Guest Post: We Believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Scriptures

Guest Post: We Believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Scriptures March 2, 2012

Today we have a second guest post from 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.

Yesterday’s post reflected a bit on his own journey and gave the background to his edited work, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (Wipf & Stock, 2011). Today’s post is an edited excerpt from his most recent book, Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, 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).

Everywhere I turn, I hear evangelical leaders speak out about how vital it is to have a Bible that’s inerrant.

Well-intentioned or not, so long as institutions and denominations identify and advertise inerrancy as a component essential to evangelicalism (by listing it, for example, as a first or second tenet in their statements of faith), the popular perception will be that inerrancy is central to Christianity itself.

Is it any wonder, then, that in conservative circles a believer’s willingness to submit to inerrantism is seen as the flip side of submitting to Christ himself?

Conversely, being critical of inerrancy—or even bringing up the question—is seen as a slide down the slippery slope to apostasy, or that the slide has already been completed.

What one believes about the Bible is taken to be the foundation for the faith itself. And such a foundation can only be guaranteed by believing in inerrancy.

Hence, the inerrantist expectation is that those serious about their faith will—indeed, must—gravitate toward inerrantism. In conservative American evangelicalism and fundamentalism, inerrancy is an important symbol of social and spiritual belonging to God’s inner circle.

Some inerrantists claim even further that the Holy Spirit is actually guiding true believers to accept the inerrancy of scripture. To wit, the Spirit actively disciplines believers toward the result that they can learn to “take God at his word.”

If inerrant scripture is believed to be impugned in any way, the integrity of the entire faith construct becomes irreversibly compromised. Hence, the persistent need to defend scripture from outside “attacks” by those who question or deny inerrancy.

So, as I argued in an earlier book, inerrancy has become part of evangelicalism’s salvation equation. An inerrant Bible has become a cultural symbol for that person’s salvation. How often have I heard from proponents of inerrancy that I am being disobedient and “grieving” the Holy Spirit because I am critical of inerrancy.

Scripture is a core element in the life of the church, but we must ask whether conservative Evangelicals and fundamentalists are asking of it what it is not designed to do–be an article of faith.

Fundamentalism’s and conservative evangelicalism’s social identities have become wholly intertwined with this one doctrine. When inerrancy comes under serious scrutiny—even if in healthy and constructive ways—preserving its truth begins to take on a grandiose, all-consuming significance.

Inerrancy simply cannot be found wanting; everything (with respect to faith) literally depends on it.

“We believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Scriptures.” When this starts sounding right among inerrantists, it’s time to do some rethinking.



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    • peteenns


  • Excellent post, Carlos. Just last week a friend of mine posted something on facebook that is a perfect example of what you’re describing:

    “It’s remarkably illogical and sad to me to see more and more people wanting to call themselves ‘Christian’, and yet they do not accept the Bible as the inspired Word of God…If a person wants Christ to be their Savior, from what did He save them? Who tells them what they need to be saved from and that there is eternal life for those who believe, if not the Bible? Where do they decide to get their idea of why they need a Savior? Why they need Christ at all?

    If Genesis is figurative, (even though it is written in a style that is completely historical and not figurative, and Jesus Himself as well as the apostle Paul considered it to be inspired by God and to be ultimate truth: Mt. 19:4-5, 2 Tim. 3:16 for two examples) then you didn’t inherit a sin nature because of Adam. If you didn’t inherit his sin nature, then you don’t need Christ to save you from that sin. If you don’t need a Savior, then why do you want to call yourself a Christian?

    This is completely unreasonable to me. We can’t pick and choose which passages of the Bible we want to take literally and which ones we want to take figuratively.

    First, one must decide that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and that what it means is the clear and plain meaning of its own words before one can decide to “be a Christian”. You can’t choose to “be a Christian” if you deny that Scripture is God’s Word because who told you that you needed Christ, except for the Bible itself. So – only believing that Scripture is God’s Word will lead to a belief in Christ so that you can be saved.

    So there you have it. The doctrine of inerrancy has indeed become an article of faith for many. In fact, some people, like my friend, believe it’s a prerequisite to belief in Jesus. That is seriously messed up.

