Theology Thursday – Inerrancy is Wrong

In this excerpt from the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy,  Peter Enns shares his initial thoughts about inerrancy from his essay, entitled, “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does.”1

The Bible is the book of God for the people of God. It reveals and conceals, is clear yet complex, open to all but impossible to master. Its message clearly reflects the cultural settings of the authors, yet it still comforts and convicts across cultures and across time.

The Bible is a book that tells one grand narrative, but by means of divergent viewpoints and different theologies. It tells of God’s acts but also reports some events that either may not have happened or have been significantly reshaped and transformed by centuries of tradition. It presents us with portraits of God and of his people that at times comfort and confirm our faith while at other times challenge and stretch our faith to its breaking point.

This is the Bible we have, the Bible God gave us. Redefining or nuancing inerrancy to account for these properties can be of some value, and some are no doubt content to do so. The core issue, however, is how inerrancy functions in contemporary evangelical theological discourse. This too varies, but when all is said and done, I do not think inerrancy can capture the Bible’s varied character and complex dynamics.

Though intended to protect the Bible, inerrancy actually sells it short by placing on it expectations it is not designed to bear—as evidenced by the need for generations of continued publications and debates to defend it. On a deeper and ultimately more important level, inerrancy sells God short. Inerrancy is routinely propounded as the logical entailment of God’s truthfulness, which for many inerrantists leads to the necessary expectation of the Bible’s historical accuracy.

The premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce, or the only effective means of divine communication, strikes me as assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations. As I see it, the recurring tensions over inerrancy in evangelicalism are largely a byproduct of the distance between a priori theological assertions about God and about how his book should behave and the Bible we meet once we get down to the uncooperative details of the text itself.

When the Bible needs so much careful, persistent tending in order to preserve a particular doctrine of Scripture, we might wonder whether the doctrine is the solution or the very source of the problem. Put another way, inerrancy is a theory. The question before us is whether this theory can explain the phenomena of the text. If not, then inerrancy should be amended accordingly or, in my view, scrapped altogether.

The stark reality, however, faced by evangelicals who are critical of inerrancy is that inerrancy has been a central component of evangelicalism for its entire history, a response to the challenges of biblical higher criticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Inerrancy is encoded into the evangelical DNA, and conversations, however discreet, concerning its continued usefulness are rarely valued. In fact, considerable personal and professional fallout are well documented, and examples are not difficult to find. Inerrancy’s definitive—and nonnegotiable—role in forming evangelical identity in the face of modern challenges reached a defining moment in the framing of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).

For more, see Enns’ essay (and others) from the book.

Notes

1 Peter Enns, “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What the Bible Does,” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, ed. Stanley Gundry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013; Kindle ed.), KL 1354-1378.

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G. N. Barkman's picture

Whenever I hear an argument like this one, I want to ask, "Who gets to decide which statements are inerrant and which are not?"   (Or a close variation, which statements are accurate, and which are not?)  Either the Bible is the final authority, and all humanity is subject to its pronouncements, or man is the final authority, and he evaluates and judges the Bible.  There is a vast ocean of difference between these positions.  One makes God the ruler, the other cedes rule to man.  I think I'll stick with Bible inerrancy, thank you.  Anything less is dangerous, and potentially fatal to my eternal soul.

G. N. Barkman

John E.'s picture

For someone who wrote a book titled The Sin of Certainty, Enns seems quite certain about his view of inerrancy. 

JNoël's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

"Who gets to decide which statements are inerrant and which are not?"

Enns perspective is interesting, and I wonder if he is trying to find his position in that place where scriptural ambiguities exist. We all know them - many are discussed right here, on SI. We all want to believe our answer is the right one or the best one. We also want stand on inerrancy - yet inerrancy and ambiguity are difficult to resolve, especially when the ambiguities are in passages that appear contradictory, even after study/research.

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

G. N. Barkman's picture

There's a world of difference between acknowledging our lack of infallible understanding of an infallible Bible, and the assertion that the Bible itself is fallible.

G. N. Barkman

CAWatson's picture

Vanhoozer's chapter is probably more dangerous than Enns' - because he opens the door for denying inerrancy (and by inerrancy I mean historicity) without being overt about it. 

