The following is an edited version of the foreword I wrote for Carlos Bovell’s Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear. Carlos recently wrote three guest posts for this blog.
Inerrancy was once the unquestioned foundation for the evangelical tradition. In recent generations, however, it has become within evangelicalism a theological problem needing to be addressed.
Many evangelical thinkers over the last several generations have raised their voices to say that we can no longer marginalize or explain away broadly agreed upon developments in theological, philosophical, and biblical studies that happen to rest uncomfortably with inerrancy.
Such a call has created considerable tensions for evangelicals, for evangelicalism has built its theological identity around defending inerrancy.
But now, many younger evangelicals are saying openly that inerrancy does not have the explanatory power that its defenders once claimed for it. New paradigms, they say, are needed and have been for some time.
They are eager to engage in conversations that will respect their evangelical heritage but not simply leave things as they are for the sake of convenience or for fear of being ostracized should they step outside of well-defended boundaries.
The question before us is how post-inerrantist evangelicals can remain in dialogue with their inherited inerrantist evangelical culture while at the same time working toward for theological language that moves beyond those categories—and honor God and build up the people of God in the process.
That is a tall order, especially in an evangelical environment where questioning traditional views about the Bible and honoring God are often considered mutually exclusive.
But younger evangelicals are sensing the need to create an evangelical culture that not only accepts but is also oriented toward such discussions, where critical doctrinal self-reflection is the norm, not the pariah. These are sincere followers of Christ, who, in the true spirit of the Protestant Reformation, want to transform evangelicalism rather than ignore its problems or leave it behind.
Over the last several decades, evangelicals have seen a recurring pattern, where promising evangelical thinkers leave their evangelical seminaries to pursue further study in biblical studies, theology, and philosophy in secular research universities. In time, they begin to see that an inerrantist paradigm does not account well for certain pressing biblical and historical issues (such as the authorship of biblical books and the historicity of many biblical narratives).
This scenario is common to anyone participating in evangelical academic culture, but it is too often caricatured by inerrantists as a failure on the part of these impressionable youth to hold firm the faith of the fathers.
Rather than defend the faith as they should, this new, foolhardy generation has become enamored of the thought of academic fame and fortune and so forsaken their first love. Either that, or they are simply judged as being incompetent to address the issues at hand, proceeding unaware of the subtleties contained in various tomes written by guiding lights of centuries past.
But surely this caricature is more propaganda than truth; it can hardly explain the recurring willingness on the part of younger evangelicals over the last few decases to examine critically core elements of their evangelical heritage.
The reason that the same issues keep coming up is not some spiritual, moral, or intellectual failure on the part of younger evangelicals. The inerrantist paradigm is being called into question because the paradigm does not have explanatory power and new ones are needed.
The true failure lies not with younger evangelicals, but with the evangelical culture that does not recognize the despondency of this cycle. Younger evangelical leaders are basically left with three choices: They can either speak up (and suffer the consequences), keep silent (and so suffer tremendous cognitive dissonance–not to mention a wasting of their gifts for the church), or leave evangelicalism altogether. Failure to name the cycle for what it is will only perpetuate it.
Evangelical conversations over inerrancy are happening and will continue to happen. The only question is whether they will be conducted openly in a constructive and humble fashion, or whether fear will rule and perpetuate distrust.
Those who resist the growing dissatisfaction with inerrancy are obligated to engage the data and offer a more convincing paradigm, not offer piecemeal solutions.
Winning minor victories here and there will only forfeit in the long run the very heritage they wish to preserve.