Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Wheaton Theology Conference: Kevin Vanhoozer on the Trinity and Scripture

I was at the Wheaton Theology Conference last week, and this year's theme was "Rediscovering the Trinity: Classic Doctrine and Contemporary Ministry." As usual, there was a wide range of interesting presentations. Keynoting this year was Kevin Vanhoozer, who took up the task of relating the two components of the Evangelical Theological Society's doctrinal basis, that God is Trinity and that Scripture is inerrant. Vanhoozer argued that though these two foundations might seem disparate at first glance, in actuality, a trinitarian theology of "Scripture as triune discourse" is the best way of understanding the truth of Scripture.

Vanhoozer explored how all three persons of the Trinity are at work in Scripture. He unpacked Scripture as divine rhetoric, that the classical components of rhetorical communication (ethos, logos, pathos) correspond with Father, Son and Spirit. Ethos is the divine character of Scripture. Logos is the covenantal content of Scripture. Pathos is the persuasive power of Scripture rightly interpreted.

Vanhoozer used a baseball analogy (as did Tony Jones last year). What provides "home run power" - is it the bat, or the batter's swing? Both, of course. Vanhoozer likens Scripture, the written Word of God, as the bat, and the triune God speaking through it as the batter. So the statements "Scripture is true" and "the living God speaks truly through Scripture" are not necessarily equivalent statements. The first focuses on the bat, whereas the second focuses on the batter.

In Q&A, someone asked Vanhoozer whether the word "inerrant" is still useful, or if we should prefer to simply speak of the "truth" of Scripture rather than its "inerrancy." (As folks like Roger Olson have argued elsewhere, the terms "inerrant" and "inerrancy" are often problematic and more confusing than helpful.) Vanhoozer had a nice response, pointing out that yes, "inerrancy" was a term used that was particularly meaningful in the various debates of the 1940s and 50s, and that it is still valuable for affirming Scripture by what it negates (just as the word "infinite" affirms a characteristic by what it negates, that it is "not finite"). And Vanhoozer said something to the effect of how instead of automatically affirming (or denying) the use of the word "inerrancy," it's usually better to find out what people mean (or don't mean) by it first.

This is pretty sensible, but I personally think it's better to simply say that Scripture is true and to let truth be the guiding understanding of Scripture. Especially since "inerrant" isn't a biblical word. We can be fully biblical in describing Scripture with terms that Scripture itself uses, like "God-breathed" or "living and active" or "cannot be broken" and the like. But "inerrant" seems to claim something about Scripture that Scripture does not necessarily claim about itself, especially in how folks tend to use it or perceive the term today.

At any rate, Vanhoozer argued that "the Trinity is our Scripture principle," and offered these three theses:

- On the nature of Scripture: The Bible is a gracious word, a self-communicating work of triune love.
- On the authority of Scipture: The Bible is a truthful word, a knowledge-giving work of triune light.
- On the interpretation of Scripture: The Bible is a sanctifying word, a freeing work of triune life.

I really like these, and how they connect the work of Father, Son and Spirit to different aspects of what Scripture is and does. I like that this moves beyond a discussion of Scripture as "inerrant" (as if it's simply some static artifact) but instead looks at God's dynamic work in Scripture, in grace, truth and sanctification. Yes, Scripture is "inerrant," if you still want to use the term - but it's so much more. It's a gracious, truthful, sanctifying Word of the triune Father, Son and Spirit.

By the way, the proceedings from last year's conference are now in print in the book Ancient Faith for the Church's Future (IVP, naturally). While all of the essays are valuable and should be of interest to various folks, I particularly recommend Jason Byassee's chapter "Emerging from What, Going Where? Emerging Churches and Ancient Christianity," which provides a thoughtful analysis and balanced critique of contemporary emerging/Emergent folks from Mark Driscoll's "neo-fundamentalism" to Doug Pagitt (who Byassee notes as presenting a "surprisingly modern" approach and "confidence in modern progress" despite self-describing as "post-Protestant" and aligning with postmodern sensibilities). I highly commend the essay and the whole book.


Shawn Brace said...

Hi Al,

Stumbled across your blog and I am fascinated by a few things you share. Particularly, I think that your point about the "inerrancy" is quite relevant and thought-provoking. Indeed, since the word is not even mentioned in scripture, squabbling over its use seems a bit misplaced. Thank you for pointing this out.

We would all be in a lot safer position if we simply allowed the Bible to define what we mean, instead of imposing our ideas and language upon it.

