does an inerrantist culture “do good or do harm”?

does an inerrantist culture “do good or do harm”? November 18, 2014

c bovell 2014Today’s guest post is by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog. Bovell is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007)By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012).


In Mark 3:4, Jesus poses a very interesting question to the man with the withered hand: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

Why ask a question like this? Because, as Mark writes, the witnesses in the synagogue were waiting to see whether Jesus would heal on the sabbath, and thus be able to accuse him as being a sabbath-breaker.

This leads to another question: what was the point behind observing the sabbath in the first place? What religio-cultural benefit was it seen as providing? Whatever it may have been, did it have something to do with God instituting a sabbath to prevent people from doing good? Did it have anything to do with trying to prevent someone from moving to save a life?

To ask this question is already to answer it. The institution of the sabbath did not originally have any of these things in view, and Jesus’s point seems to be that over time keeping the sabbath had come to have the effect of stopping people from doing good.

According to Jesus, God would never want to do anything to stop people from doing good, from saving a life, from carrying out from the heart his two main commandments: loving God with all our hearts and loving neighbor as ourselves.

After all, what kind of God would make commandments that effectively prevent people from doing good? What kind of God would make commandments that get in the way of people from loving each other, that might keep them from saving lives?

Not Jesus’s God. In fact, throughout Mark 2 and 3, Jesus explains that what he does is what God’s followers should be doing, making sure that the commandments—including sabbath-keeping—are carried out in ways that promote love, in ways that lead to good.

The Markan evangelist continues his story, “But they were silent. He (Jesus) looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart.” The faithful, religious people of Jesus’s time (identified here and in Matthew 12 as Pharisees) were so concerned to keep the sabbath properly that their singular focus on doing so blinded them to the greater good of restoring and healing.

In Jesus’s view, this signified a “hardness of heart,” desiring the opposite of what God desires by setting the commandment that God gave to his people against the love that God has for his people. His expectation for us is that we love one another. In fact, he commands us to do so.

So whenever God’s people set one command against another, the net result had better be love. Otherwise, the net effect is killing the commandments, which spiritually deprives God’s people of his provision of love, which is exactly what’s needed to save souls. (Thus the saying, “The letter kills.”)

In Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, I drew a parallel between Jesus healing on the sabbath and the American evangelical inerrantist mindset.

There was a religious ethos among Pharisees during Jesus’s time where the sabbath, a symbol of socio-religious identity, had become spiritually paralyzing if not suffocating. My contention for years now has been that there is a socio-religious symbol in American evangelicalism that has become equally paralyzing and created a spiritually destructive underside that breeds a culture of fear.

One concern I have is that, for various reasons, a number of inerrantist scholars are failing to grasp just how debilitating it is to spiritual formation to foreground inerrancy as a central and permanent fixture for American evangelical identity. They fail to see how, culturally and institutionally, this mindset can keep evangelical teachers from doing good, from providing healing for searching Christians both in evangelical churches and in classrooms.

A recent review of my second book, for example, observes that although my objections to inerrancy might have been relevant “some years ago,” by now evangelicalism has moved beyond inerrancy as a problem, understanding better that scripture contains different genres and was written within various historical contexts.

But drawing attention to how evangelical scholarship has become more sophisticated, though always a welcome development, simply sidesteps the problem temporarily.

Defining inerrancy according to genre, for example, does not go far enough because inerrantists still feel the same pressure, just delayed for a moment: only genre designations that are not “errant” are allowed, which helps explain why myth and legend in Genesis, for example, are not typically admitted as legitimate genre designations by inerrantist writers.

But such designations are routinely—even universally—accepted outside of inerrantist scholarship. Guarding against “errant” genres in scripture looks like special pleading and a needless spiritual distraction.

