Inerrancy: I think someone forgot to tell the Bible

Inerrancy: I think someone forgot to tell the Bible November 7, 2012

The Bible is the book of God for the people of God. It reveals and conceals; is clear, yet complex; open to all, but impossible to master.

It is, from beginning to end, a product of the cultures that produced it, and still able to comfort and convict across cultures and across time. It is also a book that tells a grand narrative by means of divergent points of view and different theologies. It tells of God’s acts, but also reports some events that either may not have happened, or that have been shaped and transformed by centuries of tradition.

It presents us with portraits of God and of his people that at times comforts and confirms our faith, and at others times challenges and stretches our faith to its breaking point.

This is the Bible we have, the Bible God gave us. “Inerrancy,” regardless of how the term is defined, does not capture the Bible’s character complex dynamics. Inerrancy sells the Bible—and God—short.

Speaking as a biblical scholar, inerrancy is a high-maintenance doctrine. It takes much energy to “hold on to” and produces much cognitive dissonance. I am hardly alone. Over the last twenty years or so, I have crossed paths with more than a few biblical scholars with evangelical roots, even teaching in inerrantist schools, who nervously tread delicate paths re-defining, nuancing, and adjusting their definition of inerrancy to accommodate the complicating factors that greet us at every turn in the historical study of Scripture.

For many other evangelicals (scholars of other disciplines, pastors, and laypeople), inerrancy is likewise no longer a paradigm of explanatory power, but a fragile theory in need of constant care and tending to survive.

Rather than doing justice to the historical complexity, diversity, and depth of the Bible, inerrancy seems burdened by them. Even when defined with flexibility and nuance, inerrancy is in awkward conversation, if not all out tension, with some genuine and widely (if not universally) accepted advances in our knowledge of antiquity (e.g., Israelite history, human history, various branches of science) easily accessible to all, and shared by non-inerrantist Christian scholars working across the theological, ecclesiastical, and academic spectrums.

The problem faced by evangelicals who are critical of inerrancy is that inerrancy has been a central component of evangelicalism for its entire history, a response to the challenges of biblical higher criticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Inerrancy is encoded into the evangelical DNA, and conversations, however discreet, about its continued usefulness are rarely valued; more typically, considerable personal and professional fallout follows in due course.

Yet, evangelicalism’s commitment to inerrancy has never been without its internal critics, and in recent years has again come under increasing scrutiny. I say “again,” and many sigh heavily at the thought of having to retrace familiar (and supposedly unassailable) arguments for why logically God can do no other than give his church an inerrant Bible.

But this cycle of evangelical discontent cannot be discounted as a form of incompetence, arrogance, or desertion on the part of those willing to question the evangelical status quo; in my opinion accusations of this sort are simply political rhetorical strategies (not necessarily conscious) that function to neutralize scrutiny.

Recurring dissent from within is a clear indication that inerrancy’s problems will not go away and that it may be high time that a deliberate move be made to bring those discussions openly into the evangelical mainstream, and so to promote an evangelical culture where such critical self-assessment is promoted rather than marginalized or ostracized.

Such a process should never be confused for “attacking the Bible,” and a failure to keep that distinction in mind is part of the reason why such discord abounds.

[This post is a first draft of an essay I have written and that will appear in a year or so in a Counterpoints volume on inerrancy to be published by Zondervan. The Counterpoints series picks topics of interest to evangelicals and asks scholars and leaders from different perspectives to argue their case and then to field responses from the other contributors.

We were asked to comment on three specific issues: the archaeological evidence surrounding the fall of Jericho, the discrepancy in Acts concerning Paul’s call, and the extermination of the Canaanites. You can probably guess where on the inerrancy spectrum my essay falls. The other contributors are Al MohlerKevin VanhoozerMichael Bird, and John Franke. If you wondering whether we’re going to have some disagreements, I’d say there’s a strong chance.]


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  • JB

    Peter, would you please explain this statement, “The problem faced by evangelicals who are critical of inerrancy is that inerrancy has been a central component of evangelicalism for its entire history, a response to the challenges of biblical higher criticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?” It seems grammatically difficult to parse. Are you re-defining the term evangelical here? If so, in which usage?

  • Ders

    I was pointed here during a debate from another blog’s comment thread. If there is a god, perhaps it is nigh time that he create another bible? If he can write two books, why can’t he write a third? We are talking about a 2000 year old book (much of it older) that is still being used by people as a basis for discrimination. We are talking about a book that is no more backed up by facts than one that is being used as justification in this modern day and age to kill thousands of innocent people. We are talking about a book that cannot definitively denounce slavery as an immoral behavior. Is there a possibility of another bible? Another testament? Would anybody accept that in this day and age? If the answers to those questions are all no, then we should move along. Otherwise you are just trying to shove a modern-sized peg into an antiquated-shaped whole. Maybe myths are just myths. Is that possible?

  • Ders

    There is no way this comment came with a straight face. Lemaitre got to this point of view by doing science! Feel free to point to the bible verse talking about an ever-expanding universe (just show me where it even talks about a the universe at large). He took this scientific information to the Pope, hoping it would prove the point of Genesis. The Pope rejected it. This is no more evidence of religion winning over science than it is evidence of creation. There is absolutely no way you can reconcile Genesis with the big bang theory. Things don’t even happen in the right order.

  • Justice G

    As an evangelical Anglican at the beginning of my scholarly career, thank you for writing this. (I’m finishing up a PHD in OT at Notre Dame)