I tweet a lot of links and many of them are critical of dictation and inerrancy approaches to the Scripture. I love the Scriptures and I love preaching and teaching the Scriptures, so this may seem strange. In fact, they are closely related to one another. In a sense, I don’t really have an intellectual campaign against Biblical inerrancy — my objections are empirical. My only objection to fundamentalist and inerrancy approaches to the Scriptures is that, in detail, they don’t work.
Recently Greg Carey, professor of New Testament at Lancaster Theological Seminary posted a blog entry entitled “Where Do ‘Liberal’ Bible Scholars Come From?” It’s a good piece, and I think he is making a good point: Bible scholars become “liberal” (to the extent that they do) from reading and studying the Bible. The Bible itself undermines the fundamentalist view of the Bible. Carey writes:
Though I understand it differently, I love the Bible as much as I ever have. I’m just as passionate for Jesus and for the gospel as I ever have been, though I understand them differently too. But I can say this: Reading the Bible is a terrific cure for fundamentalism. That’s exactly how many of us so-called liberal Bible scholars got our start.
Then Peter Enns picked up on this and began a series at his blog: “I was always taught the Bible says X, but I just don’t see it.” This is a series of blog posts by Bible scholars, retelling their “aha” moments when they came to see the Bible differently — when they came to understand that the more wooden and fundamentalistic way they had been taught the Bible was really not true. Enns writes:
I have known many people, and heard of many others, who have come from conservative or moderately conservative backgrounds and whose earlier paradigms have been seriously challenged by the simple process of paying attention to scripture in context–whether the immediate literary context or the historical context. This is especially true of those who have done higher level academic work outside of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, but is by no means restricted to this group.
So far in the series there are these posts:
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (1): me
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (2): John Byron
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (3): Daniel Kirk
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (4): Michael Pahl
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (5): Charles Halton
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (6): Christopher W. Skinner
- “aha” moments: biblical scholars tell their stories (7): Christopher M. Hays
I appreciate this series, and I appreciate (just generally) what Peter Enns is doing. My understanding of the Bible has also been a growing and changing journey.
Yet, my attitude is quite a bit different. I’ve never felt like it was a matter of shaking off my conservative past. Rather, I have always felt like it was a matter of continuing a journey begun by the holiness and pentecostal Christians who first shared and modeled the Gospel for me. I feel like they started me out very well. Yes, the journey has moved into unexpected territory, and assumptions made at one point have had to be revised at another — but it has been one journey. I wish to understand my faith and deepen my faith by more faithfully interacting with the primary materials of the faith: Scripture, prayer, service, witness, worship, sacrament, fellowship.
There were evangelical voices that encouraged that quest. Consider these quotes from the late, great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce:
The Christian acceptance of the Bible as God’s word written does not in the least inhibit the unfettered study of its contents and setting; on the contrary, it acts as an incentive to their most detailed and comprehensive investigation.
— F.F. Bruce, “Matter of Call” (letter), Christianity Today, 26 March 1965, p. 38.
I am sometimes asked if I am aware of a tension between my academic study of the Bible and my approach to the Bible in personal or church life. I am bound to say that I am aware of no such tension … Naturally, when I discharge a teaching ministry in church I avoid the technicalities of academic discourse and I apply the message of Scripture in a more practical way. But there is no conflict between my critical or exegetical activity in a university context and my Bible exposition in church; the former makes a substantial contribution to the latter. At the same time, membership in a local church, involvement in the activities of a worshipping community, helps the academic theologian to remember what his subject is all about, and keeps his studies properly ‘earthed’
—F.F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of Things Past (London: Marshall Pickering, rev. edn, 1993). Found here.
These quotes resonate with me in a powerful way. It was these ideas which drove my thinking in the earlier part of my Christian life — and, really, they still do.
I became a Christian through the influence of evangelism at a holiness camp-meeting. My new-found commitment to Christ awakened a hunger within me to learn about the Bible. I wanted to learn more about what faith in Christ meant. I listened to preachers. I read Christian books. I began a program of reading the Bible.
Someone gave me an old copy of Adam Clarke’s multi-volume Commentary on the Bible. I was impressed both with Clarke’s passion for the Bible, and also his passion for knowledge in general. As I have said before, Adam Clarke and John Wesley were formative influences on my early faith. Both of them advocated combining vital faith with academic learning. Both of them felt these were not at odds with one another.
So, I came to feel that the passion for knowledge and the passion for faithfulness to Christ were not at odds with one another — they supported each other.
And, the great New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce was saying the same thing. Bruce (among others) became an inspiration for me and also for generations of evangelical Bible students who set out to explore the academic study of the Bible with a commitment to the truthfulness of the Scriptures.
Many of these people lost their faith in the process.
