Biblical Inerrancy: John R. Franke – Redefining Inerrancy

{This is the Sixth 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, fourth, and fifth 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.}


Alas, we have made it to the final essay. John R. Franke is professor of Missional Theology at Yellowstone Theological Institute. His essay is entitled, “Recasting Inerrancy: The Bible as Witness to Missional Plurality.”


As the title suggests, Franke desires to cast the definition of inerrancy in terms different from that of the CSBI. Indeed, he considers the perspective found in the CSBI to be “foundationalism.” That is, it places the doctrine of Scripture on a house-of-cards. If a single error is found, the whole house comes tumbling down and we may as well close our churches because there is no reason to trust any of it. Like some of the other contributors to Five Views, Franke recognizes the way in which dominant groups use inerrancy “as a means of asserting power and control” (Loc 4632).

Franke believes inerrancy is a “second-order” doctrine. Meaning, the Bible does not directly teach inerrancy; the doctrine is inferred. Therefore, it is primarily an interpretation which should be critiqued, reevaluated and, if need be, reformulated. He contends that the CSBI is insufficient in interpreting inerrancy and suggests a new model.

His argument begins with the nature of God. Franke shows that God is an active participant in his creation. He is a missionary God. He meets us where we are. Borrowing a phrase from John Calvin, he calls God’s missionary activity divine accommodation. “This means that in the process of revelation, God ‘adjusts’ and ‘descends’ to the limited capacities of human beings and ‘lisps’ to us, as adults do to infants, in order to be made known” (Loc 4760).

Much of his argument rests on the idea that there is “capital-t Truth” and “small-t truth” (cf. Loc 4793). God experiences all things as capital-t Truth. Human experience (and thus, human language) is, by nature, small-t truth because it expresses Truth in ways our limited minds can understand. So, while Scripture is still truthful, it does not reveal ultimate, capital-T truth because human language is incapable of doing so.

Franke suggests we view inerrancy with an understanding of this T/t-ruth distinction. He writes, “inerrancy functions only within the limits of language alone. It applies to Scripture only in the context of the original settings in which the texts that we have were constructed, and its affirmations and teachings cannot be abstracted from those contexts and offered as absolute truth, because only God knows and is Truth” (Loc 4809).

That said, he is not convinced that the message of Scripture is bound to its original meaning. He suggests that the text can have meaning apart from (but still somehow connected to) its author.

The most distinguishing aspect of Franke’s view is his emphasis on the plurality of Scripture. It speaks with different voices and even diverging perspectives. He argues that we cannot attempt to blend or harmonize these texts; rather, we should accept the richness of their unique messages. Keeping this in mind, we can have an “open and flexible theology,” which is better for seeing God’s own flexibility in working with humanity (Loc 4964).

Franke shows that such flexibility is biblical. We see this with the New Testament church’s willingness to follow the Spirit in ending circumcision in spite of the fact that it is a command from God. Peter Enns summarizes Franke’s view thusly, “Franke locates the church’s ultimate authority in the Spirit working in and through Scripture rather than in the Spirit being bound to Scripture” (Loc 5209).

Dealing with the Problem Texts

Regarding the historical accuracy of Joshua 6, Franke recognizes that the external evidence points away from a literalistic interpretation. He argues that to hang the Bible’s authority on the veracity of this event is to commit foundationalism and it ignores the actual message of the text. He contends that those who attempt to defend the Bible’s authority and inerrancy by demanding that this text be seen as literal do more to discredit Scripture’s authority than to support it, “because it was not intended to sustain such a defense” (Loc 5020).

For Franke, the differing accounts of Saul’s conversion in Acts simply display the pluralistic nature of Scripture. He recognizes that this contradiction is small compared to many others within the canon (i.e. the two creation accounts, diverging histories and genealogies, etc.). The desire to harmonize this text is yet another foundationalist approach which suggests that the entire house will fall if the listeralist card falls. Again, this approach has served to create a more skeptical view of Scripture than a strong, informed faith in it.

Franke’s treatment of the theological differences in Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5 begins with the distinction that God’s commandments in Deuteronomy 20 were for the corporate nation of Israel and Jesus’ commandments were to individuals. He then draws our attention to the other OT Laws in which God shows concern for the foreigner and the outcast. Though, he also admits that the militaristic, warrior-god found in the Old Testament is a common way ancient peoples spoke of their deities. He says we should not be surprised that such language is used of Yahweh.

He calls our attention again to the plurality of Scripture and to its progressive nature. He argues that God is guiding history to his eschatological goal. Therefore, we cannot view God’s involvement with Israel as normative or prescriptive. They were God’s “divine accommodation” to the setting in which his people lived, whereas Jesus’ command on the Sermon on the Mount was a fuller expression of God’s eschatological goal. Thus, Jesus’ message in Matthew 5 is a deconstruction of the divine message in Deuteronomy 20.

