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Why Biblical Scholars and Conservative Theologians Will Always Disagree

April 25, 2009

James McGrath, Associate Professor of Religion at Butler University (here, here, and here), and Douglas Mangum a PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (here, here) have been discussing online their thoughts on inerrancy, and biblical criticism. James (bless his soul) has even entered the nether region of a certain blog for some “discussion”. Unsurprisingly, he has had some “interesting” comments directed his way. My favorite thus far:

Based on the amount of data so far, based on your own comments that do not affirm essential and integral components of being a genuine Christian, and based on the (rotten) fruit that you’ve produced, I must sadly concur with Steve’s statement that “Clearly, though, his present position falls far below a credible profession of faith.”

Therefore, the most loving thing is to share with you that you are NOT a Christian. Bear in mind that I don’t say this with 100% dogmatic certainty, but all things considering, it would be sinfully remiss of me if I were to allow you to wallow in self-delusion that you are a genuine Christian.

Well, seeing as that’s settled we might as well move on. Sorry James looks like hell for you!

First,a  video introduction. If you’ve already seen it you don’t have to watch very far.

There is one giant problem I see with many discussions on inerrancy. On one level this problem is so insurmountable it is a discussion I don’t even bother having anymore with those of differing views because at the end of the conversation the beginning assumptions are so different that any “common ground” is almost impossible.

In a nutshell, one side of the discussion, conservative inerrantists, prefers a deductive synchronic approach to the text and the other, biblical scholarship, prefers an inductive diachronic approach to the text. These interpretive assumptions and methods are so different as to leave the opposing camps with essentially different Bibles, hence, the arguments.

Once someone has set up a deductive synchronic shield around a text any argument with them is almost pointless, especially, if the shield becomes more important than the text–they are in the Matrix and do not have a context for what you are trying to explain. On the other hand for those that have taken the red pill the methods of biblical scholarship are self evident and any attempt like the character Cypher in the movie to re-enter the Matrix blissfully unaware is impossible. As James notes that would be akin to criminologists stopping the use of fingerprinting.

There are other reasons why biblical scholars and many theologians would disagree on many texts but this I believe is the primary and most important reason.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. April 25, 2009 12:43 pm

    Scott – Thanks for your post.

    Ironically, I wasn’t even attempting to enter the inerrancy discussion initially. I still haven’t said much about it for reasons similar to what you’ve mentioned.

    I like the Matrix analogy. Once you’ve abandoned your old set of assumptions about the biblical text, there’s no going back to that “pre-critical” blissful acceptance.

    • April 26, 2009 7:48 am

      Thanks Doug.

      I don’t really want to enter the discussion either just point out why I think it is often a moot conversation with two parties talking past each other with out the shared assumptions to find common ground.

  2. meinmysmallcorner permalink
    April 25, 2009 4:24 pm

    Hey – I’m very intrigued at this just now but can’t for the life of me iron out exactly what you mean. Could you rephrase “deductive synchronic” and “diatronic inductive” approach in layperson’s terms please? Thanks…

  3. April 25, 2009 6:05 pm

    good post scott

    diachronic = seen through time, to develop over history
    inductive = see what the text actually says and then develop your theory about what it is

    synchronic= seen from only one point in time, to always have a fixed meaning
    deductive = come to the text with a theory already in place and then use the text to support that theory

    • May 9, 2009 7:44 pm

      Jonathan (or others):
      I understand the definitions of the words you use, “deductive synchronic” and “diachronic inductive,” but I could use an example (or authors?) who use the methods.

      when people talk in theoretical terms, it seems like communication between thoughts is clouded. What is it that is not being accepted in both camps? Since eeryone uses deduction and everyone uses induction, I take it that this is not the issue. (Other than to classify the one side as isogeting the text, I suppose).

      I am trying to see what it is that you and the blog post is saying. How does these herneneutical principles affect one’s view of errancy?

      Thanks so much

  4. April 26, 2009 3:23 am

    Thank you for the thoughts Scott. I think as a Minister who has engaged at an academic level with the text the challenge is how to live with the fact you can’t ever go back while not losing the spirituality that comes in reading scripture as a living word that encourages faith. I also think it is important to acknowledge that we all, whether Christian Minister or agnostic academic (or vice versa) when it comes to “leaps of faith” (where the text is unclear) we will always leap to our safest spot. As long as we acknowledge this and hold it lightly then perhaps we have a chance at being able to engage with those with whom we disagree.

    I also wonder if their are aspects of Scripture that require a leap of faith even in the midst of arguments against (such as resurrection). I know this can become a cop-out however, time there is an aspect to the text that requires of me (as a minister at least) to place some faith in God that he was working in the process and continues to be involved in that process. Perhaps Barth’s phrase, “The Word of God and the Word of Man” is helpful here?

