Inerrancy Under Attack

Volume 29, Issue 3, May 2023

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher Southern View Chapel

Many have said that inerrancy is the doctrine upon which evangelicalism stands or falls, and it is one of only two doctrines that the Evangelical Theological Society requires its members to hold.[1] It is therefore vital to understand how evangelicals today define the term. Looking back a few years, a “battle for the Bible” took place within American Christianity between 1955 and 1985 (what J. I. Packer has dubbed the “30 years war.”)[2] 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 presumably laid the issue to rest by providing a precise definition of inerrancy to which all evangelicals could ascribe. However, the declaration of peace was apparently premature, for the meaning and application of inerrancy are far from consistent within the evangelical community. Instead, variant definitions of inerrancy abound. Sadly, the battle for the Bible is obviously continuing, as challenges emerge from many directions. This article addresses a few of these challenges.

Theologians

In Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, Al Mohler lines up well with the CSBI’s definition when he states, “When the Bible speaks, God speaks.”[3] And he does not think evangelicalism can survive without inerrancy as the CSBI defines it.[4] The other contributors to the volume present different understandings, especially Peter Enns who strongly rejects CSBI, writing that inerrancy assumes God shares modern views on accuracy (which, Enns assures us, He does not).[5] Instead, we must read the Bible through ancient, not modern, eyes.[6] Such understanding allows Enns not only to deny the fall of Jericho but the Exodus account as well, as they are both narrated in the Old Testament.[7] He concludes that the biblical authors “shaped history creatively for their theological purposes.”[8] Enns redefines the concept of inerrancy beyond all recognition by writing, “It is a descriptive observation rather than a prescriptive declaration.”[9]

Australian theologian Michael Bird takes a condescending stance toward the subject, as he believes the debate over inerrancy is largely an American issue and should not cause such a fuss.[10] He believes the CSBI relies too heavily on the modern presumption of precision and, in fact, thinks contradictions in Scripture can and do exist.[11] In Bird’s view, the Jericho and Exodus accounts did not likely happen in the way that Scripture claims; after all, “ancient historians were storytellers not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives…”[12]

John Franke defends what he calls “fallibilism” by declaring that absolute certainty on biblical events is impossible.[13] This post-conservative, post-modern view, when applied to Scripture, means that the Bible points us in the right direction but without the necessity of actually being precise.[14] Biblical contradictions, or errors, are no problem for Franke because the purpose of Scripture is not to provide accurate details but to bless the world (a missional understanding). In other words, even if the Bible is wrong, we can be blessed anyway.[15] Enns, Bird, and Franke are representative of many theologians who would claim to be within the borders of evangelicalism but nevertheless deny inerrancy.

International Understandings

In 2015, The Master’s Academy International published an insightful yet disturbing volume on the challenges facing biblical inerrancy globally, entitled God’s Perfect Word: The Implications of Inerrancy for the Global Church. At the time, there were 18 Master’s Academies in 17 countries, and leaders from many of the academies contributed a chapter each discussing the unique implication of inerrancy in their respective countries and cultures. In most contexts, the evangelical community outwardly affirmed inerrancy; but in reality and in practice, they denied inerrancy or revised it to mean something different in every instance. Inerrancy as defined by Paul Feinberg is this: “When all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical or life sciences.”[16] The book details the extent to which inerrancy, by this definition, is being embraced around the world and the numerous ways those claiming to believe in the inspiration of Scripture are challenging, revising, and even denying the doctrine. This collection provides convincing, and disturbing, evidence that there has been a gradual abandonment of inerrancy worldwide since the publication of the “Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.”[17]

Some of the specific culprits the authors identify as eroding the belief in inerrancy include claims of corruption of the biblical manuscripts; development and spread of historical-critical methodology; abuse of contextualization; an evolving and revised Roman Catholic understanding that could be called “limited inerrancy;” the growth and influence of the prosperity gospel and Pentecostal theology including their “hermeneutic of the Spirit,” which begins with Scripture but adds additional revelation; integration of secular psychology; increased acceptance of syncretism; Barthian neo-orthodoxy; existentialism; oral traditions; adoption of evolutionary theory (pp. 265-266); and the popularity of egalitarianism. Inerrancy internationally is struggling to survive these many challenges.

Egalitarianism

Speaking of egalitarianism, no one better represents its attack on the Bible than the popular speaker, author, and scholar Beth Allison Barr. Barr is a history professor at Baylor University who specializes in medieval studies. Admitting in her book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth that she is not a theologian but rather a historian, Barr nevertheless believes her background in history places her in a position to see clearly what most Bible scholars and theologians have not, which is that biblical womanhood is not scriptural at all but a plot to suppress women. Biblical womanhood, Barr states, has been built “stone by stone by stone throughout the centuries”[18] and is a capitulation to culture and sin rather than a biblical truth. Complementarianism is an interpretation of Scripture “that has been corrupted by our sinful human drive to dominate others and build hierarchies of power and oppression,”[19] Barr contends.

