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'.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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)
- While 'fun' certainly is included in 'Fundamentalism', so is 'mental'.
- 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'!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.