The doctrine of “inerrancy” is often referred to as a “high view of scripture.” It is not.
It’s a low-down dirty trick to play on the Bible and on anyone who tries to read it. Inerrancy is not a victimless crime. It chases some people away from the Bible and prevents others from reading it intelligently.
I respect that this idea comes from a place of respect, but that is not where it leads. It leads to a profound disrespect for the Bible, and for those who seek to read it honestly. And, ultimately, it always shifts from being a claim about the Bible itself to being a claim about the person making that claim. After all, what good is an inerrant, infallible text without an inerrant, infallible reader, exponent and enforcer?
And so this provides a nice test case for my point about the incompatibility of inerrancy and giving one’s ultimate respect to the Bible. If one is committed above all else to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, then you will be forced not just in this particular instance, but time and time again, to sacrifice what the Bible actually says in order to harmonize texts. Those two Gospels can say explicitly and unambiguously that they are giving Joseph’s genealogy. But you will deny that they mean what they say, in order to insist that both are right – even though, ironically, you are in fact saying that one of them, taken at face value, is wrong. And so with the very sword you picked up to try to defend your doctrine of the Bible, you do damage to the Bible, cutting off anything that is a threat to your doctrine.
Inerrancy is not and can never be a doctrine that respects the Bible. It is a framework imposed on the Bible and which is antithetical to giving the Bible respect, to say nothing of authority.
As I shared in a quote by Theodore Vial earlier this month, there are Christians who claim to be committed to inerrancy and the literal truth of the Bible, but the two inevitably conflict, and when they do, it is the latter that is sacrificed at the altar of the former.
I agree completely with what Clark and McGrath have written on inerrancy, However, it doesn’t matter. No matter how much they rightly protest, their protests will not make a difference outside of the seminary classroom or pastor’s study.
What do we know about Americans and their religious inclinations? Take evolution. Wikipedia states:
In a 1991 Gallup poll, 47% of the US population, and 25% of college graduates agreed with the statement, “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”
Fourteen years later, in 2005, Gallup found that 53% of Americans expressed the belief that “God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it.” About 2/3 (65.5%) of those surveyed thought that creationism was definitely or probably true. In 2005 a Newsweek poll discovered that 80 percent of the American public thought that “God created the universe.” and the Pew Research Center reported that “nearly two-thirds of Americans say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.” Ronald Numbers commented on that with “Most surprising of all was the discovery that large numbers of high-school biology teachers — from 30% in Illinois and 38% in Ohio to a whopping 69% in Kentucky — supported the teaching of creationism.”
Here we are in 2013, a century and a half removed from Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species, and over half of Americans believe God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it. Two-thirds of Americans believe that creation is probably true.
What drives the unwillingness of Americans to accept evolution? It can’t be the science behind evolution because most Americans couldn’t explain evolution if their life depended on it. Evolution is taught at the high school level and the college level, yet large numbers of high school biology teachers support the teaching of creationism.
The reason the majority of people in America believe God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it, is because they believe, to some degree or the other, in the inerrancy of the Bible. (and I am using the word inerrancy in a broad sense)
Despite the fact that science tells them differently, the majority of Americans believe the Genesis account of creation best explains the universe and the human race. Attempts by people like Fred Clark and James McGrath to suggest other ways to interpret Genesis 1-3 falls on deaf ears. Their minds are made up, and all the evidence to the contrary won’t convince them otherwise.
Most Christians in America are woefully ignorant of what the Bible says. The Bible is a best-selling book that is never read. What Bible knowledge most Christians have comes from whatever their pastor or some TV preacher says on Sunday. The old adage, ignorance is bliss, is quite appropriate when describing the pervasive ignorance in Christianity.
The average Christian does not care about alternative readings, textual variants, or historical context. What they want out of Christianity is the strength necessary to get to tomorrow. They want to know that their life has meaning and purpose, and most of all, they want to know that there is life after death. They don’t want questions, they want answers. They don’t want ambiguity, they want certainty.
And it is for these reasons that Clark’s and McGrath’s protestations about inerrancy will never gain traction with people in the pew.
Most pastors, if they have any kind of decent education, know better when it comes to inerrancy. Maybe they even have a secret stash of Bart Ehrman books hidden in a drawer in their study. They know inerrancy is a house of cards that is easily brought down. They know the Bible is errant, and that when taken literally can lead to all kinds of crazy beliefs. Simply put, they know Clark and McGrath are right.
However, in Joel Osteen like, This is my Bible fashion, they stand in the pulpit and give parishioners what they want to hear. They reinforce their certainty, rarely, if ever suggesting, that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways to interpret the Bible.
Pastors are well aware of why people are there on Sunday. They want encouragement and certainty. They don’t want their pastor causing them to “doubt” the Bible and the veracity of the Christian religion.
I live in rural NW Ohio, an area dominated by conservative Christianity and Republican politics. Virtually every public office is held by a Republican, and in November’s election many of the offices up for election have no Democrat running against the Republican incumbent. Most of these Republican attend local churches that reinforce the belief that the Bible is inerrant. Here in the Promised Land, virtually every Christian church, even those affiliated with liberal denominations liked the United Church of Christ, are conservative in belief and practice.
I have no doubt that more than a few pastors know what Clark and McGrath say about the Bible and inerrancy is the truth, yet you wouldn’t know it by what they preach on Sunday. Church unity and a weekly paycheck are more important than the truth.
The Letter to the Editor section of the paper is routinely filled with letters from local Christians decrying the socialist Obama administration, gay marriage, abortion, and the general decline of the human race. Their letters are peppered with proof-texts and Bible inerrancy is on public display for all to see. As an atheist, I write letters to the Editor trying to counter the Bible-thumpers, but I suspect my letters are just a reminder and proof of their contention that Satan is at work in NW Ohio.
The only place where I see a glimmer of light is in Christian colleges and seminaries. Take J.R. Daniel Kirk, professor of New Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. In a recent blog post, Kirk wrote:
When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.
Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.
Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.
What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)
That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.
This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.
Many Evangelical colleges and seminaries are moving away from the long-held belief in inerrancy. They are moving, every so slowly, towards where liberal Protestant colleges and seminaries have been for decades or a century.
The question that remains then is this…will these newly trained pastors communicate what they learned in seminary to their parishioners? Will they be bold enough to take on creationism? Will they have courage to say that Paul was wrong on homosexuality and women? Will they tell what they know or will they retreat to the safety of certainty and a paycheck on Friday?
I am a pessimist, and I have my doubts that inerrancy will be dealt a death-blow any time soon. Liberal Christians,also known in some circles as modernists, having been waging war against an inerrant Bible for a hundred or more years. Inerrant Bible killer, Bart Ehrman, continues to churn out New York Times bestsellers that destroy Evangelical beliefs about the Bible, and men like Shelby Spong have waged war against inerrancy in the past. Yet, for all the good work these men have done…here we are…most people still think the Bible is, to some degree or the other, inerrant.
The world would be better served if Christians understood and embraced the views of Fred Clark and James McGrath. There would be less political strife, less bloodshed, and perhaps Americans would stop waging war against with those who believe differently than they do.
We can only hope…
repost from 2012, slightly updated