What does “inerrancy” actually do?

What does “inerrancy” actually do? June 9, 2012

What does “inerrancy” actually do?

During this week’s brouhaha over possible semi-Pelagianism among Southern Baptist theologians (see the previous two posts and the comments here), one response has stuck in my mind and given me reason to worry. It worries me more than the possibility of semi-Pelagianism in the ranks of the theologians.

I confess that throughout this budding controversy I have occasionally broken a personal policy. Normally I do not go to other blogs to see what others are saying about the subjects we talk about here. But the policy isn’t iron clad; it’s not a rule, just a rule of thumb to protect my time. If I went to every blog someone recommends I read, I’d never get anything else done. So, normally, I only go if the blog is by someone I respect or whose opinions I consider influential and the subject is directly relevant to a matter I’m working on here.

This week I followed a link one commenter provided to a blog containing quotes by leading Baptist theologians about this issue of possible semi-Pelagianism among non-Calvinist Southern Baptist theologians. One of those quotes was from a Southern Baptist seminary president’s blog. (Don’t try to drag a name out of me or even mention possible ones; I’m not interested in personalities here. I’m talking about ideas.)

The well-known seminary president began this particular blog post by congratulating the Southern Baptist theologians he was about to criticize for at least believing in the inerrancy of the Bible. He said he was glad to be having this conversation with them (over grace and free will) because at least they and he agree on biblical inerrancy.

Two things caught my attention about that and made me worry. First, why didn’t the seminary president begin by saying at least he and his debate partners agree about Jesus Christ or salvation by grace? Why jump immediately and directly to the Bible—and a particular theory about the Bible?

Yes, I know what some will say and probably he would say: There’s no point in even discussing doctrine unless you first agree about the Bible. Still, that reveals to me a kind of fixation on methodology and epistemology that, in effect, demotes Jesus Christ, God’s personal self-revelation, to status secondary to the Bible.

Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Would the seminary president say to JWs at his door “Well, at least we agree on the inerrancy of the Bible” before proceeding to discuss doctrine with them? I doubt it. (I’m not comparing semi-Pelagian Baptists with Jehovah’s Witnesses; I’m just making a point about inerrancy.)

It seems to me that the most important thing the seminary president and his possibly semi-Pelagian fellow Southern Baptists have in common is not inerrancy but the deity of Jesus Christ. I do worry that the fundamentalist and neo-fundamentalist penchant for jumping directly to biblical inerrancy as the litmus test for who’s worthy and not worthy of being taken seriously for theological dialogue reveals a latent, implicit bibliolatry which concerns me more than latent, implicit semi-Pelagianism.

Second, appeals to inerrancy without clear definition of it seems useless. There are so many definitions of “inerrancy” that, without agreement about what it means, simply uttering the word does nothing other than affirm a shibboleth that functions as a symbol of belonging to a tribe. But how much of a tribe is it if the shibboleth doesn’t really mean anything? And, as I’ve argued here before, what good is it if all who use it qualify it to death?

I assume that the seminary president’s mention of inerrancy as something both he and his possibly semi-Pelagian fellow Southern Baptists share in common was an attempt to affirm common ground so that they have something to use as an authority for settling doctrinal disputes. The problem is, of course, that bare “inerrancy” doesn’t do that. That is illustrated by the fact that he, a TULIP Calvinist, and they, at least leaning toward semi-Pelagianism, claim to adhere to the same inerrant authority and yet they disagree about its meaning around a very basic doctrinal locus.

My point is that “inerrancy” by itself doesn’t guarantee doctrinal orthodoxy. Would this seminary president say to a group of open theists “Well, at least we agree on inerrancy?” I doubt it—even if they did agree on it. But what does “agreeing” about inerrancy even mean?

“Inerrancy” is such a disputed concept that appeal to it does very little good without clear agreement about what it means. And once it’s defined, usually, at least among biblical scholars and theologians, it boils down to “authority for doctrine”—sola or prima scriptura. Even that, however, doesn’t guarantee doctrinal agreement (obviously!).

