Guest Post: Inerrancy at the Evangelical Theological Society

Guest Post: Inerrancy at the Evangelical Theological Society March 6, 2012

Carlos Bovell has written three previous posts here over the last week (1, 2, 3–click any of these for his bio and publications). Today’s post recounts his recent experience at the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) which holds yearly national academic conferences in November and regional conferences in March.

Just in case any of you thought I was just making all this up….

This past Friday (March 2, 2012), I gave a talk at the meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society—Eastern Region. My paper was a précis of the chapter on Old Princeton[*] in my new book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

In it, I addressed Old Princeton’s twofold defense of the inerrancy of Scripture: 1) Inerrancy is a church doctrine; 2) Inerrancy is a biblical doctrine. My conclusion is that inerrancy is neither.

B. B. Warfield, "Old Princeton" Theologian

During the Q & A, one of the first questions I was asked was whether, in view of my comments, I thought Christianity should exist at all. Behind this question is the dynamic I’ve been talking about in my recent posts here:

If inerrancy falls, then the whole of Christianity will fall with it. Without an inerrant Bible, there is no intellectual reason to be Christian.

The questioner was apparently concerned about my comment that Old Princeton’s defense of inerrancy was not “timeless” but obviously shaped by the historical context and intellectual climate of the nineteenth century.

We then observed how inerrancy today is also historically conditioned. This led to the consideration of whether Christianity itself is logically also merely historically conditioned–in other words, whether one could ever speak of a “Christianity” to be believed by all churches everywhere.

This is precisely how the inerrantist slippery slope works. In an academic conference, mind you, a constructive critique of Old Princeton’s defense of inerrancy leads to the question of whether Christianity should exist at all. (Incidentally, Old Princeton also taught something like this: Christianity’s fate is inextricably tied to the fortunes of inerrancy.)

Another question that I was asked was whether I believed in any truth at all that could be affirmed in any time and any place during the course of human history–in other words, is there truth of any sort that transcends any particular historical context?

In another setting, this would make for an interesting discussion. But keep in mind the slippery slope lurking behind this question.

What led to this question was my comment that inerrancy is not an adequate concept for describing the “trustworthiness” of scripture. I was questioned in response whether, if this is true, any truths can be held absolutely: “If you’re so skeptical about inerrancy, how can you be sure about anything ever?” The doctrine of inerrancy often acts within inerrantist culture as a gateway for knowing anything.

It is this kind of thinking that I have in my mind when I say over and again that the Bible is not an article of faith, or that inerrancy should not act as the foundation of faith, or (with New Testament scholar Dan Wallace) that inerrancy is not a person of the Trinity.

Did everyone in the audience think as these questioners did? Probably not, but in my experience the views expressed represent the dominant culture of inerrancy in evangelicalism. It also represents the default line of argument when the inerrantist culture is seen to be undermined.

Certainly plenty of pastors and teachers treat inerrancy as if it were the be-all and end-all of Christian faith. But inerrancy is not a theological issue or even a spiritual issue; it is a cultural issue, a culture wracked with fear, I might add.

Those who heard my talk at ETS ended up asking me directly whether I could sign the Society’s statement of faith, which includes a clear statement of the Bible’s inerrancy. I responded that there may have been a time when I could do so in good conscience, but now I cannot. The response was tacit but unmistakable: “Well, there you go. You are asking me to go where I cannot.”

Inerrancy is a human theoretical construct and as such is both culturally conditioned and historically contingent. For too many evangelicals, including those academically trained, even raising this observation for discussion is only a few precious steps removed from undermining the entire Christian faith.

The intention behind the defense of inerrancy may be to protect the faith, but insisting that evangelicals take an uncompromising stance on a questionable position is spiritually crippling.

