Inerrancy: If it Was Good Enough for Jesus…. (a panel discussion at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary)

Recently, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, led a panel discussion called “Revisiting Inerrancy: The Challenges Continue.” He was joined by four of his faculty members: three theologians (Russell Moore, Gregg Allison, Bruce Ware) and one New Testament professor (Denny Burk, from SBTS’s undergraduate feeder school Boyce College).

Mohler felt it was their responsibility as “good stewards” of Scripture to speak “truthfully” about the Bible and to have that discussion videotaped for general viewing and edification. Their concern was to refute the continued “attacks” on inerrancy from outside and inside of evangelicalism that threaten Christian orthodoxy.

I watched the video in part, because, along with Al Mohler (and Kevin Vanhoozer, Michael Bird, and John Franke), I am contributing an essay for a volume on inerrancy in Zondervan’s popular “Counterpoints” series. Actually (my editors are happy to know) I completed (note deliberate use of past tense) my essay over two weeks ago, but I watched the video nevertheless to see if by some chance I might hear something new–either in content or tone–that suggested some acknowledgement of the value of the broader discussion happening in American Fundagelicalism (which is what prompted the Zondervan volume in the first place).

I was disappointed but not surprised. For an hour, Mohler and his colleagues expounded, with great confidence, on the unimpeachable and foundational role inerrancy plays in Christian theology. Any attempt to “revisit” inerrancy within evangelicalism is nothing more than an “attack” on inerrancy, no different in principle from outside “liberal” attacks.

From my point of view, however, I saw little more than a circling of the wagons: the perpetuation of familiar, unconvincing, and in some cases intellectually isolated, arguments that rest on allegedly unassailable theological assertions of the nature of God, Christ, and Scripture, and the demonizing (almost literally, see below) of those who think otherwise.

I list below 34 points made by the panelists in the course of the hour long discussion (mainly paraphrased). I considered grouping them under general categories, but I decided to reflect as much as I could the rhythm and flow of the panel discussion. Hence, you will certainly see some repetition in my 34 points, as the panelists tended to repeat themselves on what they likely considered to be their stronger arguments, including some version of (1) “inerrancy goes back to Jesus at least and has run unfettered throughout church history until recently,” and (2) “why in the world do we have to keep defending something that is so clearly self-evident (biblically, logically) it shouldn’t need defending?”

Some brief thoughts of my own are in italics.

1.  Inerrancy did not really need to be defended until the 1960s. [This sets the stage for insinuating that those who question inerrancy are part of a fad or trend that can be easily discounted. Others on the panel later refer to movements in the 19th century and earlier, but the rhetorical effect of this opening jab is clear.]

2. Let’s make sure we all define inerrancy so we all know what it is and what it isn’t: “The Bible is true in all that it affirms or teaches according to the author’s intended meaning.” [Determining what an author intended and what Scripture "affirms and teaches" are hermeneutical and theological exercises, not simply derived  from a "plain" reading of Scripture. Phrasing things this way is also a bit of an escape clause, i.e., the fact that the Bible presents the world as flat and allows for holding slaves does not obligate inerrantist to do likewise, since the biblical author never "intended" this to be a "teaching."  Of course, this raises the question, "How do you know that?"]

3. Good solid inerrantist evangelicals go to Harvard, etc., and before you know it they are caught up in the need to be intellectually respectable, and the first thing to go is inerrancy. [Is it possible that the reason inerrancy is the "first thing to go" is because its arguments are weak in view of information, and students feel somewhat betrayed at having been isolated from it? The insinuation that questioning inerrancy is a problem of sinful pride, though a common caricature, rings hollow to those whose faith crises grew in the fertile soil of Mohler's brand of fundamentalism.]

4. Inerrancy grows out of who God is, so if you lose inerrancy your entire theology is suspect. This is why now, more than ever, the church has to be protected from attacks against inerrancy. [Linking God with inerrancy as an inescapable premise of Christian logic is in a nutshell the entire problem. Hence, attacking inerrancy is seen as an attack on the Bible, and thus on God himself. Questioning inerrancy, however, is really only an attack on a theological system that requires it.]

5. And now, even evangelicals are attacking inerrancy from the inside. It all started with Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, and Kent Sparks and Brian McLaren are continuing the downward spiral. [The work of Rogers and McKim, which questioned the evangelical premise that inerrancy has always been the church's view of the Bible, was countered by John Woodbridge (see below). Leaving aside the specifics of the arguments, it is part of evangelical lore that Woodbridge has finally and definitively defended the evangelical position. Raising the work of Sparks and McLaren in conjunction with Rogers/McKim is a rhetorical move to paint them all with the same brush. This is a common fundamentalist debating technique, to line up previous enemies with current ones and say the new arguments are simply rehashed old ones (see below), and therefore the victories of the warriors of the past can be effortlessly transposed to the present.]