What Vanhoozer argues in his essay is the Bible has problem passages that need to be addressed. SUch problems exist due to conflicts with science, geography, archeology, language, contradictory texts, etc. Such problems can be solved; however, literary concerns need to take part in solving these problems. For Vanhoozer, the Bible is inerrant when it is affirming something. His literary analysis allows him to get around textual interpretive problems by citing literary concerns. For instance, the question concerning the historicity of the fall of Jericho can be answered through literary issues. "The prior question for a well-versed approach to inerrancy must rather be, what is the author of Joshua saying/doing with his words? Specifically, is the main thrust of Joshua to give the kind of factual reporting that Americans have come to expect of newspapers such as the New York Times? We might expect this, but if we do, it says more about us than about the biblical authors, who could hardly be considered journalists. Rather what we have in Joshua is historical testimony, presented in an artful narrative way (that is, as a story-shaped history) and intended to highlight certain theological themes, all for the purpose of shaping the identity of the believing community and encouraging them (us!) to walk faithfully before God." (226) So then Vanhoozer refuses to answer the question of whether the Jericho account was historical or not, saying that the point of the text, "what the text affirms--is that God has indeed made good on his promise to give Israel the land and that the people on their part must respond to God's faithfulness in like manner." He does give the reader of the text the ability to affirm the historicity of the text, stating that "it does not follow, however, that the accounts in Joshua are myths, or even legends. On the contrary, Joshua 6 is artful narrative testimony to an event that happened in Israel's past, an event that reveals both who God is (faithful to his promise) and who Israel is to be in response (obedient to the covenant). Readers, especially those who believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, are within their epistemic rights to trust this testimony until shown otherwise." (228) So Vanhoozer believes that a reader of Scripture has an epistemological right to believe in the historicity of the Joshua account until which time external evidence (to the biblical account) shows otherwise. 

Enns is bad. We know Enns is bad. Vanhoozer's statement is closet liberalism - one that can separate historical event from religious explanation. It is a hermeneutic that is searching for the "deeper religious truths of the text" (to paraphrase Von Rad) rather than to have the history and theology run hand-in-hand. 

josh p's picture

Thank you CAWatson. I never really understood his position and haven’t read him yet. Pretty scary stuff all right. 

josh p's picture

Thanks for posting this one too Tyler. It seems to me that fundamentalists who historically were the strongest on these issues don’t have much to say (with notable exceptions of course). I imagine schools like Central, DBTS, BJU, VBTS, Maranatha, cover it in their courses but I wish they were writing more about it. 

G. N. Barkman's picture

This is a basic doctrinal issue.  It should generate far more concern than music styles.

G. N. Barkman

Larry Nelson's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:

This is a basic doctrinal issue.  It should generate far more concern than music styles.

Being a true fundamental of the faith, I'd argue that SI members are vitally concerned about it.  The difference between inerrancy and music styles is that in regards to inerrancy there is no disagreement (I trust) among SI members.  Music styles, being a non-fundamental, a disputable matter, and an ongoing hot-button issue in fundamentalism to boot, is virtually guaranteed to generate much discussion.

If SI perchance had theological liberals among its members who were arguing against inerrancy, I'm positive there would be a heated discussion, one that would make our intramural debates about music styles wither in comparison.

Bruce Rettig's picture

 Its message clearly reflects the cultural settings of the authors, yet it still comforts and convicts across cultures and across time.

Does Enns believe that the Bible has a message? If so, how can we know what it the message is (even with a reader-response hermeneutic) if we don't know what is true?

Bruce

O taste and see that the Lord is good:

Blessed is the man that trusteth in him. 

Psalm 34:8

TylerR's picture

Editor

The logical corollary of inerrancy is inspiration. Do we believe the Scriptures are a product of God, mediated infallibly and accurately through men? What did Jesus think? What did the Apostles think? Consider that Peter said the David wrote Psalm 2 through the Spirit (Acts 4:25)! Consider, also, that Jesus chastised the Sadducees for not reading what God had said to them in the book of Exodus (Mt 22:31).

Millard Erickson's discussion on inerrancy, and the various theories about the concursus (or, as some believe, lack thereof) between men and God in the writing of the texts is excellent and fair. If you believe God gave us the Scriptures, then you'll believe they're completely truthful in everything they say and intend to communicate. These doctrines go together. The authors of Scripture presuppose all this; you see it in their writings.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Ed Vasicek's picture

JNoel wrote:

Enns perspective is interesting, and I wonder if he is trying to find his position in that place where scriptural ambiguities exist. We all know them - many are discussed right here, on SI. We all want to believe our answer is the right one or the best one. We also want stand on inerrancy - yet inerrancy and ambiguity are difficult to resolve, especially when the ambiguities are in passages that appear contradictory, even after study/research.

