Ben Witherington III on Scripture
Michael Bird of Euangelion recently posted an interview he did with Ben Witherington III. The interview focuses on Witherington’s forthcoming commentary on 1-2 Peter, but along the way they discuss the doctrine of inerrancy–a doctrine in which I have shown some interest in the past. Here is the part of the interview that interests me:
3. What do you make of terms such as “inerrant” and “infallible”?I certainly appreciate his attempt to substitute a positive definition of Scripture (true and trustworthy) for a negative one (inerrant and infallible). But I am uncomfortable with his final definition of the Bible’s truthfulness: “the Bible has three main subjects–history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.” I offer the following five theses in rejection of Witherington’s statement:
The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects–history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three.
- 1. Witherington’s definition identifies the subject of the Bible to be an object of study (history, theology, ethics) rather than a personal God whom we worship. This is an inherently and restrictively modern notion.
2. Witherington’s definition undermines the unity and coherency of Scripture by identifying three subjects rather than one. When we focus on the God attested to in Holy Scripture rather than the various human subject matters, the biblical text is unified as a coherent dramatic narrative arising out of and witnessing to the triune economy of grace.
3. Witherington’s definition buys into the modern academic division between history, theology, and ethics, which is simply untenable in relation to the biblical text. In Holy Scripture, history = theology = ethics. We might make certain distinctions here and there, but a rigid division like this is a modern imposition upon the text unknown to the early church and to most of the Christian tradition.
4. The Bible does not tell the truth “about” something. This again buys into the modern view of the Bible as a kind of ancient textbook which tells us about some thing. But Scripture does not speak about; it simply speaks. Holy Scripture is a text of proclamation. It is the written Word of God—not a word about something, but a word of someone and to someone.
5. Finally, the truthfulness of the Bible is not a property residing in or belonging to the text itself; rather, the Bible is true by virtue of the Spirit who shaped its composition in the past and shapes our reading of the text today. The truthfulness of the Bible is only guaranteed because the Spirit of truth actualizes the truthfulness of the text. To put it simply, I suggest that John 16:13 should be a central verse in our bibliology: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.”