You are hereBibliology and Hermeneutics, Part 2: Inerrancy and the Literary-Generic Principle

Bibliology and Hermeneutics, Part 2: Inerrancy and the Literary-Generic Principle

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By Ransom - Posted on 24 April 2006

by Stephen Douglas
In the discussion of the mode of the Bible's inspiration I pointed out that the Bible is a compilation of literary contributions empowered by God and intended to thoroughly equip His people for every good work. My main point could be summarized that God authorized the Scriptures, but was not the author of them.In the discussion of the mode of the Bible's inspiration I pointed out that the Bible is a compilation of literary contributions empowered by God and intended to thoroughly equip His people for every good work. My main point could be summarized that God authorized the Scriptures, but was not the author of them.An admittedly limited analogy of this point draws a parallel between the Bible and the King James Version of the Bible. King James commissioned it, and it is therefore known by his name, although the translators and not he carried out his intentions. In reading the KJV we are realizing one of the ultimate purposes King James had for it. One of the chief purposes for the Bible's commissioning was for our instruction, and we fulfill that goal when we allow ourselves to be taught by those men He commissioned to write it. One of the limitations of this analogy is the observation that God had a lot more to do with the Bible's content than King James did with the Authorized Version: specifically, we discussed how God invaded the literature to deliver specific messages through His prophets. Even in these instances, however, the actual sentences and structure with which they framed these messages constituted their own works of literature.

Inerrancy vs. Infallibility

Each of these literary contributions must be approached on its own terms, and never held to the preferred standards of the day and culture in which it is interpreted. Currently, the two standards that are the default for many Christians today are the standards of plain reading and scientific inerrancy (this term is discussed below). This view says that God constructed the Bible so that the most obvious reading is the intended one so that no one, even (some say especially) the least educated would be deprived of the truth, which is always presented in a way that precisely mirrors all relevant historical and scientific facts. Any part meant to be understood using anything besides a literal interpretation is plainly explicit. This approach might be understandable if the plain interpretation were consistent across the board, but things that are plain to some are not plain to others: for example, when does Jesus say that His parables are fictional? It is sometimes hotly debated whether the story of the rich man and Lazarus is history or a parable, due to the fact that he actually names a character rather than referring to him obliquely as “a certain man”. Someone from a remote culture with an animistic background might find comfort in a literal reading of Psalm 91:4, where God’s pinions are promised to cover the believer. When does Revelation say that the dragon or the vials or the Lamb are symbolic of other things? Obviously, even the most adamant “plain reading” advocates are making judgments on genre and style in their “plain reading”. This standard is “plainly” inadequate. How about the standard of scientific inerrancy?

I chose to call it scientific inerrancy because the term inerrancy by itself means different things to different people. Literalists and those who in every practical sense disagree that the Bible is literature use inerrant to mean "perfectly scientifically and historically accurate," but only because they are expecting practically every story in the Bible to have been written as scientific history.[1] I think the issue of inerrancy is related instead to the discussion of how well the Bible accomplishes what it was written for. The Genesis Creation/Flood/Babel accounts were written to dispel and replace the theologically errant mythology in the world at the time - and they do so, brilliantly and completely successfully, "setting the record straight" not with our current values of historiography but by replacing, genre-for-genre, the pagan myths with theologically-sound and God-approved myths. The Gospels, as another example, were written to tell the history of God being made flesh to dwell among us and redeem us, and are composed of lots of different historical testimonies strung together, and they accomplish what they were written for. Hence by a loose (and more etymological) definition, the Bible does not “err”.[2]

Many of us who recognize the error of the doctrine of inerrancy often dislike the term inerrancy chiefly because the inverse condition is misleading. To say that the Bible is “errant”, or that it contains “errors” misses the point entirely. This charge blatantly ignores the necessary qualifiers. There may indeed be errors in peripheral matters. There are errors in the minds of the completely human authors that sometimes show up between the lines of the text. But surely it is nonsense to say that there are errors in the truth presented in the Bible! Truth is necessarily error-free, and if the Bible’s only purpose is to present truths necessary for salvation, doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness and there are no errors there, why then would we consent to labeling the Bible as “errant”? The fact is that both sides view the Bible as being good for what it is good for. We just disagree on what exactly it is good for.

