Are the evangelical understandings of biblical inerrancy in error?

 Was God’s public display of Jesus Christ, “as a propitiation” for sinners (Romans 3:25), the very foundation of Christian proclamation, or divine child abuse? Did Paul teach the imputation of Christ’s righteousness justifies the ungodly (Romans 1:17), or is it time for a new perspective on Paul? Is the gospel of God the power of God for salvation; to all who believe (Romans 1:16), or is are good deeds, a more effective draw than old creeds? Today the Church is wrestling with a whole host of challenges, and once again the foundations of authority are being questioned.

The vital question of authority has traditionally been framed by the question, “Is the Bible our inerrant authority for all matters upon which it addresses?” Some today make plain that it is not, whether they come at it from the perspective of skepticism in the emergent movement, by some sociological driven segments of the missional movement or the pragmatism that continues to be an authority for those in the seeker movement. One of the leaders of the emergent perspective is Tony Jones, who argues:

Inerrancy is the doctrinal position that the Bible is without any factual error in any category, including scientific, historical, and geographical statements. I think that the number of intellectual gymnastics that one has to do to hold this position makes it ultimately untenable. The Bible does contain contradictory statements and it is sometimes inaccurate in its descriptions of geography and historical events.[1]

Is Jones correct? Is this a new challenge to the Bible, which should change the way that evangelicals have traditionally views the Scriptures? A historical survey of three era’s the reformation, the age of enlightenment and the post modern period all show that this sort of doubt is nothing new. The Church is called today to reaffirm inerrancy because it is the believers deep and personal devotion to Jesus Christ Himself that will not enable them to assume any other view. The evangelical movement from the time of Luther has clung tenaciously to authority of an inerrant Bible.

Let’s consider one example of the cyclical nature of this old argument that evangelical belief in inerrancy is in error.

The Victorian Conflict

Just before the end of the 19th Century, the “Prince of Preachers” and pastor of the world’s first mega church, Charles Haddon Spurgeon became alarmed at a massive shift in belief regarding the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith. He wrote:

[At the end of the Puritan age] by some means or other, first the ministers, then the Churches, got on “the down grade,” and in some cases, the descent was rapid, and in all, very disastrous. In proportion as the ministers seceded from the old … form of doctrine, they commonly became less earnest and less simple in their preaching, more speculative and less spiritual in the matter of their discourses, and dwelt more on the moral teachings of the New Testament, than on the great central truths of revelation. Natural theology frequently took the place which the great truths of the gospel ought to have held, and the sermons became more and more Christless. Corresponding results in the character and life, first of the preachers and then of the people, were only too plainly apparent.[2]

            This quote opened the door on what was to be called “the downgrade controversy”. Spurgeon commissioned a couple of special articles in his magazine The Sword and the Trowel in 1887. This became the defining moment of Spurgeon’s illustrious career, and set the stage for what has become known as the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy of the 20th Century. The problems were severe, and would devastate the church in Spurgeon’s time and place. The new Christless doctrines flooding into the church began with the tolerance of unorthodox teachers in the pastoral training centers.[3] This tolerance eventually allowed the institutions to succumb to Socinianism, a heresy that rooted in skepticism, denied the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the Atonement of Christ and original Sin.[4] It is perhaps remarkable to note that this upcoming controversy of the next century centered on skepticism and liberalism looked very much like this old heresy reborn and the “so called” five fundamentals of the faith seen to be under threat included both the deity and substitutionary atonement of Christ.