Barr does not deny that complementarianism is found in the Bible, but she insists that “patriarchy exists in the Bible because the Bible was written in a patriarchal world.”[20] Evidence of Barr’s rejection of inspiration of Scripture appears by implication throughout the book, but her complete repudiation of inerrancy is undeniable.[21] She admits that properly understood inerrancy not only champions the accuracy and reliability of Scripture, but it also insists on a plain and literal interpretation of the Bible—what is often called grammatical-historical hermeneutics. But it is at this very point that Barr faults many evangelicals because they have embraced inerrancy and have “baptized patriarchy.”[22] Barr admits that a plain reading of the New Testament teaches complementarianism, and therefore we must reject inerrancy because “inerrancy creates an atmosphere of fear.”[23] Many evangelicals love inerrancy, she asserts, not because it is true; but because it is an instrument that they can use to suppress women and support Christian patriarchy.[24] (pp. 195-96).

Scholarship, Past, and Present

Many evangelical scholars accept that A. A. Hodge and B. B. Warfield invented and developed the doctrine of inerrancy in 1881 with the publication of their paper “Inspiration.” Ronald Satta challenges this view in his small work, The Sacred Text, proving that conservative theologians going back to the Reformation, and indeed to the Church Fathers, have held to a well-defined view of both the authority of the Scripture and the inerrancy of the Bible in the original autographs.[25]

Satta shows that Higher Criticism invaded America in the early 1800s, and scholars developed two alternative and deficient views of inerrancy and inspiration. The “partial theory” taught that God had inspired only certain passages of Scripture. The “degree theory” maintained that God inspired only the authors’ thoughts and that there existed different levels or degrees of inspiration. In both views, the human interpreter ultimately functions as the judge of Scripture.[26] In addition, the gap theory, day-age theory, and localized flood theory gained popularity. By 1900, liberals had abandoned the accuracy of the text of Scripture, and the modernist-fundamentalist division became inevitable.[27] The rise of theological liberalism, including elevating experience above truth, is all too reminiscent of what is happening within modern evangelicalism.[28] Just as many theologians in the nineteenth century claimed to believe in the major tenets of Christianity, while rejecting inspiration, leading eventually to their rejection of those doctrines; so we find 21st century evangelicalism traveling down the same path.

More recently, contemporary theologian Craig Blomberg works hard to convince the reader of his book Can We Still Believe the Bible? that believing in inerrancy does not mean accepting a literal Adam and Eve, a young earth, Job or Jonah as historical characters, the single authorship of Isaiah, nor the traditional view of the authorship of the New Testament books. He personally accepts some of these concepts while rejecting others, but he sees none of these issues as germane to inerrancy.[29] Returning to inerrancy in the conclusion of his book, Blomberg states that only a tiny minority of Christians have ever accepted it, and it is thus not particularly important in the big picture of the Christian faith.[30]

Philosophy/Metaphysics

One means of undermining inerrancy is not to attack it directly but to claim that Scripture cannot be understood without an external interpretative grid that gives its true meaning. In our own doctrinal backyard, there has been increased discussion of late between theologians and biblical scholars as to which discipline should be driving the bus. Does our exegesis depend on creeds and confessions, or do our theological pronouncements and statements rely on biblical analysis? Theologians have accused biblical experts of being “biblicists” and ignoring the creeds, while exegetics have challenged theologians to start with the Bible rather than Augustine, Calvin, and the Church Fathers. This conversation needs to take place, but a recent two-volume series is eye-opening. Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew by Scot McKnight and Five Things Theologians Wish Bible Scholars Knew by Hans Boersma drew my attention. I was looking for a lively interaction between biblical scholars and theologians which would expose holes in each approach leading to a better comprehension of God’s truth. Sadly, the publishers chose not an evangelical scholar to represent theologians but a Catholic/Anglican mystic who thoroughly embraces the historical-critical method as well as higher criticism. Scot McKnight, in his response, captured the essence of Boersma’s thesis: “In the last two decades or so something has arisen that is called the theological interpretation of scripture, that reading the Bible isn’t simply about authorial intention… Boersma’s theology is at work in advocating for a kind of theological, Christological reading of Scripture in a sacramental sense.”[31]