[*] ”Old Princeton” refers to the theological climate of Princeton Theological Seminary (Calvinist) from its founding in 1812 until about 1920, when the school took a liberal turn and from which Westminster Theological Seminary was founded in 1929 to continue the “Old Princeton” legacy. Best known among the Old Princeton theologians is B. B. Warfield, who remains among conservative Calvinists and evangelicals the nearly unimpeachable standard of a rigorous, intellectual, defense of inerrancy.



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  • This is hardly surprising. So many have demonstrated that inerrancy fails, and if it fails (and it is our only option), then Christianity fails. If only those who hold so fiercely to this idea could see that there HAS to be another way, because inerrancy does eventually fail.

  • Don Johnson

    I see inerrancy as a response to liberalism. From a conservative point of view, liberals may appear to be saying that very little, if anything, sticks to the wall. So the natural conservative response is to claim that everything sticks to the wall, but when they think about it they admit to exceptions; but then as the CSBI put it, those exceptions do not include the Creation and Flood stories. Why were those highlighted as being special?

    I now think the inerrantists read the Bible the way they do because they see the alternative as the pit. I can agree with them in wanting to avoid the pit, but fear is a powerful motivator and if those are the only choices then I would be an inerrantist also, I just do not think those are the only choices, I think that God speaks to the original audiences of the Bible inside their cultures and accomodated to those cultures.

    • peteenns

      Don, careful there. Inerrantists argue that their position is not a reaction to anything, but implicit in the BIble, promulgated by Jesus and Paul, and codified by Augustine. John Woodbridge’s critique of Rogers/McKim is, as the evangelical mainstream tells us, the final word on the matter.

      • Carlos Bovell

        I explicitly challenge Woodbridge’s thesis in chapter 6 of Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of fear.

        • peteenns

          Gee, Carlos, what topic DIDN’T you cover in this book? I expect to see global warming and world hunger treated in chapter 7.

        • Don Johnson

          After discovering this, I HAD to go and order your book. Thanks!

  • Paul Brassey

    I think the inerrancy doctrine is related to the issue of pastoral authority. The pastor is the trained, called expert in explicating the inerrant word of God, which is coterminous with the words in the book. The inerrancy doctrine is not isolated, but is the foundation upon which the pastor builds a whole edifice of doctrines, principles, rules, etc. Moreover, the pastor has to know only the contents of one book. To question, then, the inerrancy of the book is also to question the foundation of the pastor’s authority. Conversely, to question any of the pastor’s conclusions is to challenge the Bible’s inerrancy and therefore God himself. The writer of Hebrews says (in one of many translations): “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The Bible is seen, is it not?

    • peteenns

      Paul, Mark Noll makes a similar point about how the independent and isolated churches of the American expansion west needed an authority, and so elevated the Bible’s status, so to speak.

    • Josh

      Paul, I think your point on the connection between inerrancy and pastoral authority is very accurate, based on my own experience in a church which valued both inerrancy and pastoral authority very highly. Mark Noll’s point is interesting, in that while having historical roots from so long ago, the connection with authority (authoritarianism?) is still very much an active dynamic in churches today.

  • soku

    Mr. Bovell, will your new book be available on the kindle? I’ve been looking at your past books but, unfortunately, they don’t have electronic formats which is all I tend to read nowadays.

  • Theophile

    Pastoral authority in itself is nearly condemned in it’s entirety by Jesus in Matthew 23. The biggest problem in new Evangelical inerrancy, is the damnable doctrine that “The old testament is the old covenant, it’s ALL done away with”. We read Jesus to say “Moses and the prophets they testify of me”, and in another place, “If they will not believe Moses they will not believe, even if one returns from the dead”. So Jesus directs us to the old testament Moses, and the prophets to hear His viewpoint on things. Things like His Sabbath, which every Christian observed for 300 years after Christ, until a group of men, emperor appointed(council of Laodicea), under the guise of “apostolic authority” decided God’s Sabbath had been moved to the opposite day of the week, the day of the sun god.
    It’s pretty obvious from the history of Christianity in Foxes book of Martyrs, that actually reading and considering the Bible as true, was the most heinous crime against the Church and apostolic authority, and would result in being burned at the stake, along with the Bible held as inerrant.
    Perhaps the problem lies with the idea that God chose to put all perfect doctrine for “Church architecture”, and subsequent religious doctrine, in the mind of a Asian born zealous Jewish Pharisee, who turns Roman under pressure, by blinding him on the road(?)…Because His(God’s) own word in the flesh, along with Moses and the prophets, was somehow insufficient? Do we really believe that Paul considered his words in his letters as authorizing the doing away with scripture(old testament)?

