Biblical Inerrancy and the Greener Pastures Fallacy
There has been quite a lot of discussion in recent years about evangelical scholarship in the Old Testament and the validity of the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy. As I watch from my perch in an evangelical and Reformed seminary, I have a few preliminary thoughts on some of the issues that seem to keep coming up.
1. Tradition should be applied into a present community. I wholeheartedly support the idea that each new generation should confirm the doctrine of Scripture and its authority in the Christian life. Yes, we stand on the shoulders of giants like Augustine, Calvin, Hodge, Bavinck, and Warfield, but at the same time our young pastors and scholars need to be personally impressed with the central role of Scripture as God's unique revelation in this world and that impression needs to be based on both tradition and rigorous personal study. So it is important for us to engage with the challenges to scriptural authority that arise and to revisit and renew our own views of how these challenges relate to the Christian life. It is not enough just to lay hold of tradition, but rather we ought to desire a living faith that is rooted in and blossoms from tradition but is applied in the present life.
2. Epistemology is a fickle subject. We should point out that there is no epistemologically unmarked or merely common sense view of God's authority in the Scriptures. It is not as if the inerrantist scholarship is completely fideistic and irrational, while the modern critical scholarship is completely rational and based on discernible evidence. To hold such a view is both naive and possibly quaint and appears to be ignorant of the discussions of the mid-20th century on the issues of epistemology and faith.
Yes, saying that the Nephilim descended from aliens displays a radically untenable position, but so does saying that all that humans can know is that which is scientifically observed. Between these two poles, however, we find a rich range of competing faith claims about life, the universe, and meaning. Appealing to human authority doesn’t get one very far either.
In other words, some scholars seem ignorant of the best aspects of their own recent tradition, and they end up making this a debate between faith and reason, a distinction which is incredibly reductionistic and quite frankly counterproductive.
3. The Bible can be an offensive text. To claim that one merely wants to take the Bible as it is and not as one wants it to be appears, at first blush, to be an attractive proposition. But, if one then goes on to reject whole sections of Scripture as being offensive and historically unreliable, we might wonder how exactly the Bible is being taken on its own terms at all. Rather it seems that the Scriptures are being treated as a cafeteria line where one might pick and choose what one finds acceptable and reject whatever one finds repulsive. Of course, many human interpreters have been tempted to read the Bible like a holy “choose-your-own-adventure” novel, which is why no one reads the prophetic books (*Old Testament professor facepalm*) and why we should never forget the fact of our own selectivity.
4. Simplicity can be elusive. If one wishes to argue that evangelicals are doing a kind of rational gymnastics by applying complicated explanations in defense of scriptural authority, one must be prepared to offer a more simple and reasonable answer to the problems they are addressing. Many modern critical approaches, however, offer no such thing; rather they provide what are often much more complicated theories explaining the compositional history of the Scriptures. This is not to say that such subjects are not compelling lines of inquiry, but we do our audience a disservice if we pretend to offer a simpler model for understanding the Scriptures if only they reject biblical inerrancy. The history of critical thought has not been able to substantiate that claim. In fact modern-day critical theory regarding compositional history of the Scriptures is so complicated and unsettled that it has been jettisoned by many mainstream scholars in favor of a simpler canonical approach (an approach which opens up a whole new world of complex questions).
5. The Greener-Pastures Fallacy. Finally, we should be careful not to fall to the temptation of the greener pastures fallacy. This is the temptation to see your own family, your own tribe, in a hopelessly negative and suspicious light, while seeing those outside of your tribe as an ideal without fault. Self-loathing is the evil twin of repentance.
The evangelical community of the biblical interpreters has its faults, some of them quite embarrassing, as does any community subjected to the finitude and fallenness of the human race, but scholarly communities that reject the inerrancy of Scripture have a slew of new problems with which they must deal, problems which by no means leave their scholarship on more certain grounds. What is so often presented as the settled consensus of the scholarly community when attacking an evangelical interpretation becomes, at best, a hypothetical guess when discussed within an unguarded scholarly community. When the goal is not the belittling of a fundamentalist interpretation, one discovers welcome intellectual humility.
All of this is to say, I would encourage young evangelical pastors and scholars to engage and interact with this discussion about biblical inerrancy, but I would encourage them to read with a critical eye both of what the author is saying and what the author is not saying. Do they only voice concerns in one direction? Do they only care about the overreach of the evangelical interpreter and not the overreach of critical scholarship? Does their approach provide the grounds upon which they can claim that Jesus Christ is the only way, truth, life? This is not a “slippery slope” question, any more than any argument presupposes a slippery slope, but this is a substantial argument that gets at the deeply held claims of the believing community.
If the difficult passages of the Scriptures can be rejected out of hand as merely being offensive and/or unreliable, then how might we support and defend such claims the Scriptures make on our life regarding faith in Jesus Christ, the exclusivity of the gospel, and the final judgment?
If critical scholarship cannot account for such faith claims, then we ought to revisit the value of the approach when dealing with a text that contains “the words of life” (John 6:68) and is considered sacred by 2.18 billion Christians around the world.