What the seminary president should have said (after mentioning their common faith in Jesus  Christ) is “We agree that salvation is all of grace.” That’s true and meaningful. By itself, of course, it doesn’t settle the issue, but it provides substantial common ground on which the parties can discuss what that implies about human ability or disability, prevenient grace, etc.

Suppose the seminary president met someone with whom he agreed about everything except inerrancy? What would he do? Would he have Christian fellowship with him or her? Would he consider hiring him or her to teach at the seminary? Somehow I doubt it.

“Inerrancy” has simply become an over-inflated concept in neo-fundamentalist circles. It functions mainly as a shibboleth, a marker of belonging to a tribe. It’s too disputed (i.e., admits of radically diverse interpretations) and simplistic really to function as more than that. And even with that use it simply papers over important doctrinal disagreements that touch on the gospel.

To test this thesis, I once entered into a lengthy e-mail exchange about inerrancy with a president of a professional society of evangelical scholars that requires affirmation of inerrancy for membership. After many e-mail exchanges it became apparent to both of us that our agreement about biblical authority was substantial. I simply do not think “inerrancy” is the right word for what we both believe. (I suspect the vast majority of lay people and pastors in that scholar’s constituency have no idea how radically he and others qualify inerrancy—what they think it is compatible with.) So I asked him if I could join his professional society. He said no. To me, that proves “inerrancy” is, often, at least, merely a shibboleth.

My real worry about all this is the danger of bibliolatry. I suspect there is a sophisticated kind of latent bibliolatry at work among fundamentalists and neo-fundamentalists. Of course, they don’t explicitly worship the Bible. But a certain theory about the Bible is turned into a litmus test that divides Christians who agree on all the essentials of the Christian faith. “Faith in the Bible as God’s inerrant word” leans toward worshiping the Bible. The Bible itself should not be an object of veneration and that comes too close to it and opens the door to popular magical treatments of Bibles as talismen.

I once saw a television program that included a segment about Christian contractors who hide Bibles inside the walls of houses they are building. I grew up in a church where that would probably have been greeted as a great idea. (I was punished for putting a book on top of a Bible more than once!) I have a nagging feeling that contemporary fundamentalist and neo-fundamentalist treatment of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy easily flows over into such practices.





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  • Roger,

    I think you are right to worry about the danger of bibliolatry. Bibliolatry is, in fact, a present danger – not just a potential one, as your post here indicates. It is, to me, a greater heresy than any found within the pelagian/semi-pelagian controversies. I grew up Baptist but not fundamentalist. One irony even among the strict inerrency-believing Baptists is that many of them love a hymn which I also love, “Break Thou the Bread of Life” (written by a Methodist, Mary A. Lathbury). Two lines in the first stanza speak of a wisdom of actual spiritual encounter: “Beyond the sacred page I seek Thee, Lord; My spirit pants for Thee, O living Word!” A problem with inerrantists is that they often cannot get “beyond the sacred page.” Their redeemed life is just as bound by legalism as was their former life bound by sin.

  • Glenn

    I’m curious if there is any scholarship on the origins of the inerrancy doctrine? Certainly a belief system that has such a devout following has an interesting history. Was it birthed from Roman Catholicism or Protestantism? Any help towards finding out more information would be helpful. Thanks!

    • rogereolson

      One source I find helpful is Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (Harper & Row, 1979).

    • Fred Smith

      Inerrancy–though not the term–begins with the earliest Baptists in England. They emphasized the idea that ALL matters of both doctrine and practice should come from the Bible. They were responding to the idea that creeds and church councils were also sources of authority. Today the issue is different: Inerrantist Baptists believe that the Bible is the final authority in ALL matters of doctrine and practice, in contrast to those who regard German Higher Criticism (what the Seminary students call “the JEDP theory”), scientism, or modern Cartesian epistemology as final authorities.

