Sunday, January 6, 2008

Inerrantists like to purge

The inerrantist mindset is very unhealthy for students in institutional settings, especially students at seminaries. Two faculty members from New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, for example, have been trying to figure out how biblical scholars who accept teams of authors for certain of the Pauline epistles (as suggested in Paul and First Century Letter Writing by E. Randolph Richards) can get along with the theologians who promulgate the standard evangelical accounts of inspiration and inerrancy. But this is a positive example, a situation where the biblical studies faculty member and the theological faculty member are friends, friends who think the other is wrong regarding scripture in the most fundamental way, but friends who can talk to each other and even give a joint public report about it.

Yet there are also very negative examples, frightening examples, if you ask me. One that comes immediately to mind is Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. Pete Enns' book, Inspiration and Incarnation, seems to have really upset some people. I am no longer at Westminster, but it is not difficult to deduce the present situation via a combination of what is being discussed online, what profs from other schools have said to me in passing and the posting I read the other day on Westminster's site about how Steve Taylor is leaving.(

What's it all about? Well even Don Carson admits that Pete has not revealed anything new in his book: "Appearances to the contrary, it advances no new theory or grand hypothesis." All of Enns' Old Testament "problems" are well-known. Vitriolic responses to Enns' book are a symptom of something deeper, some unhealthy underlying spiritual disease--the authority of inerrancy internalized, authoritarianism run amok. For Enns does nothing questionable in his book, he simply compiles a good number of ANE parallels, seemingly paradoxical scriptures, and examples of NT uses of the OT in one convenient place--a number of other conservative evangelicals have done the same separately. Accordingly, the acerbic response, I think, stems not from the substance of Enns' book, but from its pathos. Carson picks up on the same thing when he brings up how Blocher, Schaeffer, or Longman (to name a few) discuss some of the very same problems that Enns touches upon. One can read these authors and find much of the same material treated candidly. The difference is "with Blocher and Schaeffer, one does not feel 'got at'..."

"Got at"--here's the sticking point. Evangelicalism has been privately wrestling with inerrancy for decades, but publicly, well, that's another matter. Publicly, inerrancy has been touted as the belief that distinguishes true Christianity from unbelief. I think that if young evangelicals are even slightly familiar with how 20th century struggles over inerrancy often panned out, they can easily discern for themselves what will happen shortly at Westminster, that is, if it is not happening there already.

An excerpt from Time Magazine, July 26, 1971:

"The jockeying began two years ago, when a grass-roots revolt before the 1969 convention brought conservative Classicist J.A.O. ("Jack") Preus into the presidency of the denomination. But moderates remained in command of the Missouri Synod's respected Concordia Theological Seminary in St. Louis, the largest Lutheran seminary in the U.S. Preus has since consolidated power with aggressive efficiency—moderates say with ruthlessness. Though a number of opponents stayed in untouchable jobs around him, he carefully nurtured grassroots support. The moderates' main complaint against their president stems from an investigation he launched last year at Concordia in response to charges that some seminary theologians were not hewing strictly to the doctrine of the Bible's "inerrancy."

The inerrancy doctrine is at the heart of the present strife. Preus and many other conservatives take the fundamentalist view, which holds that such biblical passages as the Adam and Eve account and even Jonah's journey inside the whale are historically true. For most moderates, however, inerrancy means rather that major doctrines, such as original sin, are divinely inspired truth, while specific stories like that of Adam and Eve or Jonah could be just illustrations of a larger truth.The fight is an old one in American Protestantism, but it has grown up anew in the Missouri Synod with Concordia's efforts to build a topflight Scripture faculty. When Preus' investigation team arrived on the Concordia campus, it was stacked with fundamentalists who see the more liberal position as heretical; a number of theologians feared a purge. At the convention, Preus saw to it that key committees were in the hands of allies. Then he opened the week by laying it on the line to the nearly 1,000 delegates in a dramatic, unflinching call for theological law and order. He asked that the convention require L.C.M.S. members to accept not only traditional Lutheran Confessions of Faith but also all statements on biblical doctrines passed by Synod conventions. The "absolutism" of the presidential wing, wrote the angriest of the opposition newspapers circulating on the convention floor, resembled nothing so much as "gang rape.""

