Back in June 2009 I explained that I am not an inerrantist. In response to some initial (but, I think, quite mistaken) criticisms of my comments there, I said in November, “You heard me right the first time, I am not an inerrantist.” I then added some historical perspective to what I was saying with a blog post called “Errantly Assuming Inerrancy in History,” where I discussed the way in which a number of important theologians in history spoke about Scripture, which would be more than enough to make modern inerrantists uncomfortable. In a nutshell, in these blog entries I explained that I think that while inerrancy is false and that I do actually think the biblical writers expressed some false scientific assumptions and may have made minor mistakes on the finer details of history, geography and minor errors like citation errors, the message expressed in the Bible is the very word of God who is infallible, and every part of that message is correct.
Assuming it’s true that great minds think alike, it’s encouraging to see great minds agreeing with what I say, so I welcomed the chance to read Matt Flannagan’s thoughts here, where he summed up and affirmed my view that “one can affirm the authority of the bible, even the claim that it is infallible in what it teaches, without affirming that it is inerrant, in the sense of containing no errors.” Have a look, I think it’s definitely worth reading (naturally, the fact that we agree has nothing to do with it 😉 ).
To be fair, Matt himself did not, in that piece, deny or affirm inerrancy. My position, as I have always made clear, is that inerrancy is false at face value, and if it is qualified to the point where it starts to look plausible, then the one who holds it has to allow for so much error that it’s pointless to use the label “inerrancy” at all because it is misleading.
In spite of the positive response I have seen from very committed and very conservative Christians like me, the negative reaction has not stopped. In a sense I don’t mind this. Those who are firmly committed to a strict doctrine of inerrancy will, initially at least, disagree and react strongly to what I have said. This opens up the possibility of discussing the issue with them, and exposes the issue to a wider audience. That’s a good thing. But I do think that those responses often warrant a response, and at times some sort of corrective as well when they go too far in their critique and step into unfairness or misrepresentation, an inevitable feature of human disagreement it seems.
Recently Jeremy Pierce at the Evangel blog (hosted by First Things) blogged on a blog on a blog (and now I’m blogging on his blog). In a blog entry called “Basic Inerrancy,” he blogged on Matt’s article, who had in turn blogged on what I said earlier. Interestingly, although I took Matt to basically share my view, Jeremy says “I actually agree with much of what Matt says,” while saying of my piece, “There are so many things I disagree with in [Glenn’s] post that it was very hard to pull myself away from my desire to write a detailed response, but I didn’t have the time.” Ah well. But I want to draw attention to the way that Jeremy criticises the position I outlined.
Jeremy is fair to describe the view I hold in terms of the message of God within the Bible, with some minor things in the Bible not comprising part of that message. So at least I’m not being misunderstood. I would say that false views on science or cosmology, arguable discrepancies on minor matters in the Gospel narratives, apparently mistaken citation of Old Testament books etc – these things are not part of the message of the Bible and can be perfectly well understood with the proviso that we see what the error is.
However, Jeremy accuses those who hold my view of actually maintaining a logical contradiction. “There are those historical revisionists today who claim that they hold to infallibility but not inerrancy, but that’s logically impossible without contradiction given what these terms have historically meant.” Now, in previous posts I have actually shown that some of the same figures who called the Scripture infallible do also make allowance for minor errors, so nobody could believe this historical claim, but what about the logical claim? These are the two claims that I affirm:
- The Bible contains minor examples of what can correctly be described as errors.
- The message of the Bible is infallible – it is entirely true and trustworthy.
Is there a genuine logical contradiction here? Certainly not. Any logician will grant this at once. But if we add extra claims here, then a contradiction might arise. In particular, how about this claim: “3. Every single statement made in the Bible, including the assumptions underlying it, is part of the actual message of the Bible.” If we add this claim, then yes, we get a logical contradiction. But here’s the problem: Those who affirm 1. and 2. actually deny claim 3. So you can only accuse them of affirming a logical contradiction if you attribute to them claims that they don’t actually believe, and this is misrepresentation. In fact Jeremy himself later admits that there’s no contradiction here. Note that I don’t think his wording in the next quote is fair, but you’ll see the point:
If you deny inerrancy, you can still believe that aspects of the Bible’s teaching are true, and if those are the only ones that God in his limited sovereignty over scripture cared to influence, then all God attempted to communicate in scripture is present in scripture’s infallible teaching.
OK, set side the misleading rhetorical jab about limited sovereignty, but you can clearly see that Jeremy accepts that if one rejects inerrancy one can still believe in the infallible teaching of Scripture. So there’s no logical contradiction here, that was a rhetorical flourish.
Secondly, Jeremy’s blog entry, unfortunately, reveals what I think of as the dark underbelly of evangelical thought (I say this as an evangelical who is tired of seeing it) that seeks to demonise other Christians who do not utter all of the same shibboleths as us. Here’s what I’m referring to:
If you believe the Bible is unreliable in matters of fact that it affirms (but on the view we’re considering somehow doesn’t teach), then the problem is in figuring out which things it affirms but doesn’t teach and which things it teaches via its affirmations. On this two-level view of the Bible, what criteria are there for sorting those out? I suggest that it will be your own preferences for what you want the Bible to teach, even if the position itself doesn’t entail that (as I’ve seen inerrantists claim).
How hard can it be for people – Christians, for that matter, who see one another as brothers and sisters – to just disagree with a person’s position and yet refrain from making up unkind stories about their motive or method? Basically, I see this complaint as the complaint that if we take away the nice simplifying doctrine of inerrancy, then the task of interpreting the Bible becomes harder than it would otherwise be, allowing naughty people (like me) to just decide for themselves what the Bible means. This will not do, intellectually or morally. In holding what I take to be a more nuanced view of Scripture, I admit that I make the hermeneutical task more involved. Yes it requires more work, but it’s worth it, wouldn’t you say?