inerrancy, historical criticism, and the slippery slope

inerrancy, historical criticism, and the slippery slope December 10, 2014

In today’s post, Carlos Bovell suggests a visual metaphor that moves beyond the slippery slope, either/or thinking common among inerrantists.

Bovell, a frequent contributor to this blog, 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).


It’s very hard for inerrantists to change their thinking about how their doctrine of scripture is related to the spiritual life.

The problem is that they don’t have an alternate model and so instead of jeopardizing their connection to God (which they see as being established via scripture), they cling to inerrancy and hold out for any argument that gives an inerrant Bible even the slightest possibility of being true.

I trace this to a rhetorically powerful visual metaphor that they use to help conceive of what happens to believers when they begin challenging inerrancy: the slippery slope.

The slippery slope metaphor is what makes some inerrantists think that inerrancy is crucial, even non-negotiable, to faith. In fact, conceiving of scripture as being a central indication of one’s faithfulness to God has such a powerful ideational hold on conservative evangelicalism that even students who genuinely want to do serious research will select courses of study that will make it easier to keep inerrancy intact. They do this as a precaution because by doing so, they believe they’ll keep their faith intact.

What is needed, I would say, is a new visual metaphor for how scripture relates to faithfulness without tying inerrancy to faithfulness as the default starting point. We need a picture that allows inerrancy not only to be directly challenged but also discarded without having people feel like they might end up giving up faith.

As a suggestion toward remedying this, I offer the following illustration (adapted from a popular book on mathematics entitled, How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking).

The old “slippery slope”picture:

Slippery slope

The slippery slope picture holds that once you start being critical of inerrancy there is no non-arbitrary way to stop the inexorable slide toward atheism. Put another way, the more historical-critical studies are allowed to inform our reading and understanding of the Bible, the more we’re reading the Bible like atheists. This is why some well-meaning authors feel obliged to characterize otherwise “solid” inerrantist biblical scholars as outright and duplicitous liberals.

But at the same time there are non-inerrantist, evangelical writers who would describe these same, “solid” inerrantist biblical scholars as thinly disguised fundamentalists. In other words, they have not come nearly far enough to meaningfully distinguish them from the more strict inerrantists. How can both dynamics be at work at the same time when people write about the doctrine of scripture?

The fact that both descriptions are being presented at the same time suggests that the slippery slope model is not doing justice to the state of affairs within evangelicalism today. What is needed is a new picture.

A new “maximizing faithfulness” picture:

historical critical thinking

Notice how this graph does not encourage believers to correlate faithfulness with being wary of historical criticism. Instead, it points believers toward a faithful appropriation of it.

It also does not predispose believers to correlate the appropriation of historical criticism with its most extreme adherents. By replacing the slippery slope picture with a maximizing faithfulness picture, we might takes some positive steps toward becoming less reactionary in our thinking toward historical criticism by jettisoning the either/or thinking that surfaces among inerrantists. We can reflect more carefully on both the importance of faithfulness and historical critical readings of scripture.

Of course, this leaves open such questions as “How much historical criticism is too much (or not enough?)” or “At what point on the curve is inerrancy no longer a viable category or is historical criticism actually not being practiced but only paid lip-service?” These are legitimate questions, but answering them wasn’t the purpose behind wanting to come up with a new picture.

The purpose behind suggesting the new picture is to help inerrantists get out of the slippery slope way of looking at things so that we can all begin thinking more intently about the legitimate place of historical criticism and still honestly believe (and treat each other like we believe) that the other Christians we are talking to, the ones who we so adamantly disagree with, are also trying to maximize faithfulness just as much as we are.

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  • I’ve not subscribed to “slippery slope” thinking ever since having it cited repeatedly by very conservative Bible professors where I got my BMin. They’d refer to it for everything, from dancing leading to sexual immorality, to lower criticism leading to higher criticism and then atheism.

    That said, it became difficult to continue believing in spite of everything. If the Bible is not consistently reliable with regard to science, history and (arguably) morality, how can it be considered trustworthy for “theological” matters. In other words, if the factual basis of events (for example) not only cannot be established, but can be shown to have not occurred at all, how can the “truth claims” attached to them and other events be accepted?

    • DMH

      I see you’ve had some dealings with/in Brazil/Brazilians. My wife grew up in Brazil- lots of interesting cross-cultural stuff. People/cultures think differently about important things. Your question, I think, assumes some things about facts/ knowledge/trustworthiness/(T)ruth. Perhaps the biblical writers did not share all of those assumptions. Perhaps there are other ways of thinking about (T)truth.

      I like continuums, they’re very helpful (much better than a slippery slope). But a continuum looks at something from a certain perspective, which can lock you into a way of thinking. Reality is usually more complex.

