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.

6 thoughts on “Liberal Evangelicalism (Part 5): Inerrancy Must Go

  1. Thanks for engaging my work, Andrew.

    The “liberals bow to their own reason” dog isn’t going to hunt for too much longer. That kind of rhetoric will persuade the convinced, but it’s not how evangelical biblical scholars are wrestling with the biblical text.

    To claim an inerrant Bible is to claim something that can be demonstrated to be false. As soon as there’s an error, the gig is up. The book of Daniel itself is iceberg enough to sink that Titanic.

    Increasingly, evangelicals are recognizing that clinging to an inerrant Bible is clinging to an idol: it’s a doctrine that does not fit the Bible God in God’s wisdom has actually given to us. It is a more faithful, humble posture toward the Bible as God’s word to believe that the Bible God actually gave us is the Bible God wanted us to have. To trust in God is to receive this book, even with its historical and scientific mistakes.

    You can continue retreating to idealized epistemological claims, but as the people in the pew actually read their Bibles, they will discover that what the Bible “has to be,” according to you, is not what it actually is. And then… What? They’ve been told that without an inerrant Bible there is no God of Christianity, no Christianity worth believing–only liberal following about the spirit of the age.

    What if they believe you? Then when they realize the Bible isn’t what you’ve been selling them, they have no reason to keep the faith.

    The polemics here are not only wrong (“Liberals are following themselves rather than God”), it not only applies better to your theology (you’re the one who has created a construct about the Bible that God did not give us or demand of us or provide a Bible that can uphold it), it is also pastorally damaging.

  2. Daniel,

    Employing pastoral concerns as the rationale for denying the full truthfulness of the Bible — an idea you unbelievably label idolatry — is mystifying. Are you certain you want to travel that road? Are you prepared to label as idolaters virtually the entire Christian church, East and West, for 1800 years? Are you certain that the people in the pew are clamoring for “a more faithful, humble posture” to the Bible, i.e., a repudiation of inerrancy, that will satisfy their desire to reconcile the Bible with modern science and history? Is this why liberal churches have such a history of growth — the more of the Bible the pulipts deny, the more enthusiastic the congregants become?

    Now, if the Bible teaches in fact that it’s inerrant, is it idolatrous to believe this? Would it be idolatrous to hold that a human (Jesus of Nazareth) is in fact God in the flesh since He does not on first inspection exhibit the signs of deity? Rather, should we not allow the Bible to tell us whether He’s divine, and not allow our investigation of of Christological “phenomena” to trump what the Bible plainly says?

    Why are you willing to give more credence to the intrinsically (and doggedly and uncompromisingly) tentative character of scientific and historical investigation than to the numerous claims of revelation as fully truthful?

  3. Daniel, a number of things strike me as peculiar about your comment.

    First, your posture is that inerrantists are sort of the theological equivalent to Barack Obama’s infamous “bitter clingers.” People stuck in the past, scared of the “new,” and lashing out with unwarranted dogmatism. Hunting with an aging and decrepit dog about to keel over, to use your metaphor.

    And yet: everything you’ve written here is really, really, really old. It is centuries-old historical criticism, 100% pure and unrefined. Are you suggesting that Bauer, Troeltsch, Harnack, Bultmann, et. al., are some new reality the church is just coming to grips with? Are the “evangelical scholars” you refer to just discovering these things? If so, it is a sad thing when evangelical scholarship can be so historically ignorant that what they are discovering and “wrestling” with today was covered rather comprehensively 150+ years ago. Somebody is bitterly clinging to old epistemic paradigms here (you seem to be re-digging Lessing’s “Ugly Ditch” between history and faith), and I don’t think the Enlightenment project has turned out so well in other disciplines. If you want to hitch your wagon to that old horse as it gasps for breath, it is you who will not get far. Or, on second thought, maybe you will get far: as far away from orthodox faith as the most ardent anti-supernaturalists got.

    Second, you claim your view as the “humble” one. I guess I can see how one might think that at a glance. But I must say that I find far more humility in the person willing to believe that, say, Luke got it right than the one who assumes, because of a conflicting authority, that Luke must be wrong. I find far more humility in the person willing to say, “I don’t know” and lets it rest than the person who must dogmatically resolve every theological or historical tension with: “The Bible gets it wrong.” That is the enthronement of Enlightenment Reason, and that, it seems to me, is the real idealized epistemology: the dictates of human reason can and will resolve and/or get to the bottom of all historical difficulties. Was that not the historicist project? And is that not exactly what you are advocating?

