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And speaking of inerrancy….

One common defense of inerrancy is that, without it, confidence in Scripture is eroded, which will spread panic and chaos among the masses.

The missionary/theologian Lesslie Newbigin–no stranger to the masses–spent much of his life as a missionary in India, and was a strong voice in the need to bring the Gospel to the post-Christian, pagan (his word) western world that has accepted the myth of Enlightenment objectivity.

His blunt thoughts here on inerrancy exude commonsense, especially if you read it with a matter-of-fact British accent.

If the Bible is treated as a compendium of factually inerrant propositions about everything in heaven and earth, then it is impossible to explain both the contradictions between parts of the Bible and things we certainly know as the results of the work of science, and also the obvious inconsistencies within the Bible itself on factual matters. Even the most convinced fundamentalist who lives in the modern world has to rely at innumerable points on knowledge provided by science and not by the Bible. In fact this way of looking at the Bible is nearer to the Muslim way of looking at the Qur’an and prompts the question: “Why, then, did Jesus not write a book as the Prophet did?”

Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, p. 97,

The Qur’an-like Bible of inerrantists is an apt observation, and it is not hard to see this mentality at work at some of it most staunch defenders–a book that comes to us whole cloth from the vaults of heaven, always transcending the confines of shadowlands, it’s true home in the Platonic ideal world.

If what Newbigin describes above is a, let’s call it, “sub-Christian” view of Scripture, we can gather that a properly Christian view is one that,

  • does not treat Scripture as a compendium of  inerrant positions about everything in heaven and earth
  • does not ignore advances in science and other fields of knowledge when articulating the nature of Scripture
  • is aware, as a simple matter of observation, that the Bible contains contradictions and inconsistencies on factual matters
  • understands that there is ultimately no neutrality in knowledge, but that does not mean one can take refuge behind “we all have presuppositions” to reject sure knowledge or factual matters derived from science

One can only hold the view of Scripture than Newbigin holds by taking seriously the incarnation and its implications for all of Christian theology. That holds for Newbigin’s view of missions and his view Scripture.

The half-serious joke I heard while in seminary (as a student and a professor) was, “Heresy begins in missions.” That’s where you have to deal with actual people. When you do, you may find that you will actually be changed in the encounter at least as much as they, and that your theological system, as airtight and divinely endorsed and immutable as you might think, often does not work when you wander away from home. And so you need to learn to think differently about yourself, your world, the Bible, even God.

The question is whether such shifts are evidence of a move away from pure truth toward heresy, or of growth and humility on the Christian journey.

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.