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Friday, January 3, 2003

Was Channing a biblical inerrantist?

One of the participants in the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society e-mail list inaccurately characterized William Ellery Channing as a biblical inerrantist:

Channing states we do not question that which is written in the Bible (without reserve or exception).

In "Unitarian Christianity" (1819) Channing actually says something quite different: "Whatever doctrines seem to us to be clearly taught in the Scriptures, we receive without reserve or exception." Every qualification in this sentence is important. Channing is saying that it is the doctrinal content — and not necessarily the historical, legal, legendary, or even philosophical content — that matters, and as he goes on to say, it is specifically the doctrinal content expressed in Jesus' own words that matters most.

Furthermore, "seem to us" and "clearly taught" are qualifications that no fundamentalist would accept. Much of Channing's 1819 sermon is about the moral and reasonable interpretation of scripture — and one of his central claims is that reason itself is the judge of revelation, and not the other way around. Channing is saying that morally and intellectually prepared readers, using all the interpretive tools at their disposal, can discern the enduring revelation that is recorded in the scriptures — but this is not the same thing at all as saying that Channing believed in the inerrancy of scripture. He believed in the reliability of scripture, not its inerrancy.

Here's how Channing is not a inerrantist. An inerrantist accepts the entire Bible, word for word, as the direct communication of revelation to human beings. In this sense it is entirely unlike other books; God is its author. A verse from Genesis is just as true, for an inerrantist, as a verse from John. This is why "proof texting" — compiling verses out of context from anywhere in the Bible — is such a widespread form of theological argument among fundamentalists.

Channing does not treat the Bible as revelation. He treats it is as "the records of God's successive revelations to mankind." Note the plural "records." The Bible is a compilation of human accounts, written by human beings about God's revelation — which is what Channing means when he says that the Bible is written "for men, in the language of men."

The distinction that Channing is making is that revelation is something that happens in history, and that human beings record it. The Bible is not written by God, but it contains God's messages, through the voices of God's prophets and especially through Jesus Christ. And note, too, that the passages Channing emphasizes — the places where he believes God's final revelation is evident — are the New Testament accounts of Jesus' ministry: "Whatever he taught, either during his personal ministry, or by his inspired Apostles, we regard as of divine authority, and profess to make the rule of our lives." The teachings of Jesus are considered revelatory; the text itself is considered inspired literature.

The primary motivation of the inerrantist doctrine, it seems to me, is to emphasize the immediacy and simplicity of revelation: Here it is, every word direct from God to you. The Unitarians never embraced this kind of revelation. Interpretation was always necessary; scripture needed to be assessed and compared and properly read in order to convey the divine will. (That's one of Emerson's complaints, actually, about the early Unitarians.) They emphasized the importance and necessity of reason to interpret revelation.

There is one sense in which Channing does resemble contemporary Evangelical Christianity, though: He was a Christian primitivist, although of an anachronistically liberal sort, who believed that the Bible portrays "true Christianity," which the contemporary church should strive to faithfully resemble. His 1819 address shows the early influence of modern historical consciousness, but Channing still assumed that the past, properly seen, represents the model for contemporary life. Like John Locke's Reasonableness of Christianity, the early Unitarians assumed that a pared-down, rational Protestantism most closely resembled the early church. This assumption may be what is triggering some "inerrantist" bells.

P.S. Somewhat tangentially, my essay on Henry W. Bellows's view of scripture includes a cursory overview of nineteenth-century Unitarian views of scripture. One source I consulted may interest others on the topic: A Study of the Interpretation of the New Testament in New England Unitarianism, by Eugene Robert Chable (Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1955).

(Originally posted to UUHS-Chat; edited 7.9.05)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 3 January 2003 at 12:31 AM

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