      Actually, the idea that the Bible is the final authority predates the early English Baptists–but the Baptist tradition of beginning with the Bible is deeply entrenched and this is why the Seminary president referenced above began there as a point of agreement. The Deity of Christ is certainly a point of agreement between almost all Baptists, but we believe in His deity because it is taught in the Bible which is the foundation for that doctrine as well as all other doctrines, for inerrantists.

      • rogereolson

        One can believe the Bible is the ultimate authority in matters of faith and practice without attributing “inerrancy” to it. And one can pay lip service to “inerrancy” and define it in such a way that it means nothing. Both happen all the time.

  • Rick

    I appreciate what you are saying, but not sure why you are worried “more than the possibility of semi-Pelagianism in the ranks of the theologians.”

    Wouldn’t both be equally a problem?

    • rogereolson

      Real bibliolatry is idolatry. I don’t regard semi-Pelagianism as idolatry.

  • Dr. Olson,

    I am honestly making an effort to understand what you are trying to communicate here and I think I understand you. However, I think you might be taking Dr. Mohler’s statements a little too far. Could it not be that Dr. Mohler was simply making those statements in the context of the history of SBC, namely, that they once – as a denomination – were becoming almost heretical in their beliefs about what the Bible is and that that is no longer the case? In other words, I think all that was meant by his statements about Biblical inerrancy is simply that he is glad that at least the argument (i.e., Arminianism vs Calvinism) is not fundamentally one of heresy as is an argument over whether or not the Bible is God’s Word. Or am I overlooking something?

    David Martinez

    • rogereolson

      Surely a person can believe the Bible is God’s Word without believing in its inerrancy. Besides, one of my main points was (apparently you missed it) that “inerrancy” is such a vague and controverted concept that, without definition, it cannot be understood. I doubt the SBC was ever the hotbed of liberal heresy SBC neo-fundamentalists say it was. I know a lot of people who taught at SBTS and at SWBTS. I studied under John Newport. He did not believe in inerrancy and yet was no liberal or heretic. And he gave me a blow-by-blow insider’s view of what was happening in the SBC in 1978 and following. He was dismayed and shocked and consternated by it all. He did not believe the SBC seminaries were riddled with liberals and heretics as was being claimed. I agree.

      • Sorry. I guess I did “miss it” (e.i., the point about “inerrancy” being vague). The idea that one can believe the Bible is God’s Word and still think it has errors in it is very new to me if not outright confusing. I am sincerely eager to understand this view though I wouldn’t know where to begin. Nonetheless, whether or not I missed your point is irrelevant to whether or not Dr. Mohler undrstands the “vagueness” you say “inerrancy” is filled with. Somehow, it seems to me that Dr. Mohler and most in the SBC do not think it is vague; they understand what Dr. Mohler’s comments to clearly mean that he is happy they are not having an argument about whether or not the Bible is God’s Word. Now, you do make a great point about bibliolatry and how many evangelicals – especially the Calvinists, in my experience – are out of balance in this area. To be honest, coming from a legalistic Pentecostal background, I’m not sure that even I may have some of that residue on me.
        About the SBC seminaries not being riddled with liberals and heretics is a shock to me. For years I have heard preachers I love and respect (e.g., Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, etc.) talk about a huge problem that was happening in the SBC in those years regarding liberal theology. I doubt they would just make all that up out of thin air. So what I am accidentally overlooking? I’m open to being corrected in ll of this.
        Btw, I am a young Arminian (27 yrs old) that grew up in hispanic Pentecostal legalism and now I’m an online student at Indiana Wesleyan Unniversity… and I am a big “fan” of yours.