Further, as I argue in my book, segments of inerrantist evangelical culture have developed in ways that are sustaining a culture of fear. There is a sizable number of wavering believers who desperately need to be healed from its damaging effects, which includes institutional and personal maltreatment. (I have been dared many times by inerrantist believers, “Why don’t I just get it over with and give up profession of faith?”)

The problem is that, given where we are in the history of evangelicalism, a very important part of the healing process for some believers requires turning a critical eye toward, and probably eventually turning away from, inerrancy of any form.

More and more within evangelicalism are questioning the value of an inerrantist paradigm. How will evangelical leaders handle this? Will they cheer on this healing that is taking place or will they grumble in their hearts because the healing supplants a higher “sabbath law?”

In the same way that the apostle Paul explains that he counts all things as ”dung” in order to know Christ (Phil 3.8), I think it’s time for some inerrantist evangelicals to consider whether the esteem with which they hold inerrantist doctrine is so high it is keeping them from doing good to others, from saving a person’s faith, from loving those members of Christ’s church who are looking to be healed from a culture of fear.

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  • Orton1227

    There’s a larger question here too: if you fully believe in inerrancy, why are you telling other Christians:

    1) They aren’t true believers because they don’t believe Scripture is inerrant
    2) They don’t follow the same Jesus
    3) They don’t respect God or His Word
    4) They have a demon
    5) They won’t grow/mature until they take Scripture seriously
    6) They are working against the Kingdom

    etc etc etc.

    These have all been leveled against me by church elders/pastors in the past 10 years. Ironically, it seems those statements are what are truly divisive.

    Double-ironically, the pastor of the church where I attended for those 10 years would often say from the stage, “It’s really amazing to look back 5 years ago at the things you believed and realize how naïve and immature you were.” HELLO! But obviously, that could never apply to inerrancy, right? RIGHT?

    Can we please start cultivating a culture where we give others the benefit of the doubt? Showing a little kindness? Realizing we’re not the smartest human beings on the planet (they’re probably in Japan, I think).

    • Carlos Bovell

      To Orton1227,

      Thanks for commenting. It can really hurt when other believers start making accusations like these against us when all we’re trying to do is honestly understand our faith.

      Grace and peace,

  • Don Bryant

    I’m thinking that “inerrancy” and “dung” in the same paragraph might not win many friends. Me, for one. 🙂

    • Carlos Bovell

      Don Bryant,

      Thanks for your comment. The focus should be on noticing “all things” and “dung” in the same paragraph. And Paul said this so that he might win as many friends as he could and that nothing get in the way of people getting to know Christ.

      Grace and peace,

  • ‘I have been dared many times by inerrantist believers, “Why don’t I just get it over with and give up profession of faith?”’

    This is not uncommon at all. It is an all-or-nothing perspective. I’ve heard Revelation 3:16 employed as though it means “my interpretation of Scripture, or the highway to hell.” I have had people ask me why I even study the Bible if I don’t think it is inerrant. They are amazed that I know so much about it and take its study so seriously, but still acknowledge the plain contradictions, discepancies, and moral complexities within its pages. They are amazed that I’ve already heard all the inerrantist whitewashing arguments and found them not just unconvincing, but actually damaging to a richer understanding of Scripture. It just boggles my mind that they think a text cannot be so important, even central to faith, without being abolutely perfect. In my view, the idea that anything is perfect besides God borders on idolatrous. I have had to deal with such comments less often than I once did, and I have become more patient when I do encounter them. But I have come to realize that this line of questioning is spiritually manipulative and is a form of ad hominem attack which fails to acknowledge the very valid reasons someone takes a non-inerrantist view of Scripture.

    • Great comment. In my experience, most who hold to inerrancy are idolatrous. They hold the written word equal to the Word of flesh. It seems that many/most of them know the Bible better than they know God, if that makes sense.

      • Carlos Bovell

        Yes, inerrantists take God’s attributes and expect many of them to extend to scripture as well because of how they conceive of it as God’s word. At times, it may seem to them that their very idea of God is entwined in the debate.

