Pete Enns has been hosting a fascinating series over at his blog in which biblical scholars give their "aha" moments. Exactly what an "aha" moment is varies by contributor, but it'd probably be fair to say that, generally speaking, it's a "that time I realized inerrancy wasn't true" moment. With a strong lineup of scholars, some clever writing, and a well-loved narrative shape—who doesn't like the "I used to reason like a child, but then I put childish ways behind me" format?—it has gained significant attention and apparently hammered nail after nail into inerrancy’s coffin. So, as a prospective biblical scholar, a paid-up member of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), and an author of a new book about Scripture, I thought it might be worth interacting with the series a bit, as well as revealing one of my own "aha" moments when it comes to the Bible.
All the contributing scholars I know—by which I mean “am acquainted with through seminar participation and personal conversation” as opposed to “text and eat curry with regularly”—are models of how careful thought, Christian belief, and critical scholarship can hold together. These guys (all but two are men) are not rabid, liberal, resurrection-denying, evangelical-hating, snarky agnostics. They’re thoughtful, insightful Christian brothers who genuinely believe that the Bible requires a different approach, and different expectations, to the ones they grew up with. It remains open for anyone to disagree with them about some of the conclusions they’ve reached, and in many cases I do. But they’re good guys. That’s important to bear in mind.
It is also obvious that many (if not most) of them have experienced some fairly unsavory varieties of conservative evangelicalism, their departure from which has mostly been welcomed as a lucky escape rather than grieved as a tragic loss. Several of the recurrent criticisms are, sadly, all too recognizable. Inerrantists are often better at apocalyptic fearmongering (“To deny inerrancy is to deny the gospel!”) than patient discussion. A good many do have their heads in the sand (although, to be fair, the same could be said of almost any social group of sufficient size). Many are unduly harsh toward, and unduly scared of, critical scholarship—and often scholarship in general. Frequently, opposing arguments aren’t articulated, let alone engaged with, in a careful and responsible manner, and unfair connections are often made between certain scholarly interpretations and apparently undesirable social or theological consequences. Scapegoating abounds, as several of their stories demonstrate. Slippery slope fallacies (though, of course, they aren't always fallacies) are not hard to find. Witch-hunts do occur.
The bleakness and relative homogeneity of these conservative evangelical backgrounds, however, is an important point to note regarding the series as a whole. It’s been rightly said that Roman Catholics tend to compare Thomas Aquinas with Joel Osteen, while Protestants compare John Calvin with Father Superstitio O’Worship O’Mary O’Riordan. The “aha” series risks a similar comparison of apples and oranges by contrasting the academic rigor and intellectual flexibility of (inerrantist) small-town church pastors who preach against car CD players and going to university with those of (errantist) professors who encourage open debate. The impression given is that a conservative position on Scripture necessarily leads to well-intentioned but clearly ridiculous and eccentric behavior, while a less conservative position leads to rigor and intellectual honesty.
While there are obviously cases where these things do go together, there are many cases where the reverse is true. If you left the church in my parents’ village, with its stuck-in-the-'60s liberal Anglican vicar, and went to study at St. Andrews under Tom Wright, Steve Holmes, and Scott Hafemann, you’d see what I mean. And while I assume many contributors to the series would accept that point, the series as a whole—driven, perhaps, by the way the initial concept for it was presented, and the journey Pete Enns himself has taken in recent years—clearly implies inerrancy in and of itself is somewhat stultifying. (Chris Hays’s piece, in which he talks positively of Wheaton, his supervisor Gene Green, and the research culture encouraged by both is a clear exception; Daniel Kirk also speaks well of the nuanced version of inerrancy taught at Westminster Theological Seminary.) The fact is there are rigorous, fair-minded, and formidably intelligent inerrantists, just as there are culturally disengaged, ill-informed and frankly odd ones. And the same is true of errantists, liberals, Muslims, vegans, Labor voters, Liverpool fans, and so on.
