Biblical Inerrancy: Michael Bird – Innerancy is Unnecessary

{This is the fourth post in a series on the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. ed. J. Merrick, S. Garrett, and S. Gundry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. See the firstsecond, and third posts.}

{Disclaimer: I’m using the Kindle Edition of Five Views, which uses “locations” rather than page numbers, so my citations will be noted accordingly.}

null.jpg_174Michael Bird, Lecturer in Theology at Ridley Melbourne College of Mission and Ministry, brings us the third essay on Inerrancy. I was very excited to read his essay because it deals with inerrancy from an international perspective.

This essay, “Inerrancy is not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA,” brings us a Bird’s eye view on American evangelicalism’s ongoing debate over inerrancy and sheds light on how other cultures, past and present, deal with this issue.

Summary

Bird finds inerrancy to be, in many ways, a positive way to view Scripture. At the same time, however, he believes that it “creates more exegetical problems than it solves” (Loc 2454). He sets out to prove that it is not the way our ancestors or neighbors in the faith have viewed it. Thus, it is not necessary for the Christian faith in general, or evangelicalism in particular.

While he is open to the term “inerrancy,” Bird is not satisfied with the CSBI’s take on it. He has four main contentions with it:

1) It “masks several claims about the Bible and how it should be interpreted” (Loc 2477). He argues that the CSBI demands that people have certain presuppositions about the text, but it only subtly hints at those presuppositions. For instance, it requires a literal interpretation of Genesis 1-3, making modern science and those who do not interpret literally out to be enemies of Scripture (see article 12).

2) In Article 14 the CSBI implies that any discrepancies are merely unresolved or misunderstood passages. He argues that such an a priori belief leads people to put all of their effort into resolving differences within Scripture. He points out the story of Jesus healing a blind man, showing that the differences in this story do not need to be resolved because they do not matter (Mt 20:29-34; Mk 10:46-52; Lk 18:35-43). Scripture’s unity, he argues, is in its testimony of Christ, not in its ability to get every story completely accurate at every angle.

3) It promotes a false account of history by claiming that inerrancy “has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout history” (see article 16). Bird undeniably proves that this is patently false and that it has not been the standard view of the Church throughout history.

Clearly, meaning rather than accuracy was the main concern for the biblical writers.

4) Lastly, he laments the sort of “Theological Colonialism” that the CSBI encourages (Loc 2601). According to Article 11, it is not enough to believe that Scripture is infallible, but one must believe it is inerrant. Bird cites numerous “doctrinal statements” and confessions from around the world that do not adhere to inerrancy. So then, Christians throughout history and around the world even today are, by the CSBI’s standards, missing par. Just as the White Man attempted to show India and Africa how to be “civilized,” Evangelicals (which are also mostly a bunch of white men) must show the world how to be faithful to Scripture.

After laying out the negatives of the CSBI, Bird gives what he believes is a globally and historically attuned understanding of the nature of Scripture. His description would be best described as “infallibilism.”

(I know…you were dying for another “ism” to add to your vocabulary.)

This perspective is not concerned with affirming every jot and tittle to be perfectly accurate. Rather, its main goal is to emphasize the trustworthiness of God’s Word. Bird argues that the nature of God’s revelation is that it is “accommodated to the worldview and expectations of its audience in matters of cosmology and historiography, but the accommodation is never a capitulation to error” (Loc 2682). In this sense, he prefers “infallibilism,” but he can accept “inerrancy” as long as it is understood in terms of doctrine and practice.

The meaning and purpose of Scripture are its most important aspects. Scripture will accomplish its inspired goal of “teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (2 Tm 3:16). We can trust Scripture, not because it is free from discrepancies, but because it is from God. God is faithful. His word will not fail.

Dealing with the Problem Texts

As Bird addresses the historical veracity of the conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6, he employs a similar argument to that of Al Mohler. Namely, archaeological evidence is not the most reliable source because of its tendency toward revision. Though, departing from Mohler, Bird says that we must simply accept the fact that we will never know what actually happened. The evidence neither falsifies nor supports the biblical account. While he is interested in the historical reliability of Scripture, he is not fixated upon it. The point of Joshua 6 is that God got his people to the Promised Land. How he did it is not so important for Bird as that fact that he did it.

In a short section, Bird takes on the discrepancies in Saul’s conversion story between Lk 9 and Lk 22 by simply asserting that Luke was not concerned with giving a journalistic, detailed account of history. He was simply telling the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion and calling. There is no need, in his opinion, to try to harmonize the two passages.

