Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Inerrancy hits the fan. Again.

Ben Myers of Faith and Theology has run an amusing poll for the worst theological inventions. Last I looked, 'inerrancy' was the chosen leader of this poll ahead even of 'Double predestination', 'the rapture', 'Arianism', 'Christendom as an empire' and 'Just war theory'.

Now it is no secret that I don't like the doctrine of inerrancy, especially as it is formulated in the Chicago Statement. In fact, I wrote a series explaining why here, and I have seen no reason to change my basic view since then. I would hastily add that I have a very high view of scripture and have nuanced my views since I wrote that series, but I still stand by my posts. Especially helpful for me was Vanhoozer's article, "A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation" in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker Academic: 2006)

However, I personally think it an outrage that inerrancy has thus far been voted a worse theological invention ahead of the likes of Arianism, the latter having been labelled as heresy by the church universal for centuries due to central issues such as soteriology and doxology!

But inerrancy is not heresy. While not encumbered with the latter nuances that emerged in light of the 'battle with liberalism', similar understandings of scripture have existed for centuries in the church, facilitating healthy respect for and expectancy on the God who speaks through the biblical texts. A slightly unbalanced (and essentially unbiblical) understanding of the nature of scripture, inerrancy is, yes. A factually and demonstratably wrong doctrine, yes. Wild-goose-chase red-herring-infested, yes. But heresy, in my books, it is not. Indeed, many thousands of Christians have found that inerrancy formulates their understanding of scripture such that their faith in God to speak to them through the bible is enhanced. Again: Inerrancy has for many facilitated a respectful and expectant attitude towards God as Christians read the bible – and not just among hardcore fundies, but for many intelligent modern Christians, not to mention the thousands in developing nations for whom some of our theological subtleties are nothing but farts in the wind. OK, it has also been destructive to others who are taught the bible is inerrant, who then turn to read a bible that manifestly isn't, but it is hardly the worst theological invention. Inerrancy may well be the worst of all in the hands of the militant variety, but then again almost everything is awful when handled by such folk. Alas, I suspect the popularity of negativity against inerrancy is a sign that things have gotten out of perspective.

I told you I had a conservative evangelical operating system! Though I tried to deinstall my 'liberal rationalist quickly demythologise it and deny its historicity to be accepted as critical' patch, my system never was quite the same. Slower, but it calculated more accurately.


At 5/01/2007 2:27 AM, Anonymous Rob said...

I was also surprised that some would regard some things as worse than denying the full deity of Christ. Surprising indeed.

At 5/01/2007 3:03 AM, Anonymous W. Travis McMaken said...


I'm with you. While I'm no supporter of inerrancy, there are three or four things (if not more!) on that list that I would judge to be far more insidious.

At 5/01/2007 4:51 AM, Anonymous byron smith said...

Ditto. Thanks for this post. Though I almost nominated Docetism too.

At 5/01/2007 5:16 AM, Anonymous Brandon Wason said...

Great post. Of course, Chris, whatever you write should be deemed inerrant.

At 5/01/2007 6:45 AM, Anonymous dan said...

I agree.

Arianism got my vote.

On another note, you may be interested to know that I've begun some interesting dialogue with Brant Pitre on his blog, re: his interpretation of "lead us not into peirasmos."

Grace and peace.

At 5/01/2007 9:20 AM, Anonymous Jason Goroncy said...

Chris. I share your shock. Thanks for creating a post where all those (like me) who voted for Arianism can vent their protest without any shedding of blood. Theological debate is just so tame these days.

At 5/01/2007 10:35 AM, Anonymous Jon said...

I hear you Chris!

I love how theologians go on about innerancy being a pile of poo but then treat someone like Barth as though he is innerant... Where is the logic in that? The more important things are the less innerant they are? Or maybe the other way round...

At 5/01/2007 12:19 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...


You and I disagree on inerrancy and I've no wish to recreate our earlier debate. But I share your sense of shock over Ben's poll. Inerrancy wose than Arianism? Really?

