On Inerrancy and Literal Interpretation.

A while ago, I wrote a review on Five View on Biblical Inerrancy, which is a book I cannot recommend enough. It had been on my list for quite some time, and I just never got around to it. I really wish I had read it earlier, because the mainstream Evangelical framework for reading the Bible is shaped by Inerrancy far more than you may think. It isn’t even really just inerrancy, but instead, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. The issue with this statement is that it isn’t as natural as it appears to be, and doesn’t just defend the Bible, it pushes a very specific hermeneutic framework and interpretation. Specifically, what some call ‘literalistic’ or ‘literalism’. This is the overly literal view of scripture, that is taking it ‘literally’ even when the text may not call for it. 

That was the defensive cry I heard most of my Christian life, ‘I take the Bible literally.’ It was supposed to be a short, definitive statement about your Biblical beliefs. I certainly took the statement seriously, but it wasn’t until I was probably 30 that a pastor asked me, ‘how do you take poetry literally?’. Depending on how you count it, between a quarter and a third (or even more) of the Bible is poetry. I had never really thought about that; and of course, most of the poetry is in the Old Testament, which is usually skimmed or skipped by Evangelicals. 

It seems that the fight over ‘literal’ mostly comes as a response to the overwhelming evidence of the fact that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution is true. Some defenders of the Chicago statement, which is Mohler in the book, point out that the statement says, ‘rightly interpreted,’ which gives room for different interpretations of chapters/verses such as Genesis 1. However, it goes on to say that science cannot overturn scripture. I can’t think of a clearer signal to say, you must interpret Gen 1 (please don’t ask about Gen 2, which doesn’t match creation order of Gen 1) as straight literal than that. Mohler can act like a politician and point to the statement, but when see a book/article/podcast/video with something like this in the title- ‘are science and the Bible in conflict?’, you know exactly what they are talking about. So, embedded in the statement is the interpretive framework. For good reason, Mohler’s article was criticized by all the other authors for arguing inerrancy of his interpretation. 

But he wasn’t really wrong, in a sense, as he is only conveying the message of the statement. The issue for us today, is how the statement was used and pushed and trickled down to all of us in the pews, because it tied a particular view to inerrancy, and inerrancy was view as protecting the Bible, and even more so, God himself. As Mohler points out, when the Bible speaks, God speaks. This is absolutely true, I believe this, as do most Christians, but you can see through the simple flow of thought, that if you don’t interpret passages a certain way, then you don’t believe in God. It looks something like this: a particular interpretation – that interpretation as implied by the Statement – inerrancy as a concept – the writers who were inspired by God – God Himself speaking – the goodness, omnipotence, etc of God; so that a particular interpretation equals belief in God. I don’t know if this was the original intent of the authors of the statement or just how it ended up being abused. 

The damage of literalism cannot be overstated. It is something I really wish people cared more about, unfortunately, it often seems that people have to leave the Evangelical work entirely, before they can say much about it. Or maybe they left because of it, and then write about it. The biggest problem, is it really is fear based. Fear is a pretty big motivator for most people, but it appears to be the easiest way to get Evangelicals to move on something. We’ve seen this in politics, with devastating effect, for decades, but rapidly accelerated over the past five or so years. We see it in the attack on public school and education in general. But our fear for the Bible and God is not necessary. We can’t protect them, nor need we to do so. When we try, we end up putting them in small boxes of protection that leads us to weak faith. 

Fighting for a particular view of inerrancy comes from the fear that if one thing is ‘wrong’ then the whole Bible is wrong, and we need to throw it out. To me, that is an incredible weak faith. There seems to be a fear that if you admit that ancient writers believed the world was covered in a dome, that we have to abandon the resurrection. As if we should only believe God if the Bible is written and read like a factual report coming in from the AP wire. To not admit the different (non-modern) views of the authors, or that scribes could err seems ridiculous. Especially, when we know there are essentially typos (actually, transcription) errors in our manuscripts. Look at 1 Thessalonians 1:7 for example, about half say infant, the other half says gentle; clearly one of them is an error (though it really doesn’t change much, see my study notes here). Other prominent examples included the longer ending of Mark or the extra few lines of the Lord’s Prayer, both of which have since been thrown out in most translations.

