Guest Post: The Culture of Biblical Inerrantism

Guest Post: The Culture of Biblical Inerrantism March 1, 2012

Today and tomorrow we have guest posts by Carlos Bovell. 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 this theological position, but the spiritual destruction that occurs in the lives of young Christians when they are given no viable alternative.

Today’s post reflects a bit on Carlos’s own journey and gives the background to his recently published edited book Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (Wipf & Stock, 2011). Tomorrow’s post will be an edited excerpt from his most recent book, Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (Wipf & Stock, 2012), a book where Carlos addresses head on the culture wars surrounding inerrancy.

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) and By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (Wipf & Stock, 2009).

Writing about inerrancy and evangelicalism has been part of my spiritual journey. I explored some of my thinking about this in my first book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals. Although I knew that these were only preliminary reflections, I felt that I had made a contribution to addressing the spiritual dangers of promoting inerrancy as essential to Christian belief.

Influential to me early on in my journey was reading some of Bart Ehrman’s accounts of his own struggles with the doctrine of inerrancy, which eventually led to his abandonment of Christianity. Despite my seminary training, I had never before read a firsthand account of someone grappling with inerrancy, and who, despite their best efforts, were not being able to remain committed to it—at least not as it is presently articulated.

I resonated deeply with that struggle, even though I found his responses to be generally unsatisfactory.

About that same time I attended a meeting at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary where various scholars gathered to talk about textual criticism and its implications for the Bible. Since one of the plenary speakers was Bart Ehrman, I knew I had to hear what he had to say.

During the Q&A, I was able to ask a question of evangelical text critic and Ehrman’s interlocutor, Dan Wallace.

“Why do believers have to wait for people like Ehrman to publish books before we find out about all these problems with scripture, problems that scholars have known about all along?”

Bart Ehrman grabbed his microphone and joked, “Yeah, I would like to know the answer to that!” Everyone laughed. Dan Wallace answered by chiding Christian publishers for not making more of the textual issues known to readers in the Bibles that they publish.

I am sympathetic, but it occurred to me that lack of notes in study Bibles was not the main problem. In fact, textual criticism—though a key factor—is not really the issue, either.

The issue is inerrancy as an ideology and inerrantism as a culture.

This ideology suppresses or minimizes questions that threaten the paradigm, such as those raised by textual criticism.

As the crowd began to disperse, a gentleman approached me and said, “So you’re not a believer, eh?” I was taken aback. I explained that although I used to put a lot of stock in inerrancy, I was now thinking it through and am no longer so sure it is viable.

He hesitated for a moment before giving me his full diagnosis. He informed me that he was a pastor and had met several people like me. In fact, he even had some in his family. He concluded: “Because you have these doubts now, you are not a believer. And since you are not a believer, even though you think you once believed, you have never been a believer.”

I admit, this may be an extreme example—one does not often encounter such confident transparency. But, in my experience, the principle behind this pastor’s reaction to my question opens a window to a problem that goes beyond textual criticism, to the very foundations of evangelicalism: inerrancy.

What is distressing is not so much the doctrine itself, but the collateral spiritual damage that comes in the wake of its uncompromising defense, even against those from within who voice concerns.

If questioning inerrancy is linked to questioning one’s faith, those with legitimate reasons for questioning inerrancy will either live with unspoken cognitive dissonance or speak up and risk losing much.

The idea for the edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture, was born out of a concern to bring into open discussion the theological and spiritual problems of inerrantism. The essays collected in this volume are written by a number of specialists in different fields, all coming from various bibliological persuasions.

I thought it would be helpful to illustrate for students how the doctrine of inerrancy can be viewed from more than one perspective and that scripture’s divine authority can be investigated through more than one discipline.

Such diverse collaboration is necessary. When inerrantist scholars gather to discuss the doctrine of scripture, they often walk away with a familiar set of pre-packaged answers. When inerrantists and non-inerrantists alike convene to talk about inerrancy’s problems, then there is potential to walk away with a fresh understanding entirely.

This is the opportunity I hoped to provide for students studying in inerrantist colleges and seminaries who may not be aware of the pitfalls of inerrancy, and who might benefit from knowing that the evangelical playing field is actually much, much bigger than what they’ve been shown.

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  • Don Johnson

    Looks like a book for my wish list.

    • peteenns

      Try all four.

  • Jason G.

    I am so happy to see someone writing about this kind of journey. I’m learning that inerrancy can be a kind of Big Brother. It promises to protect your faith, but eventually becomes oppressive and restrictive. It also seems to me that there are several ideas of what inerrancy really is. I’m gonna have to get these books. Thanks for the recommendation.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Yes, inerrantists tend to promise that the doctrine of inerrancy covers a multitude of sins, but in my experience it is not able to accomplish what they claim.

  • My former pastor (he recently resigned) took a stance of non-affirmation toward inerrancy and reaped quite a huge backlash from the surrounding evangelical churches. People were sent text messages during service – from other pastors in town – to leave the church and stop hearing messages from my pastor. I stuck around and was “talked to” by several Christian “friends” and a pastor who advised me to leave the church as well for there were “too many red flags” attached to not affirming inerrancy.

    I agree with Carlos Bovell in describing it as not a problem with textual criticism or how many evangelical Christians aren’t discussing the problems of the text, but rather because of the culture surrounding it. I have felt first-hand the side effects of being a non-inerrantist in an inerrantist community. You most certainly do feel like an outcast and “not a real believer.”

    Kudos to Peter Enns, Carlos Bovell, and others who aren’t afraid to roll up their sleeves and deal with inerrancy with some sort of a level head. It’s been really helpful for my faith.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Thanks for the encouragement. The conversation needs to be allowed to happen without punishing the people who want (and need) to have it.

