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Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy: Kevin Vanhoozer and "Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse"

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At the 65th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society three weeks ago we introduced a new timely resource releasing today, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. It represents some of the finest, cogent work on evangelical reflection on inerrancy.

Two weeks ago we gave you a taste of Al Mohler's and Peter Enn's main arguments. Last week we introduced the international perspective of Michael Bird from Australia. Today we are providing the final two perspectives, who are interested in renewing and recasting inerrancy for our modern day, beginning with Kevin Vanhoozer.

Vanhoozer brings a special blend of linguistic and literary acumen along with hermeneutical and theological dexterity. This experience with linguistics and textual literacy in the hermeneutical enterprise leads Vanhoozer to suggest that what the evangelical community needs now is a so-called “well-versed” inerrancy. 

As Vanhoozer explains, “Accounts of inerrancy are well-versed, first, when they understand ‘the way the words go.’ Well-versed inerrancy acknowledges that biblical truth involved form as well as content. Well-versed inerrancy thus takes account of the importance of rhetoric as well as logic for ‘rightly handling the word of truth.’” (204) He also “gives priority to the Bible’s own teaching about God, language, and truth. ‘Well-versed’ thus stands for ‘the whole counsel of God’—the overarching story line of the Bible that features the economic Trinity,” which constitutes God’s words and acts in history. (205)

In light of his “well-versed” inerrancy, Vanhoozer proposes this definition: “to say that Scripture is inerrant is to confess faith that the authors speak truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when readers read rightly).” (207)

Since as a linguist Vanhoozer doesn’t waste words, each one in his definition is pregnant with meaning, making this a potent, packed definition of inerrancy. We cannot reach inside and tease out the meaning of every word, that’s what the book is for. But I did want to draw attention to this part of the definition: “In all things they affirm.”

Vanhoozer says “These words represent an important qualification—or rather specification—of my definition of inerrancy.” (220) Because rather than the “they” referring to the words, sentences and paragraphs, it refers to the authors. For him it’s important to determine the nature of their discourse and the manner in which they are using their words.

To illustrate Vanhoozer draws our attention to Jesus’ claim about the mustard seed being the smallest of the seeds to speak proverbially about the kingdom of God. We know that the mustard seed is not the smallest of the seeds, so what do we make of that claim in Matthew 13, Mark 4, and Luke 13?

“Jesus was not making a literalistic truth claim (about mustard seeds), but he was speaking the literal truth (about the kingdom),” he says. “This is no game of semantic smoke and mirrors; it is the way linguistic communication works.” (221)

For Vanhoozer, knowing how linguistic communication works is vital for inerrancy. His “primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the word of truth.” (205) Thus the notion of a speech act is important, as is the relationship of language to reality and rhetoric, so too is genre.

It seems Vanhoozer would not disagree with Mohler’s “when the Bible speaks, God speaks,” dictum. What he would want to parse is “What is the Bible saying when God speaks through what the authors affirm?” And one further: “What are we hearing when we listen to what they affirm?”  

Perhaps this last question is the most important, because as Vanhoozer contends: “strong propositionalists hear the music, but only the melody. They therefore think they have assimilated Beethoven’s truth when they can whistle the tune of the Fifth Symphony.” (222) To wrap our hermeneutical head around the full-orbed melody of Scripture we need what Vanhoozer proposes: a well-versed inerrancy.

This is an important chapter in an important discussion on biblical truth and interpretation. This afternoon we will wrap up our inerrancy engagement with John Franke. In the meantime, order this new resource in order to engage this conversation yourself.

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Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.

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