In this post in my series “God and Man at Yale Divinity School,” I discuss my seventh week in Yale’s M.Div. program and my struggle with the issue of scriptural inerrancy.
Estimated Reading Time: 11 minutes
Today marks the end of my seventh week at Yale Divinity School. Seven weeks into a three-year program. I have so long to go, but it already feels like I have been here for a lifetime.
As I am progressing in my studies here at Yale, I am starting to reflect upon presuppositions with which I grew up. This week, I have been particularly considering the issue of scriptural inerrancy and the debate surrounding that topic.
First Paper of the Semester
This week, I turned in my first paper at Yale: my book review for World Christianity. I had a second writing consultation on the paper at the Writing Center. (I mentioned my first consultation in my previous post.)
This time, a Ph.D. candidate in an unrelated field met with me. He had different critiques and preferences than the first guy, but that’s to be expected. He was extremely helpful, and I was able to mix what he said with what I got from my first consultation to refine my paper further.
I think the finished product ended up being pretty good, but I guess we’ll see.
New Testament Greek
I am finding Intermediate New Testament Greek to be challenging. It is supposed to be a third-semester Greek class, the class you take immediately after completing the year-long Elementary Greek course.
(Yale also offers a summer intensive language study, in which you complete the first-year Greek class in just six weeks.)
I had three years of Greek in undergrad, and I am still learning a lot of things of which I was previously unaware. In college, I got pretty comfortable with the language, with recognizing parts of speech and vocabulary, and with translating at a very literal level.
At Yale, however, I am learning about the various different usages of the cases and parts of speech of which I was utterly unaware. The Greek language can be quite complex, and I am understanding better just how many different options are open to translators when making translation choices.
Knowing the original language is not merely essential to learn more precise meanings or to clear up ambiguities in translations. (It can be helpful for that, but not nearly as beneficial as is often suggested.)
A lot of the value in knowing the original language is learning the ambiguities that the translations smooth out, understanding the options the translators considered and rejected, and making your own determinations as to what is appropriate.
There are also some fun things that you lose in translations, such as wordplays, double entendres, alliterations, quotes from other sources, and things like that.
It is exciting to learn and understand Scripture better, and it’s impossible to do that well without knowing the original language in which it was written.
Reading Period at Yale
This is the last week before the reading period begins. I don’t have any classes next week, and I intend to use the entirety of that time to work on papers. I think I should be able to get through the first book I’m reading on the Council of Chalcedon soon, which will allow me to move forward with the other research on the paper.
The research after reading the first book tends to move more quickly since I have a general framework of the underlying subject matter at that point. Working through the primary sources—in this case, the actual writings leading up to and produced by the Council of Chalcedon—will, however, probably be slow going.
Nonetheless, I think I can complete the research aspect of this paper by the end of the reading week.
So, reading week comes as a relief but not as a vacation. It hasn’t even started yet, and I already feel pressed to get stuff done. Every second I’m not working feels like one where I should be.
Nonetheless, I’m excited about what I’m doing. I enjoy writing papers because it allows me to dig down into a subject and become a bit of an expert on it.
I haven’t started on my New Testament paper yet, and I don’t think I will be able to start on it during reading week. My plan is to knock out the Early Christianity paper first and then move on to my other papers for the semester.
The academics here have been quite enjoyable. I must admit that I had a bit of trepidation coming here. Some of my professors from college did not speak too highly of Yale, given its progressive reputation. Most good students from Ouachita go to Duke and (rarely) Princeton Theological Seminary. I never knew of anyone who went to Yale.
I must say, however, that I have not encountered anything here disconcerting. That is, I have not encountered any militant attack on my view of Scripture or on Scripture itself.
The academic side of biblical studies here is exciting. Even where the scholarly conclusions are inconsistent with what I believe—I recently read one article that claimed that the statements in the Gospels actually cut against a virgin birth and another that claimed the author of Luke did not believe Jesus to be preexistent—it doesn’t bother me to interact with such contrary opinions. Those interactions are exciting and why I’m here.
The irony is that, after nearly a decade of somewhat drifting away from my conservative upbringing, my time at Yale may end up making me more conservative.
Evaluating My View on Scriptural Inerrancy
I’m getting to a point in the semester where I am really having to think about and analyze where I stand on things, particularly concerning some aspects of the faith with which I grew up and generally took for granted.
Scriptural inerrancy is a big one. Yet, it is one with which I have struggled very little, even as my views have evolved. If someone outside an academic setting asks me if I believe the Bible to be inerrant, I would probably still say, Yes.
But what I mean by scriptural inerrancy and what was commonly meant by the term in the evangelical churches of my youth are in some ways significantly different.
The word “inerrancy” is an extremely loaded term, and I, therefore, would prefer to forego it. (In the video above, my views are much closer to Peter Enns’ than Al Mohler, even if I am slightly more comfortable with the term than Dr. Enns.)
Its association with particular cultural and ecclesiastical structures and polity has come, in many ways, to define the term in the popular mind. Still, such things are mostly irrelevant to the way I think about Scripture.
To define scriptural inerrancy—that is, to say that Scripture is without error—we must first define what constitutes an error.
What are Errors?
Errors are, to me, inaccuracies in the thrust of the message. That is, places in which Scripture is untrustworthy in what it affirms. If Scripture conveys a message that it intends to convey that is clearly wrong, that is an error.
