Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Genre of the Gospels

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During class tonight, my professor dealt with the role of genre in biblical interpretation.  While such topics are always intresting (at least to me), two discussions stuck out in particular.

One topic was over the genre of the gospels.  My professor noted how there is much debate regarding how to classify the gospels.  Much ink had been used, but in my professor’s view much of this was unnecessary.  For him the obvious answer is that they are narratives.  Nothing more, nothing less.

As i have reflected on this, it seems clear to me that he is right.  The reason why evangelicals have such a problem with this is due not to the uniqueness in form, but rather with their understanding of inspiration. 

For evangelicals the bible is without error, or inerrant.  However, the problem is that frequently evangelicals have done an inadequate job in attending to genre and literary conventions in the ancient world.  Instead evangelicals have simply allowed a modern view of historicity to infiltrate their exegetical practices and views of the bible.  This has led evangelicals to miss the gospels for what they really are; particular stories of the life of Jesus Christ, arranged and told in such a way as to highlight certain aspects of Jesus’ life and mission and its consequences for the church.  For evangelicals, the standard for inerrancy is the historical method of the enlightenment.

This doesn’t mean that the events recounted aren’t historical.  However, we must remember that aside from the last two hundred years no one has had such stringent standards on what is and isn’t historical.  Since the author’s intent isn’t merely to recount an unbiased, “objective” account of the gospels, it does violence to the text to subject them to such an approach.  In all actuality, such a method is by and large vacuous.   We can bypass desperate and strained attempts at harmonization if we allow the gospels to be what they were intended.

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5 responses to “Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Genre of the Gospels

  1. I think your professor is right. The problem is not “errors” but how we define errors; the problem is trying to fit the gospel stories into our mold of what we think they ought to be. We have to be content to let the Gospel writers tell the story in the way they want to tell it.

  2. Professor Alterman,

    Thanks for the comment. I think that how the gospel writers wrote offends our modern sensibilities, but to not honor their methods is to misunderstand their work.

    Taking literary context seriously has at times been found lacking within Evangelical exegesis. This is something i will hit on in my presentation at MCC next month.

    Always good to hear from you Professor!

  3. That’s just reality

    –Slemp

  4. I have not responded in this manner of forum before, so to jump in, being an evangelical (Lutheran – Missouri Synod), I do believe in the innerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. I believe too much of modern scholarship tries to deny the meaning of the human (and Divine) authors, and tends to ignore the basic purpose of Scripture as purported in John 20:30,31.

    In turht, I suppose, I ignore much of modern scholarship, and stick to the text and use commentaries sparingly, except to build context.
    Bob

  5. Bob Grimm,

    Thanks for your contribution. Let me comment on your two points, both in what i see as their strengths and weaknesses. 1) I think that you are right to criticize some of modern scholarship’s tendency toward not taking the meaning of the biblical authors seriously. 2) Also, i agree with you regarding modern’s scholarship’s habit to sometimes forget what the Bible is actually for.

    All that to say, i think that to view scripture as inerrant, at least in the historical sense, is to also make the same mistakes, albeit to the other extreme.

    1) Regarding denying meaning, i think that while modern scholarship is often guilty of not taking Divine authorship seriously, inerrantists tend to make the other mistake of not taking the humanity of Scripture seriously enough. Many inerrantists (not you necessarily) have a picture of the bible coming out of the sky into their hands. This is naive at best, flat out dishonest at worst. I think all of us like things to be simple, but sadly the nature or Scripture, like most other things of the Christian faith, isn’ that simple. As my professor puts it, we try to avoid having a “docetic” understanding of scripture. Also, we can never forget that while the scripture has relevance today, its original intent is locked in its original setting. This makes understanding how to apply the author’s meanings today tough.

    2) I think that Jn 20:30-31 doesn’t require inerrancy. It does, along with Jn 5:37-47, state the basic purpose of Scripture i think, which is to bear witness to Jesus as the Christ. My understanding of Scripture is that it bears witness to Jesus Christ, a person, not to a hardened theory regarding the nature of itself.

    I hope that this makes sense. Thanks again for your thoughts.

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