JNoel, your comments are appreciated.  It would be nice to allow for an occasional errancy (apart from manuscript differences) to simply dismiss seemingly contradictory statements or ambiguities.   I don't know if this problem is as freely admitted as it should be.

I call one process "quarantining" verses (not developing them as doctrine, like the "baptism for the dead," for example), where, if we have one obscure verse here or there, we set it aside until we gain some further insight (sometimes we do gain that insight, sometimes we don't).  It is frustrating at times. Perhaps that is why Christianity turned from a religion of the Book to a religion of the church, and the church (leaders) became the authority over and above the book.  The substitution of very errant church leaders for an inerrant but sometimes perplexing book contributed to the abuses of the Medieval Church.  If the book is not the final Word, what is? If it CONTAINS the final Word, what is the objective criteria to ferret out the authoritative from the errant?

I think we all agree that the clear teachings of Scripture are indeed the most important, but  lack of clarity (in our perspective) is our fault, not the Scriptures -- if you believe in perspicuity, that is.  From our perspective, many verses are either obscure, while others are seemingly contradictory. Fortunately, once we consult some good resources, we can see how many seemingly contradictory verses are complimentary rather than contradictory; these experiences make it more believable that other seemingly contradictory or obscure verses have solutions, even if we cannot find them.  Until we find solutions, I think the best approach is the quarantine/keep in the back of the mind approach.

We don't know what we don't know.

When it comes to holding others accountable to the clear teachings of Scripture, we have settled on certain doctrines, like the fundamentals.  This highlights another important point: there is no escape from the judgment call.  IMO, inerrancy is rightly one of those fundamentals and truly foundational.

"The Midrash Detective"

JNoël's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

I call one process "quarantining" verses...

...Until we find solutions, I think the best approach is the quarantine/keep in the back of the mind approach.

...We don't know what we don't know.

When it comes to holding others accountable to the clear teachings of Scripture, we have settled on certain doctrines, like the fundamentals.  This highlights another important point: there is no escape from the judgment call.  IMO, inerrancy is rightly one of those fundamentals and truly foundational.

Perhaps a better verb would be "mothball" as I'm not sure quarantining scripture is ever necessary. Smile

But I agree with you, and you have demonstrated why we should all be gracious towards others with whom we disagree on points worth tabling. Every word is inspired, and the Bible is profitable, yet no one really knows what "selah" means. But it's part of the inspired canon, so we leave it in there - and rightfully so. I firmly believe in inerrancy, and that our fallible minds are the reason why there are areas requiring tabling.

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

CAWatson's picture

Bruce Rettig wrote:

Does Enns believe that the Bible has a message? If so, how can we know what it the message is (even with a reader-response hermeneutic) if we don't know what is true?

A message? No. Messages (and sometimes contradictory messages)? Yes. He seems to side with Brueggemann's theology of testimony, dispute, and advocacy. 

ScottS's picture

Enns says:

The premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce, or the only effective means of divine communication, strikes me as assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations

From that quote, Enns appears to misunderstand the nature of God and/or truth ("let God be true, but every man a liar," Rom 3:4; Jn 3:33), as indeed truth is the only kind of book God "would be able to produce."

But also he misunderstands the position of inerrancy. It is not about "scientific precision," and can indeed include truth from a phenomenal perspective (e.g. from the perspective of one here on earth, that "the sun rises" [2 Sam 23:4, Ps 104:22, Nah 3:17] is a truthful phenomenon that occurs, even if scientifically one may understand that the earth is rotating three dimensionally in space and the sun is not actually "rising" as it appears). So it is not an either/or situation. Something can be true from differing perspectives, and still be absolute truth (not watered down to merely relative truth) in both cases, because God can affirm something is true from either perspective (or declare the statement false based on perspective). In a Christian perspective, absolute truth is defined by whether God can affirm a statement as true or not.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

CAWatson's picture

ScottS wrote:

Enns says:

The premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce, or the only effective means of divine communication, strikes me as assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations

From that quote, Enns appears to misunderstand the nature of God and/or truth ("let God be true, but every man a liar," Rom 3:4; Jn 3:33), as indeed truth is the only kind of book God "would be able to produce."

But also he misunderstands the position of inerrancy. It is not about "scientific precision," and can indeed include truth from a phenomenal perspective (e.g. from the perspective of one here on earth, that "the sun rises" [2 Sam 23:4, Ps 104:22, Nah 3:17] is a truthful phenomenon that occurs, even if scientifically one may understand that the earth is rotating three dimensionally in space and the sun is not actually "rising" as it appears). So it is not an either/or situation. Something can be true from differing perspectives, and still be absolute truth (not watered down to merely relative truth) in both cases, because God can affirm something is true from either perspective (or declare the statement false based on perspective). In a Christian perspective, absolute truth is defined by whether God can affirm a statement as true or not.