Nevertheless, when two separate factions disagree on the definition of a word, communication is usually stymied. For that reason, I often accept the inerrantists’ definition of errant as “containing factual errors”. Accepting that, in their terms at least, the Bible is errant, I turn around and insist that it is infallible. In this, I am really only transferring my definition of inerrant to the lesser-understood word infallible for utility's sake. The term infallible is suitable to the meaning "not failing" based on a logical consequence of its own original meaning of "not deceiving". The authors had no intent to deceive, so what errors they transmitted through the text were errors in their own conceptions. However, since we believe that God was instructing them in His Truth, their testimony to that Truth reliable in those matters; thus it can be relied on to accomplish its purpose, occasional factual errors in the periphery notwithstanding. The Bible is only good for what it is good for, but it is good for that. Being successful at what one is commissioned to do is no small feat.

Most inerrantists assert that God did not allow any of the misconceptions of the original authors and audience to be represented in the Bible. But this proves to be their undoing: for either God purged the Bible of its writers' misconceptions on peripheral matters, or He didn't. If I can show you one instance in which the writers' misconceptions about the world bled through to the pages of Scripture, I have answered that question.

In fact we find more than one instance, especially in their views of science. John Walton notes in his excellent commentary on Genesis that if the Israelites did not believe what their contemporaries believed, "it could only be because God had revealed a different reality that transcended [their contemporaries'] old-world science. If God did not reveal realities such as the earth's being spherical or the earth's rotation and revolution around the sun,[3] the Israelites would have had no means to arrive at those conclusions."[4] When someone points out the fact that Joshua had the sun stand still, inerrantists will most often say that the Israelites actually knew better, but were using the same expression that we use, aware as we are that it is the earth that revolves around the sun. In other words, they must assert that God revealed to the original audience, outside of Scripture, a reality that made it clear that the notion of the sun standing was only metaphorical, and then God allowed that knowledge to perish throughout the following centuries so that His own followers (such as Luther and the Church of Rome), mistaking the “plain reading”, would insist that there was no metaphor involved and that the earth was indeed the center of the universe. Walton then gives a few examples of other misconceptions common to their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors that are detectable in Scripture:

When the elders of Israel have their encounter with the God of Israel in Exodus 24, he is portrayed as standing in heaven on a pavement of sapphire (v. 10), exactly like that portrayed in Mesopotamian cosmology. The movements of the celestial bodies and the understanding of weather are described in terms similar to that in the rest of the Near East. Windows of heaven are not replaced with low-pressure systems and jet streams.[5]

They were also very naive about the human body: the Israelites thought that the control board was in the organs of the torso, and often used the Hebrew words for both the heart and the intestines to refer to the seat of emotion and thought. In fact, there is not even a recorded word for "brain" in Hebrew - they had no idea what all that gray gunk was used for! This was a common scientific error of the day: the Egyptians preserved the internal organs they thought were important in canopic jars for use in the afterlife; they pulled the brains out of the cranium through the nose and threw it all away.[6] This misunderstanding persisted into NT times, because the Greeks, too, thought the heart and the bowels to be the organs of emotion and thought. We, having a corrected view of anatomy, now use the terms "heart" and "gut feeling" as more or less metaphorical terms.[7] But for them, this was their worldview - no metaphors intended by the authors or perceived by the original audience.