6. Infallibility (rather than inerrancy) is not good enough, since it allows for historical and scientific errors in the Bible. [Commonly recognized historical and scientific pressure points for revisiting inerrancy leads many evangelicals to prefer the softer language of infallibility. The panelists feel that infallibility opens to door to allowing that evidence into the conversation, and so is kept outside the gate. Simply put, whatever threatens inerrancy is neutralized at the outset.]

7. We [amazingly] keep having to defend inerrancy and have these same discussions “decade after decade.”  [Yes you do--and there may be good reasons why. Perhaps the arguments are not persuasive.]

8 The Bible itself teaches inerrancy (a.k.a. Jesus was an inerrantist). [Here familiar prooftexts are raised, as if needing no further defense, that allegedly demonstrate that the Bible never errs, such as 2 Timothy 3:16; John 17:17.]

9. Since God is truth, an inerrant Bible is his only option. [See #4]

10. Inerrancy has always been the position of the church. [A high view of Scripture has certainly been the church's position, but the modern articulation of inerrancy and the role that articulation plays in fundamentalism, most certainly were not. I am entirely confident that if a faculty candidiate at SBTS would say some of what Luther and Calvin said about the Bible, they would be unhireable.]

11. Inerrancy requires plenary verbal inspiration, not merely “conceptual” inspiration. [This is a jab at Fuller Seminary's turn to dark side when it reformulated its doctrine of Scripture away from the view that Mohler et al. feel is crucial to maintain. There is apparently nothing of value to be gained in considering the rasons why Fuller did what it did. They were simply wrong and Mohler et al. are right.]

12. Without inerrancy, our “theological superstructure” collapses, especially our doctrine of God. [Yes, I agree. The kind  of  theological superstructure and God Mohler requires collapses without an inerrant Bible. So, maybe it is also time to revisit Mohler's theology.]

13. Non-inerrantists make themselves a papal-like authority over Scripture; they get to determine what is and is not authoritative (the “all or nothing” argument). [Every Bible reader, including Mohler, makes decisions on every page about what is and is not authoritative--i.e., what Scripture "teaches or affirms" (see #2).]

14. Challenges to inerrancy are modern. [See above.]

15. A new generation of evangelicals needs to be protected from attacks on inerrancy. [The new generation of evangelicals I know want to be protected from untenable arguments posed as theological non-negotiables.]

16. We keep having the “same discussions in different clothes.” [Again, the "this is nothing new" argument.]

17. Denying inerrancy leads to Mormonism. [Scare tactic, guilt by association, cheap shot.]

18. John Woodbridge definitively and permanently showed, against Rogers and McKim, that  inerrancy was not invented in the 19th century but has always been what the church believed. [See #5. Despite claims to the contrary, B. B. Warfield, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine--along with Paul and Jesus--hold views of Scripture and used Scripture in ways that don't line up with what inerrantists require of the Bible.]

19. The denial of #18 is intellectual dishonesty. [Within an inerrantist system, yes.]

20. Opponents of inerrancy are guilty of a “crafty use of language” (like saying the Bible can be “true” without being inerrant). [Inerrantists are guilty of thinking that "truth" has a static meaning, and that what they mean by truth is what God means. The use of "crafty" to describe their opponents echoes the serpent's temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:1). This is not likely to encourage conversation, since the serpent is understood to be Satan. The connection between non-inerrantists and the serpent is more explicit below.]

21. They are amazed about “Young wags, theologians…who think the history of theology began with them” rather than realizing their objections to inerrancy are “all old news.” [Here questioning inerrancy is due to youthful ignorance and arrogance in addition to pride (# 3 above).]

22. Evangelical objections to inerrancy simply repeat the arguments that previous generations of Evangelicals effectively dismantled. All those objections have been fully answered. [A slight variation on the dominant theme of the panel discussion: "You're wrong because you disagree with our past."]

23. Evangelicals just need to pay closer attention to the nuanced and sophisticated work of those who produced the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which is a “statement of incredible genius.” [Mohler et al. may not be aware of the the history of criticism of CSBI. Not all share his view, and the authors of the above-mentioned Zondervan volume have been asked to offer an evaluation of CSBI.]

24. Inerrancy is not a simplistic way of looking at the Bible. It can account for things like the use of “round numbers” and “phenomenological” observations like “the sun rises.” [Yes, of course, we all know that the use of round numbers in the Bible is not an error. Neither is speaking of the sun rising since we do the same thing. What this argument constantly overlooks, however, is that round numbers and phenomenological language are not the same thing. Biblical figures actually believed the sun rose and the earth was flat--they "affirmed" these things. These (and other) examples represent ancient ways of thinking (not just speaking) about their world, but Mohler et al. are loath to allow the biblical authors to be fully constituted members of their time and place in the human drama. When an ancient biblical writer says "the sun rose," he does not mean what we mean. Inerrantists really need to move on from this argument.]