    • Rick

      “If the Bible is not consistently reliable with regard to science, history and (arguably) morality”
      But doesn’t “reliability” depend on the motive and context of the writer, and the overall point of the meta-narrative?

      • You would probably like chapter 7 of Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, in which he argues that the Hebrew terms for truth and falsity are expressly about reliability/​trustworthiness, and that a Hebrew term for ‘word/thing/thought’ is what can be reliable or not, which puts the Hebrews at odds with the Greek correspondence theory of truth.

        One might say that the ancient Hebrews though functionally and teleologically, while we think propositionally and materially. This is supported by John H. Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate, in which he argues that the ancient Hebrews’ ontology was radically different from our own.

        Hazony describes how the Greek-inspired corresponence theory of truth has come under increasing attack in the 20th and 21st centuries; I have seen that as well, especially in my reading about the “interpretive turn” in the human sciences. Alasdair MacIntyre argues in After Virtue that morality doesn’t make sense without teleology. The very idea that understanding is based on collections of propositions has come under severe attack in the philosophy of language—and yet, some models of inerrancy presume that ‘collections of propositions’ make sense!

        So anyway, I think you’re very much on the right track, and have a lot of good arguments and evidence to back you up! @igneousquill:disqus, you might like this.

        • Rick

          I have not read the Hazony section, so thanks for the heads-up.
          I have read that work by Walton and agree that it is a good example. Again, thanks.

    • I hear you and have struggled with this, myself. Mostly because the way I was raised in the faith, it was so tightly coupled to inerrancy that they were one and the same. If evolution is true, for instance, then everything is up for grabs.

      One thing that helped me is what Rick alluded to – that reliability does not mean inerrant in every possible way something can be inerrant. If a history book says two armies fought at sunset, that is not an unreliable account just because we know that the sun does not actually set from an astronomical perspective. Knowing the genre and intent of the book is one way we define “reliability” and we actually expect to just brush aside statements that might not be objective fact if that isn’t pertinent to the purpose of our reading.

      Another thing is that our modern view of historical reliability is not at all the same as the biblical authors. The Gospel authors knew the details of their accounts of the Resurrection didn’t line up, and it didn’t bother them at all. Nor did it occur to them or the early church that those points of contention meant their message wasn’t true.

      Now, obviously, this can be taken to an extreme. Paul, for instance, recognizes that, if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, then all this suffering and martyrdom in the early church would have been really stupid, because their hopes were demonstrably false. The Bible’s theology is not totally separate from its historical reliability.

      But it’s also not totally coupled to its historical reliability, either, and part of the task of exegesis (and faith) for that matter is to make informed, critical decisions about the impact the objective history of an event has on the teaching drawn from it. For example, if Jesus did not actually rise from the dead, that has a huge impact on the reliability of NT theology as a whole (of course, none of the NT Scriptures disagree on whether or not Jesus rose from the dead). If there were not actually two angels at the tomb, but there was one angel (or no angels), what impact does that have on the reliability of the message of the Resurrection? Very little to none.

    • A nice example of the Bible being reliable in a way that matters, is how certain readings of Deut 5 and 1 Sam 8 prime one to make much better predictions about human nature than those ‘experts’ who were queried, as can be seen in Milgram experiment § Results. Did Deut 5 happen precisely as recorded? Well, a substantial chunk of real knowledge one can extract from it doesn’t depend on ‘precisely’. Instead, one must see the passage as realistic. See what Augustine had to say:

      Nullus quippe credit aliquid, nisi prius cogitaverit esse credendum.

      [No one, indeed, believes anything, unless he previously knows it to be believable].

      What this line of reasoning is in danger of leaving out is God’s actual immanence in the world. I don’t see that as a fatal problem, because I don’t see a whole lot of high-quality reasoning about how God’s immanence actually works or what it actually looks like. Indeed, much Christian theology seems like it’d work under deism with only a few tweaks here and there. This doesn’t surprise me; see what swiss theologian Emil Brunner had to say in 1952:

      In any event we ought to face the New Testament witness with sufficient candour to admit that in this “pneuma”, which the Ecclesia was conscious of possessing, there lie forces of an extra-rational kind which are mostly lacking among us Christians of to-day. (The Misunderstanding of the Church, 48)

      To the extent that theology follows practice (I’m under the impression that analytic philosophy also tends to do this), it will not require God’s immanence to appear in a way clearly distinguishable from what naturalists can realistically describe using non-supernatural language. I think we need new, better ways of thinking about God’s immanence, ways that probably allow for God to challenge our conceptions of ‘the good’ in deep ways, ways utilized in arguing against slavery and racism. A well-developed discussion of how God would help us transcend our current conceptions of ‘the good’ can be found in Alistair McFadyen’s Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (extensive review).

