Freedom from Inerrancy?

by Apr 11, 2016Epistemology, NTScholarship, Piety, Theology4 comments

X, a friend of a friend, wrote an autobiographical tale of his journey from Protestant fundamentalism to the evangelical parachurch and into a (currently) non-inerrantist, post-evangelical view which is indebted to people like Kenton Sparks and Peter Enns. I won’t link to the post, not because I think you should be an ostrich but because I don’t want to put the focus on this individual. I wrote the following response for the benefit of the friend who brought the tale to my attention. So many things could be said; I chose the historical angle. When Jesus said, “By their fruits you shall know them,” he was talking in particular about wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt. 7:15–20), and he was therefore recommending precisely that angle. It takes time to observe someone’s fruits. C.H. Toy—early Southern Seminary professor after whom there is still a street named in Greenville—was given time, and his fruits became clear. After being fired by a reluctant Broadus, Toy became a Unitarian. Let’s give Peter Enns—and X—time.

Stories like the one X tells make it sound like those who escape the shackles of inerrancy have gone from dogmatic darkness into the marvelous light of freedom. Such stories are powerful for Americans, including this one, who tend to hold self-determination and autonomy as implicit cultural values.

But X isn’t the first person to come up with the ideas in his article. Neither is Peter Enns. These ideas have a history. And I wouldn’t say it’s the history X points to, the history of the ancient Christian tradition. I’d point instead to the history of the Protestant mainline (as told, for example, in Gary Dorrien’s threevolume work or in George Marsden’s). They, too, escaped inerrancy, beginning (depending on where you want to start the story) in the 19th century; and they insisted that they were preserving Christianity rather than destroying it. They were protecting the faith from its cultured despisers.

And what have the fruit of these non-inerrantist ideas been? Historically speaking, the fruit has been the loss of any norming norm for Christian faith. There are some honest mainliners, such as Will Willimon, who have said much the same thing:

I remember listening on TV—it’s the only place I can hear evangelicals preach—and he’s up there saying, “You’re good and you mean well and God loves you and you need to work harder and believe more in yourself.” I’m old enough to remember when you used to count on evangelicals to say, “Hey, it’s in the Bible. Sorry that doesn’t appeal to you, but God said it, we believe it, that ends it.” I think we’re really missing that kind of theological authorization for the church.

I acknowledge many of the difficulties X raises, and I have asked similar questions to his. But I simply don’t know of any Christians who openly pit the Bible—who pit God’s word—against itself and have managed to hold on to the Jesus of the Bible.

X writes that Jesus should be our baseline when interpreting Scripture, that he must be the standard by which everything else is tested.

But what actually has happened when inerrancy is dropped is this: the culture becomes the new norm, the new authority.

Willimon says his church tried (and is still trying) cultural accommodation:

I feel that in reaching out to the culture, we fell in face down…. We woke up one day and there was no difference between church and Rotary, and Rotary at least meets at a convenient hour of the week and serves lunch. (Modern Reformation magazine; cf. Douthat’s Bad Religion)

And how does using Jesus as the baseline actually function? Do we take Jesus’ words as the canon within the canon? And what about issues Jesus didn’t speak to directly, such as the full import of his own death and resurrection? Do I get to relativize remarks from Paul about penal substitution because Jesus is my standard—and because the culture doesn’t like them and never has? And if the Bible contradicts itself, why go with the Jesus of the Gospels over the Jesus of Paul, anyway? The Gospels weren’t written by Jesus. Once the Bible is no longer seen as coherent, it’s a very short step to the current critical orthodoxy (in other words, the view of the culture) that “every text is first and foremost evidence for the circumstances in and for which it was composed” (that’s N.T. Wright summarizing critical orthodoxy). In other words, if the Gospels aren’t reliable, then they aren’t windows on events. They don’t tell us about Jesus so much as they tell us about the Gospel writers and their faith communities.

I won’t say that every non-inerrantist of the past was sliding down a slippery slope to hell. I love me some C.S. Lewis, for example, and he was distinctly not an inerrantist. Before their own master people stand or fall, and God is able to make them stand—even on what I take to be a slippery slope. I pray X stands, and that in twenty years he’s holding firmly to Christ as his only hope of salvation. I don’t wish X any harm. But I don’t see why I should accept him as a healthy guide on the questions he raises when many others, having gone down his path, have shipwrecked their faith and their once-Christian institutions.