I don't disagree with your theological statements here. However, I don't think that you have fairly represented Enns. Enns believes in God, and believes that God has spoken to people in a way that they understand. As Christ is both human and divine, Scripture is human and divine - and it is much more human than we actually understand it. So the Bible was written as God influenced man by errant and sinful men who wrote from their perspective - from their point of view. Hence, the Canaanite genocide is an evil, not a good - and was written by sinful men who desired to cleanse the land - it doesn't match with the ethic of Jesus. So the Bible is true in that it is a confusing reflection of both God and sinful humanity - all bundled up together. 

And I also do not think that you have represented his understanding of inerrancy fairly. Of course there is phenomenological language used throughout the Bible - Enns would agree with that. But he would disagree that the Bible actually says anything that can be solved and demonstrated scientifically. He mocks creation science. He doesn't appreciate the apologetic work done in OT studies by Gleason Archer, as well as some of his predecessors at Westminster (before he was fired). There IS a scientific element to inerrancy - that what the Bible says propositionally, even in areas that we would call "science" is true. 

Note: I do not personally agree with Enns as I have attempted to understand him. I am simply trying to be fair to Enns and his beliefs. 

JNoël's picture

CAWatson wrote:

So the Bible was written as God influenced man by errant and sinful men who wrote from their perspective - from their point of view. 

Perhaps before the subject of inerrancy can be tackled we need to first examine inspiration.

Did God only influence man, or did God breathe the very words themselves?

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Ed Vasicek's picture

CAWatson, summarizing Enns, wrote:

 Scripture is human and divine - and it is much more human than we actually understand it.

I think that this statement is very true and needs to be better understood by the masses. Our good scholars understand this, and so do many good pastors.  But some, claiming to believe in verbal, plenary inspiration actually believe in dictation.  As a matter of fact, I wonder if most laymen in our churches actually believe in dictation.

If you think about it, Scripture is very much like the Person of Jesus Christ.  Could Jesus sin?  Most of us would say, "No; even though His human nature could be tempted, His human nature is melded to His divine nature, and it is impossible for God to sin." In like manner, the human side of inspiration is quite capable of error, but since the Bible is BOTH the Word of God and Word of man -- parallel in this regard to the Hypostatic Union -- the divine aspect of inspiration would over ride the human propensity to err.

"The Midrash Detective"

TylerR's picture

Editor

Millard Erickson's discussion, in his systematic theology, of the various theories of inspiration is excellent. Anyone will benefit from reading it. To be honest, I've decided Millard Erickson has perhaps the most useful systematic out there. I appreciate it more and more as the years go by, and I'm glad Maranatha Seminary used it as the primary systematic theology text.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

CAWatson's picture

JNoël wrote:

Perhaps before the subject of inerrancy can be tackled we need to first examine inspiration.

Did God only influence man, or did God breathe the very words themselves?

If you want to understand Enns on inspiration (although he wrote this book while at Westminster, and thus purposefully hid his views on inerrancy at the time), you should carefully read his book, Inspiration and Incarnation

https://www.amazon.com/Inspiration-Incarnation-Evangelicals-Problem-Test...

CAWatson's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:

CAWatson, summarizing Enns, wrote:

 Scripture is human and divine - and it is much more human than we actually understand it.

I think that this statement is very true and needs to be better understood by the masses. Our good scholars understand this, and so do many good pastors.  But some, claiming to believe in verbal, plenary inspiration actually believe in dictation.  As a matter of fact, I wonder if most laymen in our churches actually believe in dictation.

If you think about it, Scripture is very much like the Person of Jesus Christ.  Could Jesus sin?  Most of us would say, "No; even though His human nature could be tempted, His human nature is melded to His divine nature, and it is impossible for God to sin." In like manner, the human side of inspiration is quite capable of error, but since the Bible is BOTH the Word of God and Word of man -- parallel in this regard to the Hypostatic Union -- the divine aspect of inspiration would over ride the human propensity to err.

I would agree with what you have said here concerning the incarnational nature of Scripture in parallel to the Hypostatic Union. Enns wouldn't. 

ScottS's picture

I appreciate your "trying to be fair to Enns and his beliefs," but I think you may have misunderstood my statements.

