Augustinian Inerrancy: Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpreation

March 20, 2014 — Leave a comment


A few things happened yesterday. First, I drove from Orlando to Knoxville. Second, Kevin Vanhoozer was actually at RTS Orlando delivering the annual Kistemaker Lectures. Third, I accidentally auto-posted this installment of the review series with no content other than a book pic and bibliographic info. Today, I’ll actually tell you about Vanhoozer’s entry in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. But first a short story.

So, I realized on Tuesday Vanhoozer’s lectures started then, and not Wednesday as I had thought. There were things to do, but I decided to go for the lectures instead. After the second one, I introduced myself, asked about the lectures I was missing. He noticed I was carrying “a great pumpkin” as he called The Drama of Doctrine. He had said he needed to see more creases in the spine, and my response was to flip through and show him all the highlights within that matched the book cover. He was impressed (or at least surprised).

The reason I had the book was because there was supposed to be a book signing. However, no one announced it, so while Vanhoozer went to the book store, no one else did. Except for me (and a couple of other guys). Because there was no crowd, the book signing didn’t start, and he left. I then realized that if I had just been a bit more forward and walked up and asked, he would have signed my book. And, given that no one else was really there, we probably could have had a really good conversation. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. But that won’t stop me from e-mailing here in a few.

Before that, let’s talk about Vanhoozer talking about inerrancy. Vanhoozer is all for inerrancy, but wants it to be more classic. And by classic, he means more Augustinian. This entails it being a “literate” inerrancy. For Vanhoozer (and for Warfield), inerrancy is “not a doctrine of first dogmatic rank” similar to the Trinity (203). Further, he says it is going too far to say it is “essential,” but concedes that it is a natural outworking of what is essential (the authority of Scripture).

His constructive proposal is a “well-versed” account of inerrancy. He explain,

My primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the word of truth. Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition. (204-205)

Vanhoozer wants to “probe further into the deep theological roots of the idea of inerrancy.” Taking cues from Luther, he wants to distinguish an “inerrancy of glory” from an “inerrancy of the cross.” The former is the natural theology of inerrancy derived from what we think perfection should be. The latter is the revealed theology of inerrancy derived from what Scripture actually says about itself. The result, Vanhoozer hopes, will be an account of inerrancy that is Augustinian (faith seeking understanding) and so sapiential in orientation (206).

He begins by asking if the Chicago statement (CSBI) is “well-versed.” This leads to explaining four major concerns:

  • Whether its definition of inerrancy is clear
  • Whether it gives primacy to a biblical-theological rather than a philosophical understanding of truth
  • Whether it is sufficiently attentive to the nature and function of language and literature
  • Whether it produced a theological novelty

As to the first concern, Vanhoozer regularly refuses to say whether he holds to inerrancy until the term is defined, or allows him to do so (206). He proposes the following definition:

To say that Scripture is inerrant is to confess faith that the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly). (207)

He then deals with the language issue and how we understand truth. He employs a metaphor of maps, noting that “Truth is the ‘fit’ between text and reality, between what is written and what is written about, but one can speak about (map) the same terrain in many ways” (210). Vanhoozer is worried that “some theories of inerrancy imply there is only one way to map the world correctly.” Instead, the literate interpreter understands there are different true ways to map the terrain and that “biblical books are like different kinds of maps” (211). It follows that “to read a map correctly” one must have certain familiarity with its conventions.

As to whether CSBI introduces theological novelty, Vanhoozer says “while the term inerrant or the concept of inerrancy may be new, the underlying judgment is not” (213). Vanhoozer contends that saying Scripture is “inerrant” is nearly the same as what John is saying in Revelation 2:15 (it is trustworthy and true). He concludes,

The challenge, then, is to affirm the underlying judgment together with the concept of inerrancy, provided that we can free the latter from unhelpful cultural accretions in order to free it for ministering the whole counsel of God (213).

From this foundation, Vanhoozer presents his Augustinian account. He agrees with Carl Henry about linking biblical authority and propositional revelation, but wants to add more. He affirms the transfer of information but adds communication by God in general, and covenantal communication in particular. He touches briefly on the importance of testimony as a speech act, and then moves on to how to understand the “literal sense.” Helpfully, Vanhoozer suggests that we identify the “literal sense” with the illocutionary act the author is performing, rather than the bare sentence content apart from context (220). I could probably do an entire other post on this, and might in the future. The short summary is that Vanhoozer thinks to interpreting Scripture rightly involves “recognizing what kinds of things the biblical authors are doing with their words” (223). That is the insight into the literal sense that will keep interpreters from flattening out figurative and literary nuances.

I don’t really have any comments on Vanhoozer’s treatment of the test cases, so for space sake, I’m skipping to the responses. Mohler wishes Vanhoozer would affirm inerrancy first, and then explain his position (236). He also thinks inerrancy is more essential than Vanhoozer does (241). Ultimately though, he calls Vanhoozer’s account “a specific, clear, and sophisticated defense of biblical inerrnacy as a truth claim and as a theological principle” (236).

Enns says that Vanhoozer’s leitmotif of Scripture as speech-act communication “is a genuine contribution to evangelical theology” (242). But, he feels Vanhoozer’s assessment of the CSBI, even with his qualifications, is more positive than warranted (245). He, along with Mohler, likes Vanhoozer’s distinction between inerrancy of glory and inerrancy of the cross, but for different reasons (you can probably figure them out). It seems Vanhoozer’s account holds the most appeal to Enns, but since it is still a defense of inerrancy, it doesn’t ultimately work for him (nor does Vanhoozer’s treatment of the OT test cases).

Michael Bird calls Vanhoozer his “favorite American theologian” (249). He chides him briefly for a few things, but ultimately ends by saying that “Vanhoozer’s Augustinian model is one of the better ways to infuse some creedal theology and to retrieve some patristic voices to shape future discussions of inerrancy” (252). He hopes that any future revisions of popular and official statements of inerrancy will have the KJV perspective.

Likewise, Franke says that Vanhoozer’s account is the one he resonates with on many levels, “perhaps more than any of the others” (253). He finds Vanhoozer’s rhetorical flourishes a bit wearisome, and thinks he could communicate with a bit more brevity. His postmodern views of language are less optimistic than Vanhoozer’s when it comes to discussing inerrancy. You can read Vanhoozer’s response to that in Christianity and The Postmodern Turn: Six Views. In any case, Franke makes more of the same arguments he did there, and that he does with other contributors. I’ll talk about that in more detail tomorrow.

Overall, I felt that Vanhoozer’s essay was the strongest in the book. Judging from the other contributor’s praise, and the type of responses they offered, his account seems to hold the most promise for the conversation moving forward. He won’t necessarily win people like Enns, but less sparks tend to fly. Whether one takes Vanhoozer’s account in total, his proposal for a well-versed understanding of inerrancy is much needed, and will help interpretation stay on track.


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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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