    • Don Johnson

      I certainly do not read Paul that way. Paul was a Torah-observant Jew arguing for gentile inclusion into the new covenant of Jesus. As such, he would never try to discard any part of Torah.

      • Theophile

        Hi Don,
        I don’t read Paul that way either, I addressed the statement to what seems to be the mainstream Evangelical “text of proof” from the Bible on most any subject: “because the Apostle Paul said …”, end of discussion, since Paul’s letters are included in the Bible, and since the Bible is God’s word, Paul’s rhetorical arguments, and statements are really God’s arguments and statements, and are God’s own words. Can You see how badly this argument plays out in the light of Paul’s own statement: “Oh wretched man that I am, I do that which I would not, and don’t that which I would”(paraphrase mine)?
        I have asked the question to hard line Sunday has replaced God’s Sabbath Evangelist, why Paul in Acts 13:42 didn’t just tell the Gentiles to “come back tomorrow, on Sunday, the new “Christian Sabbath”, had Paul not got the memo that God’s Sabbath was changed to Sunday? Wasn’t he being “legalistic” insisting that the Gentiles return the next Sabbath, to the synagogue, with Jews, to hear more?
        I have been told that I am trying to “earn” my salvation by observing God’s commandments, particularly by keeping the Sabbath. Now I ask how in God’s creation am I working(earning) by resting on God’s Sabbath, like He instructs us to?
        I think if Jesus and Paul walked into nearly any “church” today, and expounded the meaning of their words in the Bible, they would be thrust out immediately if not sooner. Jesus Himself condemned traditions and doctrines of men 2000 years ago, and I don’t think He has changed.

        • Don Johnson

          My take is Sabbath keeping is the sign of being in the Mosaic covenant(s). If one thinks one is in that covenant(s), then one should keep it; if not, then one does not need to keep it, but might choose to do so.

  • DRT

    If what saves you is some sort of mental decision to “believe in” Jesus, then inerrancy makes sense. If I were to doubt that Jesus is god in some way then I may be subject to the pit. You always put barriers before the treasure, inerrency, perseverance of the saints etc.

    It almost seems like a contest as to who could be the most inculcated with a group’s doctrine so they cannot be accused of not believing for a moment. That would risk eternity, wouldn’t it?

    We have to start with what salvation is first.

    • peteenns

      It has been said that the root fear of inerrancy is the fear of losing one’s salvation. At first I didn’t buy that but now I think that is spot on.

  • BeamMeUp

    “I’ve done everything the Bible says, even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff!”
    — Bible believer Ned Flanders
    The Simpsons – Episode “Hurricane Neddy”

  • Gary Foster

    Well said. I could not agree more. The old manner of thinking it all falls or stands around inerrancy led me down deadends when I was younger. Thanks to God’s grace, I awoke to a better way. My faith is in God. Not a book.

  • LittleDixieChuck

    Two additional musings regarding inerrancy:
    (1) Without an inerrant interpreter to interpret it, an inerrant Bible is of limited value. I have known some preachers who, in their heart of hearts, probably believed that they were inerrant interpreters, but they didn’t “sell” me.
    (2) The old argument about the inerrancy of the original autographs represents a march up an apologetic cul-de-sac. What I need to know is that the Bible in my hands is inspired and God-breathed and trustworthy, and not some first century autograph that I no longer have.