        Grace and peace,

      • Ross

        Tim, I agree with your point, but actually find that many “inerrantists” don’t actually know the bible that well. To my mind, having read the whole lot through on many occasions, I find it difficult to imagine how anyone who “knows” the bible doesn’t at least question inerrancy, if not chuck it out altogether.

        • Pixie5

          You are right, however being an ex-fundie who did read the Bible over and over and I can tell you that I would have sworn that certain problematic verses did not exist (such as women being forced to marry their rapists). I wonder how I missed them but I think the answer is simply that the mind is very good at concealing and denying the truth. Also the ones I was aware of I just rationalized them, actually on a purely unconscious level. So the Jews committed genocide, but it never even occured to me to think of it in those terms. If God wanted them to die then so be it since God is “always right.” I never felt the slightest bit of empathy for them or even the Jews and foreigners that suffered under Mosaic law.

          That mentality scares me now and I see fundamentalism in any religion as a problem. It is the fundamentalists that start wars and if people think that Christianity is immune to that then they are not paying attention to not only the past but the present. I do not condemn all Christians or Muslims or people of any religion, but I do see certain factions that can be dangerous.

          Of course there are many other reasons to reject the Bible as being the “Perfect Word of God” and as I said I am amazed that even though I am a reasonably intelligent person I missed all those things. The bottom line is that if you are told that the Bible is inerrant then that is how you will read it.

    • Charlie Johnson

      I am a church historian who faces similar problems at times. “Why do you study/teach X theologian or movement if their theology is ‘wrong'”? It’s as if inquirer thinks the only reason to know about something is its contribution to reinforcing already held beliefs. Hmm…..

    • In the field of developmental psychology and its various “stage theories”, the latter closely agree that the stage of inerrantists is a relatively “low” one, in general characterized by black-white, us-them thinking and other identifiable dynamics. The resistance to growth is a cycle of reinforcement in which data that would pull one out is seen as “black” or of “them” so that only what seems to confirm the “white” is paid attention to. And yet, ironically, some of these people CAN be very flexible and accepting on a personal level (though some are not).

      Ken Wilber’s system (it IS complex overall, but has simple aspects) is a great aid in seeing what’s involved with this kind of dynamic outside of just a Christian context (esp. his “Integral Spirituality”)… Highly recommended!

  • Todd Williams

    When one spends decades in a culture of inerrancy, I’m sure other viewpoints seem completely alien, and even “unchristian.” These cultures either avoid completely the difficult and messy areas of scripture (difficult only because of the interpretive mindset), or they beef up on all the spiritual gymnastics required to resolve them. When people who begin to question inerrancy are accused of “being divisive” or “dishonoring God’s word,” then this is where the cultish spiritual abuse rears its head.

  • Carlos, you lost me at “what was the point behind observing the sabbath in the first place? What religio-cultural benefit was it seen as providing? Whatever it may have been, did it have something to do with God instituting a sabbath to prevent people from doing good? Did it have anything to do with trying to prevent someone from moving to save a life?”

    First and foremost, Jesus’ healing in Mark 3:4 was not life-saving. In this passage, Jesus reportedly cured a man with a withered hand. There is no indication that this was a life-or-death situation. There is every indication that the man’s hand had been withered for quite some time. Nor is there any indication that those present in synagogue would have opposed Jesus if this had been a life-or-death situation. Judaism has traditionally taught that all Sabbath laws are suspended in a situation where a person’s life is at stake. Indeed, this is (I think) the most reasonable interpretation of Mark 3:4: Jesus is saying, you would permit me to heal on the Sabbath to “save life”; ergo the Sabbath is a space for doing good. The unspoken argument against Jesus is that the man in question could be healed the next morning, or even after sundown, when the Sabbath was over. Indeed, if that same man could be placed in a time machine and sought surgery for his hand at a Good Samaritan hospital on Christmas Eve, it’s likely that the surgery would be scheduled for December 26.

