Some readers of this blog have expressed to me over coffees or beers that their conservative Christian upbringing came with a strong foundation of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. This inerrancy was fact, unable to be questioned. If anything was a sure bet in this broken, sinful, and uncertain world, it was the “inerrancy of God’s word.”
In the days and years since you received that teaching, some of you have begun to fade from it. It no longer strikes a chord. It feels more oppressive than freeing. Or it just feels oppressive. And maybe, on particularly rainy days, it feels like a lie invented to keep innocent and trusting children in line.
After our conversations, I get why you might think that. Some of you have endured much at the hands of inerrancy and at the hands of those who promoted it.
So I thought it might be helpful, as we transition from our discussion of the textual histories of the Old and New Testaments into some more specific stories from the Gospels, to briefly explore just what it is about inerrancy that gets our fellow Christians so worked up.
A movement in Christianity, still around today, believes that one may “prove” theology through rational means and the objectivity of knowledge. This movement, named “Propositionalism” (since theology must have indecipherable names for everything), relies heavily upon information and facts contained within the scriptures to substantiate certain propositions. That explanation makes very little sense without an example, so let’s invent one.
We might start with a scripture like Proverbs 22:6. “Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.” So, from this scripture and others with a similar theme, a propositional theologian might put forth the proposition:
“Stern discipline, combined with Biblical teachings and applied regularly to my child, will result in my child growing up to be a faithful Christian man/woman.”
Then, in addition to the scripture references that appear to back up this assertion (“spare the rod, spoil the child“…anyone? Prov 13:24 btw) our theologian would also examine the past writings and sermons from the Christian tradition that also seem to support the assertion. These might be church fathers like Augustine and Jerome, or medieval popes, or Reformation leaders such as Calvin or Luther, leading up to modern day mega-church pastors.
At this point, to the credit of our theologian, arguments would have to be dealt with that seem to contradict the proposition, or assertion. An example: Why do “good” Christian children that were disciplined in the home still sometimes rebel? The theologian might conclude that, when such children rebel, it is in some way the fault of the discipline applied to the child (it was inconsistent, or not harsh enough). Or, perhaps (says our theologian) the child simply allowed himself/herself to “lust after the things of this world” and the fault lies with the rebellious sinful choices of the child that was raised correctly.
Once plausible (*cough*) answers have been arrived at to answer the contradictions, the proposition is considered valid and may now be used in the idyllic Christian home to produce
confused teenage boys farm hands and confused teenage girls faithful domesticated wives. Think of the covers on Christian fiction books that aren’t Left Behind, kind of like this*:
Whether the idea is a notion of God’s faithfulness, or one’s handling of finances, or how to raise a family, a propositional theology will claim, “Scriptures contain a body of divinely given information actually expressed or capable of being expressed in propositions.”**
Now, the tricky thing about this type of theology is that it needs an unambiguous starting point to build its argument. Like any scientific experiment, accepted natural truths/laws must underlie the experiment which focuses on the unknown quantity. The Propositional theologian uses Scripture, the Old and New Testaments, as the non-negotiable, accepted truth. Thus (and you’ve likely put two and two together by now), the inerrancy of Scripture is incredibly important to this group.
There have been several movements in theological thought which come against the assumptions of propositionalism (Liberal, Postconservative, Postmodern, Canonical-Linguistic, and Radical Orthodoxy which we won’t delve into for now), but much of what we would term “conservative” theology still derives from the system of thought I’ve just described. Within this system, when a serious challenge to a proposition arose, it never reflected upon the inerrancy of Scripture or against a long-held assumption, but rather could be seen as God’s encouragement for us to dwell even more intently upon the “truth” of the proposition:
“God wished difficulties to be scattered through the Sacred Books inspired by Him, in order that we might be urged to read and scrutinize them more intently, and, experiencing in a salutary manner our own limitations, we might be exercised in due submission of mind.” – Pope Pius XII
I’m going to go out on a limb at this point and suggest that you, humble reader, likely do not resonate too strongly with Propositional Theology. I personally do not resonate with it. This is not to suggest that I don’t believe in the Truth of Scripture, because I do. Nor does it suggest that I do not believe the Scriptures to be divinely inspired (as I suggested in the previous post).
I find terms like inerrancy to be unhelpful when discussing the reliability of the Scriptures. Let’s quickly revisit our example of the discipline of a child, which came from Proverbs. If, instead of forcing any number of propositions upon the text of Proverbs according to our understanding of a direct reading of the text, one might instead consider the group of Wisdom books as a whole (Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes). In doing so, one might recognize that the book of Proverbs reads like a very straightforward set of “If…then” statements.
If I save money, then I will be better off down the road. If I keep my mouth shut and don’t say stupid things, then my reputation won’t suffer.
However, in Job, we have a man who lost everything through no fault of his own, despite all the wealth he’d accumulated. He tried his best to keep his mouth shut, yet his friends accused him of some horrendous sin anyways which resulted in his ill fortune.
Then, we have the Psalms. Sometimes the author cries out to God: “I did everything right, followed the rules, but I’m hiding in caves and my enemies are right around the corner. Help!” Other times, the author thanks God: “I was suffering, and at the last minute you came to rescue me.” Still other times, the help still seems further away than ever, and the psalmist cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Yet almost every psalm, whatever the circumstances, ends with some kind of statement praising God: “I don’t understand where you are, but I’m still praising you, because I believe in something larger than myself that is benevolent and all-consuming and I have made my choice to believe in THAT over what I’m experiencing.”
Our example, one more time. The complete picture painted by the wisdom literature, then, is that a child should be raised in a home that worships God, and that child should be encouraged through good, consistent parenting to a moral life. He or she should be raised with examples of how to make good choices that benefit others as well as him/herself.
Sometimes children have difficult personalities. Sometimes they rebel by choice. Sometimes they don’t understand their own compulsions and act from shame and self-conscious confusion. As a parent, you have permission to cry over this. To ask God “why?” To challenge God and wave your exhausted hands into the night air.
Whose fault is it? The question doesn’t even make sense in this context. It is life, and people inspired by God to write timeless Truths have wrestled with these kinds of outcomes long before you and I. They noticed the victories and tragedies of life, and the Spirit of God began to speak into their experience and to motivate a divine conversation within them. That conversation, their wisdom, is embedded within the language of the Scriptures, and is available for those who come to seek. If that is what we mean by the inerrancy of Scripture, then I’m all for it.
*Totally haven’t read this book, and know nothing about it – so I don’t mean to imply it’s not good or that it supports a particular theology. I use it chiefly as a stereotypical example of a certain mindset among particular Evangelical groups. I swear, some of our Evangelical brothers and sisters should just take the plunge and become Amish.
**Carl Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, vol. 3, p. 457.