Reflections on ETS and the Conference Theme of Inerrancy

Reflections on ETS and the Conference Theme of Inerrancy November 29, 2013

I had a wonderful time at ETS/IBR/SBL in Baltimore. Many highlights for me, but I thought I’d reflect on the conference theme of ETS.

The panel discussion on the book Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy was an absolute hoot! Sadly, Kevin Vanhoozer couldn’t be there, but he gave a pre-recorded video presentation. It was left to Al Mohler, Peter Enns, John Franke, and myself  to strike up a conversation. Mohler argued for a robust and specifically defined view of inerrancy as an essential aspect of evangelical identity. Enns contended that no version of inerrancy can survive contact with the phenomenon of scripture, at least not in terms of what some inerrantists want inerrancy to achieve. Franke asserted that inerrancy has to make sense missiologically and be refracted through the plurality of the churches. My own view was that inerrancy is just not where the party is at for global evangelicals even though we retain a high view of scripture and the CSBI does have a few contestable points. I was gratified by folks from places as diverse as Romania and India coming up to me and affirming my point, saying, “Why are Americans so obsessed with inerrancy?”

Interestingly enough, I found myself able to affirm much of what Mohler said and had many of my concerns assuaged by him. I agree with Mohler that scripture is true and trustworthy. When Scripture speaks, God speaks. We want people in our churches to have confidense in scripture as the revealed Word of God. To that I would add that if people ever come away from a sermon or class I teach asking, “Has God really said …?” then I’ve failed as an evangelical theologian. Mohler recognized the diversity of genres in scripture and the diverse contexts throughout the world in which the doctrine of scripture is unpacked and he recognized the situatedness of much of the inerrancy discussion in the USA.

The whole discussion was going well, very gentlemanly, until some idiot asked, “Since evangelicals are a more comfortable with biblical criticism these days, why don’t we reinstate Bob Gundry ” Bob Gundry was dismissed 30 years ago for his views about midrash and Matthew (NB: the idiot who suggested it was me). Mohler responded with an emphatic “no,” because a commitments to inerrancy requires “a commitment to certain methodologies.” To which I responded, “Which methodologies and who decides?” My complaint has always been that many inerrantists preach the inerrancy of the text but practice the inerrancy of their interpretation. In other words, inerrancy is not just about scripture, but about setting up fence posts against certain interpretations of scripture.

Interestingly enough, D.A. Carson’s plenary paper said much the same thing. Carson said that inerrancy cannot be used as a “scalpel” to determine which interpretations are out of bounds! To which someone beside me muttered, “Then where is Bob?” In which case, a juxtaposition of Mohler and Carson makes it clear that there is no single doctrine of inerrancy dominant within the ETS. It is better to speak of inerrancies in the plural. So I am left wondering now, “Who’s version of inerrancy do I have to subscribe to to be a member of ETS? Mohler’s or Carson’s.” I’m not saying that they are world’s apart, they are not, but on some matters they clearly diverge.

Interesting also was that Timothy George spoke at the Beeson Breakfast. George was asked if he was committed to the word “inerrancy.” George said “no,” because “any intelligent person can say the same thing in different ways.” For case in point is the Beeson Divinity School doctrinal statement which does not use the word “inerrancy.”

Robert Yarbrough’s Presidential address was also a highlight. I got a few nice mention in despatches. Yarbrough gave reason for optimism concerning the longevity of an evangelical doctrine of inerrancy, one strengthened by his mission experiences in Romania and the Sudan where even those outside of America have a “believing reverence” for the Bible.

Finally, Crossway Publishers was generously giving away copies of the book Quo Vadis Evangelicalism? which provides the text of several past ETS presidential addresses. I read with interest the 1978 address by Stan Gundry, including this comment:

Important as it is, though, the discussion of inerrancy should not be allowed to become the preoccupation of evangelical theology. Theology is more than prolegomena. Our theological task is to move beyond and build on that theological foundation. If we do not do this, in a few years, we will discover that our work has only been an eddy in the ongoing stream of discussion in our time. We have may won the battle (over inerrancy) but have lost the war (the construction of a biblically-based evangelical theology addressing the issues of our time). I make a special point of this, because in the past we have been prone to this kind of narrow focus. It is important that a building have a foundation; but what value is a foundation with no adequate structure atop it.


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