Guest Post: Is Inerrancy a Fundamental of the Christian Faith?

Today’s guest post is written by Carlos Bovell, who has recently written several posts for us, the most recent of which is here. Carlos is the author of four books that critique biblical inerrancy as intellectually problematic and (therefore) spiritually debilitating.

In Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series), we read a contemporary portrayal of fundamentalism by Kevin T. Bauder (former president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis):

The gospel is always doctrinal. Without doctrinal explanations, the death and resurrection of Jesus would be without significance. Those explanations, presuppositions, and implications on which the gospel depends are called fundamental doctrines, or simply fundamentals. Fundamental doctrines are essential to the gospel. . . . Some of the fundamentals certainly must be known and accepted, while others are presupposed within or implied by the gospel. No fundamental can be denied, however, without implicitly denying the gospel itself (p. 29).

There are, indeed, fundamentals to the Christian faith. The death and resurrection of Christ, for example, is the event complex around which the earliest followers of Christ constructed the faith we now call Christianity.

The problem with fundamentalism is not that it declares elements of the faith to be fundamental, or even that it has built up their system of fundamentals in response to specific attacks by nineteenth century liberal scholars. The problem is that fundamentalism’s list of essentials (as the quote above implies) got rather extensive and were seen as equally ultimate.

Like a house of cards, all of the “fundamentals” needed to be in place. If one is removed, that is, if any one fundamental is not affirmed by Christians everywhere, the gospel topples to the ground. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll lists “the distinctive teachings of Dispensationalism, the Holiness Movement, or Pentecostalism” (p. 142) as examples, along with inerrancy, which “had never assumed such a central role for any Christian movement” (p. 133).

An overemphasis on inerrancy is emotionally unfair to students. “Undue influence” comes to mind. Fundamentalists have become masters at making it all but impossible to critique this rhetorical ploy without being accused by others that they’re “denying” any and all fundamentals, including the resurrection or the deity of Christ.

It goes without saying that without a certain amount of doctrine, “the death and resurrection would be without significance,” as Bauder says above. On the face of it, such a claim makes sense, but the fundamentalist culture is prone to abuse it, taking it beyond both its theoretical and existential limits.

What nineteenth century fundamentalism did for evangelicalism today was to tie inerrancy into this “fundamental” framework:

The significance of the gospel cannot be known apart from revelation. To understand why Jesus died and why he rose again, humans require an authoritative explanation. That explanation has been vouchsafed to them in authoritative Scriptures that claim to be God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Such inspiration necessitates inerrancy, because a God-breathed but errant Scripture would imply a God who was either mistaken or untruthful. A God who could make mistakes or who would knowingly mislead people is certainly a lesser God than the God whom the Bible presents. Such a God would not merit the kind of ultimate trust that Scripture requires for the salvation of the soul (p. 28; emphasis added).

Here Bauder has effortlessly woven inerrancy into the historic definition of Christianity itself. No, actually, he does more than that—he deliberately constructs inerrancy into the evangelical gospel itself (upon which we rely and in which we presently hope) as well as our notion of God, that is, the kind of God suitable for the salvation that we believe we possess.

We now have sufficient historical distance to appreciate how inerrancy really has become a kind of über-fundamental and an intrinsic part of the slippery slope dynamic that needs to be addressed. What I am trying to do now when I write is encourage students to brainstorm and help evangelicalism work through this phase of its cultural development.

I have come across individual believers here and there who have outgrown the fundamentalist-inerrantist dynamic of faith over time. Between their efforts and those of “younger evangelicals,” I am hoping for a reformation, a reformation that will work to leave this paralyzing aspect of fundamentalism behind.

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  • Carlos Bovell

    If I am allowed to be the first to comment . . .

    Francis Shaeffer, an extremely influential inerrantist of the 20th century, is representative of American inerrantism in his desire to steer conservative, evangelical culture in the US in this fundamentalist direction. He wrote the following in 1984:

    “What may seem like a minor difference at first, in the end makes all the difference in the world. It makes all the difference, as we might expect, in things pertaining to theology, doctrine and spiritual matters, but it also makes all the difference in things pertaining to the daily Christian life and how we as Christians are to relate to the world around us. In other words, compromising the full authority of Scripture eventually affects what it means to be a Christian theologically and how we live in the full spectrum of human life [italics original] . . . Thus it is important to note that, up until recent times, 1) belief in the inerrancy of scripture (even when it was not practiced fully) and 2) claiming to be a Christian were seen as two things which necessarily went together.”(The Great Evangelical Disaster, 44-45).

    • James

      Having written the word “inerrant” into our doctrine of Scripture, we now find it difficult to root it out without affirming the opposite–that Scripture is full of errors. We should find a way to rid ourselves of a “bad” word without “compromising the full authority of Scripture.”

