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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  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I remember attending an ETS conference in Atlanta where N.T. Wright was sort of headlining, and in one session, an audience member asked him if he held to biblical inerrancy, and his response was basically, “That’s an American thing. I’m from the UK and we don’t have that debate, there.”

    It reminded me of an episode from David Wilson’s book Ireland, a Bicycle, and a Tin Whistle where some locals approach him and ask him if he’s Protestant or Catholic, and he says he’s from Canada and they don’t have Protestants and Catholics there.

    As for the issue of inerrancy itself (since I am American and we do have this debate here), I think, like many evangelical distinctives, it’s become more of a tribal identifier than anything actually functional. You can even see this in more contemporary statements of faith that state that the Bible is inerrant “in the original documents.” Basically, this is owning up to the fact that any Bible that anyone actually has is not inerrant, but you still have to belong to “the tribe” by affirming inerrancy in the Bible’s hidden, primordial origins.

    I appreciate that people are trying to be a little more inclusive in changing their statements of faith to language like that, but at the same time, it seems to me like just a straight up declaration that inerrancy means nothing practically speaking. So, why even have it in there at all?

  • TinnyWhistler


    I really really hate the post-modern boogeyman. I can try to talk to my mom about various things in the Bible and she will engage for a bit and even agree with me on the importance of scary things like historical context, but as soon as we try to interpret anything that might lead to a conflict with her views (Talking about women cutting their hair is fine, talking about women being ordained is less fine…for whatever reason.) we’re back to “don’t be led astray by the World telling you that Absolute Truth doesn’t exist” which means the conversation’s over because it won’t go anywhere after that.

  • ChevalBlanc

    “Talking about women cutting their hair is fine, talking about women being ordained is less fine…for whatever reason.”

    Well, because she attended services where some mortal human being said female clergy are a horrible, very bad thing that is forbidden. The preacher’s wife had a layered bob, so haircuts must be ok. Stylish hair, polyester blends, and not putting disobedient children to death are moot because “new covenant.”

    Anti-gay stuff and anything sexist in the Old Testament are what Jesus meant when he talked about not coming to destroy the law. We know this because…um, well because…clearly…uh…hmmm…
    Oh yeah. Now I remember why. “New covenant” is for inconvenient old laws. “Not come to destroy” for when the old law feels good. /s

  • ChevalBlanc

    I realize you are using the academic “modern” here, but the colloquial modern also works. As I’m sure you know, early Christian theologians did not treat Genesis as a history book and biology text all rolled into one. Although I can’t say whether they believed in inerrancy, they most certainly did not believe in a definition of inerrancy that is nearly synonymous with literalism (e.g. Augustine and Aquinas). And that was well before the Enlightenment.

    Did the lower classes likely have a less nuanced, fairly literal understanding of the Bible throughout much of European history? Probably, since education for all is a recent phenomenon, and the average person was illiterate in the past. What’s relatively new (i.e. colloquially modern) is a large population of educated, literate people reading the Bible as a factual record of events starting with creation. Also, unlike a serf living centuries ago, 21st century fundamentalists believe this in spite of overwhelming evidence contradicting a 6000 yr old earth.

  • TinnyWhistler

    Nah, I think it’s more because she didn’t like one of the (female) pastors at a church we went to for a few years when I was little! She seems to believe that if power corrupts, power corrupts women instantly and men slowly. It’s an attitude not just limited to church leadership. The boogeyman just makes it impossible to have a real conversation about it.

  • ChevalBlanc

    My grandma was a bit like that. In some ways she was less traditional than many women her age, but she had an aversion to female doctors. It wasn’t that she thought women shouldn’t be doctors, and I’m sure she’d have been thrilled if I’d gone to med school. Nonetheless, she was not going to see a female MD. Period.