        • rogereolson

          Thank you for being my fan. I appreciate you. For many years I have asked, practically begged, conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention to give me names of seminary professors (at one or more of the six SBC seminaries) who were “liberal.” Few will do it. When they do, the names they mention are men (and one or two women) well known to me. As it turns out, what they (the conservatives) mean by “liberal” is anyone who disagrees with them about strict inerrancy, women’s ordination, etc. These were not true theological liberals. As I said, I studied under John Newport, a leading SBC theologian who had taught at SWBTS in Fort Worth for many years. During the one year I studied under him at Rice University he told us (students) all about the growing fuss within the SBC and insisted it was not really about true liberalism; there were, he said, no true liberals teaching at SBC seminaries. His explanation was that it was simply a power struggle and that the conservatives attempting to take over the SBC were using “liberal” as a scare word to frighten and stir up the lay people and pastors. John Newport left Rice to become provost at SWBTS in Fort Worth where he had taught earlier. He went back there, he told me, to try to rescue it from being taken over by fundamentalists. No one ever could pin the label “liberal” on him, so he stayed at SWBTS for many years. I trust his word to me about the SBC “wars” and I trust my colleagues, many of who taught in SBC seminaries or were students at them during the whole conservative take over. They laugh at the idea that any of their colleagues or professors were real liberals in the true, historical-theological sense of the word.

          • Tony Pounders

            I am a graduate of SBTS (MDiv ’90) and I can vouch that there were no true liberals there. I graduated right before the takeover occurred. Dr. Roy Honeycutt was the seminary president. Paige Patterson followed Honeycutt after the takeover. Four years after leaving SBTS, I entered the United Methodist Church as an Ordained Elder and continue with them to the present. The education I received at SBTS is very compatible with UMC teaching and doctrinal understanding. The professors I studied under leaned toward Arminianism and certainly not TULIP Calvinism. We had several UMC students at the time. When I came to the UMC, I was told that what the SBC labeled ‘liberal’ would simply be considered ‘moderate’ in the UMC. I agree that there were no true ‘liberals’ at SBTS. The takeover was simply a power struggle and witch hunt disguised as a theological/doctrinal issue.

  • Cal

    Does salvation by Grace even mean a thing? Even Mormons affirm a salvation by grace.

    You’re right to say that our common brotherhood comes from being united with Christ Jesus. If we claim a common King as defined by the Scriptures (ie. someone is not a brother if they say Jesus is the son of Zeus and a martian, this is not of Scripture) then that is our starting point. While Scriptures are very important, we’re not primarily a people of the book rather the people of the cross&resurrection.

  • J.E. Edwards

    I don’t think I’ve read any of your work on inerrency. So, I guess my questions would be what do you mean when you say inerrancy? How does this affect your confidence in God’s Word? I assume we are not merely speaking of English translations. (That’s something the hyper-fundamentalists try to include in this argument). I’m not sure I really understand what you mean when you say:
    “Faith in the Bible as God’s inerrant word” leans toward worshiping the Bible.
    As I see, it faith in the Bible as God’s inerrant word causes me to worship God. Would I have confidence in anything else?

    • rogereolson

      My concern is with the emphasis placed on the Bible as if it were somehow divine. Someone only half jokingly told me their fundamentalist Baptist church worshiped the Holy Trinity: God the Father, God the Son and the Holy Bible.

      • J.E. Edwards

        I’m still not sure I understand where you are coming from. In relation to understanding who God is and His message to the world, wouldn’t the Bible be at the top of the food chain? Do you think the Scriptures and the Bible are synonomous? Maybe that’s a dumb question.

        • rogereolson

          Sure, “Scripture” and “Bible” are the same to me. But “God’s Word” is Jesus Christ first and foremost and only secondarily Scripture. Scripture is God’s inspired witness to Jesus Christ and record of his revelatory and saving acts. Even Luther believed what I just wrote even though he thought Scripture was dictated by God.

      • Dr. Olson,
        Though I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture,you are right in your point about inerrancy meaning different things to different persons. But so can your statement above: “My concern is with the emphasis placed on the Bible as if it were somehow divine.” Please explain what that means.
        I do not personally know anyone who worships the Bible. Honor it as holy Scripture? Yes. Believe it is God’s Word? Yes. Worship it? No.
        I have read some of your books, and have profited from each one. I have twice read your book on Arminianism. I’m on my second reading of you book, “Against Calvinism.” I’m in essential agreement with you in these books.

