Friday, November 22, 2013

A History of Inerrancy

A few quick thoughts on how I think the Bible's truthfulness has been conceived over time and has changed throughout church history.

Phase 1: Pre-Reformation
From the New Testament authors to the Reformation, there was an assumption that the Bible was the very words of God and that it was obviously truthful in everything it said. However, there was no restriction that would limit that truthfulness to the literal. If a passage seemed problematic from a literal standpoint, it could be interpreted allegorically.

Basically, the meaning of the Bible was tethered to the "rule of faith" rather than to history. Passages perceived to be difficult in relation to orthodoxy or their sense of the world were interpreted in a different way. We see this still in the church today in the pew, as church members who were not trained to read the Bible in context search for interpretations that fit with what they have already been taught to believe.

Phase 2: Reformation
The Reformation untethered the meaning of the Bible from orthodox tradition and forbid figural interpretation. Sola scriptura in effect retethered the meaning of the Bible to history rather than to the rule of faith. The moment this change of meaning orientation happened, Protestant liberalism and higher criticism immediately became one likely eventuality.

The orientation of meaning shifted from being a premodern mirror of common Christian understanding to an individual quest to "get back" to what it meant. The operating mode became one of pealing back, which would lead eventually to the quest for the historical Jesus and the pealing away of historical layers in the gospels.

It would take a few centuries for this to take its course. Luther, Calvin, Wesley continued to some extent to read the Bible in a premodern way, as a big picture mirror of their own theologies. They continued to read a single theology into the biblical texts taken as a whole. And of course they believed the Bible (meaning their own theologies which they saw in the Bible) was completely truthful.

Phase 3: The Princeton Calvinists
The modern doctrine of inerrancy was arguably born of Charles Hodges' support of slavery. (By the way, few people know that the Southern Baptist Church itself was also formed in defense of slavery.) Hodge's doctrine of inerrancy pushed the locus of meaning down to the verse level rather than the overall, big picture theological level as before. So since individual verses in Colossians, 1 Peter, etc. told slaves to obey their masters, Hodge argued that the abolitionist movement was going against the details of the Bible. Meanwhile, abolitionists such as my Wesleyan forebears argued from the big principles of Scripture.

We see this same hermeneutic in play today with the question of women in ministry. Rather than an overall theology informing the whole meaning of the Bible as before, individual, "inerrant" trump verses are brought to play in debates. This was a shift in the way the Bible's truthfulness is approached.

In the late 1800s, B. B. Warfield continued to push Hodge's approach to Scripture at Princeton. He argued literal interpretation of the Bible against my holiness, revivalist ancestors. It was during his time that historical criticism and evolution were coming into play, and he made some early responses. He did not completely rule out evolution (it's hard for us to "feel" that there was ever a time when emotions weren't as polarized as ours are now).  Warfield also accepted a kind of dual authorship of the biblical texts, with the personalities of the authors being involved.

My key take-away here is that modern inerrancy originated in direct opposition to the values of the Wesleyan tradition of which I am a part.

Phase 4: Fundamentalist Inerrancy
The form that inerrancy took in the mid-twentieth century was a defensive mechanism against developments in science and biblical studies. It set down assumptions that created a wall against these perceived threats. No matter what science says, you can't believe in evolution. No matter what Bible scholars say, you have to believe Moses wrote the Pentateuch.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the codification of these fences. The CSBI assumes an evidentiary, modernist approach but only within certain boundaries.  If the evidence seems to be pointing in a direction that crosses one of the boundary lines, the evidence must be reinterpreted. This is analogous to the way the patristic fathers reinterpreted biblical texts but now it is the historical and scientific evidence that is reinterpreted rather than the meaning of the biblical text.

Phase 5: Evangelical Inerrancy Today
As the new book, Five Views of Inerrancy, reflects, evangelical scholars today have resorted to more complex understandings of inerrancy in an attempt to be faithful to the biblical texts themselves. Kevin Vanhoozer reflects the complications of genre (the Bible does much more than affirm propositional truths). Michael Bird points to the cultural-embeddedness of the whole American debate and pushes us in some ways back toward the ways the truthfulness of the Bible was understood before Hodge. John Franke reminds us of the "plurivocity" of the biblical texts.

Some thoughts after walking through the book...


Rick said...

"This is analogous to the way the patristic fathers reinterpreted biblical texts"

Are you referring to Phase 1, and please give an example.

With that, what is your take on Oden's paleo-orthodoxy?

Susan Moore said...