  • Josh

    Did everyone in the audience think as these questioners did? Probably not, but in my experience the views expressed represent the dominant culture of inerrancy in evangelicalism.

    I think this highlights the importance of presentation of these ideas in venues such as ETS. I imagine your being there and providing thoughtful answers was a great encouragement for every person who did not share the same perspectives as the questioners. It can be very difficult to hold a minority opinion in the midst of a highly vocal dominant culture.

  • I hold to Inerrancy but after seeing how Geisler handles it and the way he wields ETS like a club, I have no desire whatsoever to join it. I fear many bright evangelicals watching are doing the same. Also, while I hold to an Inerrant Bible, I don’t need one to prove Jesus rose from the dead.

  • Carlos, I was at your presentation–I was the one who asked about the resurrection. I appreciated (as far as I understood it!) your focus on the phenomena of the scriptures themselves, over-against “church doctrine.”

    My question still remains, though: isn’t there a place where we say, as Christians, “There I cannot go,” i.e., the resurrection of Jesus? If the Gospels’ portrayals of the resurrection and Paul’s statement about the centrality of the resurrection to our faith are culturally embedded, then we are of all men most to be pitied. Even though it was an event in history, the resurrection transcends time in its scope, recalibrating our expectations of “natural” and “supernatural.” Nothing is more fundamental to human reason and experience: dead people don’t rise–yet Christ is risen.

    I’m not trying to make a slippery-slope argument–maybe I have inadvertantly slid into one without realizing it. I’m fine with the line on scripture’s “trustworthiness as portrayal of what happened” being somewhere between: “Job is historical and spoke in late Biblical Hebrew poetry with his friends” (which I don’t believe) and “Jesus healed a blind beggar” (which I do believe). I’ll come halfway down the slope. But don’t ask me to come all the way down the slope–and if that means sacrificing “reason”…well, I guess I’ll throw away all my books and become a desert ascetic.

    • peteenns

      Benj, I’ll let Carlos answer this one. In the meantime, if you do become an ascetic, could you bring your books to my house rather than throw them out?

  • Carlos Bovell


    Thanks for your comment and for your question at the meeting. Of course, I accept that there are places where believers will say, “I cannot go there.” My point is that there is a big difference between saying, “Hey, I don’t feel comfortable going there” and saying, “Hey, I cannot go there because if I do, then I will no longer be Christian.”

    Oftentimes, when I talk or write about inerrancy I get a similar response: “If I go past the boundaries set for me by inerrantism, then what’s stopping me from going past the boundaries set for me by the Nicene Creed?”

    This raises a number of good questions, but to stay on topic let me just say that this kind of response–if inerrancy goes, then what’s protecting the resurrection?–identifies inerrancy as a watershed doctrine, which it should never be and should never have become. Now that it is one, younger evangelicals raised on this kind of thinking have to work very hard to undo the emotional and psychological damage caused by it.

    In my view, belief in the resurrection should not be based on the “trustworthiness of scripture’s portrayal of what happened.” As I explain in Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, the Bible’s trustworthiness–if that’s what you want to call it that–lies more in scripture’s illocutions and perlocutions than in its capacity of “giving a report.”

    I am not saying the resurrection never happened. What I am saying is that it is the Holy Spirit testifying to the reality of Christ’s resurrection through scripture that grounds our belief. Even inerrantist apologists concede this (e.g. William Lane Craig, Gary Habermas). As a spiritual exercise, believers may be interested to see how far they can press “historical arguments” if they want, but belief should not rest or fall purely on the basis of the historical “reliability” of the texts, but rather on the existential and communal reliability of the Spirit. After all, Jesus could have been resurrected and the rest of the stuff we believe about him still theoretically be false. It’s the Spirit’s job to communicate the faith to us and to ultimately keep us in it, not the Bible’s.

    • Nate


      You say: “It’s the Spirit’s job to communicate the faith to us and to ultimately keep us in it, not the Bible’s.”