      • Striker

        This is all very fine, but it is not necessary then to speak of your cited passages in theological terms. The authors of those passages were simply more prescient than modern social scientists (which, actually, is not hard to achieve).

    • Jeff Y

      To the second paragraph the question that Walton notes is pertinent: “How on earth could the Bible be consistently reliable with science since scientific understanding is constantly changing?” Biblical texts can only be reliable to the cultural assumptions at the time in which they were penned. They can’t be reliable both to a flat earth with a dome above in which the sun, moon and stars rotate (a view that it reflects and was almost universally the understanding in the ancient world), and to a modern, 21st century understanding of the cosmos. As Galileo is famously attributed: “The Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Inspiration by the Spirit does not negate the possibility of an inspired writer reflecting the cultural, finite understandings of his day (either scientifically or historically). It ensures the message is what the Spirit desires; and in reality “inspiration” (“God-breathed”) is simply stating that scripture is “life-giving” (cf. Gen. 2:6-7; Ezek. 36; John 20:19-22) and therefore provides for us a means to reconciliation with God and each other in order to glorify God – by training and empowering us by the Spirit.

  • There is presumption that your suggested points for “inerrancy” and “faith-based criticism” on the graph are correct or could be agreed upon. Inerrantists could use the same graph, placing it near the apex. It would matter little whether it was a bit to the left or right; or smack dab in the middle. The argument would be that more movement on the historical criticism line leads (or doesn’t lead) to decreased faith.

    • peteenns

      I think the end of his piece addresses this, doesn’t it, Chuck? He is aware of this.

      • Pete, My point is that for inerrantists, let’s say strict inerrantists, would place the “inerrancy” point at the apex; perhaps a bit to the left. They would also likely place the “faith-based criticism” point on the right, downward side of the normal curve, in essence, not really changing the argument from their perspective. I don’t see where using this concept would change the argument with strict inerrantists.

        • Sven2547

          My point is that for inerrantists, let’s say strict inerrantists, would place the “inerrancy” point at the apex; perhaps a bit to the left.

          Then how would they describe points further left than them on the graph? Who employs less historical criticism than the inerrantist?

          • louis

            i think ‘inerrancy’ is a major symptom of a deadly religion addiction. all addicts exist in their own little bubble world. if you or i dissagree w/ them it’s the slippery slope.

    • Carlos Bovell

      To Chuck:

      Thanks for your comment. I think your remarks actually prove the usefulness of the new picture. The conversation suddenly centers on: where is everyone in relation to the curve? And the main point is that in order to be somewhere near the top, one needs to honestly incorporate quite a bit of historical critical thinking. If we can get the conversation to start here as opposed to at the top of a slippery slope, I’d say that that would be a tremendous improvement.

      Grace and peace,

  • Is it wrong that I chuckled at a graph that drew a straight line from “historical criticism” to “atheism?”

    • Lars

      Only if it’s also wrong to think that graphic should be rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise. But then I’m a moral errantist and a horrible conversation starter.

  • ajl

    this reminds me of the Laffer curve for tax policy. Laffer basically says if you tax too little, you don’t generate enough tax revenue. If you tax too much, people find ways around the tax system and you don’t generate enough tax revenue.

    Similarly, too much historical criticism (the secular aspect) deconstructs everything so faith is eliminated, while the absence of any historical criticism causes people to make very unfaithful decisions (a.k.a. the biblical literalist).

    There is that sweet spot that we seek in tax policy and biblical scholarship 🙂

    • Carlos Bovell

      Very good! The author of How Not to Be Wrong begins his discussion on linearity with the Laffer curve.

      Grace and peace,

  • Scott Caulley

    I’m interested that inerrantists who invoke the “slippery slope” argument always seem to assume that they are on the “high ground,” and the slope is downward. What if the slope is ahead of us and upward, representing the climb out of a dead-end position? That’s a challenge I can embrace.

  • JL Schafer

    The phrase “slippery slope” evokes a mental picture of sliding down to perdition. But inerrantists might also be using a metaphor of purity and contamination. If belief in inerrancy is regarded as the purest and holiest state, then any deviation from that, no matter how small, becomes a pollutant that ruins everything.

    • charlesburchfield

      nothing can separate us from gods love

  • I like it. Most of the time, framing a debate all depends on which terms are used and what imagery people have in mind with these debates.

    The only problem with this new image is getting the inerrantists to agree to it….

