The hallmark of modern Christian fundamentalism is an unwavering adherence to the notion of Biblical inerrancy. In its most extreme forms, belief in the inerrancy of the Bible stifles inquiry, perpetuates ignorance and glorifies dogmatism.
A prime example of the head-in-the-sand attitude that inerrancy engenders can be found in Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler’s contribution to Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan).
Contributors to the book were asked to deal with several biblical texts that seemingly stand at odds with inerrancy. One of those texts is Joshua 6, about which the editors write:
We chose Joshua 6, since current archaeological and historiographical evidence calls into question the details of the text’s account … we wanted to see how Joshua 6 could still function as Scripture without being factually correct.
Joshua 6 contains the famous story of Joshua and the battle of Jericho: “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumblin’ down.” The problem this passages poses to inerrancy is summarized by Douglas King and Amy-Jill Levine in The Meaning of The Bible (HarperOne):
Archaeologists have long tested the evidence for the sweeping military campaign portrayed in the book of Joshua, and their results are not encouraging for a Late Bronze Age setting, sometime after Ramesses II during the 13th century BCE. The famed battle of Jericho cannot have happened, as no city and no walls existed at that time. They were destroyed several centuries earlier. The same is true of Ai, to which two chapters in the book of Joshua (7-8) are devoted. There is no evidence of a Late Bronze Age city or its destruction. At most, there may have been small, insignificant settlements, but no fortification walls at either site in the general period around 1200 BCE.
The contributors to Five Views deal with Joshua 6 in a variety of ways, some of which are more tenable than others, but the view I find most troubling is Mohler’s, who, in representing the so-called “Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy,” states:
Archaeologists will disagree among themselves. I am not an archaeologist, and I am not qualified to render any adequate archaeological argument. The point is that I do not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness of any text in all that the text asserts and claims.
This understanding of the Bible not only reveals the dangers of inerrancy, but also the absurd reasoning that informs fundamentalist Christianity. In Mohler’s understanding of the world, no evidence can ever be “allowed” to challenge his understanding of the Bible. Not only has he appointed himself the arbiter of Biblical truth, boldly defending the walls of orthodoxy, he has also elevated a written text above our God-given ability to relate to the world through reason and experience.
Find a fossil that’s a million years old? Mohler won’t allow it to point towards the existence of an old Earth. Discover that Jericho was virtually uninhabited when Israel supposedly conquered it? Mohler won’t allow it to contradict Joshua 6. Become aware of any fact that threatens Mohler’s stranglehold on Christianity? He’ll simply tighten his grip on the Bible.
For a fundamentalist, it doesn’t matter if you’re an archaeologist or a scientist or an expert of any sort. Higher education, specialized knowledge and careful study of our world — a world created by God — are completely irrelevant when it comes to Scripture: the Bible said it, we must believe it, that settles it.
Ultimately, what I find so troubling about Mohler’s position regarding inerrancy is not the belief itself, but rather the absolutism with which he maintains it. When one eschews doxastic responsibility in favor of unassailable fideism, truth no longer matters. We might as well proclaim “What is truth?” wash our hands of responsibility, and put to death the minds God has given us.
The answer to challenges against inerrancy, such as that found in Joshua 6, is not to simply ignore the evidence. The answer — or at least the path towards an answer — is to carefully and critically examine one’s presuppositions and biases, and to humbly and graciously learn from all the evidence available, whether it is found in the pages of the Bible or in the world around us.
Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.