But what Spurgeon had identified, and what was drawn out in the articles he printed were the roots of this new socinianism. The skepticism it was argued was rooted in “Darwinism,”[5] another major issue of the Fundamentalist movement, which undermined God’s central role in creation, but also and especially in history and society. If it was not that holiness blessed a nation, but rather Darwinian survivalism, cultural ethics and mores needed to be adjusted. Salvation became not a matter of spiritual repentance, but social change and social justice. This in turn was a symptom birthed by the root of it all, the “first bad step”[6]. That first wrong step is articulated:

The first step astray is a want of adequate faith in the divine inspiration of the sacred Scriptures. All the while a man bows to the authority of God’s Word, he will not entertain any sentiment contrary to its teaching… In looking carefully over the history of the times, and the movement of the times, of which we have written briefly, this fact is apparent: that where ministers and Christian churches have held fast to the truth that the Holy Scriptures have been given by God as an authoritative and infallible rule of faith and practice, they have never wandered very seriously out of the right way. But when, on the other hand, reason has been exalted above revelation, and made the exponent of revelation, all kinds of errors and mischiefs have been the result.[7]

This view of Scriptures as the “authoritative and infallible rule of faith” was of course the most fundamental doctrine of the Fundamentals, usually given first in the list of the five “basics”[8] of that movement. It is further instructive that during the 1890’s and basically contemporary with Spurgeon’s British conflict, the American Presbyterians were going through their own trials and several general assemblies affirmed the inerrancy of Scriptures was a fundamental church teaching.[9]

In the inerrancy issue: “we’re basically talking about two different versions of Christianity”. Inerrancy, as Spurgeon understood it and as the Fundamentalists explained it, has been the “main line Evangelical” position for centuries. Thus as the 20th century dawned, the battle ground was already set, the positions clearly established, and the implications were becoming more fully understood. Was skepticism, Darwinism and the new socinianism going to reign, or would the faithful church of Christ revitalize the foundation of inerrancy and thus ensure the defeat of these basic errors?

In a follow up post I hope to show how the conflict over inerrancy with modernism demonstrated in this post, sets the stage for the new conflict with post modernism discovered in the emergent, missional and church growth movements in the present day, and then to demonstrate a biblical perspective on how the church should view inerrancy in a second sequal.

 


[1] Tony Jones The Journal of Student Ministries, vol. III no. 3 (May/June 2008)

[2] Robert Shindler, “The Down Grade,” The Sword and the Trowel (March 1887), 122.

[3] “The Down Grade,” (second article) The Sword and the Trowel (April 1887), 167.

[4] Grudem, Wayne Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI; Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 581-582.

[5] Sword and Trowel (April 1887), 168.

[6] Ibid., 170

[7] Ibid., 170

[8] Dobson, et al., The Fundament Phenomenon (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House Press, 1993), 7.

[9] George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, rev. ed. (New York, NY: Oxford University Press 2006), 117

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6 thoughts on “Are the evangelical understandings of biblical inerrancy in error?

  1. You cannot get past the first few chapters of Genesis without having to deny or bury one’s God given reason in order to maintain a strict literalist biblical inerrancy position.

    Is the earth the centre of the universe? is it flat? is there a structure holding up the waters of the sky from the waters of the sea?

    The two creation accounts of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are incompatible no matter what kind of intellectual gymnastics are applied.

    Can 300 Sextillion stars (within the Hubble telescopic view – i.e. the universe has more beyond) most of whose light comes from billions of years ago, be contained within a 6,000 light year radius of earth? Only if earth is smaller than the smallest subatomic particle by many factors of 10. And you reading this are so infintessimally small you essentially don’t exist.

    Please – the bible is words about God, many inspired, but always via simple created human beings with all their cultural, intellectual, historical and pre-scientific limitations.

    The Word of God is who the bible points to. He did not write anything – except a few words in dust, when calling on pious religious readers of the scriptures to not stone a woman to death.

    Ever read through one of these full lists – and checked the verses? (I am not an atheist by the way, but dogmatic biblical literalism keeps many thinking people from Christ because they think they have to become simpletons to be Christians) – http://www.liberalslikechrist.org/about/inerrancy-1.html
    http://www.infidels.org/library/modern/jim_meritt/bible-contradictions.html
    http://www.thethinkingatheist.com/page/bible-contradictions
    http://www.project-reason.org/gallery3/image/105/
    http://www.bidstrup.com/bible2.htm
    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0879759267/scottbidstrupshoA/

    It can be argued that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy does more harm than good to Christ’s saving mission to His human brothers and sisters.

