One of my more conservative professors back in the 1970‘s used to say that there are no errors in the Bible that are not corrected in the Bible. I guess you could say that this was a form of inerrancy. There were errors in particular passages of the Bible. But, because they were corrected within the Bible, the Bible as a whole was inerrant.
In some ways this seems similar to what Kenton Sparks is saying in God’s Word in Human Words.
He shows how it works in regard to slavery. There are passages in the Bible that endorse slavery (for instance, Exodus 21:20-21). But there is a trajectory within the Bible that calls slavery into question. Thus, later texts first regulate cruelty in a way that tends to soften the more inhuman ways that slaves got treated. Finally. in Galatians Paul undermines the ideal of slavery for Christians by saying the in Christ there is no slave or free (3:28). And in Philemon, he undermines the practice of slavery by implying that you have to treat your Christian slave as a brother and free him. Then the trajectory continues after the biblical era with Christian abolitionists.
This idea of moral progression is called the trajectory theory. I do not like the term because it comes from ballistics and ought to describe an arc rather than an upward progression. But we are stuck with the term. In defending trajectory theory, Sparks demonstrates a case where it clearly works within the Bible. This is the acceptance of Gentiles into the church without requiring circumcision or dietary purity.
The priestly texts of the Hebrew Scriptures close off this kind of acceptance. Yet some prophets predicted that Gentiles would eventually become God’s people (Amos 9:11-12). The church looked at the Bible as a whole and concluded that they could accept Gentiles.
This then becomes a paradigm for dealing with issues like slavery, ethnic cleansing, gender roles, and homosexuality. There are particular texts that run against today’s ethical sentiments. But, looking at the Bible as a whole, we justify views more in accord with democratic, feminist, and civil rights ideas.
Sometimes we can legitimately “trump the Bible with newer insights” (p. 295) We have done that in regard to slavery and the cosmology of Copernicus.
But this is tricky business. Sparks responds to some criticisms that this going beyond the Scriptures leads to subjective, culturally determined results. He thinks some critics misunderstand trajectory thinking. He claims that it only accepts the invitation of Scripture itself to go beyond Scripture by listening to the voice of God in creation, tradition, and Spirit.
I do not think Sparks has fully answered this kind of objection. I understand those who worry that the voice of cultural trends will drown out the voice of God from whatever source. Sometimes the trajectory may need to go the other way.
While Jesus’ discarding of the eye-for-an-eye notion of justice seems to display a liberalizing trajectory, his tightening the commands about divorce displays a more conservative trajectory. But what of those contemporary Christians who embrace an across-the-board loosening of ethics in the face of the sexual revolution? Is that really a biblical trajectory?
I think there is some value in the notion that the Bible and Christian tradition are self-correcting. I am not sure that trajectory theory really tells us how this works.
Sparks talks about postmodern philosophy’s metanarratives, stories told to justify other stories or worldviews. Some postmodernists view metanarratives with suspicion, because they tend toward a false unity. Sparks, while recognizing much disunity in the Bible, sees value in seeing biblical story as metanarrative. He just warns against finishing your metanarrative. Leave it open as something partial and incomplete.
I think most European postmodernists came out of the experience of the failure of Marxism. The Marxist metanarrative failed them, thus the suspicion. Yet postmodernism is often a kind of Marxism without the eschatology (I think Merold Westphal may have originally said this).
But the Bible is a very different kind of metanarrative. Marxism was constructed over a short period of time by a few thinkers. Whereas the Bible and various other national sagas and religious narratives came about and developed more naturally over long periods of time. They are like real languages, while Marxism is like the constructed language, Esperanto. So Marxism and most postmodernist approaches divide the world into oppressed and oppressors. That is what their narrative is about. The biblical narrative or metanarrative is very different and much more complex.