What does “inerrancy” actually do?
by Roger Olson
June 9, 2012
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 [excluding others from a fellowship's fellowship - res].
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Further thoughts on why “inerrancy” is problematic
by Roger Olson
June 11, 2012
Notice I put “inerrancy” in “scare quotes.” That’s to indicate that what I am talking about is the term, not precisely the concept. Or, to put it another way, my concern is that the term is used for many different concepts and therefore, without definition, is virtually meaningless.
Now I am going to quote a leading evangelical theologian’s definition of biblical inerrancy. I’m not revealing his name first; his identity as the definition’s author is below it. I challenge you to read the definition first and only then see who wrote it. And before peeking at the author’s name, formulate an opinion about it. Is the definition what you thought “inerrancy” means? Is it what leading conservative evangelical inerrantist theologians mean? How many would agree with it?
Here is the definition which is copyrighted, but the author’s web site gives permission to disseminate it with the copyright line following. I also provide, as requested, a link to the source of the definition at the author’s web site. (However, I first encountered it elsewhere; it was given to me by a colleague many years ago.)
“I. The Word of God
“The Bible is…without error in the original manuscripts…” Since there is a wide diversity of opinions on the meaning of “error” in such an affirmation, it is appropriate that I give my understanding of the word in this context so that you know what I am affirming.
I will suggest two definitions of “error”, the first of which I consider proper for judging the reliability of any literature including the Bible and the second of which I consider improper. According to the first I believe the Bible is “without error”.
1) A writer is in error when the basic intention in his statements and admonitions, properly understood in their nearer and wider context, is not true. (In reference to indicative statements, “true” means they correspond to reality; in reference to admonitions “true” means that obedience of these admonitions is in harmony with reality, i.e., it accords with the will of God.)
2) A writer is in error if any of his individual statements are not literally true.
The difference between these two definitions and my own understanding of the truth of the Bible may be clarified by three illustrations from Scripture. (To many of my fellow theologians the following would sound elementary to the point of being superfluous. But in my tradition it is a necessary starting point if we are to come to properly understand our affirmation on Scripture.)
A) God says about Jerusalem through Jeremiah (15:8), “I have made their widows more in number than the sand of the sea.” This statement is “literally” false. But according to definition 1 above, it is not false since the basic intention of Jeremiah is to press home (by an exaggeration which had become a commonplace analogy in the Old Testament) the tragically large number of widows as a sign of God’s judgment.
B) Jesus says in Mark 4:31 that the Kingdom of God “is like a grain of mustard seed which when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth…” According to definition 2 above, Jesus erred here because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on the earth. But according to the first definition he did not err because his basic intention was not in the least botanical. The point is the great contrast between the smallness of the seed and the largeness of the full-grown shrub. Jesus capitalized on the proverbial smallness of the mustard seed (TWNT, VII, p. 288) to make a perfect, inerrant point about the Kingdom of God.
C) If we used definition 2 above the Gospel writers would have to be accused of error in their chronology of events of Jesus’ life. Just one illustration: The story of the healing of the paralytic (Mt. 9:1-8 = Mk 2:1-12 = Lk 5:17-26), the call of Levi (Mt 9:9-13 = Mk 2:13-17 = Lk 5:27-32), and the question about fasting (Mt 9:14-47 = Mk 2:18-22 = Lk 5:33-39) follow back to back in all three Synoptics and so refer to the same events. Again, the stilling of the storm (Mt 8:23-27 = Mk 4:35-41 = Lk 8:22-25) and the Gesarene demoniac (Mt 8:28 = Mk 5:1-20 = Lk 8:26-39) follow back to back in all three Synoptics so that with the verbal parallels one can see that the same sequence of events is being referred to in each Gospel. But Matthew has these last two events before the three cited above. While Mark and Luke have them after these three events. It cannot be both ways.
