Skip to main content

Today we feature another guest post by Carlos Bovell, a third in what we might begin calling a series on Yahweh’s “evolving” character in the Old Testament (see here and here, and his earlier posts on Scripture here). His most recent book is Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012). (Click here for complete book list.)

Kent Sparks’s God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship is classified by Robert Yarbrough as a “shift story” (in his contribution to Do Historical Matters Matter to Faithan edited volume aimed at critiquing Sparks’s book). A shift story is presented as an account of a biblical scholar changing his/her view of scripture over time.

According to Yarbrough, biblical scholars have basically two incompatible bibliological positions to choose from: one that acknowledges “the results of biblical criticism” and another that accepts “the high view of Scripture upheld by Christian scholars over the centuries” (329). He claims that Sparks’s book is an example of the former, going “from a high view of Scripture’s veracity to a reduced one” (331), “from greater affirmation of Scripture’s truthfulness to lesser” (334). By virtue of Yarbrough’s stark contrasts, one would be forgiven for concluding that he thinks a “high view” (i.e., inerrancy) is a sine qua non of faith.

Are there really only two bibliological positions available to believers who are involved in biblical studies? To say the least, Yarbrough’s rhetoric tends toward oversimplification. His essay is a good illustration of the polarizing ideology that conservatives like to use.

I think Nicholas Wolterstorff did a great service for evangelicals when he drew attention to this common, inerrantist strategy in his book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks. Wolterstorff begins by observing that in order to make sense of the Psalms, believers—and it doesn’t matter whether they have Yarbrough’s “high” view of scripture or not—understand that God is not the one lamenting in the psalms of lament. If God is speaking through these psalms, therefore, it must be by appropriating them for other purposes than the ones the human authors had in mind.

Yarbrough, however, would force one to choose between the results of biblical criticism and the trustworthiness of scripture. But there is no compulsion to choose. The results of biblical criticism can be accepted as interpretation of what the human authors were saying, which leaves the task of discerning what God “says” to a more synthetic theological and hermeneutical discussion.

If there is a difference in approach between inerrantists and non-inerrantists, the difference can be traced back to what Wolterstorff calls the exceptional principle. The exceptional principle holds that “false and unloving speech is never attributed to God.” Inerrantists appeal to the principle in an effort to protect the human authors of scripture from teaching error. Non-inerrantists appeal to the same principle but their main concern is to protect the divine author (228).

In other words, all readers who are believers make exceptions for biblical texts that attribute to God false and unloving speech. The difference is that inerrantists protect God by protecting the human authors.  Non-inerrantists don’t see a theological reason to do this since what the human authors say is not always the same thing as what God is saying.

So, let’s tie this all back to our recent posts on Mark Smith’s historical research on the early history of Yahweh. There is evidence that the biblical picture of Yahweh was updated late in post-exilic times by priest-scribes. Does accepting that this happened mean that we are succumbing to a shift story?

Not necessarily. From a hermeneutical standpoint, it only means that in this area of biblical studies the human authors might be saying something different from what God is saying. What God “says” he says through appropriation.

The natural inerrantist response is to do what John Oswalt does in The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature? He asserts that a straightforward reading of the OT as history is “the biblical explanation” and that “Smith’s explanations for the way in which the Yahwism of the Bible arose simply have too many unanswered questions in them” (184). Oswalt is trying to protect the biblical authors from “false and unloving speech” by insisting that priest-scribes did not update Yahweh: it was the Israelite perspective “from the beginning” (97).

Another way forward—a more fruitful way, I might add—would be to remain genuinely open to Smith’s evidence suggesting that Yahweh was updated by post-exilic priest-scribes while remaining confident that this research does not attribute to God false speech. Much rather, God appropriated Israelite propaganda for the purposes of revealing himself to the Israelites and the world. Thus God was (and is) speaking in the OT but not “saying” exactly what the biblical writers say.

Yarbrough’s main concern is that “a ‘believing criticism’ [what Sparks embraces] as such will do [little] more for us than adulterate the ‘believing’ that is necessary to keep discerning, rigorous thought from devolving into apostasy” (340). On one level, this is an understandable pastoral concern. But we should also remind ourselves that how we use the exceptional principle is not an indication of whether we trust God. In the present case, it is an attempt to interact fairly and honestly with the evidence irrespective of what it indicates about the human authors of scripture. What we conclude about the human authors will not impugn God.

