LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — On the surface, some dismiss biblical inerrancy as merely an intellectual issue. But, like most things, the surface can be misleading. Beneath the inerrancy debates — including the intense controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s — lies a moral battle: the authority of Scripture itself versus the authority of its reader.
In a panel discussion concerned with “Revisiting Inerrancy” at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern who attended Fuller Seminary during the height of the inerrancy debates in the mid-20th century, explained the conflict of authority.
“An inerrantist really has two fundamental questions when they read and interpret the Bible: First is, ‘What does the Bible mean by what it says?’ and second, ‘What does it mean to my life?'” he said Sept. 27. “But if you deny inerrancy, you’ve got a middle question between those two — ‘Is it true?’ So you become, essentially, the authority over the Bible. You become the authority over what you find acceptable in the Bible and what you find unacceptable and reject.”
Earlier in the semester, Paige Patterson, a key figure in the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence, spoke at the seminary, urging the current generation of seminarians to be unwavering in their commitment to the authority and inerrancy of God’s Word.
Biblical inerrancy is a perspective that views the Bible in its entirety as accurate, true and authoritative in all that it affirms. Southern Seminary’s Gregg Allison, a panelist along with Southern Seminary professors Denny Burk, Russell D. Moore and Ware, said that the Bible itself as well as Christian tradition support this high view of Scripture.
“A strong case can be made for the scriptural affirmation of its own truthfulness,” Allison said. “And then there’s the theological argument: If God, whose Word we have, cannot tell a lie — He always tells the truth — it follows that His inspired Word is true as well. This has been the historical position of the church.”
While the issue of authority remains central to current debates, newer objections to biblical inerrancy argue that to embrace the Bible as inerrant is to perpetuate immorality. If the Scriptures present truth in all that they affirm, these critics say, then readers face the problem of a God who commands wars, judges others and promotes patriarchy.
Imposing external moral standards on God’s Word, Moore noted, is as old as the first humans, who tried to determine morality apart from God’s revealed instruction.
“[The idea that inerrancy is immoral] leads right back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” Moore said. “[The reader] becomes an independent arbiter of what is good and evil. So whenever we start becoming apologetic about the Bible, we start ignoring parts of the Bible because we believe they are somehow bad PR for us. You need to come in and show the way in which God is holy and God is just in the terms that He sets for Himself, not some independent arbitration board.”
Despite this new angle, Burk claimed that the issue looks familiar to its 20th-century predecessor, with meaning and message divorced from texts and words.
“As I’ve looked at it, it looks like the same discussion in different clothes,” he said. “I’m reading a new book that claims that the speech acts of Scripture are inspired, whereas, perhaps, the words themselves aren’t inspired. And that sounds to me a lot like, ‘The main ideas are inspired, but the words aren’t.’ So at the theoretical level, you end up where Wolfhart Pannenberg was, looking for a canon within a canon. We’re having the same conversation all over again, but it’s dressed in new clothes.”
Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr., who moderated the panel, said that, like many challenges to God and His Word, this more-moral-than-thou approach to the Bible can seem intellectually appealing. But the church of Jesus Christ must pay careful attention to its teaching, not fashionable ideas.
“[These challenges] take us right back to Genesis 3,” Mohler said. “And it takes us back to every single point in the history of the church where the church has had to look at error in the face and say, ‘We see the attraction of it, but what it amounts to is a denial of the faith.'”
Mohler took note of two recent books that he said juxtaposed the old and new attacks against inerrancy, one attack with an intellectual focus and the other focused on moral implications.
“Put two books side by side: Peter Enns’ [Inspiration and Incarnation] and the other Kenton Sparks’ [God’s Word in Human Words]. Enns talks about the arrival of such things as Darwinism, the documentary hypothesis in biblical criticism and the discovery of Ancient Near Eastern literature,” Mohler said. These are the “intellectual catalysts” for what Enns sees as “the necessary reformation of inspiration and understanding [of the Bible].”
Sparks, meanwhile, is on the leading edge of the argument that it is abhorrent to affirm biblical inerrancy, Mohler said, summarizing Sparks’ view that inerrancy “obligates us to biblical texts that we need to have the moral courage to say are not only wrong but evil.”
Drawing from Canadian theologian J.I. Packer, Mohler concluded by saying the church must submit to God’s authority, and thus His Word: “When the Scripture speaks, God speaks.”
Patterson, in his August chapel message at Southern, urged students to hold fast to inerrancy, noting, “The devil knows that a quiet confidence in the certainty of God’s Word is his undoing.”
Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, rejoiced that each of the Southern Baptist Convention’s six seminaries embraces the doctrine of inerrancy. In a brief anecdote, Patterson credited six pastors from Alabama, who traveled to Los Angeles in a single Volkswagen Beetle to support the conservative movement at the SBC’s annual meeting in 1981, as the “real heroes of the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Even so, students today should be concerned about the doctrine of inerrancy so that they may be prepared for looming battles within the convention, Patterson said.
“I perhaps will not live to see a serious attack within the Southern Baptist Convention, but you will,” Patterson said. “And you will have to rethink these things for yourself.”
If a person denies the inerrancy of Scripture, Patterson said, he denies the goodness and truthfulness of God. Pointing to Matthew 22, Patterson illustrated the doctrine of inerrancy through Jesus’ encounters with Jewish religious leaders.
Rooting his teaching about inerrancy in the person of Jesus as the Messiah, Patterson used discipleship as a model for believing inerrancy.
“Because Jesus believed that every single word of Scripture was divinely inspired, I’m going to believe that it is the inerrant Word of God,” he said.
Patterson closed his Aug. 28 message by exhorting Southern students to cherish the Bible.
“I believe in the inerrancy of God’s Word because in all the years I have lived, I have watched its power to transform lives.”
As they entered Southern’s chapel, students received a copy of Patterson’s “The Southern Baptist Conservative Resurgence: The History. The Plan. The Assessment,” a collection of articles about the doctrinal struggles in the 20th century.
Video of the panel discussion and of Patterson’s message is available at sbts.edu/resources .
Aaron Cline Hanbury and Craig Sanders write for Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp). To see Mohler’s critique of Enns and Sparks’s approaches, see www.albertmohler.com/2010/08/16/the-inerrancy-of-scripture-the-fifty-years-war-and-counting/