  • I like it! I suggest meditation on the following, perhaps returning to the Hebrew:

    In my vain life I have seen everything. There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evildoing. Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself? Be not overly wicked, neither be a fool. Why should you die before your time? It is good that you should take hold of this, and from that withhold not your hand, for the one who fears God shall come out from both of them. (Eccl 7:15–18 ESV)

    It is fun to see those who interpret ‘righteousness’ here as Pharisaical, in order to justify the seeming absurdity of what Qoheleth is saying. I don’t think this is right. Instead, I think Qoheleth is arguing that one must maintain a tension, where one does not forget the points at the extremes. It is easy to idolize righteousness over everything else, or to simply give up and be wicked. Maintaining tension, on the other hand, is a sign of wisdom. One could add in the word teleios, frequently translated ‘perfect’ in the NT. I propose that the concept conjured by ‘perfect’ frequently does not include the idea of balance, and balance is precisely what your second picture calls for.

    • Tim

      I think this is probably right. The scripture often “argues” with itself by offering opposing viewpoints to encourage discussion, wrestling and some sort of balance. As C.S. Lewis said, the danger is always at the extremes.

  • smileswinks

    I think that the farther I move from inerrancy, the closer Jesus is to me. Does that make any sense?

    • Mark K


    • Perhaps that is because you have found, as I have, that when you move the written word off center it is easier to put and keep the living Word central. There is so much freedom in not having to explain every letter of every word as inerrantists must.

      • charlesburchfield

        hi timothy! thanks for following me after i followed you on disquis. i went to your blog and i really like what you were saying & where you are comming from. your server is not that compatible w/ my little android tablet. the page jumps around w/virtigo everytime i type in a word! would you consider starting a blog on patheos? it’s free i think. i’d really like to comment on your stuff. do you know corrie ten boom?

        • Thanks for your kind words. I will look into Patheos.

  • Collins

    This is just great. As an engineering nerd, I’ve long thought about the difference between this linear and parabolic thinking with respect to ideas. Seeing this applied to methods of theological thinking just makes my day! Thank you for the helpful analysis!

    • Carlos Bovell

      To Collins:

      I appreciate the positive feedback. If you really do like the idea of trying to apply mathematical thinking to theological thinking, you might be interested in my book, Ideas at the Intersection of Mathematics, Philosophy and Theology (Wipf and Stock, 2012).

      Grace and peace,

      • Collins

        Thanks! I will check it out.

  • toddh

    I like how atheism is always the lowest, most dreadful result on the continuum… it is the boogeyman for evangelicals.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi toddh,

      Thanks for your comment. I didn’t think atheists would take issue with being depicted in a diagram as having no interest in maintaining faithfulness to God. Was I wrong to think this?

      Grace and peace,

      • Sven2547

        Atheist here.
        I don’t take issue with the graph at all. Putting atheism at the y=0 point where y is “faithfulness” (in God) makes perfect sense.

        • charlesburchfield

          hi sven, i’m just curious why you posted. you are an atheist yes? I am a believer that has been checking out some atheist blogs on pathoes. This connected & challenged me to be clear what I believe and why I believe it. I see better thru the atheist’s lens what is essential about faith and am getting it why proof is so necessary to atheists. I honestly cannot prove god exists.

      • toddh

        I don’t know – I’m no atheist. I’m sure they don’t care. Maybe, like Sven, they’ll see it in terms of x and y axes, instead of greater or lesser value of belief.

      • Hi Carlos –
        I agree that atheists probably do not take exception. But I also agree with toddh that atheism has become anathema to many conservative Christians – something / someone to fear, denounce and guard against (just like “universalism” or “homosexuality”).

        • Carlos Bovell

          I would think that a person who is loving and obeys God’s commands but without confessionally acknowledging him would be more welcome to evangelicals than a person who confessionally acknowledges God, but throughout life lacks love, kills the commandments and maybe even teaches others to do so.

          Grace and peace,

          • Hi Carlos,
            I LOVE the Church you imagine…sign me up. Unfortunately, there’s a gap of unknown distance between our current reality and your beautiful vision. (At least that’s my experience as a Christian man married to a man.)

          • Pierre Abélard

            There are plenty of churches who will gladly tie you up in knots to have lots of outward signs of how obedient and righteous you are.

            Thing is, that’s the exact opposite of historic message of the gospel.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To Vegan Taxidermist:

            What’s outward about “loving your neighbor” from the heart and wishing them good?

            Grace and peace,

          • Pierre Abélard

            One of the unique facets of Christianity is that works alone are not considered “better” than an unfaithful but also unrighteous person. No, they wouldn’t be welcome.

          • Carlos Bovell

            To Vegan Taxidermist:

            Maybe you should consider welcoming them:

            “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

            Grace and peace,

  • James

    I think I react to your guest because I almost agree with him. I tend to laugh smugly at people I consider out to lunch–my bad. To me the bell curve is little better than the straight line. Follow either very far and you get way out of line. So, let’s try to show how faithfulness as desired end can maximize both criticism of and respect for Scripture as positive coordinates.

