Saving Inerrancy from the Americans?
As an Anglican, I believe in the sufficiency of Scripture. As a Reformed theologian, I believe in the infallibility of Scripture. As an evangelical, I believe that Scripture is “true and trustworthy” to quote the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
Also, as a New Testament scholar and a practicing Christian, I am a professional Bible nerd, I spend my days with several Bibles by my side. I’m interested in the truth of the Bible, how the Bible is true, and how the Bible is not untrue. This routinely brings up topics like inerrancy or infallibility which, with the right qualifications and caveats, I can happily affirm.
But it can get complicated? How does the truth of the Bible relate to things like cosmology, geology, genetics, archaeology, and history? Is the Bible true only in the matters of religious belief and ethics or does its truthfulness extend to things like the age of the earth and ancient history?
How is the Bible true or what are the limits on the truthfulness of the Bible is a difficult topic and it is where believing biblical scholars and theologians have to work together to sum up the conditions and qualifications for biblical veracity.
I’ve touched on this in several books, not least my Evangelical Theology, Seven Things About the Bible I Wish All Christians Knew, and my contribution to Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy.
However, in some circles of American evangelicalism, inerrancy is more than a useful doctrine, it is the center and sum of a theological universe. American evangelicals demand a rigid precision for inerrancy not shared by the global church, they position inerrancy rather than christology as the chief marker of orthodoxy, and they police inerrancy in their networks with a Taliban-esque ferocity.
Look, evangelicals outside of America believe in the Bible, I am a case in point, but for many conservative evangelicals in America, inerrancy is bigger than Jesus!
Let me be clear, it is not the word “inerrancy” or even the concept that I want to dispute. While I much prefer the word “infallible,” I have articulated my own view of biblical veracity which approximates somewhat to how biblical inerrancy is expressed in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. However, what is startlingly weird is the function that inerrancy has in American evangelicalism.
My suspicion is that inerrancy was formulated in such a way in the USA so as to be a fortified castle against German biblical criticism, low views of Scripture in mainline churches, and the relativization of the Bible in mainstream culture. However, while many American evangelicals preached the inerrancy of the text, what they often practiced was the inerrancy of their interpretation and the hegemony of their tribe in certain denominations. Raising the banner of inerrancy was a great way to strike fear into folks that the secular barbarians were at the gates and to justify canceling persons who interpreted the Bible in such a way that undermined the power base of certain leaders. In other words, inerrancy was a castle but soon became a concentration camp.
Let me take you on a history tour!
The firing of J. Ramsay Michaels from Gordon-Conwell Seminary for using redaction criticism to understand the Gospels.
The ejection of Robert Gundry from the Evangelical Theological Society because he interpreted the Matthean infancy narrative as based on a form of midrash.
The dismissal of Peter Enns from Westminster Seminary because of his book Inspiration & Incarnation, which was designed to stop evangelicals from losing their faith when they learned about things such as ancient background texts like the Enuma Elish, debates about the dating of Jericho, Old Testament war texts, and source criticism. Yes, I know that Peter later wandered far from the evangelical fold, but throwing someone off a cliff will do that to you.
The ostracizing of my friend and former colleague Andrew McGowan for his book The Divine Spiration of Scripture because he pointed out that James Orr was better than B.B. Warfield when it came to inerrancy.
The canceling of apologist Michael Licona by evangelical leaders for denying inerrancy because he interpreted Matt 27.52-53 as “apocalyptic special effects” rather than literally.
Do you see a pattern here? None of these guys at the time said the Bible is untrue, bad, or wrong? But they tried to make subtle corrections to the hermeneutical infrastructure of the evangelical industrial complex and they ended up in a metaphorical body bag for it.
I believe in the enduring truth of Holy Scripture - taking into account the phenomenon of the text, the witness of tradition to Scripture, and the wisdom of the global church for understanding Scripture - but I do not want biblical infallibility to prop up somebody’s theological protection racket.
You can read an article I wrote about inerrancy for Zondervan here which is based on my book Seven Things, otherwise, here’s a video I made for Zondervan about inerrancy in America.
Why am I writing this?