But the Synoptics are not in error here according to the first definition above because it was not their basic intention to give a rigid chronology of Jesus’ ministry (which Papias said already in the second century, cf. Eusebius, E. H. III, 39, 14ff). Their intention was rather to give a faithful presentation of the essential features of Jesus’ teaching and deeds. In this particular instance Matthew probably felt he could best do this by including the storm stilling and Gesarene demoniac scenes in his composition of chapters 8 and 9 where he has gathered ten miracle stories. This presentation of Jesus’ miracle working is then bracketed together with the Sermon on the Mount with the identical summary statements in 4:23 and 9:35. Thus we have a literary unit which beautifully and inerrantly sets forth the essential features of our Lord’s ministry.
These three illustrations should suffice to clarify my understanding of the affirmation: “The Bible is without error.” I thus gladly align myself with the long-proved tradition: perfectio respect finis (perfect with respect to purpose). I know no better statement of my own position on this matter than that of the Second Baptist Confession of 1677: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith and obedience…”
But I think just as important as agreeing with "Affirmation I" in detail is my deep commitment to the spirit of it. From history and from my own experience I can say that it is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Bible. We humans are incapable of finding out what we need so much to know: how to overcome sin, to escape the wrath of God, to become new creatures, to walk pleasing to the Lord. God must reveal this to us or we perish. This he has done and continues to do by means of the written Word, the Bible. When a man has understood the Bible he has understood the revelation of God infallibly, inerrantly, and verbally.”
End of the defintion. Please don’t peek at the author’s identity (below) until you’ve considered what you think about this definition. Then read on.
The author is John Piper. The definition may be found at the following web site:
Here is the requested copyright statement: By John Piper. ©2012 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org
Notice that, in essence, what John Piper says is that the Bible’s “inerrancy” means “perfection with respect to purpose.” It does NOT, he says, require literal interpretation. In fact, it is compatible with blatant errors INSOFAR as the author’s intention was not to be technically precise.
I once showed this definition of inerrancy to Carl F. H. Henry [(without mention Piper by name)]. I have his hand written letter responding to it. He said the author is well intentioned but needs help because the exceptions and qualifications leave inerrancy too open, too imprecise.
Precisely. That’s my point. Even strong inerrantist theologians do not agree among themselves about what inerrancy means. I believe I could affirm John Piper’s definition of inerrancy. But I would be willing to bet that if I produced it without John Piper’s name as its author and said it is what I believe “inerrancy” means many conservative evangelical (neo-fundamentalist) gatekeepers would reject me as not believing in inerrancy.
It is my personal opinion, based on thirty years’ experience “in the thick” of evangelicalism that much of the debate over inerrancy has to do with personalities, situations and contexts. One proof of that, to me, is that Harold Lindsell, author of The Battle for The Bible, signed the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy even though it contains qualifications he explicitly rejected in his book as incompatible with real belief in inerrancy. (The specific issue was Robert Mounce’s column about inerrancy in Eternity magazine. Lindsell attacked it in his book for qualifying inerrancy too much. Then, when Mounce’s qualifications were included in The Chicago Statement, Lindsell signed it anyway.)
I think John Piper’s definition of inerrancy as “perfection with respect to purpose” is good EXCEPT most people would not think that’s what “inerrancy” means. The vast majority of people who hear about “biblical inerrancy” THINK it means technical, precise, exact correspondence with reality with no room for estimates, rounding up or down of numbers, reliance on errant sources, etc., etc. During thirty years of teaching theology I have had the constant experience of showing students the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy and conservative evangelical theologians’ qualifications (e.g., Millard Erickson’s) and having them laugh. When I asked them why they laughed they always said “That’s not ‘inerrancy’.” Exactly.
What has happened is that conservative evangelical theologians and biblical scholars like Piper and Erickson and others have realized, as a result of their higher educations and researches, that the Bible DOES contain what most people (including they in the past) consider “errors.” But they want to hold onto the term “inerrancy” because it is such a useful litmus test for excluding “liberals” and other undesirables from the evangelical movement. So, instead of simply discarding the term “inerrancy,” they redefine it to death. But, almost no lay person and few pastors understand that’s what’s happening. They think the leading defenders of “inerrancy” believe what THEY do. The secret is, the scholars don’t.