As a part of the cultural world and literature of the ANE, we have a responsibility before God to “assimilate the useful methods and reasonably assured results of biblical criticism to a healthy Christian faith” (Sparks, 356).

Showing the Bible to be human and accepting the extent to which it is human does not in and of itself constitute a shift from belief to unbelief as Yarbrough would have us believe. The shift could also be one that moves from faith to faith, i.e., from a faith in scripture as the ground for our salvation to one that trusts in God as surety for our faith.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.


  • James says:

    I think I follow and affirm most of this line of thought–up to the shift “from faith to faith” at the end. I’m not sure how to move from a ‘lower’ faith in scripture to a ‘higher’ faith in God as surety. Unless it is something like the distinction N T Wright makes: “Authority of scripture is shorthand for God’s authority exercised through Scripture.” (Scripture and the Authority of God) Once again we are up against the complexity of divine-human communication. A rather unique but exciting exchange!

    • C Bovell says:

      John Warwick Montgomery once wrote that he was disappointed in “the faint of heart who question the place of inerrancy in historic Christian theology.” His understanding of inerrancy famously centered on the “historical soundness and factual consistency possessed by the Word.” He insisted that believers needed to uphold “the historic Christian confidence in the entirely trustworthy Bible.” I, for one, feel better when the word “Bible” is replaced with “God” in this last sentence (and others that are like it).

    • Bev Mitchell says:

      On your last point, have a look at Greg Boyd’s newest book “Benefit of the Doubt”, especially the very helpful contrast he makes between faith as covenant relationship and faith as contract. The former is between two people who trust each other the latter between two people who don’t.

  • Luke Breuer says:

    What are possible agendas for putting the authors of the Bible on such high pedestals? I think one is that anyone who does this and teaches the contents of the Bible gets some of that high pedestal-ness himself/herself. Another is that certainty is so much easier than having to test the nature of things.

    By the way, Aristotelian logic is probably to blame for much of this. Something is either true or false, and if there is even a single contradiction, any premise can be subsequently proven to be true. This is how most mathematical systems operate, but this is not a tenable modus operandi, at least if one wishes to gain increased understanding of God and his creation.

    • Hello Labreuer, I don’t really understand your view of inspiration. Do you hold fast on a form of inerrancy?

      Friendly greetings from Europe.

      Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

      • Luke Breuer says:

        I believe God gave us the Bible he wanted us to have, in line with his consequent will. The consequent/antecedent will comes from his stated desires that none should die [without coming to a saving knowledge of him]—either universalism is true, or God doesn’t get everything that he wanted from the beginning. But he’s ‘sufficiently happy’ with how he lets things turn out, or he wouldn’t let them turn out that way! So I thin he’s ‘sufficiently happy’ with exactly the Bible we have now.

        The above view is very different from the enlightenment/modern philosophy approach of coming to the Bible with preconceived notions of what it is like, and insisting that it is like those notions, even if nothing in the Bible can really be construed to sustain that view. An example I often use is: if one pixel is wrong in a TV screen, can you still understand the movie? Of course! God works through fallible agents, and I’m not convinced he makes them temporarily infallible. They’re just ‘good enough’.

  • Dear Carlos,

    many thanks for this very useful summary of the way conservative and progressive Evangelicals understand their belief in Biblical inerrancy.

    Chicago inerrantist believe that the human authors cannot err why people like Nicholas Wolterstorff allow for this possibility.

    This difference has become very clear after conservative Evangelicals Paul Copan and William Lane Craig defended the moral goodness of divine genocides: among the passionate reactions to their claim, Randal Rauser said that the Israelites attributed atrocities to God without calling into question his belief that God intended the story to be part of a supernatural Canon.

    I have no doubt that this approach is much more in touch with
    reality and our basic moral intuitions.

    But this begs the question: why should we accept that God singled
    out the books which are now parts of the Canon whereas we find no
    difference whatsoever with many other religious texts?

    I articulate a third position with respect to the Bible which is
    held by countless young and older Christians all over the world.

    I’d be glad to respond to questions or criticism there and it is my hope this might be of help for struggling Cristians even if they end up disagreeing with me.

    Friendly greetings from Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • dangjin says:

    Only someone who does not believe would ask such a question. If you cannot believe that the Bible is God’s word then you have no way for God to reveal anything to us. His revelation would be a divine miracle each and every time and very subjective. Plus God would have to repeat himself billions of times.

