Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy: A Review image

Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy: A Review

It’s a big task to condense a book like this into a short review. In the introduction, the editors lay out the focus in the following way:

We have accordingly narrowed our focus to what seems to be the most significant issues, asking our contributors to treat four topics: (1) God and his relationship to his creatures, (2) the doctrine of inspiration, (3) the nature of Scripture, and (4) the nature of truth.

If this is a narrowing of the focus, one is tempted to ask, then how broad must have been the original intention? They continue:

Contributors have been asked to develop their position on these in reference to the CSBI.

The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) was formulated in 1978 by a council of 200 or so evangelical scholars at the International Council of Biblical Inerrancy, which was held in Chicago (no surprise there) and is apparently of some significance to modern evangelicalism (although, as we will see, not all of the contributors afford it the same level of importance as others).

As well as this, the contributors were all asked to comment on three supposed problem texts and how their particular take on inerrancy speaks to those texts. These texts raise three different types of problems for inerrancy: factual problems, problems of canonical coherence, and problem of theological coherence. The texts they chose and the corresponding problems are as follows:

1) Joshua 6, ‘since current archaeological and historiographical evidence calls into question the details of the text’s account.’
2) Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9. ‘Both texts describe Saul’s conversion. The former says that his travel companions “heard the voice but saw no one,” while the latter says that they “saw the lights but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking” (NRSV).’
3) Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5. ‘How is it that Deuteronomy 20 instructs Israel that the complete extermination of Yahweh’s enemies is a matter of Israel’s purity before and obedience to Yahweh, while Jesus subsequently says that faithfulness to God requires nonretaliation and sacrificial love of enemies (Matt. 5:38-48)?’

So each contribution goes roughly like this: the contributor outlines his view on inerrancy, with respect to the CSBI, and then comments on the problem texts, and then the other four contributors write a short response to the main contributor.

The five contributors are ‘two systematic theologians (John Franke and Kevin Vanhoozer), two biblical scholars (Michael Bird and Peter Enns), and one historical theologian (Albert Mohler).’ To try and do any justice to the issues here would be outlandish, so I’ll give a few thoughts and observations about each of the authors in turn. On the whole the contributions are snappy and easy to follow, and a couple of the contributors are quite hilarious at times. (I actually started using a different highlighter colour on my Kindle to indicate lols.) Here goes.

“When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy” by R. Albert Mohler Jr.

For me, this and the second essay by Peter Enns are the most exciting. These two are maybe the most extreme and outspoken of the five (although I suppose some would consider Franke to be a bit of a bad boy), so they write the most entertaining stuff and provoke the most entertaining reaction.

So, while I found this essay exciting to read, I have to say that I was glad to read the responses, which are on the whole highly critical of Mohler’s approach. As you can tell by the title, Mohler has quite a black and white approach to inerrancy, and he makes three arguments for why the ‘total inerrancy of Scripture’ (by which he means affirming the CSBI in every detail) is the way to go: ‘the Bible itself, the tradition of the church, and the function of the Bible within the church.’ I think his approach on all of these issues is flawed for the following reasons.

On the first, I find the jump from the things that Bible says about itself to something like the CSBI to be hugely speculative. It seems to me to be overstating the case. On the second, after reading all the essays, it seems to clear to me that to call the CSBI the ‘classic doctrine of Biblical inerrancy’, as though every major figure from church history has affirmed something like it, is misleading. The point that comes up over and over again in this book is that we live in a culture that leads us to have a precisionist, like-for-like notion of truth, which is rooted in the period of history known as modernity. Thus if the Bible says that it took three days to walk across Nineveh, then it took exactly three days. Origen, Augustine, Calvin, and anyone else you care to mention, did not live in this culture, and so interpreted scripture very differently. Augustine may have affirmed inerrancy, but his view of what inerrancy is would have been incredibly different. This from John Franke’s response to Mohler (a point that is made by many other contributors):

As with many who shared (Augustine’s) Platonist mind-set, he found much that he believed (about the Bible, and before his conversion) to be unworthy of God. It was not until he discovered the spiritual, allegorical, and figurative interpretation of Scripture in the preaching of Ambrose that he was able to affirm Christian teaching and the truth of Scripture. In this context, Hellenistic appreciation of myth and symbol became an essential part of Augustine’s approach to biblical interpretation, in which allegory served as a powerful and important means of conveying religious and philosophical truth. Origen and Augustine were hardly alone in this regard as many, even most, early Christian teachers made use of spiritual and allegorical interpretation to defend the divine origin of the Bible and explain away some of its literal teachings in the face of cultural assumptions and challenges.