25. The attack on inerrancy began in the serpent in the Garden of Eden who put doubt in Eve’s mind about what God said. Inerrancy, therefore, is a matter of spiritual warfare agains the “powers and principalities of the sky.” [This type of argument, regrettably common, is considered the knockout blow. It think it is unworthy of reasoned Christlike discourse. See #20 above.]

26. Rachel Held Evans in her recent book (A Year of Biblical Womanhood: a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband “Master”) is “mocking the Bible” and showing it “overt derision.” [Evans is not mocking the Bible but biblical literalism. That is the entire point of the book, and I am surprised the panelists missed it. Their offense at Evans's book is rooted in the false assumption that literalism is the default proper approach to Scripture, and so to attack literalism is to attack the Bible, Christianity, and God himself.]

27. My use of an incarnational model of Scripture in Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament is a “frontal assault” on inerrancy. [See #26. I am disappointed they have come to this conclusion, particularly since an incarnational model is far, far, older than inerrancy or my use of it. I am, however, somewhat relieved that the panelists finally got around to mentioning me. I was beginning to wonder whether they understood that my paradigm and theirs are incompatible.]

28. I am also “overturning all of biblical theology” because of my take on the NT’s use of the OT. [See #s 26 and 27. In a nutshell, as I explain in Inspiration and Incarnation and more recently in The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn't Say about Human Origins, when the New Testament authors interpret the Old Testament, they are certainly not doing it in an inerrantist way--which is understandably a major problem for inerrantist, and so I can appreciate their overblown rhetoric here. They are welcome to make their case for an alternative view, however.]

30. The “ever since the Enlightenment” argument. [The ultimate conversation stopper is to claim that inerrancy's opponents, rather than obeying God, are beholden to Enlightenment philosophy, which rejected divine authority. I am genuinely surprised it took them this long to play this card.]

31. Without an inerrant Bible, we have no external authority and so we become the authority. [No external authority? God? The Spirit? Jesus? See above at various places.]

32. Kent Sparks’s views put him on the road to Christopher Hitches (and the crafty serpent in the Garden of Eden). [Maybe yes, maybe no, but you do not know that, and so maybe turning down the rhetoric is a good idea. Also, does not your road lead anywhere, like legalism and Phariseeism? Is there a log in your eye?]

33. Evangelical deniers of inerrancy think they need to be intellectually accountable to the “New Atheists.” [Or perhaps they find their arguments worthy of reasoned engagement. Here the "pride" card is played again. See #3.]

34. Affirming inerrancy is a show of Christian humility. [So is being willing to listen--really listen--to those who say you are wrong, especially if you share a common faith with them.]

It is of no concern of mine whatsoever what Mohler thinks about how the Bible has to be. Mohler and his faculty are absolutely free to believe as they wish, and my purpose in this life is not to change their minds, ridicule them, crush them, mock them, or whatever. My concern is to help those who feel trapped by Mohler’s way of thinking, people with whom I have had  many conversations over the years.

They need to hear that the boundaries drawn in panel discussions like this do not reflect all or the best of the Christian tradition. Rather they sell God and the Bible woefully short by placing burdens on the text–and its readers–that neither should, or can, bear.


  • Andrew Vogel

    Thanks Pete. I appreciate your efforts and passion greatly.

  • Phil Miller

    Let’s make sure we all define inerrancy so we all know what it is and what it isn’t. The Bible is true in all that it affirms or teaches according to the author’s intending meaning.

    I tried using this excuse when in it came to my answers on tests a few times…

    “But, professor, that answer, though not really correct, isn’t what I intended to say. What I intended to say was… Grade me by my intended meaning!”

    • Jeremy Shoulta

      Haha – I could have turned a few B’s into A’s if I had just used this truly divine rationale!

  • Neil N

    Sometimes I would just like to read a running commentary on what goes through your head sometimes. Unedited. I am sure it would not be as Christlike as it should be, but I think it would be enlightening and entertaining.

  • Derek

    Very interesting post Peter, thank-you. I think issues like this really need understanding, patience and discernment (among many other things) before one takes a side…well that is my M.O anyhow.

    Pete, you also mentioned: “…Luther and Calvin said about the Bible, they would be unhireable”. Could you please refer me to a source where I could get some of that information?


    • peteenns

      Calvin’s commentary on Genesis 1.

