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Inerrancy: The New Catholicism?

Biblical Authority Vs. Creedal Authority

By Robert M. Price


The current struggle among Southern Baptists over the inerrancy of the Bible is only the latest episode of a controversy that began to rage among American Evangelicals a decade ago (1976). Then the opening salvo was the publication of the gossipy bombshell The Battle for the Bible by Harold Lindsell. Though Lindsell was himself a Southern Baptist, he aimed his guns at other bastions of Evangelicalism like Fuller Theological Seminary, with which he had also had some connection. At the time Lindsell complained that some scholarly Evangelicals were a bit too friendly toward trends in modern(ist) biblical study and that their resultant rejection of rigid inerrancy was simply a continuation of the Modernism of the past led by Charles Augustus Briggs, Harry Emerson Fosdick, and others. Thus his polemic was quite intentionally opening a new battle in the long and never-concluded Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy. Our current denominational crisis over this issue is yet another engagement in this continuing conflict.

One tactic of the inerrantist camp in the phase of the struggle immediately preceding our own was the founding in 1977 of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) which seeks to coordinate a ten-year program to promote belief in inerrancy. The most visible accomplishment of the ICBI is the promulgation of two “Chicago Statements” (in 1978 and 1982) on inerrancy itself and on the proper hermeneutics (or rules of interpreting the Bible) entailed by inerrancy. I want to examine some features of the first two, because I believe they indicate the direction of the inerrancy movement as a whole. The Statements themselves are symptomatic of a trend, for one thing both the Melodyland School of Theology and the Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod, produced similar statements of what one must believe about the Bible and how one is to interpret it, and it would not surprise me to see the fundamentalists who now control our church issue something similar. And beyond this, the Statements crystallize inerrancy thinking as a whole, even where it is not so directly distilled.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) was sometimes unclear on details, perhaps because it was a conference document, and such texts are likely to be compromise documents containing, at some points, a little of this view and a little of that. Even among inerrantists, it seems, there are conservatives and moderates! But the general drift is certainly clear: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Article XII). Why is the scope of inerrancy so far-reaching? Simply because, as we often hear, what scripture says, God says. There is a one-to-one identification. We are not left to guess at this; the Statement affirms that “the very words of the original were given by divine inspiration” (Article VI). Perhaps it is finally time for inerrantists to come clean and admit that they do after all believe in the medieval dictation idea of inspiration. If the words just quoted from Article VI do not equal a definition of dictation, what can language mean? It is superfluous for the drafters to say, “The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us” (Article VII). If we are to take Article VI seriously, the mode of inspiration is no mystery at all to the inerrantists. In fact this is the whole point of the controversy. If we really did not know how inspiration “worked” (some of us admit we do not), we could not be sure whether scripture could contain incidental inaccuracies or not. It is only because God is supposed to have said directly and exactly “what scripture says” that inerrancy is thought necessary.

Article VIII suggests that the drafters were indeed uncomfortably aware of how close they were to the dictation model. Here they repeat the standard indignant repudiation of the dictation theory. The Article denies that divine inspiration “overrode [the biblical writers’] personalities. “ In other words, as J. I. Packer put it in his ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, verbal inspiration doesn’t imply “that the mental activity of the writers was simply suspended” (p. 78). But this is all just a smokescreen. The psychology of divine dictation is not the relevant point (“Were Paul and Isaiah in a trance?”). If you believe in any version of inspiration that forces you to say God caused Paul to write word-for-word, “I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius... (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.)” (I Corinthians 1:14, 16), my friend, you believe in dictation. Pardon me if I do not.

Another interesting example of using rhetoric and euphemism to cover the embarrassments of one’s position is the Chicago Statement’s words on “progressive revelation.” Though the signers claim to believe in it, “We deny that later revelation... ever corrects or contradicts [earlier revelation]” (Article V). Now what is going on here?  

It is obvious to any sane reader that Deuteronomy 24:1 and Mark 10:2-12, to take but one example, simply do not say the same thing about the legitimacy of divorce. Do the Chicago inerrantists actually intend to commit themselves to harmonizing this “apparent contradiction” by some mind-torturing rationalization? Or do they simply mean to avoid the nasty-sounding word “contradiction”?

