Biblical Inerrancy: Kevin Vanhoozer – Augustinian Inerrancy

{This is the fifth post in a series on the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. ed. J. Merrick, S. Garrett, and S. Gundry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. See the firstsecondthird,  and fourth posts.}

{Disclaimer: I’m using the Kindle Edition of Five Views, which uses “locations” rather than page numbers, so my citations will be noted accordingly.}


Kevin J. Vanhoozer is Research Professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. His essay “Augustinian Inerrancy: Literary Meaning, Literal Truth, and Literate Interpretation in the Economy of Biblical Discourse,” is the fourth in our series through Five Views.

Vanhoozer argues for the continued use of “inerrancy” in describing the Bible, but argues that it must be understood on a deeper level than what strict inerrantists (like Mohler) suggest. He makes a distinction between “well-versed” and “poorly versed” inerrancy in which the former is aware of the historical, literary, and linguistic characteristics of the biblical text, whereas the latter ignores it.

Much of Vanhoozer’s argument centers on how truth is conveyed. While he believes that the Bible is inerrant, he doesn’t believe that it should be taken literally all of the time. Something can tell the truth without actually being true. He uses the idea of a map as an analogy. Maps are small, color-coded pieces of paper with little pictures that serve as codes for other—real—things. The map is telling us the “truth” about the area it represents. But, “…tracks…are not really orange, as they are on the map, nor are they only a centimeter wide” (Loc 3610). The lesson here is that truth can be conveyed in ways that are not, technically speaking, “true.”

The same can be said of Scripture. It maps out the world in a way that its audience can understand. The particulars may not fit perfectly with reality (e.g., snow and hail are formed naturally, not dropped from a shed in the sky like God tells Job), but we shouldn’t reject it for not mapping the world as we see it. Nor should we twist it to sound like a 21st century history/science textbook.

The Bible is a collection of ancient documents, written by ancient people to ancient people. The inspiration of God doesn’t mean we should be willingly ignorant of the text’s deep roots in a certain culture, language, and cosmology (belief about how the world works). In the words of Vanhoozer, “Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition” (Loc 3520).

So, what does Augustine have to do with any of this?

Vanhoozer points out that, “Augustine defines truth as ‘what is’ or ‘that which shows what is’” (Loc 3674). Augustine recognized that there are passages in the Bible which show us what is without defining what is.

Vanhoozer goes on to say, “Truth is always about what is, but there are many kinds of reality and many ways of talking about it (for example, to what do metaphors refer?). We must first discern what a passage or text is about and then ask how it is about it” (Loc 3743).

Think of it this way: We can affirm the truth of Song of Solomon. But, we all know that its “plain reading” is not the truth being conveyed. It shows the intimate relationship between a man and a woman (what it is about) in the form of a metaphorical poem (how it is about it). Knowing the genre, the poetic language, the symbolism, etc. is what it means to be “well-versed.” If we ignore these issues, then we are prone to make huge mistakes regarding its meaning.

Just look at the book of Revelation. There is no text more abused and misunderstood due to anachronistic, poorly versed readings.

Vanhoozer calls for the acceptance of inerrancy so long as it takes the text seriously in its entire context. He states, “…to say that Scripture is inerrant is to confess faith that the authors speak the truth in all things they affirm (when they make affirmations), and will eventually be seen to have spoken truly (when right readers read rightly)” (Loc 3563).

So, when Jesus tells us that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, what is his “affirmation?” It cannot be that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, because that is blatantly false. Jesus is not concerned with botanical accuracy. He is being hyperbolic, creating a metaphor of the Kingdom of God. His affirmation is that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—it’s tiny, but it is growing into something enormous and beautiful.

When a right (well-versed) reader reads this text rightly (with a clear understanding what is being affirmed), Vanhoozer suggests that the inerrant truth can be seen.