G.K. Beale's addendum on globalism and postmodernism in his book The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism: Responding to New Challenges to Biblical Authority (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 261-65 opines that most Western theological and biblical scholarship has had a "detrimental effect on the worldwide church" since it has denied or under emphasized the inspiration of Scripture and the supernatural element of the Bible (263). As a generalisation, that is kind of sort of true. But Beale then refers to the "newer parts of the church that have risen significantly in the last fifty years or so" who may benefit from considering the conservative Western sector of scholarship because the conservative Western church has an "emphasis on the authority of the Bible, text-based interpretation, and affirmation of the supernatural in the Bible" (263). So in other words, Christians outside of North America have swallowed the poison of western liberalism and they need the antidote of American evangelical inerrancy to cure it. To be honest, I find that a little patronizing! Beale criticized the global church because they don’t possess the myopic and puritanical focus on inerrancy that characterizes conservative American evangelicalism. To be honest, if you look at American conservative evangelicalism now, foaming at the mouth over CRT, and half of them prostrating before Trump, I want to avoid anything that will even remotely make global churches look like US conservative evangelical churches in these respects.
If my American friends expect us global evangelicals to cancel Andrew McGowan or Michael Licona to prove our commitment to the truth of Holy Scripture, I would like to invite my American friends to jump in a very frosty lake full on snapping turtles. I’d invite McGowan and Licona to speak to any of my students and I wouldn’t take seriously anyone saying that they are a threat to the truth of the Bible.
Now, I know someone is gonna say, “But the SBC Conservative resurgence saved the SBC from becoming another dying mainline denomination by battening down the hatches on inerrancy.” To which I say, “Huzzah, I’m happy for you.” I don’t like totes cray cray theological progressives either. I understand showing the door to rabid liberals who think Jesus and Buddha are saying the same thing, Paul was a Gnostic universalist, we should refer to God as the “heavenly monad without a gonad,” and we should add the writings Deepak Chopra to the canon.
But what I don’t get, is, “INERRANCY IS THE ONLY THING THAT MATTERS IT IS THE ONLY ARTICLE OF FAITH AND EVERYTHING ELSE IS WINDOW DRESSING.” Or, getting out the pitchforks to defend “inerrancy” because someone said, “Midrash,” put Karl Barth on the reading list, said theistic evolution sounds like a good option, blogged about having trouble explaining Luke’s account of the census, and told a class I don’t think Mt 27.52 should be taken literally. Because, as it turns out, the Varangian guard defending the walls of Constantinople against the progressive barbarians used the threat of the barbarians to justify becoming the Spanish Inquisition.
Let me say again, I’m not disputing the concept of biblical infallibility, even if I might do it differently, I’m primarily warning about the American focus on inerrancy and its function to purify theological tribes, not from heresy, but from dissent against certain cultures of conservatism.
To be fair, there are some books about the Bible from North Americans, I’ll give credit to Kevin Vanhoozer for his Augustinian angle on inerrancy, even though I think he needs some Origenist textual realism to balance it out. Plus there is the book edited by D.A. Carson on The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, which has several essays that I think are outstanding.
But if you want to read up on the Bible’s infallibility, my advice, try something like Leon Morris, John Stott, or Amos Yong’s book Renewing Christian Theology. You get a high view of Scripture, but without the paranoia that, “Hey, that guy implied Genesis 1 is not literal.”
Scriptural infallibility is far too important to leave it to the Americans to use as a weapon for eliminating intra-evangelical rivals.
The doctrine of Scripture needs to be de-Americanized to be made safe to use in the global church. We need to save Scripture from the American culture wars, their tribalism, borderline bibliolatry, their gatekeepers of power and patronage, weird shibboleths, and myopic fixations.
This is an important word for today's church in the USA. Hopefully others read it! We are told by Jesus to love one another; I don't recall him saying that only applies to others who hold the same view on inerrancy!
Incredible article. Thank you, Dr. Bird. As a seminarian, pastor-in-training, and hopeful Christian academic, I will be referencing your work on this for years to come. Your voice is central to this chorus of Christian thinkers pointing us towards a more honest and honoring view of scripture. Thankful for your contribution as well!