Mohler’s third point seems to be that the church needs the Bible, and so inerrancy must be true. Again, one must ask, what inerrancy is he talking about? Is he really saying that the CSBI is so important that the church needs it to survive? It seems to be quite a narrow point of view when he writes things like, ‘Without the Scripture, we would be left with nothing more than an oral tradition concerning Christ and the comprehensive whole of God’s message to us.’ It’s a kind of cultural imperialism to dismiss so casually all oral tradition as though it has nothing at all to offer anyone. One might also make the point that the English church didn’t have a Bible in its own language until 1611, which meant that there were Celtic and English Christians for over a thousand years who didn’t have the scriptures in their own language. Didn’t they need it too?

In any case, it doesn’t seem to follow that the Bible is inerrant because (in Mohler’s view) the church needs an inerrant Bible. Maybe the church needs something it doesn’t have, or needs something other than an inerrant Bible in the way Mohler wants to define inerrancy.

There are (at least) two other problems with Mohler’s essay that I’d like to mention: his fanatical attitude towards the CSBI, and his general tone. This quote is an example of the former:

Without reservation, I affirm the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. I affirm the document and agree with its assertions in whole and in part. To be true to the Scriptures, I believe, evangelicals must affirm its stated affirmations and join in its stated denials.

The question comes back throughout the book: what about everyone in history who has tried to be faithful to Scripture who didn’t have the CSBI, or who wouldn’t have affirmed it? What about everyone else in the world at this moment who has never heard of it and yet maintains that the scripture carries God’s authority? One of the funniest quotes in the book comes from Michael Bird, who writes:

The biggest problem I have in this section is that Mohler treats the CSBI like it is a kind of evangelical magisterium. The inerrancy of Scripture is anchored in the infallibility of the CSBI. If the claims of the CSBI are not true, then the entire edifice of Scripture crumbles into ruin. I would surmise that Mohler has turned the CSBI into a type of horcrux upon which Scripture’s own life depends.

The second aspect that worries me is Mohler’s general tone. And I have a lot of sympathy with Peter Enns on this point. I offer the following quotes from Enns as deserving of attention:

Mohler continues to promulgate an alarmist view of the nature of Scripture that does not bear up under the scrunity of the biblical data or biblical scholarship … Mohler’s position is in my view intellectually untenable, but when wielded as a weapon, it becomes spiritually dangerous … And when seen to speak publicly for a significant number of others, or for American evangelicalism as a whole, it is disconcerting and embarrassing.

Strong words, but they make an important point. I think Mohler’s viewpoint is blinkered, as, for example, when he writes this comment in response to Vanhoozer later on in the book:

What he calls “poorly versed accounts of inerrancy” can do great harm, he argues, and “do not ultimately help the cause of biblical authority”. That is true, of course, but it must also be stated, with even greater forthrightness, that denials of biblical inerrancy have often caused far greater damage.

I think this is blinkered because Mohler seems to think that the only possible consideration anyone can have when it comes to this question on inerrancy is defending it from those liberals who want to say that the Bible has errors. He doesn’t seem to be able to consider, for example, the fact the shrill, uncompromising, anti-intellectual tone of much of American evangelicalism is not a very good or loving witness to America or the rest of the world (as, of course, shows like The West Wing are very apt to point out.) Take another quote from Mike Bird:

(Mohler’s view on inerrancy) means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief. I submit that this kind of “my way or the highway” approach to a doctrine of Scripture is why we have so many ex-evangelicals like Bart Ehrman and Rob Bell running around making all kinds of howling protests against the Bible.

I think this is a very challenging paragraph, and deserving of the attention of the evangelical church.

In conclusion, I admire Mohler’s conviction and his willingness to take a bullet for it. I just worry he might up taking a bullet for the wrong thing, and make others feel guilty for not doing the same.

“Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What The Bible Does” by Peter Enns

This was probably my favourite essay of the lot, despite the fact that I don’t feel like I can go where Enns wants to go. Quotes like this make it for me:

The premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce, or the only effective means of divine communication, strikes me as assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations.

I think that he’s right, and that he has immediately picked up on something that Mohler and the CSBI haven’t. Enns instead wants to read scripture in an incarnational sense, which means, ‘What should be brought explicitly to the forefront here is the manner in which God speaks truth, namely, through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors.’ Surely, no one can doubt this to be true, but how does this work out for Enns in practice? Here I find the test cases helpful.