    • Christian Truth Seeker, I like your “handle”. Based on it I assume we have a lot in common. Jesus said in John 18:37: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” I hope then that we are all “Christian truth seekers.
      Thank you for contributing to the discussion on this blog. I am happy to see your interaction and your passion not to do “more harm than good to Christ’s saving mission ”. I am not sure that we would agree on the best way to do just that, however! I want to provide some interaction, to facilitate thoughtful discussion on your points.

      You cannot get past the first few chapters of Genesis without having to deny or bury one’s God given reason in order to maintain a strict literalist biblical inerrancy position. – I guess here I would ask why? Personally, I would argue that I find that reason is well rested in this explanation of the “origins issue”. I derive reasoned confidence from this explanation 1) that a divinely issued world will have order that allows operational science to succeed in accordance with our commission to “have dominion” and “subdue the earth”. I have confidence that ecological harmony can be found in the relationship that we have to the animals. I also find reasoned confidence in knowing the purposes of humanity (Gen 1:27ff).

      Is the earth the centre of the universe? is it flat? is there a structure holding up the waters of the sky from the waters of the sea? – This is certainly a more nuanced question than the implication you are giving here entails. It appears that you are making some significant assumptions. Where for example does the text say that that the earth is either the centre of the universe, or flat? There are indications in the text that the earth was created first, and that the universe is created in relation to the earth. Therefore, philosophically, or teleological, we might say that the earth is the centre of the Universe, but the text nowhere speaks to its special centrality. You will find indeed that the Bible’s testimony to the earth’s circumference is clear, God is reported to dwell “above the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22).
      I assume you are deriving this flat Earth idea from idioms used in other texts of scripture? This is where people need to be careful to avoid “rigid literalism”. Idioms and symbols and poetry and so on must be understood in their genres. Otherwise, you would probably have to go after your local news network for their unscientific statements regarding the time of “sun rise” and “sun set”. They should understand that we live in a post Copernican universe!

      The two creation accounts of Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are incompatible no matter what kind of intellectual gymnastics are applied. – This is an interesting statement. One would have to substantiate such a bold claim. I would argue that in the reading of any literature, some efforts are called upon to understand the author’s intention, whether it is Shakespeare or the Bible. However, with a little effort and the application of common sense, it is not difficult at all, but relatively simple to see the different purposes, and the different perspectives of these accounts are not in conflict, but complimentary.

      Can 300 Sextillion stars (within the Hubble telescopic view – i.e. the universe has more beyond) most of whose light comes from billions of years ago, be contained within a 6,000 light year radius of earth? Only if earth is smaller than the smallest subatomic particle by many factors of 10. And you reading this are so infintessimally small you essentially don’t exist. – Now here is a case, where I believe you are trying to state what you suppose I am trying to state? If you have heard this from someone, they are not using “common sense” in their reading of the text! But again, this is where an understanding of literature has to come into play. When Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells Ophelia “Get thee to a Nunnery!” what is his meaning? What did people in the 16th century understand about nunneries? Also one has to ask what is the context within which Hamlet speaks these words? As it turns out this was not a pretty compliment. He was not praising her godliness, but condemning her duplicity and condemning her to a place caricatured as an abode of the loose.
      What does the word “Heavens” mean in Genesis one? The Hebrew word Shamayim actually can mean a number of things in concept and has its root in the idea of “space or extension” and is used of the sky and of the astronomical heavens, and of the abode of God in Scripture. It is to be sure an imprecise word and much like when we say, “the stars in the night sky” we are not making a statement about parsecs, but of observation.
      “Can 300 Sextillion stars” fit within the radius of 13 billion years on the anti-supernaturalist model? The distant starlight problem is equally as great for the Big bang’s naturalistic supporters as for supernatural creationists, except we believer God can supernaturally overcome the problem!

