In defense of biblical inerrancy

August 5, 2016

In this blog post, “The (Pete) Enns of the Matter,” John Frye, a pastor and regular contributor to Scot McKnight’s blog, reviews Enns’s book The Bible Tells Me So, in which Enns makes a case against inerrancy. Using a trope that has become all too familiar within Patheos blogs—the disaffected former conservative evangelical (or fundamentalist) who sees the light and becomes more theologically liberal—Frye compares his own spiritual journey to Enns’s:

Like Enns, I was born again into a conservative tribe of the Christian faith, went to a conservative Bible college and seminary which touted “a high view of Scripture.” I was introduced to the theological construct called inerrancy. Enns taught in a Seminary famous as a historical fortress for defending the inerrancy of the Bible. As a Harvard grad and esteemed Old Testament scholar working with the biblical texts, Enns began to discover realities that could not be kept suppressed in the inerrancy pressure cooker. Either a new pressure cooker needed to be designed to hold Enns’ troubling discoveries (which is the purpose of his book Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament) or portions of the Old Testament (and New) had to be strangely contorted to fit into the prevailing view of inerrancy.

Let the record show that theological liberals can move in the opposite direction. I did, for example. I began to discover realities that could not be suppressed in the liberal Mainline pressure cooker. Either a new pressure cooker needed to be designed to my troubling discoveries or portions of the Old Testament (and New) had to be strangely contorted to fit into the prevailing view of scripture within the liberal Mainline.

I believe in the Bible’s infallibility. I prefer that term to “inerrancy.” Infallibility speaks more to what God does through scripture than our subjective (and thoroughly modern) assessment of the Bible’s accuracy or truthfulness. Yet I also believe that the Bible is “entirely truthful in all that it affirms.” Moreover, I’ve read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and can affirm each of its propositions. So I may as well call myself an inerrantist, as unfashionable as that term may be.

Regardless, I’m definitely evangelical and theologically conservative. As such, I don’t recognize the caricature of my view of scripture that Frye’s daughter portrays in the following quote:

My oldest daughter, Leah, who was trained as a mechanical engineer and now teaches STEM classes, appreciated Enns’ book. She reacted, “Once I was able to look at the Old Testament as not actual factual history, it completely changed my perception of Christianity, especially modern Christianity. The need to believe that each word of the Old Testament is an historical fact is so damaging in my opinion. Makes Christians sound dumb. Looking at the Old Testament in the context of its time period and how/why/when it was written makes so much more sense. Also, Enns debunks the warmongering, baby killing version of the Old Testament God which I appreciated.”

Where in the Chicago Statement, for example, is this kind of wooden literalism? Who says we inerrantists shouldn’t read and interpret the Bible “in the context of its time period”?

But, yes, by all means I believe the Old Testament should be viewed as “factual history” where it purports to describe factual history. But that’s not what Leah says. She says inerrantists need to believe “each word” is “historical fact.”

Even poetic words? Even apocalyptic words? Even idioms, hyperbole, and figures of speech?

Nonsense! We should read scripture literally, in the sense that we read it as its authors intended it to be read. Therefore, the genre of a passage of scripture, for instance, is crucial to understanding it.

Given Article XVIII of the Chicago Statement, it’s hard to see how this is inconsistent with a belief in inerrancy:

WE AFFIRM  that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

Leah writes, “Enns debunks the warmongering, baby killing version of the Old Testament God.” Well, I hope so! I don’t recognize a “warmongering, baby killing” version of God in the Old Testament—even in those passages related to the Canaanite conquest. I don’t know an inerrantist who does! Instead I see remarkable continuity between the God portrayed in Old and New Testaments, even as I recognize (as does the Chicago Statement) that the Bible’s revelation of God is progressive (Article V).

But this continuity between Testaments poses a problem for theological progressives, as I’ve written about before. The same critics who believe that the Old Testament’s “warmongering, baby-killing” God must be understood in light of Jesus have to deal with Jesus’ own violent, discomfiting words. (See this wonderful Andrew Wilson post for some examples.)

