I have to be honest: I still am quite frustrated these days. It still hurts knowing that I lost my teaching job because I didn’t think the universe is 6,000 years old. It hurts knowing that I was deemed a “compromised Christian” who undermines biblical authority. And it hurts knowing that the man who fired me told people that I was a “liberal” and that I “didn’t think the Bible was historical.” Really? Is that a fair and accurate characterization of me? Trust me, I have some really liberal friends who, upon reading the above line, will be spewing their drink out of their nose because they’re laughing so hard.
Where do such labels come from? What are the factors? Well, it comes down to how one understands the concepts of “inspiration,” “infallibility,” and “inerrancy” (for expediency’s sake, I’m going to just lump “infallibility” and “inerrancy” together—I’m 45, have a PhD in OT, and I still for the life of me can’t tell the difference between the two). To be sure, it is almost uniquely a Protestant-Evangelical powder-keg. In this post, I’m going to try to make sense of it.
Inspiration and/vs. Inerrancy
A few months ago, I came across an article by Bob Wilkin entitled, “Can We Still Trust New Testament Professors?” in which he took to task New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg for his criticism of the term “inerrancy.” I saved it and thought, “I might have to write a post on this one day.” Then last week, a friend of my sent me an article by Robert Bowman entitled “Seven Problems with Christian Opposition to Inerrancy,” in which he took to task Kyle Roberts for an article he had written, entitled, “Seven Problems with Inerrancy.”
Quite frankly, reading the articles made me sad, particularly the ones “defending” inerrancy. I realized that this debate wasn’t simply a theological debate, it was also very much a political debate. And that got me thinking, along with this issue of “inspiration vs. inerrancy,” the current “creation vs. evolution debate” within Evangelical circles—both of these issues—reflect a frighteningly growing politicization of the American Church, and indeed the entire culture as well.
What the Articles Said
Here are the links to the articles in question:
“Can We Still Trust New Testament Professors?” –Bob Wilkin
“Seven Problems with Inerrancy” –Kyle Roberts
“Seven Problems with Christian Opposition to Inerrancy” –Robert Bowman
You can read the articles for yourself, but I will very briefly summarize the two positions. First, both Blomberg and Roberts argue that whereas the Bible certainly is trustworthy and inspired, the term “inerrancy” simply has a bit too much baggage with it and is often used in harmful ways by ultra-conservative fundamentalists, namely as a way to insist that Genesis 1-11, Jonah, Job, are literal history.
And this leads us to position two: both Wilkin and Bowman argue that if you don’t believe Genesis 1-11, Jonah, and Job are literal history, then you are undermining biblical authority and are a notorious “liberal.” Bowman even starts his article with a graphic to show this. Wilkin even goes so far as to say that he wouldn’t send his children to colleges that have professors like Bloomberg. (This is similar to what Ken Ham routinely does—he’s even written a book about supposedly “compromised” Christian colleges that don’t teach Genesis 1-11 is literal history).
Simply put, if you read the articles, you’ll find that Wilkin and Bowman’s basic argument goes something like this: “Christians have always claimed the Bible was inerrant; Jesus claimed the Bible was inerrant; if you don’t agree that the Bible is inerrant, then you are casting doubt on the Bible and are ultimately calling God a liar. Therefore, if you don’t think Elisha’s axe-head literally floated, then you are casting doubt on the resurrection of Christ.”
Maybe now you can see why these article have made me sad.
Where Did “Inerrancy” Come From?
The descriptive term “inerrancy” was coined by B.B. Warfield, who was reacting to the modern liberal theology of the 19th and 20th century. Simply put, (and perhaps over-simplistically so), modern liberal theology’s view of Scripture went something like this: “Science now proves that the Bible is just a thoroughly human book, it’s full of errors and discrepancies all over the place, and miracles don’t happen because that would violate natural laws.”
In response to this onslaught by liberal theology, men like B.B. Warfield and the original “Fundamentalist” movement, sought to defend the divine authorship and reliability of the Bible. Warfield emphasizes that the Bible is both a divine and human book. Yes, it was written by human beings, but, as the Bible itself claims, it was inspired by God. And even though there could be translational errors and mistakes, that in the original autographs, the writings of the Bible were “without error” (i.e. inerrant). And since the Bible testifies to the miraculous, then those miracles recorded in the Bible obviously happened.
Obviously, what “inerrancy” meant was that the Bible was true and accurate in whatever it addressed: if it was “doing history,” we could have confidence that what it was saying really happened; if it was “doing parable,” we then interpret it according to the genre of parable and believe it is revealing truth in whatever it is addressing. In order for “inerrancy” to work, you have to know what you’re reading.
