Inerrancy is a Loaded Term

In a recent episode of the Ask N.T. Wright Anything podcast, N.T. Wright discusses the idea of biblical infallibility and his discomfort with the use of terms such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility” to describe what Scripture is and what it is meant to be. Basically, he doesn’t like any of the “in-” words. Instead, he prefers to use words such as “trustworthy” — as in, Christians ought to regard Scripture as trustworthy in all of its writings.

This is an important shift, in my opinion. He never technically denies that “inerrancy” is an accurate description of Scripture, only that it is a weak descriptor. Technically, describing a set of writings as inerrant is to say that the writings are incapable of being wrong. But in practice, we understand it to mean something different — that is, we take calling Scripture inerrant to mean that it is always historically accurate in all of its writings unless it explicitly says otherwise. The problems with this are twofold:

  1. We are separated from these writings by thousands of years. Do you know how difficult it is to discern an author’s purpose from this historical vantage point? When we read the creation account, for example, how are we to accurately determine whether that account is meant to “literally” recount historical events? And what do we lose by saying that it doesn’t?
  2. The whole reason that we are concerned about historical accuracy is because, at some point, the Western philosophical world decided that “inaccurate” historical retellings automatically discount the authority and trustworthiness of the writing/document in question. This is especially true for religious Scripture — somehow, we determined that we needed to defend historical accuracy so that we could also defend the theological trustworthiness of Scripture. This is specifically because of some epistemological concerns that were borne out of debates from 300-400 years ago!

That means that concerns about Scriptural inerrancy are all bound up with philosophical concerns that the writers of Scripture themselves were not concerned about. Thus, N.T. Wright’s comments. He doesn’t ever deny that Scripture is inerrant, but he takes issue with the term because of its cultural and philosophical baggage. Instead, he wants better descriptors (trustworthy, authoritative) that will help Christians to encounter the text that we have anew. Because when Scripture is described as trustworthy, it changes our own stance towards what we are reading. No longer are we concerned about whether an event could possibly have happened literally or historically (and, therefore, concerned about whether that could discount its trustworthiness in our minds). Instead, by regarding it as trustworthy, we can come at the text asking what it might teach us about God, about human nature, and about our ability to relate to God.

Kierkegaard’s Reflections on Job — On Becoming a Human Being

In the Upbuilding Discourses, SK reflects on two simple verses in Job:

Then Job arose, and tore his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshiped, saying: Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord (1:20-21)

First, he gives a general reflection on the passage, and Job’s significance for humanity at all times:

When one generation has finished its service, completed its work, fought through its struggle, Job has accompanied it; when the new generation with its incalculable ranks, each individual in his place, stands ready to begin the pilgrimage, Job is there again, takes his place, which is the outpost of humanity. If the generation sees nothing but happy days in prosperous times, then Job faithfully accompanies it; but if the single individual experiences the terror in thought, is anguished over the thought of what horror and distress life can have in store, over the thought that no one knows when the hour of despair may strike for him, then his troubled thought seeks out Job, rests in him, is calmed by him. (110)

He then focuses in on the final two clauses of the verse: “The Lord gave, and the Lord took away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

The Lord gave:

With thankfulness resting in his soul in quiet sadness, he said a gentle and friendly farewell to everything all together, and in this farewell everything vanished like a beautiful recollection — indeed, it was as if it were not the Lord who took it away but Job who gave it back to him. (116)

Then, speaking of the person who, when faced with a Job-like situation, cannot be thankful for the goodness of what was given in the first place:

What his soul had delighted in, it now thirsted for, and ingratitude punished him by picturing it to him as more delightful than it had ever been. What he once had been able to do, he now wanted to be able to do again, and ingratitude punished him with fantasies that had never had any truth. Then he condemned his soul, living, to be starved out in the insatiable craving of the lack. (117)

The Lord took away:

How powerless is the assailant’s arm, how worthless the schemer’s cleverness; how almost pitiable is all human power when it wants to plunge the weak person into despairing submission by wrenching everything from him and in his faith he says: It is not you, you can do nothing; it is the Lord who takes away. (121)

Blessed be the name of the Lord:

Just as faith and hope without love are but sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, so all the joy proclaimed in the world in which sorrow is not heard along with it is but sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal that tickle the ears but are repulsive to the soul. (122)

What I really love about Kierkegaard’s work in the Upbuilding Discourses (and this might be my favorite one so far — it’s written in a trio from 1843, at the peak of the early part of his writing career) is his interest in entering into the realities of human life. Kierkegaard is demanding and time consuming to read. He can be difficult at times, and his work is often complex and hard to follow.

But his work here is clearly filled with passion and interest for what it means to be human, and what it means to live in real life. These discourses are some of the few early works that he wrote in his own name, and not under a pseudonym, which I take to mean that this is what he wanted people to remember him for. That all our philosophizing and theologizing and rationalizing has a telos: to become a human being.