As for inaccuracies as such, there are cogent examples of that as well. There are a number of contradictions within and between various books. For example, compare the story of David buying the threshing floor from Araunah/Ornan the Jebusite in 2 Samuel 24:18-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:18-27; in 2 Samuel, David pays 50 shekels of silver for both the oxen and site, but he pays 600 shekels of silver for just the site in the 1 Chronicles version. Of course, most of the numerical contradictions are explained away by inerrantists as scribal errors from what was originally an inerrant account (although no one seems to be able to explain how 50 could get mixed up with 600 in that way). But if inerrancy is such an important issue to God, it is no less problematic that He allowed these discrepancies to creep in early enough that the vast majority of people who have read the accounts have not been able to benefit from them in their pristine, inerrant state. Other contradictions are (often legitimately) explained by very interesting means, such as the observation that some of the discrepancies between reign years had to do with differing ways of reckoning a king’s reign: Judah counted the accession year of a king towards his total number of years reigning, while Israel (at least originally), like the Babylonians and Assyrians, did not. However, do not miss the fact that the fundamentalists who champion this resolution do so by discarding their other principle of taking the “plain reading”. We must actually research the contemporaneous cultures, or at least analyze the text thoroughly with a calculator, to figure out what the authors meant.

What about the New Testament? Again, if the definition of “error” is “anything that does not precisely represent reality”, then even the NT is undeniably “erroneous”! One has only to compare the wording of the Synoptics to see that they had variant accounts of the same events. For instance, the story of Jesus blessing the children matches up quite nicely in Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, and Luke 18:16 except that in Matthew’s version Jesus says “Kingdom of Heaven”, while the others read “Kingdom of God”. Now stop: which did He say? We have two different versions of the same event in history, and because we are all good modernists, we believe in absolute truth and inexorable reality and realize that He could only have said one of those things during the occasion referenced. So no, the Gospel writers did not perfectly capture every detail of the reality they witnessed. That was a risk God was willing to take when He chose men as His vessels.

So here is the inerrantists' dilemma. If the Bible as a whole was intended to be taken as a pure, solid chunk of absolute truth, we should be able to scrutinize every word and idea contained therein and find nothing that is as blatantly factually inaccurate as the things we have mentioned (and those examples are by no means the only ones). The fundamentalists have a point: why would God allow them to put in misconceptions if He intended the Bible to be used for all the various things that inerrantists try to use it for? The answer is that God did not intend the Bible to be used for all the things they try to use it for.

The Literary-Generic Principle

Because the Bible is a compilation of literary works, in order to get the sense of it, we must interpret each of them in the manner in which it was intended, viz. according to the appropriate literary category. Surely the principle of interpreting things in the manner in which there were intended approaches tautology, but how many Christians ever really follow it through? As mentioned before, the assumptions that determine the "manner in which it was intended" are too often based on what meets the eye alone. So what do I mean by interpreting the Bible as literature?

You read a novel in the same way that you read the newspaper, realizing that they are both forms of narrative. How you interpret the narratives in each, however, depends on your recognition of the type of literature it is you are reading. No one would say that Great Expectations was "errant" or "a pack of lies" unless he thought it was written as history. The same goes for the Bible, which is far from uniform in literary genre. We have farmers, shepherds, doctors, and kings for authors; what thoughtful person, recognizing that God chose this diverse crowd rather than three or four prophets or priests to bear witness to Himself, would conclude that God would homogenize their testimonies into one nameless genre, erasing the distinctiveness of each one in His quest to dole out a series of unanalyzable propositions? Instead, within the pages of Scripture we find a broad range of writing styles that includes poetry, wisdom literature, prophecy, apocalyptic, and epistle.

Moreover, there is not always a one-to-one genre-to-book correlation. Not every segment within the book of Genesis, for example, is to be interpreted as the same sort of narrative, as is somewhat obvious to someone doing comparative literary analysis on the type of stories being told. The Creation part of Genesis shares many characteristics of Ancient Near Eastern mythology, whereas the stories of the Patriarchs remind us of the Icelandic sagas, collections of family stories that give a group of people a common heritage.