      Please – the bible is words about God, many inspired, but always via simple created human beings with all their cultural, intellectual, historical and pre-scientific limitations. – As a Christian truth seeker, like me, we should be very concerned with what Christ, the one who came to “bear witness to the truth” says on this issue. After all, he said, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37). Jesus said in prayer to God in John 17:17, “Your word is truth”. He did not say contained truth, not gave witness to some truth, but that it “is truth”. It is true, because, “God is true” (Romans 3:4) and “All Scripture” without exception, “is God breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Of course their were human elements, expressions, idioms and so on used, as God wrote through the unique people whom he led to compose his word. We can’t understand, as finite humans, how the infinite and finite partnered in this task, anymore than we can understand the following:
      1) If God three or one?
      2) Is Jesus Christ, the living Word of God, Divine, or human?
      3) And likewise, Is the Scripture, the written Word of God, Divine or human?
      Each of these is an element of the divine mystery. Mystery should not frighten us, but compel us to further study, and to await the day when our faith shall become sight. This does mean that we must be careful in dogmatic assertions. Are you really certain that your following statement is all of the truth on this topic?

      The Word of God is who the bible points to. He did not write anything – except a few words in dust, when calling on pious religious readers of the scriptures to not stone a woman to death. – We certainly agree that the “The Word of God is who the bible points to”. Jesus, that “word of God” said in John 16:13-14 that he would speak through his Holy Spirit to the Apostles, the Spirit of Truth would “take what is mine and declare it to you”. Jesus, speaking of that other “word of God”, the written word, said, “The Scriptures cannot be broken” (John 10:35). In the temptation Jesus asserted that the Scriptures were composed of “every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

      Ever read through one of these full lists – and checked the verses? (I am not an atheist by the way, but dogmatic biblical literalism keeps many thinking people from Christ because they think they have to become simpletons to be Christians) – One of the things to be cautious of, is that we recon with the broader realities of the Biblical narrative and worldview, and not get bogged down arguing over one or two details. Good Christian people have disagreed before. But one of the things we must remember is that faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8). Jesus said that a person cannot even “see the kingdom of God… unless one is born again” (John 3:3). Paul reminds us that the message of the bible is “uncomprehensible” to unbelievers specifically, “a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them…” (1 Cor. 2:14).
      Hebrews 11:3 reminds us that it is “By faith that we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, that what is seen in not made out of the things that are visible”. Thus belief in Genesis is an article of faith. It is something that the unbeliever will not receive, until they have been born again. At the same time, there is a powerful testimony to God in Creation, that will not totally allow the unbeliever to write off this truth (see Romans 1:18-20). Thus it is in the best interest of their salvation, to press home this point of faith and call on them to repent of their unbelief and to believe in God.
      When we as believers become the skeptics, we are not really living as “spiritual”, but as “mere men”. You ask
      “Ever read through one of these full lists”? I am not sure I have read through one of the specific ones you copied, but I have read through many of the skeptics lists. You know Peter reminds us that the Scriptures do contain: “some things which are hard to understand, which” he notes leads to the reality that when they find these hard things the tendency is that, “the unstable and the untaught distort… the Scriptures to their own destruction” (2 Peters 3:16). We who are Christian truth seekers are given this warning, Peter says, “beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by their error” (verse 17).

      It can be argued that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy does more harm than good to Christ’s saving mission to His human brothers and sisters. – It can be argued as well that when Christian deny the teachings of the Bible it does more harm than good to Christ’s saving mission…
      I don’t really know where you are at in your faith. It may be that we disagree here and there. But the doctrine of inerrancy is a doctrine clearly taught by Jesus Christ: “For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 6:18). Jesus said quoting Genesis 1, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning MADE THEM MALE AND FEMALE” (Matthew 19:18 quoting Genesis 1:27). It is great to seek after truth and to wrestle with these issues and to use our minds to “reason” through the word of God, and to use our faith to listen to the Holy Spirit. But it is also important that the time comes when we “find the truth” so that we do not become like those who are “always seeking, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7).
      I hope this encouraged you in your continued search and I wish you every blessing as you continue to grow in your faith.

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