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Reexamining a Pillar of Evangelicalism: Introducing "Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy"

Categories Theology

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It is fitting that today I write this introductory column to a series on the new Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy book, because the 65th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society is well underway, the theme of which is "Evangelicalism, Inerrancy, and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect."

And it is fitting that this book should launch in 2013, because it was thirty years ago that ETS's business meeting in Dallas on December 17 led to the resignation of Robert Gundry after Norman Geisler and Roger Nicole requested it in response to his use of "redaction criticism" in his Matthew commentary. Ever since that dramatic annual meeting, evangelicals from both sides of the aisle have been jockeying for position to rewrite or reinforce this pillar of  evangelicalism.

In his introduction to the book, J. Merrick says "It should come as no surprise that inerrancy is resurfacing as evangelicalism is increasingly fragmented and contested, submerged between 'emergence' and 'resurgence.'" (9) He goes on to say that the evangelical community is posed to do battle over the Bible once more, yet this time is different: "evangelicals are not battling mainline Protestants; they are debating themselves." (10)

This isn't the Spanish–American War, where American forces battled foreign forces; this is the Battle of Yorktown, where British colonists engaged British nationalists. The lines are certainly drawn and it looks like Merrick is right: Evangelicalism is poised for a repeat of the early 80's.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Often such debates and engagements are ripe for new harvests of biblical and theological bounty. And that's the hope for the editors of this important new book: "that its readers will gain a sense for the theological hermeneutical decisions on which fresh conversations need to take place, for the health and vitality of evangelical faith." (25)

Inerrancy as Doctrine

Merrick begins his introduction to the discussion of the inerrancy debate by sketching the importance of the doctrine itself. He notes that for evangelicals "inerrancy is not merely a statement of fact but also a posture of the Bible—a way of reading the Bible, a criterion for what counts as faithful interpretation." (11)

And this discussion of "what counts" leads to an important historical illustration, one I led with in my column: the resignation of Gundry from ETS in 1983. He offers this illustration as a way to explicate evangelicalism's complicated history with the doctrine.

The Gundry-Geisler episode is instructive for our contemporary discussions. For as Merrick notes, "as doctrine, inerrancy communicates far more than simply an attribute of Scripture. It communicates a way of understanding ourselves before Scripture. It is therefore bound up with the whole of Christian teaching and cannot be properly understood apart from some discussion of its doctrinal setting." (12)

And this is where this book comes in, because it hopes to generate discussions about the doctrinal commitments that determine inerrancy, as well as the doctrines that are affected by such determinations.

Inerrancy with Other Doctrines

One of the most illuminating sections of Merrick's introduction is an examination of the doctrinal "location" of inerrancy, both in doctrinal systems and in relationship to other doctrines.

"It is not at all uncommon," Merrick writes, "to find the confession of inerrancy at the head of the doctrinal statements of evangelical churches, ministries, and organizations." Such a move, he notes, "has a benefit of declaring that what follows is reliable information, not merely the opinions of the people involved in the institution." (12-13) The factuality of the components of the Christian faith, then, lead the way.

Merrick wonders, however, what such a positioning does to the nature of doctrine itself. He suggests that such a positioning at the outset "seems to teach that Christian beliefs are of the order of facts," which has consequences for other doctrines. The doctrine of justification, for example, taken as a fact, "merely teaches that it is the work of Christ, not our works, that makes us righteous before God." (14) Viewing justification as a brute fact has existential consequences: "people who believe in [the doctrine of justification] are not forced to behold its true depth as a fundamentally self-shattering reality." (14) Thus for Merrick a misplaced doctrine of inerrancy can have existential consequences, while also over-inflating our perception of our knowledge of truth.

He also insists that inerrancy is not an isolated idea that floats free from other theological convictions. Of course it is bound up with convictions about Scripture's inspiration, reliability, sufficiency, and authority. It's also connected to convictions about God's own character. The doctrine of revelation in which the doctrine of Scripture is placed is also relevant. As is the doctrine of salvation, "for revelation is not an end in itself but serves the larger end of salvation." (18) Merrick's sketch of the "doctrinal nexus" of inerrancy is a vital one, particularly because he asks some hard-hitting questions that beg some deep, reflective answers.

Inerrancy in Dialogue

In true "views book" form, the editors have assembled a cast of five thoughtful, leading evangelical voices to engage the kind of questions a discussion of this import demands. Those voices include two systematic theologians (Kevin Vanhoozer and John Franke), two biblical scholars (Michael Bird and Peter Enns) and a historical theologian (Albert Mohler).

Both Mohler and Enns are driven by a sense of evangelicalism's past. Mohler is very pleased with the achievements of evangelicalism's historical standard-bearers like Warfield and Henry, and believes the content of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy needs little updating. Enns, however, believes that evangelicalism is being "hindered and deformed" by the historical positions of inerrancy; he is not optimistic about refreshing it.

Bird represents the international scene of evangelicalism. He voices the concerns that inerrancy is possibly too constrictive or too determined by American issues and developments. While he finds value in the doctrine, he insists that evangelicals should not break fellowship over it and should be open to its revision.

Finally, Vanhoozer and Franke are concerned with how inerrancy has been received and perceived within contemporary evangelicalism. Vanhoozer seeks to renew inerrancy by recovering the Christian tradition, yet also rethinking it in light of current linguistic debates. Franke desires to recast the doctrine in light of our plural context and seeks to rethink it in light of colonialism and missiology.

The editors asked the five contributors to treat four topics that address the most significant issues of the debate, developing their positions in reference to the CSBI:

  1. God and his relationship to his creatures
  2. the doctrine of inspiration
  3. the nature of Scripture
  4. the nature of truth

Finally, the contributors were then asked to "test" their view through the lens of three textual lenses: Joshua 6, since current archaeological and historiographical evidence calls into question the details of the account; Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9, because they give different accounts of Saul's conversion; and Deuteronomy 20 in relation to Matthew 5, because the issues of theological coherence and God's varied relationship to humanity over time are most acute in these passages.

 

Given the nature of this dialogue Merrick believes "readers should be able to see the kinds of theological and hermeneutical decisions necessary to constructing a doctrine of inerrancy. We believe this will generate new conversations about inerrancy that consider previous questions as well as new ones, enriching the lives and faith of evangelicals." (25)

Next week we begin a three-week series of reviews establishing the five positions and responses. Until then, pre-order Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy (releasing 12/10/13) and read the live blog from the panel of its contributors at ETS earlier this morning.

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Jb_headshotJeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.

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