Sunday, November 30, 2014

Should Evangelicals Assume Inerrancy when Doing Theology?

I confess to being on the fence regarding the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. But now, let me be clear: this is not because I am at Fuller Theological Seminary, or that I’m an Egalitarian, or because of any other doctrinal commitments. No other doctrine has prompted me to reconsider the doctrine of inerrancy. In fact, I have very little interest in affirming or denying the doctrine. For many people (bless you all), this is reason enough to shut down this tab and move on; more power to you.

For the others who did not shut down the tab, I pose the question: should evangelicals assume inerrancy when doing theology? This isn’t a sustained case for or against the doctrine of inerrancy, just some musings and personal reflections.

I should get some things out on the table: I am uncertain that Paul wrote 1-2 Timothy and Titus and Ephesians. I also think it is more likely that there are at least two parts to Isaiah. In reading about these textual and theological difficulties, I have not once considered the implications for my thoughts on inerrancy.

In doing theology, inerrancy has not mattered in any substantive way. In fact, I wonder if one could affirm a doctrine of inerrancy and affirm non-Pauline authorship of certain epistles. I tend to think the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. But this is an aside, much like this post as a whole. So moving on.

Inerrancy, then, has not factored in my theology or research. Should it? I offer these two thoughts in response:
No. Because I’m not convinced one should be considering secondary issues when doing research. The research should yield fruit, not uproot a tree in search of ghosts.

No. Because the diversity of Scripture should not cause evangelicals (like myself) to rush to systematize. We should first let the options and viewpoints stand.
So I think my perspective has been to simply let Scripture stand and say what She needs to say, regardless of my thoughts on other doctrines, authors or matters. Paul is not John, John is not Paul. Do they line up? Should they?

Then one gets into the discussion about what constitutes an actual error or contradiction. A conversation that seems as helpful a discussion as a car made out of biscuits. Rather, one should assign immediate authority to the author or text that one is researching before bringing in other authors or texts to supplement or, even, correct. Or should they?

I suppose these thoughts are too scattered to be of much help. I’m still working through them myself and this post is is coming in between my Greek homework and casual exegesis. Still, in not having a doctrine looming over my shoulder, I’ve been able to simply take the text as what it appears to say and let it stand in the middle of the room, like the great, authoritative elephant that Scripture is.

Then again, do we conflate authority with inerrancy? Not going to open that can, but the thought did just cross my mind. In doing New Testament exegesis, one should simply be content to read Paul (or Deutero-Paul, if he/they exist) without pondering doctrine.

This raises a whole other question: can one actually do non-dogmatic exegesis? In a strong sense, exegesis is theological. But I suppose that is a question that must wait until I have time to think about it some more.

Suffice to say, Scripture has and will always have authority over my life. Not only because I submit to it, but because it has shown that it doesn’t quite care what I think. The reciprocity of Scripture is just that, a God offering us words written through his creation for his creation.

Would He have it any other way?

I apologize for not answering the question. Or did I? Too tired to scroll up.




  1. Nick: I think you're on the right track. Inerrancy/infallibility seem to be terms that carry a lot of baggage for no useful reason. Such terms did not even exist 50 years ago, so it's a huge stretch to believe that the Second Temple mindset would have understood these terms as we've defined them - let alone the time period of Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc. If we approach the text with inerrancy in mind, even just at the back of our minds, we're no longer practicing exegesis, but rather eisegesis - reading into the text what we want to see, rather than what's there.
    And I know that this post may have felt pointless as you wrote it, but I think our conscious decisions regarding our approaches to the text are crucial to identify and put into words. Now you have a clearer idea of how you approach the text and, should someone question your methodologies, you are able to answer in a clearer fashion.
    And now back to Greek ;-)

  2. When you look at just how many qualifications scholars who are still trying to rehabilitate inerrancy have to use, I think it's time to question just how meaningful the term "inerrancy" even is to begin with. Much of the biblical material is, as Pete Enns puts it, propaganda. Along these lines, many of the differences between the gospel accounts,are clear evidence of crafting theological emphases. This shows me that not only is biblical authority still compatible with a non-inerrant view, but that it is still demanded by the texts. There is no opportunity to use such a view of Scripture as an excuse not to grapple with its implications.

  3. Some of these issues absolutely have a material impact on how we do theology. For example, Ephesians, 1 Timothy, and 2 Timothy all explicit say they are written by Paul. If they are not written by Paul, then they are frauds. What use would they be at all? Whether Paul wrote them effects whether their teachings have, as far as I am concerned, the authority of God's word or no authority at all. And they have many teachings.

    Now, as to the question of inerrancy specifically, I think its effect on theology is dependent on what the alternative is. Consider these two very different non-inerrancy explanations of inspiration:

    Version 1: The inspiration process is one in which the message is conveyed to the writer by God. The writer incorporates what God said into a letter or other such writing. In the process of incorporating God's message into the letter, the writer might make a statement about something aside from God's direct message (such as a reference to a historical event) that might not be correct. After all, God makes no mistakes but the writers are falliable.

    Version 2: The biblical writers tried to write down things that happened and explain them as best as they could, bless their hearts. Sometimes they attributed to God things that were not of God (such as the violence committed in his name that they said He commanded). Sometimes they attributed to Him societal conventions and laws of men (such as the death penalty). The Bible is wrong about a lot of stuff, and has contradictory teachings on many important ethical and theological topics. But it's still a good book because it talks about Jesus."

    One who holds to something like version 1 will not be effected in every day theological study because when the Bible says something about God or says something about what God said, it is from God so it can be treated as authoritative (even if Mark was wrong when he said which mountain Jesus climbed to the top of that one time). They will go in with the paradigm that on things of God, the Bible is going to have one ultimate teaching, whether written by Paul or John or Ringo. Areas that seem to conflict about whether something is true or untrue or whether something is right or wrong will be reconciled. So in the end, they wouldn't necessary come to many different conclusions when compared to one who believed that the Bible writers were always ultimately correct in everything that they said (an idea that far predates the modern term "inerrancy," by the way).

    One who holds Version 2 is going to approach theology wildly different than one who holds to inerrancy, since they are going to freely disagree with the Bibles' teachings in places - or at least versions of its teaching (since they say it teaches contradictory things on any given subject). One some things they may agree, but if so, it isn’t just because they have the same view about what the Bible says on the issue.

    And then there are views in between the two (though I think in practice one doesn’t have to travel that far from Version 1 towards Version 2 on the spectrum to start doing theology essentially like the person in version 2).