Nowadays, the prime example of this is New Testament scholar and agnostic Bart Ehrman. Ehrman began his studies with a firm commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible — only to discover that close, academic study of the Biblical texts and their history does not support this. As his commitment to Biblical inerrancy collapsed, so did the entire structure of his Christian faith.
But, that did not happen with me. Quite the contrary, my passion to understand the Scriptures is as strong today as it ever was. With me, the desire was always to relate the best contemporary understandings of the Bible to the practical, ongoing faith-lives of the Christian community. For me, it was always self-evident that learning and vital faith went hand in hand.
But, the fact is that the closer you study the Scriptures the more difficulties you encounter. These arise both from the texts themselves and from the task of relating these texts to history (their own literary history and the history that they seek to tell us).
Other people have gone on at great length cataloging these difficulties. Take a look at Thomas Jay Oord’s brief discussion of The Problems With Biblical Inerrancy. Recent books by Kenton L. Sparks, Peter Enns, Christian Smith, and Thom Stark are among many that have raised serious objections to the idea that God dictated an inerrant Scripture.
So, why hasn’t this ever been a crisis of faith for me? For one thing, I’m not sure I was ever really taught that God dictated an inerrant Bible. Maybe I picked up this idea from evangelical culture at one time. But, I know that when I was in seminary — and I attended a conservative, evangelical Seminary: Asbury Theological Seminary — we were taught that the Bible was not dictated by God, and that “inerrant” might not be the best description of the Bible either. Dr. H. Orton Wiley, who wrote the systematic theology books (Christian Theology, 3 Volumes) used at ATS in those years had serious reservations about the concept of Biblical inerrancy and limited it to “all things necessary for salvation.” Recent systematic theologies coming out of the conservative Wesleyan denomination, the Church of the Nazarene have also expressed objections to the use of the term “inerrant” to describe the Bible: A Wesleyan-Holiness Theology (Grider) and Grace, Faith, Holiness (Dunning).
Furthermore, my early Methodist mentors Wesley and Clarke didn’t seem to be operating out of a inerrantist paradigm, either. When Clarke came upon Biblical difficulties he couldn’t explain, he simply noted them and moved on. (I remember being shocked that he didn’t resort to appealing to inerrant original autographs — now lost.) In a similar way, John Wesley often noted discrepancies in the biblical text and moved on. I was surprised to discover that these problems of detail didn’t bother either of them — they noted them, did not explain them, and went on their way. Their primary concern was to re-discover and proclaim the message of the Bible. Wesley had some very strong things to say about the authority of the Bible in his life and in his preaching. Yet, the difficulties in the Bible didn’t seem to bother him much.
I figured if problems of history and detail were not an issue for Wesley or Clarke they need not be an issue for me.
A similar type of attitude must have been held by pioneering evangelical Bible scholars like F. F. Bruce and Bruce Metzger. For example, the same facts that led to a crisis of faith for Bart Ehrman — the facts of textual criticism — did not perturb Bruce Metzger (from whom Ehrman learned them) at all.
The paradigm is faith and knowledge. Faith supports the search for knowledge. Knowledge supports faith. A faith that obscures knowledge is not a faith worth having.
And, here’s what I mean when I say that I have no intellectual campaign against inerrancy: I am simply wanting to go where the evidence leads. If inerrancy theories can prove to provide a more illuminating paradigm for understanding the Bible, its message and its history — then, by all means, I wish to become an inerrantist. But, if it does not, it must be abandoned. In that case, we find ourselves misrepresenting both the Bible and the God who inspired it. And, we may well be leading people in a direction that will ultimately cause them to lose what faith in Christ they have.
Peter Enns states it well:
[The Bible] is, from beginning to end, a product of the cultures that produced it, and still able to comfort and convict across cultures and across time. It is also a book that tells a grand narrative by means of divergent points of view and different theologies. It tells of God’s acts, but also reports some events that either may not have happened, or that have been shaped and transformed by centuries of tradition.
It presents us with portraits of God and of his people that at times comforts and confirms our faith, and at others times challenges and stretches our faith to its breaking point.
This is the Bible we have, the Bible God gave us. “Inerrancy,” regardless of how the term is defined, does not capture the Bible’s character and complex dynamics. Inerrancy sells the Bible — and God — short.
So, my journey with the Bible has led me to a place where I now am most in sympathy with people who describe themselves as “post-conservative” or “emergent.” I have no particular interest in being either.
I am simply pursuing what I always have: that Wesleyan Christian vision of knowledge coupled with vital, experiential faith.
Long ago, Charles Wesley stated this pursuit well:
“Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:
Learning and holiness combined,
And truth and love, let all men see
In those whom up to thee we give,
Thine, wholly thine, to die and live.”