An Alternative to Inerrancy: Blake Ostler

The following is a brief description of the nature of scripture by Blake Ostler. It proposes an alternative view to inerrancy, a view that is more in line with LDS thought. Ostler wrote this for the FARMS Review in a review of “How Wide The Divide?”

I thought it was interesting and useful and so I put it here on the blog. Everything after this sentence is Ostler’s words.

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If inerrancy is rejected, how should we think of the “Word of God” that we agree is contained in the scriptures? Instead of inerrancy, I believe that Latter-day Saints should accept a view of revelation/translation as “creative coparticipation” involving both divine inspiration and human interpretation. The scripture is inspired because God imparted knowledge to prophets/writers “in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding” (D&C 1:24). Scripture is the Word of God as proclaimed in the eighth Article of Faith because God has breathed knowledge into the prophets in their own language and according to their varying capacities to understand. Thus the inspiration of scripture is not experienced by the prophet/writer free of human interpretation, cultural biases, and conceptual limitations. In Latter-day Saint scripture, revelation is experienced from within a divine-human relationship that respects the personhood and free agency of the prophet/writer. The human cognitive categories that the prophet/writer uses to organize reality and make sense of his experience are not obliterated by the revelation, and thus the revelation expresses both God’s inspiration and the prophet’s personality and limited understanding. The ultimate reality in Mormon thought is not an omnipotent God who causally determines passive and powerless prophets to regurgitate his words as dictated. God acts on the prophet/writer and imparts his will and message, but receiving the message and expressing it are, at least partly, up to the individual, who is also free to act for himself. In this view, scriptural inspiration is not an intrusion of the supernatural into the natural order. It is human coparticipation with God in creating the scripture.

In Latter-day Saint scripture, the prophet/writer is an active participant in creating scripture together with God. Revelation is not the filling of a mental void with divine content. It is the synthesis of human and divine event. The prophet is a coauthor and active participant in conceptualizing, verbalizing, and expressing the message of scripture in language meaningful to his contemporaries. That is why we call it the “Gospel according to Matthew,” or Mark, or Luke, because it is a particular view of a particular person living in a particular time and culture who also took part in authoring the text.

Further, this view of scriptural inspiration does not preclude propositional revelation. As semantic field theory has demonstrated, the inspired language of the scriptures can be understood only in the full context of the culture and worldviews or paradigms from which the language derives. The scriptures are not written from the divine point of view by God, free of particular cultural and linguistic constraints; they are written from the human perspective, within a particular time, language, culture, and thought-world. That is why all biblical scholars, even evangelicals, attempt to learn the original languages and the setting of the ancient world from which the scripture derives. Such background is necessary to enable one to grasp the meaning of the scripture. But the very recognition that the scripture reflects the views of particular humans writing in a particular culture and language is in tension with scriptural inerrancy. The very activity of learning about human language and ancient cultures as a necessary background to scriptural exegesis assumes that the biblical records reflect human temporal constraints and limitations—horizons, from the human view. These horizons include prescientific worldviews, tribal ethics, and a limited and often erroneous understanding of history. All this is perfectly acceptable and understandable because the writers of scripture were no less human than we are; no person can escape his own skin. In contrast, inerrancy assumes that scriptures are written from God’s perspective, which is free from the human limitations giving rise to prescientific worldviews. That is why the Chicago Statement asserts that the scriptures are a reliable guide in all matters scientific and historical as well as religious and ethical. Scriptural inerrancy should be rejected in favor of the view that scriptural inspiration includes a human who must interpret the divine message from the human perspective. In doing so, the inspiration may be reduced to propositions taking the customary linguistic forms. One must not exclude the propositional understanding of revelation, but any understanding of the scriptural propositions must be kept in relation to the linguistic structure and the human frame of reference in which alone the propositions have meaning.

This view of scriptural inspiration is superior to inerrancy because it allows both for divine authority of scripture and also for human perspectives and understandings. This view can actually be reconciled with the facts without distorting or ignoring many biblical passages. It makes sense of the scriptures as they actually are instead of as we assume they must be to satisfy our need for an absolute guarantee of correctness. In Latter-day Saint theology, only Satan offers absolute guarantees of salvation at the disregard of human agency (see D&C 29; Moses 4:3). This view makes honest sense of what we actually find in the scriptures, while still recognizing divine inspiration.

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4 comments on “An Alternative to Inerrancy: Blake Ostler

  1. GB says:

    This post puts into words some of the thoughts I have had recently regarding this subject. And in a far more eloquent and understandable manner than I could.

    Thanks for posting it.

  2. BHodges says:

    Blake’s explanation really nails it on the head. He repeats things a few too many times, and it would server well to trim some of the fat, but overall this is a great little excerpt. It deserves a fuller treatment with specific examples, such as comparing the words of Isaiah to Genesis, etc.

  3. James says:

    Thanks to both of you.

    I agree that Blake’s explanation is a bit wordy. I also wonder if an articulate and informed “inerrantist” would take issue with Blake’s description of their view.

    All that aside, it is a great description that I think encapsulates how a lot of Mormons understand the nature of their scriptures.

  4. [...] Mormons take a more relaxed view of inerrancy, illustrated in a recent blog post, “An Alternative to Inerrancy,” which quotes at length LDS author and scholar Blake Ostler’s theory of [...]

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