Boersma structured his book around five themes, each given its own chapter: no Christ, no Scripture; no Plato, no Scripture; no providence, no Scripture; no church, no Scripture; and no heaven, no Scripture. Hermeneutics is foundational to Boersma’s theology, yet he consistently belittles and criticizes grammatic-historical hermeneutics, the search for authorial intent, and sola scriptura,[32] replacing them with the sacramental hermeneutic of the patristics and Catholicism.[33] Most important for this article is that Boersma comes to his conclusions by drawing his metaphysics from Christian Platonism, thus “no Plato, no Scripture” (the title of the second chapter). Boersma contends that the early church read Scripture through the metaphysical lens of Platonism; therefore, without Plato and his metaphysics, we could not retain the teaching of Scripture.[34] We need metaphysical scaffolding.[35] Inerrancy finds no place in a system such as Boersma’s.

Closer to evangelical debates, Boersma leans on the “rule of faith,” the Creeds, and ecumenical councils for his authority, even over Scripture itself. He writes, “A Sola Scriptura approach that rejects credal guidelines as authoritative for interpretation” goes astray[36] and “over time [the] councils attain authority.”[37] The issue of creedal (and council) authority is alive and active in conservative theological scholarship today, and participants would do well to observe where creedal authority, when allowed to triumph over biblical authority, ultimately lands, as per Boersma’s example.

Space does not permit a critique of McKnight’s book, but it comes with its own problems relevant to our subject. While McKnight believes we must start with the Bible, rather than theology, he is opposed to anything related to biblicism. A biblicist believes that the Bible is identical to God’s own words and represents what God wants us to know—and all He wants us to know—in communicating the divine will to us. The biblicist also believes that everything relevant to the Christian life is in the Bible and in the perspicuity of Scripture, all of which are inerrancy issues that McKnight rejects.[38]

Science

Secular scientists since at least the 19th century have sought to overturn the Scriptures through their theories that find no place for God. Many Christian scholars have been influenced by these theories, which in turn have moderated and undermined their understanding of Scripture in general and inerrancy in particular. A recent example is William Lane Craig’s book In Quest of the Historical Adam, A Biblical and Scientific Exploration. Craig describes Genesis 1-11 as “mytho-history,” meaning a narrative that combines real people and events in the language of myth. He rejects the “fantastic elements” such as magical trees and talking snakes. He believes Adam and Eve existed but that they evolved from a common ancestor, from prehuman hominin forms, from which God apparently lifted them to a human level. He writes these assertions and at the same time claims to believe in inerrancy. At the very least, such scholars are redefining the meaning of inerrancy to such an extent that it is no longer recognizable.


[1] J. Merrick, et al., eds., Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids, Zondervan 2013), p. 9.

[2] Ibid., p. 32.

[3] Ibid., Al Mohler, p. 29.

[4] Ibid., p. 31.

[5] Ibid., Peter Enns, pp. 84, 87-88, 91, 104.

[6] Ibid., p. 108.

[7] Ibid., pp. 94-98, 107-108, 122, 134.

[8] Ibid., p. 101.

[9] Ibid., p. 114, see pp. 120-123, 135.

[10] Ibid., Michael Bird, pp. 146, 155-156.

[11] Ibid., pp. 147-149, 153, 168, 170, 194.

[12] Ibid., pp. 166-168.

[13] Ibid., John Franke, pp. 262, 305.

[14] Ibid., p. 268.

[15] Ibid., pp. 277, 282, 286, 290, 302-303.

[16] Mark Tatlock, ed., God’s Perfect Word: The Implication of Inerrancy for the Global Church (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015), p. 182.

[17] Ibid., pp. ix, 46.

[18] Beth Allison Barr, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2021), p. 205.

[19] Ibid., p. 7.

[20] Ibid., p. 36.

[21] Ibid., pp. 187-191.

[22] Ibid., p. 190.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid., pp. 195-196.

[25] Ronald F. Satta, The Sacred Text, Biblical Authority in Nineteenth-Century America (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2007), pp. 2-3, 9, 54.

[26] Ibid., pp. 17, 20, 43-47.

[27] Ibid., pp 36-44.

[28] Ibid., pp. 60-71.

[29] Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazo Press, 2014), pp. 150-177.

[30] Ibid., pp. 221-222.

[31] Scot McKnight, Five Things Biblical Scholars Wish Theologians Knew (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), p. xi.

[32] Hans Boersma, Five Things Theologians Wish Bible Scholars Knew (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), pp. 8, 9, 21, 38, 93, 100, 111, 130, 137.

[33] Ibid., pp, 7, 9.

[34] Ibid., p. 39.

[35] Ibid., pp. 51, 61, 63.

[36] Ibid., p. 19.

[37] Ibid., p. 95.

[38] McKnight, p. 42.

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