  • Don Johnson

    Mohler, et al, have figured out a way for them to read the Bible, but when they claim it is THE way, they go way too far. What they are trying to do is create a protestant quasi-Magisterium and this needs to be resisted. They have created their own problems, for if their way is not THE ONLY WAY, to read the Bible, then many of the assertions become just that, assertions and not eternal verities and I think that possibility is very scary to them, for it means they could be wrong.

  • Jeremiah

    Innerancy. Not the doctrine we deserved but the doctrine we needed.

    • Tim Dedeaux

      In my cynical moments, I tend to think it’s the opposite: not the doctrine we need to walk closely with Jesus, but the doctrine we deserve for being so desirous of authority and so fearful of doubt or ambiguity.

  • Jeff

    Dr. Enns,

    Dr. Olson’s recent piece I think is helpful in this discussion as well

    • peteenns

      Thanks, Jeff. Olson’s always insightful.

  • Derek

    Thanks Pete i’ll definitely check out Calvin’s commentary when I get a chance. I just have one more question that was raised by D.A Carson as it relates to point #24:

    Does the reference to “the circle of the earth” in Isaiah 40:22 mean that the writer thought of the world as a sphere? Or that at very least he was aware of the curvature of the world? And in that case doesn’t your view that writers thought the world to be flat beg a few questions? Or if the Isaiah reference should be understood in some sort of poetic/metaphorical sense, may “ends of the earth” be understood similarly?

    That seems to be a great point to me, how about you?

    • peteenns

      I think this simply means the earth was a flat round disk, which is what it looks like in flat country. Personally, I don’t see any credible argument that Isaiah here is casually alluding to a spherical earth–unless one wants to say Second Isaiah is somehow influenced by post 5th century B.C. Greek thought (bam).

      • Jeremiah Diehl

        I’ve googled all the verses that people claim are of the Bible stating the earth is flat… I think you’re really grasping at straws. Not a single verse gives me the impression that the author believes the earth is flat – and not a single verse claims the earth is flat.
        The Bible is not a science text book and the authors (I’m certain) had no interest in being geometrically correct. They had a more important message to impart.

        • James

          I agree. There are very weak arguments for the ‘flat world’ idea here, and need to be countered and finally put down. I wish we could move on with some of these types of arguments, but we live in a world where arguing makes you feel superior and the person you argue with dejected and despised.

          • peteenns

            Can you clarify what you mean here? Are you saying that ancient Israelites, including authors of Scripture, did not think the world was flat but round?

        • Mark Chenoweth


          What about the waters above the heavens? This is in many psalms. I find it hard to believe that the author meant clouds, and G.K. Beal’s option that this is the “sea of glass” in Revelation makes some strange presuppositions that the theology/cosmology of the psalmist is as fully developed as St. John’s (or the Johanine author)!

          The simplest explanation seems to me to be that the psalmist believed there was an ocean on top of the firmament.

          • Jeremiah Diehl

            Mark, there is strong evidence that there was a water canopy above the atmosphere before the flood. I believe God caused this to collapse as part of the flood judgment.

          • AJG

            “Mark, there is strong evidence that there was a water canopy above the atmosphere before the flood. I believe God caused this to collapse as part of the flood judgment.”

            What? What is this strong evidence?

          • John I.

            Jeremiah, there is no material evidence whatsoever that there was a water canopy above the atmosphere before the flood.

        • John I.

          ? Why not? The verses state that the earth is flat. That’s the obvious plain meaning of the text. Why not accept that plain meaning?

          “They had a more important message to impart”–gee, isn’t that what P. Enns and other infallible-ists who are not inerrantists do? Aren’t you the pot calling the kettle black and using the very same technique?

          • Jeremiah Diehl

            They don’t explicitly state the earth is flat and are actually clearly figures of speech. The term “Four corners of the earth” is not an indication that the earth is flat but a reference to the directions – North, East, South and West.

          • John I.

            The do explicitly state that the earth is flat, and what methodology do use to determine what (for them) was a figure of speech and what wasn’t? I don’t see any evidence at all that the writers of scripture thought that a flat earth was a figure of speech. The well known example of Is. 40:22 (God sits on the circle of the earth) indicates a view that the earth is a flat disc–which is how the earth looks because a horizon is equidistant from a viewer except where a view is blocked by a rise (hill, mountain, etc.). There is no indication in the Bible that God gave the Hebrews any special revelation that the earth was a globe. God took Abraham as he found him–educated as he was in the culture of his day (flat earth believers), and God took Moses as he found him–educated in the wisdom of the Egyptians (who believed in a flat earth). There is no historic or cultural reason at all to believe that the writers of the Bible believed anything different.

            And the Bible seems to care very little, if at all, about the shape of the earth: other than a very few phrases, there is no description of the dimensional shape of the earth.

