Saturday, March 22, 2008

Damage control

It feels like a scary time in evangelicalism. Inerrancy is seemingly under attack again. But this time it's not the liberals, it's the evangelical scholars themselves! They are suggesting to each other that they take another look at the doctrine and talk about why it now seems wanting. Yet in some ways not much seems to have changed in the last thirty years: Older conservative leadership is alarmed by change and wants to secure the fortress at all costs, controlling the damage that might be done by the younger believers. Thirty years later and it's the same old thing:

"Looking at the inerrancy debate sociologically we can see it as one manifestation of Fundamentalism in the process of change. Even conservative Protestantism is not a static phenomenon, and it is now having to face the question how it will respond to the pluralism of ideas, to the existence of fresh and novel insights. The process is a painful one, especially for Fundamentalism, because of its fortress mentality, its inability historically to view change in terms of creative possibility, while remaining serene and composed in the face of it. Although my wish may not be fulfilled, I sincerely hope evangelicalism will find room for a diversity of human opinion on the nature of biblical inspiration and discover rich and productive theological renewal as a result.

On the darker side, it is not unreasonable to conjecture that the struggle over a code-word like inerrancy has political implications as well. Pentecostal Old Testament scholar, Gerald T. Sheppard of Union Theological Seminary, sees the debate as an attempt by the northern evangelical establishment to impose technical language upon the evangelical coalition and maintain control and social cohesiveness by means of it. The older conservative leadership of evangelical institutions, alarmed at the uncertainties involved in the theological and social change visible in the movement, are moving to clamp down on unpredictable elements by means of inerrancy terminology, which, if strictly interpreted, is certain to ensure that evangelicalism will remain within fairly strict fundamentalist limits. There is surely truth in this analysis, though it omits some genuinely theological fears and focuses too exclusively on issues of power and control." (Clark Pinnock, "Evangelicals and Inerrancy: The Current Debate," Theology Today 35 [1978]:

Sure there's theology involved, but without acknowledging the instinct toward damage control by those presently in power, discussions will frequently seem to have gone nowhere--especially to those who suddenly find themselves institutionally disenfranchised, perpetually without a place to lay their heads.