I do not believe I am merely carping here, because this is what so much of fundamentalist harmonizing results in. The inerrantist says there can be no real contradictions in the Bible, yet he or she freely admits that there are plenty of “apparent contradictions.” (Gleason Archer has written a bulky “encyclopedia” of such “biblical difficulties.”)  The fundamentalist’s job is to show how some barely possible interpretation of “problem passage” A would square better with the plain sense of passage B, which A “apparently contradicts.” Do you see what is almost being admitted here? An “apparent contradiction” between A and B means that we cannot believe and obey the “apparent, or plain, sense” of both A and B, so we must resort to an admittedly strained exegesis of one or the other. For instance, I have often heard it admitted that Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” does not sound very  much like Paul’s doctrine that attaining salvation has nothing to do with works (Ephesians 2:8-9), even if you throw in the synergistic-sounding v. 13, so we had better assume (pretend? ) that Paul really meant, despite what it looks like, “work your already-secure salvation outward from within, so everyone can see the fruits of it. “

Besides swallowing your better judgment, what is the problem with such harmonizing? Basically, though it is intended to save the doctrine of biblical authority, it does just the opposite. Why? Because Protestants (including, explicitly, the Chicago inerrantists-see Article XVII of the 1978 Statement, Article XV of the 1982 Statement) believe that it is the plain, literal, apparent sense of the biblical text that is authoritative, not some alleged esoteric meaning beneath the surface. To a model of biblical authority based on the apparent sense of the text, “apparent contradictions” are the most fatal kind!

To hide behind euphemisms like “biblical difficulties” and to hope piously that once we get to heaven God will explain them all like puzzle-solutions in a kind of celestial ICBI seminar changes nothing. Suppose I need to know whether I may or may not seek a divorce, or whether my salvation is purely a gift or somehow needs to be “worked out” by me. The hope of finding out the right answer someday in heaven is not going to do me much good now. If a denial of inerrancy would rob the believer of the comforting certitudes of biblicistic proof-texting, then dropping the problems into the convenient bin of “apparent difficulties” should have the same effect. Either way, the troublesome passages are effectively useless as prooftexts.

The problem of contradictions between biblical teachings finally drives the Chicago inerrantists to a complete abdication of critical reason. In the explanatory section “Infallibility, Inerrancy, Interpretation,” the signers affirm that one day all “seeming discrepancies” which stubbornly resist the best ingenuity of harmonists on this side of the hilltop, will in the light of eternity “be seen to have been illusions. “ Thus inerrantists render their opinions forever immune from disproof: “My mind’s made up; don’t confuse me with the facts.”  The Christian Science sect is also adept at this kind of sleight-of-hand; they insist that sickness and evil are just illusions, too.

The 1978 Chicago Statement leaves generalities aside long enough to focus its guns on a particular aspect of modern biblical studies, form-criticism, the attempt to trace original, simpler units which have been elaborated, reinterpreted and embellished in their present canonical form. A good example of such critical study would be Joachim Jeremias’s The Parables of Jesus. Jeremias tries to show how we can sometimes reconstruct an earlier form of this or that parable and show how Jesus would have meant something a bit different by it than Matthew or Mark did when they reinterpreted or updated it for use in their gospels.

The Chicago signers do not like such attempts to go back behind the canonical form of the text: “We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing [it]...” (Article XVII). At least they think they do not like this kind of thing, but the fact is they have always loved it. What do you think Harold Lindsell and company are doing when they harmonize the contradictions between the various accounts of Peter’s denial by suggesting that Peter denied Jesus six times? This hypothetical “original version” of the story (which is only imperfectly reflected by the surviving canonical versions) rivals anything put forward by “Modernist” form-critics. What are the constant appeals to an unavailable “inerrant autograph,” but a desperate retreat to a lost and purely hypothetical “original version” superior to the text we have today?

Both Chicago Statements try to give the impression that inerrantists are really as interested in serious biblical scholarship as anyone else. The drafters of the 1978 Statement affirm that the Bible student must be ready to “take into account [scripture’s] literary forms and devices” (Article XVIII). The 1982 Statement similarly affirms “that awareness of the literary categories, formal and stylistic, of the various parts of Scripture is essential for proper exegesis, and hence we value genre criticism as one of the many disciplines of biblical study” (Article XIII). But not so fast! Chicago 78 pulls the reins at genres which might “reject... [a biblical book’s] claims to authorship” (ibid.), while Chicago 82 rules out “generic categories which negate historicity [in] biblical narratives which present themselves as factual” (ibid.). In other words, we may recognize the biblical use of proverbs, acrostic poems, parables, allegories, genealogies, court chronicles, etc., but we cannot admit the possible presence of midrash (edifying fictional expansion or creation of stories) or pseudonymous authorship.

Both of these allegedly ungodly genres were quite common and unobjectionable in ancient times, so why are they excluded from the Bible, like unicorns from Noah’s ark? Simply because they do not conform to the prior dogma of absolute inerrancy held by the Chicago divines. A good example of a text taken as an inspired piece of midrashic fiction by virtually all mainstream biblical scholars is the episode of Peter’s walking on the water (Matthew 14:28-31)  The spiritual meaning of this text (which appears only in Matthew) has been plain to every preacher of it, fundamentalist or Modernist: as long as we fix our eyes on Jesus, we will not sink amid our troubles. The story teaches this point incomparably well. But if it were literally true as historical fact, it is just inexplicable why Mark and John (or their sources) could have failed to mention it. The inerrantist, instead of drawing the obvious conclusion, will wait till he or she gets to heaven to find some other, more acceptable explanation, because according to the dogma of inerrantism, the midrash explanation sounds like “sibboleth” (Judges 12:5-6).

