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Today’s guest post is written by Carlos Bovell, who has recently written several posts for us, the most recent of which is here. Carlos is the author of four books that critique biblical inerrancy as intellectually problematic and (therefore) spiritually debilitating.

In Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism (part of Zondervan’s Counterpoints Series), we read a contemporary portrayal of fundamentalism by Kevin T. Bauder (former president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis):

The gospel is always doctrinal. Without doctrinal explanations, the death and resurrection of Jesus would be without significance. Those explanations, presuppositions, and implications on which the gospel depends are called fundamental doctrines, or simply fundamentals. Fundamental doctrines are essential to the gospel. . . . Some of the fundamentals certainly must be known and accepted, while others are presupposed within or implied by the gospel. No fundamental can be denied, however, without implicitly denying the gospel itself (p. 29).

There are, indeed, fundamentals to the Christian faith. The death and resurrection of Christ, for example, is the event complex around which the earliest followers of Christ constructed the faith we now call Christianity.

The problem with fundamentalism is not that it declares elements of the faith to be fundamental, or even that it has built up their system of fundamentals in response to specific attacks by nineteenth century liberal scholars. The problem is that fundamentalism’s list of essentials (as the quote above implies) got rather extensive and were seen as equally ultimate.

Like a house of cards, all of the “fundamentals” needed to be in place. If one is removed, that is, if any one fundamental is not affirmed by Christians everywhere, the gospel topples to the ground. In The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Mark Noll lists “the distinctive teachings of Dispensationalism, the Holiness Movement, or Pentecostalism” (p. 142) as examples, along with inerrancy, which “had never assumed such a central role for any Christian movement” (p. 133).

An overemphasis on inerrancy is emotionally unfair to students. “Undue influence” comes to mind. Fundamentalists have become masters at making it all but impossible to critique this rhetorical ploy without being accused by others that they’re “denying” any and all fundamentals, including the resurrection or the deity of Christ.

It goes without saying that without a certain amount of doctrine, “the death and resurrection would be without significance,” as Bauder says above. On the face of it, such a claim makes sense, but the fundamentalist culture is prone to abuse it, taking it beyond both its theoretical and existential limits.

What nineteenth century fundamentalism did for evangelicalism today was to tie inerrancy into this “fundamental” framework:

The significance of the gospel cannot be known apart from revelation. To understand why Jesus died and why he rose again, humans require an authoritative explanation. That explanation has been vouchsafed to them in authoritative Scriptures that claim to be God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Such inspiration necessitates inerrancy, because a God-breathed but errant Scripture would imply a God who was either mistaken or untruthful. A God who could make mistakes or who would knowingly mislead people is certainly a lesser God than the God whom the Bible presents. Such a God would not merit the kind of ultimate trust that Scripture requires for the salvation of the soul (p. 28; emphasis added).

Here Bauder has effortlessly woven inerrancy into the historic definition of Christianity itself. No, actually, he does more than that—he deliberately constructs inerrancy into the evangelical gospel itself (upon which we rely and in which we presently hope) as well as our notion of God, that is, the kind of God suitable for the salvation that we believe we possess.

We now have sufficient historical distance to appreciate how inerrancy really has become a kind of über-fundamental and an intrinsic part of the slippery slope dynamic that needs to be addressed. What I am trying to do now when I write is encourage students to brainstorm and help evangelicalism work through this phase of its cultural development.

I have come across individual believers here and there who have outgrown the fundamentalist-inerrantist dynamic of faith over time. Between their efforts and those of “younger evangelicals,” I am hoping for a reformation, a reformation that will work to leave this paralyzing aspect of fundamentalism behind.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.