  • David W

    I understand (and like) the sentiment behind the graph. But I’m not sure that it will frame the discussion in a better light for either side. The inerrantist will always see themselves at the peak of the curve (they will set the bar for how much historical criticism is within reason, I.e. the exact amount that upholds an inerrant view/reading of scripture). From an ideological point of view, the inerrantist sees himself as the most faithful due to their perceived upholding of the authority of scripture. I’m not sure that they can see it any other way. It defies rationality and thus the non-inerrantist continually face palms. And so the saga continues…

    • Carlos Bovell


      Thanks for your comment. You make some very good observations. My hope is that a picture like this might help someone an inerrantist see the entire landscape a little differently. I mean, it’s got to be hard, even for an inerrantist, to imagine much of a curve to the left of inerrantism on this graph in terms of integrating historical critical thinking less than inerrancy officially allows.

      Grace and peace,

      • David W

        I apologize for coming off a bit cynical in my initial comment. It’s just that my experience on this issue leaves me with little hope. But we have to keep trying, thus I truly appreciate your creative efforts in attempting to get the two sides to at least sit down and discuss the issue in a civil and open-minded manner. God bless, brother

    • Daniel Fisher


      Appreciate the thoughts – but one question if I may…. doesn’t EVERYONE assume that their position (whatever it is) is going to be at the peak of the curve?

      I would think that was axiomatic…. everyone holds the positions on beliefs that they do because they think their positions correct…. This is not unique to inerrantists, no?

      I imagine that the most rabid fundamentalist, the most hardcore atheistic critical scholar, the more nuanced inerrantist amateur scholar (hopefully like myself), the devout Christian like Carlos or Peter who have rejected inerrancy, everyone…. I imagine we all believe our own position to be close to the top of the curve. We all believe our own position to be the “correct” one…. that’s why we hold it, no?

      • Carlos Bovell

        To Daniel Fisher,

        I, for one, don’t think I’m near the top of the curve. I hope by God’s grace that I can and will work my way gradually in the right direction, but I seriously doubt I will get there. (And I don’t think God expects us TO get there.)

        I am hopeful that by virtue of sincerely trying to improve and seek God with my whole heart, I can accomplish God’s will along the way and work with his program of redemption and not against it.

        Grace and peace,

        • Daniel Fisher


          I fear I’m not following, perhaps I’m lost in the metaphor…. I understood the top of the curve to represent the most proper or faithful level of “appropriation” of historical criticism, which would then be the best avenue toward proper Christian faithfulness. Did I not follow correctly?

      • David W

        Daniel, what you have stated is quite true in many cases. We are all prejudiced and in favor of some methods over others often times for reasons that defy logic; we hold onto a particular position more so for ego’s sake or some kind of emotional comfort rather than for the sake of being intellectually honest.

        But in the case of being in favor of a non-inerrantist view of the bible, I hold to this view because the evidence seems to clearly be in opposition to inerrancy. I am trained as a scientist, so for me the modus operandi is to hold whichever view is the most tenable and intellectually honest.

        While I am convinced that a non-inerrant view is higher on the hypothetical curve than the inerrant view, I don’t presume that what we currently know about scripture is the end-all-be-all view of it. A non-inerrant view is subject to expansion and growth whereas an inerrant view puts scripture in a rigid, pre-defined, man-made box.

  • Jeff Y

    Very good. Slippery slope is such a dangerous ploy because it is generally fallacious. But I also like the “room” you give for a variation in answers to different questions.

  • Frank6548

    The bible is inerrant, no changing that.

    • Carlos Bovell

      Hi Frank,

      Thanks for your comment. No one’s interested in changing what the Bible is. As rudimentary as it might sound, we are genuinely trying to figure out what the Bible is. We are convinced that somehow it’s from God and that somehow it’s to us with its central message revolving around the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, but aside from this skeletal framework (I feel at least) we are remarkably sparse on specifics. (For those interested, I have a short book due out in the spring where I offer some thoughts on the authority and inspiration of scripture.)

      But consider this, Frank, even if the Bible IS inerrant, don’t you think that there is at least some chance that inerrantists could have made a serious mistake in their understanding of what way the Bible is inerrant?

      The “maximizing faithfulness” picture allows even for inerrantists themselves to admit that they’ve gotten things wrong and still make room for a vibrant, growing faith. But the “slippery slope” picture has it so that if the inerrantists turn out to be wrong then the whole faith enterprise gets put into serious jeopardy. Think about the set up for a minute. Can you see how it can have spiritually unhealthy (even if unintended) effects on believers?