CAWatson wrote:

I don't think that you have fairly represented Enns. Enns believes in God, and believes that God has spoken to people in a way that they understand.

I never proposed that Enns doesn't believe in God, I said he "misunderstood the nature of God." I stated that in response to his statement that challenged those who hold to inerrancy as being wrong about the "premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce." Enns is saying by implication that the truthful God could produce a book that is not true, since truth is inerrant.

So I was not addressing Enns's belief in God, but a belief he apparently has about God--that God can produce a false book.

Regarding the next point about Enns:

And I also do not think that you have represented his understanding of inerrancy fairly. Of course there is phenomenological language used throughout the Bible - Enns would agree with that. But he would disagree that the Bible actually says anything that can be solved and demonstrated scientifically. He mocks creation science. He doesn't appreciate the apologetic work done in OT studies by Gleason Archer, as well as some of his predecessors at Westminster (before he was fired). There IS a scientific element to inerrancy - that what the Bible says propositionally, even in areas that we would call "science" is true. 

It was Enns who was charging those who hold to inerrancy as "assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations." I was responding to the fact that he misrepresents at least some inerrancy positions that do not exclusively hold that "God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision," but that phenomenal language can reflect truth. To me, he was falsely charging inerrantists with being only about scientific precision in the Bible's language. So I was playing off his call to observe Scripture ("the phenomena of Scripture") by pointing out that inerrancy is not only about scientific precision in language, but observational language as well.

So I was not really addressing Enns's view of inerrancy directly in my statement, but rather his characterization of the inerrancy position.

I hope that clarifies what I was trying to say. I have not read much of Enns, so I'm only basing those observations on that one quoted section from the above work.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

Greg Long's picture

CAWatson wrote:

 

ScottS wrote:

 

Enns says:

The premise that such an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book God would be able to produce, or the only effective means of divine communication, strikes me as assuming that God shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision, rather than allowing the phenomena of Scripture to shape our theological expectations

From that quote, Enns appears to misunderstand the nature of God and/or truth ("let God be true, but every man a liar," Rom 3:4; Jn 3:33), as indeed truth is the only kind of book God "would be able to produce."

But also he misunderstands the position of inerrancy. It is not about "scientific precision," and can indeed include truth from a phenomenal perspective (e.g. from the perspective of one here on earth, that "the sun rises" [2 Sam 23:4, Ps 104:22, Nah 3:17] is a truthful phenomenon that occurs, even if scientifically one may understand that the earth is rotating three dimensionally in space and the sun is not actually "rising" as it appears). So it is not an either/or situation. Something can be true from differing perspectives, and still be absolute truth (not watered down to merely relative truth) in both cases, because God can affirm something is true from either perspective (or declare the statement false based on perspective). In a Christian perspective, absolute truth is defined by whether God can affirm a statement as true or not.

 

 

I don't disagree with your theological statements here. However, I don't think that you have fairly represented Enns. Enns believes in God, and believes that God has spoken to people in a way that they understand. As Christ is both human and divine, Scripture is human and divine - and it is much more human than we actually understand it. So the Bible was written as God influenced man by errant and sinful men who wrote from their perspective - from their point of view. Hence, the Canaanite genocide is an evil, not a good - and was written by sinful men who desired to cleanse the land - it doesn't match with the ethic of Jesus. So the Bible is true in that it is a confusing reflection of both God and sinful humanity - all bundled up together. 

And I also do not think that you have represented his understanding of inerrancy fairly. Of course there is phenomenological language used throughout the Bible - Enns would agree with that. But he would disagree that the Bible actually says anything that can be solved and demonstrated scientifically. He mocks creation science. He doesn't appreciate the apologetic work done in OT studies by Gleason Archer, as well as some of his predecessors at Westminster (before he was fired). There IS a scientific element to inerrancy - that what the Bible says propositionally, even in areas that we would call "science" is true. 

Note: I do not personally agree with Enns as I have attempted to understand him. I am simply trying to be fair to Enns and his beliefs. 

To understand Enns' view of Scripture on a popular level, just read The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read it. It is a snarky attack on the Bible from beginning to end.

Oh, and Andy Stanley tweeted "thanks" to Enns referencing the book when it was published, and had Enns speak to his staff. When you read this book you understand what Stanley is doing and where he is going, although he is careful not to say everything Enns says (and in the way he says it) in order to walk that evangelical line.

-------
Greg Long, Ed.D. (SBTS)

Pastor of Adult Ministries
Grace Church, Des Moines, IA

Adjunct Instructor
School of Divinity
Liberty University

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