Moving Beyond the Problems

Moving Beyond the Problems May 12, 2015

Kyle Roberts, a former professor at Bethel who has since left and is now teaching in other venues, has a post up on the Progressive Christians portal at Patheos about the problems with inerrancy. At one time this was called “deconstruction” though technically speaking this is not deconstruction.

If you read the whole or Kyle’s post you will discover a tension — between his clear affirmation of Scripture of God’s Word and his critique of the term “inerrancy” as a good descriptor for what Scripture is.

I will post Kyle’s serious and clear set of problems for inerrancy below, but before that I want to offer my approach to such matters. Christians read the Bible as God’s Word, and he affirms such admirably in his conclusion. Reading the Bible as God’s inspired (another word he affirms here) Word requires a positive hermeneutical approach to Bible reading.

My years of teaching Bible to both Christians and non-Christians, and often to struggling Christians, led me to believe that the problems require a context or one runs the risk of actually deconstructing a person’s faith from the inside out. A focus on the problem then tends toward the deconstruction of a person’s (using the Bible itself to turn one against the Bible) faith rather than toward the open admission of problems set within a context of a hermeneutic for faith and the church.

I believe Roberts has the terms but not the focus of that kind of hermeneutic when he says in #1 below this:

the positive impulse behind the term is better served by words like: “true, trustworthy, effectual, powerful,” and–perhaps most importantly–inspired. 

But this implies for the teacher in the church, especially for the one who is teaching those in their formative years, to form a larger hermeneutical approach that sets those problems in the context of “true.” By the way, I too find the term “inerrancy” problematic — the term, mind you. Kyle says things here about this term I totally agree with it: it is modernistic, it is empirical, it tends toward defending the Bible (when the Bible defends us!), it tends toward debates about what is historical and what is not (I find his question about the axe head largely beside the point), etc.. Every term — inerrancy or true — begs for definition and delineation, but the word true is noble and biblical and historic and a part of the human thinking system. The other term is not.

So, I sympathize but I want more at the end (and perhaps Kyle will provide that) — and I want to see those problems set in a hermeneutical approach that encourages us to trust that God speaks to us in Scripture. In other words, I want the more of a constructive approach to Scripture that can be used by churches and individual Christians.

Many of us, and I suspect Kyle is in this camp, think the best approach is narratival (see my The Blue Parakeet).

My last comment is that these problems, too, need to be set in a context of how the best proponents of inerrancy explain such problems in the best of ways (and some of them are question begging and sloppy thinking designed to protect what does not need protection). One cannot ask too much of a blog post, so this is not a criticism of Kyle’s post or what he himself thinks, but an added point. Over the years, while I have occasionally said that the term inerrancy is so problematic that is difficult to use, I have found great collegiality with those who do affirm it. I find the spirit of inerrancy true to Scripture: we stand under the Word to listen to it as God’s obedient church. We do because what God says is true.


(1) there are so many definitions of inerrancy that is has become a mostly meaningless word (perhaps like “evangelicalism” itself. As I suggested above, the positive impulse behind the term is better served by words like: “true, trustworthy, effectual, powerful,” and–perhaps most importantly–inspired. 

(2) It is mainly a political and “power” word, a shibboleth useful for maintaining boundaries and for gatekeeping who is in and who is out. We see this time and again.  We see the power-play, shibboleth narrative played out time and again in Christian denominations, colleges, seminaries, churches, etc. Often the conflict is over interpretations of Scripture, but very often the issue is directed back to assumptions about “inerrancy”–and to the way that is defined by those in power).

(3) The more literalist and propositionalist definitions of inerrancy just don’t square with the diversity, humanity (culturally embedded), and limitations of the text. They also make strong assumptions that the Bible itself proclaims its own “inerrant” nature. Upon closer inspection, it simply does not. Even the most widely used texts, like 2 Timothy 3:16-17, simply do not prove the more propositionalist (literalist) versions of the Evangelical position.

(4) The doctrine of inerrancy too greatly neglects the role of tradition and the “church catholic” in the formation of the canon. This is another way of saying that inerrancy undermines the humanity of the Bible. The portrait which emerges from “plenary verbal inspiration” is too often that of an impeccable, immune from human (fallible) input, book that just sort of drops out of the sky–rather than a collection of books that came to be stamped as authoritative over time through a rather messy process. And I haven’t even broached the issue of the contested canon between Protestants and Catholics!

(5) The doctrine of inerrancy is simply too modernistic and “objectivist” in orientation. As Donald Bloesch puts it, “”I am not comfortable with the term inerrancy when applied to Scripture because it has been co-opted by a rationalistic, empiricistic mentality that reduces truth to facticity.” In other words, inerrancy is bound up with a particular kind of epistemology: one which cannot account for the richness of truth and ways of knowing. Perhaps we should be looking to the Bible to do things other than (or at the very least, much more than, give us propositional doctrines, “rules for living,” even “theologies” of God that preclude mystery and that are very often bogged down by the humanity reflected by the biblical authors (i.e. Patriarchy).

(6) The doctrine of inerrancy is based on an epistemologically certainty that is simply untenable. It assumes that in the divine revelation given in Scripture, we have a kind of immediate access to the pure truth of God, shining through. But this is to neglect, as Gabriel Fackre points out in The Doctrine of Revelation, the “already and not yet” tension that the Bible itself teaches: “To hold that the original writings of Scripture in all the parts and on all their subject matter are so superintended by the Holy Spirit as to constitute them with an unqualified inerrancy is to confuse the present Dawn with the final Day” (170). This is why many Evangelicals reject the use of many higher critical methodologies: they have confused the “Dawn” with the “Day,” and are therefore looking to the Bible to give the the “Day,” right now.

(7) The doctrine of inerrancy too often accepts the biblical texts as they are rather than seeking to discern what they might be pointing us toward. If we were to only read the Bible literally (via the literalist doctrine of inerrancy), might have a difficult time denouncing some abhorrent things that the Bible does not denounce. War, violence, slavery, violent patriarchy, etc.). We need to think with–to theologize with and alongside the text. But we must also be willing to go beyond the confines or limits of a literalist, wooden reading of the text, as the Spirit leads us. To say this another way: a preoccupation with inerrancy can get in the way of justice and abundant life. What would Jesus want? 

On top of it all, or perhaps underneath it all, is the sticky problem that the Bible just does contain “errors,” of various sorts. Rather than ignore these historical, chronological, scientific, moral problems, let’s take them up into a larger vision of God’s revelation, God’s truth, God’s salvation in Christ and the Spirit.

The Christian canon is an irreplaceable document for Christians and for the church. And it is, in my view, the inspired Word of God that can leads us into the knowledge of God. But it facilitates that relational knowledge of God. And God is the authority–not the Bible. Kierkegaard suggested that perhaps there are errors in the Bible (errors of history or grammar, etc.) that were intentionally allowed by God to keep us from putting our faith in the Bible, and allow us to put our faith in God.

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