Dealing with the Problem Texts

In regard to Joshua 6 and the conquest of Jericho, Vanhoozer admits that most archaeologists agree that events didn’t pan out exactly as they appear in the biblical text. He states, “In order to do justice to Joshua 6, we need to attend not only to the story (what happened, the chronology of events) but also to the discourse (how the story is told, what it is about)” (Loc 3864). He stresses the importance of being well-versed in the text—that is, one must understand the text for what it is: ancient narrative, thoroughly laced with poetic and rhetorical devices.

As stated above, the text can tell the truth without perfectly corresponding to reality. So, Vanhoozer asks the question: What is this text affirming? He comes to the conclusion that the texts affirmation is that, “God has indeed made good on his promise to give Israel the land and that the people on their part must respond to God’s faithfulness in like manner” (Loc 3902).

One reason he rejects a literalistic approach to this is found within the biblical text itself. The text states that Joshua “subdued the whole region…He left no survivors. He totally destroyed all who breathed…” (Josh 10:40). However, Vanhoozer points out that later in Joshua, some of the region’s inhabitants are still present. This shows that there is a certain hyperbolic nature to the narrative of the conquest.

Vanhoozer suggests that the differences in Saul’s conversion accounts can be properly understood when seen in light of the author’s (Luke’s) intent. He suggests that each time the story is told, Luke is “progressively reducing the role of the companions, eventually excluding them altogether from the revelatory event” (Loc 3947). In Acts 9, the companions hear the voice. In Acts 22 they do not. There is actually another account of Paul’s conversion in Acts 26:12-18 in which the companions are mentioned very briefly. For Vanhoozer, Luke’s intended message is what matters, not the details.

When we get to the difference between Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5, Vanhoozer views God’s call to war as a smaller picture of the whole redemptive story. God frees Egypt from slavery and delivers them to a new land, which can only be received through the eradication of evil. In a bigger way, God calls us out of slavery to sin and eradicates evil (through Christ’s death and resurrection) in order to bring us into his Kingdom. Thus, Vanhoozer views the genocide as a true event, but understands it as a one-time event which is not normative or prescriptive for how one’s enemies ought to be treated. He holds that Jesus is not setting himself in opposition to Deuteronomy 20 because they both display God’s wrath against sin as well as his love.

A Response

Vanhoozer’s “Augustinian Inerrancy” is preferable to the strict, “poorly versed” inerrancy espoused by Mohler. I am a firm believer in being contextually aware. The historical, grammatical, and literary context is just as important for interpretation as correctly translating the language. We are severely limited without these.

However, there are still some problems with Vanhoozer’s model. One being the fact that I see no need to use the term “inerrancy.” I find it perfectly sufficient—and more helpful—for Vanhoozer to lose all of the labels and just say, “I believe whatever the biblical author means by whatever he says.”

In his treatment of Saul’s conversion accounts, Vanhoozer criticizes the strict inerrantists for missing the meaning by attempting to harmonize the text, making it appear to be telling exactly the same thing when it doesn’t. However, I would suggest that his approach is no less of a stretch. While the strict inerrantist is too fixated on harmonizing details, Vanhoozer becomes too fixated on harmonizing intentions. It would be more reasonable to simply say: Luke didn’t care about that detail. Neither should you.

Finally, I genuinely appreciated the way Vanhoozer showed how the smaller stories within the OT (such as creation, Exodus, etc.) portrayed the larger redemptive story. I think there is much truth there. Though, I am not convinced of his take on the issue at hand. Vanhoozer, like Mohler and Bird, ignored what very little the Bible actually tells us regarding the reason behind the genocide: The Canaanites were in the land God wanted to give to the Israelites, and he didn’t want the Israelites worshiping Canaanite gods.

So, we still have Yahweh, who orders genocide—and Jesus, who orders a total rejection of violence.

For me, Vanhoozer fails to resolve the tension.


