSBI’s “focus on reconciling the minutia of detail” in Scripture “peculiar and problematic.” Resting the unity of Scripture on “our abilities to resolve all apparent discrepancies” is a “dead end,” Bird warns. Instead, “the unity of both Testaments rests on their singular testimony to Jesus Christ.” The list of apparent biblical discrepancies is long, and no matter how “some bright spark might find a way to resolve the differences,” there will always be some that are in dispute. Why should we rest our doctrine of inerrancy there?

“The point of the story is surely that Jesus is the Son of David,” Bird responds. “Beyond that, the details are incidental and are open to rearrangement by the storyteller.” He quotes Calvin approvingly: “We know that the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates, or even in detailing minutely everything that Christ did or said.” In what sounds like an echo of Barth, Bird asserts, “Christology, not chronology, is the unity and coherence of Scripture!”and therefore we should “not get distracted in wrangling over incidental details and trying to develop unconvincing explanations to account for minor variations in detail.”

Third, CSBI is based on “a revisionist view of the history of biblical interpretation and a lack of reflection on the contingent conditions behind inerrancy” (149). In particular, Bird targets the statement in Article 16 that inerrancy “has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.” Bird calls the idea that the CSBI understanding of inerrancy has been normative to Christian believers over the course of history “a bit of a stretch.” While Augustine’s doctrine of Scripture might generally correspond to CSBI, Chrysostom and Origen held radically different views.

Bird then calls “the focus on the autographs of Scripture… somewhat of a red herring” (150). Even if we had the autographs, it is naive to assume that we could distinguish between “real discrepancies” and “apparent discrepancies.” Appeals to Augustine’s and John Owen’s views on discrepancy are invalidated by the particular concerns of their historical context. Instead Bird believes that our doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy should be that “the authoritative Bible is not just that which replicates the autographs; it is also the Bible as it is received and believed in the church.” He believes that the solution “is not to think that God reinspires every copy of Scripture… nor to say that one particular modern version is inspires… but to see inspiration as extending to the human literary processes which preserved the meaning and power to God’s Word to achieve the ends for which it was given.” Or, as I once heard someone else put it, “the divine power that inspired the Scriptures can and does preserve the Scriptures.”

Still under the heading of “revisionist view of history,” Bird next criticizes what he sees as a CSBI denial “that there were any contingent circumstances that shaped the development of the American inerrancy tradition in the modern period” (153). Hodge and Warfield “did not write in philosophical isolation or in a historical vacuum,” and consequently their particular “theologies of Scripture were shaped by the philosophical currents of their time.” Not that that is bad, according to Bird; it is just unaccounted for in CSBI. “Of course, that does not mean that what they wrote was merely reactionary or that development is always a bad thing, but it is hard to imagine either man writing what he did without René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, or F.C. Baur lurking in the background.”

As his final historical critique, Bird claims that “inerrantists sometimes engage in some anachronistic history in order to defend their view” (153). He gives an example of the kind of argument he is describing:

  1. Good and godly people believe what the CSBI says.
  2. John Calvin was a good and godly person.
  3. Therefore John Calvin believed what the CSBI says.
While Calvin’s view of inerrancy was “very much in the same ballpark” as the CSBI definition of inerrancy, Bird’s objection is that “the context for studying John Calvin is not late 1970s Chicago… We must resist the temptation to turn our heroes of the faith into advocates of our own positions in light of our contemporary debates.”
Fourth, Bird’s sharpest critique of CSBI is what he sees as “an unfortunate trend toward theological colonialism” (154). He describes as “most distressing of all” the way in which “the framers of the CSBI arrogate to the point that they demand that if we do not accept [inerrancy as defined by CSBI], then we are guilty of disregarding Scripture and bringing grave consequences to the church,” and that “…infallibility is not enough by itself and must be cojoined with inerrancy in order to be theologically healthy.”
Here is the problem with that notion, according to Bird: “there are thousands of churches around the world that are both evangelical and orthodox and get on with their ministry without ever having heard of the CSBI and without ever using the word inerrancy in their statement of faith.” These churches “have been informed by a broad creedal and confessional tradition” and did not need to “marry its apologetics to the philosophical terms of modernity.” Bird describes the idea that these churches are in the wrong as a colonial usurpation of an authority that is reminiscent of the ancient councils. However, the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which framed CSBI, is “mainly a conservative in-house American thing” that was international “to the same extent that winners of the World Series” are “world” champions.
Bird strongly resents what he sees as an unjust, unilateral assertion of authority. Who are the Americans to have a “paternalistic attitude” and be so theologically colonial? As Bird points out, “in many cases, conservative American evangelical biblical interpretation is not only parochial but also weird and whacky. Only American evangelicals use Scripture to argue against gun control, against environmental care, and against universal healthcare,” and America is the country of “Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind series!” Further, Bird writes that “we do not need Americans to teach us that the Bible is authoritative and how to do text-based interpretation,” because “we already knew that; in some cases we knew it amillennium before the Americans…” It’s not that Bird dislikes American evangelical scholarship; he affirms that he has “benefited immensely” from it. But this is his punchline: “I want to suggest that when it comes to the doctrine of Scripture, the dialogue and teaching should flow both ways.”
Bird’s “final thoughts on the CSBI” are as follows: 1) It lacks an engagement with “the literary phenomena of Scripture.” 2) When it assumes a certain epistemology or hermeneutics, then becomes an “attempt to smuggle in certain presuppositions and to covertly legitimize them by linking them to belief in inerrancy.” 3) Its primary purpose is not to gauge the mind of the global church on inerrancy, but rather “to define American evangelicalism as a bounded set, to use inerrancy as a way of forcing conformity to certain biblical interpretations, and to weed out dissenters in denominational politics… That is why some inerrantists preach the inerrancy of the text but practice the inerrancy of their interpretation.”
That’s my digest of the first half of Bird’s essay (pp. 145-57). Later I will summarize the second half (pp. 158-173) and the four responses included in this book.

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