So, for example, if the Bible were to tell us that it rained in Jerusalem on April 15, 625 BC with the purpose of telling us that it rained in Jerusalem on April 25, 625 BC, it would be an error if it didn’t in fact rain in Jerusalem on that date.
If, however, the Bible mentions that it rained in Jerusalem on April 25, 625 BC, but the purpose of the passage is to tell us something about the character of God, it doesn’t matter whether it rained on that date or not. That is not an error for purposes of scriptural inerrancy because it doesn’t speak to what Scripture is trying to say.
This principle carries into every aspect of Scripture. Is the purpose of Genesis 1-3, for example, to recount the history of the creation of the world in the modern scientific sense or to tell us something about the relationship between God and man?
If it’s the latter, there is no need to harmonize the Bible and science or, as is unfortunately often the case, reject scientific progress. The same holds true for recounting of history in Scripture.
Scriptural inerrancy does not mean that Scripture must be a scientific or history book, at least in our modern sense of those concepts. In fact, to impose such anachronistic models onto Scripture is to diminish inerrancy, for it insists upon a definition of scriptural inerrancy applicable only to our very particular culture at our very particular time in world history.
The Hard Questions on Scriptural Inerrancy
Of course, this raises more questions. If the purpose of Scripture is essential for answering questions of scriptural inerrancy, what determines the purpose of Scripture?
This can be a difficult question to answer. Does authorial intent determine the purpose of a particular passage? Generally, I’d say yes, but some books don’t have a single author but are instead the work of editors putting together different sources from many different authors.
We, therefore, have to keep editorial purposes in mind, as well, meaning we must have an understanding of the community situation into which the editor was editing and, likewise, the writers were writing.
In addition, the authors and editors may intend to affirm things that are inaccurate but that nonetheless are irrelevant to the main purpose of the passage. (An author may believe and affirm that the sun revolves around the earth, for example, even if making such an affirmation is not the main point of a text.)
Also, the purpose of combining the different books into Scripture into a scriptural whole is important because it’s essential to understand that a single verse is not Scripture. The totality of Scripture is Scripture.
This is important because verses sometimes contradict each other. We always seemed to deny this in my childhood churches, but I have a hard time understanding how we can say they don’t.
There are sections of Scripture that say David goes to Jerusalem before he actually captures Jerusalem (cf. 1 Sam 17:54; 2 Sam 5:6-9). The Bible says that two different people killed Goliath (cf. 1 Sam 17; 2 Sam 21:19). Some proverbs give contradictory advice (cf. Prov 26:4-5).
These contradictions, however, are irrelevant, because it is the tension of the totality of Scripture that makes Scripture Scripture. It is in its totality that we find inerrancy.
A Reliable Guide
Scripture is, therefore, a reliable guide in matters of faith and practice and without error in its teachings on these subjects. How to interpret what it teaches, however, is a matter of considerable debate.
Even though my articulation above would put me on the more conservative side of those at Yale Divinity School—but perhaps a bit out of place at the Evangelical Theological Society—I don’t feel any discomfort exploring the academic side of my study here.
It helps me understand the totality of Scripture and, only in understanding that, can I know how to interpret and apply its teachings.
Where the teachings of one book seem to contradict another (e.g., Eph v. Jas), I find the significance of the apparent contradictions a fertile ground for seeking to understand the full richness of the teaching of Scripture and to apply it to the complexities of my own life.
Scriptural Inerrancy and the Importance of Community
Some, however, go a bit too far. Peter Enns’ book, How the Bible Actually Works, is, in my opinion, an exceptionally insightful and well-written book. His discussion on Scripture as a wisdom book that requires interpretation and the exercise of wisdom in applying it was quite compelling.
Still, I found the individuality of it problematic.
Saying that the Bible is generally descriptive—a recording of how people attempted to interact with God—versus prescriptive—how we should interact with God—is not problematic, at least from my perspective.
But if we engage in such interpretative schemes in isolation, we will inevitably turn Christianity into a cafeteria-style faith, picking and choosing what we like according to the flavors of the time, which will—surprise surprise—generally reflect our own cultural, political, and all-around personal biases.
Whenever we are drawn to a novel interpretation of Scripture with no historical backing, we must ask ourselves whether we are drawn to Christianity or a Christian-flavored version of our current cultural milieu.
Interpretation within community, therefore, both within our current faith community and the faith community of history through engagement with tradition, is critical.
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Support Yale Divinity School
I have now completed seven weeks at Yale Divinity School, and I start my first significant break of the semester.
The time that I have spent working through the subject matter here has allowed me to reflect upon my faith, particularly concerning scriptural inerrancy. Even though I am one of the most conservative students here, this place is beginning to feel like home.
If you’re interested in applying to Yale Divinity School, I encourage you to begin your application here. You can also request additional information from the YDS website.
If you would like to support the work of Yale Divinity School, please consider making a donation to Yale here.
If you have any questions about Yale Divinity School, please feel free to email me at [email protected]. I speak for myself, not for Yale, but I’m happy to answer questions from interested students the best that I can.
 I understand that there are many, particularly those of the fundamentalist variety, who do not accept this. If you are of that camp, then Yale may be a challenging place for you. It will be hard—though perhaps not impossible—to engage in serious academic work if you get bogged down in such things.
 A quote from St. Augustine’s The Literal Meaning of Genesis seems particularly apt here. “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world…and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics…If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods and on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?…For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although ‘they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion [1 Timothy 1.7]’” (Book 1, Chapter 19, Paragraph 39).