    Jesus makes a very effective argument in Mark 3:4: the Sabbath is for good, so we should be permitted to do good work on the Sabbath. But I think we must imagine that Jesus’ knew and accepted a counter-argument, that he knew his Ten Commandments. “The seventh day is a Sabbath of the LORD your God, you shall not do any work …” It doesn’t make the exception you describe, for doing good. Indeed, MOST work that people do is for good, whether it’s raising crops for food or building homes for shelter. It’s good to earn a living to support one’s self and one’s family. The logic you’re describing would only prevent people from engaging in evil lines of work on the Sabbath. But it doesn’t say that on the 7th day you shall cease from bank robbery and foreclosing mortgages on widows and orphans. Somehow, we’re supposed to try and organize things so that our good work takes place on the other six days of the week. The logic of the Sabbath is that some good work can wait. And surely Jesus, as a good and pious Jew, understood this.

    I think you’re missing something if you take Jesus’ argument in Mark 3:4 and turn it into a general rule for Sabbath observance. I think he’s making an argument about the miraculous healing of someone whose life was not in danger but might have been suffering physically or emotionally. If with a wave of his hand Jesus could relieve the man’s distress, ease his pain, wouldn’t that ADD to the Sabbath? The argument coming back might have mentioned line-drawing, slippery slopes and the specter of college football played all day Saturday. It’s an argument, one that continues in Judaism and doubtless goes back a long ways.

    • Carlos Bovell

      To lbehrendt:

      I’m the last person to get into a “what’s acceptable on the sabbath?” discussion with. In my view, it was the state of their hearts that bothered Jesus more than any opinion regarding observance.

      Either way, what I’m ultimately interested in doing is taking Jesus’ argument in Mark 3 and interpreting it as a general rule not only for sabbath observance, but for all of scripture: scripture is made for humans and not humans for scripture. We are “lords of scripture” in that we are responsible for seeing to it that scripture be used exclusively for promoting the love of God and each other and under no circumstances keeping anybody from experiencing these.

      Grace and peace,

      • Carlos, I’m with you 100% in the use of scripture to promote love of God and neighbor. I’ve read your posts here in the past, and I like what you’re ultimately interested in doing. So at your request, I’ll put aside the question of Sabbath observance, and focus instead on how to read scripture for human benefit.

        You wrote here that “There was a religious ethos among Pharisees during Jesus’s time where the sabbath … had become spiritually paralyzing if not suffocating.” Let’s put to one side that your assessment of the Pharisees runs counter to the last 40 years of scholarship. Instead, I’ll ask how this assessment is consistent with your desire to promote love of God and neighbor? Even if we accept Jesus’ judgment in Mark 3:4 that the Pharisees in one synagogue on one particular day were hard of heart, why imagine that Pharisees everywhere were so hard of heart that they had suffocated the Sabbath for all Jews? In what sense does this argument display the love of neighbor you wish to promote?

        I am a Jewish student of Christianity. There’s much in Christianity for me to appreciate, and in truth, a certain amount of stuff I simply have to put up with. Part of what I have to put up with is that my spiritual ancestors, the Pharisees, are often used by Christians as a foil and bogeyman. I realize that the New Testament frequently paints Pharisees in a bad light, and that it’s difficult for Christians to break free of this portrait. But given your opposition to inerrantist thought, I think you might try to describe the Pharisees with a bit more loving generosity. At minimum, there’s no reason for you to go beyond the New Testament in your condemnation of Pharisees.

        Maybe I should put this more simply. There are Jews in your audience, Carlos. We read you too. In your effort to keep the New Testament from being used in a way that hurts other Christians, please look for arguments that are not hurtful to Jews. Thanks in advance.

        • peteenns

          Given the rhetoric in Mark how would you recast this episode? Maybe saying something like “Wherever an attitude is displayed similar to these Pharisees in this story”?