      I ask, which Spirit? Who’s spirit? Spirit of what? What are you referring to?

      Or let me put it this way, will you believe whatever “the Spirit” communicates? What if “the Spirit” communicates to me that the Scriptures are inerrant? Or what if “the Spirit communicates” to me that the Scriptures are only a step on the way to true spiritual enlightenment and liberation, a guide to the weak, and that to reach spiritual maturity, I must leave them behind?

      Would you disagree? How would you disagree? Would you present an argument? An evidential argument, or an argument based on what “the Spirit communicated” to you, instead of to me?

      • I myself like to paraphrase Matthew 12: 39 and say to myself “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for… inerrancy! But none will be given it except the inerrancy of the prophet Jonah.” to clarify the meaning of the term and to frame the debate in it’s Paulinian eschatological context as Geerhardus Vos would like us to do.

  • Nate

    I think in the beginning of this response you show all your cards, Carlito, when you caricature your interlocutors as uncomfortable with a set of hypotheses. In other words you are psychologizing and implying that those you disagree with are not making arguments but expressing uncritical feelings of approbation or disapprobation, or specifically, of fear. And that is consistent with very many of the comments on this page: cheap ad hominem. Yes, I do think it’s all worth an answer (or I wouldn’t be writing one).

    You all sound like low-grade Marxist literary critics attributing everything dear to your counterparts to some phobia–homophobia, xenophobia–or some elemental, brutish attitude–misogyny–or, the favorite liberal combo-pack, ignorance, fear of the unknown, and simple-mindedness.

    That’s all a very great deal of fun, and many a scholar would be out of a job were it not for the worlds of junk this kind of non-argument non-response pseudo-psychology has spawned. It should be noted than none of the founding figures of cheap psychologizing (Marx himself, for example) did it so cheaply, and with such petty concerns. And they were certainly much more consistent and coherent in terms of articulating their commitments from deep structure to implication.

    I don’t think it’s worth reminding everyone of the vast swaths of literature, exegesis, theology, and church history this approach so very smugly disregards–acting as though you’re ahead of the curve, at the top of the game in a cutting edge field (There’s some psychology for you: academic envy); and anyway, I’d be ashamed to bother with something so obvious. That shame is all yours–dig in.

    • peteenns

      Nate, you might be dong a bit of caricaturing yourself, though with an added ingredient of sarcasm. Would you like to try restating your objection?

      • Nate

        Thanks, Dr. Enns. I didn’t intend erect a strawman but to draw an analogy. My objection is that so much of the argumentation I’ve read on this page is analogous to what I described: guilty of both ad hominem and strawman–psychologizing, in sum.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Wow, Nate! Plenty of smugness to go around here! The claim isn’t that fear is the only reason people become inerrantists. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. I’m sure it goes both ways and it depends on the disposition of the believer. The psychological component is there whether we like it or not.

      What I am attributing to fear is the way younger evangelicals–the ones you say who think they are “ahead of the curve”–are essentially shut down for trying to either “rehabilitate” inerrancy or possibly disavow it in search of some other more fruitful theory.

      In my view, one of the main reasons no alternative to inerrancy has been put forward yet is that in order to start working toward that younger scholars and students would have to run their ideas by their communities first for feedback. But (more often than not) as soon as they do that, they become ostracized: others galvanize in order to get that person fired, compel him or her to resign or get them defrocked. Their livelihood and/or the well-being of their families are put directly in the line of fire.

      This is the culture of fear I’m talking about. Students (or younger faculty members) can’t be students without risking a lot. How are they supposed study and do research under such conditions? Saying this shouldn’t be the case and that the severe, knee-jerk reactions by inerrantists are not in proportion to actions of progressives, doesn’t sound like “cheap psychologizing” to me. It sounds like an attempt to analyze a culture that can be ultra-conservative and overly defensive.

      • Nate

        No alternative to inerrancy? You can’t be serious.

