Worthen on inerrancy and the evangelical crisis of authority

Worthen on inerrancy and the evangelical crisis of authority November 5, 2013

The first part of Molly Worthen’s assessment of American evangelicalism (Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism) is a nearly 100-page section on inerrancy entitled “Knights Inerrant.”

As with any work of this type that tries to lay out an issue with some patience and detail, it is difficult to lift out some representative quotes.

But I did it anyway.

Hopefully these will give you some taste for this portion of the book–though to assess the book itself, you have to read it (duh).

“[Second generation fundamentalists] aspired to the intellectual sophistication of old [19th century] Princeton, but it was not clear whether nuance was compatible with their sense of mission. Inerrantist intellectuals considered themselves something like Protestant Marines, a warrior corps whose confidence in the authority of scripture–and commitment to taking the principle of God’s sovereignty to its logical extreme–anointed them as the Bible’s first shock troops, favorite sons, and truest defenders” (24).

“From the neo-evangelical point of view, if Christian civilization was to survive the twentieth century, then biblical inerrancy and a reenergized Christian Weltanschauung [worldview] must form its bedrock…. [Despite Pietistic influence] a more rationalist, Reformed school of thought dominated their training. In this tradition, there was a single proof that one’s presuppositions were the right ones, and one acceptable defense for any intellectual position: It was a true reading of the inerrant gospel” (35).

“In their call for engagement with the wider culture, for intellectual curiosity and rigor, the cadre of ex-fundamentalists at the center of the neo-evangelical movement tapped into a real sentiment simmering among Protestants. Yet for all the broadminded engagement that they encouraged in theory, their institutions waved the banner of biblical inerrancy without coming to terms with the controversy surrounding the doctrine” (53).

“[The neo-evangelical] ahistorical view of scripture, their overriding desire to defend the doctrine of inerrancy as ancient, immutable, and God-given, made sensitive scholarship impossible” (71).

“[P]resuppositionalists’ basic proposition, which they readily admitted–God is perfect and incapable of error in his revelation, and therefore no human may contradict that revelation–committed them [ironically] to a highly rationalistic view of the Bible. Since God could never err, any apparent discrepancy between scripture and scientific knowledge revealed not a mistake in revelation or a rupture between faith and reason, but merely the error of human interpretation” (87).


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  • It appears Molly Worthen is a member of the National Security Agency and had been spying on my apologetics activities for the first 37 years of my life.

  • James

    This study gives valuable historical perspective, I’m sure. But it doesn’t seem to describe its own philosophical high ground from which to assess the phenomenon in question. Perhaps Molly stands on “sensitive scholarship.” But all serious students of scripture ascribe to some form of scholastic rigor, I hope. Or, is the force of her analysis self-evident or auto-correcting? I should read the book to find out!

  • John

    This book should be entitled “The Scandal of the Evangelical Institutions and Leaders”

  • Gary in FL

    Clearly, in addition to meeting the need for a final authority, inerrancy is also about a Christian cultural need for certainty. It’s commonly observed that this need for certainty–and a certain kind of certainty at that, namely a post-Enlightenment, rationally defendable certainty–reflects the age we live in.

    What I want to add is the doctrine of inerrancy does not allow for any sort of quest for truth or certainty. Certainty is assumed to be possible, and is never sought, because of a prior dogmatic assertion of where it has to be found. This means there’s nothing to look for, nothing to test against the observable world, and all that’s left is defending what’s already believed. This kind of certainty wants to slam dunk the questions it can, and studiously avoid the ones it can’t. The one thing it can’t do is honestly engage questions which could lead to unsettling the fragile certainty.

  • rvs

    Hermeneutical bullying in evangelical circles is easier to understand in light of these quoted remarks. I’m suddenly reminded of the golden calf. A hermeneutical apparatus forged out of gold–this might be a useful metaphor.

    • As I currently understand it, the Westminster Confession of Faith was drawn up to declare an “us vs. them”. It’s almost as if they thought they were Jesus:

      Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

      Only Jesus and Satan can say: “if you are not for me you are against me”. Only Jesus and Satan have pure motives—unmixed motives. Contrast Jesus’ method for figuring out who is who:

      And his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”

      Jesus didn’t seem to think that “does the will of God” was equal to “believes the right things”:

      “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.

      Jesus seems to care more about how our actions manifest—it’s as if that is the way to know a man’s purpose, to know what is in the heart of a man. What kind of impact does he have on the world?

  • NateW

    We have to remember though that the right way to deny inerrantism is not to claim its opposite “God makes errors” or that the Bible is Wrong. It is to realize that the answers that the bible gives are to different questions than those we are asking.

  • I’m not sure I’ll get around to reading her work; not that I’m opposed to reading it,
    but I have too many other books on my “to read” list. But I do have a response to the last quote of hers that you gave, Peter.

    “[P]resuppositionalists’ basic proposition, which they readily admitted–God is perfect and incapable of error in his revelation, and therefore no human may contradict that revelation.”

    I’d agree the proposition, as she’s given it, lends itself to a highly rationalistic view of the Bible. And I would agree that there are many evangelicals whose view of inerrancy would fit with the “basic proposition” as she gave it. But I see two parts to her proposition; one that as a presuppositionalist, I generally agree with; and one that I don’t agree with.

    I would rather say that since God can never err, any apparent discrepancy between Scripture and scientific knowledge is not a mistake in (special) revelation, but a mistake in human interpretation. The second part to Worthen’s basic assumption (and therefore no human may contradict that revelation) is an improper addition to the basic proposition (God is perfect and incapable of error in his revelation) that invites the rupture she pointed to between faith and reason.

    There seems to be a failure here to acknowledge another basic presupposition—namely the Creator-creature/creation distinction between God and everything else. Within this distinction, I see rationality and logic (including the law of non-contradiction) as part of the created order. To the extent that they are attributes of God as Creator, in humanity they are merely reflected images of
    the Godly attributes.

    This led me to qualify “revelation” in Worthen’s proposition to “special revelation.” God’s “revelation” is both general (contained within the universe He created) and special (within in his Word). Given a fundamental Creator-creature/creation distinction, as a creature I can’t bridge the gap unless God does it for me. I think what Peter had to say in “Inspiration and Incarnation” is helpful here:

    “We trust the Bible, not because we can show that there is no diversity,
    but because we believe, by the gift of faith, in the one who gave Scripture to
    us. We are to place our trust in God who gave us Scripture, not in our own
    conceptions of how Scripture ought to be.”

  • Jim

    Sounded pretty good, but not from where I see and I see neo-evangelicalism with all its warts as an insider and it’s got plenty of them. But it’s much better than this description…it’s too stereotyped.