Saturday, December 15, 2007

Fundamentalism, inerrancy and Jim West

Once again the subject of inerrancy is causing lively debate in biblioblogdom. This time, troublemaker Jim West throws down the gauntlet with a post attempting to define Fundamentalism simply as 'a person who believes that the Bible is inerrant or infallible'.

The gauntlet has been picked up by John Hobbins, who writes: 'He [Jim] also contends that none of the Reformers were fundamentalists according to his definition, because "NONE of the Reformers would attribute to a book what can only be attributed to God". There is only one problem with Jim's assertion. It's not true'.

  1. I must admit that while I don't think Jim's definition of Fundamentalism is sufficient, his critique of inerrancy as a non scriptural doctrine is essentially spot-on. It is only by applying a deductively logical wringer to scriptural statements (i.e. by jamming texts that state inspiration or the truth of God's word together with the theological propositions that 'God cannot lie') that the potent 'inerrancy' cocktail is made – which is then poured quickly over the whole Christian canon. However, scripture itself demands that a more inductive approach be adopted. By only using scripture, and nothing else, it can be demonstrated that the bible contains errors of many kinds. This is a simply fact of our scriptures, and must be acknowledged in the process of developing a specifically scriptural understanding of scripture. It necessarily short fuses the 'inerrancy' deductive logic.
  2. Some will respond, as does the Chicago Statement, Article XIV, that unexplained alleged errors do not violate the doctrine of inerrancy. However, the doctrine of inerrancy is making a claim that the investigation of smaller details can either falsify or verify. Scripture itself thoroughly falsifies it.
  3. This doesn't mean that we, who call ourselves evangelicals, should throw our hands up in despair and all become liberals! God forbid! I affirm a very high view of scripture, indeed one that can be understood as higher than 'inerrancy' – one that focuses on our practices and posture to scriptures.
  4. Church tradition is, I believe, more ambiguous that West implies in terms of inerrancy. Yes the Reformers, or anyone else before, didn't operate under the same kind of assumptions which were to later influence modern formulations of inerrancy (namely the Scottish philosophy of 'common sense'). But it must be admitted that many of them could speak in extremely exalted language about the Bible. Luther, for example, could describe scripture as 'God incarnate'! Nevertheless, and here is why West's point can be essentially affirmed, Luther was also untroubled by historical discrepancies in scripture: 'Let it pass, it does not endanger the articles of the Christian faith' (cf. Goldingay, Models for Scripture, 262-63)
  5. While 'fun' certainly is included in 'Fundamentalism', so is 'mental'.
  6. Let's speak positively of the trustworthiness of scripture, not negatively of inerrancy. After all, the author 2 Timothy didn't write: 'no scripture is rather lamely uninspired', nor did the author of Hebrews write: 'the word of God is not dead and not passive, not as blunt as any two-edged blunt sword', and the Psalmist didn't confess: 'the words of the LORD are not flawed'!
  7. As academics, we also need to exercise grace with those who have been raised to affirm inerrancy, and whose theological world falls from beneath them if it is put into question.
  8. Furthermore, and this is something those of us who think of ourselves as academics would do well to remember, many who would affirm inerrancy are far more open, humble and loving people than many of us will ever be.
  9. I tend to think of Fundamentalism as more of a character trait, a strong disposition toward arrogance, an inability to dialogue, the need to pigeonhole people as 'opponents', a self assured position that cannot be challenged by these 'opponents', a set of 'undisputable' yet dubious expectations about scripture, and an inability to see greys instead of only black and white. Couple this with inerrancy, or anything else (e.g. atheism, theological liberalism), and you have a total bastard on the loose.


At 12/15/2007 10:17 PM, Anonymous El Bryan Libre said...

Good words Chris.

I do wonder though how many of our doctrines that we see as essential are not scriptural by the criteria set forth (such as the doctrine of the Canon)). Does that mean we should abandon them as well.

I appreciate you calling for charity in dealing with inerrantists (although I am not one). If I were given the choice to fight against a view of the Bible seeing it as inerrant or seeing it as only the fallible words of man, I would definitely choose to fight against the latter. Good thing there are other options though.

Bryan L

At 12/15/2007 10:27 PM, Anonymous Jim said...

Bryan- prepare to pass out- I agree with you when you say you appreciate Chris's call for charity. For me, an impossible impossibility. But a sage summons still.

At 12/15/2007 10:28 PM, Anonymous zoomy said...


This is a great, flippin' legend of a post. I loved every word of it and in my naiveity lots of it was brand new to me and will have me thinking for the whole weekend.

Your final points are brilliant and really quite rare in the realm of biblioblogdom.

At 12/15/2007 11:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why is it "an impossible impossibility" for a Spirit-guided Christian to be charitable and gracious?

