Losing inerrancy

Jul 19, 2019 by

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When I was 17 years old, almost exactly 47 years ago, I made a decision to become a Christian. At the time, my motivation was that I wanted to know the truth. As a thoughtful, idealistic adolescent, I thought about truth a lot. I didn’t have many people to discuss this with, hardly any actually. But I was thinking and thinking.

I was ready to make a move, though, and I did get an explanation from one close friend that I found persuasive. So I took the step of asking Jesus to be my savior. I truly meant it, and my life did change — mainly, I’d say now, in terms of consciously thinking of myself as a Christian and getting involved in a local church and trying to follow the guidance I was then given in that church. I also began to pray and to read the Bible.

As I think about it now, I find it helpful to separate two basic ways of entering Christianity with a desire to “know the truth.” There may be others, perhaps many, but these are the two that come to mind now.

The first, is that Christianity offers a truthful explanation for the meaning of life that one accepts as authoritative. The Christian’s task is to grow in acceptance of that explanation, that authoritative teaching of what is true. This approach offers a sense of certainty and security along with the comfort of knowing that one is on God’s side and will spend eternity with God. The Bible works as a repository of facts, definitive commands, direct guidance, the way God speaks to human beings — a detailed blueprint that offers absolutes that are over against other truth claims.

The second way is to think of the truthfulness of Christianity as a prod to the imagination, a kind of lens for looking at life in the most perceptive way possible. In this approach, Christianity offers a story that helps connect with other stories. The Bible is perceived to be a master story that helps uncover truths told in other stories.

Without realizing it at the time, I was looking for truthfulness in the second sense, I was looking for a way to feed my imagination — and I found myself in a community that presented Christianity as being truthful in the first sense. I’d say now that I experienced enough of the kind of truthfulness that I was looking for to keep my faith alive. However, my first four years or so as a Christian were pretty uninteresting, even stilted. These years included my senior year in high school and my first three years in college. I have a hard time remembering ever being excited about anything intellectual. I feel like I was kind of in a daze during that time, more or less sleepwalking through my classes and reading light stuff just for fun in my spare time. As I think of my experience of the Bible, it illustrates what my overall Christian experience was like.

Gaining inerrancy

Part of what I was taught when I first entered Christianity as a new convert was that the Bible is our central authority. The Bible is error-free (inerrant) and completely to be trusted. As I now realize, I was taught in effect that what matters most about the Bible is our doctrine of its perfection, more than its actual content. Certainly, biblical content was emphasized, but mainly as individual verses that give us direct rules for living and through which God speaks personally to us, not as a collection of stories to be in conversation with. I struggled to put in the time to memorize verses and to find the right directives. And I always felt guilty about the lack of effort I put into that work. The Bible just wasn’t interesting to me in that form.

I did accept the doctrine of inerrancy. I knew nothing of any debates among Christians about how best to read and apply the Bible. I knew that “liberal” Christians weren’t really true Christians, partly because they didn’t believe in the Bible. But I didn’t know anything about their actual views.

I realize now that I was being indoctrinated into a kind of “house of authority” where it wasn’t just an inerrant Bible, it was also an authoritative tradition of how to read the Bible, and a community of faith that centered on authoritative teachers and leaders who explained what the Bible means. In actuality, the Bible’s truthfulness needed these other authorities to be actualized — even though everyone acted as if they were simply following the Bible. That was how human doctrines and traditions and community standards could be seen not as human interpretations but as “biblical truths” — meaning that they were not up for discussion and that to disagree with them was simply an act of rebellion.

Happily for the development of my faith, when I went to college I joined a somewhat different kind of church. Initially, it was not the less authoritarian approach to faith that attracted me. This new church was still quite conservative. But it was a friendly place where a good friend attended and seemed “safe” theologically (and also had a very favorable female to male ratio of members . . . ).

Crucially, for me, this church was missing key elements of the house of authority. It was an independent fellowship made up of college students and other young adults from several different traditions. There was not a close link to any particular tradition and the leadership was mostly collaborative and non-authoritarian. So, there was quite a bit of psychic freedom even if most people’s theology was pretty standard conservative evangelical.

It is interesting in retrospect to think about how important for my intellectual development the thought of Francis Schaeffer was. As it turns out, Schaeffer was a strong advocate of a rigid doctrine of biblical inerrancy and later became a partisan in major conflicts among evangelical Christians on this issue. But that was not the important message I got from Schaeffer. Rather, I got something that pointed me in a very different direction. Schaeffer, unlike the Christians I had been mentored by, celebrated the intellectual life. He insisted that doubt is not a bad thing and that we should openly embrace a questioning stance toward the world around us. We can seek the truth in all areas without fear, because all truth is God’s truth.

Of course, Schaeffer himself remained hostile toward any theology that he saw as “liberal.” But he pushed me in a direction that soon led me to escape the confines of conservative evangelical theology and its insistence on biblical inerrancy. All I needed was his push to start thinking more openly about my faith and to see how it connected with the world around me.