How does Enns deal with Joshua 6? Well, he basically says that modern scholarship has indeed made it impossible to believe that the conquest of Jericho happened in the way that the Bible describes. He writes the following:

…the biblical story reflects a small historical core (perhaps suggested by some archaeological evidence) that at some point was mythicized. This could prompt fruitful discussion, though we must also admit that once we follow this path, we have left the world of inerrancy as it functions in evangelicalism as a prescriptive doctrine.

Fair enough. And it does seem that Enns has walked away from inerrancy at this point. What confuses me is how he thinks that the Bible carries any sense of authority if he thinks this. ‘This could prompt fruitful discussion,’ he writes, but can it really? What kind of discussion would that be?

Leaving the Acts problem aside, Enns’ view of the extermination of the Canaanites is interesting in a similar way. Enns scores a rhetorical point or two for me when he writes, ‘For inerrantists, an “errant” Bible is a greater theological threat than a God who orders the extermination of an entire people.’ And he says that ‘these narratives are the rhetoric of a tribal people, who understood their own existence and their God’s role among them in terms of the categories of tribal culture: gods are warriors who fight for their people against enemies…’ He then says that there is a ‘compelling case that Matthew’s gospel as a whole asks its readers “to interpret the Mosaic ‘genocide’ through the lens of Jesus’ radical message of love.”’

I think that it’s to be applauded that Enns is willing to think outside the box a little bit when considering Jesus’ attitude towards the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus certainly believed the Scriptures, but sometimes it seems to me that to attribute an evangelical’s view of the Bible to Jesus’ view of the Hebrew Scriptures is a bit of a stretch.

All that aside, where does Enns’ view on Deuteronomy 20 leave us? Did it happen? Should we approve of Deuteronomy 20? What fruitful conversation might we have as a result of it? I’m not sure he answers these questions, aside from implying that it probably didn’t happen.

In summary on Enns, I think that his critique of the tone and, in some areas, the content of the evangelical view of inerrancy is spot on. However, he doesn’t seem to have much an idea of what he would replace such a view with. He advocates a vague ‘descriptive approach.’

A descriptive approach would be more a statement of faith on the part of the reader that no matter what is encountered, the reader is in the presence of our God.

This sounds wonderful, but I’m not sure where it leaves us when we read texts like Joshua 6 and Deuteronomy 20. And so I don’t feel like we can simply leave things there, as Enns does in this essay.

“Inerrancy Is Not Necessary For Evangelicalism Outside The USA” by Michael F. Bird

Michael Bird writes a great essay, the main point of which is that this debate needs to be reframed around something that is not inerrancy. He writes:

The American inerrancy tradition, though largely a positive concept, is essentially modernist in construct, parochially American in context, and occasionally creates more exegetical problems than it solves.

He goes on to say that ‘the (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) was international to the same extent that winners of the World Series or the Super Bowl are “world” champions.’ Later he gets another lol when he asks, ‘why do Americans presume to teach us a proper doctrine of biblical authority and biblical interpretation when they live in the same country as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind series!’

For me, this is an important point to bring to bear in this conversation, namely, that we all bring our cultural baggage and priorities into a debate like this. But what does Bird suggest we do instead of focussing so much on inerrancy? He goes on:

Rather than “inerrancy”, a better categorization of Scripture’s claims for itself would be “veracity,” or “divine truthfulness.” Instead of stating how or in what way the Bible is not untrue – which is an odd thing to say, when you think about it – we are better off simply asserting that God’s Word is true as it correlates with God’s intent for what Scripture is to achieve, because he is faithful to his word.

This kind of thing, according to Bird, is more usual outside of the US. He writes, ‘For the most part, global churches have focused on Scripture as “infallible” and “authoritative.”’ And he gives a very good summary of what many current and historical international bodies, from the Reformers to UCCF, have included in their statements of faith. Needless to say, inerrancy doesn’t feature in any of them.

When Bird talks about infallibility, I think what he means is that the scripture makes whatever kind of point it is trying to make in an infallible way. So when it comes to the text case of Joshua 6, he does call into question resting our faith on contemporary scholarship, but he also writes:

An infallibilist reading of this story will always be interested in its historical reliability, since it narrates an act of God in history; however the main thrust of the story is God’s promise to take his people into the Promised Land, and it’s on this point that our faith is said to rest.

So Bird appears to me here to be like a less extreme version of Peter Enns. The point is not that the scriptures get every single detail right, but that they teach us something about God. He gives us an interesting quote from Calvin:

John Calvin said: “We know that the Evangelists were not very exact as to the order of dates, or even in detailing minutely everything that Christ did or said.”

