When I was in college, I was one thesis away from being a religion major. I took the thesis class, did the research and even wrote the paper. I just didn’t turn it in.
I graduated with an English Literature major. I didn’t need Religion for the double major. I wasn’t satisfied with the product, so I didn’t turn the paper in.
I’ve recalled these things before, but I haven’t really addressed the subject of that thesis paper. It was biblical inerrancy.
I recall the religion major that fell short now, and the topic that derailed it, following some comments that NT (Tom) Wright made to Justin Brierley on the podcast, Ask NT Wright Anything (episode #8, I believe).
I chose the topic, of course, but I felt I bit off more than I could chew. It turns out there may be good reason the topic was so difficult for me, a new believer at the time. NT Wright sheds some light on the subject.
When the question of a definition for inerrancy was put to NT Wright on the podcast, he balked at providing one. He didn’t provide one, explaining:
“I personally wouldn’t want to define something called ‘biblical inerrancy that is not, itself, taught in that fashion in the Bible….”
NT Wright calls inerrancy a “systematical oddity”, in that the term and concept, inerrancy, is nowhere found in the Bible. One might wonder, then, how did the doctrine of biblical inerrancy arise if it isn’t in the Bible?
That question didn’t dawn on me when I tried to research and write my thesis paper in college. I don’t recall that question even being raised at the time. As I look back, I believe I accepted the premise that inerrancy was “biblical” without critically examining my assumption.
The term, inerrancy, is not found in the Bible
Wright has an answer for the question about inerrancy that I find compelling. He says, the idea of inerrancy comes out of the rationalist movement in the 19th Century. The rationalist movement was championed the current thinkers of the time, many of whom were by skeptics and atheists. As happens in the cultural milieu, believers engaging with their culture often adopt positions in response to “the spirit of the age”, but that response is not necessarily biblical. The idea of biblical inerrancy became the response of Christian rationalists to the rationalism of atheists.
This Christian rationalism grew out of the context of the Reformation: that the authority of God is vested in Scripture, rather than tradition or reason. The position of “only Scripture” in response to the objectionable traditions of the Catholic church, held the Bible up as the supreme authority. Inerrancy was the next step in response to the rationalist framework that arose in the 19th Century.
Inerrancy became the foundation built to support a Christian rationalist framework that was set against the rationalist framework of the nontheistic world that anchored its rationalism in science.
According to Wright, this rationalist framework is a “backwater”. He describes it as a “false search for the wrong kind of security”. When we start talking about inerrancy, we get into “all sorts of literal, metaphorical discussions which … are dead ends. They don’t get you anywhere.” He says,
“The real problem is that asking those questions actually is a displacement activity to stop people saying, ‘What is the Bible actually saying?’ There are lots of people who talk about inerrancy who don’t stop and say, ‘What are Matthew, Mark, Luke and John actually telling us?’”
That the Bible may not be “inerrant” (whatever that really means) doesn’t concern Wright. He says, “We have the Bible God wanted us to have.” He believes the Bible is more aptly described as “delegated authority”. He notes,
“When the risen Jesus, in Matthew 28, talked about authority, he doesn’t say, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth is given to the books and chapters that you go off and write,’ he says, ‘It is all given to Me!’”
The authority of the Bible is something more complicated than inerrancy suggests. God gave Jesus authority, and Jesus, by His Spirit, equipped people to write things that would enable them to do what God wants them to do.
Inerrancy tends towards a mindset focusing on dogma and whether (or not) we have the right set of truths in our heads. According to Wright, the purpose of Scripture is to equip us to be the Body of Christ in and for the world. “It’s an active dynamic, authority.” Scripture is an active message from a living God to His people, but dogma tends to reduce it to inert, intellectual ascent.
I realize that some people will likely chaff at Wright’s take on the issue of inerrancy. Inerrancy is now part of our tradition. It is virtually sacrosanct.
Certainly, we should have legitimate concern about protecting “sound doctrine” and keeping heresy out of the church, just as Paul was, but I suspect that what we consider to be doctrine goes beyond what Paul was thinking of doctrine in the first century. Remember that Paul endeavored to know only Christ, and him crucified, in his letter to the Corinthians.
Not that Paul was any slouch when it came to doctrine. He was “a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Phil. 3:5), “educated at the feet of Gamaliel”, the greatest teacher of his day (Acts 22:3) who was “zealous for the traditions of my fathers”. (Gal. 1:14) But, Paul encountered the risen Lord Jesus in person, and that personal experience eclipsed “doctrine” and forever infused all that he knew into a living faith.
Not that he didn’t use doctrine in preaching the Gospel and defending the faith. Paul was a master evangelist and apologist, quoting liberally and extensively from his knowledge of the Scriptures. But, Paul knew that the reality is in person of Christ, and in Christ alone. The reality is in a relationship with the risen Savior through the work of the Holy Spirit who was left to guide us into all truth.
This is also not to say that truth changes and deviates from what has been revealed and preserved in the Scripture that we have. But, truth is not as rigid as we like to make it in our relentless quest for certainty.
I dare say that some of us would rather have certainty than the living Christ. If we could just box it all up and tie it up neatly with a bow, we wouldn’t have to rely so much on that relationship we have with God through the Spirit. We could “do this” on our own.
We have not come to a mountain that can be touched…. But we have come to the city of the living God. (Hebrews 12:18, 22) We no longer worship on this mountain or that one; we worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
These verses suggest that the vitality of faith is very much more than what we can reduce to doctrine!
As I look back on the task I set out to accomplish in college, to define and defend the concept of inerrancy, I remember the struggle. I had hopes of developing a sound defense to that doctrine, but I failed. I now see more clearly than I did at the time why I failed. I believe, now, that we err in trying to force the concept of inerrancy on the Bible.
Fortunately, that failure didn’t undo me at the time. I had learned not to be so rigid in my assessments. I read early on that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12) I took that to heart. I intuitively understood that God’s word isn’t something we can reduce to fit in a box.
Certainly, all Scripture is “God-breathed”. It is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Its purpose is to provide all we need to be equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17) But that is not the same thing as “inerrant”.
Considering the history of the development of the concept of inerrancy, we can appreciate how it came to be. The Reformation established the prime authority of Scripture. The rationalist movement threatened to undo that prime authority. So, the concept of inerrancy was developed in response, to attempt to preserve the authority of Scripture in terms that a rationalist might accept.
But there is a danger in establishing doctrine in reaction to the predominant world views of particular periods of time (the “spirit of the age”). The danger is that we take our eyes off the Scripture that is our guide, and we develop our views in contrast to the world.
We can err as much from Scripture in contrasting our views to the current world views as we can err in harmonizing our views with the current world views. In all cases, our benchmark is Scripture, not the current world views (whether we use it as a benchmark for harmonizing or contrasting our positions).