Why Monkeys Need “Salvation” – Part 3

This is part 3 in a series on Evolution, Original Sin, and Atonement. To start at the beginning, click here.


In my last post, I spoke a little bit about the scientific evidence for evolution. I don’t consider myself a scientist in the slightest, but I figured a Biology 101 review would be helpful. I understand there may be many of you the reject the evidence for evolution, but you should be aware that the theory of evolution is virtually incontrovertible within the scientific community. It is the paradigm by which countless other disciplines operate, and (considering what I’ll be talking about today) it is totally compatible with a Christian worldview.

Evolution & Inerrancy

The major issue that many Evangelicals come up against when trying to reconcile evolution and the biblical text is the creation account found at the beginning of Genesis and the story of Adam (not to mention all of the doctrines affected by the reality of evolution). The problem here is that most Evangelicals feel that they must accept the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, which forces them to read the Genesis creation account(s) non-critically, and in the same manner as a scientific textbook – this, in my opinion, is a colossal mistake.

Article 12 of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy reads as follows:

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

In other words, the creators of the doctrine of inerrancy would say it is inappropriate for sound reason and historical and scientific evidence to trump a story written by ancient people regarding the origins of the earth and of humanity. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, holding to inerrancy forces Evangelicals to reject a scientific theory that has been proven and tested by scientists for decades.

in-a-book
David Hayward – http://nakedpastor.com

This is not to mention the fact that the term “inerrancy” is found nowhere in the biblical text itself, nor is the idea that every word of the biblical text must be historically factual for it to retain its authority within Christianity. To say that the writings within the Bible are inerrant (and must be to maintain its authority in matters of faith and practice) imposes particularly modern ways of thinking onto a book of ancient writings. The Bible was never meant to conform to this kind of modern scrutiny. It can’t, and we shouldn’t expect it to.

Evolution & Adam

If we lose the idea that the Bible is inerrant, but still remain adamant about its authority for matters of faith and practice, this means that we still need to figure out what to do with the Genesis creation account(s) and particularly the story of Adam – if we are to accept evolution as true. Just as the discovery of a heliocentric galaxy shook the foundations of pre-modern Christianity, but is now widely accepted because of our misunderstanding of what the Bible meant in certain places, the same can be said for the discovery and acceptance of evolution and its relation to our understanding of God and Scripture.funny-Adam-Eve-white-evolution

In general, biblical scholars date the writing and compilation of much of the Hebrew Bible to the exilic and post-exilic periods. (VERY) Broadly speaking, after being kicked out of their land, Israel needed to find a way to maintain its identity as the people of Yahweh and their relationship to God. As such, the creation account in Genesis – and particularly Genesis 2 and 3 – reveals Adam as a type of “proto-Israel.” In other words, the story of Adam can be better understood as Israel attempting to understand itself and its actions through a mythological character (where myth is an ancient, pre-scientific way of understanding origins – see Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation).

The parallels between Israel’s history and the story of Adam are pretty stark. Enns shows a few of the parallels at BioLogos:

Israel’s history as a nation can be broken down as follows:

    • Israel is “created” by God at the exodus through a cosmic battle (gods are defeated and the Red Sea is “divided”);
    • The Israelites are given Canaan to inhabit, a lush land flowing with milk and honey;
    • They remain in the land as long as they obey the Mosaic law;
  • They persist in a pattern of disobedience and are exiled to Babylon.

Israel’s history parallels Adam’s drama in Genesis:

    • Adam is created in Genesis 2 after the taming of chaos in Genesis 1;
    • Adam is placed in a lush garden;
    • Law (not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) is given as a stipulation for remaining in the garden;
  • Adam and Eve disobey and are exiled.

An understanding of Adam as “proto-Israel” greatly helps in the attempt to maintain some sense of biblical authority while also allowing scholars and scientists to honestly observe and interpret data without being bound to some false interpretation of Genesis as a divinely inspired scientific textbook that trumps our ability to observe and interpret natural phenomena.

What we simply cannot do is try to retain “inerrancy” as a doctrine if we are going to accept evolution as a scientific reality. It is not a claim the Bible makes about itself, nor does it affect the authority of the Bible in the faith and lives of Christ-followers.

Salvation in a Narrative Context

In the beginning God created the cosmos intending that image-bearing humanity would be in peaceful relationship with God, creation, others, and self. These looking-after-creatures chose personal and systemic injustice, influenced directly by fallen powers. The Creator so loved the creation project that rather than to let evil have that last word, he implemented good news for the poor, the sick, and the victimized through the ministry of the kingdom as taught and demonstrated by Jesus the Messiah. In death, Jesus substituted his life in the place of fallen humanity to endure the full wrath of both personal and systemic evil, and in resurrection he disarmed the powers. Thus, every human is invited into salvation becoming part of the new creation by following the Victorious Christ within a discipleship community. The church’s calling is to join with God in mission to ‘gather up all things’ in anticipation of the full expression of justice: ‘a new heaven and a new earth.’

Kurt Willems – The Pangea Blog