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 only 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) [emphasis added].
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? 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?
- A genuine question on the inspiration of Scripture
- You heard me right the first time, I am not an inerrantist
- Bradley on the alleged contradiction of Christian ethics
- Errantly assuming inerrancy in history
- Ehrman: I’m not destroying Christianity, I’m only destroying the Bible!
15 thoughts on “Inerrancy again – a blog about a blog about a blog about a blog”
Glenn, I don’t see that last quote as overly critical. Just a perspective. I guess he could have softened it by replacing
I suggest that it will be your own preferences
I think there is a danger that one reads in his own preferences.
Of course all can have this danger including inerrantists, but the opinion that the danger is greater for non-inerrantists is somewhat reasonable.
Why does that suspicion seem more reasonable for those who don’t believe in inerrancy, bethyada?
Why does it seem reasonable to suspect that those who aren’t inerrantists will actually project their own desires onto the meaning of a text, rather than honestly looking for it?
Good stuff, i add my tupence worth here:
I said it reasonable, not necessarily correct. 🙂
If I get time I’ll explain why I think that
OK, bethyada. But for what it’s worth, engaging in tortured exegesis to fit what one already believes seems common enough among inerrantists, so if you see some who reject inerrancy doing the same thing, I’m sure you won’t suggest that their rejection of inerrancy is part of the reason.
Glenn, I don’t know if you’re open to doing a radio debate on the subject of inerrancy, but I’d love to hear such a debate between you and some competent inerrantist. I know that the “Unbelievable?” radio program is continuously looking for new and interesting guests, so perhaps you should take a look at their site at http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable and contact Justin Brierley (the host).
Haecceitas, I would be in two minds about that.
One issue for me is that I publicly decided a while back (not long after a public debate I had on annihilationism in which the other person ended up humiliated) that I’m reluctant to publicly debate a Christian on theology (in the sense of having an organised debate). That’s certainly not because I would always expect the outcome to be the same as that debate on annihilationism, and I’m also open to being persuaded to change my mind on this practice, but there are plenty of public debates to be had in the defence of the common faith that we share, I question the wisdom of investing time and energy in public debates with one another.
The second factor that would give me pause is that if a person publicly goes on the attack against inerrancy against a Christian who believes in it, the person who attacks it will be branded by a large part of the audience as the anti-Christian guy in a debate with a Christian, regardless of whether his case is stronger or not.
Those are very reasonable points and I can certainly understand your reluctance to debate this topic.
Well, I would be almost equally interested to hear you debate an atheist or non-christian of any sort, on whichever topic you’d feel comfortable with. So I’ll repeat my recommendation with regard to the Unbelievable radio program. 🙂
Yeah, I love the unbelievable radio show. I’d be more than happy to participate in more of a friendly discussion on the subject, which would certainly work on a forum like that.
Glenn, do you happen to have any audio of the debate you did on annihilationism? I’d love to hear it. Or if you don’t, do you know of anywhere online that their has been a good debate on the subject?
Mike, actually I did manage to find a recording of that debate, which took place in a Paltalk room in 2005.
The debate: http://theologyweb.com/media/Hell-Debate.mp3
The Q and A: http://theologyweb.com/media/Hell-QA.mp3
I had a horrible mic back then…
This is what I would ask all inerrantists. Was Jesus inerrant? Did he give all the correct answers at school? If you think this how do you answer the charge of Docetism? If you don’t think Jesus was inerrant, (just infallible on matters of faith and practice), why claim the Bible is?
I’m leaving aside that the Bible teaches that Jesus made a mistake about who was high priest when David ate the sacred bread. You can choose from various far fetched explanations to get rid of that offence. But why would you? Because you think Jesus didn’t have human limitations?
He says that God had “limited sovereignty” over the text on your view, but doesn’t this extend to the strict inerrantist too? They will acknowledge that our modern translations have errors but that the originals were flawless… Did God’s sovereignty fade away? Did he run out of “breath”? Also, when innerantist scholars acknowledge mistakes in modern Bibles due to differences in manuscripts, they also aren’t just randomly selecting what is and isn’t scripture, they follow a procedure for determining what to look at with a little bit if suspicion i.e long ending of mark and woman caught in adultery in John 8
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