Historical-Critical Scholarship, Inerrancy, and the Problem of Worldview

Inerrancy and worldviewIn a recent book, Inerrancy and Worldview: Answering Modern Challenges to the Bible, Vern Poythress, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, investigates the vital question of how one’s worldview influences their approach to the Bible.  (You can read my review of Poythress’ excellent book here).  What is a “worldview?”  Poythress explains,

Many basic assumptions about the nature of the world fit together to form a worldview. A worldview includes assumptions about whether God exists, what kind of God might exist, what kind of world we live in, how we come to know what we know, whether there are moral standards, what is the purpose of human life, and so on (21).

Each of the components that Poythress lists—and his description is not exhaustive—relates directly or indirectly to several (if not all) of the theological categories that undergird and guide our approach to the Bible (e.g., the possibility of revelation, the nature of divine inspiration, the adequacy of human language, etc.).  In other words, the matter of worldview has immediate relevance to how we frame our doctrine of Scripture.  The crux the problem is the fact that “[m]ost modern worldviews differ at crucial points from the worldview offered in the Bible” (21).

These considerations relate directly to my recent review of Kenton’s Sparks’ book, God’s Word in Human God's Word in Human WordsWords.  Sparks is one evangelical (among others) who is proposing a wholesale modification of our understanding of inerrancy based on modern critical studies.

Sparks argues that evangelicals can and should assimilate the “assured results” of historical-critical scholarship into their doctrine of Scripture.  He also demonstrates a broad knowledge of historical scholarship and a profound appreciation for those who have labored in the field. What he fails to consider is that those who conduct such work usually labor from a worldview that is, at several points, diametrically opposed to a biblical worldview.

The observation, however, that those who work in the area of historical-critical scholarship usually come at the Bible from assumptions not in accord with Scripture’s own should not be seen as simplistic recourse to the claim that historical-critical scholars are devoid of the Holy Spirit—an approach to biblical scholarship that Sparks strongly rejects.

The conservative argument usually goes something like this: “Biblical critics are not Christians, and, as Paul has said, ‘The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned’ (1 Cor. 2:14 NIV). End of argument. According to this line of thought, the critics err because they do not share our assumptions and/or because they lack the resources of the Holy Spirit. So we may safely ignore their pagan view of ‘scholarship.'”

If there is one perspective that I am challenging in this book, it is the fideistic perspective embodied in the argument that I have just described (GWHW, 303).

While we can join with Sparks in rejecting an approach to scholarship that uses theological reasons to escape rigorous engagement with historical-critical research or to justify unhelpful generalizations (e.g., “pagan scholarship”), we must also point out the validity of this deduction from 1 Cor 2:14. Scripture is replete with evidence suggesting that one’s spiritual condition will sway one’s intellectual commitments. Those who were blind to Jesus’ identity sought to undermine the historicity of his resurrection (Matt 28:13-14).  It may sound unsophisticated to the larger academy, but Scripture is clear that unregenerate man actively suppresses the truth (Rom 1:18-20). There is a kind of healthy suspicion believers might have when those who reject the God of the Bible undertake the study of his Word.

At some point evangelicals who so readily embrace the “assured” findings of historical scholarship must concede that the underlying spiritual and intellectual commitments that form the scholars’ worldview will inevitably affect their study of history and the conclusions they draw about the veracity of the biblical narrative. If scholars’ presuppositions about whether or not God exists, the kind of God that exists, the nature of humankind, the direction of history, the possibility of miracles, and the role of reason are in opposition to what Scripture asserts regarding these matters, it is likely that they will make direct and significant challenges to Scripture’s truth claims, whether they are aware of their core intellectual commitments or not.

It appears theologically and epistemologically naïve, therefore, for evangelicals to enter into an examination of historical-critical scholarship without an honest recognition of the profound and fundamental differences that exist between an evangelical and a non-evangelical worldview and how such differences will guide one’s study of the Bible.

2 thoughts on “Historical-Critical Scholarship, Inerrancy, and the Problem of Worldview”

  1. Amen, Derek. Worldview is EVERYTHING in interpretation of Scripture. Sometimes this concept is expressed as the presuppositions one has in approaching Scripture. Every student of Scripture has his or her presuppositions, and they will most certainly impact one’s conclusions about the text.

    To understand the importance of worldview, consider the following analogy. Suppose you are in a hotel room at the end of a long, exhausting day and in desperate need of some rest. You put out the “Do Not Disturb” on the door and head to bed. Much to your dismay, your slumber is soon disturbed by loud noise coming from the neighboring room. You try to ignore it, but it is so penetrating and obnoxious that, finally, you’ve had enough and you get up to confront the offending person(s).

    What would your attitude be? Very likely irritated and confrontational. You would feel you have been treated disrespectfully. You would seek an apology and a commitment to be more considerate.

    But let me change one aspect of the situation. Suppose the hotel is on fire, and your neighbor’s noise is deliberately trying to awaken you to the danger and alert you to the need to evacuate.

    What is your attitude now? Upon learning this important detail, you are now very likely grateful of the your neighbor’s consideration in alerting you to the danger. You would feel you have been treated kindly. You would seek to thank your considerate neighbor for saving your life.

    Only one detail changed in the two scenarios, and yet it changes your entire orientation. This is the importance of worldview–your attitude and actions about what you know will depend upon your understanding of the truth of the situation. In the first, the offense you take at the noise presupposes no fire. In the second, the gratitude you now have comes from the change in your presupposition about the situation.

    Presuppositions about the world are the basis for one’s worldview. And faithful Christians carry biblical presuppositions to the text as the manner by which they will understand all that is said. This means that all that they will seek to understand about anything will be filtered through the foundational truth of the Scripture, as stipulated by Scripture. This is what Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 4, when he speaks of walking by faith and not by sight. The light of faith that illuminates the path of the believer is Scripture (cf. Psalm 119:105).

    All this is to say that one will want to be a biblical presuppositionalist–meaning have a biblical worldview– if one would have a true understanding of Scripture, the world, and the role of the Christian within it.

  2. Colin,

    Thanks for that helpful analogy. The conclusions we draw about the evidence (e.g., the noise in the next room) will depend upon what we believe about the larger situation. You’re right: one small bit of information changes dramatically the way we interpret a particular set of circumstances.

    I am grateful for Poythress for drawing our attention to the significance of worldview and how it relates directly to our discussion of inerrancy. As we discuss these issues, it will be necessary to dig below the surface and talk about our presuppositions concerning to the doctrine of God, epistemology, human language, etc. Evangelical inerrantists and non-inerrantists must recognize that their disagreements on inerrancy reveal larger, more foundational theological differences.

    Derek

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