The occasion of writing finds both the larger evangelical world, both in para-churches and churches, amidst a “battle for the Bible.” In still recovering from the blitzkrieg of both Protestant liberalism and conservative fundamentalism, younger evangelicals today are faced with a myriad of viewpoints regarding the doctrine of Scripture. Most conservative evangelicals are comfortable with “inerrancy” as summarized by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Others have been persuaded by more Barthian and neo-Barthian/Orthodox perspectives which embrace the “confessional language” of infallibility instead of the so-called overstated inerrancy position. Many other professing evangelical scholars such as Peter Enns and A.T.B. McGowan have caught the attention of younger Christians. Yet, the scholarly debate usually is superseded by trends and fashions in the church such as the emerging, emergent, confessional, missional movements which abound. These all have been somewhat influenced by our socio-political context as we embark on a post-religious right American journey.
My concern is with younger evangelical Christians who are wrestling with the doctrine of Scripture as to relates to the larger debate of modernism/postmodernism. Younger evangelicals believe the testimony that inerrancy is a product of the Enlightenment as Christians attempted to combat the higher critical scholarship coming out of Germany. We have inherited this doctrine of Scripture only to recently discover that there is a “third way” between fundamentalist inerrancy and non-inspirationist liberalism. This third way is a postmodern way which doesn’t need to “test the Bible” but to “accept it by faith” as God’s Word in spite of the fact that modern-rationalistic notions of error and contradiction pervade the text. But does a denial of inerrancy in favor of an alternate view of inspiration actually avoid the problem of modernity? Is it possible that inerrancy actually avoids the modern problem while more contemporary solutions offered by Enns and others succumb to modernity? This deserves attention.
As we examine to see what doctrine of Scripture younger evangelicals may accept, the fear of the modern narrative is present. To have a doctrine of Scripture, nonetheless a systematic theology, which finds its origins and/or major developments during the modern period screams of undue rationalism and the pride of self-knowledge. What George Marsden terms “the absolutization of the human self” lurks in the trenches.
Thus, testing the Christian faith by these mega-standards of evidentialism and verificationism is to be rejected as the fruit of a classical foundationalism has been found waning. And since inerrancy, it is thought, received its conceptual origin (or at least essential development) during the modern period in seeking to make Scripture acceptable to Enlightenment-based standards of reasoning, such a doctrine lacks the vitality and paradox that younger evangelicals crave.
But is inerrancy a pet of modern theological conservatism? Are other inspirationist views more postmodern in but also escape the snares of Protestant liberalism? Interestingly, the initial thoughts most evangelicals have may need further evaluation.
In looking at the doctrine of inerrancy, the essential claim is that the Bible is “without error” in the original autographa. Meaning, the very words (not bound to the physical manuscripts) that God originally inspired for the authors of Scripture to write bears God’s attribute of truth (John 14:6; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 6:18). A sound conclusion that many scholars have come to is that inerrancy is a doctrine which finds nearly universal support in the early church and throughout the middle ages. In other words, there is no reason to doubt that major Christian leaders, theologians, and pastors up until the Enlightenment actually questioned the plenary truthfulness of God’s Word. In fact, the Enlightenment sought to disestablish the near universally held, common faith in plenary inspiration and infallibility.
The term “inerrancy” came to be used in the rebuttals of conservative theologians, and in the twentieth century the term gained large notoriety in the debate with Barthian/Neo-Orthodox “infallibilists” who claimed a more subjectivist view of Scripture in claiming that the Bible “becomes” God’s Word in the specific event of reading it, so that it testifies of Christ. Contemporary theologians have spring boarded off of Barth in some fashion or another so as to maintain “error” in some fashion in the Bible but still claim it as inspired so as to avoid the perceived pitfall of either fundamentalism or liberalism, which are viewed as post-Enlightenment religious clearance.
The irony in this is that proponents of inerrancy actually reject the higher-critical conclusions and methodologies of secular thought, and their justification is the polar opposite of the rationalist-irrationalist dialectic. Opponents of inerrancy admit error and falsity to be present in the original penning and words of Scripture, but such a claim still is able to allow Christians to garner infallible truth and personal experience with the Savior of whom the Scriptures testify, though much debate lingers as to which parts of Scripture are worthy of igniting the subjectivist launch into God’s mystical revelation of Christ.
Inerrancy avoids this dialectic that low-inspirationist and ‘infallibilist’ viewpoints seemingly cannot avoid. Instead, inerrancy seems to settle into the category of “paradox.” Post-Enlightenment thought puts forth apparent contradictions in Scripture, casting doubt on the plenary truth hood of God’s Word. Yet, the inerrantist maintains that this does not make God the liar, but autonomous men are the liars (Romans 3:4). God has somehow preserved his entire Word in truth even though he operated with the fallible thoughts and hearts of men to pen his Word (what has historically been termed ‘dual authorship’). This is a great mystery which runs counter to modern thought.
It would be fitting, then, for younger evangelicals to embrace an authority which does not find its dependence in the mind of modern man (the absolutization of the human self). Rather, the perfect, truthful, fully inspired Word of the living God which is the source of our encounter with this God (2 Peter 1:3-4) should be embraced. The veracity and existential nature of Scripture is upheld by the beautiful, paradoxical doctrine of inerrancy, and we are given a more sure basic to freely offer the gospel to all creatures of our God and King!