‘Inerrancy’ is just Round 2 of the Bible-battle over slavery

‘Inerrancy’ is just Round 2 of the Bible-battle over slavery November 21, 2013

The Evangelical Theological Society hosted a panel discussion on the book we discussed recently, Five White Guys Discuss the Hermeneutics of White People Five Views on Biblical InerrancyPeter Enns discusses that discussion, and summarizes his contribution to that book, which was constructively titled, “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.”

If that seems a bit too theological or abstract, allow Gabriel Arana to make it more concrete and immediate in his excellent Prospect piece, “The Gay Awakening: While Christian leadership has held fast against the changing tide of public opinion on same-sex marriage, congregations have moved on without them.”

Arana offers an insightful look at the rapidly changing context that includes some insightful commentary from Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute.

But in light of that earlier discussion of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, though, I want to correct one misimpression from Arana and Jones. Arana writes:

With the rift in the pews growing, the big question for religious institutions is whether the issue will lead to denominational splits as it did with slavery, which cleaved the Baptist Church and many other protestant denominations in two. A similar breakup occurred in the early 20th century over the doctrinal issue of Biblical inerrancy — the idea that the Bible contains the perfectly preserved word of God.

Almost. The rift over “inerrancy” was not a separate, “similar” fight. It was the same fight. It was a continuation of the very same debate as the earlier rift over slavery.

Bookgun by Robert The. (Click photo for link.)

It was a clash over competing, incompatible hermeneutics — methods of reading and interpreting the Bible. The defenders of slavery developed a hermeneutic of selective literalism that allowed clobber texts to speak authoritatively as the absolute truth handed down by God. Abolitionists “read the same Bible and pray[ed] to the same God,” but they read that Bible differently. They employed a different hermeneutic. Their method of reading and interpreting the Bible stressed its internal diversity, emphasizing the any clobber texts must be understood within the larger context of the whole sweep of scripture, in which some teachings outweighed others that seemed — or were — in conflict with them.

Again, it’s a big honking lie to frame this as a debate between “conservative” inerrantists and their “liberal” detractors. The abolitionists were not introducing some innovative, new, modern approach to reading the Bible. They were reading it the same way that Christians had been reading it for centuries — the same way that conservative Christians had been reading it for centuries.

How about St. Augustine? He’s not usually dismissed as a “liberal,” and it would seem wildly anachronistic to call him some kind of “modernist.” But here is Augustine in On Christian Doctrine:

Whoever, then, thinks that he understands the Holy Scriptures, or any part of them, but puts such an interpretation upon them as does not tend to build up this twofold love of God and our neighbor, does not yet understand them as he ought.

That, in a nutshell, is the hermeneutic that the “liberal” abolitionists defended in opposition to the hermeneutic employed by the defenders of slavery. A generation later, this same argument over how to read the Bible was repeated, reframed as a defense of “inerrancy” rather than as a defense of slavery, but it was the same argument. The two sides were the same two sides and their positions were the same two positions.

And it is the same argument — with the same two sides staking out the same two positions — as the argument that Arana and Jones discuss under the rubric of “The Gay Awakening.”

In every iteration, the conflict is the same. On the one side are those who declare that they stand for the absolute truth of the inerrant scripture. And on the other side are those who say that such an appeal to scripture can never be contrary to the “twofold love of God and our neighbor.”

This is not a fight between “conservatives” and “liberals.” Nor, as the defenders of slavery/inerrancy/”traditional marriage” self-servingly claim, is this a fight between those who believe in the Bible and those who do not. This is a perennial argument between one group which cites scripture to defend it’s interests and another that says No, you do not yet understand the Bible as you ought.

"Well, stone and water really doesn't care. There was a section in Being and Nothingness ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."
"For any of the UK Slacktivites, if for someon reason you were granted emergency powers ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."
"I do think that 50%+1 is a terrible rule for changes of a constitutional magnitude, ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."
"A snarky commenter (wish I could remember who to credit) talking about the feckless "European ..."

Postcards from the class & culture ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • anon

    Let’s just have a little syllogism.

    1. God cannot lie or be in error. (I’m sure we agree on this)

    2. The Bible is inspired by God, therefore it is a communication from Him (through human authors). (I’m not sure you hold to this.)

    3. Work it out for yourself.

  • The second one is where problems stem. Even if we assume that there is a god and every word communicated to us was the absolute truth (that’s a pretty big assumption there), it doesn’t follow that every word we’ve received has been accurate, especially in the millennia-old game of Telephone that is the Bible and human language. To be quite frank, there are parts of the Bible of which we have no translation at all and make our best guess based on the general context. They’re called hapax legomena and the Bible has over 1000 of them.