A Response

I suppose I could live with Franke’s reformulation of inerrancy. Like Vanhoozer’s view, it is well-versed in that it respects the contexts of Scripture. What I most appreciate about Franke’s view is his recognition that the authority of Scripture is not in itself or in its “inerrancy,” but in the Holy Spirit working through it. I think the modern church would do very well to recognize this fact.

That said, I still have trouble finding the necessity to speak of Scripture in terms of inerrancy. In my opinion, this cheapens it by distracting us from its message. Franke states, “…inerrancy functions to ensure that all of Scripture is taken seriously and viewed as authoritative” (Loc 4932). However, for centuries the church has had no problem taking Scripture seriously and accepting its authority without this label. Why are we suddenly destitute without it?

Franke’s view of the text’s meaning is a bit too postmodern for my taste. It is certainly true that the Holy Spirit can bring new insight each time we read the Bible, and its principles can be applied to our modern lives. However, I am not so convinced that it is due to the flexibility of the text’s meaning. As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart aptly wrote, “The text cannot mean what it never could have meant to its author or his or her original hearers.”1

Concerning Franke’s interpretation of the Problem Texts, I have no problem with how he deals with the first two passages. However, I disagree with some of his take on the third.

First, I reject the idea that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is exclusively individual. In his response, Peter Enns points out that the Sermon on the Mount is purposefully calling our attention back to Mount Sinai where Moses gave the Law to Israel. The Israelites in Jesus’ time were looking for a militaristic revolution led by the Messiah, but instead he calls them to peaceful, nonviolent resistance. The Sermon on the Mount was most definitely a corporate (as well as an individual) message.

Second, Franke appeals to God’s “niceness” in other passages; however, this exacerbates rather than relieves the tension. We know that God is nice. The fact that Deuteronomy 20 is so violent is what makes it so difficult to understand.

I would agree (or at least sympathize) with other parts of his interpretation. He admits that the portrayal of God in Deuteronomy 20 (and other portions of the OT) is consistent with other ancient portrayals of tribal deities. He also explains that this was God’s divine accommodation to the ancient Israelite situation. Furthermore, he believes that Jesus deconstructs and revises God’s message in Deuteronomy 20. This fits in with his understanding of theological flexibility. Just as the Holy Spirit led the church to abandon the letter of the Law, so Jesus abandons the tribalistic patriotism of the Old Testament and calls his people to a new way of living—a way of embodying the Kingdom on Earth.

In conclusion, I found Franke’s essay to be quite refreshing. He brings much needed balance to the discussion between the nature of authority and divine accommodation. Additionally, he boldly rejects foundationalism—an example in which evangelicalism must follow if it is to survive with any integrity.

Next in this series I’ll give my own perspective on inerrancy. Stay tuned if you’re curious or if you just want to confirm your suspicions that I’m a heretic!

  1. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 75. 

3 responses to “Biblical Inerrancy: John R. Franke – Redefining Inerrancy

  1. I really enjoyed these articles. I found that I tended to agree, fir the most part with your views and assertions.
    One consideration that is lacking in all five views is the fact that mankind is created in the image of God. For the purpose of understanding why the Lord would do certain things, we can often consider our own tendencies.
    I submit a purely hypothetical example: A man comes to my door with a threat of regularly injecting my children with heroine. For arguments sake, let’s say that I know for certain that he will do this, and terminating him is the only way to stop this. Would I be considered evil if I killed that man? I would argue that I would be considered a good father for preserving my children’s purity, along with their hope for a healthy future.
    There is a strong case in this allegory for Franke’s view of truth. If our terms for truth are relative, then to one I may be considered evil, while to another, good. If we define truth in biblical terms, then the only thing that matters is the opinion of the one who determines what is right. Does Deuteronomy 20 need to be reduced all tribal depiction of deities at that time? Should God be considered violent? Is He nice? Is He jealous, or loving? To answer that I ask another question: is mankind just subject to one disposition?
    The fact of the matter is that mankind, and so it stands to reason, God, display different traits in different situations. I believe that God is dispensing his will throughout the ages in the way that he feels is appropriate.
    I have to stop there. Thanks for your work Tylor

  2. For the record, I think a text CAN mean something other than what it’s author and original audience understood. That, perhaps, muddies the waters more, but many people have written books and songs and created art that means different things to different people, even if that wasn’t the intent. With the Spirit working in us, why couldn’t the Bible be the same? As long as nothing denies Christ’s death and resurrection, who is to say it can’t be true?

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