    • peteenns

      Wyatt, and I believe that one point that Carlos makes–perhaps more in his books–is that even inerrantists who are not as extreme as this one example, nevertheless when pushed begin exhibit similar patterns of thinking.

      • Oh, I agree. I just thought she did a really good job of laying it out, in layman’s terms, how that thought process works.

        Again, great article Carlos.

  • Tyler

    If it isn’t an article of faith, then where would someone get their theology? You can not have faith or doctrine if claims of necessary faith or doctrine are not sure. The faith becomes far too liquid and powerless. I can understand if you would want to define what inerrancy is, and what terms that the word includes. But claims of theology must be based on something. It isn’t a slippery slope, its just logic. If the whole thing is compromised then it cannot be trusted for theological claims. It is necessary to decide where you stand on errancy in order to come to any sort of conclusion about faith, truth or theology. If they are the claimed words of God, then they are or aren’t.

    I understand the argument for errancy or rather the argument for the unimportance of whether the bible is errant or inerrant. If a man who speaks the truth at all times always speaks the truth, he is trustworthy. If a man who is a liar always lies, he cannot be trustworthy. But if a man who lies, speaks the truth occaisionally, he is not trustworthy, but the truth he does speak is still truth, regardless. But the truth doesn’t make him less of a liar. The bible would be largely useless for determining any kind of theology or truth without inerrancy. Deciding what is true in the bible would be based largely on personal interpretation, and because of personal baggage, such as assumptions and pre-understandings or even the vast cultural differences. Personal theology is really no theology at all, because it is about creating your own tenants of truth rather than finding the truth and conforming to it.

    One argument that many people ignore is the errancy of the human mind, if we are products of the fall and of sin, then our minds can’t possibly function correctly all the time. For instance, we believe lies all the time, politicians use fallacies in reasoning and we believe them because of the broken state of mind, logic doesn’t always work for products of the fall.

    The bible can be idolized, in many denominations it is, and in others it is immensely undervalued and stripped of its power. It is either the word of God or it isn’t. We need to make a value decision about the nature of the Bible. God’s words cannot be lies, if God is a liar, we are all hopeless. If God hasn’t spoken any words for us, then we are hopeless.

    • Carlos Bovell

      “It is either the word of God or it isn’t.”

      I think a lot of people would agree with something like this, but why should we understand your statement to be the same as proclaiming: “The Bible is either inerrant or it isn’t.” Does “God’s word” necessarily mean “inerrant” and “not God’s word” entail “not inerrant”? I don’t think so. What does it mean that the Bible is God’s word? These are good questions that need to be revisited.

      • B. Stanfield

        If God is really God [i.e. the creator of all reality], and the Bible is really his word, how could he err? Whatever he would say would necessarily be true. It is an issue of definition.

        • Carlos Bovell

          The Bible is not God speaking, it is not God dictating. The scriptures are not the “words of God.” We may call the Bible, “God’s written word,” but that does not negate that it is a part of the created order and was “created” with every indication of having a “real” history, over the course of the development of various ancient cultures and in the context of the passing on of extra-biblical myths and interpretive traditions. These all testify to the Bible’s unfettered human component.

          • B. Stanfield

            Mr. Bovell, thank you for your response. I am not denying the “human component”, I do deny that it is “unfettered”. Nothing is unfettered. Again, if God is God, he chose the authors and their words to convey his intended “meaning”. Thus, the word’s are “God’s words” in the sense that they convey the meaning he intends them to convey, without error, when properly understood by the perciever. This is true of every part of the “created order”. Creation is God’s original medium (See Romans 1) and the Bible merely his special medium. God speaks without error in nature; and by extension the Bible… it is the “human component” that obstructs our perception of his message. The Doctrine of Inerrancy is really just a necessary extension of the Doctrine of God’s Sovereignty. If God intended to communicate a message in the scripture, then he did so… without error.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To B. Stanfield:

            A response that claims, “It follows from my theology that the Bible is inerrant; therefore the Bible must be inerrant,” really seems to miss what is at issue since God could permit errors and put those errors to the service of conveying his meaning. I suggest the necessity you point to is only apparent and not real.

            But more importantly, notice how you have tied your view of scripture “necessarily” to your view of the God of Christianity. Now if the one falls, so does the other, which is precisely the strategy I am decrying in these posts.