The historical-grammatical (or grammatico-historical) method of biblical interpretation is the practice of taking into account the original language and the culture of the original audience when researching the original meanings of Scripture. By and large, though, inerrantists have used this principle as a defensive and reactionary measure to clear up problems rather than as an active interpretive method: for instance, it is responsible for the observation mentioned above that Judah (and later Israel) used accession year dating, because they looked at Egyptian record-keeping and saw that this explained a lot of long-supposed errors in the dating of the kings. It has been modified by many exegetes to act as a sort of middle-ground that suspends the value of a plain reading if by any means it helps to demonstrate the scientific inerrancy of the Bible. What is missing from that version of the historical-grammatical hermeneutic is the principle we have been discussing that insists upon interpreting the Bible in terms of the literary characteristics, devices, and genres that make it up. We may call this the literary-generic principle; this principle is a tool that cannot be neglected by anyone claiming to use the historical-grammatical method of interpretation and exegesis.

Underlying this principle is an acknowledgment that there is a more of a human element in the Bible than many are accustomed to seeing. For example, the genealogies in contemporaneous cultures served as a way of affirming an individual's importance, prestige, and right to authority based upon the significance of his ancestors. Often, there is a remembrance of ancestry to a certain point, but beyond that, they had to consult whatever (often legendary or merely inaccurate) records were available. Now, since God demonstrably did not override the limitations of men's knowledge, being content to let His message shine through the earthen vessels, why should we expect that the genealogies would need to be completely accurate records of the chronology of long-forgotten dead men? Expectations such as that push the genre beyond its range of applicability, overstating and yet somehow missing the point that Jesus was a descendant of David and hence eligible for the role of Messiah?

As I said above, a literary analysis of Genesis shows that it contains mythological and saga-like features. Because neither myth nor saga is meant to give an empirically historical reckoning of the facts, you can't very well blame them when they don't. Mythology attempts to give the meaning of a situation (such as the creation of the world) even when the historical particulars are unknown; because Genesis is inspired, we know that it accomplishes this, better than the mythologies of other cultures. Students of genre should be able to understand the methodology of looking at features in the phraseology and other literary (originally oral) motifs with little trouble. The Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) mythology contemporary and antecedent to the material in Genesis 1-11 shows many striking parallels to what we see in early Genesis; this sort of analysis makes it frankly more difficult to believe that all narratives in the OT were intended as strictly scientific, historical narrative. Sagas are almost always based on historical occurrences and often are made up of true historical events, but the telling of them is often embellished and made for good campfire fare. These give evidence of having been composed from oral tradition, such as a patriarch's wife being passed off as a sister in a foreign land not once or twice but three times - and with two different patriarchs! The story was floating around among the people in a few different versions, and Moses (or whoever) put them all in for good measure. This showcases the fact that at the time, the point of the stories was not history, but as a cultural remembrance. God took these stories about and by His people and consecrated them to His purpose, inspiring these clay creations with the breath of life as He did Adam, imbuing them with power and ensuring that they be "profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness", but not for "history" or science. God chose the stories, and hence we have wonderful typological truths such as the ram in the thicket, foreshadowing Jesus' substitutionary atonement. Typology remains intact as the belief that both literary and historical events often prefigure a more important truth or event in the future.

Again, we must remember that the ideal of unbiased, objective, empirical historiography was only in its infancy at the time of Christ, and not fully formulated and utilized until the Renaissance; this way of recording history was not a concern in the ANE until after Hellenistic influence. It is safe to say there is absolutely none of our type of historical account in the OT, although Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah seem to come closest. Please note: that is not to say that most of the events recorded in the OT were not actual historical events. Doubtless, there is little reason to doubt that the events recorded in the so-called "historical books" of the OT as well as in most of the prophetic books ended up being accurate historically, but not because the writers had the same ideals that originated in Greece centuries later and were not even developed there for centuries more. Ancient peoples did not see the need for writing mechanically objective, dispassionate, empirical history as we think of it. For instance, the writers of Chronicles and Kings apparently saw no problem with approximating or estimating numerical figures, or creating figures that gave an accurate impression ("maybe not quite 50,000 but it might as well have been"), much like our "rounding off" taken liberally. It was culturally the norm and good form, and not perceived as "lying" by any means.