While we’re on the subject of Jesus, Frye affirms the following quotes from Enns:

“God is bigger than the Bible” (149).

“Jesus is bigger than the Bible” (170).

“For Christians, then, the question is not ‘Who gets the Bible right?’ The question is and always has been, ‘Who gets Jesus right?’” (227).

I affirm the first two of these three. The third presents a false choice: What do we know about Jesus outside of the Bible? How do we even begin to get Jesus right except through “getting the Bible right”?

Finally, while I’m not sure why Frye believes that his daughter’s engineering background establishes her credibility on the subject, I’m an electrical engineer from Georgia Tech. I had a career in engineering prior to becoming a pastor. For what it’s worth…

7 Responses to “In defense of biblical inerrancy”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    All good points. The only thing I might add is that it is, indeed, sometimes hard to see why certain statements are not erroneous. For example, Matthew says the fig tree dried up “immediately” and the disciples noticed, whereas Mark does not recount the “noticing” until the next day (which would seem improbable if it dried up “immediately”). What we have to do to make this “fit” is to “interpret Matthew in light of Mark.” I imagine that is okay, but it is not what you would get from each text standing alone. (Same with whether the centurion came to see Jesus and had a conversation with him, as in Matthew, or whether he did not consider himself worthy to come, as in Luke. We say, “Well, sending an emissary is the same as coming yourself,” but we never would have guessed any need to do that just reading Matthew. Also, Matthew has two demon possessed men and two blind men when Mark and Luke have just one each, and the story “fits” better with just the one, but we must nonetheless conclude that there were two regardless because of Matthew’s number. I’m not rejecting “inerrancy” in the light of these “problems”–I’m just saying we have to sometimes see where some liberals may be “coming from.” (However, I doubt we can give such “credibility” in this instance where the “doubters” go so far as to “reimagine God” through their “cut and paste” efforts.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      But here’s what I wonder: Would the ancient audience to whom these gospels came have interpreted these small differences as “errors,” as we understand the term? Based on what I’ve read, I would say no. The four evangelists weren’t doing journalism. They weren’t writing with the degree of precision that we moderns would have liked them to. But no historian in antiquity did.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I think you are doubtless correct about that, but still 2 does not equal 1, and the next day does not equal the same day. Modern or not. But I get your point. Maybe it simply did not matter to Matthew that he convey the “time sequence” in the sense of “as it actually happened”; and, back then, maybe nobody expected him to do so. My only qualification is that I can see some current day “legitimate” thinkers having some problems with these kinds of passages (such as I did). But, at the most, all that should be “jettisoned” (if anything) would be the “technically accurate” rendition, not concluding that the authors were simply “making things up” (too much consistency between the accounts and other evidence to give rise to such a conclusion). And in all events, if we are to give up on the Bible as it portrays GOD, we would in essence have nothing left except our own “predilections.” (Such as Oprah Winfrey proclaiming, “My God is not jealous.” Sorry, Oprah, that’s not your call.)

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I remember the first time I was made aware of the Chicago Statement. It was at a Ligonier Conference in Orlando (RC Sproul) about 15 years ago. At last I had an intelligent authoritative position to refer to. The authors did us all a great service.

    I particularly like the notion that “Scripture is to interpret Scripture”. Unfortunately, that can also be abused by the liberals. I never cease to be amazed at how they can string together verses that do not belong together “to make their point”. Conversely, they can read a detailed clearly stated position on doctrine, say by Paul, and totally reject its clear meaning and intent.

    As for Oprah, anytime I hear the phrase “My God is not..”, I know that someone is remaking God in their own image.

    Lastly, any difference in minor facts between the Gospel accounts trouble me not. The author is, in the end, human. His words are inspired by the Holy Spirit, but not written by the HS. I don’t see any differences in the accounts mentioned that effect the reason an account was recorded, or its plain meaning.

    Brent, I love it when you bring this stuff to our attention. I would never find it on my own. 🙂

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks, Grant! I was surprised when I read the Chicago Statement for myself—versus reading about the Statement—and saw how clear and reasonable it was.

  3. steverankin Says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

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