      Grace and peace,

      • Veritas

        How can an inerrantist be so confident that they have it correct and yet have so many different interpretations, even Among themselves, on what it means? That seems more an arrogance. The scripture may be inerrant, but the inerrantist not necessarily so.

        • louis

          religion addict’s #1 concern is protecting their ‘supply’. #2 is protecting themselves against knowing #1.

        • Lars

          Because we cannot know the Bible’s veracity definitively, inerrancy/errancy will always be in the eye of the beholder. As a result, it’s possible we’re all mistaken in our interpretations. That said, as long as I love my neighbor as myself, I feel good about my chances in whatever’s next!

        • Daniel Fisher

          Many different interpretations on various peripheral items, sure, but in so many “core issues” and doctrines, I often find a remarkable similarity among those committed to inerrancy across denominations…. in my conversations with conservative/inerrancy affirming Pentacostals, charismatics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Baptists… sure, there are myriad different interpretations on various items…. but I find far more agreement than disagreement – but basic understandings of salvation, the person of Christ, the character of God, the nature of sin, what is and isn’t sin, etc.

          Different interpretations are bound to happen regardless of the context – I’ve watched nuclear technicians argue about different interpretations of their technical operating manuals. Same with lawyers interpreting law…. But a difference of interpretation doesn’t, in and of itself, cast doubt on the veracity, authority, truth, or correctness of the document under examination, no?

    • Rudy R

      How did you come to the determination that the Bible is incapable of being wrong?

      • Madeleine Alexei

        Frank6548 is a troll who is well known to this and other Patheos blogs. He either can’t or won’t give a rational defense of his viewpoint, no matter how much anyone engages with him, but only repeats his baseless arguments ad nauseum. Ignore him.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The claim of inerrancy is curious given the many denominations and sects of Christianity. The same claim is taken as a given for whatever denomination or sect we happen to belong to or why would we belong to them? An open mind is a door ajar to apostasy.

    Certainty is the sin and has many roots as well as simply being part of human nature. The ability to hold ambiguity is, to most, waffling or confusion. “Make up your bloody mind, for Christ’s sake? Be bold! State with utter convictions your beliefs! If not, Satan is putting yeast in your thoughts.”

    For me, paradox is the native tongue of truth. We see this in the parables about “the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus uses seven different metaphors: what would our high school English teacher have to say about that? These “mixed metaphors,” of course, relate different aspects and perhaps even processes in attaining and living the kingdom. Some may appear to contradict each other. Can we live without certainty?

    Here is a thought from the wild side. What if the Bible is a tutorial meant not just to guide but also to test our spiritual maturity, to see where the thoughts of men found there in scripture as the word of God to be seemingly taken as truth may actually be an early phase of development or even a misunderstanding. How could we discern the difference? It could be a way to break us of relying on our own understanding, our nature, and to fully surrender to the Holy Spirit and grace. To make the Holy Spirit the one true authority and grace the only power.

    In my experience of over fifty years, most Christians find this a far, far too dangerous position to take. But as Dwight Edwards says in Revolution Within, “If grace doesn’t have the potential to be abused, it won’t have the power to transform.” He goes on to say that ” for grace to move powerfully in our lives it must remain unbridled and unrestricted from our well-intentioned safeguards.” Inerrancy seems to be a wall to grace.

  • In the second chart—which accurately depicts atheist and strict fundamentalist agreement on the original intent of the Bible—I would replace the word “faithfulness” axis with “post hoc rationalization and harmonization with modern secular standards,” or if that is too verbose, “exegetical alchemy” (Robert Price, 1997) and then you’d have an even more accurate graphic.

    If you leave the word “faithful,” as to original intent of the authors, turn the 2nd graph’s curve upside down.

  • Andrew Dowling

    I’d argue against your second chart. To draw a subjective boundary between “faithful” higher criticism and “secular scholarship” is akin to keeping a blindfold on but letting yourself take quick peaks every now and then.

    The line for me sloped down and back up. It doesn’t have to erase faith . . it can even strengthen faith; but the kind of faith that results will likely be radically different from what it was before.

    Slippery slopes are assumed to go to where you shouldn’t tread; but they may lead to exactly where you need to go.

    • louis

      tho i make my bed in hell…

      • What’s that supposed to mean, Louis? And how does it rationally relate to Andrew’s comment?

        • charlesburchfield

          howard lighten up buddy!

  • The real issue which tends to get less discussion is authority! Questions like what KIND of authority do we think the Bible or related, same-era non-canonical texts have? And HOW do we come to that position? To me, the typical (and my former) answers are where the Evangelical and “orthodox” historical position is even more significantly problematic and spiritually misleading than about inerrancy.