The interesting thing about Warfield, though, is that he, for example, had no problem with the theory of evolution. That should tell you that the man who coined the term “inerrancy” obviously did not think Genesis 1-2 was a blow-by-blow “eyewitness” account of creation by God. So ironically, the man who coined the term “inerrancy” is considered by the likes of Ken Ham to be a “compromised Christian.” How is that possible?
Here’s the Problem
Ultimately, Bloomberg and Roberts are right. The term “inerrancy” was a term coined in response to the Enlightenment-influenced liberal theology of the 19th century. The problem, as I have said elsewhere in other posts, is that in the attempt to combat the liberal theology of the 19th century, well-meaning Christians ended up trying to defend the Bible by playing by the Enlightenment rules. People like Wilkin, Bowman, and even Ken Ham, are still doing that same thing.
The problem when people like Bloomberg and Roberts question the term “inerrancy,” is that they don’t clearly articulate precisely what the real problem is. They’re still coming at the issue from an Enlightenment mindset, or more accurately, still allowing the argument about the Bible to be dominated by Enlightenment presuppositions. This in turn sets ultra-conservatives in a tizzy, and they think you’re saying “The Bible isn’t true!”
So when Bowman goes through a host of Christian theologians throughout history, and shows quotes by them, saying that the Bible is free from error, okay—but Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas weren’t using the Fundamentalist reactionary definition of “inerrancy” back in the 5th and 13th centuries.
Let’s Clear Things Up
If you read these articles, your head might spin off. If there is one thing I’ve learned about Protestants and their theology, it’s this: they’re really good at needlessly complicating things, and then bashing each other over the head with their particular systematic theological constructs. It was true with Luther and Zwingli, it’s still true today. That’s probably one of the reasons I became Orthodox. In any case, here is my brief take on this issue.
First, the Bible is inspired by God: he inspired the writers of the Bible to reveal his truth to address specific events, people, and issues of the time. The reason we have the Book of Jeremiah, and not the Book of Hananiah, because Jeremiah’s prophesies proved to be true, Hananiah’s prophesies were proved to be false, and therefore, Jeremiah’s writings were preserved and Hananiah’s wasn’t.
Second, the uniqueness of the Bible is the canon, not in the modern claim of “inerrancy.” When the canon of Scripture was established, it meant it was the “measuring stick” or “ruler” against which all other teachings were to be judged. If I go around teaching that Jesus really was a rutabaga farmer who said the way to God was self-castration, you could assess my claims against the canon of Scripture, and make the determination that no, Jesus never taught that, and no, the Church has never taught that either. Therefore, since my claims clearly contradict the canon of Scripture that bears witness to the beliefs and teaching of Christ and the early Church, you would be right in concluding that the Holy Spirit is not speaking through me.
On the other hand, if you read someone like C.S. Lewis, Thomas A’Kempis, or Thomas Merton, and what they say about the Christian faith is found to line up with the canon of Scripture, we can accept their teaching, appreciate their insights, and rest assured that the Holy Spirit is still guiding us in all truth as He is clearly working in these men’s lives to further illuminate and guide His Church.
In that sense, my understanding of “inspiration” might surprise people: I think men like C.S. Lewis, Thomas A’Kempis, and Thomas Merton all were inspired. The Word of God is living and active, and still works through and inspires Christians to continue Christ’s Kingdom work. No, the writer of Hebrews was not talking about the Bible when he said the Word of God is living and active. He was talking about the Spirit of God at work in the world.
Someone might object and say, “Are you saying they were inspired in the same way as Paul?” Well, they were all inspired by the same Holy Spirit! The difference is that the Holy Spirit was inspiring the biblical writers, including Paul, to “lay the foundation,” whereas the same Holy Spirit inspires people today to further build up God’s Temple, the Church. It’s not that the Holy Spirit inspired them, but left us to flail about on our own. He still inspires us today, and it is the canon of Scripture that helps us recognize and determine the Holy Spirit’s inspiration still today.
Third, the Bible is revealed truth—it tells the truth about God, Man, and the World. Therefore, claims of “inerrancy” are just redundant. Here is where I have a problem with the concept of “inerrancy.” First, the claim is that the Bible is inerrant in the “original writings.” Well great—the fact is that we don’t have the original writings. So the definition is rendered pretty meaningless right from the start.