    Then if you declare the Bible a human work, then you call into question John 3:16. You cannot say that that verse and salvation is divine while the parts you do not like are human. That is cherry picking.

    All of the Bible is God’s word or none of it is and if you choose the latter, then you have removed all hope for mankind.

    Please stop calling yourself a Christian because you do not believe God.

    • C Bovell says:

      Thank you for taking time to comment. I regret that you cannot count me a Christian, but please note how you may be in danger of making an idol out of scripture by seemingly placing your eternal hope in it:

      “All of the Bible is God’s word or none of it is and if you choose the latter, then you have removed all hope for mankind.”

      I would be more inclined to say something like: “If you choose to believe that JESUS is not God’s Word, then you have removed all hope for mankind.”

      And I believe such a proclamation is unqualifiedly Christian.

    • Luke Breuer says:

      Plus God would have to repeat himself billions of times.

      Is this not exactly what God does in scripture? There’s a lot of redundancy in scripture.

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      Your comment about no revelation being possible without the Bible echoes what some Pharisees declared about Jesus. How conservatives can’t see the overlap boggles my mind.

  • Bev Mitchell says:

    Thanks for this series.

    “God is not the one lamenting in the psalms of lament.” Good one! The divide and conquer, black vs. white strategy is long overdue for a dicotectomy, and I’m not talking botany. I guess it’s used because it works so well. It plays to fear and promises to avoid hard work. In fact, it makes laziness a virtue. But most serious of all it’s unbalanced. How can we proceed with Scripture, tradition, reason and experience without balance? Sooner or later lack of balance will tear anything that moves apart. If things are out of balance, the only safe move is to stand still.

    On a positive note, the way forward is clear. Speak up like you are doing, do the hard work, make your points as clearly as possible, ignore the torpedoes. People are listening and reading. People are changing. The ‘slippery slope’ is far less fearsome because of what people like Sparks, Enns, Olson, Boyd, Wright, McKnight etc. are writing and speaking. Forty years ago, we largely lacked this kind of evangelical voice, now we thankfully have them. Arguing with the fearful only makes them more afraid – they can do that well enough on their own. Just keep making the case. Our prayers are with all of you.

    “….from a faith in scripture as the ground for our salvation to one that trusts in God as surety for our faith.” Indeed!

  • Seraphim says:

    As I said in my extended comment on part two, I don’t think there are only two options. I’m not an inerrantist, and I accept that the Israelite understanding of God grew over time. But I also reject Smith’s version of how this development occurred. If we are to say that the earliest Israelite understandings of God were still divine revelation, then there must be some sort of uniqueness to that revelation. To recycle the example I used in my last post, I believe that early Israel understood the Lord to be embodied. Their understanding of transcendence was not as advanced as the kind of transcendence disclosed by the incarnation. Yet, within this early understanding, seeds of later revelation could be found. That the Lord was embodied and found on a divine council was indeed the understanding of early Israel. Yet, I believe that they understood the Lord to be the head of the council and unique among the gods, in the sense that one could not even possibly mount a successful challenge to his headship (unlike other gods in the ANE), and that He alone was uncreated (i.e. he didn’t arise from primordial chaos.)

  • Seraphim says:

    As an interesting piece of (admittedly somewhat subjective) evidence for this development, later books like Joshua have a more “primordial” feel in the way they understand God than earlier books like Proto-Isaiah, which is universalistic (see texts like Isaiah 19) in its outlook. The reason, I think, is because the book of Joshua documents an earlier period in Israelite history and therefore contains a less developed understanding of God. Even though Isaiah was written before Joshua, its understanding of God is quite clearly more developed.

  • Seraphim says:

    One final thought on the unity of Scripture in light of the idea of development:

    (Psalm 30:9) “What profit is there in my death, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?

    Clearly, in the intent of the author, the answer is “no.” Yet, when viewed in light of later revelation, this Psalm (which I believe to be inspired) is profoundly ironic. Completely unknown to the original author, God answered His question “Yes” with the resurrection of Jesus. In the Orthodox Church, we recite this Psalm in praise of the resurrection, even though we know full well that the authorial intent is the opposite of what we mean when we read it. This is why banal and simplistic concepts of inerrancy utterly fail. Even so, reading things like this, I am more convinced of the overall unity of God’s witness, but in a more refined manner than that of the Chicago statement.