  • George

    As a somewhat lone traveller who feels it would be nice to ‘just believe’ sometimes, I often wish I could just leave a lot of baggage behind when I pick up the Bible to read. Sometimes I read the words but it is as if I am reading it through a lens of what I should believe rather than maybe what Good wants me to see and understand. Inerrancy causes me no end of sadness that somehow I am missing out on something precious because I can’t get it all to fit, my intellect can’t make it all work and the baby goes out with the bath water.
    Thanks for the post.

  • Ron Schooler

    I attended Fuller Theological Seminary 1975-78. That was the time of the great Battle for the Bible controversy. I took several courses from Jack Rogers in which he approached the issue of inerrancy and showed the inadequacy of this teaching. He edited _Biblical Authority_ in 1977 published by Word Books which presented some of the same points that are now being discussed.

    I quote from the last essay in the book by David Hubbard, who was president of Fuller at the time. “Caution, therefore, is in order as to insisting on the perpetuation of the old Princeton approach to inerrancy, in its modern expression, as the only valid theological option for evangelicals. We can salute it without canonizing it. And we can seek a better approach to leave with our children, perhaps an approach that supports their belief as firmly without contorting it as markedly as the earlier view has done to our generation.”

    Well, it did not work out that way. I hope this current wave of consideration will be more successful.

    • peteenns

      I agree with you completely, Ron. The reason this keeps coming up is the sociological pressure to bury the issue whenever it rears its head–and if thinking people have to get buried along with it, so be it.

    • Carlos Bovell

      To Ron:

      I’m not sure how we could guarantee that we’ll be more successful than the Fuller faculty other than actually finding a well-defined alternative to inerrancy. The problem is, I think, that the said alternative will always seem too radically different from inerrancy to feel comfortable. Also, it will be far less populist.

      I think the smart thing to do, then, would be not to try to win over inerrantists but rather to target the young and keep their formative years somehow from being inculcated with inerrancy as the default position.

      I don’t think we have to be the ones to accomplish this, however, because the wider culture–little by little–seems to be taking care of that all by .

      Grace and peace,

  • James

    Christian thinkers (and doers) must cooperate with the Spirit to continually renew the faith in a changing world. Big challenges are coming today from the worlds of scientific materialism and religious pluralism among others. Skill in scriptural interpretation must develop apace. This is not cast in stone or the challenges of the 19th century. Thanks Peter for your work on the cutting edge.

    • peteenns

      I agree, James, that there are challenges ahead–in fact, already here–that will make the “historial Adam” issue look quote small.

  • Andrew T.

    The impression I get from reading your critique of ‘inerrancy’, is that inerrancy can be taken too far, to the point of abuse (of doctrine) even.

    You say “The problem is that fundamentalism’s list of essentials (as the quote above implies) got rather extensive and were seen as equally ultimate.”

    While I certainly agree with what you are saying about ‘fundamentalism’s list of essentials’ , would question if this is a problem of inerrancy, or a problem of how othodoxy occurs.

    Although I consider myself to be as orthodox as one can be, (by that I mean inaccordance with biblically orthodoxy), I hold unorthodox beliefs, (by that I mean not in accordance with ecclesiastical orthodoxy). (For example, I believe the new covenant was established with the House of Israel and the House of Judah, rather than with non-Israelites because this is what the bible plainly says [Jer 31:31][Heb 8:8][Matt 10:6][Matt 15:24]). Accordingly, I find myself constantly confronted by these ‘essentials’ you speak of, except these ‘essentials’ are, more often than not, dogmatic intrepretations (so church orthodoxy and tradition) rather than plain biblical teachings (true orthodoxy) even if they are not always recognizes as such.

    So to point a finger at inerrancy as part of the blame, as has been done here, in a critique without qualification, may in fact to be missing the point. Is it not the construction of these lists to blame, rather than a belief in inerrancy? If different denominations each have their list of essential doctrines, is that speaking to inerrancy itself, or to the (mis)use of inerrancy as a tool of hegemonic orthodoxy?

    The fundamentalist-inerrantist dynamic of faith can be abused, certainly, but it also has the constructive role of adjudicating between competing ‘doctrinal explanations’. In this role it serves to distinguish between ecclesiastical tradition, called orthodoxy and true inerrant biblical teachings.

    Although I appreciate the things you are reacting to, and commenting on, I think your recognition of the underlying cause, seems to miss the mark, somewhat. It is precisely the fundamentalist-inerrantist dynamic of faith that keeps scripture at the centre of doctrinal discussions, that provides limit to the scope to doctrinal disagreements, that differentiates between man’s doctrine and God’s, and otherwise denies theological relativism; all this despite it’s abuses, and misuses.