(3) FUNCTIONAL INERRANCY. In what sense must the Scriptures be sufficiently truthful, then? That’s difficult to say. But to venture an answer at this point, we’d say first that its being difficult to say shouldn’t be a reason to conclude that Scripture is absolutely error-free. Secondly, and more specifically, we’d suggest that Scripture ought to be a sufficiently truthful source for Christ’s first-century self-understanding as fulfiller and executor of God’s promises to Israel and the redemption of the world. Third, its truth should be sufficient to inform and facilitate human transformation into Christlikeness. In a word, it must be sufficient as a means to the rightly perceived ends for which Christ self-identifies and suffers as the ground for Christian discipleship and character transformation. Much of our modern problems surrounding the question of inerrancy stems from our desire that the Bible be much more than this.
Thus we’re essentially arguing that Scripture is ‘functionally inerrant’ where its function is understood first to be the securing of a worldview adequate for the development of the Word’s incarnate self-understanding (identity and mission) and then secondly as a means for character formation into Christlikeness.
No particular text need be required to do all the lifting. No one text need embody all the relevant truthfulness sufficient for these ends. Indeed, errors may exist within Israel’s understanding of God and themselves as his people, and these errors may be expressed within Scripture. That’s rather to be expected. In our view there’s no need to suppose that Christ or any of the apostles were inerrant in every belief they held. What’s required is adequacy of function relative to Incarnation and character formation.
The Old Testament is thus for Christ before it is for us, and it is only for us insofar as it is understood through him. Israel’s religious traditions and history of relationship with God need not be inerrant in every recorded detail of every text on every level. Rather, the cumulative tradition on the whole has to be capable of functioning as an adequate context for Christ’s self-understanding and mission. And the resurrection assures us we have that.
What are those sufficiently truthful aspects of the biblical narrative without which we could not make sense of the empowering role it played in forming Christ’s self-understanding? Among them are surely the truth that there is One God, that God created the world, that God chose Israel as the context in which to pursue his wider purposes of redemption, that this pursuit included the divine promise of a descendant who would be the means of universal blessing, etc. These can doubtless be expanded upon. But if Christ was fundamentally mistaken on these in his message, it’s difficult to see what God is in fact validating by raising him from the grave. But since Christ did self-identify in such terms and since this self-understanding is fundamentally vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead, Christ can be said to embody, as any telos does, its true anticipations, the only truth of the Old Testament worth being ultimately concerned about. Whatever else may be false in the text, it matters not to the truth that matters at all. And it is simply false in light of the resurrection that if there be a single error in any textual claim then all is lost. The Bible functions without error in its demonstration of the truth/falsity of all things relevant to the identity and mission of the risen Christ and his execution of the promises of God for our redemption and transformation.
How then do we know whether any biblical claim is true or false? How do we know which is which? In many detailed cases we simply cannot know. But the broad strokes can be confidently perceived. Still, in the necessary respects we require, Scripture’s truth is self-authenticating to faith. That is, where its narrative is believed and lived in and through Christ, it either proves itself truthful in all the ways we require (i.e., it saves, it heals, it transforms and perfects us) or it does not. This is where Scripture functions inerrantly in us relative to our identification with Christ. Personal transformation into Christlikeness is the purpose and proof of the only inspiration we should concern ourselves with. To want something more or other than that tends to idolatry.
We have no fail-safe methodology for always distinguishing true from false claims. We do agree that texts are to be assumed truthful until shown otherwise. This is universally how we manage communication. And the primary thing to keep in mind regarding biblical texts is their relevance to those beliefs Jesus held which were also essential to his possessing the self-understanding necessary to his being the means by which God redeems the world and brings it to fulfillment. All we have is a risen Christ who truthfully identified his own life, mission and resurrection as the fulfillment of God’s choice of and covenant relationship with Israel and who invites us to live the life he lived.
(4) CANONIZATION OF HISTORY. In choosing a particular man and his descendants to be the context into which God would incarnate, God chooses to identify himself as a covenant partner with Israel, and that means with her successes and failures, with the truth they perceive and the falsehoods they embrace, with the violence they pursue and the good they manage to achieve. It all gets chosen by God as the space in which God’s incarnational and redeeming work is embodied. This space is fallen but not so hopeless as to be void of all truth. God remains committed and engaged. In choosing Israel God is choosing the whole world. He simply chooses to work within this nation with respect to securing a context adequate for the Incarnate One who will mediate God’s purposes universally.
We are thus arguing for the canonization of Israel (as opposed to her texts per se) as the sacred space within which God creates the conditions sufficient for incarnation. Are the OT ‘texts’ inspired? In the sense that these writings are the written record of that created covenantal space God has sanctified for pursuing his incarnational purposes, yes. And it’s a mixed history; a history of misconstrual, of despairing nationalism, of religious hubris, but also of honest praise and humble dependence upon God. It’s a history that sufficiently succeeded at preserving the socio-religious conditions necessary for incarnational vocation. Israel is that space in the world where God does not give up on carving out a worldview sufficient for incarnation. They got it right enough for what ultimately mattered.
What is truthful then is the manner in which Israel (her worldview and actions as inscribed as Scripture not just in Scripture) and we alike are confirmed or judged (whichever the case may be) based on Christ our telos. We really do read the Old Testament in light of Christ apart from whom the Old Testament is simply a narrative with no conclusion. And here the conclusion interprets the previous chapters—where those chapters were going, where they get it wrong or right, what they mean, how they matter or not, and how and where they demonstrate the transforming judgment of Christ which embraces and defines us all.
(5) CHRIST-CENTERED READING. How do the OT texts function “usefully…” as Paul suggests they do (2Tm 3.16), “…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”? Only as read and understood through Christ. For Paul, there simply is no usefulness to the OT texts outside of Christ. Furthermore, this usefulness is for teaching, rebuking and correcting relevant to development of Christlike character and the doing of good works. Thus, the OT can be trusted when read Christologically to shape godly character and to empower the doing of good. That’s its purpose. Uses outside of this narrow purpose, whatever they are, are not explicitly embraced by Paul’s belief in the purpose of Scripture.
But traditional ‘inerrantists’ implicate the truth of any biblical claim in the truth of every other claim, so that if any link in the chain proves false, the purpose of Scripture fails utterly. We view the relationship not as links in a chain, one after the other and so on, but as bodies orbiting a center, and that center is the risen Christ. Christ exercises a gravitational pull, so to speak, over all of Israel’s traditions and texts which revolve in their orbit around Christ, sometimes approaching theological truth better than at other times. So where inerrantists typically see the truth of any one text (say, the text claiming Christ rose from the dead) as implicated in the truth of every other text (say, an understanding of Jonah as literally swallowed by a great fish), we suggest viewing the truth of all texts as relative to Christ, so that Christ becomes the determiner of the relevancy of Scripture as a whole, the same way the Sun is the central force that determines the course and trajectories of those bodies that rotate around it. To what extent is the course trajectory of a planetary body ‘accurate’? To the extent that it maintains its course relative to the Sun, not relative to the orbits of other planetary bodies.
However, Paul claims “all Scripture” is God-breathed (2Tm 3.16). Isn’t that equivalent to claiming all Scripture is equally truthful and thus inerrant? Not necessarily. For example, humankind is also “breathed into” by God and becomes a living soul and yet retains this “God-breathed” status even as fallen and prone to error. He inevitably remains the consecrated space in which God works to secure his incarnational purposes. Similarly, all Scripture is God-breathed in the sense that God is choosing all of THIS history — good and bad, true and false—as the sanctified space in which God works to prepare an adequate social-religious context for Incarnation and redemption.