The Human Faces of God: the dubious hermeneutics of inerrancy

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 2: “Inerrantists Do Not Exist”

In an entertainingly rhetorical style, Stark spends the first part of this chapter defending its title. For the purposes of that argument, he takes the term inerrantist quite literally as “someone who believes that everything the Bible affirms is true, and good, and that it comes from the mind of a kind, loving, merciful, just God” (p. 15).

Stark touches on several biblical teachings that he claims even the most stalwart inerrantist would hold to be “figurative”. In producing examples, first he tantalizes his readers with two shocking assertions about what the Bible teaches that no inerrantist would affirm, namely that Yahweh was son of “the mountain god El Elyon” and that Yahweh at one time required child sacrifice, promising to back up those claims in chapters 4 and 5. Unfortunately (for inerrantists), the other examples he produces of biblical assertions that he says no inerrantist would accept are things that inerrantists quite commonly do accept, although (usually!) carefully obscured under some theological contrivance or other. Stark is no doubt aware of this, but the way he paints the picture is probably successful in alerting any discerning reader that such sleights of hand, and even the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy’s insistence upon a “grammatico-historical” hermeneutic, are attempts at “fixing” the plain readings and as such amount to a tacit acknowledgement of the tensions between various biblical portraits of God taken on their own merit.

As Stark himself says, no professing inerrantist believes in the texts of Scripture completely divorced from relevant issues of literature and historical context: his definition at the start of the passage was itself too “literal” and somewhat more confining than any inerrantist would affirm without the qualification that what the Bible says and what it affirms are two different things. One might ask, has Stark taken all this effort to beat down a straw man? The answer is no: rather, he is making the important point that we all interpret, all subjugate some Scriptures to our judgments about what God is like in other Scriptures.

He calls shenanigans on inerrantists’ claim that they are, consistently anyway, using a historical-grammatical hermeneutic. Despite the CSBI’s assertion that the historical church and even the biblical writers themselves predominantly applied such a hermeneutic to earlier Scriptures, Stark methodically dismantles this claim and shows how this idealized hermeneutic is a post-biblical and late developing concoction.

His next subsection is devoted to explaining “Ancient Jewish Hermeneutics”. The ideal hermeneutic for many inerrantists (non-charismatic ones, anyway) is that there is one primary meaning per Scripture, the one that God meant to convey through the author and is recoverable using the historical-grammatical hermeneutic — cross-checked against the prevailing systematic theology, of course; there may be many applications of a given passage, but one shouldn’t go off the deep end trying to find hidden meanings. Yet Stark contends that this latter was precisely the hermeneutic of choice for the biblical writers:

Interpretation was not a careful process of historical-grammatical exegesis, but an inspired identification of a “hidden meaning” in the text with a present-day reality or concern. (p. 20)

A helpful discursus follows this describing the author of Daniel’s re-appropriation of Jeremiah’s prophecy of seventy weeks in order to address the concerns of Judah in the late second century BCE. Stark uses this as an example of how biblical writers used earlier scriptures as an inspiration, completely revising the original authorial intent (in this case, Jeremiah’s) to inspire hope for people in his own time. Also useful is his explanation of vaticinium ex eventu prophecies: a claim about the spiritual significance of historical events written as though occurring before and foretelling those events.

From there Stark describes a hermeneutic technique known as pesher, a direct descendant of scriptural interpretations seen in the book of Daniel that was championed by certain apocalyptic sects such as the Qumran community beginning several decades before Jesus’ time. From there he points out several parallels between pesher and the treatment of the OT by NT writers, although he is careful not to go overboard in equating them (p. 26-27). The first similarity is in the appropriation of earlier prophecies as being truly fulfilled in an event of eschatological significance. Specifically, he describes the difficulties of applying historical-grammatical exegesis to Isaiah’s prophecy of an almah ‘young woman’ giving birth to a child and coming up with the Virgin Mary and Jesus as that prophecy’s fulfillment: he shows why this can only be so if one departs from the “single, fixed” contextual meaning of Scripture mandated by the CSBI.