        • rogereolson

          I believe people can be worshiping something without calling it that or even knowing it. Worship is in how you treat something. It can be totally innocent in terms of willful idolatry. I know people who worship money, thought they would adamantly deny it. They demonstrate their idolatry of money in how they handle it.

          • Dr. Olson, you make a good point. But, with no intention of being argumentative, it would be helpful if you would explain your statement: “My concern is with the emphasis placed on the Bible as if it were somehow divine.” In what sense do some persons mistakenly think the Bible is divine?

          • rogereolson

            When they attribute magical properties to it.

          • Perhaps “Bible Worship” could be recognized by concern over how the Bible is treated at the expense of what Jesus Christ teaches?

  • It’s amazing how many people think Christianity is more about the Bible more than it is about Jesus. Certainly that is the perception of many non-Christians today, and many in the church are contributing to the misconception.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Great post and comments on this big issue

    Over worry about incipient semi-pelagianism can actually prevent us from agreeing to listen to the Holy Spirit. This is somewhat related to our sad attempts to keep the Holy Spirit in the Bible, or worse, trapped in our theological system. Of course, this is a fantasy. The Spirit is free and at work, and the redeemed of the Lord are called to listen – actually participate, voluntarily. 

    Inerrancy (I first wrote inerrency, but my inerrant spell checker caught it), can be such a mania, and a bore too. What the Spirit wants us to understand is the whole Word. That is, big view as well as little, up close view. It’s sort if like a walk in the woods or in a mountain meadow on a bright spring day. There are so many wonderful things going on, all worthy of deep study. But we get the greatest inspiration when we take in the whole thing a la vez – soft breeze, bird songs, warm sun, thousands of smells, many varied sounds of insects, rustling leaves and babbling brooks – all together, integrated, whole, full of healing and hope.I think this is how the Bible works best, but how often do we study it this way? How can we study (experience) it this way if we are over worried about missing or misinterpreting some little point? May we never miss the big picture while fussing over the details.

  • Mark

    What is the influence of the Old Princeton theology in all this?

    • rogereolson

      Huge. My forthcoming book will have chapters on Hodge and evangelical theology.

  • rey

    Paul in Romans 9 quotes from the Apocryphal book of Wisdom when he says the Potter has the right to make out of the same lump of clay two different types of vessels. This isn’t actually true since the Potter must make things with respect to the QUALITY of the clay.

    Jeremiah shows this. God sends Jeremiah to OBSERVE the potter (neither the apocryphal author of Wisdom nor Paul ever OBSERVED a potter) — and Jeremiah sees the clay marred in the potter’s hands. He changes his intention due to the quality of the clay. God says as the potter has done so he will do. If I had said I will destroy a nation, but it repents, I will not destroy it but build it up, and vice versa.

    This disproves inerrancy, for it show that Paul was wrong. Paul took his cue from the apocrypha rather than Jeremiah! And Paul screwed up Christianity forever more by doing it because Calvinists continue to rely on that mistake Paul made for their doctrinal system!

    • rogereolson

      How do you know that neither the author of Wisdom or Paul ever observed a potter?

  • Rob

    I would bet that the origin of inerrancy is related to the emphasis on basing knowledge on incorrigible foundations that we see in the 17th and 18th centuries. Beginning with Descartes, the vast majority of thinkers in the enlightenment insisted that any thing that we know must originate in a set of foundational beliefs which are indubitable. I suppose that the various protestant movements emerging at that time felt that since (as far as they could tell) Christian belief originates in the bible, then for Christian belief to count as knowledge its source, the bible, must be indubitable and inerrant.

    • rogereolson

      Sounds like a main point of my chapter on Hodge in my forthcoming book on modern theology!

  • Mark

    2 Timothy 3:16 “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.”
    Inerrantists have different views of Scripture. Roger Nicole, an inerrantist and Calvinist, believed in Christian egalitarianism. In a different application, most inerrantists are complementarian (i.e. John Piper and Paige Patterson).

