Inerrancy and Worldview: Modern Challenges to Inerrancy (Part 21)

inerrancyPeople do not wake up one morning deciding to become an addict. If I’ve learned anything from counseling people with addictions it is the importance of context. The choices we make happen within a stream of influences, impulses, and desires. One guy I meet with now has serious sexual sins going on in his life, but in order to address those we must also address the traumatic events that happened to him as a little boy. Molestation has influenced how he thinks about himself and about sexuality. Context is important, and it is important as we consider the issue of language too. An impersonalist worldview tempts people with a mechanistic and reductionist view of meaning.

Several weeks ago I discussed how postmodernist views of language tend to downplay the concreteness of meaning. They destabilize meaning and instead of laying it on a solid foundation, ultimately found in a communicative God, they lay in the dirt of shifting culture. Context dictates meaning, postmodernism says, but since context is fluid meaning is so fluid that it can never really be grasped. Meaning, they say, is infinite. Modernists, going in the opposite extreme, misunderstand meaning too. They approach meaning as a simple fact so devoid of context as to be mechanistic.

We could return again to use of “gods” in the Bible. Does the Bible teach that there is one God or that there are multiple gods? At one level it depends on how we understand the term “gods.” What is its meaning. A postmodernist would claim limitless meaning, but a modernist would claim there is only one obvious definition for the term. We look it up in a dictionary and find the explanation. But while we fully understand meaning to be a stable thing, we must recognize the importance of context in shaping its usage. Meaning has a depth to it that is inherently built into it by the Creator. We cannot reduce meaning simply to a dictionary definition, we must examine the reality of diversity of usage. So Vern Poythress writes:

God has given stability to the meaning of the word gods. That is why the meaning can be summarized in a dictionary definition. But the stability exists in relation to uses in a variety of ways, as we have already illustrated in our discussion of various biblical passages. No one passage is simply to be reduced to another. Passages bring to light different highlights, different emphases, and different aspects of the truth, the truth of God, which is infinitely deep and infinitely rich. Moreover, meaning exists in relation to whatever God has ordained for the world. There are demons. There are so-called gods. The meaning of the word gods depends partly on a relationship to these truths about the world and about human ideas about the world. (Inerrancy and Worldview, 76)

Context helps us, then, to determine  usage which helps us reshape and understand better overall meaning. We cannot boil meaning down simply to a “pure proposition”, context always shapes it in some way or another.

I hear people often talk about objectivity as the ideal for establish truth. But pure objectivity is a philosophical impossibility. It does not exist, nor should we idealize it. If I am asked to make a decision about what’s best for my children I don’t want pure objectivity. I want some reality of my affection for them to play a part in making that decision. Language too happens within contexts. We shape the words we use so that we can communicate clearly our meaning. Meaning, then, derives from within a context. It is not limitless, but neither is it devoid of context. So the meaning of “gods” depends partly on how we are using it in a sentence. There is a range of meaning open to us and context helps us establish what precisely we mean.

As people approach the Scriptures, then, they must impose an impersonalist worldview on the Bible. The Bible establishes meaning the same way all human authors do: via context. Poythress notes:

When people come to the Bible with a decontextualized view of truth, they will find themselves disappointed, because the Bible looks so “ordinary” – it uses ordinary language rather than the philosophical ideal…This contextual influence does not reflect the philosophical ideal. But is this really a problem with the Bible, or is it rather a problem with the philosophical ideal? (86)

The reason some find validation for their claim of an inconsistent Scripture is because they have imposed an unrealistic and unbiblical view of language onto the Scriptures themselves. The Bible does not conform to an impersonalist worldview. As we read the bible on its own terms, however, we can approach difficulties in the text rightly and without rushing to the claim of error.

Both the postmodernist and modernist approach to language gets something wrong. In fact, we might argue that they are variations of the same flaw. John Frame and Vern Poythress talk about non-Christian rationalism and non-Christian irrationalism as variations of the same flawed worldview. Both are found in application to language. Poythress explains:

If we may simplify, these two extremes are the extremes of non-Christian rationalism and non-Christian irrationalism. One extreme, the traditionalist extreme of modernism, claims infinite precision. The other extreme claims infinite multiplication of meanings. Neither is true. The truth is that meaning rests ultimately in God, who is Trinitarian, three persons in one god. Meaning exhibits both unity and diversity. Unity implies stability and the potential for understanding one another’s meanings in an agreement. Diversity implies that in human recipients variations will exist as each person appropriates meaning in a way that at some point is distinctive to that person. (76)

Again, starting from the place of Scripture, the place that identifies God as the creator of all, allows us to view language rightly. Our assumptions and our worldview all affect how we think about language. Imposing a foreign worldview onto the Scriptures will guarantee our misunderstanding inerrancy. Allowing God to set the philosophy helps us to see and understand more clearly.

Just like my friends in addiction recovery language is deeply related to context. We cannot ignore context in establishing meaning if we hope to assert anything of value. Context matters. God set language up to work this way because, after all, he is a personal God who engages in our context with us.

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