Guest Post: Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear

Guest Post: Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear March 5, 2012

Today’s guest post by Carlos Bovell, his third, is an edited excerpt from chapter 4 of his upcoming book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Carlos is becoming a leading critic of the evangelical notion of biblical inerrancy, but unlike other such critiques, his is not the rant of an outsider, but the careful, nuanced, and compelling observations of one coming from within an evangelical paradigm, drawing on his own experience.

His main concern is not simply the intellectual difficulties of biblical inerrancy but the spiritual destruction that occurs in the lives of young Christians when they are given no viable alternative.

Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (Wipf & Stock, 2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (Wipf & Stock, 2009), and an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Students often approach the academic study of the Bible, in seminary or graduate school, confident that they already possess a more or less accurate idea of what the overall intent of scripture is; their focus is deepening that knowledge.

Early confidence and enthusiasm all too often give way to cognitive dissonance, even a sense of betrayal, when they begin to encounter what I call the “academic-apologetic dilemma.”

During their studies, evangelical students in research universities and divinity schools are presented with alternate models explaining how scripture works. In these settings, no explicit attention is given to how these new models are compatible with the students’ inerrantist models–which, of course, is perfectly understandable.

As students mature in their knowledge of the disciplines and begin seeing why the critical models are so widely accepted, cognitive dissonance can develop. This leads to an academic-apologetic dilemma: the academic model is intellectually compelling but thoroughly challenges and undermines the picture of the Bible presented to them by the evangelical inerrantist apologists of their earlier training.

My target audience for Rehabilitating Inerrancy is these “post-inerrantist” students caught on the horns of this dilemma. My main concern is to begin a discussion around the question, “How can students maintain a deep respect for scripture despite everything they have come to know about scripture?” In other words, how can their new and old worlds be in conversation.

The recent spate of inerrantist apologetics books is a theological sign of the times (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This certainly speaks to the tensions among evangelicals on this topic, but it may also signal that God is calling the present generation of bibliologists to work together to find a plausible, salient way of neutralizing the academic-apologetic dilemma.

Such discussions are unavoidable and absolutely necessary. In almost every imaginable way, the Bible we know today is simply not the Bible of the early, medieval, or Reformation churches. A lot has happened in our understanding of antiquity, that has invariably affected how we see the Bible.

This is particularly acute in Protestant traditions. Great stress was placed on the centrality of the Bible understood according to ways of thinking that were wholly appropriate in earlier times. It should come as no surprise, then, that those Protestant traditions that place a heavy emphases on inviolability of older paradigms of scripture will be precisely the ones positioned to experience the most profound changes.

The threat of such changes is prompting inerrantist leaders to voice publicly the fears of their representative traditions concerning “attacks” on inerrancy. After all, few people like being told to change their ways. But when it comes to inerrancy, the run-of-the-mill, human resistance to change seems to morph into something like an eschatological intransigence.

The main fear appears to be that any change in bibliological outlook quickly leads to heterodoxy. Even genuinely constructive attempts to re-conceptualize inerrancy are presented to laypeople and students as immodest and subversive moves towards apostasy.

Whenever inerrantist institutions try publically to respond to such concerns, they often adopt the rhetoric of fear. The cultural climate they precipitate stymies imagination and forestalls much needed conversation over conceptual developments in bibliology.

This culture of fear discourages evangelical leaders to move the conversation forward, since the backlash can be severe; they are not sociologically poised to offer guidance.

Thus the onus to foster the conversation is awkwardly placed on students or young faculty members, those living in the tensions between the academic and apologetic worlds and who feel the most pressure and enthusiasm for synthetic thinking.

Yet in order to be effective, students require the intellectual freedom to carry out their work. The same sociological forces that prevent evangelical leaders from joining the conversation also exert tremendous pressure on younger evangelicals.

There is a cycle of fear, and the question is how to break it.

What students decide to do with inerrancy now is bound to influence inerrantism’s future as a viable cultural force. And what inerrantism needs more than anything else is help conceptually transitioning from outdated bibliological assumptions, born in segments of Christian history that were not privy to the information that we have today.

There is a great need for evangelical schools and churches to begin genuine conversations surrounding inerrancy. Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear is aimed at describing some of the unhelpful dynamics at work within inerrantism in order to help move the conversation forward in constructive ways.

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  • CGC

    Hi Peter,
    I left behind innerancy many years ago. After saying that, I can’t neccesarily say because we have access to more information or what some might challenge, better information today that this is making for a stronger or better Christian faith? I would like to think there are some innerantists who are trying to be proactive rather than reactive (I respect many of them even though I have personally come to a different place). And when it comes to fear or political correctness, it seems like both sides of the debate or competing interpretations of scripture often do similar power plays over and against one another. Many of the early church leaders and church fathers died for the faith. I’m not sure how many modern Christians would die for their faith today? We might be quote “smarter” today but I am not sure we have the breadth, depth, or spiritual substance that Christians did during the reformation or the second century, etc.
    I for one hope the conversation is moved forward. My problem is I simply don’t see many people’s spiritual lives moving forward. We have a tendency today to be focused so much on the intellect and yet it seems more and more Christians hearts seem to be growing colder. Wherever people are intellectually, all I know its people’s hearts that burn for God that gives me hope for the future more than anything else.