What is the problem with deeming Matthew 14:28-31 a piece of edifying midrash? It involves no denial of miracles per se. It involves no “disbelieving of the Bible,” because a midrash is not asking to be (mis)taken for historical reportage. Midrash only poses as history in precisely the same way parables do.  I once had an eccentric student who insisted that all the parables actually happened: there was, literally, a prodigal son, a particular dishonest steward, etc. Inerrantists by and large do not insist that parables are nonfiction, but for some reason they do so insist when it comes to evident myth (e.g., talking snakes) and midrash. Are these the same individuals who “deny that Scripture should be required to fit alien preunderstandings” (1982, Article XV), who “deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose” (1978, Article XIII)?

All of the above observations lead to the most important criticism of the Chicago Statements. They are essentially Catholicizing documents. This, of course, is no fault if one a Catholic, but our drafters affirm instead that “the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is  subordinate to that of Scripture” (1978, Article II). But in practice, the Chicago Statements subordinate exegesis to prior doctrine; indeed, this is their express purpose: why else draft a statement of how the Bible may and may not be construed, what it may and may not be heard to say?

At the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, the lines were clearly drawn on issues that were no less clear. On the one side was medieval Catholicism. It had determined that the Bible might only be interpreted so as to support Church dogma. The only way to ensure this was to see that traditional dogma governed the interpretation of scripture To that end the Church fostered the allegorical method whereby the troublesome literal meaning of texts might be cast aside in favor of a subtle “meaning” that would accord with Catholic dogma. If such a course were not followed, Catholics feared, every Bible reader would become his own Pope and the monolith of Catholic theology would be replaced by a thousand competing “heresies. “

On the other side were the Reformers who proposed to peel away the layers of dogma and at last see what the biblical writers had intended to say, let the chips fall where they might. Scripture alone (Sola Scriptura) must be the only court of appeal. To avoid the Church ventriloquism of allegorizing exegesis, the Reformers proposed the “grammatico-historical” method of exegesis: in other words, interpret the Bible as you would Ovid, Livy, or Tacitus. If God there is no other way to understand it than to understand it as human literature. There could be no “sacred hermeneutics,” only the sacred authority of a text interpreted in a “secular” way.

Indeed, once this step had been taken no external authority could reimpose the lost monolithic unity. The Reformation did result in the feared sectarianism and subjectivism. It could not be otherwise if each individual were to interpret scripture for him Or herself, with all of us seeing in a glass darkly. But surely the fresh hearing of the (often shocking) voice of scripture was worth the dizzying diversity that ensued.

But then as now some people could tolerate only so much diversity, perhaps because their own faith was not secure unless it could depend on a majority consensus, and Protestants began to try to impose uniformity by enacting creeds of their own. “We believe in the Bible, and the essence of that belief is thus and so.” So the cycle began again, and new nonconformist “sects” and “heresies” arose, using Sola Scriptura or “Back to the Bible” as their cry. The dynamics of this ever-repeating process are probably more psychological than theological.

At any rate, I think that in the Evangelical “battle for the Bible, “ no less in our own Southern Baptist imbroglio, we are again lining up in the same old roles. Conservatives have determined that the “old time religion” must be maintained and that any contrary interpretation of scripture must be disallowed. The heresies that threaten the inherited “orthodoxy’ today (Christian Feminism, Theistic Evolution, Liberation Theology, etc., some explicitly named in the 1982 Statement) seem to depend on modern biblical criticism, just as Protestantism itself was made possible by the grammatico-historical method. So biblical criticism must be ruled out by a set of theologically determined rules of interpretation. Do you think this is a distorted caricature? In the June 1986 ICBI newsletter, chairman James Montgomery Boice rejoices that “our two sets of  ‘Affirmations and Denials’ have achieved almost creedal importance in many places” (p. 1).

At the dawn of the Reformation, the position of each side was at least self-consistent. Catholics were candid in their elevation of ecclesiastical tradition and creeds over the Bible. But today it is otherwise. The tragic irony of our Evangelical battle is that the “Catholics” think they are the Protestants! It is the authority of the Bible they think they are defending! Yet what kind of “biblical authority” is carefully filtered through a hermeneutical grid constructed by church dogma?

I believe that to believe in, to adhere to, the authority of scripture alone that may upset our scholastic systems, our cherished assumptions, or our comfortable certainties. Those not willing to take that risk may be “zealous for the law” (Acts 21:20) but they are unwitting opponents of biblical authority.



Copyright©2008 by Robert M Price
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