Another characteristic of the early versions of historiography in the OT is the fact that there is no attempt at hiding - in some cases blatantly divulging - the author’s intentions for writing, what modernists refer to derisively as “bias”. Theirs did not purport to be the modern historian’s "just the facts, ma'am” motivation. Rather, their intent for writing can often be seen in such recurring phrases as, "…but ‑iah did not follow in the steps of David his father…", "…and ‑iah did what was right in the eyes of the Lord." So also the book of Judges is not strictly history, but is the author's attempt to convey the consequences of the Israelites doing what was right in their own eyes, compiling cultural remembrances from their past. The unevenness of the accounts in Kings, in which detailed moments from some kings' reigns are brought out while leaving the accounts of some kings virtually untouched, are part of the work's sculpture that in most scholarly circles today would be attacked as "propaganda". But this was what people at that time wanted, not mere encyclopedic coverage devoid of any foreseeable application! They wanted stories that gave them meaning, not history for history's sake. There is definitely something to be said for that sort of worldview; if we had to sacrifice one, would we choose structure without function,[8] heartbeat without consciousness, or vice versa?[9] The ancients were not aware of the Baconian ideal, nor should they have been: the history of Israel in the OT is a religious history, a Heilsgeschichte, not a product of modern scientific historiography.

The New Testament’s genres include the epistle and apocalypse. In regard to the Gospels, I want to make it clear that my above emphasis on the fact that wording variations in the Gospels show that they do not reflect reality down to the jot and tittle was not intended to problematize the Gospels as largely historical. Rather, I want to emphasize the opposite: it is easy to get something like genealogies wrong, or to present variants in the exact wording of a parable being translated, or to have inaccurate notions of the human anatomy that leak into their presentations of the events they are testifying to. But that is about the extent of it: Jesus actually said the parables recorded in the Gospels, regardless of the fact that the wording slightly varies from account to account. Due to the spread of Hellenism throughout the Roman Empire by the time of the New Testament, historiographic techniques were being seen as the only truthful way of presenting facts, and so one must have very good reasons to doubt the historicity of the actions and people acting in the New Testament, even when the genre that records those events and people is not strictly historiography. It is not up for discussion that Jesus was born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, was crucified under Pontius Pilate, was buried, and rose again in three days, since those were contemporaneous events and were thus subject to contemporary historiographic values in their recounting. One must have good reasons for discounting historicity

Once again, in mentioning historiographic values, I am not trying to assert that the Gospels were, strictly speaking, historiography. The Gospels are often considered to comprise their own genre, because it has been hard to find extra-biblical analogues that match them and account for the characteristics the Gospels share. There is much diversity in the styles of the Gospels, however, and it is likely that they have either lost their extra-biblical analogues or are simply unique creations of their authors.[10] At the very least we can say that, because the writers of the NT were Christians and were interested in evangelism, they did not seek to give a cold presentation of facts; in fact, this approach would have altogether circumvented their motivations for writing. So although Luke, for example, tried his best to get the facts together from various sources, he was still writing for a purpose other than a simple chronicle of Christianity: he was writing to convince Theophilus, and hence brought out certain aspects of history and let others go. But we can say that the Gospel writers as members of a Hellenistic world were trying to present the events as historically accurately as possible, because that type of historiography had (Providentially) become the norm at that time.

Speaking of God's sovereign plan of revelation, I would like to make one last point here in regard to the literary-generic principle's impact on broad hermeneutical methodology. My insistence on interpreting the Bible literary section by literary section should not be construed as denying that there are threads of continuity throughout the canon; the process of distilling doctrine from Scripture is not made more piecemeal or hary-cary by using this principle. The research of Timothy Martin and Jeff Vaughn, for instance, has demonstrated that there are shared themes and other characteristics between the earliest and the last material, the myths of Genesis and the apocalypse of Revelation. So in the mechanics of Revelation's composition, much of the shared imagery and the language was derived from Genesis (a mother/daughter relationship), but the significance of Revelation must not be seen as secondary in God's intent, but if anything, the reverse: in the progression of revelation, the elementary principles became more and more revealed over time so that, practically speaking, Revelation has much more to do with the present state of affairs than Genesis does. But if we did not stop to analyze the links between the two based on literary motifs and expressions, we would never have seen the relationships. God had a plan in revelation, and a healthy recognition of this plan is key to appreciating the continuity of the whole canon.