And so Bird writes of the apparent contradiction in Acts:

Ancient historians were storytellers, not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives and filled in the gaps on details where necessary. The function of Scripture here is to communicate the unexpected and arresting nature of Paul’s conversion and calling.

This all seems quite reasonable to me, and if I were to place myself on a spectrum, I think would be around this kind of place, which shares similarities with Kevin Vanhoozer’s view.

“Truth, And Literate Interpretation In The Economy Of Biblical Discourse” by Kevin J. Vanhoozer

Kevin Vanhoozer’s essay is well-articulated and helpful in clarifying the issues. He starts things out by saying that while ‘inerrancy, is not essential, is nevertheless expedient.’ So inerrancy may be a helpful word to use, but for Vanhoozer, we may need what he calls ‘an account of “well-versed” inerrancy.’ This is to be distinguished from a poor-verse account of inerrancy. Vanhoozer writes:

My primary concern about inerrancy today is that too many contemporary readers lack the literacy needed for understanding the way the words go, or for rightly handling the word of truth. Biblical inerrancy in the context of biblical illiteracy makes for a dangerous proposition.’

His position may be best summed up by a quote from Augustine with which he finishes his essay:

…if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand.

For Vanhoozer, this means that if the manuscript is sound, and the translator has done his work well, and if we can understand what’s going on properly (which is what he means by having the literacy needed for understanding), then we will cease to be perplexed by the situation, and come to a place of understanding.

So for the test cases, about Jericho and Joshua 6, Vanhoozer basically says that we need to read the text properly: ‘Reading Joshua simply to discover “what actually happened” is to miss the main point of the discourse, which is to communicate a theological interpretation of what happened (that is, God gave Israel the land)…’ Once we read the text like this, we may have some room to at least imagine a harmony between modern scholarship and the claims of the Bible.

Vanhoozer’s view of the Acts contradiction is very similar to Peter Enns’ (which I didn’t mention earlier). This is helpful and revealing for me, and rather than take away from the Bible, I think it adds a further dimension to reading a book like Acts.

Enns’ and Vanhoozer’s view, although different, basically goes like this: Luke is not interest in precise, modernistic accuracy in his accounts of Paul’s conversion in Acts. What is going on in Acts 9 and 22 is better understood as a call narrative in which a literary device is being used to show that Paul uniquely was experiencing a call from God. Vanhoozer writes,

A biblically literate reader will note parallels between the story of Paul’s conversion and other incidents in which the Lord appears to select individuals or groups in ways that stretch human auditory and visual sensibilities. Consider, for example, how Moses reminds Israel of God’s appearing with thunder and lightning at Mount Horeb: “You heard the sounds of words but saw no form” (Deut 4:12). Phos (light) and phone (voice) are standard features of biblical theophanies. In Acts 9, Paul’s companions do not see the light; in Acts 22, they do not hear the voice. If the intent is to show that only Paul truly experienced the appearance of Christ, then the two accounts express essentially the same proposition: “Paul’s companions had no share in his christophanic encounter.”

Once again, I found all of this helpful.

“Recasting Biblical Inerrancy: The Bible As Witness To Missional Plurality” by John R. Franke

John Franke’s essay is self-described as ‘an experiment in postconservative or progressive evangelical theology.’ He makes the same point that pretty much all the other authors have made when it comes to the CSBI when he writes:

… ancient luminaries such as Origen, Gregory of Nazianzus, Ambrose, Augustine, and Gregory the Great all affirmed that Scripture was truthful and without error, but did so with philosophical, hermeneutical, and theological assumptions that allowed them to downplay and even sometimes discount the literal meaning of Scripture in favour of spiritual and allegorical interpretation. It is doubtful that any of these early Christian leaders would affirm the details of the Chicago statement.

His quite pertinent critique continues as he accuses inerrantists of being dependant on foundationalism. Foundationalism, according to Franke, has been discredited in philosophical circles, and so we need to start approaching the Bible in a different way. He continues:

In addition, this approach (foundationalism) maintains that if there is a single error at any place in the Bible, none of it can be trusted. I have heard it said many times from this perspective that if there is one error in the Bible, there may as well be a thousand and none of it can be trusted. Of course, this is nonsense. As though an error in one of the books of the Old Testament means that the witness to the resurrection in the New Testament is somehow suspect or less trustworthy.

