Needed: A Statement on Biblical Inerrancy By a Top-Tier, Postfoundationalist Theologian
So as not to assume prior knowledge, this post begins with descriptions of three important terms.
Foundationalism has the goal of discovering an approach to knowledge that will provide rational human beings with absolute, incontestable certainty regarding the truthfulness of their beliefs. John Franke writes, “[For the Foundationalist k]nowledge must be built on a sure foundation. The Enlightenment epistemological foundations consist of a set of incontestable beliefs or unassailable first principles on the basis of which the pursuit of knowledge can proceed. These basic beliefs on first principles must be universal, objective, and discernible to any rational person.” Foundationalism was the dominant epistemology of Western society in the 19th century and is known for its rigid division between conservative and liberal, “right” and “left.” Its popularity, or even dominance, continues among large segments of evangelicalism.
Postfoundationalism has the goal of rejecting assumed or given authority on specific beliefs and actions, and instead advocating the pursuit of truth in a dialectical fashion. It’s a broad, postmodern philosophical movement that has now been carried into the theological realm. Its title is a chronological term literally meaning after Foundationalism. It’s a response against the philosophical principles and aspired rational certitude of the Enlightenment—which are denounced as having failed—in favor of postmodernity’s multivalent epistemology. Of course, Franke has noted that “postmodernity is notoriously difficult to pin down.” It is an expansive category that subsequent generations will likely dissect, but one of the unifying motifs is the “chastened rationality and the demise of foundationalism.”
The epistemological engine propelling Postfoundationalism is Critical Realism. It trumps a perspectivist alternative to pure objectivism and sheer relativism. If the objectivist says, “Absolute truth exists and is thus knowable. Through our empirical senses and mental faculties we’re capable of understanding” and the relativist says, “Absolute truth is a myth and is thus unknowable. Everything we think is a product of our limited senses and perceptions,” then the perspectivist says, “Neither option is adequate. Truth exists as that which corresponds to reality, but we can only know it partially and never grasp it fully.” It’s best to refrain from calling Critical Realism a “middle-way” because its proponents are highly critical of the ideological spectrum intellectual framework, but it is an alternative path forward.
At the risk of fully exposing my blatant nerdery, I will openly acknowledge that I love Critical Realism and self-describe without reservation as a Postfoundationalist. It is, in my estimate, the only school of thought that adequately holds in tension our human nature as made in God’s image yet fully marred. In other words, though not all Postfoundationalists would affirm these underlying theological precepts, Critical Realism from a christian point of view recognizes and upholds the simultaneous convictions that we’ve simultaneously been endowed by our Creator will sense, reason, and intellect yet our cognitive abilities are limited by humanity’s finitude and fallenness. It doesn’t allow one to esteem our rationality too highly as does the objectivist nor does it permit one to esteem our rationality too lowly as down the relativist. As I said, I love it.
With that understanding in place, I turn my attention to the issue at hand: biblical inerrancy.
Prior to Saturday’s post on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, I’d long avoided writing on the topic of biblical inerrancy. The reason being that this subject brings out the inner-spazzoid in far too many people. That’s a description, not an ad hominem attack. Even people I trust to be civil, nuanced, and thoughtful are prone to suddenly morphing into militant, oversimplistic extremists. It’s uncanny. Not only do many go on the offensive, they also get defensive and overly sensitive. I cannot tell you have many times I’ve had my character maligned over this issue. Literally the exact same comments have caused traditionalists to decry my doctrinal orthodoxy and the progressives to dismiss my intellectual credibility. I’m telling you, it’s a sacred cow that causes people to become unthinking and reactionary cantankerous assholes, all in the name of Holy Scripture. It’s bizarre.
The truth is, I’ve never seen or heard a definition of biblical infallibility I didn’t like yet have had a remarkable diversity of responses to the definitions of biblical inerrancy. That list includes jubilant affirmation, alarmed rejection, cautious inquiry, amused chuckling, frustrated dismissal, lackadaisical forget, confused reservation, angry denunciation, sad avoidance, and reluctant acceptance. Seriously, I still have no idea what on earth what the norm conception is that I’m supposed to attach to those words, and it’s not for lack of trying. Not only that, too often the definitions people try to use decontextualize the twin issues of authorial intent and redaction from hermeneutical methodology, canonical formation, ecclesiastical authority, and so forth. It’s kind of like defining what a car is while omitting roads, tires, and people from the conversation.
It’s no coincidence that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy arose when and where it did in church history. It’s both reflective of, and a response to, the cultural and intellectual milieu of its day. It seems to me, then, that the chief problem with biblical inerrancy isn’t the desire to have confidence in Scripture’s authority. Truly that’s an honorable endeavor. Rather, it’s that most of its strongest proponents are Foundationalists. This demographic reality causes the issue to largely become one of aspired absolute certitude, which in turn suppresses a number of difficult issues that simply cannot be ignored–not without sacrificing intellectual honesty, anyway. It’s not that a document like the Chicago Statement doesn’t make many good and valuable points. To my eyes, its weakness lies in the faulty epistemological assumptions of so many of its contributors.
There are plenty of those who simply wish to wipe away the whole issue of biblical inerrancy as an antiquated doctrine. It’s as though they simply want to act like it never happened. To be clear, I do not stand among their ranks. The mistake I believe they’re making is to suppose that because the doctrine arose during an era of Foundationalism it must necessarily be useless in an era of Postfoundationalism. It’s a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in my opinion. I’m not a presentist who presumes those now living can learn nothing from our forebearers; I’ve little patience for such chronological snobbery. As I said previously, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy makes a number of salient observations and offers wise affirmations that ought not be flippantly jettisoned. Those things just need to be revisioned.
I almost always loathe documents produced by committees. Reflecting the influence and agendas of far too many people, such documents tend to range from garbled to incoherent, and are always ugly. There’s no single voice to which others add accents. Instead committees produce written cacophonies. By contrast the most articulate and beautiful documents I think of were consistently principally authored by one person and then edited by others after the fact. Two such examples are Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. I seriously doubt this will ever happen, but what is needed is a top-tier evangelical mind to produce a Postfoundationalist statement on biblical inerrancy. It would need be someone who garners immense respect within and without the evangelical academic sphere. Off the top of my head, three such possible candidates would be N.T. Wright, Alister McGrath, or Kevin Vanhoozer.
In sum, I’m not desirous of altogether scrapping the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. What I am interested in is four things. First, it’d be nice if there were a document I could readily affirm. More specifically, one I could affirm without having my doctrinal orthodoxy and intellectual credibility constantly being called into question. Second, it’d be nice to know what the heck biblical inerrancy actually is. A norming concept I can point to as definition would be exceedingly helpful. Third, it’d be nice to have a document on inerrancy that isn’t shackled to Foundationalism. I’d love a view on inerrancy that presupposes neither objectivity nor relativity, but instead assumes perspectivity. Lastly, it’d be nice to have a document that wasn’t the obvious product of a committee. Instead I’d like a document on inerrancy that was principally written by a single, top-tier theologian who has earned the respect of evangelicals and non-evangelicals alike.