4 responses to “Biblical Inerrancy: Kevin Vanhoozer – Augustinian Inerrancy

  1. Tylor, I was surprised that an evenhanded, even appreciative, review like this ended with something I had always considered mere mainline liberal cant. If clay even has the right to talk about its potter the way you did (and I suppose Job and certain psalms might give you a place), I can say that conservatives have done some great work on that particular aspect of theodicy. I just listened to this from Peter Williams of Tyndale House, Cambridge recently:

    I am trying to find an Augustine quote that both led me (through Google) to your blog and would help answer your challenge against God’s character as revealed in Scripture. I thought for sure I saved it… In any case, it is precisely the slippery slope argument still used by modern-day inerrantists: if one word of Scripture can be thought to be in error, then by what principle can you determine that others are not? Any decision to distrust God’s words is a decision to trust someone else’s. Ah! A friend on Quora found Augustine’s words for me! See here:

    Now I have a sincere question for you: why bother going to seminary if the Bible isn’t reliably divine, if it isn’t all true, if you get to pit the Jesus of the NT vs. the Yahweh of the OT (along with a long line of mainliners and higher critics going back into the earliest days of the Enlightenment project)? One blogger on your blogroll says Paul was mistaken about the historicity of Adam. One of them (at least) says Paul simply didn’t know about committed, monogamous homosexual unions—and was therefore wrong to condemn all homosexuality. Many of them say that (poor Paul!) he was a bit of a misogynist. Why have a Bible if it isn’t allowed to tell you your cultural assumptions are wrong? Tylor, why not try Unitarianism or Buddhism? I’m not trying to be cute, I’m really not; I’m asking out of genuine curiosity as to what you’d say.

    Have you read Thomas Oden’s autobiography? You are headed down a path he repudiated. How about Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism—and Lewis’s Great Divorce, the scene with the two clerics?

    • Sincere questions are better received when not preceded by caricatures. It says quite a bit about the respect you give to those different than yourself that you found it surprising that I could give an appreciative review of a viewpoint I do not hold. Perhaps you might suffer the same illness that you presume to diagnose in those you call “mainline liberals”? To address your questions and critiques:

      I go to seminary because I love God, his Church, and the Bible and want to study it. Rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy does not equate to thinking the Bible is unreliable. A glance at almost anyone who rejects inerrancy will quickly dispel that caricature. Christians have noted the tension between YHWH and Jesus since the Early Church Fathers, long before the Enlightenment. I’m not sure why you are comparing (and equating) me to the bloggers in my blogroll. It’s unhelpful to assume I agree with everyone I recommend for reading. (Besides, you know what happens when we assume.) Where have I ever implied that the Bible cannot challenge my cultural assumptions? In fact, I have written often about how the Bible destroyed my cultural assumptions. It just so happens that my cultural assumptions were built by the particular subculture of Americanized Christianity in which I was raised. I don’t “try” Buddhism or Unitarianism because my faith is in the death, resurrection, and eventual return of Christ. That question assumes that faith is only firm if it is founded on an inerrant view of the Bible. My faith is in Christ, not the Bible. Plenty of other people have warned me about what “path” I’m on. I’ve learned that phrase is really just an ad hominem attack that roughly translates to, “You don’t believe like I do, so you aren’t faithful like I am.” I’m just going to keep studying the Bible and trying to understand it, and then be faithful to it the best I can. If that leads me down a “path” that some don’t like, then I’m okay with that. There are worse things I could be doing.

      • Tylor, I grant that, being far less than deity, it’s not up to me to determine whose doctrinal errors put them on a slippery slope into apostasy and whose don’t. I sincerely hope that you remain where you are, doctrinally speaking, rather than going further down the path Oden warned against. And God is able to make you stand, if you’re his servant.

        I simply fail to see how being “faithful to the Bible” could ever involve questioning the wording it contains or the God it reveals.

        We both know Internet dialogue well enough to know that conversations like this don’t usually last long or end well. So I end here and give you the last word, but I encourage you to read the Augustine quote I linked to—and Machen’s book.

  2. Pingback: Biblical Inerrancy: John R. Franke – Redefining Inerrancy | Tylor Standley·

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