Implications of the Literary-Generic Principle

Christians who deny inerrancy in a discussion with inerrantists are inevitably to immediately hear some version of the slippery slope argument:

1) If you deny the accuracy of one part, you cannot vouch for the accuracy of any part.

2) If not all the narratives are literally true, how can anyone know which passages are and which passages are false?

3) If the Noah accounts are not historical, who's to say that the life or miracles of Jesus are?

This type of argument is only made by people who do not understand or are trying to ignore the literary-generic principle. Understanding this principle demonstrates why each of these questions is ill-chosen:

1) We can vouch for the accuracy of the spiritual matters discussed in the Bible regardless of inaccuracy in peripheral matters using the same reasoning you do: we believe the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and practice because 2 Tim. 3:15-17 teaches that.

2) Every passage is true in that it reflects spiritual reality and is used to communicate God’s Truth to mankind, whether the historical or scientific reference it uses is factual or not. Besides that, we know by generic classification or by the identification of literary features (such as parable or genealogy) whether we are dealing with historical narrative.

3) The presupposition behind this common charge is that we want to deny miracles because they sound too fantastic; in fact, the only reason to de-historicize a miraculous event (such as the Flood or the story of Jonah), is because its original intent as history may be in question. In addition to the aforementioned identification of the passage's literary status, based on our understanding of the evolution of historiographic values through time, that the later the book's date, the more likely we are dealing with factual events and personalities. Christians were as dedicated to truth as we are today, and would by no means be responsible for fabricating lies about Jesus, who called Himself the Truth.

Although the Bible is explicit about Jesus being the Word of God made flesh, there is no such claim that the Bible itself is the Word of God made paper. Men bore witness to their glimpses of the Word of God as it was revealed in a progression of revelation that culminated in the person and work of Jesus Christ. With the realization that we are further removed from the truth being testified to, we must make every possible effort to see with the original authors' eyes what they saw. The historical-grammatical method making full use of the literary-generic principle is the only way to do that.

Many Christians would much prefer to believe that the Bible is pure, raw, unfiltered Truth. I would like to end by sharing the insight C. S. Lewis had concerning that view.

To a human mind this working-up (in a sense imperfectly), this sublimation (incomplete) of human material, seems, not doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle. We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form--something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table. One can respect, and at moments envy, both the Fundamentalists view of the Bible and the Roman Catholics view of the Church. But there is one argument which we should beware of using for either position: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done—especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.

We may observe that the teaching of Our Lord Himself, in which there is no imperfection, is not given us in that cut-and-dried, fool-proof, systematic fashion we might have expected or desired. He wrote no book. We have only reported sayings, most of them uttered in answer to questions, shaped in some degree by their context. And when we have collected them all we cannot reduce them to a system. He preaches but He does not lecture. He uses paradox, proverb, exaggeration, parable, irony; even (I mean no irreverence) the "wise-crack". He utters maxims which, like popular proverbs, if rigorously taken, may seem to contradict one another. His teaching therefore cannot be grasped by the intellect alone, cannot be "got up" as if it were a "subject". If we try to do that with it, we shall find Him the most elusive of teachers. He hardly ever gave a straight answer to a straight question. He will not be, in the way we want, "pinned down". The attempt is (again, I mean no irreverence) like trying to bottle a sunbeam.[11]

[1] I am, of course, using the term “scientific” to mean “demonstrable using the scientific method,” not in the more specialized sense of the “hard sciences” (e.g. chemistry, biology, etc.).

[2] To err originally mean “to stray, wander”, a sense recoverable in the term knights errant, which naturally meant “roving knights” rather than “scientifically disprovable knights”.

[3] This article by Robert J. Schadewald, the late authority on Christian geocentrism, has a very good overview of the Israelites' views on cosmology as seen in the Bible.

[4] John H. Walton, Genesis, from the NIV Application Commentary Series, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, pp. 87.

