As you may recall, Ben Myers's Faith and Theology blog is having a poll on the wost theological invention. I voted for biblical inerrancy and that invention seems to have a big lead in the poll. Ben posted a very interesting commentary on why biblical inerrancy is wrong:
In earlier times, theologians often said that the Bible is authoritative because it is “inspired,” or because it has been authored (directly or indirectly) by the Holy Spirit. Thus the Bible qua text was believed to be qualitatively different from all other texts. According to this theory, the authority of the Bible is purely formal. What the Bible actually says is authoritative only because it is written in this particular book—and this book would still be authoritative no matter what it actually said.
This theory of biblical authority is fundamentally flawed. On the one hand, it is historically flawed: historical criticism has demonstrated that the Bible qua text is no different from other historical texts—it is just as conditioned and contingent as all other texts. On the other hand, this theory of authority is also theologically flawed. For the important thing about the Bible is precisely what it says. Any theory of inspiration or authority is legitimate only to the extent that it gives primacy to the Bible’s message.
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Christian faith has always confessed that Scripture is trustworthy. But what does this mean? Here again, we need to emphasise that the important thing about Scripture is simply what it says. When we confess that Scripture is trustworthy, we are saying that the message of Scripture is trustworthy, that it is a true and reliable message.
It is especially important here to avoid lapsing into a formalised notion of a trustworthy or “inerrant” text—as though the biblical texts themselves possess miraculous properties. The Bible is trustworthy because its message is trustworthy. It is trustworthy in the way that preaching is trustworthy—and this is, of course, entirely different from the trustworthiness of scientific or historical textbooks. In short, the Bible is a trustworthy witness. It is trustworthy because the one to whom it witnesses is faithful and true.
We can take a further step, then, and affirm that Scripture’s trustworthiness lies “outside itself” (extra se). Its trustworthiness is the trustworthiness of Jesus Christ himself. It is trustworthy because it witnesses to him and proclaims him. We may even use the traditional terminology and say that Scripture is “infallible,” so long as we remember that this “infallibility” lies outside the Bible itself—it is nothing more (or rather, nothing less) than the infallibility of Jesus Christ.
Read it all. Ben's point is subtle--but it is an important one. We believe that the scriptures have authority as God's word, but this does not mean that each and every comment, phrase or claim is from God. To put it plainly, Scripture reflects God's word (singular), but not God's words (plural). Perhaps more importantly, we believe that God's word is the authority--not the scriptures themselves.
N.T. Wright, now Bishop of Durham and a leading biblical scholar has a very useful lecture on this very point that is well worth reading. Some highlights:
A regular response to these problems is to say that the Bible is a repository of timeless truth. There are some senses in which that is true. But the sense in which it is normally meant is certainly not true. The whole Bible from Genesis to Revelation is culturally conditioned. It is all written in the language of particular times, and evokes the cultures in which it came to birth. It seems, when we get close up to it, as though, if we grant for a moment that in some sense or other God has indeed inspired this book, he has not wanted to give us an abstract set of truths unrelated to space and time. He has wanted to give us something rather different, which is not (in our post-enlightenment world) nearly so easy to handle as such a set of truths might seem to be. The problem of the gospels is one particular instance of this question. And at this point in the argument evangelicals often lurch towards Romans as a sort of safe place where they can find a basic systematic theology in the light of which one can read everything else. I have often been assured by evangelical colleagues in theological disciplines other than my own that my perception is indeed true: namely, that the Protestant and evangelical tradition has not been half so good on the gospels as it has been on the epistles. We don’t quite know what to do with them. Because, I think, we have come to them as we have come to the whole Bible, looking for particular answers to particular questions. And we have thereby made the Bible into something which it basically is not. I remember a well-known Preacher saying that he thought a lot of Christians used the Bible as an unsorted edition of Daily Light. It really ought to be arranged into neat little devotional chunks, but it happens to have got all muddled up. The same phenomenon occurs, at a rather different level, when People treat it as an unsorted edition of Calvin’s Institutes, the Westminster Confession, the UCCF Basis of Faith, or the so-called ‘Four Spiritual Laws’. But to treat the Bible like that is, in fact, simply to take your place in a very long tradition of Christians who have tried to make the Bible into a set of abstract truths and rules—abstract devotional doctrinal, or evangelistic snippets here and there.
This problem goes back ultimately, I think, to a failure on the part of the Reformers to work out fully their proper insistence on the literal sense of scripture as the real locus of God’s revelation, the place where God was really speaking in scripture. The literal sense seems fine when it comes to saying, and working with, what (for instance) Paul actually meant in Romans. (This itself can actually be misleading too, but we let it pass for the moment.) It’s fine when you’re attacking mediaeval allegorizing of one sort or another. But the Reformers, I think, never worked out a satisfactory answer to the question, how can the literal sense of stories—which purport to describe events in (say) first century Palestine—how can that be authoritative? If we are not careful, the appeal to ‘timeless truths’ not only distorts the Bible itself, making it into the sort of book it manifestly is not, but also creeps back, behind the Reformers’ polemic against allegory, into a neo-allegorization which is all the more dangerous for being unrecognised.