Shortly after Schaeffer, the next big step in my faith development came when I embraced Christian pacifism — stimulated by a several-year process of soul searching concerning participation (or not) in the Vietnam War. Though that war wound down before I was faced with the actual choice of whether to accept being drafted or not, my thinking while facing that possibility remained active for me. At a certain point, I did find clarity and realized that I could not participate in war. I was helped by some writing by Schaeffer’s close colleague Os Guinness (Guinness was not himself a pacifist, but drawing on Jacques Ellul he had a good critique of revolutionary violence). Before long, I discovered Mennonite peace theology, especially the writings of Millard Lind, Norman Kraus and John Howard Yoder. They helped me read the Bible as a peace book, but initially I did not question my commitment to inerrancy.

Losing inerrancy

Ironically given Schaeffer’s commitment to inerrancy, the movement in my thinking that followed my encounter with his ideas prepared me to read critically the bestselling polemical case in favor of inerrancy by Harold Lindsell called The Battle for the Bible. After all, we should embrace our questions and demand truthful answers. It has been more than 40 years since I read that book, so I don’t remember the details. But I do remember the impact the book had on me.

Lindsell was a prominent American evangelical leader, and he wrote his book to raise the alarm about the problem of evangelicals accepting a weakened view of biblical authority. When I started the book, I was assuming I would agree with Lindsell. When I finished, I realized that I did not. I was offended by his sharp, and often unfair, criticisms of people that I respected. Even more, when faced with his actual rationale for the inerrancy position, I realized that it was a deeply flawed argument.

The one example I remember is how, in arguing that the gospels all agree with each other, Lindsell proposed that the rooster that crowed when Peter denied he knew Jesus after Jesus’s arrest actually crowed five times — even though the different stories all say that it crowed just one time or two times. Lindsell’s point was that the only way to believe that each mention of the crowing in the different gospels was totally accurate was to conclude that each mention referred to a different crowing. That struck me as an unbelievable, and unnecessary, argument. Why couldn’t we simply accept that the precise details weren’t, and didn’t need to be, accurate?

Several of my close friends were on a similar path in their theological journeys, both in terms of affirming pacifism and of seeing major problems with the doctrine of inerrancy. So, for the next several years we read and talked about these issues. I was also able to take a summer school class from a prominent evangelical theologian, Clark Pinnock, who was working through his own departure from the strict, conservative doctrine of scripture.

As it turned out, the deconstruction of my belief about inerrancy was relatively painless and led to a greater appreciation of the message of the Bible. Whereas, during my fundamentalist years I had struggled to find the Bible interesting and relevant, after losing inerrancy and affirming pacifism, I started to love reading and studying the Bible.

I spent an eventful school year (1980-1) at what was then called Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries in Elkhart, Ind. Several classes taught by Millard Lind (Old Testament), Willard Swartley (New Testament), Gertrude Roten (New Testament) and John Howard Yoder (Peace Theology) were of enormous value in helping me to reconstruct a much more vital and truthful understanding of the Bible — one that centered on the stories and broad teachings in the Bible and decentered doctrine about the Bible as the key issue.

I was not taught that the Bible is “errant.” Rather, I was taught that “inerrancy” vs. “errancy” is not a helpful question. We should recognize the Bible for what it is — an ancient collection of a wide variety of writings, written by human beings for edification and for guidance to faithful living. Our interest in the Bible is not about looking for an absolute, never erring blueprint that tells us exactly what to do and think. Rather, our interest in the Bible is about looking for help in our own faithfulness. It’s a great, human, humane, historically conditioned collection that has time after time provided such help.

In the years that followed, through a ten-year stretch of pastoral ministry where I preached most Sundays (more than 300 times working through much of the Bible), my several years completing a PhD in Christian Ethics (which involved a major focus on reading the Bible as a resource for ethics), and 20 years as a college theology professor (including every year teaching “Biblical Theology of Peace Justice”), I became ever more interested in the Bible and ever more convinced of its value as a flawed but powerful guide for embracing the sacredness of life.

What is the Bible for?

What matters most about the Bible, I have come to believe, is its witness to Jesus’s command to love God and neighbor. The Bible witnesses to this call by telling a story — a bunch of stories, of course, but stories that fit together (loosely!) in pointing to one great story. This one great story tells of God’s love that created us all with the freedom to resist that love, that remains committed when we do resist, and that continues to persuade us to trust in that love and find healing.

The Bible tells about the challenges of living here and now, in history, with genuine human sorrows and joys, failures and successes, struggles and moments of peace. The Bible has become for me a source of encouragement but also something to be questioned and argued with. Something truly human in the best sense of that term. A source for genuine conversation.

The Bible is truthful, then, in the second sense that I discussed in my opening to this post. It is a source that opens us up to other truths, that helps us find points of connections with other stories that also point to the sacredness of life and healing amidst brokenness. The Bible matters because of how it helps us interpret God’s self-disclosures that come to us in all of life. We understand the big story of the Bible, and the various little stories, as helping us discern how God communicates, what God communicates and why God communicates.

Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. He blogs at Thinking Pacifism, where this post first appeared.


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