            As a counterpoint, I propose that the human component not be thought of as an obstruction, but rather as an integral part of God’s written revelation. For better or worse, this is precisely what God seems to have done in scripture, just look at the “synoptic problem” or the use of ANE myths in the OT or the use of the OT in the NT or the diachronic history of scripture as a whole.

          • peteenns

            …..or look at Jesus himself…..

          • B. Stanfield

            To Mr. Bovell:

            I am enjoying your thoughts. However, the argument is not: “It follows from my theology that the Bible is inerrant; therefore the Bible must be inerrant,”. Rather, it is a simple “if, then” proposition: “IF the Bible is ‘special’ communication from God intended to communicate his deity, redemptive history, and gospel, THEN it is inerrant to that end.”

            You are right: “God could permit errors and put those errors to the service of conveying his meaning.” But I think we are equivocating on the word “errors” at this point. I am speaking of true errors… as in errors that convey falsity with respect to the intended communication. “Errors” in the sense that you are using them are only “apparent and not real.” For example, perhaps John Mark believed that the sun revolved around the earth when he wrote: “At evening, when the sun had set, they brought to Him all who were sick and those who were demon-possessed.” We now know without any doubt that suns don’t set; to suggest otherwise is an error of perception. However, I doubt anybody would argue that John Mark… or God… was intending to communicate the scientific details regarding the workings of the solar system. Accordingly, this “apparent” error is not real and it bears no relation to the intended message. In other words, non-essential perceptive “human” errors do exist in the Bible, errors essential to its message cannot.

            I have tied my view of God’s communication to my view of God. But not necessarily vice versa. True, I was “turned on” to the God of reason by the Bible, but it was merely the God given means to discovery what nature clearly expresses. The transcendent God of reason… or nature… or reality… the God who creates everything within human perception… and beyond it… if he communicates must, by definition, do so without error. It is possible that the Bible is not his communication, but if it is, it is impossible for it to speak erroneously. If you think my logic is in error, I am implore a critique because I do want to think soundly about this issue.

            I do agree with you that God’s use of the “human component” to produce his revelation is NOT an obstruction. Indeed, God’s ability to use mere human agents, with all of their finitude, limitations, misperceptions, pre-concieved notions, irrationality, and sinfulness, to describe the otherwise transcendent and ineffable God in such a way that it gets into “numbskull” heads is breathtaking to me; and a tribute to God’s potency. Further, God’s ability to carry it out through the use of poetry, apocalyptic, mythic, didactic, and legal forms of literature demonstrates that God appeals to both the creative and pedantic mind in ways that stir the soul and make the transcendent… immanent. God’s use of the “human component” is profound .

            I was referring to the other side of the coin… our use of the “human component”. We mispercieve because we are finite and sinners, who do not all have ears to hear the beautiful Gospel of God. It is this “human component” that is prone to see “apparent errors” in God’s inerrant communication because we mispercieve the intended meaning. In that sense, the “human component” is an obstruction.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To B. Stanfield:

            When you say, “I am speaking of true errors… as in errors that convey falsity with respect to the intended communication,” whose intention are you referring to?

            The human authors could intend one thing and be in error, whereas God might intend another and in this case he would not be found in error (indeed he cannot be). Is this what you’re saying?

          • B. Stanfield

            To Mr. Bovell:

            Yes, I do refer to God’s intention. It is God’s message that matters. God’s intentions might, and probably will, align at least in part with the intention of the human authors. However, the Apostle Paul’s intention in Ephesians was to write the Ephesians for their theological edification. God’s intention in having Paul write Ephesians might be, among other things, to bring me to my knees 2000 years later. Paul’s intentions are likely parochial; God’s intentions more “cosmopolitan”. This reality does not make the human author’s intentions, or methods, irrelevant. The Bible is not less than the human author’s intentions and methods; but it is certainly a whole lot more.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To B. Stanfield:

            I think this sounds pretty good. Have you read Divine Discourse by Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff? I think he manages to articulate rather well what you and I appear to be trying to say each in our own way.

