Carlos Bovell has written three previous posts here over the last week (1, 2, 3–click any of these for his bio and publications). Today’s post recounts his recent experience at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) which holds yearly national academic conferences in November and regional conferences in March.
Just in case any of you thought I was just making all this up….
This past Friday (March 2, 2012), I gave a talk at the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society—Eastern Region. My paper was a précis of the chapter on Old Princeton[*] in my new book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.
In it, I addressed Old Princeton’s twofold defense of the inerrancy of Scripture: 1) Inerrancy is a church doctrine; 2) Inerrancy is a biblical doctrine. My conclusion is that inerrancy is neither.
During the Q & A, one of the first questions I was asked was whether, in view of my comments, I thought Christianity should exist at all. Behind this question is the dynamic I’ve been talking about in my recent posts here:
If inerrancy falls, then the whole of Christianity will fall with it. Without an inerrant Bible, there is no intellectual reason to be Christian.
The questioner was apparently concerned about my comment that Old Princeton’s defense of inerrancy was not “timeless” but obviously shaped by the historical context and intellectual climate of the nineteenth century.
We then observed how inerrancy today is also historically conditioned. This led to the consideration of whether Christianity itself is logically also merely historically conditioned–in other words, whether one could ever speak of a “Christianity” to be believed by all churches everywhere.
This is precisely how the inerrantist slippery slope works. In an academic conference, mind you, a constructive critique of Old Princeton’s defense of inerrancy leads to the question of whether Christianity should exist at all. (Incidentally, Old Princeton also taught something like this: Christianity’s fate is inextricably tied to the fortunes of inerrancy.)
Another question that I was asked was whether I believed in any truth at all that could be affirmed in any time and any place during the course of human history–in other words, is there truth of any sort that transcends any particular historical context?
In another setting, this would make for an interesting discussion. But keep in mind the slippery slope lurking behind this question.
What led to this question was my comment that inerrancy is not an adequate concept for describing the “trustworthiness” of scripture. I was questioned in response whether, if this is true, any truths can be held absolutely: “If you’re so skeptical about inerrancy, how can you be sure about anything ever?” The doctrine of inerrancy often acts within inerrantist culture as a gateway for knowing anything.
It is this kind of thinking that I have in my mind when I say over and again that the Bible is not an article of faith, or that inerrancy should not act as the foundation of faith, or (with New Testament scholar Dan Wallace) that inerrancy is not a person of the Trinity.
Did everyone in the audience think as these questioners did? Probably not, but in my experience the views expressed represent the dominant culture of inerrancy in evangelicalism. It also represents the default line of argument when the inerrantist culture is seen to be undermined.
Certainly plenty of pastors and teachers treat inerrancy as if it were the be-all and end-all of Christian faith. But inerrancy is not a theological issue or even a spiritual issue; it is a cultural issue, a culture wracked with fear, I might add.
Those who heard my talk at ETS ended up asking me directly whether I could sign the Society’s statement of faith, which includes a clear statement of the Bible’s inerrancy. I responded that there may have been a time when I could do so in good conscience, but now I cannot. The response was tacit but unmistakable: “Well, there you go. You are asking me to go where I cannot.”
Inerrancy is a human theoretical construct and as such is both culturally conditioned and historically contingent. For too many evangelicals, including those academically trained, even raising this observation for discussion is only a few precious steps removed from undermining the entire Christian faith.
The intention behind the defense of inerrancy may be to protect the faith, but insisting that evangelicals take an uncompromising stance on a questionable position is spiritually crippling.
[*] ”Old Princeton” refers to the theological climate of Princeton Theological Seminary (Calvinist) from its founding in 1812 until about 1920, when the school took a liberal turn and from which Westminster Theological Seminary was founded in 1929 to continue the “Old Princeton” legacy. Best known among the Old Princeton theologians is B. B. Warfield, who remains among conservative Calvinists and evangelicals the nearly unimpeachable standard of a rigorous, intellectual, defense of inerrancy.