At 12/16/2007 12:09 AM, Anonymous Phil Gons said...

Ah, but, w.r.t. #6, *οὐ* δύναται λυθῆναι ἡ γραφή. ;)

At 12/16/2007 1:05 AM, Anonymous Jim said...

I suppose for the same reason that some find it impossible not to hide behind anonymity.

As to Phil's citation of οὐ* δύναται λυθῆναι ἡ γραφή-

boy- talk about decontextualizing! if real exegesis allowed for such things we could all go around saying "Judas went and hanged himself-.... go therefore and do likewise!"

At 12/16/2007 2:23 AM, Anonymous Phil Gons said...


Quite an odd response: taking issue with the exegesis of a comment that contained none! Hmm. Well, I disagree with your translation of the text you didn't translate.

Your flawed inference missed the whole point of my comment. I was not suggesting that John 10:35 teaches inerrancy. Chris was suggesting that we not speak of Scripture using negatives, and that this is somehow an argument against inerrancy. I suggest that it is not inappropriate to say what Scripture is not or cannot do, since Scripture itself does this. Consequently, it is no argument against inerrancy that it is a negative rather than positive term.

At 12/16/2007 2:28 AM, Anonymous R.O. Flyer said...

I think Jim's definition is exactly right. The late James Barr held the same position.

At 12/16/2007 3:18 AM, Anonymous Sean Babu said...

Your no. 6 is spot-on.

No. 7 is important, but the doctrine of inerrancy is what has caused the problem to begin with. We need to be around to pick up the pieces when people begin to fall apart when they find out not everything is exactly like they were told.

For no. 8, I must say I've experienced the opposite. I have received and observed so much ill treatment from fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals (laity and denominational officials) that on the whole, I want nothing more to do with them.

At 12/16/2007 3:33 AM, Anonymous jordan said...

"i.e. by jamming texts that state inspiration or the truth of God's word together with the theological propositions that 'God cannot lie'."

What is wrong with bringing such texts together? There are a number of other doctrines that have developed (or are constructed) in similar ways.

Also, thanks for your fair tone in your post.

At 12/16/2007 5:09 AM, Anonymous Looney said...

Sean wrote:

"No. 7 is important, but the doctrine of inerrancy is what has caused the problem to begin with. We need to be around to pick up the pieces when people begin to fall apart when they find out not everything is exactly like they were told."

Please. Inerrancy wasn't the first heresy and it was in response to a real problem, Darwin worship being one of the later novelties, but systematic denial of the Bible began in the 18th century by those who still wanted to occupy the pulpit. If these abuses hadn't happened, we wouldn't be talking about inerrancy today.

Certainly fundamentalists don't know their history, so they are completely confused about such things. Academics, however, shouldn't pretend that their profession suddenly appeared in the late 20th century without any baggage or problems of their own. I like the recent book, Ancient Israel, by Lester Grabbe, because he makes a number of statements regarding what he calls "minimalists" which certainly did abuse their scholarly positions. You can argue that inerrancy wasn't the best response to the problem, but to pretend that their wasn't any wide spread academic abuse is simply going to confirm that inerrancy is still needed today.

At 12/16/2007 5:44 AM, Anonymous Owen Weddle said...

I've got to agree with looney with the problem having come from academics. It is because of people like the "minimalists" that we have such a large group of fundamentalists. When one extreme occurs, the other side responds in going to an extreme. If scholars had been more even-handed, those who be like our fundamentalists now would be fewer in number.

As for my experience with fundamentalists, they are mixed. But never make the mistake of judging a group based upon a few experiences of your own. Otherwise you are judging a whole bunch of people. Even if your experience is true more often than not, give each person, even fundamentalists the benefit of the doubt. Otherwise, Americans might as well judge African-Americans individuals because statistics state that they may be more likely to commit certain crimes. This goes back to acting with grace and if we serve the same God, God could work in them just as much as you.

At 12/16/2007 7:57 AM, Anonymous Daniel said...

F U is also in fundamentalism. As is Dam. This is much funnier when spoken out loud.

At 12/16/2007 11:10 AM, Anonymous byron smith said...

"Fundamentalism" also contains 'faulted', 'unmeant', 'mundane', 'unfelt', 'dead', 'funniest', 'mismade' and 'nada'.

At 12/16/2007 11:45 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...and nilsm, the alternative spelling of nihilism according to a particular shorthand.

At 12/16/2007 11:46 AM, Anonymous steph said...

meant to be said steph

At 12/17/2007 6:40 AM, Anonymous Charles Augustine Rivera said...

The problem seems not to be whether scripture is inerrant, but with regards to what it is inerrant. For example, I think very few people would say it errs in giving an account of Hebrew grammar and usage. Yet even in this seemingly simple case we must account for possible scribal errors and obscure passages with either "properly understood" or "in the autographs."

