Sunday, December 30, 2007

They are on their own

A friend of mine a few years back complained to me that my concerns about inerrancy led to some real trouble for him as a preacher. He remarked that if we cast doubts on the Bible's inerrant authority then we would have to concede that it is "just him" up there in the pulpit (and not God) giving the sermon. He could not in good conscience concede that during his homilies he was simply preaching his own fallible interpretation of a fallible Bible; he could not concede this to himself, much less to his spiritually hungry congregation. They needed something more than that (and so did he). In fact, he saw it as an ethical matter of the greatest significance that he had to be preaching the Word of God to his congregants, else Christianity would be reduced to some kind of farce. John Frame illustrates the conservative fear when he offers the following surmise: "Liberals use Scripture in their theological work, to be sure. But they reserve the right to disagree with it. So, in the final analysis they are on their own, basing their thought on human wisdom, human tradition." (

They are on their own, but we are not--that is the inerrantist mindset. True Christians are never on their own, they have Scripture; but fallibilists, and every other non-inerrantist Christian, are, when it comes down to it, on their own. This same line of thinking is what kept me an evangelical for 10 yrs or so, until finally, as I try to explain in my book, I was able to see for myself that evangelicals, too, are on their own. Very much to my surprise, I saw that inerrantist traditions are also based on human wisdom and human tradition, it's just that inerrantists are not encouraged to see this, much less admit it. Not only that, but inerrantists too are free to disagree with Scripture, they are simply socially bound to couch any disagreements as reinterpretations based on hermeneutical considerations. But it seems to me that inerrantists arbitrarily refuse to push the hermeneutical envelope as far as they might and that one of the main reasons they don't is a tacit fear that pluralism--the inevitable result of millions of Christians being on their own--seriously threatens the social tenability of inerrantist evangelicalism (a pluralism, I might add, that has developed in spite of, or perhaps even because of, inerrantist efforts to stop it).

Even so, evangelicals are just as on their own in the final analysis as "liberals." I argue in my book that the Bible is a cultural product that has an extended and very complex diachronic history. Biblical materials originated as part of a larger oral culture that circulated these materials in a broader cultural matrix comprised of various assumptions, interpretations and embellishments regarding the original souce material; in other words, the Bible was compiled in an inherently intertextual way such that it maintains a fundamental dialectical relationship with the culture within which it was produced. Inerrantist ways of looking at Scripture often prevent one from appreciating the diachronic history of the biblical materials and their cultural embeddedness. Not only that, but evangelicals, too, are embedded in their own cultural matrix of various assumptions, interpretations and religious embellishments to the effect that they cannot help but contribute culturally to the religious belief systems they construct. The difference between conservatives and liberals, then, is not that liberals are on their own and conservatives are not, but that conservatives tend not to be as open about how deeply constructivist theological speculation is whereas liberals give some lip service to trying to do theology a little more self-consciously. Now how well liberals actually go about doing this, of course, is another story.