The next section in Chapter 7 of Christian Smith's The Bible Made Impossible encourages an understanding of various meanings the written word can take on, which biblicists often fail to appreciate. As a result, biblicists find themselves in some tough spots.
A written phrase can simply make a descriptive statement, or it can evoke commands, promises, warnings, criticism, surprise, inspiration, insults, etc.
Smith points out "the use of speech to communicate is not a simple matter of speakers intending to make clear propositional statements that, when properly interpreted, reproduce the original propositional meaning in the minds of those receiving the statements." When translating written utterances into different contexts, "significant problems of meaning arise."
Smith continues: "the meanings of terms such as 'error,' 'mistaken,' 'inaccurate,' and 'fallible' become not entirely straightforward when speech acts are understood in this way." In imposing these categories (which I argue are very modern Western notions), what does it mean for warnings, expressions of surprise, insults, appeals, promises, expressions of honor, etc., to be in error? Smith writes:
Given the richness of the variety of kinds of speech acts that appear to be at work in the Bible, therefore, it seems quite inadequate to try to describe or defend scripture’s truthfulness, reliability, authority, and whatever else we might say on its behalf with single, technical terms like “inerrancy.” That particular term—a favorite of many evangelicals—tends to zero in on matters of accuracy in reporting on facts and events as a matter of correspondence between propositions and the real states to which those propositions refer. But that term tends not to capture the multitude of other ways in which the locutions of texts and their illocutionary and perlocutionary acts may or may not be reliable, authoritative, compelling, powerful, inviting, and so on.
We don't parse the accuracy of a comforting word given during a time of grief - and inerrancy as applied to the Bible works the same way:
Evangelical defenders of biblical inerrancy are used to the typical charge by more liberal critics that “inerrancy” is too strong, extreme, or demanding of a concept to accurately describe what the Bible is. What I am suggesting here is quite the opposite. “Inerrancy” is far too limited, narrow, restricted, flat, and weak a term to represent the many virtues of the Bible that are necessary to recognize, affirm, and commend the variety of speech acts performed in scripture.
Genesis 1-2 is an excellent example. What was the intended effect of the written words of these chapters? Was it to convey to the reader that the Yahweh God created a good world with his power? Or was it to communicate a literal scientific account about the precise method and time period of the creation of the world? Was it to banish rival pagan narratives of the earth's origins? Or, anachronistically, was it to motivate followers of the Yahweh God to mobilize against teaching evolution in schools?
To impose our categories of literalism and factual accuracy onto a rich, ancient text disrespects the intended effect of Scripture's written words. Inerrancy forces the Bible to look like a collection of "error-free propositions with which to construct indubitably true systematic theologies[.]" But the living God of the Bible "actively promises, confronts, beckons, comforts, invites, commands, explains, encourages," and more.
I don't want the flat and weak version of Scripture that inerrancy hands us. I want the complicated, perplexing, diverse, active, and living Scripture that isn't forced into categories such as "factually-correct," "error-free," or "literal."
The next section in Chapter 7 that I plan to post about is a discussion of biblical authority, which inerrantists usually bring up in response to the idea that the Bible was never intended to be viewed as factually error-free.