What a thorny problem this is!

At 12/17/2007 3:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a question:

2 Timothy 3:16 states that "all Scripture is inspired by God."

Most would argue that by "Scripture," Paul (or the author of 2 Timothy, if one rejects Pauline authorship) means the Old Testament Scriptures.

Since, according to Lee Martin McDonald, 90% of the New Testament quotations of the Old Testament are from the LXX, then the "God-breathed Scripture" that 2 Timothy is referring to is the LXX text.

And since it appears that the LXX in the first century included the so-called Apocryphal books, why do most Protestants exclude these "God-breathed" writings and/or why do they insist that the "original Hebrew" is the "God-breathed" text, whereas translations (which includes the LXX) can't claim to be such?

At 12/17/2007 4:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"So also our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do with OTHER SCRIPTURE." 2 Peter 3:15-16

Seems that Peter understood that Paul was using scripture and was writing scripture at the same time...still we argue about silly things because we think our own wisdom can figure out the things of God. Scripture backs up's just sometimes we are too dense to understand.

At 12/17/2007 4:52 PM, Anonymous Rob said...

One of your best posts in a long time (besides the biblical guide to dating)

At 12/18/2007 4:31 AM, Anonymous Brian said...

i set up #6 as quote if the day.

At 12/18/2007 6:02 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


As always... Good stuff!

Anonymous who had the question about the LXX,

My question is, if Paul and the othr early Christians used the LXX which was absolutely errant (!) and still saw it as authoritative and trustworthy, then why do so many modern day Christians hold on to the golden calf of inerrancy?!!

Also, I'm not sure that the LXX looked the same way in the 1st century (when Paul wrote) that it did in the 4th (from which out earliest and most substantial MSS come). The best MSS we have were produced by Christians... I'd be interested to see if the ones produced by the Jews originally contained the Deuterocanonical books...

At 12/18/2007 6:15 AM, Anonymous Nick Norelli said...


You said: "Scripture backs up's just sometimes we are too dense to understand."

It's not quite so simple. We live in a modern low context society. Our culture is decidedly dependant on being spoon fed every little bit and piece of information possible to know anything about anything.

The people to whom Scripture was written (i.e., those in the Ancient Near East/Eastern Mediterranean/Greco-Roman world) lived in a high context culture and shared certain presuppositions that we do not.

Combine that with the fact that it was an oral/aural culture and you compound the problem of asserting that 'scripture backs up scripture' (which I'm taking here to mean that you believe scripture is sufficient to interpret scripture).

Often we aproach the scriptures as if they contain all the information necessary to properly interpret them because we're so used to always having all the info provided to us. The problem is that the scriptures DON'T contain all the info. A lot of the info was simply taken for granted by the original audiences -- the problem is that we ain't them.

So it's not so much that scripture doesn't back up scripture, it does indeed, but the problem is that one has to be familiar with the cultural context in which scripture came about to understand exactly how this is so. It's not that we're 'too dense' -- It's that we're not informed.

At 12/18/2007 7:06 AM, Anonymous Rory Shiner said...

"...many who would affirm inerrancy are far more open, humble and loving people than many of us will ever be."

Good call. One of my problems with Jim's definition is that you end up calling (for example) a John Stott a fundamentalist, which just kinda doesn't sit right with me...

At 12/18/2007 1:04 PM, Anonymous vynette said...

I suggest that the entire New Testament warns us of the danger of holding to the 'inerrancy' of scripture.

The New Testament writers claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was the man chosen from among the people and appointed by God to rule the world. They claimed that he represented the true values of God and that his opponents had judged him by their own false standards. They also claimed that he had fulfilled the 'scriptures' predicting his death.

Yet the opponents of Jesus searched these same 'scriptures' but could not relate the writings to the man. On the surface, this seems understandable - there were particular and exact statements by the prophets that when the 'anointed' of God appeared, the fortunes of Israel, then at their lowest ebb, would be restored.

But therein lay the basic error. The opponents were relying first on words and events to lead them to their 'messiah'. Jesus' supporters relied first upon fundamental values, then adduced words in their support. For them, he was the 'spiritual' fulfilment of the Israelite hope.

We must not forget that the Jerusalem priests thought that the Old Testament was 'inerrant.' By concentrating on words, personality and events and ignoring basic values, they demonstrated their flawed thinking and inadvertently crucified their messiah.

The doctrine of inerrancy reflects the same attitudes and the same flawed thinking as the priests of Jerusalem.

At 1/14/2008 12:54 AM, Anonymous GordonBlood said...

Definately adding clause 9 to my list of favorite quotes!


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