    Sorry this is so long – I wrestle with this a lot. Oh how life would might be better if I had not begun to engage the text critically; nevertheless, I wouldn’t change a thing!

    • April 26, 2009 7:39 am

      You’re wrestling with the million dollar question: once you’ve deconstructed some of your pre-critical assumptions how do you put everything back together again in a meaningful way. My thoughts on this are still too scattered and long to reproduce here but how about Barth’s and Ricoeur’s “common conviction that theological interpretation of the Bible ought to lead us beyond a critical preoccupation with the text to a fresh encounter with the divine reality to which the text bears witness.”

      This is what Ricoeur termed a “second naivete” after going through the wilderness of biblical criticism. If anyone has some good advice on going about this process i’m all ears!

  5. JKG permalink
    April 26, 2009 4:52 am

    Great summary of the components of the discussions referenced.

    Question, regarding what you said here:
    “Once someone has set up a deductive synchronic shield around a text any argument with them is almost pointless, especially, if the shield becomes more important than the text–they are in the Matrix and do not have a context for what you are trying to explain.”

    When you say it seems they not that they do not have a context for what you are trying to explain to them, it seems that really they refuse to aknowledge that context. As opposed to something like a rocket scientist explaining their work to a biblical scholar. ;^)

    Is that just an academic distinction? Or am I misunderstanding the philosophical terms?

    • April 26, 2009 7:44 am

      My statement probably needs some more nuance as the reality is that all situations are not similar: there will be some that will be unable to accept the context with some level of understanding of the critical issues, and there will be some that refuse to even acknowledge the context. There is a strata of persons that you could fit in between those but in the end I think the results would be similar.

  6. Heavens Mugatroyd permalink
    April 26, 2009 5:09 am

    Are people STILL debating the inerrancy doohickey? Man, isn’t it time to move on and get real? I’ll never forget the debate I had with an inerrantist years ago. He said to me, “You know what your problem is? You don’t believe any thing in the Bible. Especially those word printed in RED!”

  7. April 26, 2009 11:43 am

    I think the key to maintaining some sort of working faith in the ‘wilderness of biblical criticism’, is firstly to keep the focus of your faith on God and Christ rather than the book. I am not a Christian because i read the Bible but i read the Bible because I am a Christian and through it I often encounter Christ. Secondly, to retain some humility about the project of western historical and literary criticism, i mean really, do you really think historical critical techniques can ever have the last word to say about the word of God?

    A question, cannot the synchronic deductive and diachronic inductive just be opposing points on one’s hermeneutical circle?? I certainly try to keep a foot in both camps.

    • April 26, 2009 12:00 pm

      First order practice and second order reflection is certainly one way to go.

      As to the question. I’m not a fan of dichotomies (especially false ones) but I’m not sure if the assumptions and methodologies–because they are so different–can be synthesized and may always end up being incompatible. Like I said above I think it’s the reason that some scholars and theologians will disagree. If there is a middle ground, a good ole’ Hegelian synthesis, then I am more in need of listening than offering any advice. I have merely tried to state what I believe the primary problem is in these discussions and have not offered which way is “right” or “wrong” or how to get past these seemingly mutually exclusive options.

  8. April 26, 2009 5:56 pm

    Loved the post. But I think Conservative Inerrantists fear rightly that embracing your view can lead to apostasy and disbelief.
    If not for the scriptures, there is only fishing for subjective hopes.
    — an ex-believer.

  9. Logos Incognito permalink
    April 29, 2009 3:18 am

    i think the argument is fruitless as long as you take the approach that your perspective is “biblical scholarship” thereby propagating the idea that anyone questioning you is not “biblical”. it’s precisely that kind of arrogance that causes rifts in our faith and often sets up walls of deafness. you’ll never have fruitful discussion and frankly i’m surprised you’d even try. our bibles are the same and my scholarship is just as “biblical” as yours.

    • April 29, 2009 7:58 am


      I think you missed the point of the argument, and I guess you have little experience with academia or you would not have written a couple of the sentences you did. Synchronic and diachronic approaches are different. Pretending that deductive fundamentalist indoctrination is similar to scholarship is naive and just as fruitless to any conversation.

      Oh and by the way, learning the biblical languages and working in academia for six years lets you say your position is scholarly: this is not “arrogant”. Not studying or expanding your horizons and calling your position “scholarly” is arrogant.

      • April 29, 2009 8:51 am

        Oh, yeah?

        Well, what if C – A – T really spelled “dog”?

        • April 29, 2009 8:58 am

          Oh, yeah?

          Well, what if “dog” spelled backwards was really “God”… oh wait.

          Never mind.


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