Friday, 3 April 2009

Response to Stephen Pickard

By the Revd Dr Phillip Tolliday

Stephen, thanks for these thoughts on Inspiration and Inerrancy. I think it’s helpful to point to the connection between post-Reformation Protestantism and the emerging scientific culture. I think it is also important to show that the Scriptures have their authority within the community and that outside of the community the attempt to defend scriptural authority can lead to minimalist conclusions (as I sought to show in my post).

I’m certainly going to agree with you about inerrancy, but I want to raise one question in passing. Quoting from Ted Peters you say that what makes the Bible canon for Christians ‘is the church’s firm belief that it is trustworthy. The people of the church, gathered together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are confident that it will convey to us the gospel of Jesus Christ.’ Now I’m considering this proposal in light of what you write previously when you refer to the Belgic Confession. If I have understood you correctly, you are suggesting that Calvin’s reference to the inner witness of the Holy Spirit sends us along the road toward biblical inerrancy. Am I correct in thinking Calvin to the modern originator of double inspiration? In any event, I wonder where you see a difference—for presumably you do see a difference—between Calvin’s inner witness of the Spirit to readers of the text and the work of the Spirit convoking the community who are thereby ‘confident that it will convey to us the gospel of Jesus Christ.’

A second point is indebted to Bruggemann, The Book That Breathes New Life: Scriptural Authority and Biblical Theology, who prefers to speak of Inherency rather than Inerrancy. Migliore’s ‘liberating and reconciling’ function of Scripture seems to be given its proper space in Bruggemann’s notion of ‘inherency.’ He means by this that Scripture is the ‘live Word of God that addresses us concerning the character and will of the gospel-giving God, empowering us to an alternative life in the world.’ However this inherent Word of God in the biblical text ‘is, of course, refracted through many authors who were not disembodied voices of revealed truth. They were, rather, circumstance-situated men and women of faith…who said what their circumstance permitted and required them to speak, as they were able, of that which is truly inherent.’ When we read the text we bring to it a sense that some of these authors may have been more successful than others in their attempt to speak. So, for Bruggemann, these two factors: that the Bible is inherently the Word of God and also that the inherent Word of God in the text is refracted through authors who were all-too-human, indicate that the Scriptures are rightly called ‘strange and new’ as Barth once famously described them.

Bruggemann suggests that these two factors, inherency and refraction entail that the Bible is not a fixed text with a firm and final meaning, frozen and only requiring explication, but rather a script which is ‘always reread, through which the Spirit makes new.’ Accordingly no-one’s reading can be final or inerrant ‘precisely because the Key Character in the book who creates, redeems and consummates is always beyond us in holy hiddenness.’ Inherency, as opposed to inerrancy, is a reading which is inescapably provisional, thereby reminding us of Rowan Williams’ eschatological reading of the literal sense. Our attempts to turn inherency into inerrancy make the Scriptures ‘a playground for idolatry’ whereas they should be read as iconic.

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