          • Tough question, there’s no single right answer, and others have addressed this question, at least in general terms. I will try to be brief.

            In most general terms, I’d recast with due sensitivity for the history of anti-Jewish use of the New Testament. Personally, I recommend that we stop using “Pharisee” as a synonym for “bad Christian.” But your question focuses on this episode in Mark, and so will I.

            I would avoid recasting this episode in simple, black-and-white terms. Real life is more nuanced. I would assume that Jesus wants to obey the Fourth Commandment (Third, if he’s a Catholic!), and that the Pharisees want to love their neighbor. All want scripture to be a force for good. The Pharisees say, this man’s hand is not an emergency case, this healing can wait until Shabbat is out, just as many other good works wait until Shabbat is out. Jesus is saying, no, this can’t wait. We wouldn’t wait to act to save a life, and we shouldn’t wait here, either. This is a good, Jewish argument, and we can appreciate the Pharisees’ point of view, even if we ultimately side with Jesus.

            For me, this approach not only avoids demonizing the Pharisees, but it gives us a richer picture of Jesus. Jesus comes across more fully if we imagine that he responded to a good argument with a better one.

            This can’t be the last word on this subject! I’d like to know what you and Carlos think, and what others think.

          • peteenns

            OK, so you’d cast it in terms of a Pharisaical (in a good sense of the word) debate over Torah. When I teach NT intro to my undergrads, I present these arguments by sympathizing with the Pharisees who were making reasonable efforts to maintaining the covenant–and telling students if there were there they likely would have thought of them as good “Bible believers” just as they were taught to be.

          • Yes. Torah debate. Nicely said! As opposed to who loves, whose heart is hard, etc. Then I’d be very careful about how I brought the debate into the present day.

        • Carlos Bovell

          To lbehrendt:

          I did not mean to be insensitive to Judaism. I was trying to extend the Markan portrayal of Jesus’s disagreement with his Jewish contemporaries in Mark 2 and 3 to present day evangelical disagreements over the doctrine of inerrancy.

          I appreciate your effort to focus on the positive main thrust of the post and overlook infelicities.

          Grace and peace,


          • Understood. Grace and peace back at you, and thanks for your listening and understanding.

  • Barry

    “More and more within evangelicalism are questioning the value of an inerrantist paradigm…” Let’s reword that slightly “More and more within evangelicalism are questioning the value of an paradigm that assumes Jews are fully human…” Now, is that a false comparison? Not from the perspective of one who holds to inerrancy as a presupposition. To such a one, it’s not a paradigm or a model that can be discarded if it fails to meet certain external criteria. It is the criterion to which other standards must conform, and until that is recognized, “productive dialogue” cannot ever take place.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Barry,

      Thanks for your comment. I’m not sure though what comparison you’re making exactly. Are you suggesting that an even deeper problem than inerrancy for evangelicalism (or equally problematic?) is anti-Semitism and until that’s adequately dealt with it’s fruitless to talk about inerrancy with evangelicals?

      Grace and peace,

      • Barry

        Thanks, I wrote this somewhat hastily between classes. I am saying that for many inerrantists, the presupposition of the inerrancy of Scripture is just as deeply held held a conviction as that all human beings are in fact human. It’s not something they question. To call it a paradigm or a model as though it’s somehow optional causes an instinctive defensive response, much as we might react if we met someone who claimed that Jews were not really human (I use that example because I work at a Jewish day school and the topic of anti-Semitism is on a lot of people’s minds right now). The nature of the belief as foundational needs to be recognized by both adherents to and critics of the position.

        • Pixie5

          I think critics already know that for fundies inerrancy is foundational, but how do you communicate with people who believe in lies? The problem is not on the end of the critics. It is rather difficult to deal with people who will not acknowledge reality. If “recognition” means that I accept their position as valid then there is nothing to debate in the first place.