The specific examples of “aha” moments make fascinating reading. Many, perhaps surprisingly, pose no challenge at all to a nuanced view of inerrancy—a good example of which can be found in Kevin Vanhoozer’s chapter in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy—but simply reflect an important discovery made by the scholar in question. Daniel Kirk, for example, found that the way inerrancy was taught at Westminster was compatible with rigorous scholarship, although it didn't correspond to the way most evangelicals used the term. Michael Pahl discovered Genesis 1 didn't necessitate young earth creationism, that Moses didn't write prophetically about his own death in Deuteronomy 34, that Revelation wasn't all about the rapture and the end of the world, and that Paul’s gospel wasn't only about how sinners can get saved from hell and go to heaven. Charles Halton saw that Genesis 1 and 2 were complementary theological accounts rather than chronological lists of what happened when (and that the translation “had formed” in Genesis 2:19 is an implausible attempt to avoid an apparent contradiction). Lindsey Trozzo learned to read the Bible in community with others who disagreed with her. Michael Ruffin realised Moses didn’t write everything in the Pentateuch. Anthony Le Donne, in a humorous and honest piece, came to see the Bible as much more than an “owner’s manual” as a result of seeing divergent voices over matters like interracial marriage, suffering, faith and works, and even answering fools according to their folly. Pete Enns himself was astonished that Paul would affirm the Jewish tradition of the moveable well in 1 Corinthians 10:4. Carlos Bovell noticed a commitment to inerrancy constrains one’s biblical scholarship by ruling out certain outcomes (although most philosophical commitments work the same way—try accounting for the resurrection accounts as a materialist, and you’ll see why). And Megan DeFranza found Jesus spoke in Aramaic rather than Greek, and that the Gospel accounts were therefore not word-for-word transcripts of what happened. None of these discoveries, as important as they clearly were to each scholar, poses the slightest challenge to a well-versed understanding of inerrancy.
John Byron makes a stronger challenge. He argues Jesus got it wrong on two counts in Mark 2:26: first by saying David gave the bread to those who were with him, in contradiction to the claim in 1 Samuel 21:1 that he was alone, and second by saying Abiathar was high priest at the time, when it was actually Ahimelech. The latter example is well known: the Greek construction in question, epi Abiathar, refers elsewhere in Mark to “the section of Scripture about” (12:26) and thus may simply be referring to the story with reference to the more well-known character (though this, like any reconstruction, is of course unprovable). But it's strange to claim Jesus was mistaken in saying David gave the bread to his men. The passage 1 Samuel 21:2 refers to the young men joining David later, 21:4 has the priest asking if the young men have kept themselves from women, and 21:5 has David responding that indeed they had. Rather than contradicting the Old Testament text, this example sees Jesus reinforcing a point it makes three times in six verses.
And then there are all the scholars named Chris, who (I assume coincidentally) had “aha” moments that seem to conflict with inerrancy more directly. Chris Hays was researching 2 Peter 2:15 and found that the best and earliest manuscripts said Balaam was “of Bosor” rather than “son of Beor” (a helpful discussion and explanation of which, from an inerrantist perspective, can be found in the Baker commentary on 2 Peter and Jude by Hays’s supervisor Gene Green, [289-290]). Chris Tilling heard Walter Brueggemann point out that the Bible said some strange things about God: he overpowered Jeremiah, sent a lying spirit to Ahab, tried to kill Moses, and gave a much more inclusive vision of eunuchs in Isaiah than in Deuteronomy. Chris Keith was more affected by the way inerrantists behaved, both in representing other views dishonestly and in treating those with whom they disagreed without respect; the specific biblical difficulties he mentioned were the dating of the crucifixion (see below), David’s census (on which I’ve written here), Paul’s Hagar allegory (which requires careful explanation but poses no challenge to inerrancy), and some of the sexually explicit material in Genesis, Judges, Song of Songs, and Ezekiel (ditto). Finally, Christopher Skinner encountered the different genealogies of Jesus, one of the most well-known and formidable puzzles in the New Testament.
Interestingly, despite the combined length of these 15 articles, only the genealogies of Jesus and the day of the crucifixion present substantial challenges to inerrancy as such. (I cannot imagine anyone in the ETS getting into a defensive lather over the lying spirit God sent to Ahab, or the death of Moses, or the fact Jesus spoke Aramaic, or the way Song of Songs talks about breasts.) In these two cases, all interpreters have to admit: we simply don't know the best explanation. Inerrantists will almost always admit there are multiple possible solutions, that we don't have enough evidence to be certain which is best, and that we cannot be certain of a consistent solution (my limited range of Gospel commentaries includes excellent discussions on both issues from scholars like Howard Marshall, Leon Morris, Don Carson, Dick France, and others). Errantists will almost always admit they cannot be certain why the differences emerged either, that we don't have enough evidence to be certain which explanation is best, and that we cannot be certain there isn’t a consistent solution. Both will usually agree, in fact, that some historically guided speculation is needed to explain the different texts, and that a degree of humility is required in the process. The different resolutions they accept, in the end, will reflect the interpretive presuppositions they bring to the material.