            One only gets to the assertion that the Bible refers to a three dimensional spherical earth if one begins with the assumptions that (1) God would only refer to a spherical earth, (2) God would have revealed to the writers that the earth is spherical (or caused them to write something that they disagreed with), and (3) the writers were consciously referring to a spherical earth at all times. None of those assumptions can be derived from anywhere in the Old Testament.

  • Mark Chenoweth

    Look at what this heretic said about the historicity of the killing of the first born!

    “Do not be surprised at all if both things- the deah of the first-born and the pouring out of blood- did not happen to the Isaelites and on that account reject the contemplation which we have proposed concerning the destruction of evil as if it were a fabrication without any truth.”

    Yeah, Gregory of Nyssa is going to lead us on a slippery slope to denying Christ’s divinity and eventually the resurrection! The only problem is that Nyssa helped create what orthodoxy means!

    • peteenns

      Gotta love these dead white guys.

    • Robert Foster

      Thanks for the quotation, Mark. Can you give me the reference?

  • Mark Chenoweth

    Of course, is Nyssa actually a heretic in the panel’s eyes? If so, I really do think that this shows that their orthodoxy is not orthodoxy, it’s fundamentalism. What about all the Church fathers that thought similarly about scripture as Nyssa did? Are they all heretics too? Of course, Nyssa did believe that we could HOPE AND PRAY for the salvation of all, even Satan. There’s another “heretical belief” according to many Evangelicals.

  • Stephen

    Many classic hallmarks of inerrantist polemical discourse here. To name a few:

    (A) Blatant misrecognition of their own social locations. Take, for example, their common claim that evangelicals go to non-evangelical schools and eventually reject inerrancy because of pressures to be intellectually respectable [Beale once referred to this as "sociological pressures"]. Ok, fine, there might be something to that, but this line of “analysis” occludes that inerrantist zealots are also in specific social locations where there’s every bit as much “pressure” and associated potential “capital” to be gained by holding to inerrancy. Do they really think that such social dynamics aren’t operative in their circles too?

    (B) Presenting ‘arguments’ only designed to convince people who already agree and/or lack the requesite knowledge to assess what they are claiming, but representing their arguments and positions as truly sophisticated, academically credible, and so on. While this surely sounds good to insiders and, doubtless, gives inerrantist gatekeepers and their constituents the warm fuzzies as they congratulate themselves on having demonstrated mastery of all potential critics in sophisticated intellectually responsible ways…this stuff only works for people who already agree or lack the competence to assess what they’re claiming. Thus why there are so many evangelicals who used to hold to inerrancy and no longer do. We became more aware of the actual landscape of issues, “critical” arguments about them, and so on.

    (C) Classic ‘Heresiological’ logic of lumping all critics into the same boat and then invoking the, “See, they’re not saying anything new; this is an old error, and one that has already been dealt with definitively.” This is an iteration of what I talk about above in point B. More than that, for those who don’t know, this is a classic polemical strategy that we can find, for example, all over early Christian polemics. Unfortunately, just as with Irenaeus’ and Epiphanius’ made up genealogies of heretics, there’s very little accuracy in such caricatures — and if there is some substantive point of overlap or “influence,” one needs to demonstrate that, not just assert it. To get personal, I am tired of being told that I’m just a “follower of Enns,” not because I disagree with all of Pete’s work or didn’t learn various things from him, but because it’s a way of marginalizing anything I say. In other words, it’s a decidedly ungracious, unhumble, un-true, lazy, and thus UN-CHRISTIAN way of engaging people with whom you disagree.

    (D) Classic inerrantist powerplay of denying the legitimacy of even having such discussions (as Enns noted). This truly is an effective (and maybe even brilliant) move for those who control inerrantist institutions and fields of discourse, because it amounts to making their views beyond criticism and keeps them and their views from having to be accountable to the data and others who make arguments about it. To raise potentially critical questions, suggest that their views should be up for critical interaction too, suggest that we not-so-quickly identify their views with Gods’ views, and so on, all become automatic disqualifiers. Again, a very effective way of making one’s views beyond criticism, but I have trouble seeing how it’s a Christian move that prizes honesty, charity, and so on.

    (E) Classic inerrantist rhetorical framing of the situation: it’s ultimately just asserted that inerrantists are the ones who are “humble” and just standing on “received truth,” and so on, while those who disagree get rhetorically positioned as “arrogant” and “divisive troublemakers.” Yet again, efficient move if you never have to be accountable to someone who would disagree with you, but it amounts to (again) being heavy-handedness, dishonesty, and trading in false rumors and slander. In other words, not really behavior fitting for people claiming to stand up for the Gospel.

    • peteenns

      Vey clearly stated, Stephen. Thanks.