    Then there are multiple views on the Creation story from Meredith Kline to believers in the literal six days of Creation, such as John MacArthur and those of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Kline’s construct leave open the possibility of an orthodox Christian accepting theistic evolution.

    Some applications espouse theonomy; while some applications are totally accepting of our multicultural secular society. So there can be multiple applications of that God inspired Scripture. And supposedly everyone believes that they are correct in their application of God’s inerrant Word.

    Two hundred years ago there was an innovation called the abolition movement against slavery. This was an innovation because there were some very stalwart conservative theologians who believed that slavery was Biblical. I hate to express this, but a slave is supposed to be obedient to his master according to Scripture.

    Over a hundred years ago there started woman’s suffrage movement with some of the most stalwart orthodox believers militating against this movement. There were moves for women’s suffrage in some of our churches. Some denominations still don’t allow women to vote or have a voice in the church. And a woman pastor or deacon is strongly fought by most conservative evangelicals.

    My question is if the Bible is inspired by God how we should interpret Scripture? I have heard inerrantists inform me from several different voices but the same source that there is one interpretation and possibly multiple applications of Scripture.

    My question is what is the difference between application and interpretation? And how does one establish what is correct doctrine? Is it based on precedence or is it based upon some other foundation? If one appeals to Biblical authority, then how does one establish if an innovation of thought is doctrinally correct?

    Going against slavery and allowing women the right to vote was the right thing, I believe. And my appeal would go to the Bible.

    • rogereolson

      My point exactly. “Inerrancy” does nothing because it is compatible with almost any interpretation of Scripture. Church father Origen, like Luther afterwards, believed the Bible was dictated by God. But Origen interpreted the Bible allegorically. Luther thought the Book of James was “right strawey”–lacking in spiritual nutrition. And, as I said, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in inerrancy. A lot of good that does them (from an orthodox Christian perspective). You raise a lot of good but very large questions. Books and sets of books have been written attempting to answer them. One of the best small books addressing some of your question is I. Howard Marshall’s Beyond the Bible: Moving from Scripture to Theology (BakerAcademic).

  • DRT

    Roger, I agree with you, and believe there is another dimension that helps understand the motivation for maintaining the standing on inerrancy.

    In the end, the people in the pew and the followers in a denomination will rely on certain people for their interpretation for scripture. There are few people who will come up with a theology, or be able to compare and contrast one versus another.

    But, if the leader is the one who they are following, and that leader is touting inerrancy, then they are, in effect, cementing their authority as being inerrant too. After all, the bible scholar president knows the most, and if the bible is inerrant (and perspicutous), then he is speaking infallibly. What an allure!

    • rogereolson

      The great irony in all that is that, usually, what the “bible scholar president” thinks “inerrancy” means is light years away from what the average person in the pew or even most pastors think it means. The president, when pushed, qualifies “inerrancy” to death by defining “error” his or her own way. In the hands of one leading conservative evangelical theologian I know, “inerrancy” is compatible with “inerrant use of errant sources.” In other words, if a biblical writer included mistakes in his manuscript it is “inerrant” anyway so long as he was using an errant source inerrantly. Figure that out! How many people in the pew would ever imagine that “inerrancy” can mean that? That’s why I reject the term. It is totally plastic.

      • DRT

        Yes, exactly. In the end the people are left believing something that their teachers do not believe.

        I have found over and over that the educated and rational people use common terms that are nuanced so much that they are no long what the person in the pew thinks of when they use them. Inerrancy is certainly one of them.

        Another is complementarianism where my neighbors believe it means the guy has to make all the decisions and the women are stupid. That’s what they think regardless of what the theologians mean.

        Another is the whole jot and tiddle thing. My neighbors here in rural VA think that means they can trot out the OT law and beat you with it.

        The most important thing about communication is not in what is being said, it is what is being heard.