    If/when inerrancy is set aside, what kind of authority then pertains? No easy answers!

    • Lars

      No easy answers indeed! But couldn’t you just replace Inerrancy/Inerrantist with Authority/Authoritative and get pretty much the same slope/curve? Consensus rules, even when it’s wrong. Authority is granted, not conferred. And in my heart, Pluto will always be a planet.

      • charlesburchfield

        naw it’s a big ol potato

    • charlesburchfield

      i think it comes from a connection to the holy spirit from w/in us. in a.a we call it constant contact.

  • The author’s assertion: “Notice how this graph does not encourage believers to correlate faithfulness with being wary of historical criticism” doesn’t make sense to me.

    That graph does just the opposite: If someone presented a graph like that to me then they are telling me that “faithfulness” (the y axis) is a function of “historical critical thinking” (the x axis). Thus, if I did an experiment I would expect to find a correlation in the data. An estimation from the data would not best fit a straight line but in this case a parabola.
    Outside of that, since we don’t know really what “faithfulness” truly is, I’m not sure one can even make this argument.

    Rather, I’d just stick with the idea that if a person has rigid adherence to inerrancy then that is a sign that person doesn’t want to deal with the reality in which the rest of us live.

  • The “slippery slope” discussion is one of the most common rebukes from laymen and conservative christians I hear when discussing Inerrancy, historical adam, evolution or various forms of accommodating to historical criticism. The 2 main ways I have replied to the Idea of a slippery slope are:

    1. Pointing out that to me as the listener it sounds like “fear-mongering”, I want a rational well thought out discussion- I crave dialogue and they are shut off to talking about these things out of “fear of where it could lead”. Well for someone genuinely interested in the truth, fear of the unknown isn’t really gonna stop me from asking the question. I caution people that this answer will not really suffice for a genuine seekers question- give good answers and rationally thought out conclusions not fears and worries.

    2. I actually think the slippery slope argument, when coming from love, is a pastoral concern. It can be a genuine concern for someone and be spoken out a real desire to not see someone give up on the faith as they have seen or heard about others doing before. To respond to this pastoral concern, I respond with my own pastoral or personal concern- educated laymen who feel the evangelical conservative church has nothing to say to them. Non believers who are gonna go read from Ehrman or others about what the Bible has to say because there actually addressing difficult things as opposed to a pastor who says “just submit to the word”. I am pastorally concerned about a church that has 60-70% of its pastors rejecting evolution living in a world where 70% of its citizens (my numbers might be a bit off) do accept evolution. Its out of pastoral concern and missiological implications that we need to address these things and wrestle with these questions.

    I offer my random thoughts humbly for those who have been told the slippery slope argument before and don’t know what to say…but also for the pastors and leaders who have warned of the slippery slope before….seriously if you want your student or son/daughter to respect you and your answer then give them a rational good answer to their question not a fear based warning. If you give them a rational good reason and they have a better one….than it could be time to rethink some things.

    • hoosier_bob

      I recognize that it can be a pastoral concern, but I wonder whether it’s a legitimate pastoral concern. It strikes me that the fear of running off the rails is often overblown. A friend and I were remarking this week about the political differences between PCA churches and PCUSA churches.

      In the PCA, the congregation is often much more liberal than its leaders. For example, in the last PCA church that I attended, we did an informal pulse survey of the church’s regular attenders, the rough results of which were: about 3/4 favored ordaining women elders, about 3/4 believed that the Bible is not inerrant, about 1/3 identified as pro-choice on abortion (at least before viability), about 3/4 favored civil same-sex marriage, about 1/3 believed that the PCA should bless same-sex unions, about 2/3 believed that the church should not discipline a member who obtained a civil same-sex marriage, only about 1/10 believed that premarital sex is a serious sin, only about 1/4 believed that gay premarital sex is more problematic than straight premarital sex, only about 1/10 believed that there is such a thing as biblical manhood and biblical womanhood, and less than 1/10 believed that the earth was about 6000 years old. Granted, this was an urban PCA church in the North. Still, the pastor was shocked. He noted, “Now I understand why Tim Keller never talks much about these things.”

      When we worry too much about the slippery slope, we actually make ourselves irrelevant. And because we’ve spent no time helping people make wise decisions, they ignore us and look to the culture instead. After all, the days are long gone when people accepted something merely because the pastor said it.

      • Pierre Abélard

        Then why aren’t the members moving over to the PCUSA church (which is experiencing drops in membership and losing almost all of its young people)?

        Meanwhile, OPC is flourishing and PCA is stable.

        • hoosier_bob

          People stay with the PCA because they like the other people in their church (socio-cultural reasons), because they still believe in evangelism (contra many PCUSA churches), and because there’s no viable alternative.

