Whenever I write something critical of the relatively recent dogma of “biblical inerrancy,” someone always responds by insisting that Christians have been reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years.
That’s not true. It’s not possible.
Christians haven’t been reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years, because for most of the last 2,000 years, most Christians weren’t reading the Bible at all.
For the first of those 20 centuries, Christians weren’t reading the New Testament because it was still being written. Even 1,900 years ago, many of the texts we refer to as the New Testament were still a work in progress.
It took another 200 years after that for those texts to be collected into anything like a formal canon. That only came about after Emperor Constantine made Christianity Rome’s official religion. The next step, then, was to translate the Bible into Latin so that every Roman-therefore-newly-Christian could read it. Jerome didn’t finish that project until 405.
At that point — 1,600 years ago — it might finally have become possible for Christians to start reading the Bible in the same way that white evangelical inerrantists read it today, but that’s not how they read the Bible. Take a look at Augustine or any of the other early church writers from the first five centuries of Christianity and you’ll find all kinds of approaches to the text — wildly inventive allegorical schemes, symbolism, reinterpretations of the New Testament almost as radical as the NT authors’ reinterpretations of the OT — that would give contemporary defenders of “biblical inerrancy” the howling fantods.
Well, then, what about after Augustine? How did Christians read the Bible in the next several centuries?
They didn’t. Not most of them, anyway. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476 and literacy in western Europe collapsed right along with it. During the Dark Ages, books were hard to come by, and people who could read and understand them were too. Christians were reading the Bible during those many long centuries, but not most Christians. It was read by, and within, the church. The prevailing hermeneutic, in other words, was nothing like the individualistic, face-value literalism that characterizes the approach of modern inerrantists. The prevailing hermeneutic was to interpret the Bible as meaning what the church says it means.
The majority of Christians during those centuries didn’t read the Bible at all, lacking both the ability and the opportunity to do so. They heard bits of the Bible read to them — in Latin, which they may not have understood — and they learned a lot of biblical lore from songs, statuary, pageants and plays. That was mixed in, of course, with a lot of other lore that was likely regarded as biblical, even though it came instead from, say, the Gospel of Nicodemas or the Vision of Tundale.
The big changes didn’t come until more than 1,000 years after St. Jerome finished his Latin translation. The biggest change didn’t have anything to do with the church itself. The biggest change was technological — the invention of the printing press and the publication of the Gutenberg Bible in 1454.
Another big change came with first the Geneva Bible and then the King James Version in 1611 — more than a century after Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, these made English translations of the Bible widely available for the first time. And thus, for the first time in the English-speaking world, it became possible to begin reading the Bible the way that proponents of “inerrancy” read it today.
So if we can’t say that most Christians have been reading the Bible this way for 2,000 years, can we at least say that some Christians have been reading the Bible this way for 400 years?
Yes, I think that’s fair. I think the same hermeneutic now championed by Al Mohler’s Southern Baptist faction and by things like the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” first began to take shape about 400 years ago.
And here’s a brief timeline of some of that theological development:
1607: Jamestown founded in Virginia.
1611: King James Bible published.
1619: First 20 Africans sold into slavery in Jamestown.
1620: Plymouth Bay Colony founded in Massachusetts.
1636: The Desire, the first North American slave ship, built and launched in Massachusetts.
1643: Plymouth adopts a fugitive slave law.
1657: Virginia adopts a fugitive slave law.
1661: King Charles II of England calls for the Christian conversion of African slaves.
1667: Virginia passes law saying that slaves who convert to Christianity will remain slaves.
From there on it’s just a matter of filling in the details.
The shape of contemporary white evangelicalism — including the way it reads and interprets and wields the Bible — flows from that. That’s where the argument began and that’s where the argument remains.