Which is always the way. If Bart Ehrman, Dominic Crossan, James Crossley, N. T. Wright, and Simon Gathercole all read Luke’s Gospel together, they will obviously find that their philosophical commitments shape their interpretations of the text—and, since they are honest scholars, they will strive to allow the text to shape their philosophical commitments. Ehrman and Crossley will reject explanations of the miracle stories that involve them having actually happened. Gathercole and Wright will reject explanations that involve them not having actually happened. Crossan will foreground sapiential material and regard many apocalyptic passages as being inauthentic. Wright will foreground the same apocalyptic passages, and read the sapiential ones in a thoroughly different way. And so on. Clearly, it's open to any of them (and any of the “aha” scholars, and in fact anyone at all) to claim their reading is more historically robust, and philosophically consistent, than the others’. But none of us can claim we're free of those commitments, nor that we have somehow circumnavigated or avoided their influence while doing our scholarship. All we can claim is that, if we're truly prepared to research with integrity and in community with others who disagree, we will modify or even abandon our commitments if they run contrary to the evidence.
On the Basis of Evidence
Belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, then, like belief in the truthfulness of Christianity or materialism or anything else, is provisional—scholars hold to it (or not) on the basis of the evidence they've seen. Affirming the Bible is true, just like affirming the Christian creeds, is a statement of current conviction: “Based on what I know now, I believe that the Nicene Creed/the New Testament is correct, when properly understood.” It doesn't prevent individuals from researching carefully, nor from abandoning or adjusting their commitment if the evidence takes them that way; the changes of conviction, affiliation, and worship practices of many of the “aha” scholars, as well as those who have moved the other way, should be evidence enough. In some cases, no doubt, belief in inerrancy is associated with fearmongering, closed-mindedness, misrepresentation, and rudeness. But the same is true of evangelicalism, and Protestantism, and Christianity as a whole, let alone atheism, Islam, feminism, materialism, and virtually all beliefs held by human beings. I’ve seen a fair bit of it on Pete Enns’s own blog, and I imagine he’d say the same of mine.
At our best, both those who reject inerrancy (like Enns) and those who affirm it (like me) are calling for humility when it comes to Scripture. Many of the “aha” scholars are pointing out a rather closed-minded arrogance that can afflict those with a more traditional view of the Bible: “The Bible is true, and we’ve always read it like this, so we’re right, so we don’t need to read your fancy-pants scholarship, so ha.” I’ve been on the receiving end of that sort of response myself, and their challenge absolutely needs to be heard and acted on. But there is an epistemological humility, which characterizes the belief in inerrancy at its best, that is just as important (if not more so): namely, the belief that we're approaching the Scriptures as the Word of God, as Jesus did, and therefore that we come to be studied and not just to study, to listen and not just to speak, to be judged and not just to judge. We need to keep being asked, as the “aha” scholars remind us: do you understand? But we also need to be asked, as Isaiah reminds us: do you tremble?
So here’s my “aha” moment, which emerges from engaging in scholarship with those who hold to inerrancy, and engaging in worship with those who don’t: you don't have to affirm inerrancy to be a Christian. And you don't have to reject inerrancy to be a scholar. For my part, I think Jesus treated the Scriptures as the unbreakable Word of God, and therefore those who follow him should assume the Bible does not contain mistakes. I’ve written and taught about this point a fair bit, and I imagine I will carry on doing so. I also think arguments about inerrancy in scholarship are frequently confused with arguments about academic freedom in confessional institutions (which is a related but separate issue), and that some of the reasons given for rejecting inerrancy are nothing like as strong as their proponents think they are. But I know some Christian brothers and sisters disagree with me, and I’m going to keep loving them, and keep listening to their conference papers, and keep reading their books. If all truth is God’s truth, then what do I have to lose?