Review: Inerrant Wisdom by Paul Seely

inerrant_wisdom_cover1Paul H. Seely. Inerrant Wisdom: Science and Inerrancy in Biblical Perspective. Portland, OR: Evangelical Reform, Inc., 1989. 214 pages.

The name Paul Seely is likely well known to serious students of the intersection of the OT and the ANE. He has written numerous pieces in several venues, including Westminster Theological Journal and Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith (formerly Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation). He has also delivered numerous papers at the annual meetings of the American Scientific Affiliation. His lifelong area of focus is Genesis 1-11. The book in view here, Inerrant Wisdom, was published in 1989 through the non-profit organization he founded, Evangelical Reform, Inc.

In this book, Seely offers an insider’s critique of the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy, engaging authors from B. B. Warfield to the Chicago Statements of the 1970s and 80s.

It is not my normal practice to review books twenty years old, but I feel this is a timely exception—not because the book is without weaknesses or constitutes an ironclad rebuttal of inerrancy. Rather, it is because Seely’s arguments deserve to be revisited at a time when, in evangelical and fundamentalist circles, hard lines are once again being drawn concerning the very subject in question. In my view, more mature and synthetic reflection and development concerning an evangelical doctrine of Scripture are falling out of favor for inadequately nuanced formulations. The entire question of what inerrancy is and what it means to hold it, indeed, if the term has run its course in evangelicalism, is very much on the table. Seely’s book revisits some fundamental issues concerning the heart of inerrancy, and so is well worth engaging.

I am a bit surprised that this book did not received the attention one would think its contents might elicit (I am aware of only five brief reviews, two of which strike me as a bit dismissive). One reason for this, I suspect, is that Seely is not a professional academic with a recognized teaching post. He is a seminary graduate (Westminster Theological Seminary, 1968, B.D.) who has taken upon himself a life of continued self-education, part of which includes a patient reading of the entire Christian Bible in the original languages along with secondary sources. Absence of doctoral work at a research university cannot easily be overcome, but neither should Seely’s work be dismissed out of hand because he has taken a less conventional path. The intellectual independence and freshness his studies have afforded him can be disarming.

A related reason I suspect why the book did not received due attention is that is was not published in a recognized academic, peer reviewed venue. Both of these issues normally raise all sorts of flags for me, but I also recognize that holding a PhD or publishing with “recognized” publishers is no guarantee of producing good work.

Seely’s book deserves to be taken on its own terms, despite these factors. His thesis is simply this: The Bible does not sustain the evangelical doctrine of inerrancy. To put it another way, inerrancy is not only a doctrine that the Bible does not support; it is also a doctrine that the Bible directly dismisses. Moreover, he contends that evangelical defenses of inerrancy have been prone to a manipulation of both Scripture and secondary sources. As contentious a thesis as this is (and it is), Seely nevertheless expresses himself with a refreshing mixture of bluntness and grace.

Although I am clearly sympathetic with Seely’s arguments, I would have my own list of where I agree, where I think he may exaggerate some points, and where he might not address the deeper implications of some of his arguments. But my interest here is not so much to review the book or to defend it, but to bring the book (and hopefully his numerous articles) to the attention of those who have an interest in this issue. Toward that end, I will simply list the chapter titles and offer a brief (and hopefully accurate) description of each chapter’s content. I will make some brief comments at the end.

I. The Scientific Mandate and Divine Revelation

Scientific investigation is the mandate of all humanity, believers as well as unbelievers. Hence, God’s chosen people in antiquity did not have a clearer notion of scientific truth than non-believers of that time. Whereas Israel’s God certainly entered into a covenantal relationship with Israel alone, “His people are left to function culturally and scientifically at the same level of their unbelieving contemporaries” (p. 4).

