A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Character of God and the Nature of Scripture: Reading the Bible Incarnationally #2-- Inerrancy and Protecting the Character of Scripture

I grew up in a devoutly Christian household for which I am thankful. I was raised attending churches that I would call evangelical that leaned toward the fundamentalist end. I say it that way because there is a difference between evangelicalism and fundamentalism, and sadly, all too often they are lumped together. I still embrace what I think is the best of evangelicalism, though I could never return to my close to fundamentalist roots simply because there are too many things about those roots I no longer embrace. I'm not one of those angry ex-fundamentalists who feels psychologically violated by the "religious oppressors" of my childhood and who has to blog against the fundies incessantly as public therapy. On the contrary, while there are many things I can no longer embrace about my religious upbringing, I am thankful for the positive ways in which that religious rearing assisted me in my faith walk. I could never go back to it, but I have not run from it as fast as I can while firing flaming arrows back at it.

And while I have appreciated my evangelical almost fundamentalist roots, though no longer being able to embrace it wholeheartedly, I feel the exact same way about my thirty years as a pastor in a mainline Protestant denomination. There is so much I love about United Methodism and find congenial. I imagine I will be a United Methodist until the day I die. Having said that, there are more than a few things I think are quite lacking in mainline Protestantism. I may be a mainline Protestant, but I could never embrace certain aspects of it.

I go into all of this simply to say that as I move through this series of posts, I have found that the typical ways that evangelicals and mainliners have approached and understood the Bible authoritatively and theologically to be problematic. Of course in any and every position, there is diversity. No one view is monolithic. Nevertheless, there are general patterns that exist in both evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism, and I want to address those patterns. In this and the next post, I turn my attention to the former. The post after the next will encounter the latter.

In my formative years in evangelicalism almost fundamentalism it was taken for granted that since the Bible was God's Word that also meant it was inerrant. I, therefore, took it for granted as well. Then I remember when I was in college I read Harold Lindsell's book, The Battle for the Bible. (I still have that same book in my library all tattered up from my reading.) Given where I was at the time, I found much that was congenial to my way of thinking, but in places there arose deep within me a sense of uneasiness. One such place is where Lindsell deals with the discrepancy between Mark and the other three Gospels on how many times the rooster will crow by the time Peter denies Jesus the night of his arrest. Mark is the only Gospel in which Jesus says that the rooster will crow twice. In order to reconcile these discrepancies in order to save his doctrine of inerrancy, Lindsell argues that Peter denied Jesus six times-- the first crowing take place after his first three denials, and the second after denials four, five, and six.

At the time I was a young college student just cutting my teeth on learning how to exegete texts. I was quite the novice indeed. But even my untrained eye was looking with skepticism toward what Lindsell was doing. All four Gospels state clearly that Peter denied Jesus three times, but Harold Lindsell was insisting that it was six. The Gospel writers may have differed as to how many times the rooster crowed, but they all agreed that Peter had three denials. In order to rescue the doctrine of inerrancy, Lindsell was smoothing over the difference by arguing that something happened that night that all four Gospel writers say happened differently. His argument was counter-intuitive to my young mind to say the least.

One of the problems with those who embrace inerrancy (I will address my take in inerrancy in the next post) is that in order to protect their view and the authority of the Bible itself, as they understand it, they must resort to hermeneutical and exegetical gymnastics of difficult texts on what appear to be discrepancies with other biblical texts. So, instead of letting individual texts of the Bible speak for themselves, they impose their inerrant voice onto the text to smooth over the difficulties. Instead of asking how the diversity of the biblical texts help us to better understand what God may be doing in human history, they are more concerned with defending the integrity of the inerrant Bible they assume must exist.

What happens when inerrancy becomes the interpretive lens in which the Bible is read, not only are passages twisted, but the central point of the passage is all too often lost because the focus is on the discrepancy instead of the entire passage itself. Does it really matter that Mark's Jesus said that the rooster would crow twice? As a theologian and a preacher, I think there are more important things to wrestle with in Mark's Gospel.

Moreover, in order to protect the doctrine of inerrancy, what ends up happening functionally is not that the text is held up as inerrant but that a particular interpretation of a biblical text is what becomes inerrant and therefore authoritative. Thus, those who read the Genesis 1 and 2 as something other than an actual account of how God created are accused of denying the authority of Scripture because they do not subscribe to a literal reading-- a particular interpretation. (The term "literal" is much abused these days. But that's another post for another time.) Thus, inerrancy becomes a kind of bait and switch. It begins as a way to affirm the authority of a biblical text to insisting that a particular reading is authoritative.

The other problem with the inerrant lens is that to quote my friend, Dan Hawk, it "manifest(s) an Enlightenment rationalism that cannot abide contradiction or paradox - and therefore cannot abide religion, which embraces mystery. Christians have been trying to bend the Bible to accommodate this rationalist bent since the 18th Century. It's a fool's errand." (By the way, I will quote Dan again in a subsequent post, since more progressive interpretations of Scripture suffer from the same rationalistic reductionism.)

Now what does this have to do with reading the Bible incarnationally? I won't address that directly until I get to the Old and New Testaments specifically. But for the moment, I will simply say that once the doctrine of inerrancy is the interpretive lens through which the Scripture is read, it becomes next to impossible to read the Bible through the incarnational lens because the concern when reading Scripture is not in how it points to Jesus as the full revelation of God's involvement in the world, Instead, those who are centrally concerned with inerrancy are too busy trying to protect the authority and character of Scripture that does not need to be defended. In so doing they miss the point of the texts they are trying to protect through their interpretive lens.

So, if I am arguing against the doctrine of inerrancy am I suggesting the Bible is errant? Actually, I don't believe that's the best way to frame the debate. I will not choose between the two because I don't believe either is helpful in reading and interpreting the Scripture. To argue one way or the other is to miss the point.

More on that in the next post.


bthomas said...

Thank you for this post. Will follow with interest.

Anonymous said...

My favorite theologian has some good words.


Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for the link. I will be referring to it in my next post.