        • peteenns

          Nate, I think Carlos means that in a conservative evangelical subculture, alternatives to inerrancy are not offered. I know from my experience I can attest to this consistently.

          • Nate

            Thanks. I see that, but my understanding is that this is because “conservative evangelical” is in large part defined by inerrantism. So Carlos’ comment is akin to complaining that there is only food at the grocery store. He sounds like he’s pleading for fair representation for an underrepresented minority that means no harm to anyone, but in fact–there’s no way around it–he wants to redefine c.e. There’s no other way: if I demand that the grocery store carry car parts or fishing equipment, and that these products are equally represented (e.g. when there’s a grocery store conference I, as a seeker of car parts, don’t feel ostracized), I am redefining the store itself. It’s no longer a grocery store, no longer defined by groceries; it’ll have to be designated some other way: ‘the store that sells stuff’, or something else generic. It’s identity is lost. Carlos rejects one of the central doctrines of “conservative evangelicalism” but he still wants to be a c.e. Seems disingenuous to me, that’s all.

          • peteenns

            Maybe Carlos is saying that one can retain elements of evangelicalism without inerrancy. Maybe he’ll answer here. I see the point of the analogy, but would only add that there are a lot of younger evangelicals that want to see movement here. Maybe a renovation of the store is in order–but, as you say, it will be different.

  • R.D.L.

    Dear Carlos,

    One cannot indicate error without at the same time asserting some truth claim. If we were to take this as an axiom, then it would seem that the ” truth” behind any attribution of error in Scripture must in some way be scientifically derived (perhaps theological, philosophical, historical, or wrought by the methods of one of the hard sciences).

    Now you write, “Inerrancy is a human theoretical construct and as such is both culturally conditioned and historically contingent.”

    But aren’t scientific conclusions (metaphysical conclusions, mathematical conclusions, historical conclusions) also culturally and historically contingent? What augments those theoretical constructs to have a kind of greater authority or veracity than the theory of Biblical inerrancy?

    Let’s say for the sake of argument that the doctrine of inerrancy can be derived by good theological methods. If this is the case, then I know of no other science which is more authoritative than theology because of its object of inquiry (God) and its principle source (Scripture). If I didn’t believe this, and, lets say, held classical metaphysics and theology as on the same plane, then, in the face of theoretical conflict, it would be arbitrary when trying to decide whether a metaphysical doctrine or a theological doctrine was true. Orthodox Christology is metaphysical gobbledygook, do I have a right to reject orthodox Christology because it is subordinate to my metaphysics? Or is my metaphysics subordinated to the claims of scripture, as uncovered by theologians? Which do I choose and why?

    Really what I’m asking you for is an ordering of the sciences. Which sciences do you believe to have authority over others? Is there no ordering, no hierarchy? If there is no order, then aren’t our conclusions only arbitrary when, in the face of theoretical conflict, we choose the findings of one science over the other? That would seem to make my acceptance and your rejection of inerrancy quite inconsequential.

    All in all, Carlos, if you are looking for the basic cultural beliefs behind inerrancy you should also investigate the basic cultural beliefs behind its rejection.


    • peteenns

      RDL, I will let Carlos address your concern if he wishes. From my point of view, I see your point, but the reason insiders have such difficulty with inerrancy isn’t because they have a mistaken hierarchy of the sciences (assuming the relevancy of that notion for the sake of discussion), but because of how unwilling the Bible seems to be to confirm to it. The problems with inerrancy, I am sure Carlos would agree, from with the “principle source” of the “science” of theology.

      • R.D.L.


        Thank you for responding. Just for clarification, when you write about “how unwilling the Bible seems to be conform to” the doctrine of inerrancy, I read you saying that the Bible contains errors. Errors are the substance of the Bible’s nonconformity to inerrancy. My question for Carlos is about what seems to be the non-contingent non-culturally-embedded status enjoyed by the sciences that produce the conclusions whereby Biblical errors are indicated.

