Honesty and Dishonesty; Inerrancy and Errancy

An ex-evangelical acquaintance of mine recently posted a link to an academic journal article critiquing inerrantist biblical scholars. It contained this paragraph:

Well, turnabout is fair play, especially with insufferably tendentious arguments. (I’m sorry: I believe in graciousness, I do, but there’s got to be some room for “hating…with perfect hatred” those who hate God a la Psalm 139:22. My blood boils when I see supercilious ex-evangelical patronization of those like me who still ardently cling to Christ.)

The same distinction operates within the realm of secular academic biblical studies practices. Not all kinds of academic activity involve specialized intellectual practices, even if they do involve less systematized or less deliberately maintained beliefs about proper methodology and other matters. It is thus significant to note that non-inerrantist academic biblical studies practices are specialized discursive actions. This finding can orient relevant sociological expectations: Only certain kinds of people in certain kinds of social and economic settings will have both the ability and the interests to participate in such practices (e.g. Acts 17:21). To the extent that non-inerrantist truth-suppression involves recognizing and participating in specialized discursive practices (i.e. in this case, producing and consuming non-inerrantist discourse about the Bible), this directs the analyst to focus on how non-inerrantists on the whole are willing and able to allocate the kinds of capital necessary for establishing and maintaining the requisite institutional conditions and infrastructure for these practices. Attention to the kinds of practices in which non-inerrantists engage can thus yield much information about the who and where (socially speaking) of non-inerrantist sophistry. Non-inerrantist sophistry thus resolves around specialized practices within secular academic fields, and, accordingly, its participants have the requisite types of interests and skills for these practices.

When I read through the journal article cited above, I knew—I just knew—that it was written by someone who had himself gone through evangelical educational institutions. There was just something about the way he tried to sound objective, tried to sound like he was not sneering… I’ve always had a holy dread of those who resort to the tools of sociological discourse to describe the group they used to be in. It’s a way, frankly, of setting yourself above them; it’s also a way of joining the cool kids who are in the epistemological know. I checked his CV and, sure enough, the inerrantist scholars he cited most often in his paper all came from the same evangelical seminary he graduated from twice not many years ago.

What are evangelicals who have a scholarly bent—a scholarly gift and a calling to teach, I’d term it—supposed to say about secular biblical studies academics? And, yes, what are the latter supposed to say about the former? Each has to acknowledge the intelligence, the sheer human capacity for learning and for subtle reasoning, on the other side of the great gulf fixed between them. Each in some measure has to acknowledge that it has something to learn from the other side; and each does acknowledge it by reading the works of the other, at least a little. But each also has to call the other, in some measure, dishonest. Each believes that the other is suppressing truths that ought, in the moral sense of ought, to be known and believed.

Because unbelieving academics currently predominate in the West (SBL is larger than ETS), they are generally safe in sneering at the upstarts, the has-beens. They do this by situating inerrantist views within a history of religions perspective—as if we (but not they) are explicable as a merely sociological phenomenon, as in the above paragraph. They can’t accept inerrantist scholarship as honest, because that breaks the most fundamental rules of the scientistic interpretive tradition they inhabit. The author of this journal article criticizes inerrantist scholars for trying to hold the moral high ground and acting as if they are in pursuit of truth unlike their opponents. Yet this is precisely what he’s doing.

Because practicing Christian biblical studies academics actually believe that there are sheep and there are goats (or better here, there are sheep and there are wolves), they can’t accept non-inerrantist biblical scholarship as (ultimately) honest. That would imply that there isn’t a God of eternal power and divine nature whose truth is clear in creation and in Scripture but is suppressed by his fallen creation. So though I don’t know from reading that one article (and I’m fuzzy on whether or not I’ve read anything else from the same writer) whether the author maintains any Christian faith, I can and must call him dishonest when he sets himself above the question of the truth of the Bible, something I never saw him address in his paper. I’m sure I have things to learn from him; but at some level, at least in this piece, he is suppressing the truth.

Yes, evangelical biblical studies academics are susceptible to sociological description, but so are unbelieving ones. Group dynamics—from good traditions to malign pressures such as those of C.S. Lewis’ “Inner Ring”—exist in each. “Objective,” “scholarly,” and “honest” are not (here I borrow from my favorite sophistic philosopher, Stanley Fish) “concept[s] that sit above the fray, monitoring its progress and keeping the combatants honest.” They are instead “right there in the middle of the fray, an object of contest that will enable those who capture [them] to parade their virtue at the easy expense of their opponents: we’re for fairness and you are for biased judgment; we’re for merit and you are for special interests; we’re for objectivity and you are playing politics.”

There’s a fantastic chapter in one of Lewis’ books about the leading edge of that Inner Ring, the motivations of people who drift from evangelical belief into liberalism. It’s in The Great Divorce, and it’s a scene in which two ex-evangelical Anglicans, one of whom regained his faith, argue over epistemology and faith.

The liberal asks:

Do you really think people are penalised for their honest opinions? Even assuming, for the sake of argument, that those opinions were mistaken.

The evangelical replies:

Do you really think there are no sins of intellect?

Liberal:

There are indeed, Dick. There is hide-bound prejudice, and intellectual dishonesty, and timidity, and stagnation. But honest opinions fearlessly followed— they are not sins.

Evangelical mic-drop:

…Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by. We simply found ourselves in contact with a certain current of ideas and plunged into it because it seemed modern and successful. At College, you know, we just started automatically writing the kind of essays that got good marks and saying the kind of things that won applause. When, in our whole lives, did we honestly face, in solitude, the one question on which all turned: whether after all the Supernatural might not in fact occur? When did we put up one moment’s real resistance to the loss of our faith? …. You know that you and I were playing with loaded dice. We didn’t want the other to be true. We were afraid of crude salvationism, afraid of a breach with the spirit of the age, afraid of ridicule, afraid (above all) of real spiritual fears and hopes.

There’s more wisdom in this chapter, more careful Lewisian observation of the ways in which people can let themselves drift into truly believing falsehoods (“A drunkard reaches a point at which…he actually believes that another glass will do him no harm”). It’s always hard to find a place to stop a C.S. Lewis quote. Please do go read it for yourself.

I think it important to say that I have some evangelical friends who do not believe in inerrancy. I’m unpersuaded by their arguments; I think they stand on the slipperiest of slopes; I would not want a person with such a view to be an elder or even a member in my church; I believe that every word of God proves true. But I also believe that before their own Master they stand or fall, and I’ve seen such people somehow remain at the top of the slope without sliding. I pray that our Master will indeed make them stand. I’m willing to let Judgment Day decide between inerrantist and errantist views. But I say: to whom shall we go? God’s Word alone has the words of eternal life.

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

2 Comments

  1. Jeremy Patterson on November 4, 2020 at 10:43 am

    If I may engage in flattery, this quotation of yours is as good as Lewis’: “I’ve always had a holy dread of those who resort to the tools of sociological discourse to describe the group they used to be in.”

    • Mark Ward on November 5, 2020 at 11:42 am

      Most bloggers permit commenters to engage in flattery. But I find it flattery enough just to have you as a reader, Jeremy, I really do. Thank you for sticking around, and for commenting, friend.

Leave a Reply