Is Inerrancy a Game Only Played by American Evangelicals?

Is Inerrancy a Game Only Played by American Evangelicals? August 11, 2014

Screen Shot 2013-11-03 at 1.54.08 PMAmerica exports its goods giving it a worldwide influence, including its sports — basketball and (American) football and baseball. Of course baseball is played elsewhere, and baseball in the Dominican is special, but these are American-shaped sports. But would a Dominican say baseball is an American sport? (Not on your life.)

Is inerrancy a game American evangelicals play? Mike Bird, in his essay “Inerrancy is not necessary for evangelicalism outside the USA” in the book Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy, thinks so. It is fashionable for Europeans and Australians to take shots at all things American, it is a safe critique, it is politically correct, it is sometimes right, but on this one Bird’s claim distracts from the reality: Bird’s view of Scripture is how many, if not most, American theologians understand inerrancy. Bird affirms the more generous theory of inerrancy held by many in America but equates a rigid view with the American view. I understand why he does so, and I tend to agree with him, but I also know of a more generous inerrancy (American) tradition.

Now an opening claim from me: Many prefer “infallibility” for social reasons. To claim “inerrancy” means you are connected to “those guys” and “that group” while “infallibility” has much less of a social profile. Those who are most concerned about affirming “inerrancy” are, in other words, fundamentalists while those who use “infallible” are more generous evangelicals. I confirm then much of Bird’s big problem: this term is connected to a group, to a method, to a profile that problematizes the term.

His opening salvo:

… the American inerrancy tradition, though largely a positive concept, is essentially modernist in construct, parochially American in context, and occasionally creates more exegetical problems than it solves (145).

It is odd then that the single-biggest critic of inerrancy and fundamentalism in the 20th Century was a Scotsman, James Barr, and his target was J.I. Packer, an Englishman, and much of what he was after he learned on English soil. I’m not saying that Bird’s got it all wrong; I’m saying that there are variants on what inerrancy means but the core idea is not American. It is historic in origins — the Bible is altogether true — yet articulated in various contexts in response to various threats, and here the American fundamentalism tradition has an important role to play as it was a response to the invasion of Germany’s historical critical method in American universities and seminaries.

More positively, Bird says outside the USA (and plenty in the USA and Canada, too) the words “infallible” and “authority” are the operative words. If we limit the idea of inerrancy to the term, Bird’s spot on; if we don’t, there’s a bigger story to tell.

It should also be observed that many branches of American evangelicalism also get along fine without inerrancy. American evangelicalism, in fact, is quite diverse — theologically and politically. There is a kind of American evangelicalism with a kind of American inerrancy that Bird himself affirms in this essay, and there are plenty who have a view that Bird finds problematic.

Once again, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the articulation of inerrancy that he analyzes.

1. CSBI has a “defective view of the genre of the biblical creation and its relationship to scientific models” (147). He thinks it may be too committed to a seven day creation theory and a young earth theory. Bird may have numbers on his side but CSBI’s “teaching of Scripture” would permit some wiggle room to discern what that teaching might be. John Walton, I suspect, can sign on to CSBI here. And some signers of CSBI did not affirm the 7 day young earth theory.

2. Biblical veracity hinges on harmonizing discrepancies. Yes yes yes, for some, but not all, and this has been part of the debate. A more genre-specification kind of inerrancy, which permits genre to determine truth claim, and a kind of generic assumption that all things that sound like history are in fact history.

3. A revisionist view of the history of the church’s understanding of bibliology permits CSBI to think the great tradition affirms inerrancy. Bird is right, in part. Yes, the term is not been in use until much later; but is the fundamental idea that all of the Bible is true and none of it wrong, when interpreted properly, been a part of the church’s great tradition? And when it arose was it only the more rigid type?

The autographs issue is a “red herring.” Bird finds the authority in the received text of the church (151). On this Bird courageously challenges a major platform that many inerrantists affirm: the autographs are the inerrant text, not necessarily the manuscripts we have. We don’t have the autographs, and only an approximation, so therefore we don’t have the inerrant text. That’s the logic that must be heard. He sees the solution in seeing inspiration as extending to the process of preservation so that God still speaks. This reminds me of Brevard Childs on the textual tradition.

