Rollins Chapel, 2/6
Guest Speaker Ryan Bouton, Christian Impact Team Leader
Text: Luke 24:13-32
Does Inerrancy Require Literalism?
All Christians hold the Scriptures as authoritative and truthful. However, there is some disagreement as to the nature of that authority and the extent of the truth we find in the Scriptures. I was asked to speak as an Evangelical Protestant to the issues of authority, inerrancy, and literalism with respect to the Scriptures, and the question before us today is "Does Inerrancy Require Literalism?" I do not intend to establish or defend the doctrine of inerrancy, which can be defined as the teaching that the writings of the prophets and apostles that we have before us in the Bible are without error in their original manuscripts. I would be happy to do so at another time. My aim today is more modest: The answer to our question could be given simply and quickly, but it is most useful as an entry point into how my tradition interacts with the Scriptures.
What is the nature of the authority that Scripture describes itself as having? In our passage today we see how Jesus employed the Scriptures with two of his followers. It is instructive for us to see that, having observed what was seemingly the end of Jesus' ministry, his disciples are confounded by what they had experienced. In fact, they are confounded while they interact with Jesus himself. Many other people had also seen and interacted with Jesus over the course of his life, but nearly all of them drew the wrong conclusions about who he was and what he was about. What they needed was a prophetic interpretation, a word from the Lord himself to give them a proper understanding of what happened. In other words, not only do texts require interpretation, but so do events, and we are dealing with texts that interpret events for us so that we might see them with God's perspective.
The prophets whose authority Jesus invokes were those people called by God to mediate the knowledge of God to his people. They therefore spoke with God's own words, and the writings that preserved those words were also considered to carry that same authority. This phenomenon is what is called "inspiration," meaning that God directed people to speak and write precisely what he desired, not that these people were in and of themselves particularly enlightened. The process differed from instance to instance, sometime involving direct dictation, often preceded by the phrase "Thus says the Lord," sometimes working in tandem with a particular person's personality and creative abilities to produce various kinds of literature. The result was a diverse collection of writings, unified in the divine origin, purpose, and theme.
We see that Jesus not only uses the Scriptures, but he identifies the fundamental problems of his followers with their relationship to the Scriptures: "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!" The first problem concerns their understanding of the prophets, which he addresses by interpreting "the things concerning himself." In referring to "Moses and all the prophets," which is then equated with "the Scriptures," Jesus does not merely assert his interpretation from his privileged position as the Son of God, but also shows great respect for those people whom God had spoken through, himself regarding their writings as God's own words. Contrary to popular understandings, he does not present his interpretation as a new understanding that abrogates an earlier interpretation, but rather asserts that the Scriptures have always been about him, and should have already been understood in this light. Otherwise, he could not call them foolish! Rather, he revealed to them the many ways that the prophets anticipated and taught about him. In fact, it is at least in part a textual necessity for the Christ to "suffer these things and enter into his glory."
What were all the things that Christ interpreted concerning himself? Interestingly, the prophets who follow Moses' writings constantly refer to, elaborate on, and interpret those writings in their own context, showing a high value on fidelity to the Mosaic standard; Jesus places himself in this same position, interpreting the whole of Scripture with prophetic authority. Both time and my own ability prevent us from an examination of the messianic anticipations found throughout the books of Moses, Genesis through Deuteronomy, and taken up by the later prophets. Jesus spent many hours with these two disciples teaching them, and they urged him to continue with them! No doubt they discussed the seed of Adam who was promised to come and crush the works of the serpent (Genesis 3), the coming king spoken of in the poems of the books of Moses, the prophet like Moses who never yet arose, as the closing of Deuteronomy asserts, as well as the prophecies of Isaiah, Jeremiah, the longing for a greater leader than Joshua, a king who loved the Lord more than David. Perhaps they discussed Psalm 22 as a prediction of the sufferings of the Christ, or the way in which Psalms 1 & 2 introduce the rest of the psalms with the themes of God's written word and God's anointed king. We could go on, as they did.
Indeed, these kinds of concerns were at the heart of Jesus' debates with the expert scribes and teachers of the Scriptures, to whom he issued challenges such as "If then David calls him [his descendant] Lord, how is he his son?" (Matthew 22:45, cf. Psalm 110). Or: "Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.' For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13, cf. Hosea 6:6, Matthew 12:7). And finally: "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life (John 5:39-40).
This is the deeper issue; Jesus corrects our understanding of what the Scriptures teach, but he also calls us to respond properly. "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?" While the Scriptures address many topics, Jesus reveals the central concern as being, and having always been, this coming king whose lordship and love for God's word, as described in Psalm 1, exceeds that of David, his ancestor. A king who would show mercy and forgiveness to sinners, not by accepting a sacrifice from them, but by becoming the sacrifice for them. A king who would generously give life to all who would come to him. As Psalm 2 says, "how blessed are all who take refuge in him." This seems to be the other necessity attached to the suffering of the messiah before he enters his glory: his glory is to pay the requisite price in his own blood for sinners to live in fellowship with God. Jesus opens our eyes to see that the Scriptures relativize all things to Christ on the deepest level. Jaroslav Pelikan, a former professor at Yale, put it this way: "If Christ is risen - then nothing else matters. And if Christ is not risen - then nothing else matters."
Does inerrancy require literalism? I will at last attempt an answer. If by literalism we mean a simple minded and wooden reading of the Scriptures without regard to their genre, literary arrangement, or an irresponsible self-serving free association of the text with what one already thinks, then by no means! This is not the approach that Jesus takes; rather, it is what he critiqued in the religious authorities of his day. If, however, we mean the primacy of the text in our understanding of that text, an emphasis on the author's intended meaning as we grapple with the text, then we are dealing with a bad question, even if it is the one that I posed. I would assert, rather, that it is literalism of this kind that entails inerrancy. It is a focus on the words of the prophets themselves that gives rise to respecting them as the very words of God. Jesus revealed himself to his followers in the Scriptures in a way that honored their original and enduring intent. The question and concern I wish to leave us with is this: does your engagement with the Scriptures bring you face to face with Christ? Have you found the ground of reliable interpretation for both the Scriptures and your own life that leads you to experience the forgiveness and love of the lord of all creation, who is forever blessed?