II. The Encounter of Revelation with Science

Revelation is progressive and reached its climax in the gospel. The scientific mandate, however, continued to progress and has only really begun hitting its stride in recent generations. We have in Scripture, in other words, mature revelation and immature science. Therefore, it is wrong to appeal to the Bible’s ancient conventions for adjudicating contemporary scientific matters. It is also misguided to expect Scripture to conform to modern scientific notions because its revelatory character supposedly demands it. Rather, God graciously accommodated to the state of scientific knowledge of the time. Moreover, the Bible exhibits antiquated methodologies not only with respect to observations of the natural world, but of historiography and hermeneutics (the use of the OT by NT writers). It is our responsibility to understand these methodologies but it is a mistake to hold them up as timeless norms or as being consistent with modern practices.

III. The Encounter of Revelation with Science in the Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ

Jesus of Nazareth was not omniscient, and to suggest that he was is not a high Christology but a faulty one. He was limited in matters of scientific knowledge as were all humans of his time. No other view can be defended from the pages of Scripture. His limitations are seen in matters of geography, astronomy, history, and biology. The efficacy of Jesus’ message was dependent upon his accommodation to erroneous information. He challenged faulty theological notions, but not scientific ones. Jesus’ own statements concerning scientific matters are incompatible with the nature of inerrancy espoused in evangelicalism, for example as it is articulated in the Chicago Statements.

IV. “Every Jot and Tittle”: Matthew 5:18

Seely acknowledges, what has also been pointed out by some defenders of inerrancy, that Matt 5:18 does not teach inerrancy, and so cannot be used as a text in support of a doctrine of inerrancy. That no jot or tittle will be abolished cannot be understood in a rationalistic/literalistic inerrantist sense, since Jesus and the NT most certainly do “abolish” numerous clear OT teachings, not the least of which are the food laws. Taken as spiritual pointers, types, and shadows, one can say that every element of the OT is upheld in the gospel, but in no way can this be understood in a manner implied by some defenders of inerrancy, i.e., absolute, factual, propositional, timeless, unchanging truths of the OT. The passage is wholly irrelevant to the debate.

V. “The Scripture Cannot Be Broken”: John 10:35b

Similar to what we see in Matt 5:18, this passage cannot be adduced in support of the type of scientifically precise inerrancy advocated by some. Here Seely points out that the strict dietary restrictions of the OT (the word of God for the NT writers) are “broken” by all Christians in view of the NT’s own authority. And it is not helpful to argue that it is acceptable to contravene Scripture when it is God who does so, for this in effect neutralizes the entire notion of biblical inerrancy. Moreover, the context of John 10:35b shows that Jesus was simply “appealing to His opponents’ beliefs rather than his own” (p. 57). It is not Jesus but his opponents who took a hard inerrantist position when they picked up stones to stone him. Jesus responded by appealing to another passage in this same “inerrant” Bible (Ps 82:6), thus challenging his would-be killers with another passage that “cannot be broken.” Jesus employs a rhetorical move of pitting Scripture against Scripture to make his point (a move which is itself contrary to the evangelical notion of “Scripture interpreting Scripture” and therefore at odds with inerrancy—more below).

VI. Did Jesus Believe in Biblical Inerrancy? Part I

Since Jesus never directly addressed the question of the historicity of the Old Testament, and since he never made any assertions about the nature of its historicity, one can only conclude that Jesus assumed its historicity. Hence, the historicity of the OT is not a “teaching” that Jesus “affirms” but an assumption inerrantists deduce. Although such an assumption on Jesus part might be considered a binding view on contemporary Christians, inerrantists are inconsistent in how binding they consider such biblical assumptions to be. Seely appeals to geocentricity to make his point. Geocentricity is considered non-binding in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerranry, since the Bible does not in fact in any place explicitly teach or assert geocentricity. Seely points out that Scripture may not “teach” geocentricity but it certainly assumes it. Why, then, can one assumption be neutralized while another cannot? This leads Seely to apply this principle to inerrancy. There is no explicit teaching or affirmation that the inscripturated word of God is free from error, but this is rather an assumption rooted in the presumed character of God (see chapter XII), namely assumptions made concerning what type of book would be consistent with his character. In this chapter, Seely also criticizes those who seem to style Jesus’ appeal to Scripture anachronistically as a sort of “sola Scriptura” position. Finally, Seely outlines the various places where Jesus pits Scripture against Scripture and the NT’s dismissal of the clear OT teaching on unclean foods. Along the way he spars a bit with B.B. Warfield, J.I. Packer, and R. C. Sproul.