          Notably, you omitted the EPC and ECO, which are the fastest-growing Reformed denominations by a mile. The PCA is losing members, although not as rapidly as the PCUSA. I don’t know much about the OPC, but the statistician’s report to the 2014 GA described the OPC’s growth as “slow.”

          It would not surprise me if major chunks of the PCA don’t end up in the EPC in the coming years.

        • Andrew Dowling

          Many PCA church members aren’t even aware of their church’s stance on social issues; I know because I know several . . many of their plants, especially in urban cities, have the look and feel of more progressive emergent churches. And the sermons are not emphasizing their conservative views.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The Bible apparently does not believe in sola scriptura for it points us to outside authorities: creation (Romans1:19-20) and the Holy Spirit (Jn6:13, Jn14:26, 1Jn2:20, 27). It seems an impossible stretch to believe that we put on the Holy Spirit only when reading the Bible, as if just a pair of glasses, to “teach us all things.” What in the Bible might be unknown to the Holy Spirit? The Bible is simply one teaching aid of the Holy Spirit and not the other way around.

  • hoosier_bob

    I’ve been in evangelical circles for 15 years or so, and have yet to hear a persuasive argument for WHY inerrancy matters theologically. As someone who grew up in a conservative mainline background, it’s always struck me that inerrancy has more to do with psychology and sociology than anything else. Let me elaborate.

    1. Psychology

    In my experience, if one were to administer an MBTI test to evangelicals, you’d find that an overwhelming number (80% or more) of evangelicals (and, in particular, leaders and male heads of household) would score as strong Js on the J-P index (the fourth one). But the population as a whole is about 57-43 (in favor of Js). And, in the academic disciplines that lie closest to theology, the numbers are certainly skewed toward the Ps, as is the case with most creative-class professions. So, I wonder whether inerrancy doesn’t survive because it provides a bright-line standard for people who desire bright-line standards. A strong J will reject something like what’s proposed here simply because it doesn’t afford a bright line. Of course, what the Js see as a defect, we Ps see as a feature. So, as I’ve moved from the PCA back into the Protestant mainline, I’ve wondered whether inerrancy doesn’t serve a psychological need more than a theological one.

    2. Sociology

    It’s probably no accident that the “battle for the Bible” erupted just as social conservatism began to emerge as a political force. Inerrancy is essential to Christian conservatives’ eschewing of epistemic realism in favor of the epistemic idealism of “biblical worldview” thinking. Put another way, in the late 1970s, evangelicals came to reject forms of political engagement that rested primarily on arguments drawn from general revelation, and began instead to adopt forms of political engagement that relied almost exclusively on principles allegedly drawn from “the inerrant Word of God.” After all, what better way to justify ignoring the complexities of political life in a pluralistic society than to convince yourself that you have access to the unconditional truths of the universe..straight from the mouth of God Himself. Retreating from inerrancy therefore necessarily means retreating from the style of political engagement with which evangelicals have become comfortable. And that’s not about to happen.

    • louis

      thx 4 this!
      ‘what better way to justify ignoring the complexities of political life in a pluralistic society than to convince yourself that you have access to the unconditional truths of the universe..straight from the mouth of God Himself. Retreating from inerrancy therefore necessarily means retreating from the style of political engagement with which evangelicals have become comfortable.’

  • Daniel Fisher

    I for one really like the basic concept behind the graph – especially as (the way I read it) faithfulness would probably correlate highest with “pursuit of all truth.” Something vaguely similar (in concept, not in graph form) was presented to me in my seminary days.

    I don’t think many of us would disagree that, on one side of the parabola, you have a rigid fundamentalism that utterly ignores any insights gained from historical/critical study, then on the other side, you might have a historical critical approach that completely disregards any reality of God (atheism, etc.). Would it be fair to say, by chance, that the apex may represent the proper balance of being open to all truth, whether from general and special revelation?

    Would love to hear you elaborate on the other questions you mentioned at some point in the future, i.e., how much is too much, where does inerrancy fall on the curve, etc., but the basic concept of the graph is very useful from this reader’s perspective.

  • louis33

    I think when I look at the ways empire’s have repurposed and institutionalized Christianity to promote oppression and subjugate the creation to destruction
    its as if Jesus accepted Satan’s offer to hand the world over to him if he, Jesus, would bow down and worship Satan.

  • MacPeter

    Thanks Peter,

    This is a helpful way of thinking about things. For myself, I sometimes imagine something similar: two slippery slopes with a narrow road at the middle/top–so that we are always in danger of falling down either side (theological fundamentalism/liberalism), and we must cling to the cross in the middle to keep from falling. There are no “safe” places where we are free to operate apart from Christ.