        By the way, I read your most recent book on Adam and I have very similar questions about your views on the how various sciences relate. I also thought it would have been interesting if you could have connected your insistence that the Adamic narrative signified Israelite self perception instead of an account of “actual” universal human origins with our current philosophical milieu where knowledge is primarily of the human subject and not the real objects of the world.

    • Carlos Bovell


      Thanks for your comments. I can’t really address every issue you have raised. But one thing that comes to mind is: can theologians ever make mistakes? How do these mistakes come to light? How can theology be shown to be mistaken?

      That God is the object of study does nothing to protect us from making mistakes. A mistake (made by perfectly fallible human beings) can be shown from any number of quarters. That God is the subject of study does not somehow make us less likely to make a mistake.

      This has nothing to do with the ordering of the “sciences” but rather with admitting that no matter what we’re studying we can make mistakes.

      I believe inerrancy–as it is presently understood–somehow gets things wrong and I would like to do what I can to either try to fix it or suggest something else in its place.

      • R.D.L.


        Thanks for responding. As far as I know, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy applies to the teachings of Scripture, not the errors of theologians (assuming there is a distinction between the two). Of course theologians make mistakes; but that isn’t the issue and I wasn’t proposing that God as the object of study renders theologians less fallible.

        Here is a boiled down version of the question: What scientific method are you using to determine what an error is? Does this criterion for error or veracity apply only to the Bible, or to other data sets as well?

        • peteenns

          Before Carlos shows up, I’d be interested in hearing what you feel your question is getting at, i.e., what is your question is moving us toward that you feel is valuable for the discussion. I think I see it, but I would rather you explain. I also think you have misunderstood Carlos’s point, judging from your first paragraph, but I will let him address that.

        • Carlos Bovell


          I think you might be looking past what I’m trying to say. (And I might be doing the same to you–I hope not.) The doctrine of inerrancy is a theological construction and seems to me to somehow be misguided. That part, I’ve tried to explore in my writings.

          The point I tried to make in my last comment to you is that theologians do make mistakes and that conservative evangelical theologians seem to have made one with the contemporary expression of inerrancy. This suggestion does not upset any ordering of sciences. Theology is a human study and can be corrected from results taken from any other human study.

          On the whole, I am questioning the adequacy of inerrancy as a description of what to expect the Bible to be and do. It’s more than finding some inexplicable “error” in the Bible, it has to do more with realizing that inerrancy is not fruitful for doing biblical studies, it is not fruitful for deciding who’s an evangelical and who is not, it is not fruitful for defining Christianity, it’s not fruitful for understanding the kind of God who sent us Jesus and who inspired the Bible, etc. It’s a cumulative case that builds over time with the result that inerrancy either needs to be improved upon or right out supplanted.

          It’s very tough in conservative evangelicalism to talk about this kind of stuff right now and that’s expecially hurting both students and young faculty members, which is something I’m hoping to help change with my work.

          Grace and peace,

  • Interested reader

    I thought R.D.L. had a good question that was avoided. So I am somewhat confused. Are you saying the theologians make mistakes, or that the bible makes mistakes? So was Paul, incorrect about Adam being a historical person (i.e. Rom.5 & Acts 17) but yet correct about Jesus’ historical resurrection (i.e. Rom. 5 & Acts 17)?
    I think what R.D.L. is trying to say is that you might be using “error” against something like “scientifically verifiable or plausible”. Thus science (whatever that nebulous term means depending on Kuhn, or Popper, or what have you…) is being the rule by which error or correctness stands. Or it might be something like ‘logic’, hence “error” vs “the law of non-contradiction”.
    You state, “Inerrancy is a human theoretical construct and as such is both culturally conditioned and historically contingent.” I think what R.L.D. is asking is “What isn’t?” If you use “contingent” you are assuming that something is “necessary.” You see inerrancy isn’t it’s own ‘thing’ like a ‘star’ or ‘diabetes’. Inerrancy is ‘about’ something, namely scripture. So I am wondering what your actual response to R.D.L. would be.