    This doesn’t include contradictions between translations, outright alteration of meaning (which began occurring most noticeably after the 1960’s) or things which simply don’t match up with how our understanding of the world today (there are no insects with four legs, water does return to the heavens, God does not live atop a mountain and touching said mountain does not kill you, the flood could not have happened as described, the sun holding in the sky for days at a time would have had far more lasting repercussions, the solar system is not a geocentric model, the Earth is not 6000 years old…)

  • P J Evans

    point 1 is an assumption with zero evidence, and it’s in question when you look at the YEC beliefs.
    point 2 is also an assumption, with zero evidence, and not all churches even make that claim.
    point 3: work it out for yourself.

  • newenglandsun

    Both the South and the North were miserably wrong when it came to the Bible on slavery. It’s not that the authors of the Bible didn’t support slavery, they clearly did, but in comparison to the surrounding areas at the time, the Bible’s view on slavery was perfectly sane. The South took the slavery parts and blew them way up and the North didn’t even have a case.

  • newenglandsun

    The Bible is inspired in terms of teaching doctrine, refuting doctrine, and moral uprightness. Not in terms of historic accuracy or scientific accuracy. Note that 1 Tim. 3:15-17 stresses exactly just that.

  • P J Evans

    You didn’t learn from earlier today, did you?

  • P J Evans

    Please take your revisionist history and go away.

  • newenglandsun

    I’m just ignoring people commenting to me on Fred Clark’s blog. Most of them are immature ranters who don’t have any phrase in their dictionary other than “F*** you!”

    Honestly. @_@

  • newenglandsun

    Grow a brain. Please. Begging you.

    I’ve studied Religion in America and have read about this in here.


    Also, in the field of history, only the immature who have no sense of history whatsoever throw out “revisionist history”. Given, I’ve read some really bad historians such as Kathy Garay. Goodness. Fortunately, Jaroslav Pelikan makes note that a lot of radical feminist historians have left out key texts that would overturn their positions.

  • newenglandsun

    Learned a lot. My psychologist told me that you know you’re a winner of the debate when you don’t overreact. I didn’t overreact! I wasn’t the one who said “f*** you”. I feel proud of myself. So what if the others think I’m an imbecile. They don’t matter! ;p

  • Ah. *ticks off another box*

    Language prudery. So far still batting 1.000 in favor of you holding generally conservative viewpoints, social and political and religious.

  • Conveniently omitting that you’ve been behaving like a bit of an ass over on the “liberal Christianity” thread. Really, was it necessary to dismissively snark about how the fact that “Pope” is derived from a word that meant “father” means you can “LMAO” at anyone who says there is no a priori reason why the Pope could be female or even a space alien?

  • newenglandsun

    Maybe you interpreted me as acting as such. You disagree with the Catholic Church. Cool. Are you Catholic (what’s it to you)?

    No. The Pope cannot be a female. Tradition has chosen the Pope shall always be a male.

    If we change tradition, we change the Christian faith. I tried liberal Christianity as well but after a while just resorted to atheism then Satanism. It wasn’t fulfilling. There was nothing to base myself on. It was out of pride.

    If you want a female Pope, then create your own religion with your own rules. Idea!

  • Tradition also once said Canadians should drive on the left side of the road. Guess what, we swapped around.

    Traditions can always be changed. They are not inflexibly and irrevocably set.

  • newenglandsun

    You are confusing two different traditions. The Catholic Church was established by God himself. This is in Matthew 16. So the traditions of the Catholic Church are all ordained by God himself. No human can change God.

    The Catholic Church rejects the phony idea of “Bible alone” ridiculousness because when you follow “Bible alone” you make yourself an individualist. This is American and most of Western “rationales” culture but this is individualism is a prideful heresy.

    The Canadian tradition was not ordained by God. It was ordained by whoever lived in Canada at the time. God-breathed traditions don’t change like Canadian traditions do.

    Listen to my older sister.


  • P J Evans

    History fail. It was created by men, about the time of Constantine, if not later.
    Try to remember that very few people on this blog are either literalists, think clobber texts prove anything, or believe that tradition is permanent, unchangeble, or always good.

    Also, you clearly can’t stick a flounce.

  • P J Evans

    If you’re ignoring people commenting on your trollery, then you’re making their points for them.

  • P J Evans

    definitely neither liberal nor Christian. Misogynist, literalist, clobbertexting … I probably have missed some.
    Oh yeah, can’t stick a flounce.

  • newenglandsun

    Um…I think you have no idea what I believe so you can stop misrepresenting yourself.

    I will cite texts and tradition because it was men who belonged to the Catholic Church that gave it to you. This means that only the Catholic Church can interpret it correctly in the first place.

  • newenglandsun

    Or are you talking about the Church and not the Bible?

    Then you were the one who has the history fail. Goodness, you have the IQ of a Jehovah’s Witness!

  • newenglandsun

    “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”- from The Epistle of St. Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans

    This is presumed to be an authentic letter of St. Ignatius. You know what this means?

    History fail! (On your part, that is.)