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I want to suggest that scripture’s own view of authority focuses on the authority of God himself. (I recall a well-known lecturer once insisting that ‘there can be no authority other than scripture’, and thumping the tub so completely that I wanted to ask ‘but what about God?’) If we think for a moment what we are actually saying when we use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’, we must surely acknowledge that this is a shorthand way of saying that, though authority belongs to God, God has somehow invested this authority in scripture. And that is a complex claim. It is not straightforward. When people use the phrase ‘authority of scripture’ they very often do not realize this. Worse, they often treat the word ‘authority’ as the absolute, the fixed point, and make the word ‘scripture’ the thing which is moving around trying to find a home against it. In other words, they think they know what authority is and then they say that scripture is that thing.
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Then, we have to ask, if we are to get to the authority of scripture. How does God exercise that authority? Again and again, in the biblical story itself we see that he does so through human agents anointed and equipped by the Holy Spirit. And this is itself an expression of his love, because he does not will, simply to come into the world in a blinding flash of light and obliterate all opposition. He wants to reveal himself meaningfully within the space/time universe not just passing it by tangentially; to reveal himself in judgement and in mercy in a way which will save people. So, we get the prophets. We get obedient writers in the Old Testament, not only prophets but those who wrote the psalms and so on. As the climax of the story we get Jesus himself as the great prophet, but how much more than a prophet. And, we then get Jesus’ people as the anointed ones. And within that sequence there is a very significant passage, namely 1 Kings 22. Micaiah, the son of Imlah (one of the great prophets who didn’t leave any writing behind him but who certainly knew what his business was) stands up against the wicked king, Ahab. The false prophets of Israel at the time were saying to Ahab, ‘Go up against Ramoth-gilead and fight and you will triumph. Yahweh will give it into your hand’. This is especially interesting, because the false prophets appear to have everything going for them. They are quoting Deuteronomy 33—one of them makes horns and puts them on his head and says, ‘with these you will crush the enemy until they are overthrown’. They had scripture on their side, so it seemed. They had tradition on their side; after all, Yahweh was the God of Battles and he would fight for Israel. They had reason on their side; Israel and Judah together can beat these northern enemies quite easily. But they didn’t have God on their side. Micaiah had stood in the council of the Lord and in that private, strange, secret meeting he had learned that even the apparent scriptural authority which these prophets had, and the apparent tradition and reason, wasn’t good enough; God wanted to judge Ahab and so save Israel. And so God delegated his authority to the prophet Micaiah who, inspired by the Spirit, stood humbly in the council of God and then stood boldly in the councils of men. He put his life and liberty on the line, like Daniel and so many others. That is how God brought his authority to bear on Israel: not by revealing to them a set of timeless truths, but by delegating his authority to obedient men through whose words he brought judgement and salvation to Israel and the world.
I have argued that the notion of the ‘authority of scripture’ is a shorthand expression for God’s authority, exercised somehow through scripture; that scripture must be allowed to be itself in exercising its authority, and not be turned into something else which might fit better into what the church, or the world, might have thought its ‘authority’ should look like; that it is therefore the meaning of ‘authority’ itself, not that of scripture, that is the unknown in the equation, and that when this unknown is discovered it challenges head on the various notions and practices of authority endemic in the world and, alas, in the church also. I have suggested, less systematically, some ways in which this might be put into practice. All of this has been designed as a plea to the church to let the Bible be the Bible, and so to let God be God—and so to enable the people of God to be the people of God, his special people, living under his authority, bringing his light to his world. The Bible is not an end in itself. It is there so that, by its proper use, the creator may be glorified and the creation may be healed. It is our task to be the people through whom this extraordinary vision comes to pass. We are thus entrusted with a privilege too great for casual handling, too vital to remain a mere matter of debate.
So what am I saying? I am saying that we mustn’t belittle scripture by bringing the world’s models of authority into it. We must let scripture be itself, and that is a hard task. Scripture contains many things that I don’t know, and that you don’t know; many things we are waiting to discover; passages which are lying dormant waiting for us to dig them out. Awaken them. We must then make sure that the church, armed in this way, is challenging the world’s view of authority. So that, we must determine—corporately as well as individually—to become in a true sense, people of the book. Not people of the book in the Islamic sense, where this book just drops down and crushes people and you say it’s the will of Allah, and I don’t understand it, and I can’t do anything about it. But, people of the book in the Christian sense; people who are being remade, judged and remolded by the Spirit through scripture. It seems to me that evangelical tradition has often become in bondage to a sort of lip-service scripture principle even while debating in fact how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. (Not literally, but there are equivalents in our tradition.) Instead, I suggest that our task is to seize this privilege with both hands, and use it to the glory of God and the redemption of the world.
Read it all. I apologize for the long, block quote, but this is actually only a very brief excerpt from a very subtle and carefully crafted lecture. I urge you to read the whole piece.