[5] Ibid, p. 88.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Although the basis for the ancients' misunderstanding is readily recoverable: there are actual physical sensations that accompany emotions, such as a rapid heartbeat, indigestion, or queasiness.

[8] Walton talks about the contrast between our view of structure determining function and the ANE view of function as a consequence of purpose, quite regardless of structure, ibid. pp. 82-87.

[9] There is value, as well, in coming to the table with all our prejudices and biases stated outright rather than pretending we are really being objective about things. Modern historiography cannot be what it is cracked up to be because full empiricism is impossible.

[10] Many of the shared characteristics may be explained with the solution of the seemingly intractable Synoptic problem; one of the many arguments for Markan priority includes its obvious craftsmanship as a narrative, its creative sculpture being considered less likely to have been derived from other material than to have been a source itself. The specific genre that Mark seems to be emulating is itself unresolved. Many see it as a Christian contribution to either the Greco-Roman novel or closet drama, while Vines, for example sees it more in the tradition of the Jewish novel of the Hellenistic period (see Michael E. Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel, Academia Biblica. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2002). Matthew seems to adopt the material of Mark for a Jewish audience, while Luke is definitely trying the hardest to present historiography in both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. John shares little enough with the Synoptics to warrant its own classification, being constructed for the explicit evangelistic purpose to prove that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God.

[11] C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1958.

zealot66's picture

I have to say that this closely resembles the only logical faithful explanation I can apply to the bible. Infallability is out of the question for me simply because we cannot apply 20th century standards to a document written 2000 years ago. God works within the limits of humanity and it does not preclude inspiration and the fingerprint of God speaking to humanity. For preterists this should be the model simply by our interpretation of Revelation as a form of literature rather than a literal prophecy.

Ransom's picture

Wow, Stephen, that was a great read! Very, very good work.

Sam's picture

Brains don't think, minds do.


Ransom's picture

Sort of true. The brain does house the physical material that is responsible for the complex of thought processes called the mind.

Sam's picture

Your empricism is showing. The brain "houses" the mind or "soul"? That is just as absurd as saying a "heart" thinks. I think you have swallowed a dosage of the those "primitive pre-scientific Hebrews" as opposed to us sophisticated, Western scientific Americans. What support do you have that the Hebrews thought that the heart organ literally "thought"? God "thinks" and has no brain and no heart. Angels? Physical material "is responsible" for thought? Are you now a Behaviorist?

Ransom's picture


The mind is a spiritual way of talking about thought, just as a neurologist looks at the physical aspects of thought; neither way is exclusive. It doesn't take much of a neurologist to see that thought processes correlate with the activity of synapses in a brain scan. Is that the sum of what thought is? I can't seem to recall saying it was.

I think your knee is jerking in response to a series of synapses that gave you the false impression that I am in any way dismissive of the value of the primitive and pre-scientific Hebrews. Only a rationalist modernist could use "primitive" and "pre-scientific" as pejoratives. I did not do so, although your question seemed to use them as just that. Do you really deny that we know more than they did about certain things? Recognizing the limitations of someone else is not necessarily meant to minimize one's own limitations. If you'll read it again more closely you'll see that I defend the ancient way of thought, for instance as regards their predilection to value purpose over structure, the tendency for the inverse being one of the chief errors of modernism. I also pointed out that their way of doing history was in one way much more honest than our own, since modernist historians (as well as journalists) purport to be as objective as possible without ever divulging their own biases.

You seem to be trying to chip away at the premise of the progression of revelation. The concept of revelation itself suggests hidden things being revealed. The more is revealed, the more we know. The more we subdue the earth, the more we know about it, as well. Do you not see that we know more about Jesus than your average Jew in the 6th century BC did? We get nowhere if we chunk any developments that came about after some pristine era in which everything was supposedly perfect. We're neither smarter than nor more valuable as humans than anyone in the 6th century. But neither are we any less. For heaven's sake, it was His good pleasure to give US the Kingdom.