VII. Did Jesus Believe in Inerrancy”? Part II

Here Seely focuses on the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ view on OT law as well as on those laws in the OT that cannot bear up under the weight of a NT ethic, e.g., the treatment of slaves and virgin daughters as property, adultery, and divorce. Theonomy is in Seely’s view particularly guilty of failing to see that much of OT law, although Scripture, must be set aside in view of Jesus’ own teachings. These OT laws are in Seely’s view “the divinely inspired and inerrantly wise Word of God,” meaning, for their time, as God accommodated himself to ancient cultures. But Jesus teaches us that they are now abolished in view of the gospel.

VIII. Did Jesus Believe in Biblical Inerrancy? Conclusion

Seely offers extended quotations from a number well known inerrrantists to show that inerrancy is a position that follows from the assumption that a text of divine origin must be inerrant in a rationalistic sense. He also shows how B. B. Warfield, Harold Lindsell, Kenneth Kanzter, and R. C. Srpoul misappropriated the work of critical scholars in support their own a priori views of Christ’s acceptance of biblical inerrancy.

IX. “All Scripture is God-Breathed”: II Timothy 3:16

Seely discusses the meanings of pasa graphe (“all Scripture”) and theopneustos (“God-breathed”) in a passage that has been central to the inerrantist position. He argues that the context of this passage demonstrates that its subject matter is the central role of the OT “for establishing the gospel, not only as an objective doctrine, but even more so as a practical living reality in the salvation and sanctification of men—beginning with the preacher” (p. 140). He understands theopneustos in the traditional manner, namely as description of Scripture’s “divine origin and resultant authority” (p. 142), but defines it in a less conventional way by adducing the common phenomenon in Scripture where God’s breath/spirit produces divine wisdom. What 2 Tim 3:16 means, therefore, is “every passage of Scripture is an oracle comprising the authoritative wisdom of God because it was originally given by God’s breathing on a man and inspiring him to speak and/or write” (p. 145). This theology of wisdom that Seely brings to his understanding of 2 Tim 3:16 shows that the focus of this passage is on “faith and morals” and so irrelevant for any doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

X. Did Paul Believe in Biblical Inerrancy

Paul believed in biblical authority but he did not believe that the Bible is a “book of absolutely true propositions incapable of being played off one against the other because they form a unified, consistent, authoritative whole which no later revelation could contradict or correct” (p. 150). Seely supports his argument by outlining where Paul diverges from OT teaching and how he, like Jesus (chapter VIII), did not share the view of Scripture of orthodox Judaism of his day, a view that is more consistent with evangelical inerrancy. Seely again juxtaposes his view with that of Warfield, and calls upon E. P. Sanders and L. Goppelt in support. “In short, Paul gave up his ‘orthodox’ doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the doctrine of his Jewish contemporaries, because he had committed himself to follow Jesus Christ” (p. 159).

XI. The Root and Defense of Biblical Inerrancy

Inerrancy is not taught in Scripture. Scripture is infallible as to “the point and purpose which God had in giving any particular revelation….But there is nothing in Scripture bearing upon biblical inspiration and revelation which implies that God would not communicate His point in terms of the popular (and sometimes errant) scientific ideas and concepts of the people to whom He was speaking” (pp. 161-62). The root of inerrancy is not Scripture’s teaching but a presumption that a text inspired by God and worthy of our assent must be free from error. Agreeing with James Dunn and James Barr, Seely argues that “the real root of biblical inerrancy…is an extra-biblical philosophical assumption about the nature of God and His words” (p. 167). Seely compares the evangelical defense of inerrancy to the Roman Catholic defense of the Immaculate Conception: both function within a “tradition and socio-ideological structure” they aim to support, which directly influences what type of argument from Scripture they may find compelling. Seely compares the chain of logic of Archbishop Gibbons’s defense of the Catholic doctrine and E. J. Young’s defense of inerrancy and finds both arguments are based on biblically unproven assumptions. The ultimate rationalization for inerrancy is the following syllogism: God cannot lie/err; the Bible is God’s word; the Bible cannot err.

