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Has The Inerrancy Conference Missed An Opportunity?
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The recent conference on Biblical Inerrancy (3-8 March 2015) in Los Angeles, California hosted by Dr. John MacArthur and the Masterís Seminary, has seen delegates reaffirm the 1978 statement on the subject agreed by an international evangelical summit in Chicago, Illinois. The authority, clarity, and sufficiency of the 66 canonical books will continue to be upheld. But the question remains: Have conservative evangelicals missed an opportunity to do more?
The conference reaffirmed the historic evangelical commitment to the clumsily if accurately named grammatico-historical method (referred to as the GHM in the rest of the article). Since the Protestant Reformation began in 1517, the GHM has been hailed as the primary method of Bible interpretation in theologically conservative evangelical churches. GHM involves interpreting the meaning of a given Bible passage by close study of two matters: the original wording of a given passage, and how the first audience of those words would originally have understood them.
The GHM was known and used by a number of key figures in Church history. But as the Roman Empire faded from memory during the Middle Ages, this approach to Bible interpretation fell out of scholarly favour. Critics said the GHM was hard to apply well, and its findings were superficial. So GHM and its conclusions were increasingly ignored in favour of other, less literal approaches to Bible interpretation.
These methods often gave great latitude to the interpretersí imaginations, which was one reason why the pre-Reformation Catholic Church emphasized the need for theological training and clerical oversight in order to understand the Bible properly. For all its other faults, the pre-Reformation Church knew these approaches were especially dangerous in a culture where most people could neither afford nor read a Bible to check the accuracy of what they were being taught.
The Reformers hoped to do three things by re-establishing the primacy of the GHM. First of all, they hoped it would help them and the wider Church find their way back to a simpler, more Biblically based approach to Christian living and worship. Second, they hoped the GHM would help to ensure that their insistence on the right of all believers to read and interpret the Bible for themselves wouldnít spiral down into a chaotic, interpretative free-for-all. Finally, they hoped it would equip congregations to hold their pastors, teachers, and civic leaders accountable to Biblical teachings and moral standards. For all these reasons, conservative evangelicals still insist the GHM is essential to the intellectual life and spiritual health of the wider Church.
But even when itís done well (which is not always the case!), conservative evangelical Christians are not always best served by the GHM. The inadequacies of the method soon become clear to anyone who applies the GHM to New Testament accounts of how Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament Scriptures of their day (and thatís before even mentioning Hebrews!). Jesus and the apostles interpreted the Old Testament using methods todayís conservatives often frown on.
For example, compare the way Jesus quoted the prophet Isaiah in Mk 7.5-8 (about the scribes and Pharisees) with the original passage in Is 29.11-14, where the prophet was speaking to his disobedient fellow Jerusalemites. The theme of hypocrisy remains the same, but does anyone seriously believe that Isaiahís original audience would have applied the prophetís words first and foremost to the religious leaders of Jesusí day about 700 years later? If even Jesus didnít restrict a GHM approach to the intentions of the first recipients of the written Scriptures, are conservative evangelicals going too far by insisting on it?
At this point, the readerís first instinct might be to reach for other statements of Jesus, in which he said that Abraham saw his day and rejoiced (Jn 8.56), or in which he told the disciples that many prophets and righteous people had longed to see what they saw and hear what they heard, but did not (Mt 13.16-17). Itís perfectly true Jesus said these things, thereby claiming that human awareness of the Messiahís coming stretched back at least as far as Abraham himself. But in so doing, Jesus never supported these statements from any particular passage of the Hebrew Bible. We can therefore only conclude that in these instances, Jesus was offering additional Divine revelation about the past, rather than interpreting the Scriptures as written up to the time of his earthly ministry.
Another clear illustration of how applying the GHM to the Bible exposes the methodís own limitations is in Paulís treatment in Gal 4.21-31 of the story of the casting out of Hagar and Ishmael, which is first recorded in the Bible in Gn 21.8-21. The Genesis account was originally written as a narrative of historical events in the lives of the people named in the passage. But equally, there can be no doubt that even the strictest possible GHM based interpretation of Paulís words ďNow this may be interpreted allegoricallyÖĒ (Gal 4.24) shows that Paul was not using a GHM based approach to explore and explain the account in Genesis.
One possible reply would be to say that the apostle Paul was writing Scripture under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and that the unique status of his writings here does not allow us to assume we may interpret the Bible in a similar manner. But such a response would uphold the sanctity of the Scriptures at the expense of even the New Testamentís relevance to Christians living after the apostolic age. If accepted, this approach would undermine the practical authority of the Bible for Bible interpreters everywhere. It would deny outright that we can best learn how to interpret the Bible from the teachings and examples of Jesus Christ and the apostles. Clearly, over-reliance on the GHM comes at a very high price.
So, might there be a better way forward? Granted, the two New Testament interpretations of the Old Testament mentioned above are nowhere to be found in the pages of the Hebrew Bible. But the New Testament approaches to these passages donít overturn the original historic understanding of these passages; nor do they contradict other Biblical teaching aimed at the original audiences of either Jesus or the apostle Paul. Whatís more, modern Bible interpreters would probably see Mk 7.5-8 and Gal 4.21-31 as examples of Biblical application, rather than of Biblical interpretation.
This seems like a fair point, but even this brief GHM-oriented comparative approach should be enough to make Bible interpreters ask the question: Is it always feasible to draw a clear line between Bible interpretation (exploring the meaning of a passage) and Bible application (of the meaning so uncovered to a different historical audience and/or situation)? The issue is perhaps especially plain when the New Testament writers have clearly resorted to an allegorical interpretation of the Old Testament.
None of the matters discussed here undermine the historical reliability or spiritual authority of the Bible; and a strong case can still be made for conservative evangelicals to affirm that the GHM is the essential intellectual framework of Bible interpretation. But itís important to keep these matters in a suitable perspective. If Christians are Godís living temple, our ideas are perhaps best seen as the tools of our worship.
© 2015 by Christopher Bevis. A Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England, a Christian for many years, and an avid reader for even longer, Christopher is a UK-based writer who has long-standing friends and contacts in the USA. Christopher is available to research and write for hire on Christian matters via the Faithwriters.com website.
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