No, the Bible doesn’t have any verses mentioning “inerrancy.” Nor does it have any mentioning the “Trinity,” the “hypostatic union,” the “incarnation,” or the “Great Commission.” These have proven to be useful labels summarizing biblical truths, but no true Christian cares about the labels more than the truth they summarize. The truth summarized by “inerrancy” is that “God’s word is true,” or, in the words of Jesus, if he is to be our baseline, “The Scriptures cannot be broken.” “Inerrancy” just means (and here I borrow from Don Carson), that when the Scriptures give a proposition, that proposition is true.

Careful evangelical scholars such as J.I. Packer (see “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God) have thought through the necessary qualifications for inerrancy—such as genre distinctions and the role of free citation and summary; and I fully expect the church to continue to wrestle with Bible difficulties. Even if the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy hasn’t come up with answers that are satisfying to X, I’d urge him to look not just at the immediate relief he gets from letting go of a fully truthful Bible but at the historical trajectory of people and groups who have done the same thing since long before he was born.

I watched a hokey Christian movie once, against my better judgment, that despite its B-movie acting and preachiness managed to hit me with two arresting scenes. One of them I’ve written about elsewhere; the other was this: a theology professor from the 19th century travels to the future to see the results of a new doctrine he is proposing. He is shocked and dismayed to see the results, and he immediately retracts his views. I am certain that members of the Presbyterian Church of 1920 would feel the same way if they could see their church in 2016; but neither they nor their opponents could have predicted any of it. Fruits take time to mature. And to rot.

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  1. Brian Casey

    Inerrancy (as I’ve come to understand it based on creedal statements I’ve examined and on common use) has for several years seemed to me a rather trumped-up proposition, but you seem to be supporting something else — something that is a) much less specific and b) much less in question among Christians.

    If “inerrancy” = “God’s word is true,” well, of course (or so most of us would say). 🙂 But I’ve never understood inerrancy to mean something that general.

    Other important distinctions arise when we think about terms such as “Bible” and “scripture” and “canon” and “God’s word.” They are all distinct. I think it’s especially important to note how scripture uses (variously) the idea of “word of the Lord.” If it is “of the Lord,” it is not errant in my book, but the writing down of things (i.e., scripture) introduces other elements that make the notion of inerrancy a different thing.

    • Mark Ward

      The devil is in the details! I’m interested to know what you have understood inerrancy to mean.

      Have you read the ICBI statement?

  2. Brian Casey

    [My earlier reply apparently was lost.] Devil in details — yes!

    I had read the Chicago Statement some years ago, but ICBI (presumably an umbrella organization?) wasn’t something I remembered/recognized. On a quick re-glance at the Short Statement, I would find several items — both minor and substantive — to quarrel with.

    This post of mine gets at some of the concerns I have: I’d submit that a) understanding God’s actual messages to be holy and incontrovertible is an entirely different thing from b) understanding scripture to be “free of error.” The latter is a quality that I don’t think anything canonical claims per se.for any other scripture.

    It is important I think, to distinguish among such labels as “word of God”/word of the Lord.” scripture, currently *canonical* scripture, and Bible. I think most people would say that “inerrant” speaks to verbal error (perhaps not what you were focusing on in your post) in “Bible,” yet texts in our current canon don’t appear to view other texts in our canon that way. “Inerrant” that doesn’t seem to be what God or any of His authors intended us to think about when we think about scripture.

    In the last 6 or 8 years, I have essentially been converted to what I would describe as a differently high view of scripture. I attribute this conversion to a) experiences in exegesis and translation and b) reading Gary D. Collier’s book ( I continue to recommend that book highly to anyone who wants to go deeper into these things than the typical church “faith statement.”

    • Mark Ward

      You wrote in that post,

      I take from [God’s confusion of the languages at Babel] that it is more important to God that we get the basic idea than that we consider specific words in a single language to have been directly inspired. If the specific words had been the crux of the thing, I don’t think He would have allowed multiple languages.

      And I guess I say, give me a wordless idea. =) If we are allowed to get the “general gist” of the Bible and not required to take all the words as they are, then who gets to decide what’s “gist” and what’s extraneous? I recognize that even in a situation in which we take all the words as they are, people are still tasked with deciding between good and poor interpretation. But such will always be the case in a fallen world. You avoid one problem (having to explain Bible difficulties) by introducing another problem: giving people wiggle room God didn’t give them.

      You apparently read French? I speak Spanish. I know translation isn’t perfect. But it’s sufficient, sufficient to hold me responsible if Jesus ever says to me (as I believe he will), “Have you not read…?”

      I’d have to know your view in more detail to really interact with it, and I’m not ready to write you off. =) Let’s keep talking as possible.


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