What Matthew is doing is essentially what the Qumran interpreters did with the prophets. He is “discovering” the second, eschatological meaning of the text by means of “inspired interpretation.” Like the Qumran community, the Matthean community is not interested in the text for its historical meaning; they are only interested in using the text to elucidate their own present-day experiences and to reinforce their sense of identity. (p. 29)

According to Stark, but with less discussion, such eschatological revitalization of unrelated Scriptures was “especially” true of Paul (p. 30). This hermeneutic strikes me as similar to the interpretive practice of so many charismatic Christians today, as well as a fair number of more mainstream evangelicals who accept the meaning of Jesus’ eschatological prophecies as referring to the events of AD 70 but have applied those prophecies to a yet future, ultimate fulfillment in a way that would have been novel to the NT writers themselves. At this point in the book, Stark himself takes no position on the legitimacy of such ex eventu interpretations, but we are left to infer that, despite its pedigree, it is dubious and less preferable than a truly historical-grammatical approach.

Next he goes about debunking the CSBI’s implication that historical-grammatical exegesis has been the norm throughout church history. The Jewish Alexandrian school of interpretation typified by Philo and the impact of their allegorical readings of Scripture attempted to make sense of the OT’s conquest passages by denying their historicity as such in a way that would be wholly unacceptable to the CSBI signers. There was another response to God’s alleged involvement in the cruelty of the conquest narratives: the response of Marcion, who took the historicity of the conquest narratives seriously but denied the Christian God’s involvement. With a bit of a rhetorical flourish, undercutting the oft-leveled charge of Marcionism upon anyone who like Stark denies the historicity of the OT conquest narratives, he instead notes the similarity of insisting upon trusting a “literal” historiographical reading of the OT as advocated by both Marion and adherents of the CSBI. Of course, neither the allegorical nor Marcionite readings are truly “inerrantist” (no such thing, remember?), but his point, I think, stands. He rounds out the discussion of patristic non-CSBI-ism with a look at Gregory of Nyssa’s allegorical interpretations and the outright rejection of the “single, fixed” interpretation of Scripture by even the most “mainstream” Church Father, Augustine.

Stark puts the bead on the self-contradictory nature of hermeneutics within the CSBI. He discusses some examples of the common case in which the historical-grammatical meaning of a text is arbitrarily subjugated (although presented alongside as peer) to the so-called analogia fidei (‘analogy of faith’) as regards interpretation, i.e., the principle that “Scripture interprets Scripture”. This latter is a quite natural extension of inerrancy (since no two passages can contradict), so it gets used as a blunt object to hammer out passages that would otherwise conflict when all are interpreted based upon a strict historical-grammatical basis. He also cites inerrantists’ tendency to discard an unsatisfactory historical-grammatical reading even when its message would be bolstered by letting other scriptures “interpret” it, if by chance the resultant teaching would be deemed erroneous.

Finally, almost in passing, he defends the academic discipline of biblical criticism from the inerrantists’ charge of a predisposition to deny and discredit “the truths of the Bible.” This is the locus of my only appreciable misgivings in this chapter. Is the academic community really quite as altruistic and trustworthy as he implies? While I recognize that there are many, many involved with biblical studies who point out errors and contradictions in Scripture simply as the most honest and reverent way they know of treating the Bible, I am afraid that he paints a rather rosier than realistic picture of the motivations of scholars in general. A scholar has a huge incentive to creatively and convincingly debunk previously accepted interpretations. As part of the academic process (which I uphold), one’s name is likelier to go up in lights if s/he shatters rather than bolsters a prevailing understanding. Most of us could name more than one famous biblical critic whose personal stake in the matter appears to lean more on the side of vendetta than scientific truth per se.

I’m not really criticizing this, an inevitable, state of affairs; even a dubious motivation for acquiring evidence does not disqualify that evidence. My concern is that reassuring inerrantists that we’re not trying to pull the Bible apart bit by bit is actually misleading, if not somewhat disingenuous. Of course we are, and of course we should — that’s how you study something thoroughly! But we should be honest about the fact that there will be plenty of people whose motivations for pulling Scripture to pieces will not be as pure and clinical as others’, motivations such as a desire for peer recognition or distaste for fundamentalists. This cannot be avoided — a thoroughgoing empiricist has yet to be born — but as in the science debate, the possibility of error should be acknowledged and the occasions of the discrediting of the reckless emphasized. Even biblical critics have human faces. And as with the authors of Scripture, that’s ok.

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