  • RichardSpeyer

    Point 5 reminds me of the discussions of heresy in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.
    It’s enough to show similarity on some points with someone already declared heretical, then you connect them to some other movement, also condemned. (points 17, 32…)

  • Zack Hunt

    Brilliant post.

    The whole time I was reading it this quote from Origen was running through my head “”Many, not understanding the Scriptures in a spiritual sense, but incorrectly [in the literal sense], have fallen into heresies.”

    • Mark Chenoweth

      I was skimming through Kenton Spark’s article on inerrancy on biologos and noticed he said that “the author didn’t intend for these stories to be taken allegorically, so that’s not a very good option.”

      If you read enough of Origen/Nyssa and others, sometimes it does seem like they say that the author intended it to be taken allegorically, but you will also find passages where Origen simply says that the “spirit” intended it to be interpreted in a spiritual sense.

      I don’t think it’s clear that the ECFs are paying to attention to authorial intent as much as God’s intent, which is different. That’s why I’m not as skeptical of allegory as many are today. Although I still need to read Andrew Louth’s defense of it.

      Reading through Doug Earl’s “The Joshua Delusion” right now. His appropriation of Origen/Nyssa is very interesting. Possibly might lead into a modern re-appropriation of them.

      • Mark Chenoweth

        That’s not an exact quote from Sparks. He said something close to that though.

  • Philip Taylor

    I am probably on the panels side when it comes to my ultimate belief and how it works out in practice for me … but I agree with most of your points Pete. Keep up the good work and keep the faith.

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  • Dan F.

    on #13. I agree with your assessment but i fail to see how your assessment doesn’t call into question the entire sola scriptura pillar on which the Reformation (in part) stands?

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  • rvs

    Thanks for this wonderfully educational post. I tried recently to explain to students that the Bible was a magical device, sort of like Thor’s hammer, only far more powerful. Different in kind, really. Perhaps a workable / effective / pleasurable mode of argumentation against fundamentalists is to use strange metaphors to discuss the amazing nature of God’s Word to us. –The Bible as portal, for example, or wormhole (ah, Deep Space 9). –The Bible as that thing on Iron Man’s chest, assuming that the thing could be turned into a mystical bundle of intrigue.

  • Bryan

    I find it odd that the fundamentalists are using the ‘Enlightenment card’ in their corner since it is oddly peculiar that they want to construct a Cartesian foundationalist model of the bible which is unassailable and able to make universal claims as an arbiter of truth for every diverse culture in the world today. This model seems to borrow enlightenment thought and Christianity therefore seems to have been co-opted with this enlightenment perspective.

    • peteenns

      I think you are right, Bryan. And this was Kent Sparks’s point in God’s Word in Human Words for which he took no little amount of grief.

  • Derek

    I think Dr. Carson’s point was not to argue that individual Hebrews definitely did had knowledge that the earth was spherical, though some do argue in that vein, and it is hardly conceptually impossible. Rather, I think he is saying that the language used was equivocal and inspired to be so used.

    Critics who argue that the Hebrews should have created a unique word for “sphere,” for example, are simply being childish. Ancient languages had only a few thousand words at most, in contrast to a modern, technical language like English that has many specialized fields to describe and can have upwards of a million words. The nature of an oral society was such that there could be no significant growth in language or vocabulary, and quite frequently, languages in pre-literate cultures lack specific words for very basic concepts.

    • peteenns

      So, it “might” mean a round globe?

    • Nathan

      Derek: some interesting linguistic claims there. Did you make them up or did you read that somewhere?

  • Stephen

    Has anyone ever argued for the category of “phenomenological language” as its used by inerrantists to explain how the Bible is not “really” saying X? Please don’t misunderstand me, I know that people can and do often speak using such “phenomenological language,” and I also certainly comprehend the importance of genre for grappling with what a text is really claiming, and so on.

    That said, I don’t recall ever reading an inerrantist theorize how one can assess whether or not a passage is using “phenomenological language.” It seems more like this category is just asserted when inerrantists are confronted with passages that say things that inerrantists just know is wrong (e.g., various cosmological claims).

    So, what are the criteria, questions, intuitions, and so on, that inerrantists use to assess whether or not a biblical author is using phenomenological language? Unless they can articulate them it looks a lot as though “phenomenological language” is a sophisticated-sounding way to explain away potential errors in the Bible; i.e., their criteria for knowing whether or not something is “phenomenological language” is if the Bible looks like it’s claiming something about the cosmos/creation that would be an error.

  • chaplain mike

    Pete, I have to comment quickly and move on, but I want to say that this is an invaluable post. Will we ever be able to have a true public debate about this with the inerrancy crowd?

    • peteenns

      No, not a “true” debate where the outcomes is not orchestrated. I also think that debate is not the way to handle this. Debates are never objectively won.

