Kevin DeYoung has co-authored some good popular-level books challenging the “emerging church” movement and calling my younger generation of Christians to participate in the local church. This is all well and good. But he’s got a post up today on the Gospel Coalition Blog (here) that claims to identify “the Christian view of Scripture” with modern-day inerrancy.
There are several issues worth responding to in this piece, but perhaps the most important one is that DeYoung has seriously misrepresented the patristic tradition regarding the nature of Scripture. According to DeYoung, “This high view of Scripture as the inerrant divinely-spirated word of God has been the position of Christians from the beginning,” and he cites Clement of Rome, Irenaeus, Origen, Augustine, and Jerome to this effect. Now, there is no doubt that the Fathers believed the Scriptures to be divinely inspired and therefore could, in a sense, speak of them as “without error.”
But the problem for DeYoung is that what the Fathers mean as “without error” is very, very different from what I suppose he means by inerrancy. According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, “the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis.” Simply put, this means that, genre allowing, we are to interpret Scripture according to its literal sense. For DeYoung and modern-day inerrantists, it is this literal sense of the Bible that is inerrant. But the Fathers had an entirely different view. As patristics scholar D. H. Williams summarizes, “As a generalization about the patristic mind, it is fair to say that the fathers affirmed an infallible Bible, although it was not an infallibility of the text so much as much as it was an infallibility of the divine intention behind the text” (Evangelicals and Tradition, 91). Similarly, Frederick Norris observes that “The Fathers’ sense of the trustworthy character of Scripture can hae them speak about its lack of errors, but they never protect the Bible with the doctrine of inerrancy that was developed in seventeenth-century Protestantism” (quoted in ibid.).
The early fathers observed, like we do, certain historical inconsistencies, conflicting accounts, and even possible contradictions in the biblical text, and tried to harmonize them in light of their view of the Bible as divinely inspired. The quotations DeYoung cites exemplify this mentality. But here’s the rub: one of the primary ways that the Fathers harmonized problem passages was to deny the literal sense of the text. That is to say, the “ inerrant truth” of a passage was often found not in its literal sense, but in its moral or allegorical one. Or, to put it yet another way, the Fathers “claimed that points of obscurity or even contradiction within the Bible provided an oppportunity for the Spirit to work in a Christian heart because the dilemma was more than the human heart could comprehend” (Evangelicals and Tradition, 104).
Examples of this in the patristic literature are abundant. Wherever the Fathers found problems with the biblical text, their way of preserving their version of “inerrancy” was to deny the literal sense of the text (in a sense, admitting the problem is real) and find the “true meaning” in an allegorical interpretation. In their excellent book Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, John J. O’Keefe and R. R. Reno give many examples of this phenomenon. For instance, in the first of the Genesis creation accounts, God creates light on the first day, but creates the sun, moon, and stars on the fourth day. Origen and Augustine, among other Fathers, declared this to be literally impossible. Their solution, though, their way of rescuing the “inerrancy” of Scripture, was to admit the literal sense was unworkable and instead propose an allegorical one. For Augustine, this meant that the light of the first day represented spiritual truth, while the light of the fourth day represented real physical light. Yes, the very order and words of Scripture matter (they matter a great deal!), but they contain real problems that are dealt with in a way that I cannot imagine that DeYoung would approve of.
DeYoung’s presentation of the patristic view of the Bible is, therefore, deeply misleading. There is much more that could be said; Jesus’ statement in John 10.35 fails to prove what DeYoung thinks it does (Jesus believed in inerrancy). Nor does DeYoung give us any guidance on what to do with text critical problems in which it is clear that even the biblical writers themselves were aware of problems with what other biblical authors had written (e.g., the earliest and best MSS of Mk 5.1 read “Gergesenes” or “Gerasenes,” but this places us some 37 miles from the Sea of Galilee; Matthew (8.28) corrects Mark’s geography by moving the story to the region of the “Gadarenes,” where it would make far more sense. Cf. also the problem of “Abiathar” in Mk 2.26, which has been “corrected” in Matt 12.4 and Luke 6.4). And so on.
DeYoung wants us to believe that “when we reject inerrancy we put ourselves in judgment over God’s word.” This may be true, but in his view are we not putting a man-made construct (inerrancy, which, despite DeYoung’s protestations, was most certainly not around in its existing form in the patristic period) above God’s word? Would it not be far better, and a more secure resting place for our faith, to ground our belief ultimately in Jesus Christ, and not in our own understanding of what we want and pretend the Bible to be? See further here.