Sam's picture

But that's the point. There are no "physical aspects" of thought. At least the journals I have read on cerebralogy, no theory has "absolute" propositions. Throw free WILL into this, and another can of worms is opened. I do believe in the progression of REVELATION, but revelation knowledge is not gained through empirical means. Science "discovers" no knowledge. As to using words like "hidden" and "revealed", those are biblical terms. Does empiricism give man "revelation knowledge" about the "hidden things" of God and the universe? I do not think so for a second. I am glad that you do not use terms like "primitive" and the like. But, you stated, "the more is revealed the more we KNOW" (knowledge). But HOW is it revealed? Test tubes, microscopes and telescopes? I confine revelation to the God that reveals, and deny "general revelation" in theory (a concept developed more technically in Dutch Reformed circles). Finally, "revelation" as a biblical term is limited to the things that God has revealed in the Scriptures. Your statement would at least yield that "revelation" and "the more we KNOW" are tied together; that is, Revelation IS knowledge, and unless Revealed, then we KNOW nothing. I would wholeheartedly agree. The question now is, HOW are things revealed today, if, in fact, anything out side of the scope of the Bible can be called revelation (like E=mc2)?

Ransom's picture

No one ever told me that storks did not, after all, bring babies. No one had to tell me the tooth fairy wasn't real. With maturity came understanding of revelation. I see this as part of the process of subduing the earth, ongoing even to this day. Comprehension of what has been revealed is part of the process of the progression of revelation. Learning how to interpret is thus integral to the reception of revelation. I don't really want to get into Brunner's view and Barth's "Nein!" here; the argument over general revelation doesn't come into play here. I'm not saying that knowledge gained from scientific endeavors grants us access to Truth, but helps us to decide what is not Truth.

Perhaps I was being too loose with the term "revelation", but it was because of contiguous domains: I was referring to the way we understand the things in the Bible that are not revelatory, and hence peripheral. But one of my main points it that inerrantists refuse to recognize a distinction between the actual points of divine revelation and the periphery.

Sam's picture

What is periphery and divine revelation in, say, Numbers 5?


Ransom's picture

You're making too strong a dicotomy - the interplay between divine revelation and "periphery" occurs not so much as the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle fit together, but rather more as light shining through the cracks of a fractured vessel. I have no idea whether these commands in Numbers 5 were divinely spoken as written, or whether they were a later institutionalization of an earlier revelation (most textual scholars would affirm the latter). Tell me, in what way do you think Numbers 5 is profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in righteousness? How does it fully equip the man of God?

What do I think? As Augustine said, "The New Testament is in the Old Testament concealed, and the Old Testament is in the New Testament revealed." We find some truths not made propositional except elsewhere in the Bible hidden in passages like Numbers 5: this passage reflects an accurate understanding of God's attributes and character, as an omniscient and just God, knowing the secret things and revealing them to those who seek Him, exposing liars and unveiling the truth. Besides this, another way in which Numbers 5 (as with most of the Pentateuch) is useful for us is to illustrate a chapter in the history of Israel's relationship with God, namely, in the Law of Moses.

Your question would only be a good one if you caught me functioning under the illusion that propositional truths naturally rise to the surface of the Bible; however Truth is heavier than what you'll find on the surface, making its home deep below amongst the sunken wreckage. Only those willing to dive in and do a little underwater excavation will end up with a clear picture of the treasure.

I can't help but think that you don't expect me to have an answer to your question, and that itself is supposed to be telling in some way. Please explain.

Ransom's picture

...and yes, I see that I misspelled dichotomy. Spellchecker would've caught that.

Ransom's picture

True, but hearts and guts don't think or love or comprehend truth either.

Kyle Peterson's picture

Oh no! Another can of worms!
Stephen, I've always been thinking along the same lines but never knew how to describe it or put it into words. Good job.

Ransom's picture

Thanks, Kyle. I consider Part 2 the main course of the "Bibliology and Hermeneutics" meal. Hopefully it's not too unappetizing because of its resemblance to a can of worms! :D Glad it struck a chord with you.

Ransom's picture

My formatting got lost somewhere! Here it is:

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