The Irrelevancy of Inerrancy

The Irrelevancy of Inerrancy August 7, 2018

The Maginot Line was a series of fortifications built by the French after World War I.  Its purpose was to prevent or slow down another attack and invasion by Germany.  We all know how that turned out.  Rather than come directly at these fortifications, which probably were impregnable and almost indestructible, the Germans simply went around them.

The Maginot Line was constructed to fight the last war, to address past strategies and threats.  I think the belief in an inerrant Bible is much like a Maginot Line of sorts.  It was something constructed by those who felt under threat, who felt their world was being invaded by hostile actors.  And like with the historical Line, it has been bypassed, over-run, and the conversation has advanced far past whatever ground it was supposed to hold or protect.

I am not bothered much by its failure.  I remember when the belief in inerrancy was (is still?) weaponized and used more as a blunt object than it was for anything constructive.  I saw it used as something to target, put down, terminate employment, quiet, and shun people.  In my experience, it has left a lot of damage in its wake.  I shed no tears over its diminishing pertinence or relevance.

Inerrancy is mostly irrelevant due to the modern/post-modern divide.  Inerrancy was a way of defending the authority of scripture, when we all thought we had to play by the rules of modernity.  It was an unconscious acceptance of the modern as the reigning narrative.  Those the most invested in inerrancy never seemed to notice their capitulation to the modern rationalist mindset, even mistaking it for “historic” or “ancient” Christian understandings.

Merold Westphal gets to much of this in his wonderful little book entitled, “Whose Community? Which Interpretation,” with the sub-title of, “Philosophical Hermeneutics for the Church.”  In the very first chapter he speaks of naïve realism and truth as correspondence.  These are two of the hallmarks of modernity.  They both touch on epistemology and hermeneutics.

When we consider the Chicago Statement and other articulations of inerrancy, we can see the underlying commitment to both these hallmarks.  Bound up in naïve realism is the idea of “common sense.”  An object or a text is no more than it appears to be—what does our “common sense” tell us about it?  This should allow us all to “see” or interpret this object or text the same.  Westphal writes:

“Common sense…does claim to ‘just see’ its objects, free of bias, prejudice, and presuppositions (at least sometimes).  We can call this ‘just seeing’ intuition.  When the naïve-realist view of knowledge and understanding is applied to reading texts, such as the Bible, it becomes the claim that we can ‘just see’ what the text means, that intuition can and should be all we need.  In other words, ‘no interpretation needed.’  The object, in this case the meaning of the text, presents itself clearly and directly to my reading.  To interpret would be to interject some subjective bias or prejudice (pre-judgment) into the process.  Thus the response, ‘Well, that might be your interpretation, but my Bible clearly says…’  In other words, ‘You interpret (and thereby misunderstand), but I intuit, seeing directly, clearly, and without distortion.’” (Pg. 20)

Naïve realism, Westphal goes on to note, is maintained to preserve truth as correspondence.  These are complex terms and I would recommend one research them thoroughly; a single blog post cannot do either justice.  However, one should not claim inerrancy or spend much time defending it unless one is familiar with these terms (naïve realism, realism in general, and truth as correspondence) and the arguments for and against.

Westphal asks the critical question: “Why seek to avoid interpretation?”  And, he suggests one reason that, out of generosity of spirit I would guess, we should dismiss:

“Let us turn to the question of motivation.  Why would anyone want to hold to a hermeneutical version of naïve realism?  Let us dismiss (but not too quickly) the suspicion that this view is attractive because it makes it easy to say: ‘I am (we are) right, and all who disagree are wrong…’” (Pg. 20)

I love the qualifier we should not dismiss the reason, “too quickly.”  One has to wonder if inerrancy isn’t so much about protecting and defending the Bible (which needs protecting about as much as a lion might against a mouse), as it is protecting and defending personal or tribal interpretations.  We want to be able to say: “You are not just disagreeing with me—you are disagreeing with the Bible and thus God.”

The Chicago Statement was put out in 1978.  The conversation regarding the post-modern (which is not the bogey-man many conservatives make it out to be) and how it applies to hermeneutics, the related issues raised by Heidegger, Gadamer, Ricoeur, as treated by many scholars, and the more recent work of many evangelicals (Clark Pinnock, Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, Kevin Vanhoozer, Andrew McGowan, Stanley Grenz—and more) have all moved the conversation well past 1978.

Inerrancy is just one more area where fundamentalists and many evangelicals are simply too modernN.T. Wright sums up the problem nicely:

“My book on scripture’s authority, Scripture and the Authority of God, makes clear where I stand. I take the whole of scripture utterly seriously, and I regret that many who call themselves “inerrantists” manage to avoid the real challenge at its heart, that is, Jesus’ announcing that in and through his work God really was ‘becoming king’ over the world in a whole new way. So I don’t call myself an “inerrantist” (a) because that word means what it means within a modernist rationalism, which I reject and (b) because it seems to me to have failed in delivering a full-blooded reading and living of what the Bible actually says. It may have had a limited usefulness as a label against certain types of ‘modernist’ denial, but it buys into at least half of the rationalist worldview which was the real problem all along.”

All this and more has made inerrancy, in my view, irrelevant to current theological and philosophical conversations regarding hermeneutics and epistemology.  In my opinion, inerrancy should be seen, like the Maginot Line, as a historical footnote bearing witness to the futility of building defensive constructs based upon the last war and even, in this case, using the same philosophical building materials as the very opponents they feared.

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