“For My Inerrantist Friends: Why Appeals to Inerrancy are Totally Ineffective in Discussion”
One of the most refreshing Christian blogs ‘out there’ in the blogsphere is Jesus Without Baggage. I know the author will be reading this – hi Tim! – but it’s true. Tim writes with a perfect blend of incisiveness, perception and gentleness, without judging and without condemning even those whose ideas he has issue with.
Anyway, less of the hero-worship 😉
The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy claims that the Bible (at least in its original form, whatever that means) is completely without error or fault.
In this blog post, Tim writes on the problems with using inerrancy as a valid argument, and he raises an excellent set of points, which are well made and well explained. The article also dovetails nicely with his article on ‘Proof-Texting’, which I shared some months ago.
For My Inerrantist Friends: Why Appeals to Inerrancy are Totally Ineffective in Discussion
Frequently, I receive comments from those who disagree with me—and this is as it should be! I enjoy dialog with those who disagree with me because I never learn anything if I only talk with people who already agree!
However, it is often impossible to have real dialog with some inerrantists because their main arguments are based on inerrancy, and no response contrary to inerrancy is satisfactory to them. If we cannot discuss an issue without appealing to inerrancy then it is no discussion at all for those of us who do not accept inerrancy.
I, myself, used to be a committed inerrantist. But I no longer am so appeals to inerrancy have no persuasive value to me—at all. And it seems that inerrancy is the only argument some inerrantists have. I think the only place where appeal to inerrancy works well is when both discussion partners share the same presupposition of inerrancy.
Now, I do enjoy dialog with inerrantists, just as I do with anyone else, as long as they can argue from other points; but if they cannot defend their positions without appealing to (or assuming) inerrancy the discussion just can’t go forward. The issue at hand is no longer the stated topic but, instead, becomes inerrancy itself. Of course we can talk about inerrancy–but it is its own topic.
Unless we get beyond appeals (or assumptions) of inerrancy we cannot deal with the issue at hand, as I recently discussed in a previous article.
I’m not being stubborn, I am just saying that appeals to inerrancy are ineffective arguments to me. So argue from a different direction.
The Inadequacy of Proof-texting
Proof-texting forms a lot of the argument for inerrantists. I love discussing biblical passages, but simply presenting a biblical passage as an argument, as though it is sufficient proof within itself, gets us nowhere.
And sharing a biblical passage without comment is of little value. Do you think I haven’t already read that passage—usually times without number? Do you expect me to be surprised by it? If you are going to use a biblical passage for support, then explain what you think the passage means and how it is pertinent to the conversation—without reference to inerrancy. Otherwise the proof-text is just hanging out there taking up space.
Context is very important, and stand-alone phrases and verses lifted out and offered without context do damage to the context.
Even less useful is making a statement followed by chapter and verse references alone without including the text or indicating what it says. If a dialoger doesn’t provide the text, or a link to the text, then I am not likely to look it up.
Accusations Inerrantists make as Arguments against Progressive Believers
Progressive believers encounter a number of common accusations from inerrantists. These accusations often come when proof-texting doesn’t work but are sometimes used a first response.
1. A very common accusation is that progressive believers are cherry pickers—choosing what they like and neglecting what they don’t like. This is simply not true—not for me anyway. As I have questioned beliefs I had been taught (which were all based on inerrancy), I worked hard examining each belief to determine if the proof-texts used for it were solid and to consider alternative perspectives.
Now, I think some people ARE cherry-pickers, there are cherry-pickers on both sides, but I don’t think this is the norm. Nor do I think most believers conveniently choose what they like and ignore what they don’t like. Rather, I think for the most part believers on both sides sincerely believe what they say.
2. A similar accusation is that progressives make the Bible into whatever we want it to be. I can say that reading the Bible without assumptions of inerrancy is not such a shallow exercise as this; it is a lot more work! An inerrantist can simply read a passage without regard to context or genre and decide what it means. Progressive believers must dig deeper.
3. If you can’t trust the whole Bible how can you trust any of it? I approach the Old Testament as Jewish national literature which forms a big part of the cultural background of Jesus and his audience. It is much like reading an American Literature book. We will likely find the Declaration of Independence, a Martin Luther King piece, a story from Huckleberry Finn, Jonathan Edward’s Sinner’s in the Hands of an Angry God, and perhaps Paul Bunyan and his blue ox, Babe. All of these are important to the American heritage, but if we find inconsistencies do we throw out the entire collection?
The New Testament is the story of Jesus and his impact on his earliest followers. I look at each part of of the Bible individually, analyze it according to what it is, and use the results of scholarship.
4. You need to read the Bible! I guess the assumption is that if I read the Bible I must come to the same conclusions they do. I was ‘saved’ in a fundamentalist church when I was 7, and by the time I was 9 or 10 I began reading the Bible voraciously. I am now 63 and I pretty much still do that–along with commentaries and other biblical tools. So that’s over 50 years of fairly intense Bible-reading.
5. You didn’t answer my question. What inerrantists usually mean is that I didn’t answer their question to their satisfaction, so they often pose the same challenge over and over even after it has been addressed. Because, to an inerrantist, everything eventually boils down to inerrancy; and any answer inconsistent with inerrancy is unsatisfactory.
These are not arguments; they are only accusations.
I like talking respectfully with inerrantists. So, if you are an inerrantist and want to talk about issues—let’s talk! But be aware that appeals to inerrancy will not be effective.