All of this is definitely worth pointing out, and I think Frank has got a lot to diagnose. But I don’t think I can do justice to Franke’s view here because I found it hard to understand some of the postmodern concepts he brings in midway through his essay. It reminded me of watching 2001: A Space Odyssey.

I do think that the point he makes about foundationalism is very strong. He continues along this line later on with a helpful distinction separating God’s knowledge from ours:

Scripture is truth written (small t), in that it provides a series of faithful witnesses to the Truth of God’s self-revelation without itself becoming a manifestation of capital-T Truth. This means that while Scripture is truthful and trustworthy, we must be careful to respect the creator-creature distinction in our use of it.

In my view, this kind of thinking is wielding postmodernism to good effect: using a more nuanced definition of ‘truth’ to have a better grasp of what scripture is trying to achieve. On this view, we each have a perspective on scripture with only our small-t truth, and only God has access to capital-T truth. And this is why scripture provides us with what Franke calls a ‘pluriform’ truth. Franke writes, ‘The Bible is polyphonic. Perhaps the presence of four gospel accounts offers the most straightforward and significant demonstration of plurality in the biblical canon.’

I think this is a very exciting way to start thinking about the Bible. But how does Franke deal with the three challenges to biblical inerrancy? Franke’s perspective is that the point of the Bible is not to get everything right, but to achieve a certain end. So with the Joshua passage, after concluding that the archaeologists are probably correct, he writes:

Its ultimate purpose is not to provide precise, literal details of history but to form a covenantal community called to be a blessing to the world in keeping with the mission of God.

I suppose many might make the quite reasonable point that it might impair the scriptures’ ability to form a covenantal community if the scripture makes historical claims that are wrong. But again we see the point that the primary purpose of scripture is not to satisfy the modernist cravings of 21st Century westerners, but to achieve a certain end. Franke writes of the apparent contradiction in Acts:

That these two particular texts are cited as a concern for biblical authority is indicative of a particular understanding of inspiration and inerrancy that does not do justice to the phenomena of Scripture.

Along with Enns and Vanhoozer, Franke says that we are missing the point if we think this kind of detail is particularly worrying. Luke was doing something different than presenting history in the way that we understand it. I think quotes like the following are compelling:

We have two creation accounts, multiple law codes, alternative genealogies, competing histories, and four gospels. The various attempts at harmonization are rooted in the apologetic concern to demonstrate the inerrancy of Scripture as the basis on which to defend the truthfulness of Christian faith. The result of this process has been increasing cultural scepticism about the Bible as well as an artificial approach to interpretation that often disables readers from seeing what the texts actually say.

When we come to the apparent theological discrepancy between Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5, Franke, with Peter Enns, says that the ‘Old Testament is a contextual accommodation to the militaristic culture of the ancient Near East. This accounts for the regular depictions of God that use the terminology of a warrior fighting on behalf of his people.’ He goes to say that Jesus deconstructs Deuteronomy 20, when he ‘calls into question prior assumptions and practices.’ “You have heard it said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your father in heaven.” (Matt 5:43-45)

All this seems to make sense. But then I can’t help wondering what we’re supposed to do with Deuteronomy. And if all of the Bible is a cultural accommodation to some extent, doesn’t it follow that we can’t really trust any of it?

Concluding Comments

I suspect that evangelicalism is intertwined with modernity, and that much of what we think is Christian is actually modernist. Hence much of what we believe is rooted in a system of thought that has been long and rightly left behind. We should not be frightened to identify and move beyond these things too. This doesn’t mean that we must embrace all postmodernism, and that anyone can make up anything they want and start doing whatever they feel like (or any other silly criticisms of postmodernism that might be made). But it does mean that we need to stop appealing to modernity and to what it finds to be acceptable. And we need to move towards a more nuanced definition of truth, and a better understanding of what God was trying to achieve through the authors of the Bible when it was written. I’m not sure exactly how to do this, but I’m convinced that we should try. For me, this is the most important message of the book. Michael Bird encapsulates something similar in a very compelling section on B. B. Warfield and the early evangelicals, with which I will finish:

We might say that Warfield and the inerrantists who followed him went a bridge too far, since they seized more intellectual terrain than they could effectively defend. They allowed modernity to fight on the philosophical ground of their choosing and with the epistemological weapons of their choosing. The Battle for the Bible was always rigged in favour of modernity, and a better strategy would have been to deconstruct modernity as its philosophical DNA. So we shouldn’t anchor the truth of Scripture in our own apologetic capabilities to beat the skeptics at their own game. I think there are better ways.

← Prev article
Next article →