That brings us to the ‘autograph’ argument, which says the Bible is inerrant in the original documents. It is used in some ways as an argument against in perceived errors or contradictions. We can just wave them away and say that out there, in some unknown (and unfindable) document rest the fix to all that ails. It, again, is just a reach for the hope that God must have, at some point, given us a perfect (in our modern sense) document. We know that it is not perfect, and even if we were given something that was, you would still have to question why God would allow it to become ‘corrupted’. Right? This is another error in thought that comes from literalism, that the book was just handed to us and God isn’t really involved anymore and allowed issues to happen so that we, in some senses, most not really know what is happening now. Alternatively, isn’t it possible that God used imperfect people, who existed in a world different than our own, but then actually intervened in the millenia so that we have a Bible today that pretty well reflects the original writing?

Of course, the other issue is that some ‘errors’ aren’t really errors, or conflicts.  Is the Bible in error or in conflict with science the world was created in a literal, 24 hour, six day sequence? No, because, that isn’t what the Bible is trying to say in Genesis 1. But that is really the problem with literalism, we’ve put ourselves into a tiny box that leads to odd interpretations or readings or understandings of part of the Bible. The sub-title of one Enns’ books points to the problem well: Our obsession with defending the Bible has left us unable to read it. I want to talk about a few specifics, then probably wrap up.

I was thinking about this yesterday while listening to a sermon on Proverbs at my church service. He points out what Proverbs is (are), that they are wisdom, not promises. That was probably a shock to some people, but as he rightly pointed out, how many children have been ‘raised as they should go’, but left the ‘path’? I know people in the fundamentalist world that have this transactional view of God, if I do X, God should do Y. However, if we read the Bible as a collection of different genres (still, all inspired by God, that is not something I doubt/reject) with different purposes, we might not need a preacher to explain that wisdom poetry is not a literal, transactional promise. However, this is the clear consequence of  ‘taking the Bible literally’. 

I’ve said/written much on Genesis and the age of the Earth/evolution question over the last few months, which I won’t repeat here, you can go watch this video and/or read the notes underneath. I will point out that the overly literal (again, in our modern western version) has had two negative impacts. One is that people will just leave the church altogether, they go to college or read a book and see the fact of evolution and then throughout the whole Bible, because that is the weak faith with which they’ve been conditioned. Second, they reject science in some whole disciplines. Of course, all of us believers reject some level of science, but we have a name for that – miracles. Science says you can’t be born of a virgin, yeah, we know, thank God for the Incarnation. Science says you can’t be resurrected, again, yeah, that is why it is a big deal that Christ did come back to life. That’s not what I’m talking about here, it is the rejection of whole disciplines (biology, geology, etc.). Unfortunately, it is another step in that line that causes so many issues, not just rejection, but conflict. Seeing the ‘other side’ as against you, or evil. Evolution is a lie and only told by atheistic scientist out to get you and even worse, your children. Which inexplicably leads us to reject other forms of science (or be susceptible to conspiracy theories related to them) such as climate change or (currently) pandemics/vaccines. 

Interestingly, one oddity from literalism, is that it actually reduces belief in the miraculous. This isn’t always the case, but it pops up now and then, where someone will want to defend a point by explaining how it can happen naturally, to show that it could be ‘literal’, but in a way that downplays God’s involvement. I’ll give two types of examples. One is Jonah and the what? Fish? Or was it a whale? It has to be a whale, right, because you couldn’t live inside a fish. I find this to be a strange line of thought. Of course you can’t live in a fish, but also, a plant can’t grow up in a few hours that is big enough to give a man shade, not can it shrivel enough to no longer provide shade from a worm ‘attack’ in a few hours. Jonah says all these things happened, I take it be actual events with God’s intervention. Another example is natural but literal ways that things like the 10 plagues could have happened (blood in the river caused all the frogs to leave then they died and had swarms of bugs) or the walls of Jericho falling (could it have been some sonic acoustic weapon from the horns?). 

We see instances like this in a way with Revelation, especially the ‘Left Behind’/Dispensational view. Remember, we have to take the Bible literally, so when it says hornets attacked, then they must have, it can’t be apocalyptic imagery, it must be literal, so clearly, those are fighter jets. Wait, what? Is it literal or no? Yes, it is literal, things are attacking, by John didn’t really know (erred?) what he was seeing, they are jets or attack helicopters. 

