Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Introducing Hermeneutical Frameworks II

In the first post in this series I laid out the four general groups into which most Christian interpreters fall on the doctrine of Scripture and how that framework affects their interpretation of texts (and vice versa). We also looked briefly at the first of these four options. Today we will look at the second option, which is the most popular among Evangelical scholars and I believe was the position of the majority of the church throughout its history (even though they generally never articulated it).

Most Evangelicals would affirm the following syllogism:

God is inerrant
The Bible is God's Word
----------------------
Therefore the Bible is inerrant

Inerrancy is typically defined along the lines of, 'the Bible never affirms anything contrary to the truth' and this assumption is extended to both God and the human author.

How does this grid work in action? First, one must determine the genre of the text. The determination of the genre of the text then limits the possible interpretations. If Jonah is history, then everything in the story must be considered historical (including the fish swallowing him and Ninevah having a population of hundreds of thousands) in addition to all theological affirmations being correct. If it's not historical, then one is only bound in the area of theology. Both of these positions are equally tenable under this framework, although almost all Evangelicals affirm the historicity of Jonah and every other text that could possibly be taken as historical narrative. The big thing to see is that we have a one way street of interpretation here. The Bible is inerrant, and that controls all of our interpretation.

Some do not think that this position holds up under scrutiny. To bring up a classic example (there are many other examples that could be used), how does one deal with Mark 2:26? 'In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions' (TNIV). Abiathar was not high priest in those days. Now some have tried to get around it by saying, for example, that he was referred to as high priest by Mark because he later became high priest. While that's possible, many believe it's unlikely, and suggest that Matthew and Luke didn't interpret Mark that way, since they omitted the reference to Abiathar (assuming that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source). The most straightforward interpretation, they argue, is that Mark made a mistake and that while there are other possibilities, they are not nearly as likely.

There are two options at this point. One is to say that the syllogism above requires you to trust that Mark did not make a mistake and some other interpretation must be correct. You are even more-so required to take this stance if you assent to the standard Evangelical understanding of the nature of the inspiration of Scripture (that the inspiration extends to the very words themselves). The other option is to reconfigure our doctrine of Scripture (i.e., let what we observe in the text change our presuppositions) by redefining or rejecting inerrancy and seeing the inspiration of Scripture working in a slightly different manner. We will look at the strengths and weaknesses of two related proposals in this latter category in the next two posts.

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