  • Carlos Bovell

    If I might chime in, the title of my last post was adapted from an essay by Dan Wallace (who I had occasion to mention in my first post–see his “Introduction: Who’s Afraid of the Holy Spirit?”).

    In that essay, he delineates eleven theses, where number two reads:

    “…rationalistic evangelicals have just as frequently given a higher priority to knowledge than to relationship,”

    and number three reads: “This emphasis on knowledge over relationship can produce in us a bibliolatry.”

    What he says next is revealing: “For me, as a New Testament professor, the text is my task—but I made it my God. The text became my idol. Let me state this bluntly: The Bible is not a member of the Trinity. One lady in my church facetiously told me, “I believe in the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.” Sadly, too many cessationists operate as though that were so.”

    To speak directly to the problem you raise: Let us continue to encourage each other to recognize our new task while being careful all the while not to make it our new god.

  • Harm

    Carlos, I think the Evangelical dilemma you are describing is a neurosis, one that I feel. One could if one feels inclined mount an argument for saying that all scripture is inspired by God and is therefore unfathomable (rom 11:33, job 11:7) but inerrant?, how did we get there? was it medIeval Catholicism needing to control the masses, was it the reformers who needed absolutes and certainties in order to promulgate a scientific theology or was it Harold Lindsell’s do or die effort to save the bible. I do understand that if one follows a certain trajectory long enough one can end up at inerrancy but it’s a convoluted trajectory and one would really have to want to get there before one starts on that path. How did all those experts let this happen. For the record, I am more conservative than liberal but only just and I am in need of some Valium.

    • Carlos Bovell

      I try to address some of this in my book, Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear: inerrantist culture is fostering emotional and spiritual dysfunction in many of our churches and schools.

  • If young theologians can’t deal with the intellectual difficulties of biblical inerrancy, maybe they can find a new profession? Future shepherds should man up in the face of a minute amount of adversity.

  • Joe

    Just wondering is any inerrantist has recently read B.B. Warfield or A.A. Hodge . As a seminary student I was moving more and more away from innerancy at a seminary that has staked just about everything on it. So, I read Warfield, and found his idea of innerancy, well plausible. It certainly is not innerracny as articulated by modern evangelicals. While I affirm the spirit of innerancy I cannot affirm the letter of it.

  • Carlos Bovell

    Chapter 6 of my book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear–the book from which this post is adapted–is called, “Biblical Teachings, Biblical Phenomena and Inerrancy at Old Princeton,” and interacts with Old Princeton and the way they argued for inerrancy. I still find it problematic.

  • Carlos, I can’t quite figure out why you use the language of “rehabilitating,” as though inerrancy should be preserved? How about giving up on the problematic idea and finding better ways to talk about what scripture is and how it functions?

  • Carlos Bovell


    I’m actually really glad you asked this question. I have an interesting answer for it (at least I find it interesting). You see, I tried doing just what you say–writing as if I had done precisely that (given up inerrancy)–and then I started getting emails that it is not inerrancy that I’ve abandoned but only the way that it’s been taught that I’m objecting to.

    Enough profs at inerrantist schools have told me either by email or in person that what I am promoting is actually a “properly nuanced” inerrancy, that I became persuaded that I should try writing in terms of “rehabilitating inerrancy,” in terms of “Let’s see what has to be done if inerrancy is really still going to be used today by students.”

    Call it what you will, the issues I am trying to raise need to be addressed by evangelicals, particularly by evangelical students (“younger evangelicals”), if the spirit behind inerrancy is going to make a compelling contribution to the contemporary Christian marketplace of policies and ideals.

  • I personally came to the conclusion, after reading Warfield, that inerrancy was a deductive argument. The more inducution you do, by examination of the texts themselves, (not the ideological assumptions of what these texts must be like if they are God’s words) the more you see that the data just doesn’t fit the terms of the premises in the argument. “Everything deity teaches is true” – this is 100% true and completely useless for us finite, language-based, culture-based, historically limited mortals. How in the world do we ever grasp anything about what God teaches us as “true”? Through our language, in our historical context, within our scope of “knowable” and “believable” experience? This whole subject is so fraught with these huge difficulties as to make the premise of the argument that lead Warfield to the “inherency” conclusion unintelligible. If God had a direct line to my brain and could put there what he wanted to put there in pristine form, and if I could comprehend it, it would be in errantly true. But the “if’s” boggle the mind. Now go read Psalm 137.