Tag Archives: Inerrancy

A Theory about Theory?

W. Jackson Watts

Recently I was preparing a sermon from Ephesians 3:1-13 as part of a series on Ephesians at my church. During my study I consulted several commentaries, including the NIV Application Commentary on Ephesians, authored by Klyne Snodgrass, now professor emeritus at North Park Theological Seminary.

Each volume in this commentary set is divided into three sections for each passage: (1) Original Meaning, in which the text is exegeted; (2) Bridging Contexts, in which the key themes and issues that arise from that exegesis are discussed; and (3) Contemporary Significance, in which some application is provided. Hence, the sub-theme of the entire set: “From biblical text…to contemporary life.”

I do sometimes scratch my head a bit with where the authors go with application of passages. For example, on this passage, Snodgrass says:

“In urging that we value the treasure of revelation, I am not urging focus on a particular theory of revelation. Theories are fine, as long as we do not forget that the revelation is unsearchable and inexhaustible and that our theories are always inadequate. People do  not have to use the same words—such as ‘inerrancy’—to value the treasure. To set up a particular expression as a necessary description canonizes the wrong material and only detracts from the revelation. What people need to know is that the gospel is truth  from God (1:13). While some theories are inadequate, several others are legitimate and useful. But our theories must not become substitutes for the revelation itself. We study the revelation, not our theories.”[1]

Criticisms of inerrancy abound, and it seems Snodgrass is at least implicating himself in that body of criticism. However, I’m interested in the larger criticism about theories of revelation which he offers.

What Does He Mean by “Theories of Revelation”?

First, Snodgrass is especially anxious about theories of revelation. Most Bible students learn about some such theories in the course of study. These concern how the Bible came to exist in its present form, which belongs more properly to studies of canon. Then there are ideas about the nature of biblical inspiration, which deal with the nature of the text and how it may or may not convey truth to the reader.

Right off hand, I cannot think of any evangelical theory of revelation that claims our understanding of revelation is not unsearchable, or inexhaustible. This includes our ability to apprehend all biblical texts to the point of 100% certainty and clarity, or our ability to be able to retrace with minute precision every revelatory moment in history. So Snodgrass’ claim about the adequacy of our theories makes me ask, “Does adequacy require comprehensiveness?” In my experience, the adequacy or sufficiency of a model or theory about the Bible does not require inexhaustibility to be faithful or legitimate.

I also wonder if theory, for him, includes any account or idea itself about revelation. As a former professor of biblical literature, I have a hard time imagining that in Snodgrass’ 40+ years of teaching he never utilized models, categories, or perhaps theories about textual composition. If the biblical text is somehow connected to what he means about revelation, then I wonder how he carefully avoided “inadequate theories” of revelation. It would be helpful for readers to know which ones he considered “legitimate and useful,” and what criteria one might employ to make that determination.

Which Revelation?

It would also be useful to know what Professor Snodgrass really means by revelation. The institution he taught at is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, which affirms the centrality of the Word of God. Their website does not explain, however, what this means. What counts as the Word? The written, canonical text? The message the text gives rise to? Surely some explanations or accounts (or theories?) might prove useful in helping us make sense of this.

The revelation that Paul speaks about in these passages seems to be the Damascus Road experience, through which the risen Christ called him to salvation and to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. Yet when evangelicals typically speak of revelation they either mean general revelation available to all human beings (via creation, conscience), or special revelation (namely, the person of Christ and canonical Scripture). Categories or distinctions then become essential for helping us move from the revelation Paul speaks of, to the larger question of how we steward God’s revelation, namely, the Gospel of Christ for Jew and Gentile alike.

Does our attempt to distinguish, categorize, and perhaps even theorize about the relationship between these forms of revelation inherently diminish our stewardship of it? Or does it actually bring more clarity into how we ought to be handling the revelation? I opt for the latter.

A Question of Discipleship?

One aim of Snodgrass that I do appreciate has to do with discipleship. In the preceding paragraph he points to the fact that when we truly value the revelation of God we focus on the Gospel, which has implications not only for conversion, but discipleship.

In the context of Ephesians 3:1-13, the passage he is commenting upon, Paul is under house arrest for fulfilling his ministry to the Gentiles. His passion for the “mystery of Christ” compelled him to share, even emboldening him in the face of adversity. Snodgrass argues, “The value we place on something determines the hardship we are willing to endure for it. We will expend enormous energy and resources to care for a person or a prized possession we value a great deal. Paul valued the gospel enough to go to prison for it.”[2]

The larger point is well taken. We can intellectualize and become overly theoretical about biblical truth or principles to the point that we devalue actual lived obedience. But again, the question is whether theories or accounts of revelation inherently do this.

Perhaps Dr. Snodgrass could have served the reader better had he said something like this: “We must never substitute our theorizing for the glory of God itself. Our theories are only good insomuch that they find Scriptural support, for insomuch that they find Scriptural support they are able to bring the minds and hearts (that God’s Spirit indwells) into contact with God’s own mind and heart.”

