Skip to main content

Today’s guest post by Carlos Bovell, his third, is an edited excerpt from chapter 4 of his upcoming book Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (Wipf & Stock, 2012).

Carlos is becoming a leading critic of the evangelical notion of biblical inerrancy, but unlike other such critiques, his is not the rant of an outsider, but the careful, nuanced, and compelling observations of one coming from within an evangelical paradigm, drawing on his own experience.

His main concern is not simply the intellectual difficulties of biblical inerrancy but the spiritual destruction that occurs in the lives of young Christians when they are given no viable alternative.

Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (Wipf & Stock, 2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (Wipf & Stock, 2009), and an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (Wipf & Stock, 2011).

Students often approach the academic study of the Bible, in seminary or graduate school, confident that they already possess a more or less accurate idea of what the overall intent of scripture is; their focus is deepening that knowledge.

Early confidence and enthusiasm all too often give way to cognitive dissonance, even a sense of betrayal, when they begin to encounter what I call the “academic-apologetic dilemma.”

During their studies, evangelical students in research universities and divinity schools are presented with alternate models explaining how scripture works. In these settings, no explicit attention is given to how these new models are compatible with the students’ inerrantist models–which, of course, is perfectly understandable.

As students mature in their knowledge of the disciplines and begin seeing why the critical models are so widely accepted, cognitive dissonance can develop. This leads to an academic-apologetic dilemma: the academic model is intellectually compelling but thoroughly challenges and undermines the picture of the Bible presented to them by the evangelical inerrantist apologists of their earlier training.

My target audience for Rehabilitating Inerrancy is these “post-inerrantist” students caught on the horns of this dilemma. My main concern is to begin a discussion around the question, “How can students maintain a deep respect for scripture despite everything they have come to know about scripture?” In other words, how can their new and old worlds be in conversation.

The recent spate of inerrantist apologetics books is a theological sign of the times (e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). This certainly speaks to the tensions among evangelicals on this topic, but it may also signal that God is calling the present generation of bibliologists to work together to find a plausible, salient way of neutralizing the academic-apologetic dilemma.

Such discussions are unavoidable and absolutely necessary. In almost every imaginable way, the Bible we know today is simply not the Bible of the early, medieval, or Reformation churches. A lot has happened in our understanding of antiquity, that has invariably affected how we see the Bible.

This is particularly acute in Protestant traditions. Great stress was placed on the centrality of the Bible understood according to ways of thinking that were wholly appropriate in earlier times. It should come as no surprise, then, that those Protestant traditions that place a heavy emphases on inviolability of older paradigms of scripture will be precisely the ones positioned to experience the most profound changes.

The threat of such changes is prompting inerrantist leaders to voice publicly the fears of their representative traditions concerning “attacks” on inerrancy. After all, few people like being told to change their ways. But when it comes to inerrancy, the run-of-the-mill, human resistance to change seems to morph into something like an eschatological intransigence.

The main fear appears to be that any change in bibliological outlook quickly leads to heterodoxy. Even genuinely constructive attempts to re-conceptualize inerrancy are presented to laypeople and students as immodest and subversive moves towards apostasy.

Whenever inerrantist institutions try publically to respond to such concerns, they often adopt the rhetoric of fear. The cultural climate they precipitate stymies imagination and forestalls much needed conversation over conceptual developments in bibliology.

This culture of fear discourages evangelical leaders to move the conversation forward, since the backlash can be severe; they are not sociologically poised to offer guidance.

Thus the onus to foster the conversation is awkwardly placed on students or young faculty members, those living in the tensions between the academic and apologetic worlds and who feel the most pressure and enthusiasm for synthetic thinking.

Yet in order to be effective, students require the intellectual freedom to carry out their work. The same sociological forces that prevent evangelical leaders from joining the conversation also exert tremendous pressure on younger evangelicals.

There is a cycle of fear, and the question is how to break it.

What students decide to do with inerrancy now is bound to influence inerrantism’s future as a viable cultural force. And what inerrantism needs more than anything else is help conceptually transitioning from outdated bibliological assumptions, born in segments of Christian history that were not privy to the information that we have today.

There is a great need for evangelical schools and churches to begin genuine conversations surrounding inerrancy. Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear is aimed at describing some of the unhelpful dynamics at work within inerrantism in order to help move the conversation forward in constructive ways.

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.