      • I often wonder if the reason my pastor occasionally passes on some real howlers is because it is expedient to keeping his job to not upset his flock with “truth”, if he believes that the congregation cannot handle the “truth”, or if he thinks that a wee falsehood is for our own good.

    • I think that final para is harsh. All those I know who argue for inerrancy argue for it because they are answering a question – does the Bible contain mistakes? – in the negative. You can argue that the question is poorly framed, or that the answer needs to be much more nuanced, but I don’t think implying such people are motivated by arrogance or power mongering is fair. I don’t know Al Mohler personally, but I very much doubt that’s his agenda.

  • Scot Miller

    I remember going to an AAR meeting about 25 or 30 years ago, when a speaker observed that the very concept of “inerrancy” didn’t exist until the invention of the printing press. It was just not possible to transmit texts without human transcription errors until a printing press could produce multiple copies of the same texts (some, like the Wiked Bible, with the same errors).

  • Jeff

    I think you’re being a bit unfair on both of these points.

    First, it seems to me that Dr. Mohler’s purpose in putting inerrancy first was not theological but rhetorical. That is, he wasn’t saying inerrancy is the most important doctrine they hold in common; rather, he was seeking to build conversational goodwill by an appeal to their common experiences in recent SBC history. If we want to determine whether Dr. Mohler thinks inerrancy is more important than the doctrine of salvation, it’d be more worthwhile to see what he teaches in his systematic theology classes, rather than what he posts on his blog.

    Second, I understand your concerns about “inerrancy” (and share them to some extent), but Dr. Mohler’s blog post seems like a poor excuse to bring them up again. It’s all very well to say, “Second, appeals to inerrancy without clear definition of it seems useless,” but Dr. Mohler did further clarify inerrancy as “the total truthfulness and authority of the Bible.” That may not be sufficient definition for all purposes, but requiring complete definition and qualification of every theological term every time we use them is unreasonable.

    I really appreciate your preference for an irenic approach to theology, and I find it odd that you often seemto be seeking to drive a wedge on inerrancy, arguing that the term is meaningless without complete and utter agreement on every particular of the definition.

  • I know someone who always had a bible on his dashboard. His reason: the one time he didn’t have it, he got a speeding ticket.

    I’m not kidding.


    • rogereolson

      There you go. Not that uncommon, actually.

  • Are there any other terms that you think have become overinflated to the point of devaluation?

    • rogereolson

      If you mean “meaningless without definition,” yes: sovereignty of God is one. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me if I don’t believe in the sovereignty of God because I’m a free will theist. When someone mentions the sovereignty of God I have to ask what they mean. It covers everything from divine determinism to open theism and even some process theologians talk about God’s sovereignty. And in some evangelical circles it is becoming another shibboleth.

  • Patrick

    I’ve been accused by a Catholic of idolatry because I told this gentleman once I’d take my instructions from the bible over men when I felt the men contradicted the textual commentary.

    The debate is heating up because many fundamentalists are in a reactionary mode concerning an emerging USA hermeneutic that is not literalist in approach and appears to them to be hostile to Christ and truth and willing to compromise with the zeitgeist . That’s why they are going bonkers over “inerrancy”, etc. Perception is reality here.

    I was a fundy, so I fully grasp what their fears are.

    I think they are wrong on hermeneutic, but, they are reacting to perceived attacks on the validity of the biblical narrative and as such, inerrancy and other biblicisms become uber significant.

    • rogereolson

      Classical case of over reacting. However, as I’ve been trying to say, SOME of it is about power and control. That’s especially the case where the promoters of “inerrancy” seem to know that their view of Scripture is far from that of most of the pastors and laity they appeal to with that word.

  • Andrew T.

    Dr. Olsen, on bibliolatry, I came across this following quote:

    “It is difficult to follow an early church example when we value a book they did not have more than the Holy Spirit they did have. It is not the Father, Son and Holy Bible.” Attributed to Bill Johnson at the Open Heaven Conference in Bethel.