In the end, Snodgrass seems to have a theory about theory. I’m just not persuaded that this theory, embedded ever-so-slightly in a biblical commentary, will help us to avoid the speculations that don’t promote “the stewardship from God that is by faith.” (1 Tim. 1:4). We need a more careful account about how theological models, categories, and theories can best point us to the Lord.

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[1] Klyne Snodgrass, The NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 170.

[2] Snodgrass, NIV Application Commentary: Ephesians, 171.

Interpreting Doctrinal Statements in a Shifting Evangelical Landscape

by Kevin Hester

Recently, I have been working with an ad hoc committee for an evangelical organization tasked with considering admission standards. For many years, this organization has espoused a basic Evangelical statement of faith as the basis for membership. Institutions and groups have been asked to sign the statement yearly to indicate continued compliance. But recently, some groups not typically associated with mainstream evangelicalism, have approached the body expressing an interest in membership. This has served to raise the question of what is meant by mainstream evangelicalism at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Is there a fracture occurring? Are lines being redrawn that will exclude former evangelicals and include others not previously represented? What has been heartening about this discussion in this group is seeing both a commitment to traditional evangelical orthodoxy and to objective truth. The desire to be inclusive has not overridden a commitment to basic Biblical doctrine.

Context of the Problem

What has become apparent in our discussion is that evangelicalism is shifting. And our organization is trying to keep up. What we have noticed is that a simple doctrinal statement may simply not be enough. The issue has become an interpretive question. How a doctrinal statement is interpreted has become as important as the creedal confession. Our response to this point has been to suggest an additional document defining terms and seeking to bring clarity to what had previously been universally understood. What was formerly a question of integrity has now additionally become a question of interpretation.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising. The basic historical, grammatical method of interpretation has been the mainstay of evangelicalism. I would say it still is. But in the midst of postmodern interpretive methods and societal pressures on the traditional exegesis of particular passages of Scripture, new or different, battle lines are being drawn.

Inspiration, Inerrancy, and Infallibility

Unfortunately, some Arminians seem to be contributing to this problem. I was reminded of this truth when I read a recent article by Roger Olson. In it, he argues that evangelicals should move beyond more exclusive language about Scripture and follow him in embracing the infallibility of Scripture rather than the traditional inerrancy of Scripture. “Inspiration,” a word he readily uses, is seen to apply to the human authors of Scripture rather than the very words of Scripture themselves. Thus, his denial of a traditional evangelical approach to Scripture is an “interpretive” question. Olson posits that inspiration assures the infallibility of the purpose of Scripture, but not the inerrancy of the content.

Norman Geisler, general editor for Defending Inerrancy was quick to respond. Geisler argues that statements like Olson’s miss the point that infallibility necessarily implies inerrancy. Else, how could such a document ever be a reliable source of any kind of truth? The correspondence view of truth requires Scripture to correspond to reality. The intellectual content of belief assumes that for Scripture to serve its purpose of salvation (a purpose Olson accepts) it must also be true.

The kind of hermeneutics that can embrace an infallible, but not inerrant Scripture is, in the words of Geisler, “subjective mysticism” rather than an “objective hermeneutic.” Here, I believe that Geisler has hit squarely upon the issue facing evangelicals today.

Evangelicals are specifically a people of the book. We embrace scripture as inspired and infallible. Traditionally, we have also argued for its inerrancy. The question is now one of how these important terms are interpreted. As important as ascribing to a doctrine of Scripture is also the question of the hermeneutic that will be applied. The framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) recognized this as well. This is why just a few years after the publication of their document on inerrancy, they followed it with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics (1982).

Historical, Grammatical Hermeneutics and Inerrancy

Article 15 of this document is clear that the historical, grammatical interpretation of Scripture is foundational for any understanding of inspiration and is the basis for the inerrancy of the original manuscripts. It reads, “WE AFFIRM the necessity of interpreting the Bible according to its literal, or normal, sense. The literal sense is the grammatical-historical sense, that is, the meaning which the writer expressed. Interpretation according to the literal sense will take account of all figures of speech and literary forms found in the text.”

Article 20 goes on to state, “WE AFFIRM that since God is the author of all truth, all truths, biblical and extrabiblical, are consistent and cohere, and that the Bible speaks truth when it touches on matters pertaining to nature, history, or anything else.” Herein, lies the need for a historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic, not only in reference to Scripture, but also in reference to historical expressions of orthodox creeds and evangelical statements of faith. Words are not simply signifiers devoid of content until that content is supplied by a context of modern interpreters. Words have meaning in the instance of their formulation in creeds and statements of faith. These very words then can only mean what the original framers meant for them to mean.

If evangelicals fail to realize the interpretive questions that lie behind their historical statements of belief, the shifting theological landscape and the rains of culture will erode the meaning of these definitional statements until only a husk remains. A proper historical, grammatical interpretive hermeneutic is just as important as proper statements of faith in preserving theological integrity.