          However I would be perfectly happy to leave them to their beliefs if it were not for the fact that they want to force them on the rest of us. Interfering in the separation of church and state is the bottom line for me. We have no obligation to acknowledge their beliefs in the public sphere. Perhaps the Amish have it right, we do not interfere in their affairs and they do not interfere with ours. While it may be extreme to simply drop out of society as they have, the concept is perfectly valid and is what the founding fathers intended. The inerrantists have severely eroded that. It is difficult for me to respect a group of people who feel that everyone has to follow the Bible, and specifically their interpretation of the Bible.

          And “interpretation” is exactly the right word to use for it. Or “model”, etc. If they cannot live with that language then that is on them. There is a big difference between saying Jews are not “fully human” (which ends up hurting them and is untrue) and stating the fact that there are different interpretations of the Bible (where no one gets hurt and it is true).

  • Frank

    I would like to ask a question about the goodly value of keeping the Sabbath. Jesus did the opposite to harden his heart and show the love of his father in giving this concept as a gift.

    What though of the man who was stoned to death because he tried to do a good deed for his family by making a fire to cook a meal (Numbers 15:32-36)? Where is the love in this violent act. Yes, he ‘broke’ the Sabbath law, but what is the godly lesson for us here?

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Frank,

      This is a famously difficult text. I would say it’s similar to the tale of Ananias and Sapphira that is found in Acts 5, where a story is invented to recount a teaching that has been passed down by tradition. In the Numbers 15 story, what was passed down is a legal decision hoping to set a precedent or paradigm for help regarding future, uncertain cases involving “work” on the sabbath.

      You’re absolutely right. In the form that the story has come down to us, there is no love in putting someone to death for gathering some wood on the sabbath.

      Grace and peace,

      • Frank

        I’m reading ambiguously from your reply, Carlos. Are you saying that the executed man was actual Jewish history?

        It is often insisted that one is not a Christian unless one believes Christ is God. Logically then, this must have been Christ who ordered Moses/Joshua to put the man to death. It may have been a legal decision, but this old man’s demise comes down to us more like the acts perpetrated by fundamentalist groups like Isis.

        If the story is a fabrication, then the Bible isn’t inerrant.

        • Carlos Bovell

          Thanks for your response, Frank. I don’t understand what dilemma you are trying to propose for me. I do not think the Bible is inerrant. The story’s a fabrication. I am fine with that.

          Grace and peace,

          • Pixie5

            The story may be a fabrication, but that does not make it any more palatable. People were still put to death based on this legal precedent. There were 39 “offenses” that would earn the death penalty for “working” on the Sabbath.

  • Ross

    I’m more responding to the title than the body of the post.

    A few years ago I was fairly happy to say that I could not say that the bible was inerrant, but was happy to be in communion with those who felt it was and as long as this was a “secondary issue” things could go along fine. Then the church I was in decided to raise the qualification for membership from a belief in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to that of God the Father, Son, Spirit and Inerrant Scripture.

    So I was no longer allowed to be an active member of a fellowship, but could be allowed a lesser status, not because I questioned God, but because I didn’t believe that a pile of ink on paper was equal to God.

    I understand why people need some level of security, and why they have created a poorly intellectualised argument, to bolster their faith in the face of attack and criticism against revelation. But I have now come to strongly believe (realise?), that the man-made and extra-biblical doctrine of Inerrancy, as is generally understood (let’s not tie ourselves up in knots trying to nuance and un-nuance this garbage), really is bordering on the realms of heresy if not fully stepping into it.

    The doctrine of “Biblical Inerrancy” is fully and deliberately divisive. It is solely there to separate the “ins from the outs”. It is not aimed at non-believers, it is only aimed at believers.

    Therefore it can really only do harm to the faithful.

    Maybe the insularity of the protestant mindset, which is particularly noticeable in it’s American context, feels it is in a beleaguered position, defending itself against the continued attacks of Satan. However if you actually step out of that mindset, you really do realise that it’s a laughing stock.