Some of those last few are amusing, but the worst is when we just straight up change the text. Two quick examples, the mustard seed and one wife. Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Well, it isn’t. If the Bible must be ‘without error’ in a modern literalist sense then we have a problem. The solution, well, learn to read the Bible in historical context, right? No, our translations will just add ‘of your’ to the text. Paul tells Timothy an elder should be a man of one wife, but we don’t want context and to ackwonwled that polygamy existed, so…let’s just change that to be ‘married’ or ‘faithful to his wife’, neither of which is what the text says. I said two, but also, go read Acts and Paul’s conversion stories, most translation change hear to understand in the last instance; again, despite the actual text. We are literally (in the actual sense) adding words to the Bible to protect the … Bible? We should probably take literally what Revelation says about adding or taking away from the book. 

This ended up being a lot more about the problem of literalism than inerrancy, I should probably change my title. However, the two (in the modern, American, evangelical context) have become nearly synonymous. Unfortunately, the word inerrancy has become nearly meaningless. People use it to mean too many things, or too narrow a thing (literalism) that discussions have almost become worthless. Often this causes people to jump around, redefine it, or use other words like inspired or authoritative. Some treat those words as synonymous, and we go around the circle again. I had no idea this issue came pretty much all from the Chicago Statement. It has greatly influenced my life, in mostly negative ways, where I feel like after years of thinking I knew the Bible pretty well, I’m having to actually study and learn basics in my 30’s. Add all this up, and I don’t think I can call myself an inerrantist. The word inerrancy is too lied to a hermeneutic (let alone a political ideology) that I don’t fully support and often find problematic. Maybe that puts me on the outside of current evangelical thought, but I think I’ll stick with inspired. As Bird points out in the book, this is the word use both by the Westminster and London Baptist confessions. 



Book Review: Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)

My Rating: Must Read

Level: Moderately difficult (four of the five are academics and some of the terms/phrases used reflect this), medium length (300+)


I’m finding this harder to summarize than you may think. If you grew up in the conservative Christian world, as I did, you’ve doubtless heard the word ‘inerrancy’ without much clear meaning, making this book incredibly compelling. You might not know that the inerrancy as you know it came from a relatively recent development and statement called the ‘Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy‘ from the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. This book is more a debate on the statement, specifically its use, than inerrancy writ large, though that is discussed. If you haven’t read the statement, go read it before reading this book. Due to this, and the multitude of discussions that can come from the topic, this book is different than others. So in this series have clear delineations – the world is thousands vs. billions of years old, the millennium is pre/post rapture, etc. – yet, even in those, often, the writers speak past each other and don’t always remain in topic. This is the most dramatic of those instances, except, the essays are so far apart, that it actually works, for the most part. 

This is one where you need to read the introduction, they explain that they sent these authors the assignment or reacting to the Statement, then sending back three problematic verses that challenge the statement. The editors then editors then selected three of the verses and each author was to respond. The authors were chosen to be on different spectrum of evangelism, and in different disciplines with Frank/Vanhoozer being theologians, Bird (who wrote one of the best systematics out there)/Enss as Biblical Scholars, and Mohler being a historical theologian (if you listen to his podcast, you know that he changes his title often, but in reality, at this point, he is a political pundit). 

In the intro, the editors point out how different the essays ended up being, and so grouped them differently than planned, so they broke the book into three parts – Perspectives on Inerrancy and the Past (with Mohler writing what he calls the ‘classical view’ and Enns writing that inerrancy isn’t what the Bible does), then a break into the International View from Bird who writes that inerrancy isn’t necessary, and finally, Renewing and Recasting Inerrancy (Vanhoozer writing for an ‘Augustinian View’ and Franke writing the Racasting essay). As is typical in this series, after each essay were responses from the other authors. Unlike others, there was no rejoinder, probably due to length (and possible the jumbled way the essays mixed), which was a good decision overall. While this likely had the best Intro, it probably had the worst Conclusion of any in the series, but it still made some good points.

My Thoughts

I understand why the editors set it up they way they did, I’m sure it was a long and agonizing debates, trying the suffel these essays around in a coherent flow. As I wrote, I came up with other ways to rearrange, but as I finished, all but one were clearly inferior. However, I do think there is a better way (I doubt my idea is unique, and it was surely discussed and discarded for reasons, likely behind the scenes, of which I am unaware), that would also flow better in the typical ‘views’ sense – I’d keep Mohler first, as the cheerleader view, then group Bird/Vanhoozer together as generally supporting inerrancy in concept (maybe they disagree) but not supporting the Statement/ICBI or how it has been used, and then finishing the book with Enns/Franke as supporting neither the Statement/ICBI, how it has been used, nor the concept itself. This layout also accomplishes having a theologian/scholar in each section. 