    • peteenns

      As I said to RDL, I will let Carlos answer if he chooses to, but my question to him pertains to your question to. Let me ask it another way. Are you operating from a position that, since the Bible is God’s word, it’s errorlessness is our default? If so, Carlos’s earlier response is relevant for you. Carlos is saying that the category “inerrant” is not a “fruitful category.” if you think it is, you should engage Carlos on that level.

  • Carlos Bovell

    To “Interested Reader” (and to RDL, if his comments are indeed a clarfication of yours):

    I am sorry that I have failed to address some of the above questions to your satisfaction. I don’t remember saying anything about the natural sciences being non-contingent, non-cultural. I don’t remember saying anything about what counts as “scientific” and what doesn’t. You may use “science” as a paradigm in attempts to pattern “progress” for other non-scientific disciplines. Sure, that might prove helpful and is often done, but this kind of comparison involves difficult questions that philosophers have been talking about for generations.

    By identifying in what ways inerrancy is historically contingent and culturally conditioned, we can see what aspects of “biblical authority” might be fruitfully appropriated for our present place in church history and leave behind the archaic baggage. I suggest what precise aspects of inerrancy are indicative of the Enlightenment in my Rehabilitating book.

    To pick up on my last comment, inerrancy is wanting in its functional adequacy and either needs to be fixed or replaced. It has not been able to–at least in my experience and the experiences of a number of students and younger faculty members (and I bet older faculty members too)–carry the load that has been placed upon it by evangelicals.

    How do we draw this conclusion? I tried to explain in my first book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals: it is not by identifying some blatant “error” and using my clear and comprehensive definition of “truth” and comparing the biblical data with it and finding that it is unacceptable. Much rather, the problems manifest themselves in practice and after coming to realize that the doctrine of inerrancy was formulated way before a great deal of relevant information became available to believers. Add to this, the specific shape that inerrancy took in the last 200 years and we say, surely, in light of new information believers should be given a chance to change their mind and not be excommunicated! At least, not for this!

    If in other quarters of Christianity the jury is still out on theological theory (in this case the question of whether inerrancy is viable or not) and on independent grounds I have come to suspect that inerrancy is actually hurting the integrity of doing biblical studies (to say nothing of other domains of research that also feel the impact of this kind of strain), then it may be time to rethink inerrancy with more critical scrutiny than has been done in the past. The problem is that when one attempts this they either have to drop the critical line of inquiry, acquiesce to the dictates of inerrantist tradition, or simply leave evangelicalism behind. These should not be the only choices.

  • This is a great post and I thank you both for putting it up. I feel like Nancey Murphy deals with exactly what you are talking about, albeit from the narrative of philosophical development, in Beyond Liberalism and Fundamentalism (


    Does your work explicate some of the same philosophical nuances, or should we expect more of a sociohistorical analysis of the motivations for certain communities to have established and now maintain inerrancy in the way described above in your book? Again, thank you for posting this. It hits home since I am a defector from such a community (now an Anglo-Catholic in the Radical Orthodoxy camp).

  • Carlos Bovell


    Thanks for your comment. In Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, I hit upon several areas of concern: the socio-cultural effects of the psychology of inerrantism; the need for inerrantists to establish proper hermeneutical “distance”; the heavy role inerrantist philosophy plays in inerrantist biblical studies; a critique of inerrantist use of speech act theory in their attempt to bolster inerrancy; and a thoroughgoing examination of the Old Princeton defense of biblical inerrancy as both a doctrine of the church and a doctrine of scripture.

    By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Geneaology of Biblicist Foundationalism, by contrast, is a much more heady book that traces some of the development of deductivism through various periods of Western philosophy in order to set the stage for what eventually came about in the Westminster Confession of Faith’s formulation of what I call “biblicist foundationalism.”

    Grace and peace,