    • Luke Breuer says:

      The idea of redemption was in the OT; it just wasn’t as fully-formed as it is in the New. Job says “I know that my redeemer lives / and at the last he will stand upon the earth”. Here are the ESV Study Bible notes on Job 19:25:

      The Hebrew noun (go’el) translated “Redeemer” is the same word used frequently in the OT to refer to a “kinsman-redeemer,” who had both rights and responsibilities for vindicating a family member (see Ruth 4:1–6). In the OT, God says that he will “redeem” his people from slavery (Ex. 6:6) and is thus later referred to as “the Redeemer of Israel” (Isa. 43:14; 44:6). For God as an individual’s “Redeemer,” see Gen. 48:16; Ps. 19:14 (and see note on Ps. 25:22). Job’s description of his “Redeemer” as one who “lives” (Job 19:25) and his following reference to “God” (v. 26) indicate he believes that God is the one who ultimately will vindicate him.

      Don’t get me wrong; I think the idea of progressive revelation is still valid.

      • Seraphim says:

        I agree with you that redemption was there in the Old Testament, but it wasn’t always articulated as a resurrection and creation renewal. I think early revelation provides the foundation for that later revelation, though. Case in point, the story of Adam’s exile from Paradise and the Tree of Life followed by Israel’s calling and election as the new humanity. The idea of a “tree of life” is common in ANE texts, but it is usually presented as something inaccessible in order to illustrate the impossibility of attaining eternal life. Genesis presents it so that humanity is created to partake of the tree of life.

        I would go further and argue that Adam’s exile from Paradise was not a creation of the authors after the Babylonian exile. Hosea 6:7, a preexilic text, presents Israel’s unfaithfulness as a recapitulation of Adam’s transgression, indicating that the Adam story was a part of Israel’s faith before her exile. Furthermore, the Tabernacle (an image of Paradise Restored) has the commandments of God guarded by cherubim in the same way that the Tree of Life was guarded by cherubim in Genesis. This all ultimately relates to Deuteronomy 30: the commandment is the way of life, but Israel cannot obey, so she will be exiled, but one day, God will circumcise her heart, Israel will obey, and she will thereby find life.

        It all comes to its climax in the New Testament, when the Messiah of Israel, in whom everything it means to be an Israelite finds its perfect expression, goes into the exile of death but returns from exile into the land of the living. All who have the cross cut into their heart (the circumcision of the heart) are enabled to embody the “faithfulness of the Messiah” by living as crucified and risen people, and therefore return from exile with Him on a glorious exodus from the present evil age into the age to come.

        All this to basically say: agreed. 🙂

        • Luke Breuer says:

          I like much of what you say, but I’m not so sure about the claim that “Israel cannot obey” the law given in Deuteronomy. See Deut 30:11-14:

          “For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.

          I don’t see how to conclude anything other than:

          A) Israel could have obeyed, or
          B) God lied to the Israelites

  • Nick Jackson says:

    I don’t believe in inerrancy but I do have a question: if we can’t trust the Bible, what can we trust? I know people will say “Trust God” or “Trust Jesus” but that feels to me like something of a cop-out. Here’s why: it makes my subjective emotional experiences the baseline by which God is measured…I have a hard time seeing how we can test what is really from God or just man projecting bullshit and worshiping an idol…I’m not opposed to scientific progress; I believe in evolution, but I believe in evolution because the natural sciences have a well put together system to determine what is (probably) real and what isn’t and a good way to course-correct thanks to the scientific method. When it comes to theology, I worry that we might just experience drifting along with cultural fads and make Jesus into our own image, be He a gun-toting Tea Party-er or a total granola-munching hippie.

    • Andrew Dowling says:

      But is exclaiming to “trust Jesus” really a cop-out? If one attempts to live live according to Jesus’s precepts: treating others how we would like to be treated, having an abundance of mercy/forgiveness etc. is that not a sufficient baseline? It’s not easy but its also not rocket science. We’ve also as intelligent mammals been programmed to love receiving AND giving . . .so God has already given us some assistance via how are brains respond to stimuli.

      One can find lots of truth in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean without the Bible we’d have zero idea of what truth is. That requires a Hobbsian/Augustinian presumption of natural human evil that just doesn’t gel with what numerous scientific studies have shown about humans’ natural tendencies. We aren’t perfect and prone for massive screw-ups (hence the need for guidance/laws), but we generally like being altruistic and loving our neighbor.

Leave a Reply