Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy edited by James R.A. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett

It is commonly held that inerrancy is the doctrine upon which evangelicalism stands or falls, and is one of only two doctrinal requirements to be a member of the Evangelical Theological Society (p.9).  It is therefore vital to understand how the term is being defined today within evangelicalism.  A celebrated “battle for the Bible” took place within American Christianity between 1955-85 (what Packer called the “30 years war” (p. 32).  Harold Lindsell’s 1976 book by the same title brought the discussion to a head, and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) written in 1978 (p. 15) presumably laid the issue to rest by providing a precise definition of inerrancy to which all evangelicals could ascribe.  However, such rest was apparently premature, for as this volume confirms the meaning and application of inerrancy is far from unilateral among the evangelical community.  As a matter of fact, in addition to the CSBI’s definition, as well as similar ones by Norman Geisler (p. 19) and Paul Feinberg (p. 207), all the contributors to this volume, except Mohler, have their own nuanced definition of inerrancy.  All would claim to believe in inerrancy as long as they get to define the term, which of course, merely adds to the confusion.  Each of the five authors identifies themselves as evangelical, but if inerrancy is the test of the movement two (Enns and Franke) fail the exam; Bird is on the edge and Vanhoozer seems conflicted.  Only Mohler would adhere without reservation to the CSBI definition, which is the benchmark by which all the authors frame their thoughts.  The agenda of the editors is clear, both in the Introduction (pp. 10-24) and Conclusion (pp. 312-319, 326), that this volume was written to open dialogue, not bring consensus on the topic.  In this they were partly successful in that consensus was not achieved and a dialogue was held; sadly little else was accomplished except the certainty that leading evangelical theologians do not agree on what is supposed to be one of the fundamental doctrines of the faith.  The battle for the Bible is obviously a long way from being settled.

The format of the book allows each author to develop his views, then interact with three problematic biblical issues: Joshua 6, Acts 9:7 with 22:9, and Deuteronomy 20:16-17 with Matthew 5:43-48, followed by responses from the other authors.  Briefly, here is how the different scholars line up in their understanding of inerrancy:

Albert Mohler

Mohler is in step with the CSBI.  His view is well summarized when he writes, “When the Bible speaks, God speaks” (p. 29).  Mohler does not think evangelicalism can survive without inerrancy as defined by the CSBI (p. 31), and summarizes his response to Franke’s article (which rejects CSBI) by saying that “he has revealed the destiny of evangelical theology if it surrenders the inerrancy of the Bible” (p. 291).  He is the only one of the five authors who clearly and consistently believes that the three difficult passages can be resolved through the use of a literal, grammatical-historical hermeneutic and do not need to be reinterpreted because of apparent internal contradictions or modern archeological or scientific discoveries.

Peter Enns

Enns strongly rejects CSBI, writing that inerrancy assumes God shares modern views on accuracy (which, Enns assures us, He does not) (pp. 84, 87-88, 91, 104).  Instead we must read the Bible through ancient, not modern, eyes (p. 108).  He rightly claims that “literalism is the default hermeneutic of the CSBI” (p. 88), although he distorts what literalism is.  He laments that this literalism disallows the study of ancient history or scientific discoveries to overturn what the Bible says (p. 88).  And he dismisses the notion that if we accept that portions of the Bible are in error then we have started down a slippery slope theologically (p. 89).  Enns not only denies the fall of Jericho, but the Exodus account as well, as they are both narrated in the Old Testament (pp. 94-98, 107-108, 122, 134), and claims the biblical authors shaped history creatively for their theological purposes (p. 101).  Enns redefines inerrancy beyond all recognition by writing, “It is a descriptive observation rather than a prescriptive declaration” (p. 114, see pp. 120-123, 135).  Mohler calls Enns’ views a “tragically minimal statement about the Bible” (p. 122).

Michel Bird

Bird believes the debate over inerrancy is largely an American issue and should not cause such a fuss (pp. 146, 155-156).  He believes the CSBI relies too heavily on modern presumption of precision and, in fact, thinks contradictions in Scripture can and do exist (pp. 147-149, 153, 168, 170, 194).  He sees the CSBI as based on foundationalism (pp. 157, 208), which Franz says has been discredited (pp. 261-264, 282), and to which Enns apparently agrees (pp. 304-305).  The Jericho and Exodus accounts did not likely happen in the way the Scripture claims (pp. 166-167), after all “ancient historians were storytellers not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives…” (p. 168).

Kevin VanHoozer

VanHoozer supports inerrancy but what is needed, he says, is a “well-versed” version, which hails back to Augustine (pp. 204-207, 223, 235).  He says “God’s authoritative Word is wholly true and trustworthy in everything it claims about what was, what is, and what will be” (p. 202).  He agrees essentially with CSBI but registers three concerns:  the definition of inerrancy needs further refinement (pp. 206-207), truth and language need more definition (pp. 208-211), and a closer connection with Nicaea is warranted (pp. 212-213).  ‘“Well-versed’ inerrancy puts a premium on the responsibility of the interpreter to understand the text correctly” (p. 223).  Yet when VanHoozer turns to the assigned passages it is clear that he sees the events as not entirely accurately revealed in the biblical accounts (pp. 224-230); see Mohler’s critique (pp. 240-241).

John Franke

Franke defends a “fallibilist” position in which absolute certainty is impossible (pp. 262, 305).  This post-conservative, post-modern view, when applied to Scripture means the Bible points us in the right direction but without the necessity of actually being precise (p. 268).  It is not that truth does not exist, for God knows truth with a capital T, but we can only know truth with a small t (pp. 269, 288, 308).  As such, “small t” truth is pluralistic (pp. 275-280, 288).  Biblical contradictions, or errors, are no problem for Franke (pp. 277, 290) because the purpose of Scripture is not to provide precise details but to bless the world (a missional understanding) (pp. 282, 286, 302-303).  In other words, the Bible got it wrong but we can be blessed anyway.

On many levels Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy is a disturbing book.  Inerrancy is one of our most important doctrines and is supposedly a hallmark of evangelicalism, yet if the views presented in this book are representative of evangelical scholarship in the 21st century it is obvious there exists a wide diversity on what it means and how it is applied.

Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy edited by James R.A. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013) 328 pp., paper $22.99

Reviewed by Gary E. Gilley, Southern View Chapel

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