Clint Arnold on Inerrancy

Clint Arnold on Inerrancy December 16, 2013

Over at The Good Book Blog, Clinton Arnold (Talbot) reflects on the ETS discussion on inerrancy.

In the post, he majors on two apparent themes from Bob Yarbough’s presentation:

In the paper, he effectively dismantled two of the oft-heard objections to the doctrine of inerrancy: (1) that it is a recent development associated with the Fundamentalist movement, and (2) that it is a North American development and out of touch with the convictions of the rest of the world. I want to share a few of Professor Yarbrough’s comments along with some of my own.

Arnold goes on to state:

I have often heard it said that the doctrine of inerrancy is a distinctively North American construct and that it does not reflect the convictions of the global church. This appears to be the drift of Michael Bird’s recent essay, “Inerrancy Is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA” in a just-published book entitled, Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan, 2013). Bird appears to be more concerned about some of the ways that inerrancy is defined and articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (click here to see it) than by the concept of inerrancy itself. Of course, if Augustine’s view of the Scripture did indeed reflect the convictions of the church throughout history, then inerrancy was by no means a North American pheonomenon and Bird’s concern is at least partly resolved.

I need to say two things in response:

First, just to be clear, I never said that “inerrancy” as a concept was only invented in the nineteenth century and in America.  I was very specific in the language I used. I said that the American inerrancy tradition (AIT) is both a retrieval of Catholic and Reformed doctrines, but also a reaction against liberal trends in North America. So it has degrees of catholicity and contingency. Christians in all ages and in all places believe that God’s word is true and trustworthy even if they have used different expressions to say so. However, there definitely are contingent elements to the AIT pertaining to both its formulation and usage in America. For instance, only an American theological society would make inerrancy one of only two articles of faith that members would have to affirm. Only Americans use the guise of inerrancy to take punitive action at interpretations that don’t match the conservative proclivities of tribal leaders (think here of the controversies surrounding Bob Gundry and Mike Licona). Only Americans would launch civil wars over those who use the word “infallible” over those who use “inerrant.” What is more, outside of America, almost no English language statements of faith use the word “inerrancy.”  Thus, inerrancy is defined and utilized in ways that are overwhelming specific to the American context. I’m not saying that there is necessarily bad, but I just want to say it. So there cannot be any doubt that inerrancy does have a kind of American feel about it, in fact Vanhoozer and Mohler even agreed with me on this point! Now I think I can agree when Arnold when says: “My own contact with believers from around the world would confirm the observations made by Yarbrough and Park. Believers in Asia, Africa, India, and around the world tend to have a very high view of Scripture that corresponds in large measure to what we call a doctrine of inerrancy.” I broadly concur. So while believers around the world have, as Yarbrough rightly notes, “a believing reverence for the Bible,” which is analogous to what Americans evangelicals mean by inerrancy, it is not always strictly the same, or meeting the same concerns.

Second, Arnold appeals to Augustine as a proponent of inerrancy, and thus secures inerrancy’s place as a historical doctrine. In part that is true, as theologians like Augustine and Eusebius, to name but two, did hold to something that I think approximates to the AIT.  But again, we can’t deny the differences either, and they are not insignificant. Augustine had a neo-platonic framework, he believed that God inspired the LXX including the apocrypha, he did allegorical exegesis and refused to take the Genesis creation stories literally, yet he also did some often crass harmonizing of the Gospels. My point is that while Augustine is in many ways similar to the AIT at the same time there are some major differences, so much so that Augustine would be unable to sign the CSBI or CSBH.

I hope I don’t come across as too pedantic, I’m trying to nuance rather than deny what Arnold is saying. American evangelicals, just like evangelicals all around the world, believe in the truthfulness of scripture and its infallible nature. I just want recognition of the somewhat indigenized process that inerrancy has gone through in conservative theological circles in the USA.

Arnold concludes: “At Talbot, we believe that the Bible is the very word of God that is life-giving and life-changing.” To which I say, “Amen.”

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  • Nick Peters

    Good piece. As one who was deeply involved in defending Mike in the Licona case, it has been an eye opener to the damage that making Inerrancy the foundation can do. I hope the evangelical world takes highly seriously the work of Brent Sandy and John Walton in “The Lost World of Scripture.” It’s my contention that we need a new statement on Inerrancy in light of new information.