4. There is theological colonialism at work in inerrancy theology. Churches that are evangelical and orthodox around the world have always had a high view of Scripture and have not affirmed inerrancy; instead, they are closer to infallibility. The Int Council on Biblical Inerrancy is too North American, though he acknowledges Packer, John Wenham, and Roger Nicole.

He thinks Lausanne might be more representative, but I don’t know why he says that. Here is Lausanne — inerrancy is right there:

We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. We also affirm the power of God’s word to accomplish his purpose of salvation. The message of the Bible is addressed to all men and women. For God’s revelation in Christ and in Scripture is unchangeable. Through it the Holy Spirit still speaks today. He illumines the minds of God’s people in every culture to perceive its truth freshly through their own eyes and thus discloses to the whole Church ever more of the many-colored wisdom of God.

He pushes against Greg Beale as an example of paternalism. Then he takes silly pot shots at gun control, environmental care and universal health care — and Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind series.

5. Theological deduction is at work from God (perfection) to Scripture (perfection) but the text must be considered first. CSBI is American — Yes, Mike Bird, it was and is. The issue, once again, is not if it is American but if it is biblical.

6. He pushes to Carl Henry and Millard Erickson on their more deductive approaches: God, inspiration, Scripture’s inerrancy. I agree: Henry’s inerrancy theory was very deductive.

Bird begins to open up his own windows: God’s Word is true in God’s intent for it (this is Vanhoozerian). And I agree: the Bible’s focus is truth, not the term “inerrancy.” Bird then says the Bible accommodates but “never a capitulation to error” (and now we have what he calls an American version of inerrancy).

But Bird backs off a bit to say that there are “bits of Scripture… that do not agree in their precise details” (160). Bird is right in saying that proving historicity is too big of a game to play and too many inerrantists have claimed that is part of the inerrancy game. He’s right. At this point I see Bird moving into a generous inerrancy but he prefers the term infallibility. In my years at TEDS I routinely heard critique of the rigid view of inerrancy and a plea for a more generous theory, though the option was not the term infallibility.

Bird helps by showing how major groups — Anglican 39 Articles, Presbyterians Westminster, et al — have used other terms, like infallibility and truth and authority. That he uses TEDS statement illustrates a penchant: in requiring the term inerrancy to be present he assumes its absence means something other than inerrancy. I can tell you as a former prof that TEDS understood its statement to be about inerrancy with its “complete truthfulness.” The term may be a latecomer but the idea is present in each of these statements. This is a bit like saying the NT doesn’t believe in the Trinity because the term is not present.

Bird prefers “infallible” because, he urges, it has more to do with intent than with proving historical reliability. (I think that is a fair summarizing statement.) This is where Bird’s infallibility is actually different than the rigid view of inerrancy: if one pushes for intent and purpose, which is actually CSBI’s Article 13, then the rigid view has to open up some. A purpose- and genre-driven inerrancy, what I have called here a generous inerrancy, is much on the order of Bird’s infallibility.

There is a near absence of an ecclesiology in this essay, as was the case also with Mohler and Enns. Bird puts the doctrine of Scripture between Spirit and church, but I don’t think that is possible: it was the Spirit-shaped community that wrote the Scripture while that same Scripture spoke over against the church (perhaps that is why he puts it between Spirit and church).

I like this word of Bird: “I trust God the Father, I trust his Son, the Spirit leads me to that truth, so I trust God’s Holy Book” (165). This is not unlike NT Wright’s understanding of the authority of Scripture as the authority of God first.

Now to the test cases:

1. Jericho. Dating problems, the conquest was smaller than is often thought … the “jury will always be out” (167). Again, Bird sounds like American inerrantists on this one. An infallibilist is concerned with divine intent more than historical reliability.

2. Acts 9:7 and 22:9: now he sounds like an infallibilist. It’s about the “gist of events” (168) and genre.

3. God of genocide and Jesus. He is in need of a solution to this one. He almost moves into Webb’s redemptive trend. Moses is an “interim legal code” (170). In this one he fits in the redemptive movement trend. So Jesus reveals the fuller shalom of God.

Bird’s “infallibilists” are America’s more generous, genre-sensitive “inerrantists.” Bird assumes inerrantists are the most conservative sort, like Al Mohler.

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