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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