            Grace and peace to you


  • J. Johnson

    I believe in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit Three in one! 🙂 I also believe because He is, and was, and ever shall be; that God is perfectly capable of providing us with scriptures that are sound and solid. Just take all of the prophecies in the Old Testement that fore told the coming of Christ. Is it really possible to of only gotten them right, yet be wrong on other things? Why would God allow for the Bible to be wrong when it is the way he choose to communicte to us? Plus how for a second and why would you trust a God which allows His Word to be wrong? I can understand reading things and thinking to ones self, this is crazy, or hard. I totally get the what, why, and how in the world. I also get the this is uncomfortable and the I don’t like it. Yet through it all if I am to believe in God I must trust His Word even when I am troubled by it or don’t like it. It also helps to read it in the right context by learning the history so that you can truely understand what was ment. I know there are some things that I will have to wait for Heaven to find answers. I think the real problem here is that when one reads the Bible the way it was ment to be read, and then realizes what is actually said in it, you find that your dearly held trueths are no longer biblical. Which for my protesting brothers and sisters is abit of an upset in the apple cart. It causes so many church splits. Next for those who are totally caught up in todays culture, well it is down right inconvenient. It makes it very hard to live the life of our world and believe what the Bible sayes is true. It is so much easier to tell yourself no that isn’t what it means, and wow that must be wrong, because I want it to be. Jesus didn’t come to make life marshmellows and rainbows. He came to put us on the edge of our seat where it is abit uncomfortable. Read the scriptures learn the jewish customs and then see Christ in his true light. He wasn’t handing out thornless roses. Stop and realize that it took Paul three years after he “found” Christ to start preaching and evangilizing the world. Christ’s teachings were so radical and His way of thought so different, that I believe Paul had to step back and reorganize his head. Don’t throw out the Scriptures. Take it to God and pray the prayer of Thomas. Lord I want to believe, help my unbelief. Then trust. Blessings to all J.

  • Trey

    Perhaps I missed it in Carlos’ article. Coming from a Pentecostal background, and having been in bible inerrancy churches for most of my life, isn’t the major thrust of this that “if we can’t trust the Bible to tell us the truth, then what can we trust about anything in the Bible? What can we trust about Jesus? How can we trust this is God’s revelation and if not the whole, then which part? I know there are many attempts at harmonization. I remember reading Richard Burridge’s Four Gospels One Jesus a while back, so I don’t feel like the answer is, “well just look at it, it’s riddled with contradictions or there are multiple versions.” Because one, there are clever arguments for those types of things, and two, if you get someone who is a KJV only type of person, then even the multiplicity argument does hold, especially since it doesn’t compromise on major doctrines (well, at least that’s what they say). I’m wondering if there’s something that goes beyond even that. I feel like Carlos only touched on it, saying that if the bible is impugned it becomes irreversibly compromised and thus it is protected from the outside. I guess I was looking for more on that as well. Why are conservative evangelicals uncomfortable giving up this ground? And if one is not an inerrist, what is the alternative? Otherwise, excellent article.

    • Carlos Bovell

      “And if one is not an inerrist, what is the alternative?”

      This is the discussion I am encouraging everyone to have. I don’t find it helpful to keep saying: since there is no alternative, we shouldn’t be talking about inerrancy’s failings. The fact that there is no alternative is precisely why we need to talk more, not less.

      • A. Rose


        Are there any books/authors you could recommend who are trying to answer these questions?

        My own position is that I can’t believe that the bible is inerrant simply because it quite clearly isn’t (unless ‘inerrant’ is redefined to the extent that it becomes a questionably useful term). Nonetheless, I maintain that God does reveal himself in scripture, and even primarily so. I’m trying to work out how this might be articulated best. I suppose you might say that I don’t mind slipping around on the slope a bit, but I’m wary of losing my grip completely.

        • Carlos Bovell

          To A. Rose:

          Thanks for your question. One book I am reading right now and finding profitable is Words and the Word by Kenneth Hamilton (Eerdmans, 1971).

      • Jon hughes


        It’s all well and good encouraging a ‘discussion’, but what we really need is certainty that God has spoken. Take John 20:31:

        “But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

        Do you believe this authoritatively? And if so, what’s your authority for believing it authoritatively? Do you see where I’m going with this?

        • Carlos Bovell

          I’m sorry but I don’t see where you’re going with this. Why all the interest in “authority”? And how do we define “authority”? It seems to me today (and probably all throughout the development of the biblical tradition that the key element is much rather “saliency”.