Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 5): Inerrancy Must Go
An indispensable tenet of liberalism is getting rid of the Bible as God’s infallible (i.e., inerrant) Word. Liberalism is all about adjusting the Faith to the temper of the times, and you can’t do that if you stick to the full inerrancy of the Bible amid the fluctuations of history and culture. The whole point of affirming orthodox bibliology (one’s view of the Bible) is to recognize the unchanging Word of God as it confronts human changeability. Therefore, Biblical authority is subversive of liberalism, and no liberal has ever embraced inerrancy. To do that would doom the liberal program from the start.
It is a mistake often made by literate but naive observers to assume that since liberals enthrone science, it was the increase of 19th century historic and scientific evidence that eroded confidence in orthodox bibliology. In fact, nearly the opposite was actually the case. Liberals had already resituated the center of religious authority in human experience, and when the historic and scientific advances came along, liberals were only too eager to enlist them as proof that the Bible could no longer be trusted as God’s inerrant Word (see Dillenberger and Welch, p. 197). Liberals wanted to believe that the Bible is not infallible and cannot be an objective authority. Their abandonment of infallibility wasn’t a dispassionate, objective assessment, but was deeply “faith-based.” It was presuppositional, that is, when they ditched infallibility, they were simply acting in accord with their worldview.
The liberal evangelicals are little different. For example, a younger evangelical, Daniel Kirk, New Testament specialist at Fuller Seminary in Menlo Park, writes:
Christians will interpret history differently from non-Christians. We believe that God raised Jesus from the dead.
We believe that Jesus did miracles, fed thousands, walked on water.
But we don’t have to believe that Quirinius was governor with authority over Judea while Herod was still alive, or that the census that he took about ten years after Herod died occurred ten years earlier.
Why, pray tell, not? The same Bible that teaches Jesus rose from the dead teaches that Quirinius governed Judea during Herod’s lifetime. Dr. Kirk manages this interpretive double-dealing by introducing an epistemic (view of knowledge) duality:
The former questions [like the resurrection] are questions of faith. The latter questions [like what political figures reigned and when] are questions of historical record. The Bible we actually have contains a number of geopolitical statements that do not line up with what we know from historical sources that had access to better records.
In other words, the Bible isn’t inerrant.
This duality was quite popular among opponents of Biblical inerrancy during the “Battle for the Bible” in the 70’s and 80’s (Dan Fuller, of Fuller Seminary, even held it in the old Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society in the late 60’s). His point was that the Bible is indeed infallible, bit it’s only infallible in theological matters — which can be known only by faith, not historical or scientific matters — which can be known only by observation. The Bible is infallible when it tells us that Jesus loves us, but it might just be wrong when it tells us precisely when Quirinius ruled. And, after all, when Quirinius ruled doesn’t matter much anyway. This assertion doesn’t need to be infallible.
This is a particularly lame rationale for denying Biblical infallibility.
First, nobody in the Bible would have dreamed of talking this way. Can you imagine Jesus or Paul or John or Peter or James saying or implying, “The Hebrew Scriptures are God’s Word and therefore they are true; but they are only certainly true when they talk about things that can’t be verified. Everything else is fair game for error.”
Second, on many issues there can be no clear distinction between matters of non-verifiable faith and theology on the one hand and matters of verifiable history and science on the other. Jesus’ resurrection is a case in point. Our Lord’s resurrection is a theological truth whose validity rests, at least partly, on its historical factuality (1 Cor. 15). To say that the resurrection can be true theologically even if Jesus didn’t actually rise from the tomb on the third day (which many liberals do in fact say) is, for Paul and other primitive Christians, to utter pure poppycock.
So the rationale for denying Biblical infallibility that some liberal evangelicals offer lays the groundwork for gutting the very essence of the Christian Faith, which is inescapably historical, no matter how sincere they may be in wanting to rescue the Bible from scientific and historical scrutiny.
Once you get rid of inerrancy, you just never know where your faith will end up.