One of the difficulties of biblical interpretation I repeatedly come up against is this: if an interpretation of Scripture claims something that appears to be either false or contrary to the norms of love, then it should be either revised or rejected. This is a long-standing principle going back to Augustine, but it runs the risk of turning Scripture into a wax-nose; Scripture becomes subject to our ever-changing knowledge base and perceptions about the nature of love. Some very interesting remarks on this problem come from the pen of Nicholas Wolterstorff in his fascinating book Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks.
First, neither affirming nor denying inerrancy solves the problem:
The intensely polemical relations in the modern world between the adherents of these two strategies obscures the fact that the differences between them are considerably less than first meets the eye. For one thing, if all goes well in the process of interpreting, both strategies yield the outcome that false and unloving speech is never attributed to God. However, for our purposes what is more important to observe is that neither party simply uses ordinary principles of interpretation for discerning discourse. Both parties use the exceptional principle, that in trying to discern what the author said, we are to keep in mind that nothing false or unloving is to be attributed to the author. The fundamental difference between the two parties lies in the fact that they use that exceptional principle at different points in the whole process: the inerrantist uses it when interpreting the human discourse, and thus has no need of it thereafter; the errantist uses it only when moving from the human discourse to discernment of the divine discourse.
Most if not all inerrantists would bridle at what I have just said. On their self-description, they use ordinary principles of interpretation to discern what the human authors said; and that just proves to be inerrant because of God’s guidance and inspiration. Nowhere, so they say, is their interpretation guided by the principle that nothing false or unloving is to be attributed to the author in question – be that author God or some human biblical writer. But consider the example I cited earlier, from Psalm 93, where the psalmist writes that God “has established the world; it shall never be moved.” It’s clear that if the psalmist was speaking literally at this point, he was affirming geocentri- cism. But contemporary inerrantists are not geocentricists; they believe that geocentricism is false. Accordingly, they look for some non-literal interpretation of the psalmist’s words which won’t saddle him with a false geocentric cosmology. Yet they also go along with the standard historical view that most ancient persons were geocentricists; when ancient peoples used sentences synonymous with this one of the psalmist, they were affirming geocentricism. Nonetheless, the biblical writer, so the inerrantists say, was not speaking literally.
What makes them think not? Well, they don’t base their conclusion on extensive research into the thought-patterns of ancient Hebrews.
They haven’t discovered a pocket of avant-garde solar-centricists among the ancient Hebrews, of which the psalmist was a member, on the basis of which knowledge they conclude that he must have been speaking metaphorically when he said that the earth shall never moved. Nor have they discovered some particulanty about the psalmtst which leads them to conclude that though he believed, along with everyone else around him, that the earth is fixed, nonetheless he was using those words about the earth’s fixity metaphorically in this case. Instead, their rejection of a literal interpretation IS motivated by their conviction that if the author had been speaking literally, he would have said what is false. Since, on their view, biblical writers don’t speak falsehoods, it just follows that the literal interpretation must be discarded.
It follows that inerrantism does not immunize the interpretation of scripture against the vagaries of human beliefs about reality and morality. Both the errantist and the inerranttst, each m his own way, allows the conviction that geocentricism is false to shape his interpretation of what God was saying by way of that passage from Psalm 93. The strategy of the inerrantist, rather than circumventing what gives rise to the wax-nose anxiety, evokes that anxiety.
Second, after considering if one has good reasons for favoring an interpretation, one should be open-minded, but confident in one’s use of the principle, especially if one is seeking to follow and obey God:
I conclude that there is no way to avoid employing our convictions as to what is true and loving in the process of interpreting for divine discourse – no way to circumvent doing that which evokes the wax- nose anxiety, the anxiety, namely, that the convictions with which we approach the process of interpretation may lead us to miss discerning what God said and to conclude that God said what God did not say. The anxiety is appropriate, eminently appropriate, and will always be appropriate. Only with awe and apprehension, sometimes even fear and trembling, and only after prayer and fasting, is it appropriate to interpret a text so as to discern what God said and is saying thereby. The risks cannot be evaded….
There may well be good reason for departing at certain points from the results of applying that principle; but that, then, is what we must be tentative for, good reason for departing. Absent such good reason, we interpret the appropriator or deputizer as saying what the person whose discourse is appropriated or deputized said…. And when we do find good reason to depart from literal interpretation, the presumption is that the speaker is using the sentence in some linguistically accepted tropic manner. In a given case there may also be good reason for departing from the results of that presumption, and concluding that he is using it idiosyncratically; but good reason for departing from the presumption is what we are attentive for.
Secondly, one minimizes the risk by doing one’s best to remain genuinely open to the possibility that the beliefs with which one approached the enterprise of interpreting for divine discourse are mistaken. Interpreting Scripture is not an isolated enterprise but is to be seen and practiced as a component in one’s attempt to arrive at that totality of beliefs which seems to one, on reflection, to have the greatest likelihood of being true. Sometimes that requires concluding that God was not saying what, on first reading, God appeared to be saying. But often it requires concluding that the beliefs one had about the world, about human beings, about history, about God, or whatever, were mistaken.
Thirdly, one minimizes the risk of missing or misinterpreting the divine discourse by cultivating knowledge ofourselves and ofthe world: psychological, social, physical. Perhaps this point is the least important; nevertheless, it is to be noted that it is our science which has put us in the position of being better able to discern what God was saying by way of Psalm 93. Where once readers might reasonably have supposed
that God was propounding geocentricism, we know now that that is not the case. And when we assemble the sizable number of revisions induced by what we have learned from modern science, we begin to see, or think we begin to see, a pattern: God is not interested in speaking to us, by way of scripture, about very many of the sorts of things that modern science deals with. But we must step cautiously here. There is a great deal of salesmanship in contemporary writing about science. Much of what is announced as “something science has discovered” is nothing of the sort but merely something held by certain scientists. Nevertheless, the point remains: modern science enables us to discern God’s discourse with greater accuracy.