Does the “Letter of Scripture” Kill?

In the past few posts (see here, here, and here), we’ve looked at this idea that the Bible isn’t authoritative; only Jesus is. The Bible isn’t perfect and error-free; only our Saviour is. At first glance, these assertions have the ring of piety. Unfortunately, the least bit of probing exposes the painful fact that they are supported by demonstrably invalid arguments. That is, they aren’t supported at all. As far as being logically mistaken goes, this is almost as bad as it gets—a bit like adding 7 and 5, not getting 12, and then pressing ahead blissfully unaware of one’s mathematical gaffe. If we’re going to claim that the bible is non-authoritative and non-inerrant Bible—call this the ‘Errant Scripture View’ (ESV, for short)—it should be on the basis of proper reasoning.

A slightly different, less direct argument for this low view of Scripture runs along these lines:

If you really took your Bible seriously, you would see that you’re not supposed to be defending or debating inerrancy. For the Bible doesn’t invite us into that debate, where we end up arguing over “the letter of the word.” Rather, as Paul says, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). Arguing for the letter of Scripture will kill the Spirit’s work in your life, as well the lives of those you manage to draw into the discussion. It leads to hypocrisy, division, and other sorts of evils. It damages the church.

The conclusion, I take it, is that those who propose to critique the ESV view—myself, for example—are in effect doing what Scripture expressly forbids or at least doesn’t approve. For in arguing for inerrancy (and against ESV), we are arguing about the “letter of Scripture.” And that is spiritually dangerous. It doesn’t bring life; it kills it. Now what inerrantist in his right mind wants to be the bearer of those “glad” tidings? It gives one pause, to say the least.

However, this argument has its share of problems. First, it’s not actually an argument for ESV at all. At best, it amounts to a (failed) attempt to quell criticisms of ESV, or perhaps end debate about it altogether. Herein lies the problem. This “letter kills” gambit swiftly puts an end to dialogue by way of a brute spiritual power move. It embodies an all-too-easy spiritual one-upmanship, in which I automatically become guilty before God if I attempt to defend a high view of Scripture against ESV. Thus, ESV’s critics conveniently lose the debate (by hypothesis) from the outset. It goes without saying, this is not the way of true philosophy, conversation, or dialectic. We can do much better.

Second, this “letter of Scripture” criticism is based on a serious misunderstanding of Paul’s line of thought in 2 Corinthians 3. In that letter and chapter, Paul is contrasting two sorts of ministries: “the ministry of death” (v.7) and the “ministry of the Spirit” (v.8). Well, what is this “ministry of death”? Is it the ministry that defends the truthfulness of Scripture? That’s not what Paul says. He tells us, perspicuously, what it is–namely, the “ministry of condemnation” (v.9), the “old covenant” (v.14), the one “carved in letters on stone” (v.7).

Reading around verse 6 in context certainly helps, doesn’t it? Paul isn’t talking about the debate over ESV. Nothing of the sort. He’s talking about the Mosaic Law – the law whose “legal demands” have resulted in a mountainous “record of debt” in our accounts. Fortunately, there is great news. Jesus Christ has cancelled “the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross” (Col 2:14). PTL! By comparison, the ESV line on 2 Corinthians 3 is so far off the mark, one wonders whether its advocates aren’t simply finding in the text what their view tells them should be there.

Third, in light of the foregoing point, it is clear that the “letter kills” advocate is guilty of a hasty generalization. Yes, the letters written “on tablets of stone” (v.3) kill. No, it doesn’t follow that every letter of Scripture kills in the sense that it, too, partakes of that “ministry of death.” You might as well argue that since the Law (one part of Scripture) was carved in stone, it follows that the whole of Scripture was carved in stone. This is no way to reason.

In any event, if arguing for the truth (i.e., non-errancy) of Scripture kills, then what are we to do with Jesus? Is he, too, engaged in a ministry of spiritual death? After all, he says to the Sadducees: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures” (Mt 22:29). Or think of his approach to the Emmaus disciples: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk 24:27). Is the idea that only contending for the truth of the whole of Scripture is what kills, while championing its parts does not? How would such an argument go? I simply have no idea. As far as I’m aware, those advancing this “letter kills” position haven’t even begun to construct a proper case for this conclusion.

Finally, what are we to make of this claim that arguing for the truth of Scripture—all of it—will result in serious damage to the church? I dare say you will never find a better example of an ad hominem argument than what we have here. (Note: ad hominems are invalid ways of arguing. They prove nothing.) Let’s suppose that every critic of ESV has been hypocritical and divisive, sadly infecting all those around them. Doubtless, this is morally indefensible. But what would it show? Nothing about the truth of ESV or the falsity of the inerrancy position. For as we all know, you can defend a view with good character or bad. Nothing whatsoever follows about the truth or falsity of the view defended.

It is one of evangelicalism’s Achilles Heels that it has struggled to engage arguments and ideas on their own terms. Reflecting on the character of one’s critics has all too often been the quick and easy way to end discussion. It is far easier to register looks of disapproval at the tone and perceived motives of one’s interlocutors than it is to engage in the hard work of evaluating the content and logic of what they say. We should always speak the truth in love. Of course. However, if perchance we don’t, it by no means follows that what we are speaking isn’t truth, or that it may be safely dismissed out of hand.

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One comment on “Does the “Letter of Scripture” Kill?

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