    I was shocked at first, but then appreciated the pity way the quote exposed the idolatry of replacing the work of the Holy Ghost with a book.

    (I’m not slagging the bible incidentally as I have a very high view of scripture, but I appreciate that scripture without the illumination of the Holy Ghost means little – as we can see from Paul – who had the same high view of scripture after conversion, he had before, though his ability to understand it had changed).

    So do you think it is possible to train people to shift focus from away from the words unto Him to whom the words are directed?

    • rogereolson

      That’s what my godly professors did to me in seminary. So it must be possible.

  • gingoro

    IMO inerrancy is a shibboleth meant to exclude those who do not agree with you. It is a way to create a boundary such that if a Christian accepts inerrancy you are an evangelical and otherwise you are not.

  • Vincent Harris

    I haven’t read Hodge, but didn’t Geerhardus Vos provide an adjustment which should guide our understanding of how inerrancy should be understood?

    • Roger Olson

      I haven’t read Vos. Maybe you could summarize his view of inerrancy. As I have said many times, I agree with many inerrantists’ beliefs about the Bible; I just think “inerrancy” is a seriously misleading term for what they and I both believe.

      • Vincent Harris

        Fundamentalism is linked to Old Princeton of which Geerhardus Vos was an important representative. When I say Geerhardus Vos I mean Princeton´s aim when creating the chair of biblical theology. Reverend Abraham Gosman says in his introduction to Geerhardus Voses Inaugural address:

        ´the student cannot take with any satisfaction or certainty
        the books of the Bible as trustworthy or authoritative without an investigation of his own´

        and :

        ´the result here, as with every essential doctrine of the Sacred Scripture,
        does not depend upon specific passages merely, but upon the
        general drift and teaching of the Word of God´

        And after a pertinent comparison between Bible and sun he summarizes

        ´so the Bible comes to us with its past history and work, as it
        has illumined the darkness, relieved the suffering, broken
        the bonds of the oppressed, lifted men into fellowship
        with Christ, enriched them with deathless hopes, and says, as it opens wide its doors to all
        honest search and scrutiny, ” therefore ” let your investiga-
        tion be thorough, but with a full recognition of the facts and
        all that they imply.

        This will in no way restrict your freedom´

        I agree with much of what you say in your original post, but also think it´s important to do fundamentalism justice in order to avoid an unfruitful polarized debate.
        Inerrancy has a specific place in it´s Presbyterian context in which emphasis has allways been on every individual reading and being able to understand the essential message of the bible, the unity and perspicuity of the bible and it´s practical results in real life. As Origen says in Peri Archon IV:

        ´And if we observe how powerful the word has become in a very few years…´

        • Roger Olson

          I think we’re using “fundamentalism” in different senses. I don’t think all inerrantists are fundamentalists. I do think thoughtful, informed, reflective inerrantists who aren’t fundamentalists are using the wrong word for what they believe about the Bible–in light of all the qualifications and exceptions they have to make.

      • Don

        Roger: I know I’m asking for a lot here…could you provide me with your own view of the authority of Scripture? And by that, I do hope to hear why you do not believe the Bible is inerrant and what the appropriate way is to then understand it. Please feel free to refer me to your previous writings and/or blog articles as I am sure that you do not wish to rehash all that you have already written. I started following your blog only in November/December of 2012. This post is dated from June 2012 and thus I had not noticed it until you replied to Vincent. I fully understand if this is asking too much though.

        • Roger Olson

          Let me punt by referring you to Donald G. Bloesch’s book Word & Spirit–the first volume of his Foundations series published by IVP. I agree with Bloesch. Also you would find sources of my view in the later writings of Bernard Ramm and Clark Pinnock. I have also stated here (I don’t remember when) that I agree with John Piper’s own view of inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose.” Once one accepts all the qualifications most scholarly inerrantists make to “inerrancy,” I can accept their view of Scripture’s accuracy. I just think “inerrancy” is a very bad word for what they and I believe.