  • Rebecca Trotter

    Here’s my response:
    The problem with fundamentalists is they always choose the wrong verses to take literally.

  • joel hunter

    4, 8, 9 and 12: I dozed off…so this was a discussion about the nature of the Qur’an and Allah?

    24: Anachronism is not feature, it’s a bug.

    2, 5, 10, 14…etc. etc.: It is reasonable that the proponents of the doctrine define the term as they wish. However, historical revisionism and anachronism. Again. Irony abounds.

    2: “The Bible is true in all that it affirms or teaches according to the author’s intending [sic] meaning.” What with the right hand they take away from critical methods they give back with the left. (At least to themselves.) To determine “the author’s intended meaning” is equivalent to saying the inerrant truths of the Bible are uncovered only when properly interpreted, where proper interpretation is the divination by the reader of authorial intention. There appear to be two obvious problems with this position. (1) Pray tell, where do we find this principle of interpretation in the Bible? We do not. Some say it is found in 2 Timothy 3:16-17. But this passage states what the Scriptures are good for, their instrumental use. It does not enunciate a hermeneutical principle. (2) Human understanding is frail (“we see through a glass, darkly”). Yet inerrancy presumes a cognitive faculty by which we might divine the biblical authors’ intentions. Further, this organ of divine insight presumably also allows us to discriminate an authentic interpretation from a deficient one. This organ of divine insight is also extrabiblical and a logical add-on to their doctrine of the Scriptures.

  • Douglas E

    A couple random comments:
    Nice post Pete – you and Rachel Held Evans should be pleased to be on Mohler’s list!
    Jeremiah – I would like to see the ‘strong evidence’ for the water above the atmosphere before the flood. And I would also be interested in seeing the evidence for a catastrophic worldwide flood. You state that the Bible is not a science book, to which I would agree, and then make claims that have virtually no basis in science as carried out by the vast majority of scientists.

    • Jeremiah Diehl

      You know that scientists only promote science that “confirms” their preconceived view of evolution, right? There are very few scientists today who practice true science. Many scientists will stop at nothing to produce evidence (almost always faulty) that contradicts the Biblical account of creation. Do some real research and you will discover that not only was the Biblical world-wide flood true, it is supported by true science.

      • Jeremy Shoulta

        I am very curious to see your sources – where can I find peer-reviewed, credible scientists who believe evolution is false and that there was a Biblical world-wide flood a few thousand years ago? I would also like you to back up your claim “very few scientists today practice true science.”

        Here’s the catch, though – your “scientists” can’t include folks like Ken Hamm, who has no acceptance or standing in the scientific community.

        • Jeremiah Diehl

          Well Ken Hamm is someone I certainly look up to. I believe Ken Hamm is right on the money with his teaching – but you reject him. That’s ok.
          I can’t substantiate my claims according to your criteria. I trust the Bible is true and I believe the Biblical creation account literally. I’m not interested in proving it. If Jesus is who He says He is then I trust He would know the truth about creation, so if we had it wrong then I’m certain He would have corrected us – However since Jesus affirms the creation story, and the events of Noah, I’m going to trust they were true. Not to mention that the entirety of the Bible hinges on those events being true. It all stands together or it all falls together.

          • Jeremy Shoulta

            Thank you for answering – while I disagree with your interpretation of scripture, I understand it as just that: a theological disagreement. I do not think the biblical writers wrote with any intent of scientific accuracy – science as we know it was not even on their radar. I just don’t see how people can say the Bible is a book of science.

            You confirmed to me in your post that your conclusions aren’t based in science, just as Ken Hamm’s conclusions aren’ science. He’ll even say that his “science” is based on his view of the Bible. By definition, he is not practicing science. He may have some sort of scientific degree and claim some sort of scientific authority, but in no way is he a scientist (or at least isn’t practicing it).

            If you think the Bible prevents you from believing the laws and theories of modern science, that’s OK, I just wish you wouldn’t cloak your interpretation of scripture as science, because it’s not.

          • Jeremiah Diehl

            Fair enough. I didn’t intend to use the Bible as a science book – in fact I said earlier in this comment section that “The Bible is not a science text book and the authors (I’m certain) had no interest in being geometrically correct. They had a more important message to impart.”
            Now although it is not a science handbook, I believe it is historically accurate and provable by science.
            Don’t be fooled into thinking that modern science is absolute or concrete. Even evolution is just a theory (and in my opinion it’s only support is found in that our understanding of science “evolves” on almost a daily basis.) Gravity also is just a theory – something keeps us held to this earth, but we don’t know what. There are many ideas, but none currently proven.
            Modern science would like us to believe that we’re so advanced and have all the answers, but we are not and we don’t. This is why they teach evolution in schools as fact (Their pride in assuming they are correct), even though it’s not a fact. This is where I have a problem – Scientists who support evolution only look for and promote evidence claims that favor evolution while tossing any evidence that support a Biblical creation or a Biblical flood to the side. Why would they do this? Because they’re already set that evolution is true and a Biblical flood is false (it would mean they’re wrong.) It would also mean starting over and rebuilding this model that they’ve already put so much effort into.
            I’m not claiming to know everything (Or anything) – I’m just choosing to trust that the Bible is historically accurate and true.

