Thoughtful Pastor: Inerrancy and relativism

April 22nd, 2016

Dear Thoughtful Pastor:

In 1978, around 300 evangelical leaders assembled to write and adopt the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I believe this gathering in defense of biblical inerrancy represented one of the most significant theological councils in modern times. But unlike the Council of Nicea (A.D. 325), only the like-minded gathered, so the outcome was a rather predictable defense against the trend toward liberalism and higher biblical criticism.

As I understand the defense of biblical inerrancy, it goes like this: God is Truth. The Bible was written by men who were inspired by God. Thus the Bible is God’s written Truth. And like God, the Bible is infallible and authoritative. They included the caveat that this only applies to the original manuscripts, which, by the way, no longer exist. But, there are thoughtful scholars on the other side of the debate who use historical critical methodology of interpretation and who find unsubstantiated claims and outright errors.

Apparently, it is really important to evangelicals that biblical authority be safeguarded with precious little nuance. Justification for slavery, oppression of women and basis for racism aside, it seems that taking a view of infallibility of the Bible, particularly by the least gracious examples of the far right fringe, is really dangerous. Frankly, some in that camp who are concerned about the possibility of Sharia Law [rigidly applied Islamic religious control] would gladly impose Evangelical Law.

So here is my question:

How important is biblical inerrancy to matters of the Christian faith and the life of Christian discipleship? If we don’t take the Bible literally, are we destined for relativism — any opinion goes? If we do, do we become frozen in the 2nd century?

Thank you for your thoughtful consideration of my question.

When holding to the inerrant stance, it does indeed become the centerpiece of faith. Any possibility that the Bible contains error and is not totally trustworthy in all it says threatens the foundations upon which the faith structure builds. It’s a powerful and important glue.

Also, the inerrantist is not necessary a literalist in the sense that he/she does not recognize that some of the Bible uses various language conventions to convey larger truths.

Christy Thomas

The inerrant world offers good boundaries with clear answers offered by biblical authorities. For the inerrantists there exists only one proper interpretation for any given section or verse of Scripture. As a rule, that single interpretation is decided upon by a group of older, white males, although there are exceptions.

Much safety can be found there. However, many inerrantists, although not all, hold to a new earth creation theory, i.e., the earth — and the universe — is only a few thousand years old, and was created in seven 24-hour days. That group does seem to be stuck in a prescientific world. An important question: “What is meant when declaring the Scriptures as without error?”

For example, Matthew 4 shows a different order of the temptations of Jesus than recorded in Luke 4. In Acts, there are two stories of Paul’s conversion. In Acts 9, the people around him heard a voice but saw no one. In Acts 22, when Paul retells the story, the people saw the light but heard nothing. So which of these two stories, Jesus’s temptation and Paul’s conversion, are the inerrant ones?

These questions lead many Christians to prefer inspired as a better description of the Bible. It is helpful to keep in mind that the term inerrant would not have been recognized by the early writers of Scripture. It emerged in the 17th century by some Protestant groups, but is not part of the longer heritage of understanding the Bible as God-breathed, which is the basic meaning of “inspired.”

This viewpoint gives room for more nuanced views of biblical texts. Those texts were written by people living in cultures radically different from ours and in ancient languages not always perfectly understood or easily translated.

Scholars use various interpretative lenses in their studies. They do not assume the Bible was written with the 21st century modern or postmodern cultures in mind. People from different ethnicities and women are more welcome to the table of interpretation. There is more tolerance for varied answers.

But this does not mean “anything goes.” So the word relativist may not be the best description of the alternative to the inerrantist. Instead there is a belief that God speaks through the gathered community in the reading and studying of the ancient texts. Basing life on the principles of loving God, loving others and treating others the way we ourselves want to be treated lead to a sound ethical and moral base as a foundation to life. People may differ in the details, but the overall structure has good solidity. Both systems can and do offer solid paths to discipleship and Christian living. Sadly, those from one system often don’t want to recognize the legitimacy of the other.


Email questions to thoughtfulpastor@gmail.com. A version of this column will appear in the Friday April 22, 2016 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle. Christy blogs at ChristyThomas.com

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