Dear Thoughtful Pastor,
In 1978, around 300 evangelical leaders assembled to write and adopt the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I believe this gathering in defense of biblical inerrancy represented one of the most significant theological councils in modern times. But unlike the Council of Nicea (325 AD), only the like-minded gathered, so the outcome was a rather predictable defense against the trend toward liberalism and higher biblical criticism.
As I understand the defense of biblical inerrancy, it goes like this: God is Truth. The Bible was written by men who were inspired by God. Thus the Bible is God’s written Truth. And like God, the Bible is infallible and authoritative. They included the caveat that this only applies to the original manuscripts, which, by the way, no longer exist. But, there are thoughtful scholars on the other side of the debate who use historical critical methodology of interpretation and who find unsubstantiated claims and outright errors.
Apparently, it is really important to evangelicals that biblical authority be safeguarded with precious little nuance. Justification for slavery, oppression of women and basis for racism aside, it seems that taking a view of infallibility of the Bible, particularly by the least gracious examples of the far right fringe, is really dangerous. Frankly, some in that camp who are concerned about the possibility of Sharia Law [rigidly applied Islamic religious control] would gladly impose Evangelical Law.
So here is my question:
How important is biblical inerrancy to matters of the Christian faith and the life of Christian discipleship? If we don’t take the Bible literally, are we destined for relativism—any opinion goes? If we do, do we become frozen in the Second Century?
Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of my question.
When holding to the inerrant stance, it does indeed become the centerpiece of faith. Any possibility that the Bible contains error and is not totally trustworthy in all it says threatens the foundations upon which the faith structure builds. It’s a powerful and important glue.
Also, the inerrantist is not necessary a literalist in the sense that he/she does not recognize that some of the Bible uses various language conventions to convey larger truths.
The inerrant world offers good boundaries with clear answers offered by biblical authorities. For the inerrantists there exists only one proper interpretation for any given section or verse of Scripture. As a rule, that single interpretation is decided upon by a group of older, white males, although there are exceptions.
Much safety can be found there.
However, many inerrantists, although not all, hold to a new earth creation theory, i.e., the earth–and the universe–is only a few thousand years old, and was created in seven 24 hour days.
That group does seem to be stuck in a pre-scientific world.
An important question: “What is meant when declaring the Scriptures as without error?”
For example, Matthew 4 shows a different order of the temptations of Jesus than recorded in Luke 4. In Acts, there are two stories of Paul’s conversion. In Acts 9,the people around him heard a voice but saw no one. In Acts 22, when Paul retells the story, the people saw the light but heard nothing. So which of these two stories, Jesus’s temptation and Paul’s conversion, are the inerrant ones?
These questions lead many Christians to prefer “inspired” as a better description of the Bible. It is helpful to keep in mind that the term “inerrant” would not have been recognized by the early writers of Scripture. It emerged in the 17th century by some Protestant groups, but is not part of the longer heritage of understanding the Bible as God-breathed, which is the basic meaning of “inspired.”.
This viewpoint gives room for more nuanced views of biblical texts. Those texts were written by people living in cultures radically different from ours and in ancient languages not always perfectly understood or easily translated.
Scholars use various interpretative lenses in their studies. They do not assume the Bible was written with the 21st century modern or postmodern cultures in mind. People from different ethnicities and women are more welcome to the table of interpretation. There is more tolerance for varied answers.
But this does not mean “anything goes.” So the word relativist may not be the best description of the alternative to the inerrantist. Instead there is a belief that God speaks through the gathered community in the reading and studying of the ancient texts.
Basing life on the principles of loving God, loving others and treating others the way we ourselves want to be treated lead to a sound ethical and moral base as a foundation to life. People may differ in the details, but the overall structure has good solidity.
Both systems can and do offer solid paths to discipleship and Christian living. Sadly, those from one system often don’t want to recognize the legitimacy of the other.
[Note: the above question and answer will run in the April 22, 2016, edition of the Denton Record Chronicle. Because of space limitations, it is intentionally condensed. Below is a more personal answer, although this is the type of question that could take books to answer thoroughly. By the way, the Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. Please email questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org.]
My Own Story
I spent my first years of theological study in the inerrantist world and know it well. As I went deeper into language study, becoming somewhat proficient in biblical Hebrew and Greek, I found myself more and more uncomfortable with the idea of an inerrant text. I think what snapped it for me was an indepth study of 1 Timothy in Greek. I had read enough in Greek of Paul’s epistles by then to know within a few moments of starting my reading that the Apostle Paul did not write I Timothy.
Writers have styles. They are, I think, as individual as fingerprints. Anyone who reads my raw writing, for example, knows I put sentences inside sentences, with (tons of parentheses), and way too many, comma splices. Thank goodness for good editors and the discipline of writing instructors who taught me to edit my own work. BUT . . . (as one who uses ellipses often), the style is still mine. All mine. Because I often also use two or three word “sentences” that are not actually “sentences” in the grammatically proper way.
But, to get back to I Timothy, it does begin with “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope, to Timothy my true son in the faith” (NIV).
But Paul didn’t write it. Period. Not only is the style wrong, but the allusions to church structure already set indicate a much later date.
BUT . . . to the inerrantist, Paul HAD to have written it, otherwise the Bible is lying. So, in order to keep the inerrantist stance alive, the student or scholar in the inerrant world has to lie about everything else.
I remember one fellow student talking with me in despair about the problem. If we, as students, even suggested that we did not hold fully to inerrancy, we would be in a world of trouble. I said to the student, “the only thing I can say is that sometimes the Bible is inerrantly wrong.”
How much mental gymnastics become necessary to stay an inerrantist!
That much internal lying and cognitive dissonance suck the energy out of a person. For me, it eventually became untenable. I plunged into a deep, deep depression. The destructive work of rigid marital rules and roles found primarily in the inerrantist world and upon which my marriage was founded surfaced with devastating force.
I was lucky to emerge alive. During that period of darkness, I read The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Mind: The Case of Edward Carnell. I don’t remember a lot of the details now, although I hope to receive soon a used copy of the book, long out of print.
Carnell was an influential theologian and President of Fuller Seminary. I remember that the author (and this is an unauthorized biography, I think) contented that Carnell’s eventual mental breakdown sprang at least to some degree from his eventual inability to hold to a deeply conservative view of the Bible AND remain intellectually honest.
The other thing I remember is weeping my way through the end of the book. That was about the time I started writing, “The Making and Unmaking of an Evangelical Woman,” which was to be my story. I never finished it, but it may be time to bring it back out again.
I want to be generous to the inerrantists. Most are genuinely good people, people who are totally convinced that their theology and understanding of the Scriptures are the only right way to deal with them. Outside their world, there is no truth and probably no salvation.
I hope they are wrong. I remember being terrified as I finally took my first steps away. I also remember thinking, “If they are right, if I will be unable to use the mind that God gave me to think, then heaven will be hell for me anyway. I lose nothing in the end.”
I lost everything. And I gained everything. Thanks be to God.