As someone who (as far as I can tell) is a fairly orthodox and conservative – I would say evangelical – Christian, what should I make of the frequent reference among my peers to the “verbal” inspiration of Scripture?
I’ve blogged previously on inerrancy, and it rubbed some people the wrong way (which doesn’t bother me). Basically, my position is that the strong view dubbed “inerrancy” in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is mistaken. Instead, I said that a Christian can (and I think should) take the stance that what the books of the Bible, all things considered, teach, is what is true about them. This means, for example, that if there was the occasional slip up on the writer’s part that resulted in errors of fact existing in the text, my view of biblical authority just doesn’t care about those errors (if there are any) provided they don’t detract from the teaching of Scripture. Numbers, dates, locations, lists of people, even scientific beliefs, these are all things that can be expressed, can be mistaken, and yet can simply fail to matter when we’re asking what is really being taught. How old was so-and-so, exactly what year did such-and-such happen, who was there at the time, what shape is the universe – or the earth – these are all the kinds of issues that might be relevant here. I part ways with Chicago-style inerrantists over issues like this.
I do maintain, however, that there are plenty of people who still call their view “inerrancy,” and who try as hard as they can to explain that their belief is compatible with the Chicago Statement, but who in fact really agree with me over the level of error that may well exist in the biblical documents. Still others use the terminology of inerrancy, but do so recognising the kind of errors I’m talking about. In other words, they don’t use the term “inerrancy” in the same way that the Chicago Statement did. I submit that a huge number of evangelical (I include here Protestants and Non-Protestants alike) Christian academics who use the term “inerrancy” to describe their view are actually in this camp. I have no beef with what these people actually believe about Scripture. After all, it’s what I believe. I just think they’re being less than helpful to use the same language that is used for a different point of view.
But setting all that aside, there’s a point to all this. Some people use the term“inerrancy” in a weaker sense than was originally intended by those who penned the Chicago Statement, so that a term that means “without any error” can come to mean “with some errors, but none that matter.” I think the same thing is going on when evangelicals use the term “verbal” inspiration, which is the point of this blog post, and the focus of a genuine question that I want to put out there. The phrase “verbal plenary inspiration” (VPI) is very dear to the hearts of many evangelicals. “Plenary” just means “full” or “total.” There is more than one way to think of Scripture being inspired by God, but VPI is the very strong view that all of Scripture is verbally inspired by God. Verbally.
In normal speech, when we’re trying to make sure that people understand us, we use the word “verbal” to mean “with words” (so for example we distinguish “verbal” from “non-verbal” communication), and more often than not we mean “with spoken words,” as opposed to written words (so we might say “I know it’s not written in the contract, but that’s what the salesman told me verbally!”). I’m not one who likes to entertain novel or contorted meanings of terms, so I will take this to be true and assume that we all know it to be so. However, often when I have asked someone who claims to believe in VPI how their view does not just result in a word for word dictation of the Bible where the human author’s personality is side-stepped altogether, they just quote from the Chicago Statement on inerrancy, which just adds in the claim that the personality and style of the author is not overridden. That’s all very well, but of course I don’t just grant that the Chicago Statement and VPI are absolutely consistent, or even that the Chicago statement itself is absolutely consistent. So let’s leave prepared statements out of this and look at the question:
If you believe that every part of the bible is not just inspired but verbally inspired, then how do you avoid the conclusion that what we have in the Bible (or at least in the “original documents”) is a word for word dictation where the author’s style and personality make no difference to what was actually written?
Here’s the kind of answer I’m hoping to avoid: “Oh come on Glenn, you’ve got to let the people who use the term VPI define all their words. When they say ‘verbally’ they don’t mean that the way it sounds. They just mean that the truths expressed in the Bible are inspired.” The reason that I don’t want that sort of answer is that it’s a word game, and it engages in the type of contortion I was talking about earlier. An answer like this essentially recognises that the word “verbal” is not correct after all, and if that’s what you think, then that is what you should say.
So that’s really my question. Again: If you believe that every part of the bible is not just inspired but verbally inspired, then how do you avoid the conclusion that what we have in the Bible (or at least in the “original documents”) is a word for word dictation where the author’s style and personality make no difference to what was actually written?
I genuinely want people to answer – recognising, of course, that I don’t share your view, and that my not doing so even after your response should not be construed as animosity. I really want to know why people use this terminology. I will also admit my agenda: I want people to stop saying that they believe in verbal plenary inspiration, because in fact they do not. I am bothered by the fact that, as with the term “inerrancy,” there are people who use the term “verbal plenary inspiration” to describe their view because it endears themselves to the evangelical establishment and it enshrines terms that have come to hold a great aesthetic importance, like a cherished hymn that people don’t really believe, but have come to love for old times’ sake.