It seems the concept of inerrancy may be an issue much more for Protestants than Catholics.
The issue of inerrancy is in regards to the written Bible only, correct?
My Catholic Bible is simply straight scripture, it is not a study Bible with a lot of added human words. So, subtracting the 7 additional books that are in the Catholic Bible and not in the Protestant Bible, over 10% of the Bible has been deleted by the Protestants.
Ten percent is a significant amount.
Therefore it is fair to say that Catholics and Protestants play by two different ‘rule books’. (It is common for those who begin new religions to have their own books; for instance, Jehovah Witness and Mormons have done similar things.)
Yes, that 10% deletion is very important in regards to inerrancy. For instance, and this is only one instance, the events of 2 Maccabees occur about 200 years prior to the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. In Chapter 7 is a very interesting story about a mother who encourages her sons to be courageous and sacrifice their mortal human lives by choosing to remain true to their faith instead of to the pagan human king who is attempting to force them to eat pork (“But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” Rom.14:23 NIV).
The king attempted to manipulate the mother. After she had watched 6 of her sons be tortured to death, the king beseeched her to tell her youngest son to spare his life by eating pork. He even tempted them with wealth (sounds similar to when Jesus came out of the desert and was tempted by Satan in Matt. 4:8-10, “‘All this I will give you… if you bow down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away from me, Satan! For it is written: Worship the Lord your God, and serve Him only.’”). In response to the king’s request to tell her son to eat pork (to sin), “The mother leaned over to her one remaining son and whispered to him in their native tongue, ‘Son, have pity on me, who carried you in my womb for nine months, nursed you for three years, brought you up, educated and supported you to your present age. I beg you, child, to look at the heavens and the earth and see all that is in them; then you will know that God did not make them out of existing things: and in the same way the human race came into existence. Do not be afraid of this executioner, but be worthy of your brothers and accept death, so that in the time of mercy I may receive you again with them’” (2 Macc. 7:27-29).
To put this in the perspective of The Common Language of God, in regards to themes (and in reflection of other ‘conversations’ we have had through your blog),
Moses saw God in the burning (physical) bush: in the (eternal) bush that would not burn up there was God (Ex. 3:3-10).
Then, centuries later, Daniel’s three friends were put in the fire for not bowing down to their earthly king’s ego (as evidenced by their not bowing to the king's gold statue). In that case, their mortal human lives were spared by grace through faith in the revelation of the fourth unknown person with them in the fire “looking like a son of God.” The three humans came out of that fire physically alive and unsinged.
Then about 350 years later we have that story in 2 Maccabees about the mother and her 7 sons. But this time all 8 physical and finite mortal human lives ended in eternal hope; with the faith that they would continue for eternity, by grace, in heaven.
Then about 200 years later Jesus was crucified, rose from the dead, and ascended into heaven, promising eternal life with Him in heaven to those who love Him above all else: eternal life by grace to those who act in the same faith in the eternal living Word.
The greater the number of words that are removed from the Bible, the greater the chance of error in understanding. That is because the less dots one has to connect together, the less likely the final picture will look as it was intended to look: and the greater the opportunity for others to doubt the image of truth they see.

Susan Moore said...

I should explain that I derived at the percentage of deletion by counting the number of pages, not the number of books.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for this series.

Steve Finnell said...


Is it not ironic that those who claim that the Bible is filled with errors, contradictions, and is, in general an unreliable book, are the first ones to quote the Bible to support their doctrinal positions concerning God and His commandments?

Is it credible to quote from the Bible to support a doctrinal position, if your primary source of authority is a creed book, a catechism, a so-called book of new revelation, or a statement of faith? If the Bible is not your authority for faith and practice; how rational would it be to quote from it to support your position?

If the Bible and the Bible alone is not your authority and your authority alone, for faith and practice, then, to make a practice of quoting Scripture to prove a doctrinal point would not only be unreasonable and irrational, it would in fact, be dishonest.

Either the Bible is your authority or it is not. You cannot have it both ways.


The devil quoted Scripture when he temped Jesus in the wilderness. The problem was God's word was not his authority.(Matthew 4:1-11)

Even though Satan knew God's word he was not obedient to it and lied about God's word, starting in the Garden of Eden. (Genesis 3:1-13)

To quote from the Bible to support or refute a position of faith or practice and not believe that the Bible is trustworthy and is the sole authority from God, is not only disingenuous, but irrational, and does not offer credibility to any position of faith expressed.



Ken Schenck said...

I quote the Bible because it is true. You will never hear me say it has errors... you will only hear me saying that you have errors.