The Erosion of Inerrancy
- Thursday, January 01, 2009
The Issue of Socially Constructed Cultures, Presuppositions, and Biblical Interpretation
Running throughout Enns's book is the following presupposition: "There is no absolute point of reference to which we have access that will allow us to interpret the Bible stripped of our own cultural context" (p. 169; cf. p. 161). One paragraph later he says that "our theologies are necessarily limited and provisional" (p. 169). I cannot respond at all fully to this. Nevertheless, while it is true that postmodernism—and earlier, the Dutch Reformed tradition!—rightly has taught us that all things are seen through interpretative lenses, so that no human viewpoint is objective, it is also true that a number of scholars rightly acknowledge that interpreters can understand some things definitely and sufficiently but not exhaustively. Any other epistemological approach takes the insights of postmodernism to a skeptical extreme.29
Enns is not clear here, since, in apparent contrast with his preceding statements, he also proposes several interpretations of biblical passages where it is clear that he would say that he understands them sufficiently and definitely but not exhaustively. Thus, he operates at numerous points on the assumption that we do have an "absolute point of reference to which we have access that will allow us to interpret the Bible," despite the fact that we are influenced by our own cultural context.
His discussion on page 169 thus lacks clarity and, therefore, gives the impression that to understand any particular part of the Bible definitely is impossible. It also gives the impression that when we think we have grasped part of biblical revelation in some definite way it is because we have imposed our own cultural presuppositional lenses on the biblical data. In the context of his book, however, I take it that what Enns really means here (p. 169) is that the main presuppositional lenses that evangelicals have imposed on Scripture are standards of modern reason—definitions of truth and error with respect to history and science—especially as this relates to the definition of myth.
Enns states, "The problems many of us feel regarding the Bible may have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions" (p. 15; italics in original). As we have seen, for him, both so-called liberals and evangelicals have the same preconceived notion for determining truth and error, though they have disagreed about whether there is error in the Bible; both have formulated a definition of truth and error on the basis of modern science and modern conceptions of history. Enns says that we must go beyond this impasse, and he portrays himself as one of the contemporary evangelicals able to formulate the new synthesis that deals much better with these long-disputed issues. But, as we have seen elsewhere, Enns sets up two polar opposites and does not allow for middle ground concerning possibilities of some significant overlap (not equation) between ancient and modern notions of science and historiography.
As far as I can tell, he has somewhat mirrored the problem found in the work of Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (New York: Harper and Row, 1979), who also contended for not interpreting the Bible according to the same modern notions with a quite similar result as Enns—the Bible can have what we moderns would consider error but the ancients would not have so considered it.
For the sake of space, I must refer to the larger discussion of John D. Woodbridge and his critiques of Rogers and McKim along these lines,30 which is representative of other conservative critiques. Generally, the upshot of Woodbridge's conclusion is that ancient peoples "did have categories at their disposal for assessing" the observable world "that are in some regards commensurable to our own."31 In addition to the supporting literature cited by Woodbridge, there are more recent publications analyzing ancient mathematics, astronomy, and measurements and showing their technological complexity and degrees of significant overlap with modern equivalents.32
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