    Whilst trying “to defend Scripture, God and the faithful”, Inerrantism, which is definitely an “ism”, is just destroying that which it purports to defend and is hurting many faithful people on a daily basis and does nothing to further the kingdom.

    If you are an “…” You will see my comments as yet more of Satan’s attacks against the truth. For the rest of us we just need the confidence and courage to shake off the manipulations of those who trust in “knowledge” and the “safety of not trusting”.

    “Christianity”, or at least its intellectual expression, failed to deal with the challenges at the time of Darwin etc, and has since declined massively in the West, as it increasingly became irrelevant, due to too many people failing to express the revelation of scripture in relation to the revelation of nature. By burying heads in the sand and pretending that the Modern World will go away if we ignore or deny it isn’t going to do anyone any good. By sorting the World into “Inerrantists” and “Sinful people who are going to hell” is just going to continue setting God’s people against each other. Leaving Satan to look on from his armchair glad of the rest he gets, as God’s people do his work for him.

    Unless Inerrantists realise that their view is one of many and not the “One and only true view” and agree, in Love, to commune with all the other believers in Jesus, we may as well just give up and hand the keys back to Satan.

    • Carlos Bovell

      To Ross:

      That’s really a great insight there about inerrancy being used to divide Christians. Some inerrantists are still trying to distinguish between real believers and nominal believers, but that still sounds like ins and outs to me!

      Grace and peace,

  • I urge people to differentiate between inerrancy and objective morality. It is mistakenly believed that if the Bible is not inerrant according to scheme X, Y, or Z, then we have zero reliable methods for understanding absolute morality. I find this absurd: it’s like arguing that because the TV has one bad pixel, the movie is utterly spoiled. Reality does not work this way. Reality is complex, but not infinitely so: otherwise science would be possible. I argue the same goes for morality: it is complex, but not impossibly so.

    What I like about inerrantists is that they believe the Bible really does help you access objective truth. For a wonderful illustration of love without truth, see C.S. Lewis’ favorite work, Till We Have Faces. For more, there is his The Great Divorce. That being said, it is easy to think that love consists of following some particular social convention, rather than building the other person up. We need to get beyond the letter of the law, to the spirit. Likewise, one doesn’t always enumerate the rules and regulations one learned in Driver’s Ed; instead, one internalizes the spirit of safety (and hopefully: efficiency).

    Furthermore, I suggest inerrantists read up on the sociology of knowledge, to see how ‘the plain reading of scripture’ is so strongly dependent on what society currently believes. I say ‘strongly’ instead of ‘utterly’, because I believe God is immanent and active; I reject the idea that he has given us some timeless truths and now all he does is remind us of Bible verses and futz with our feelings. But will we let God break through our current way of looking at the world, to make it bigger? Will we continue to hear him, as the author of Hebrews urges? Or will we harden our hearts?

    • Frank

      Hi Luke. Can you please explain how the death of untold Canaanite children is objectively moral, please. What was the sin (falling short of the glory of God) of the children?

      When Japan attacked Pearl Harbour, they attacked a military installation. When America dropped bombs on two Japanese cities, this violated all war conventions, namely the death of non-combatants. We in the West can rule the latter objectively immoral, yet struggle with a god of perfect love (God/Jesus) who again will do this riding a white horse in the Bible book of Revelation. Does it explain anything merely to state that God must have ‘sufficient moral reason’?

      Deuteronomy 24:16

      • Frank, those are great questions, but Dr. Enns does make blog posts directly about those issues, so I’m reticent to explore them, here. So instead I will say that just as science advances toward an objective reality via ‘successive approximation’, we ought to expect to advance toward an objective morality via ‘successive approximation’. See, for example, 1 Thess 4:1–2,9–10. Certain conceptions of inerrancy appear to deny the ‘successive approximation’ approach. Questions like yours help in critiquing this denial.

