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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  • Leslie

    I was sad not to be able to go to ETS this year, but am encouraged by your post. For my part, I’m OK with the word inerrancy because I know what I mean when I say it, but there are those with whom I speak who assume that the word refers to their particular interpretation. When they find out I actually don’t agree with their interpretation, then they accuse me of not being an inerrantist.

    I have started leaning toward “authoritative,” because it doesn’t carry so much baggage, but I get flack for that too.

    I’d move to Australia, but I’m afraid of the Common Brown Snake 🙂

  • Jim

    I continue to be struck by the fact that to say that “Scripture is inerrant” is a negative claim, more or less equivalent to “Scripture is not false.” It doesn’t solve any problems to do so; nonetheless, I think it’s better to claim “Scripture is true.” How did this primary claim of the ETS become a negative, defensive claim? (Well, I know, historically, how this happened; but it seems unfortunate.)

  • Andrew

    Why Is It That Those Proclaiming The Primacy Of Scripture Continue To Use Nonbiblical Language to Describe Scripture? Inerrancy Is Merely A Fundamentalist Creation To Prop Up The Bible. If The Bible Is Inerrant, Then Why Isn’t The Biblical Language Sufficient?

    • Kyle

      Andrew isn’t that like asking why those proclaiming the Trinity continue to use nonbiblical language to describe God. We use extrabiblical language to clarify our meaning when the biblical language is what is being contested.

      Secondly, it is probably better to say that fundamentalists are propped up by the Bible than to say that they are propping it up. They are very clear that the Bible is their utmost authority, so without it, and without believing it is true, their way of doing things logically melts away.

      Thirdly, the Bible’s innerancy has nothing to do with why biblical language is not sufficient for the debate. As said before, when the meaning of biblical words is at stake, we use extrabiblical words.

  • Saint and Sinner

    Dr. Bird-

    Let’s say that you came across a professing Christian who said that they believe in inerrancy. However, they also believe that Christ’s resurrection never historically happened, and all references to it in the NT are “midrash.”

    Would you allow such a person into the ETS?

    Would you even deem that person orthodox?

    I know that this is an extreme example, but the difference between such a person and Dr. Gundry is one of [a large] degree but not of kind.

    • Joshua Wooden

      This was an interesting concept, and one I hadn’t considered myself. Thank you for bringing it up.

      A difference of degree, and not of kind, however, makes a considerable difference in the debate at hand, though, no?

      Moreover, I think the problem that I am having with Dr. Mohler in this regard, is not only what he says, but his entire approach to the debate from the get-go. He does not demonstrate that the Bible does not contain midrash through sustained argument (I may be wrong in this regard, but I have not read such an argument, and to my knowledge, no such argument exists). Instead he asserts outright that the Bible cannot contain midrash, and then works backwards from that presupposition.

      In other words, he doesn’t prove that midrash isn’t contained in scripture – he denies from the outset that it could, and kills the discussion before it can be had.

      Such an approach seem common for Dr. Mohler, based on other things I have read by him on his blog and elsewhere. He draws a line in the sand and says that something is not possible without proving something to be false. He does not lack clarity – a quality in a good, strong leader (and I admire him for it), but this sometimes comes at the cost of nuanced, critical engagement.

      This brings me to your question. I don’t know how Mike would respond, but if someone were to suggest to me that the resurrection was midrash, I would ask that person, “Do you even know what midrash is?”

  • Kyle

    Dr. Bird have you really tried to answer the question “why are Americans so obsessed with inerrancy?” It seems that question gets a lot of traction from anti-americanism that is ironically very prominent within America. Some scholars have suggested that Americans can be the most self-deprecating of cultures.

    Here are a couple reasons why Americans might be obsessed with inerrancy
    – A lot of people have claimed that the Bible is false in what it affirms. People have noticed that if the Bible is false in what it affirms, that makes it seemingly impossible to believe it was inspired by a truthful God. These debates came up prominently in American mainline denominations in the early twentieth century and caused something of an exodus to American fundamentalist churches. Fundamentalist churches have thrived in the twentieth century compared with their counterparts. Therefore many American Christians hold this as a foundational doctrine for their life and practice.
    – They aren’t. Headlines, conferences, and the internet make it seem like people are obsessed with something when they are not. You could say willy nilly that American Christians are “obsessed” with community, individualism, video games, sports, inerrancy, missions, pastoral care, social justice. We are acting and talking beings – just because in the course of 300 million people things get brought up a lot, it doesn’t mean we are obsessed with them.