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c bovell 2014Today’s blog is by Carlos Bovell, a frequent contributor here. Bovell is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007)By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear (2012).


A disturbingly common response from inerrantists to those who ask historical-critical questions about the Bible is that they are undermining inerrancy and are thus mouthpieces of Satan. Defenders of inerrancy are following Jesus’s lead, while non-inerrantists, who are perceived as denying the Bible, are doing what the serpent did to Eve in the Garden, which is get her to doubt God’s Word by asking, “Has God really said?”

In my last post, I observed that Bob Yarbrough is representative of inerrantists when he suggests that Jesus had a word-that-proceeds-from-the-mouth-of-God view of scripture (see Matthew 4:4), which according to Yarbrough is approximate to modern day inerrancy.

In this post, I observe that while inerrantist writers of this sort pose themselves as the good guys (doing and believing what Jesus did) they also have no qualms about presenting views that “challenge” God’s Word as being in step with the devil’s motives.

I give two examples. First, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, makes the claim in a 2013 Alumni chapel at Southern Seminary concerning the denial of inerrancy:

There’s always a spiritual element behind it because I think the first recorded attack on the inerrancy of scripture we see is in Genesis chapter 3: “Has God really said?” (41:25)

So, inerrancy is a spiritual issue and to question inerrancy is to follow Satan’s lead.

Second, David Garner, associate professor of systematic theology at Westminster Theology Seminary, adds some heated polemic for good measure in his introduction to Did God Really Say?

When the serpent asks, “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1b), the manner in which he tempts our first parents exposes his consistent modus operandi. God’s Word serves as Satan’s point of attack . . . With the force of spiritual authority itself, we turn the question, Did God Really Say?, right back on those who continue to misrepresent the gospel with serpentine-compatible methods. (p. xxii)

I have devoted quite a bit of time researching and writing in an effort to help Bible-believing Christians come to see that large swaths of American inerrantist culture is taken in by a rhetoric of fear, the sociological effect of which is to keep people from voicing honest and genuine questions concerning inerrancy (see again my last post).

As soon as students begin to think that they may have good reason to become critical of inerrancy, it is suggested they are ceding to temptation and being seduced by “serpentine-compatible methods,” as Garner puts it.

In these examples, commitment to inerrancy is presented as a spiritual obligation: If a student wants to make sure they aren’t following the devil’s lead (and who would ever say that they want to do that?) then they’d better quit asking such critical questions about the Bible let alone entertaining critical answers to those critical questions. Indeed, so long as there remains some solution to a problem that can save inerrancy, one had better accept it since trust in and obedience to God requires it.

This clear-cut, either/or choice–side with Jesus or Satan–poses a troubling dilemma for inerrantist churchgoers and students who begin having genuine questions.

But I am encouraged to see that more evangelical believers are coming to understand that the dilemma posed by some inerrantists is a false one—and in doing so they are actually the ones following Jesus’ lead.

You have heard it said that “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” but I say to you do not resist an evildoer (Matthew5:38-39)

Wait a minute! Is this not in essence what inerrantists claim that the devil was trying to do in Gen 3 in the Garden? But here in Matt 5, it’s Jesus who’s doing it. Didn’t the devil question the meaning of what the Word of God requires from believers? Well, according to Matthew, this is exactly what Jesus did throughout his preaching.

In fact, questioning what God really said appears to be Christ’s “modus operandi.” The main difference is that Jesus claimed that he was fulfilling scripture.

So (Jesus continues) you heard that God said he wants people to love their neighbor and hate their enemy? I tell you that God wants people to love their enemies. (Matthew 5:43-44) If this is not a challenge to God’s word then I don’t know what is, but Jesus explains that it misses the point to see it as a challenge. To understand what Jesus means to say and do by presenting scripture in the way he does, one must accept what Jesus says (and does) as its fulfillment.

Therefore, if we ask, does Jesus challenge people to doubt the popular way of understanding scripture? Or perhaps more provocatively, are Jesus and the devil then not doing more or less the same thing in challenging scripture? We should answer, at least on one level, absolutely.

But on another level, there’s also a world of difference because Jesus’ challenge purports to fulfill scripture, to achieve its purpose, to bring out its full meaning, to re-direct scripture so that it can be put to the service of God’s will.

How does Jesus set out to do this? By tying scripture directly to his mission, by enlisting it in his revelatory message that he is God’s Son and by consistently drawing upon it to support his ministry to the cross.

To support my proposal (and it’s only that, a proposal), I appeal to Matthew 4:1-11 where Satan tests Jesus in the wilderness.

For my part, I think that the scholars who view Jesus’ baptism and temptation as an “apocalyptic journey” or a “visionary experience” are definitely onto something. The heavens opening, the heavenly voice, and the Spirit (and other spirits) guiding Jesus to places throughout the world leave no question in my mind that Jesus underwent altered states of consciousness (and probably regularly did so and taught some of his disciples how to do it too).

Either way, Jesus’ faithfulness to scripture does not lie in a show of his belief in inerrancy (as Yarbrough and others claim) over against the devil’s questioning of it. Jesus’ faithfulness to scripture rather is shown through the dispute over whether now that Jesus has been revealed as God’s Son, he would have what it takes to obey God by carrying out his ministry to the cross.

It is this kind of faithfulness that must prove “according to the scriptures” because it is what God would have Jesus do.

I suggest that this is the aspect of Jesus’ view of scripture that post-inerrantists are trying to emphasize: that the scriptures are to be read in light of Jesus because he is the Son of God and the main way that Jesus showed this is by faithfully carrying out his mission to the cross and folding scripture into that mission.

So it misses the point to suggest that inerrantists are following Jesus while post-inerrantists follow the devil. We are all trying faithfully to follow Jesus—though we have serious disagreements about how best to do this.

Perhaps one important difference between inerrantists and post-inerrantists is that a post-inerrantist may be comfortable saying something like this:

The fact that Jesus is the Son of God is the fact that dictates that the scriptures must now always be read—if they are going to have significance for Christians—with him in mind.

Whereas an inerrantist might feel more comfortable saying something like this:

It’s the scriptures that dictate whether Jesus was right or not, whether he was the Son of God, and it would be mostly on the basis of their authority that we believe.

But, as I see it, this has it exactly backwards. It is Jesus that gives the scriptures meaning (for Christians) in the first place. To ask, “What is the best way to describe this? Should we call it the “authority” of the Bible?” does not make post-inerrantists the devil’s advocate. It’s a believers’ relation to Jesus that attests to this, not how one decides to approach scripture.

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.