        There’s another way I can tie this back to the topic of inerrancy: arguing with God. See the three instances where Moses pushed back against God’s threats to destroy Israel and restart it with him: Ex 32:9–14, Num 14:11–20, and Num 16:19–23. God wants us to argue with him! He wants us to struggle with him! Some forms of inerrancy appear to denigrate this aspect of God, as if it isn’t sufficiently ‘holy’ or ‘sovereign’. To such forms, I say: so much the worse for your idea of inerrancy!

        • Frank

          I’m all for arguing with God, Luke, though your Socratic take is quaint to a Jehovah’s Witness who was raised never to question God’s judicial decisions or those of his earthly elect.

          Peter Enns quotes Mark 3:4: “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”

          This lesson was to highlight the hypocrisy of the Pharisees who ‘strained out the gnat but gulped down the camel.’ If the old man in Numbers 15:32-36 was doing a fine deed on the Sabbath, this is one argument God can’t win if he was the same person posing the question.

          What I find particularly interesting is that Christians can rarely, if ever, answer simple moral questions obviously raised in the Bible’s eclectic text. The ‘answers’ posed are never genuine answers; “Trust in God,” “God has sufficient moral reason (William Lane Craig),” “He’s God, you’re not (argument from power/authority),” “God works in mysterious ways,” etc.

          Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett, raise the issue of whether the good that religion can be guilty of, outweighs the bad it wages to rid the Earth of ‘sin.’

          It would be helpful, Luke, rather than telling me answers lie elsewhere on Peter Enns’ site, if you give me YOUR answer as simply as possible.


    • hoosier_bob


      Good insight. The practical benefit of inerrancy to many evangelicals lies with our desire to believe that God is on our side as we engage in the Culture Wars. This has certain problems, though.

      First, it assumes epistemic idealism, namely that, through the Bible, we can have access to some kind of “true truth” that is otherwise unconditioned by the complexity of our human condition. The Bible then comes to be viewed as a collection of synthetic a priori propositions that can be wielded against our cultural enemies (who obviously hate the truth). Inerrancy is popular because it’s perfectly consistent with this idealist approach to ethics.

      Second, it assumes that the truth is always unambiguous with clear divisions between black and white, and that anything short of that is relativism. It allows us to disregard ambiguity and complexity, and feel virtuous about doing so. In other words, it allows to repackage ignorance as virtue. It also allows us to discount the kinds of people who are always pointing out complexities and ambiguities. We can freely ignore such people because they’re obviously trying to lure us away from the truth (which is always simple and unambiguous).

      Third, it assumes a certain entitlement. When it’s proposed that we rely on Scripture within a more realist framework (i.e., along the lines of Calvin’s two books of God’s revelation), evangelicals generally cry foul. People seem to believe that a good God wouldn’t leave us in a condition where we can’t have access to “true truth” on issues that are important to us (e.g., civil same-sex marriage, Obamacare, etc.).

      Fourth, it excuses us from having to examine the biases bequeathed to us by our own socio-cultural assumptions. In fact, it convinces us that we have no socio-cultural assumptions peculiar to our own contingency; the sociological contours of the evangelical subculture instead become elevated to something called a “biblical worldview”. If others are different from us, it’s because they hold to non-biblical worldview, which are constructed on something less than “true truth.”

      Inerrancy is popular among many older evangelicals because it legitimates the post-WWII American evangelical subculture and cloaks it in a false aegis of divine approval. So, what’s at stake in the inerrancy debate isn’t just our approach to the Bible and to our religious faith. In addition to that, the inerrancy debate touches on the whole manner in which evangelicals conceive of their socio-cultural place within American society. After all, without inerrancy, we may have to admit that we have been wrong from time to time, that we have been blinded by our own biases, and that some of what “the secularists” have said about us and our ideas may be true. And that would be a bitter pill to swallow for the Jim Dobson generation of evangelicals.