    Third, we have the benefit of knowing where this story ends. I know that you really like narratives and trajectories, and I would encourage you to really, seriously reflect on this one: Those engaged in the kind of biblical criticism you’re espousing did not—could not—stop there. Supernaturalism had to go. The miracles had to go. The resurrection had to go. I appreciate your wanting to maintain faith in the resurrection and miracles; but I am at a loss to understand what it is that makes you different and guarantees you a different end zone. It is possible, of course, that you understand yourself to be engaged in an entirely different project than the Enlightenment critics. You’re just not.

    Fourth, you claim that inerrancy is pastorally damaging. I am not so sheltered and ignorant as to deny that plenty of people are taught an unsophisticated sort of wooden literalism and receive a rude awakening later in life. But that sort of unsophisticated wooden literalism is not the same thing as the doctrine of inerrancy, and I think you know that. Or you ought to. There are plenty of evangelical inerrantist scholars doing fine work. I know that you and others will criticize them when they work through a “problem” and say, at the end of the day, “I’m uncertain” or “I don’t know.” I find that ironic: the supposedly arrogant dogmatist is humble and the supposedly humble are arrogant dogmatists. But that’s a tangent. I do not believe you can find large numbers of people whose faith was shipwrecked by an implicit faith and trust in the absolute reliability of the Bible. Perhaps there are some whose caricature of the Bible was naïve and rudely awakened. But I would guarantee that far more—millions—have had their faith shipwrecked by the dogmatic, arrogant pretensions of the historical critics. Humanity itself was led astray in just that fashion: “Did God really say?” You make your accusation of pastoral damage very confidently and dismissively; a look in the mirror might be in order. Incidentally, I find it strange how dismissive you are of the “liberals bow to their own reason” critique; is there nothing to it? Or does Genesis 3 have something significant to say about revelation and epistemology? I say it does. Dismiss it at your peril.

    You write: “When they realize the Bible isn’t what you’ve been selling them, they have no reason to keep the faith.”

    Isn’t the problem the converse? When they (for the sake of argument) realize the Bible is what you’re selling them, they have no reason to keep the faith. If it isn’t reliable, if God sometimes is confused about things, if he contradicts himself, if he’s an Alzheimer’s patient in the sky who keeps losing his keys, if he’s just a ventriloquist for ancient and discredited Babylonian myths, why would anyone have reason to put their trust in him? That’s an honest question. What is your counsel to people, Daniel? Bultmann and others counseled the way you do in a recent blog post: hey, the Bible screws up on history and science; but you can trust it on matters of faith.”

    That is a rich answer coming from someone accusing the inerrantist of foolish special pleading. And if you think it is going to be pastorally effective in keeping people from leaving the faith, if you think that will make Christianity respectable, if you think that will fill our churches, then I think you need to read a book. Preferably on the topic of 20th century American liberalism. The trajectory, which you ought to be good at reading, is old, tried, and true. There is no better way to get people to head for the exits, disrespect Christianity, and empty the churches than to teach the errancy and fallibility of the Bible.

  4. It strikes me that despite the theological implications regarding what happens with inerrancy or lack thereof, the question of Quirinius is never actually addressed. What *are* we to do when the Bible seemingly contradicts itself? What happens when Matthew says “Blessed are the poor in Spirit” while Luke says “Blessed are the poor?” or the near irreconcilable difference in the timeline of the later years Hezekiah’s reign between Chronicles, Kings, and Samuel?

    Who am I supposed to believe here?

    At the end of the day, Matthew says that Christ said one thing, and Luke says he said another. You can say that one of them simply changed what was said in order to make a point, but it still means that either Luke or Mark (or both!) is pushing their own agenda at the expense of what Christ actually said. Someone help me understand what to so in situations like this. Do I simply shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I don’t really know.”? Do I rail against the idea that there might be any sort of contradiction and grasp desperately at any answer that might fill the gap? Do I ignore it?

  5. In Deuteronomy 6, there is a teaching that god’s people should be talking about his words all the time, hashing it out, looking for his presence. I live in Japan, where there are /not/ more christians than you can shake a stick at. I’ve never met you all, but I miss you. The closest I can come to having an argument about theology is, “Where did the werewolf legend come from? Is that from the Bible?” … “No, maybe it’s a product of the repressive victorian era in England…”

    Anyway, I think the wonderful thing about defending our theology is that we don’t really have to. God is alive, but he seems not to worry too much about people coming up with all sorts of stupid ideas about him. Anyway, I think Paul & friends were more concerned with living by the spirit than they were with hermeneutics. If the Bible is used as something spirit-filled that acts with “authority.. not like the scribes and pharisees” (i.e., points to and effects the presence of the living god), then we won’t feel like we have to define or defend it, because it is being what it is.

    As for me… if you want to talk about it more, come and visit. I’ll put on some tea.

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