Anonymous said...

the word "trinity" is not found in the bible, either.

the question (and therefore the answer) was related to the "usefulness" of the word "inerrancy," and there're reasons why it is still useful.

the problem with saying that scripture is "true" is that it does not say much. no notion of truth is given, and everything is questionable.

that by itself (that everything is questionable) is not a bad thing. indeed, defining scripture as inerrant allows us (and encourages us) to ask questions also, mainly because we believe it can be the supreme guidance in our lives.

but to merely state that the bible is true, without ever giving it a definition of what "true" means, only allows the questions of doubt: "can i really trust this part of the bible?"

saying that bible is true is not useful. everything can be true in some sense. what inerrancy means is that the bible is the most useful.

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for commenting! It's a bit of a tension between the biblical studies folks (who prefer to use biblical language for biblical things) and the systematic theologians (who use theological language like Trinity, incarnational, inerrancy, etc. to describe those same biblical concepts but in different terms). There's a place for both, of course, because each discipline is doing certain things. Vanhoozer is a systematician, working deeply out of trinitarian language and vocabulary, but I really appreciate that he returns to simple words like "gracious," "truthful" and "sanctifying" rather than more abstract theological language.

Paul, you're right that "truth" and "true" are somewhat squishy words today and themselves might not be as precise or helpful as they could be. "Inerrant" and "inerrancy" came into use in an era when folks were concerned about whether the Bible contained error. In our current context, when "truth" is relative, people certainly have different understandings of what it might mean that "the Bible is true." So maybe we can't ever escape qualifications and explanations of what we mean, since none of these terms are really self-evident.

In InterVarsity's doctrinal statement (which we've had since the 40s, I think), we use the words "unique divine inspiration" and "entire trustworthiness and authority" of the Bible. Which I think is pretty good, because it points not only to Scripture's nature but also its authority over us. Some folks, then and now, might affirm that Scripture is "true" but discard its authority and any claim over us. In InterVarsity, we are challenged not only to mentally assent to the truth and trustworthiness of Scripture but also to wrestle with what it means to live out its authority and the lordship of Christ in our lives.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: "We can be fully biblical in describing Scripture with terms that Scripture itself uses, like "God-breathed" or "living and active" or "cannot be broken" and the like."

I often wonder if we should use "living and active" to describe scripture. That, I believe, is taken from Heb 4.12. In 12, most translations translate logos as word, and most readers read word as bible.

One exception was Robert Young, who translated as literally as possible -- and some would say more literally than possible -- back at the end of the 1800s. He wrote it: "the reckoning of God is living, and working, and sharp above every two-edged sword...." and did so, I believe, because the end of the sentence in v13 uses logos again: "to whom we must render an account." in which logos is account in many translations -- tho Young again says reckoning, keeping it consistent.

Does it make sense that the author used the same word logos to have two different meanings so closely together?

No doubt there is a reason that most translators act as if there is a good reason, but I've yet to hear any explanation other than the equivalent of "that's just the way it is."

For those of us who find it more believable that God is living and active rather than the bible possessing those qualities, the explanation just isn't convincing.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post. You've got to love Vanhoozer. It sounds like this lecture is another one of his efforts to take some of Karl Barth's ideas and translate them for evangelical audiences who are normally afraid of Barth--a noble task. Tying together Scripture and the Trinity as well as emphasizing the batter over the bat is straight from the first volume of Church Dogmatics. I like his response to the inerrancy question too. The term is just that--a term. What do you mean by it? Evangelicals can often get so fixated on defending Scripture's veracity that you would think that seated at the right hand of the Father is a Bible instead of the Son. We don't worship a book. We worship the God who has reconciled the world to Himself in Jesus Christ, as testified to in the Bible. That's not a rip on the book at all. Where would we be without the witness? But we should not confuse the witness with God.

Unknown said...

Al, you go to all the coolest conferences!

I feel like some evangelical scholars are less excited about the word inerrant these days, but I'm not sure the same is true of the evangelical community more broadly. I'm really interested to see where things go in the next decade or so, both in emerging and non-emerging circles.

I really appreciate how both InterVarsity and Fuller explain their commitment to Scripture, both vague and precise at the same time. Besides its theological usefulness, it's also quite handy for real life-- as I've been wrestling with my own views of Scripture, it's nice to have something besides inerrancy to affirm! Makes the ignorance/expertise interim not an all/nothing time but gives me something to stand on until I can clearly articulate more specific and informed thoughts on Scripture.

Al Hsu said...

Ashleigh - Not nearly as many conferences as I would like! The Calvin Festival of Faith & Writing was this past weekend. I went in 2000 and loved it (speakers like Anne Lamott and Chaim Potok) but haven't been able to get back since. I'm waiting for technology that would allow me to duplicate myself and send myself to all the various conferences that are going on all the time so I wouldn't ever miss out on anything.