  • Matthew G. Zatkalik

    Sorry for such a mundane comment… Is there a number 29 for your list? Those anal people! Nonetheless, if it exists, please insert it in the list on your blog – I very much would like that, too.

  • Nick Hill


    Can you provide some quotes from these theologians that prove this point? “Despite claims to the contrary, B. B. Warfield, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine–along with Paul and Jesus–hold views of Scripture and used Scripture in ways that don’t line up with what inerrantists require of the Bible.Despite claims to the contrary, B. B. Warfield, John Calvin, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Augustine–along with Paul and Jesus–hold views of Scripture and used Scripture in ways that don’t line up with what inerrantists require of the Bible.”

    • peteenns

      Nick, I think anyone familiar with these Christian thinkers will understand. E.g., Warfield accepted some form of evolution, Luther’s view of the OT, Augustine’s understanding of Genesis 1, etc., etc. The issue is not offering “quotes.”

  • Gregory Peterson

    I dunno….I suspect that if could know that the Bible is inerrant, I would be God. Fortunately for me (I would be terrible at being God), that job is taken…apparently by President Mohler.

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  • Chuck Sigler

    In 1946, the Westminster Theological Seminary faculty published “The Infallible Word.” In 1988, the WTS faculty published “Inerrancy and Hermeneutic.” In the Preface to “Inerrancy and Hermeneutic,” the 1988 faculty authors affirmed again what the 1946 faculty authors wrote:
    “the fundamental issue is not that of the knowledge or even of the interpretation of details. It is rather the issue whether the total view of the world and of life which the Bible presents is true. To approach the Bible in terms of an antibiblical philosophy of reality is to transform the Bible into something quite at variance with what it purports to be. To approach it, however, in the perspective provided by its own Christian theistic philosophy is to acknowledge it at its face value. Unless this fundamental matter is recognized at all times in the modern debate, confusion and distortion must result.”
    Has the debate here forgotten “the fundamental issue”?

  • Adam Shields

    The “if it were good enough for Jesus” argument drives me nuts! My pastor drops it into his sermons about six or eight times a year for a laugh and never actually addresses it.

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  • Ludwig

    Hi Peter Ennes,

    I was looking for the “Flat earth” bit and must have missed it between all the other “inerrancy” infallibility discussions? Can you perhaps help me by emailing me the part regarding the flat earth?
    What is your opinion? Flat earth or not?

    Is the earth the center of our solar system, galaxy or the universe?

    Would you like to know all the parts of the Bible that contradicts itself?
    The Bible gives two different fathers for Joseph, the husband of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.
    The Bible gives two different sons of King David as the linage to this same Joseph.
    The Bible gives two different numbers of generations from King David to Joseph.
    These are just on the Linage of Joseph.

    The same “inerrancy” infallibility can be found on all aspects of Jesus, From his birth to his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension and all other major events in-between.

    I can supply actual scriptures if interested in this aspect regarding the Bible.


  • Morgan Guyton

    Here’s the conflation that I see being made. Inerrancy is about the sovereignty of the interpreter, not the sovereignty of God. It’s really a populist position rather than a conservative one because its main concern is affirming an absolute perspicuity of the text.

  • Rebecca

    Gosh you men make it difficult for yourselves…..I don’t understand why you can’t just get on with living the best you can and take it simply…does all this heated discussion really help anyone see Jesus as it seem we are in danger of being like the Pharasees and missing the point

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  • Kohl

    Prof. Enns, another great post. Having gained degrees from evangelical institutions along side of a an Ivy divinity school I know exactly what you’re up to, commend you for it, and pray your service suceeds and that new Protestant theologies as intensive as the old ones will be produced that account for Scripture as tradition and take seriously the challenge of history (both of religious development and of the canon).

  • Steve Ranney

    I was wondering about the audience present at the panel discussion – One benefit that I experienced is that in these type of discussions people can find out about other options. It looks like Enns and Sparks were mentioned, for instance. Someone in the audience might decide to read a book by one of these guys, especially if he or she is put off by the arrogance of the presenters. And some people are siloed in their institutions and don’t have a chance to hear of such writers by other means. It happened to me that way at least.

  • jesuswithoutbaggage

    Peter, I just read this post today as it was written before I started following your blog. It is very good; one of the favorite blogs I have read this week!

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