That being said, I was excited to read this book, it has been on my list for about five years before I finally got around to it, which is too bad, I wish I had read it years ago. I don’t want to sound fanboy, but just having Enns, Bird, and Vanhoozer in one book is worth the cost. I had never heard of Franke before, and after reading his essay, I see that is probably due to him being outside of my perspective, so that is a nice addition. Overall, the book lives up to the hype and is the best of the Counterpoint Series, and contro a comment from Bird in the book, the place I would recommend someone start if they want to dive into theological topics. I will attempt some brief thoughts on each essay and then an additional recommendation on how I think the book could have been improved.

Few Christian authors today have the rhetorical flourishes and persuasive writing abilities of Mohler. I read his essay and came away think, ‘how is this a debate, all Christians should affirm the Statement as written’, even if I was a little skeptical of his historical claims. Then you read the responses, which were universal (in a way unlike any other essay) in pointing out that he didn’t actually say anything. Again with universal agreement, the responses criticized both his use of classical and history, as well him more advocating his interpretation as inerrant that the Biblical text. In this sense, his essay very aptly pointed out all that is wrong with the statement and how it has been used, that the remainder of the book will point to. But man, is his writing good. I think now (almost 10 years after writing the book) that he has solved CRT, he can move on to a life fully in politics.

I think I have read all of Enns’ book so far (if you haven’t, this is probably a good intro to Enns), so I mostly new what he was going to say. His essay was twofold in pointing to our modern view of ‘inerrancy’ and reading the Bible as if it were written by journalist is a completely different way the Bible would have been read for thousands of years, which is why there are clear contradictions (but only insofar as we have overly literalized our reading of the text) and that we are making a category mistake in the way we approach the Bible. The second part criticizes the Statement/ICBI itself as being a small subset of evangelicals from the beginning, being a political statement, and essentially arguing a hermeneutic more than a view of scripture. While the Statement saw the Bible has truth in what it affirms, but then states that science cannot overturn the Bible. Whether you want to admit it or not, this latter statement necessarily implies a literalist interpretation. Enns calls the statement an intellectual disaster for evangelicals. 

Bird’s essay is probably the best of the book for me, as I tend to agree with most of his scholarly and theological points. He is also an outsider from the American evangelical world (which is why he doesn’t know that the Canada has its own football, distinct from American, or that only yankees say ‘iced-tea’, Southerns says sweet tea or simple, tea), which separates him from the Moral Majority/Political right playbook interpretation of scripture that Mohler is beholden to. Bird is also funny, you get funny visions like ‘Kim Kardashian attending a Jihadist for Jesus fundraiser’ and bad puns like ‘not for all the iced(sic)-tea in Kentucky (presumably pointed at Mohler?). Bird affirms what he calls infallibility, which is an actual historical use and term. He agrees with most(all?) of the points of the Statement, but mostly criticized for its narrow view of interpretation and the fact that the ICBI is about as ‘international’ as the winner of the ‘World’ Series (see, that’s funny). He rightly points to it being used as a bully pulpit of hermeneutics in that if you don’t agree, you are rejecting scripture and therefore God, and that there are over a billion Christians around the world who do not insist on inerrancy nor does the Westminster or London Confessions use the word. 

Vanhoozer’s essay similarly affirms infallibility and most of the words of the Statement, while criticizing its use and interpretation, but from the (American evangelical) inside. He differs slightly from Bird in that while Bird seems to say drop it or rewrite it entirely (this time actually internationally), vanhoozer would like it to be revised. The crux of his argument is an interpretation based on Augustine’s view of scripture, which took a high view, stating that if something seemed wrong it was either the translation (though he was referring to the poor latin copies in existence in that day, during the decline of Kiona Greek) or in his understanding. Yet, it seems Augustine would reject the Statement, as he doesn’t think it has to do with science (he did not believe in a six day creation, though not due to ‘science’ as it was in his day). Vanhoozer also points to the ‘affirm’ piece of inerrancy (which is somewhat contradicted elsewhere in the statement) in that the Bible is not a textbook for geology/biology (also, an actual historical view as Calvin said ask an astrologer). Vanhoozer is a long writer and uses pretty high end academic terms, so get ready.