XII. Testing the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy

Divine accommodation is a key concept for understanding the nature of Scripture. The proper syllogism is: “God cannot lie for He is Truth, but also Wisdom and Love; The Bible is God’s word; Therefore, the Bible cannot lie and will be substantially true, yet be wise and loving enough to sometimes encompass concessionary error” (p. 182). Inerrantists “limit God by insisting that He live by only one of his attributes” (p. 183). Inerrancy rests on “rationalism and avoids the empirical facts which would falsify it” (p. 186-87). Seely supports this statement by discussing three biblical errors: the cud-chewing hare; Jacob’s bed in Gen 47:31 and Heb 11:21; “until this day” anachronisms.

XIII. The Word of Our Father

In this concluding chapter, Seely summarizes his conclusions. “We must reject…inerrancy’s ‘high view’ of Scripture for the same reason that we reject Docetism’s ‘high view’ of Christ: It imposes an extra-biblical philosophy upon the nature of God which restricts Him to such transcendent Absoluteness that it denies the biblically revealed truth of His self-limitations for the sake of entering into effective dialogue and relationship with men” (p. 197). To put the matter succinctly, and to tie his thesis into the title of the book, Seely concludes, “If we are really going to view the Bible biblically then, we must see it as sapientially inerrant rather than factually inerrant” (p. 203).

I do not think that all of Seely’s points are of equal weight. Some inerrantists would not recognize themselves in Seely’s critique, and it may seem to some readers that he has focused on one camp of inerrantists, whom we might call “hard” inerrantist. I can see some arguing that Seely’s critique does not take into account, for example, Article XIII of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI), which states that such things as the “observational descriptions” and the presence of other ancient conventions (which we could ascribe to God’s accommodation) do not negate inerrancy. He might also be taken to task for seeming to suggest that the abrogation of OT teaching in the NT is at odds with inerrancy rather than simply a recognition that NT teaching gets at the “heart” of what the OT was really after, albeit at a penultimate moment in redemptive history and so in need of further explication in the NT.

Personally, I do not find these retorts all that compelling, and certainly not obvious in their merit. Nevertheless, I would like to see more detailed interaction with CSBI and perhaps some more “balanced” articulations of inerrancy. Interested readers might want to look at a review of the book in JETS 34/4 (1991): 536-37. The reviewer, Wayne G. Strickland, suggests similar points that I make here, but in general I think he has dismissed too casually the force of Seely’s arguments. The other reviews I know of are: Cornelis Venema, Calvin Theological Journal 29/2 (1994): 623; Ted Peters, Dialogue & Alliance 5/1 (1991): 105-106; Marvin Kuehn, Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43/2 (1991): 136; Paul Rule, Australian Biblical Review 38 (1990): 91-92.

Having said that, however, the type of inerrancy that Seely describes is not exactly a rare commodity in American evangelicalism, either now or in the past. For example, a recent iteration of a hard inerrantist position affirms “that in the Scripture God does not endorse at any point a faulty worldview or cosmology or a faulty aspect thereof. (WCF 1.4; 2.1.)” while denying “that Scripture at any point affirms a faulty cosmology” (http://www.wts.edu/about/beliefs/statements/affirmationsanddenials.html).

I suppose one could say that accommodation to an ancient mythic cosmology is not endorsement, and so this gets God off the hook of being “in error,” but few reasonable people have time for such word games. Regardless, even if not all claiming to be inerrantists would see themselves in Seely’s critique, the problem of ascribing the impossibility of non-absolutely factually true propositions to Scripture (even in its view of cosmology) is still with us.

The book is well worth the time and effort to work through. It is plainly written, and free from jargon (unless of course I am so steeped in all of this that I have lost sight of what constitutes jargon). For those committed to an inerrantist position of any sort, older or more progressive, in my estimation Seely’s book is worthy of patient interaction. For some, I am sure, the arguments may seem old hat and even firmly settled (as one reviewer essentially concluded: “good book, 100 years too late”). But that should not discourage one from allowing Seely to make these arguments in his own way and then listen afresh.