At 5/01/2007 2:10 PM, Anonymous Al said...

I suspect that inerrancy is such a big issue because it enables people to sharply distinguish themselves from the silly fundamentalists. One feels that for the neo-orthodox opposition to fundamentalists provides a measure of identity. If inerrancy were merely mistaken, but not heretical, life would be a lot less fun.

Whilst I have a number of concerns with the doctrine of inerrancy, inerrantists tend to take their Bibles a lot more seriously than their critics. When it comes down to it, I am on the side of those who take Scripture seriously, and have little patience for many of inerrancy's critics for this reason.

At 5/01/2007 4:17 PM, Anonymous Bob MacDonald said...

Inerrancy, besides being one of three instances of lust for power in the poll, is idolatrous - that is what really makes it bad theology. Chris-t-endom as empire is the supertype of inerrancy and Papal infallibility. Empire makes the state into an idol; infallibility gives the role to a human; inerrancy to a book. To write in support of inerrancy: Letters of fire can be used for postmodern comment. They consume the sacrifice of a broken spirit.

At 5/01/2007 4:57 PM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...

That's what I love about some opponents of inerrancy (ie Bob Macdonald. Dismiss your theological opponents as little better than pagan idolaters and you're done.

Can't stop, I'm just off to sacrifice a goat to my Bible (AV).

At 5/01/2007 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering Arianism disruptive effect and the duration of it's influence. It probably should have topped the list. I voted for Double Predestination because - IMO - it turns God into a sadistic monster. To me, the Rapture is a joke. And because it's confined to such a small segment of Christianity, not really worth mentioning. Biblical Inerrancy, is all a matter of degrees. Taken too far, it makes Christians look like fools. Rightly understood, it's no problem. As I have said before; this works for me:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
Dei Verbum Ch. 3

John McBryde

Ps. Personally, I find Just War Theory to be a useful -- if imperfect -- tool. Especially in a world filled with despots, madmen and mass murderers. As for Papal Infallibility ... what's the big deal? It's hardly ever invoked and when it is, you guys just ignore it. :-)

At 5/01/2007 10:43 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Brandon, you are a wise man!

Alastair, you put so well into words something I wanted to express.

Guy, I hope that's a 1611 AV.

John, this is tangental, but something I want to look into at some stage involves the Catholic canon. Could you perhaps e-mail me?

At 5/02/2007 9:58 AM, Anonymous Exiled Preacher said...


I wouldn't sacrifice my goat to one of those poxy modern versions.

At 5/02/2007 10:07 AM, Anonymous Terry said...

Just to defend those who voted for inerrancy over at Faith & Theology, the poll is meant to be for fun - unless Ben's labelling it as 'humour' is to be ignored. Besides, it's a poll for 'worst theological invention'; and such an elastic term surely covers positions like inerrancy and those ideas that have been classified as 'heresy'.

Vent, but don't read too much into the poll's findings. When the chips are down, I'm sure anti-inerrantists and non-inerrantists alike will find more important things to deride.

(To respond to Jon's comment: someone told me a week or two ago that whilst Calvin was not infallible or inerrant, he just didn't make any mistakes!)

At 5/02/2007 11:50 PM, Anonymous Chris Tilling said...

"Vent, but don't read too much into the poll's findings"

Thank you, Terry, point taken!

At 5/10/2007 6:05 PM, Anonymous Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I see that 'inerrancy' won the poll -- well it was tied with "Christendom" but that just shows that some of the responders were bad spellers.

My own pet bit of Biblical errancy -- as an unbeliever has to be Matthew's claim in 27:52-53 that "52The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people."

It seems to me that if this had happened, somebody would have noticed and mentioned it. It would have been part of the conversation in Jerusalem for years, and you'd think Josephus might have said something. (For that matter, the other evangelists might have included it in their accounts. I mean, if one ressurection was so important, a whole group of them should at least get a parenthesis.)


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