Second, you have to be clear on precisely what you mean by “without error.” Do you mean the Bible is without grammar errors and typos? No? Good-because they’re in there. Do you mean the Bible is literally and factually accurate all the time? Well, what are you going to do with Joshua telling the sun to stop moving around the earth? What are going to do with the chronological problems in II Kings, particularly during the reign of Hezekiah? How could the fall of Samaria (721 BC) happen in his 6th year, and then Sennacherib’s invasion (701 BC) happen in his 14th year? The numbers don’t add up. We should be honest and admit there are minor discrepancies here and there, but none which affect the revealed message of a passage, and most of which are easily figured out. Should those things cast doubt on the veracity of the Bible? Of course not.
Third, you still are going to have to be clear on the genre of any given biblical passage. Take the Parable of the Prodigal Son for example. Think of how odd the following statement sounds, “I believe the Parable of the Prodigal Son is inerrant!” What’s wrong with that? “Inerrancy” a term that implies scientific and historical factual accuracy, but this is a parable—therefore “inerrancy” simply doesn’t really fit as a proper description. What you really mean is that the Parable of the Prodigal Son is revealing the truth about God’s love.
Finally, it is true: modern proponents of “biblical inerrancy” are really concerned with Genesis 1-11, Jonah, and Job, and they really want to argue that all three are historical. And it’s true, they are wrong about all three. My take is very simple: if you really take inspiration seriously, then you have to agree that God revealed Himself to the original audience in a way they would have understood. You have to take literary and historical context seriously.
Therefore, God did not inspire Moses to reveal 21st century scientific truths to the ancient Israelites. Genesis 1-11 is not God’s refutation of Darwinism. The ancient world was not interested in the “scientific/historical facts” regarding the creation of the material universe. It’s not that Moses tried to tell the “eyewitness account” of God and got it wrong—he wasn’t giving “God’s eyewitness account” in the first place. Genesis 1-11 isn’t history—it wasn’t meant to be read as history; therefore it cannot be accused of “getting the history wrong.”
Regarding Jonah, I did my master’s thesis on Jonah. It’s not history. It has all the earmarks of a parable, pure and simple. It was written in 5th century BC to the post-exilic Jewish community, and Jonah was an 8th century BC prophet of the northern kingdom of Israel. There is no record of Nineveh ever repenting and turning to YHWH. The parable was written to challenge the returning Jews’ attitude toward Gentiles who might turn to YHWH.
It would be like if I told a story about how God told George Bush to travel to Afghanistan, and eventually Osama bin Laden accepted Jesus, and God told Bush to invite him to the White House to celebrate God’s forgiveness. Now, there really is a George Bush, bin Laden was a real person, but my story isn’t history—it’s a parable to challenge you: if bin Laden repented and God forgave him, could you?
Regarding Job—it’s in the “Wisdom” Section of the Old Testament! In the Hebrew Bible, it is under the category of the “Writings,” along with the Psalms and Proverbs. How can anyone completely ignore the very biblical context in which Job is found, and insist that it is “history,” and then have the gall to say, “If you don’t think Job is historical, then you are undermining the Bible?” Simply unbelievable.
So to Sum Up…
Insisting that texts like Genesis 1-11, Jonah, and Job are to be read in their historical and literary contexts is not claiming they are “filled with errors.” Men like Wilken and Bowman, who insist that these texts must be historically accurate, or else you’re saying the Bible is “full of errors,” are in fact insisting the Bible be read through the worldview lens of the Enlightenment. They are the ones who don’t respect the biblical text enough. They don’t respect it enough to let it speak for itself, firmly rooted within its literary and historical contexts.
And one more thing: we need to realize and be okay with the fact that even where the Bible is relating historical events, the biblical writers were not modern newspaper reporters. They are conveying God’s acts in history, but they are also doing it in a highly creative, literary way. God conveys His truth through creative means, we should embrace it. Men like Wilken, Bowman, and Ken Ham, seem to hate that—it’s not “factual enough.” But how can you truly love the Creator God, and yet be so hostile to the idea that He reveals Himself in creative ways, and that the Bible is full of creativity and literary artistry?
We should just all agree that the Bible is inspired and that it is true. If you want to retain the word “inerrancy,” as a way of saying, “Yes, but it’s really, really true!” Okay—have at it. But I think you’re just being redundant. But if you want to keep using “inerrancy” to bludgeon people into saying that Genesis 1-11, Jonah, and Job are meant to be historically factual, I don’t know what to tell you, other than you’re wrong.
And that does not make me a “liberal.” It makes me an Orthodox Christian who reveres the Bible so much, who takes inspiration so seriously, that I refuse to let the modern Enlightenment misconceptions of what constitutes as “truth” act as a dictator over the Bible.