  • Tom Johnson

    Back when evangelical meant non-fundamentalist, the late David Hubbard put the problem with inerrancy succinctly: “Inerrancy dies the death of a thousand qualifications.” It is a fundamentally dishonest or naive view of the authority of Scripture. And yes, it is spiritually damaging. Thank you for this discussion.

  • Thank you for providing a forum for Carlos Bovell, with whom I was previously unfamiliar. I just ordered three of the four books from Wipf & Stock (20% discount and minimal S&H, almost as good as Amazon). Inerrancy is such an important topic these days because it’s tied to so many other issues, like creation/evolution, to pick a not so random example.

  • Robert A

    Well this was a wonderful post and I am looking forward to tomorrow’s post.

    FTR, I am both an evangelical (yes, a Southern…er, Great Commission Baptist at that) and an inerrantist. However, I am not a fundamentalist nor one who believes the current text of Scripture is without problem.

    Your story is a troubling one, but one which I’ve skates dangerously close to having several times. The difficultly is that for a (relativitely) small group of individuals inerrancy is THE defining issue of their faith. Because of the rhetoric of the spiritual/theological leadership so many in my home convention have been told if someone denies inerrancy (or has legitimate questions like me) they are “liberals” and deny the faith. It is a weapon used to discredit and remove reasonable discourse. (there’s so much to be said here, alas I move on)

    I am happy to defend a properly nuanced view of inerrancy. It is a good and reasonable theological position. Yet at the heart of all of this is whether you view the Bible to be authoritative. Inerrancy is not, and should not, be a fundamental of the faith, yet for too many they make it so. That is troubling. Perhaps in our desire to affirm the authenticity and authority of the Bible we’ve overstepped and, in the end, made less of both by overemphasizing inerrancy. I don’t know, I’m still working through this. All that said, I’ll look forward to tomorrow.

  • Theophile

    We read in the NT “scripture cannot be broken”, but that was when Moses and the prophets, were what was being referred to as scripture. The disturbing thing is when we hear “the old testament is the old covenant, it’s all done away with” from Evangelicals that talk inerrancy of God’s word in Paul’s personal letters.
    This kind of argument derives from the Idea that only the books chosen at Nicaea to fill the Bible are “God’s word”, then why was the book of Enoch left out, even though it’s quoted in the Bible as scripture?
    In Act’s 9 we read of Paul’s conversion on the road, if we compare this record closely to the other two “retellings” by Paul 22, 26 then we see that Paul made a few “errors” in the details, thus God’s words are pure and true, but Paul was a man, who, the Bible records, wasn’t perfect in everything he said, and we “do away” with OT scripture(Moses and the prophets), at our own peril, when we make Paul’s words, the “inerrant word of God”. Jesus said “Moses and the prophets, they testify of me”, Umm.. it doesn’t sound like their words have been “done away with” by Jesus.

  • jimvj

    The “Bible” is an afterthought in the early evolution of Christianities.

    That is the forest that almost always gets missed in such discussions. None of the founders of these offshoots of Judaism – Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc – evinced any need for such a canonical compendium (or manual in today’s lingo). This despite the fact that doctrinal disparities kept popping up like whack-a-moles, and the voices of “authority” were being polluted and diluted by poseurs.

    The concept of “scripture” had existed in Judaism for centuries; though not always as a canonical set accepted by all or most sects. Despite this model, the founders of the Jesus based sects did not see the need for similar “scripture” for their new religions. It is only centuries later when one sect became dominant, that the need to define a canonical set became paramount. And, many more centuries later, Martin Luther reignited the flames around the authentic definition of “The Bible”.

  • “Why do believers have to wait for people like Ehrman to publish books before we find out about all these problems with scripture, problems that scholars have known about all along?”

    I can really relate to this question. My world was rocked by Inspiration and Incarnation, for example, and I wondered why that should be the case. Some of the observations in that book are things that should have been part of the natural Christian conversation. Instead they struck me as scandalous and somewhat disconcerting. Once I had processed it, I felt a great sense of liberation and a freedom to explore the faith in ways that I previously could not have. I’m confident that many folks would have my experience, yet it seems that there is some sort of pastoral/denominational conspiracy to “protect” congregations from scholarship. That’s probably overstated, but I can’t help but wonder why believers generally aren’t hearing about these issues until they are selling books for skeptics and unbelievers.

    • peteenns

      Bill, I can tell relay to you an actual conversation I heard from someone who was there. In a faculty meeting at a conservative seminary where my book was being discussed, an Old Testament professor told the faculty that there wasn’t anything new in the book and so it’s no big deal. A theologian piped up and asked why he–with an MDiv and a PhD in theology–never heard any of this. The Old Testament scholar told him, “It’s our job to protect your from this.” I’ve been around the block enough times to know that this is not an isolated case. Imagine–Protestants having to protect the masses from the Bible.

    • Carlos Bovell

      I think most ministers are reluctant to bring up these issues because there presently aren’t any convincing solutions for the questions being asked (at least not convincing to everyone). They may be under the impression that until definitive answers become available they should not entertain the questions openly and honestly. One problem is that there simply may not be answers to some of these questions, or if there are, it might take another 25 years before someone lands upon them. In the meantime, ministers and other leaders would prefer that we continue doing “church” or “school” or whatever and conduct Christian business as usual. But I’m not sure this strategy is proving the best one.

  • I’ve been happily married to Mike Licona’s daughter for nearly 20 months at this point. As some may know, our family has suffered greatly from this culture of Inerrancy, even though all of us are Inerrantists. Someone should make sure Norm Geisler gets a copy of this book.