(In this particular schismatic development, it is interesting to note that "there were no real liberals in the Missouri Synod." [])

Excerpt from a New York Times article from December 21, 1892:

"'It is given to every man to proclaim from the housetop anything he may feel moved to utter, if it has the least tinge of decency about it. Dr. Briggs has the liberty to do this on his own responsibility. But he may not use this liberty at the expense of the rights of others. The Presbyterian Church has an equal right to be left free to say to what doctrines she will give her testimony and to refuse her imprimatur for the promulgation of opinions which she considers subversive of fundamental truth. As much as Dr. Briggs, the Presbyterian Church is on trial to-day.

Scholarship has been brought into the case to influence your decision, and for that reason a few words must be said here in reference to it. It has been stated that Dr. Briggs knows more about the Bible than all his co-Presbyters taken together. And it has also been boldly said that the Presbyterian Church, in prosecuting him for heresy, takes a position in favor of a narrow and superficial treatment of Scripture. No doubt some believe these statements. But they believe what is not true. There are many scholars as great as Dr. Briggs. And our Church is in hearty accord with the best scholarship.

But the Presbyterian Church places faith above mere scholarship. It recognizes the truth that the one supreme and distinguishing characteristic of Christian people is that they are believers. They are an army of believers, called of God to fight the good fight, in which, not learning, but faith itself gives them strength and courage, since by it they lay hold of the arm of the Lord and make real the help of heaven for the conflict on earth. The power of the Church is measured by its faith in the truth and promise of God. And so it has ever been the supreme duty of the Church to guard against that falling away which comes through a desire for new things, and above all to see to it that there shall be faith on the earth at the coming of her Lord...

It is not denied that Dr. Briggs has made many orthodox statements in the works which he has put in evidence. And it is not for these that he has been accused, but for utterances in the inaugural which are believed to be heretical.'

At this afternoon's session it is probable that a resolution will be adopted to exclude everybody but members of the Presbytery entitled to vote from the sessions at which the voting shall be done." (

Lastly, an excerpt from an article in Christianity Today, February 3, 1984:

"As one of the five founders of the Evangelical Theological Society, with a heavy heart I officially request that Dr. Robert Gundry submit his resignation, unless he retracts his position on the historical trustworthiness of Matthew's Gospel."

Nicole's motion to request Gundry's resignation was the final stage in a controversy that has been developing ever since Gundry's earlier commentary on Matthew for the Expositor's Bible Commentary was rejected by its New Testament coeditors, Merrill C. Tenney and James M. Boice, despite years of revision. When his views became known, Gundry was asked to deliver a paper on Matthew's theology at a regional ETS meeting. A copy of that paper was sent to Harold Lindsell, conservative defender of biblical inerrancy, who raised the question of Gundry's ETS membership. At the urging of Richard Longenecker of Wycliffe College, Toronto, the ETS decided to take no action until the publication of Gundry's commentary.

In 1982, after publication of the commentary, the executive committee of the ETS under the leadership of Alan F. Johnson, professor of biblical studies at Wheaton College, reported that because Gundry affirmed the ETS doctrinal statement on inerrancy, no action was necessary. Applause followed, which seemed to some to end debate.

But Geisler, for example, was deeply upset by this action of the ETS executive board. Early in 1983 he circulated a letter requesting ETS action on Gundry's membership, and gathered some 59 signatures from faculty members at several theological seminaries. Louis Goldberg, professor of theology and Jewish studies at Moody Bible Institute and 1983 ETS president, responded to Geisler's petition by appointing an ad hoc committee to handle the matter...

The Saturday morning plenary business session that met to vote on the ad hoc committee's proposals was considerably better attended than any of the society's plenary or sectional sessions. Geisler had clearly done his homework carefully. The evening before, he circulated a document, "Why We Must Vote Now on Gundry's Membership, and Why We Must Vote No on Gundry's Membership." He hinted that if the ETS did not remove Gundry, a new "International Theological Society" would be formed to "take the doctrine of inerrancy seriously."
Every major step of the business meeting reflected the preparation of the Geisler forces. The three proposals of the ETS ad hoc committee were soundly defeated. George Knight III of Convenant Theological Seminary then promptly moved that "the ETS go on record as rejecting any position that states that Matthew or any other biblical writer materially altered and embellished historical tradition or departed from the actuality of events." Despite the efforts of Ward Gasque of Regent College to table Knight's motion, it passed 119 to 36, with many abstentions."

Students are not helped when inerrantists purge. After all, students not only want to learn what inerrancy means, they want to know what it means to be an inerrantist. They learn this not so much from reading inerrantist theology and attending inerrantists' classes, but by watching what inerrantists do in response to the evangelicals who disagree with them.