With all due respect to Franke and his position, I don’t have much to respond to. While I really enjoyed all of his responses (probably the best responder behind Bird), his essay was, well, odd. He clearly rejects inerrancy as a concept, but not in the concrete way that Enns does. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what he believes. He refers to an understanding of the Bible as a ‘missional community’, and at times sounds like a charismatic/pentecostal while at others sounds more like a ‘classical’ liberal protestant. He refers to himself as post-liberal, post-modern, and post-foundationalist. As with the others, he had many criticisms of how the statement is used and I found myself in agreement or learning for these, but not much from his positive articulation. He simarlily uses high academic language, including concept I had to go look up, such as foundationalsim.

He did bring up one interesting critique of this volume itself, that it is five white guys talking about inerrancy.  While that is a little too reductionistic, as I think it diminishes Bird’s view as a non-American (though maybe he deserves it for disparaging football), just for the problem of being white.That being said, various surveys put black Christians as making up about 1/4 to 1/6 of the US Christian population, depending on how you define things. Let’s meet in the middle can call it 1/5 and there are five authors of this book. I would have been very interested to hear a black church (either a historically black denomination or a SBC pastor who serves in a black community) theologian/scholar talk about the view on inerrancy in the black community. I think this would have been more valuable than Franke’s essay (I’m an American in the South, so my apologies to the international readers, as this clearly would benefit them less). 

A few other concluding thoughts, the attempt to interpret the three scriptures was a mixed bag, but perfectly illustrates the issues of true ‘inerrancy’.  I don’t know if this is an academic thing, or just because it is a ‘Christian’ publication, but I liked that everyone praised each other before disagreeing with them, I think that attitude of humility is sorely needed right now. While it was disjointed at times, I think the diversity of perspective or even essay topic helpful and interesting. I think for anyone interested in inerrancy, Biblical interpretation, Biblical studies, theology, American evangelicalism, or even study the Bible, this book is a must read. 


Book Review: The Bible Tells Me So…

The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It

My Rating – If you are looking for something

Level – Medium length, easy read (Enns is an academic, but writes for a popular audience)

In some ways it is a little difficult to summarize this book. This is one of his few books that is written entirely for popular audiences, and he uses a unique form/structure, so it bounces around some. If you are familiar with Enns, there won’t be too much new here. For the most part you are getting some higher criticism, difficult passage in the Old Testament (as in, both things we just don’t like and unclear Hebrew), Jesus reinterpreting the Old Testament and changing the Law (because he is God), and Paul doing the same (in light of the resurrection).  The first chapter is autobiographical and touches on the subtitle of the book, but the following chapters mostly fit into the above outlines.

There are seven chapters – I’ll take door number three; God did what?!; God likes stories; Why doesn’t God make up his mind?; Jesus is bigger than the Bible; No one saw this coming; and The Bible, just as it is. The last chapter is a mostly summary and concluding remarks. Each chapter is broken into short (usually just under 5 pages) writings on anecdotes or individual passages form the Bible.

My Thoughts
If you never read any of Enns, this book could be a good places to start. If you have read most of his other books, maybe pass. Alternatively, if you want a summary of this book and response you could read Longmen’s Confronting Old Testament Controversies. You do get a little bit more of the his life story in the first chapter, but I was expecting more on the subtitle. I thought there were be more a thesis regarding our hyper focus on arguing/defending the Bible, and then the impact of that on how we read it. I agree with the former, and was really hoping on my insight on the later. However, often the subtitle and sometimes in the the title are written by the editors/publisher. I might have passed if I had know how small a part of the book this idea was.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. I really like Enns as a writer, his style is short and funny. Everything is very readable, almost like a large compilation of blog posts (but better/more organized). There are points with which I disagree, and some of his translation seem a little too lose, making them lead more to the point he is trying to make than a stricter/better interpretation. It wouldn’t be a the top of my list, but if you’ve read a good bit about OT issues/problems/’contradictions’ or the way Jesus/Paul change/reinterpret them and you are still looking for something, this would be a good option. He has an appendix of notes and further reading from people who agree and disagree with him.