Finally, Bird addresses the most difficult of the three “problem texts”: the difference between Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5. In the former we find God calling for the massacre of a people group. In the latter we find Jesus calling for a cease-fire on all violence. Bird views Scripture as a progression, moving humanity toward God’s eschatological goal. God meets people where they are and moves them in the right direction. So, for the ancient Israelites, living in what Bird calls “less-than-ideal situations” steeped in a culture of tribal warfare, “the command to commit genocide was a less-than-ideal option but a necessary pathway for the survival of Israel” (Loc 2860). When Jesus came, humanity was in a place that could receive a better grasp on God’s eschatological intentions. “In other words,” he states, “while all biblical commands are ‘true,’ some commandments are ‘truer’ than others in terms of revealing God’s character and eschatological purpose for humanity” (ibid.).

While Bird recognizes the difficulty of the genocidal texts of the Old Testament, even with his interpretation, he chooses to hold on to a “hermeneutic of trust.” That is, those nations that were destroyed by Israel must have deserved it in some way, and God was giving judgment fitting their actions. He also calls us to remember that God is not presented in the OT as a genocidal, bloodthirsty monster, but as a generous, patient God who relents from sending calamity.

A Response

Bird’s article gives a wonderful view of what is going on in the theological world outside of America. It is easy for us to ignore the testimony of the rest of the world and Bird rightly calls us out on it. American evangelicalism is guilty as charged, specifically in regard to our understanding of the nature of Scripture. I found it illuminating and encouraging to read the confessions of our ancestors and our neighbors. God has a lot of children. It’s nice to hear from the ones we haven’t met yet!

I resonate very much with the “infallibilist” perspective and I think it is an apt way to summarize the multiplicity of views within the historical, global Church.

I found some difficulties, however, in his treatment of the “problem texts.” I agree in general with his view that the main concern of the text is its purpose rather than its accuracy, but as Enns fittingly critiques, Bird “plays it safe.” It’s easy to say that the discrepancies in the story of the blind man or Saul’s conversion are minor. But, Bird paints this “minor discrepancy” picture across the whole text when, in fact, there are difficulties which are not so easily written off. In Enns’ words, “What needs to be addressed [by Bird] are questions like, ‘How does Genesis 1-3 accommodate to ancient Near Eastern myth yet still not capitulate to error?’ or ‘How are the two widely divergent accounts of David’s reign infallible for faith and doctrine?’” (Loc 3068).

I appreciate Bird’s “hermeneutic of trust.” I think that is a good way to begin when dealing with difficult passages. Though, in the case of Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5, I’m not convinced that such a statement should be the final word. It seems to me like more of an attempt to avoid the difficulty of the text. Bird argues, as many inerrantists would, that the nations which Israel destroyed must have deserved to be massacred. However, Deuteronomy 20 does not allow us to make such a claim.

The text tells us that the Israelites were to force non-Canaanite men into slavery and take their women, children, and animals as spoils. Then, they were to utterly destroy every breathing Canaanite, including animals. The reason: God is a jealous God (Dt 5:9) and killing the Canaanites would prevent Israel from worshiping their gods (Dt. 20:18) (adapted from Enns’ discussion on Loc 1752).

The difficulty of this text is not in finding out why God would demand the extermination of these people. The text tells us why. The difficulty of this text is in (1) understanding how the same God can command genocide here and command non-violence in Matthew 5 and (2) understanding why God couldn’t have used other, non-violent means to prevent his people from straying from him to other gods. Until we deal with that, we have not addressed the problem.

The fact is that the Bible is not an easy book. It is dirty. It is difficult. Some choose to believe that God commanded war for reasons other than those in the text. Others believe that the Israelites were behaving in the exact same way as every other nation in that time—namely, going to war and claiming that their God told them to. Others believe that it doesn’t matter why God did it—he can do what he wants. Still others—like I was for so long—are too afraid to even read these passages because they stir up questions and doubts. They are too uncomfortable to deal with.

One day we will see it clearly. Today we see through a foggy mirror. As we work through these difficulties let’s do so together with the recognition that—whatever conclusions we come to—these texts are difficult and we all want to know the truth and see Christ exalted. And thank God our salvation doesn’t rest on our interpretations.

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2 responses to “Biblical Inerrancy: Michael Bird – Innerancy is Unnecessary

  1. Pingback: Biblical Inerrancy: John R. Franke – Redefining Inerrancy | Tylor Standley·

  2. Pingback: Biblical Inerrancy: Kevin Vanhoozer – Augustinian Inerrancy | Tylor Standley·

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