When Fear and Arrogance Never Meet

Peter Enns has been running a terrific series of guest posts by Carlos Bovell, author of the forthcoming Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

In his first post, Bovell talks about a question he had as he was struggling with his own beliefs on the topic of biblical inerrancy:

Why do believers have to wait for people like [Bart] Ehrman to publish books before we find out about all these problems with scripture, problems that scholars have known about all along?

This has been one of my complaints, as well. Growing up, I heard nothing about the disputed authorship of the Pauline epistles, or the probability of 2 Isaiah, or the paucity of historical, scientific or archaeological evidence in support of pretty much any event described in the Bible before the reign of King David.

In fact, I was taught quite the opposite.

I’m not saying my Sunday school classes should have been a lesson in historical-critical scholarship, but if the curriculum at my Christian high school could take the time to argue apologetically for the historical accuracy of, say, the Genesis flood account, certainly it could have taken the time to present at least the other side of the story.

It seems study Bibles are making a more concerted effort in this regard. They approach the critical problems from a conservative vantage point, and their defenses of, for example, a uniform Isaiah are not especially convincing to me, but they are at least honest about the problems many scholars see in the way these ancient texts have traditionally been presented.

The thing is, they’ve done this because they have to. Scholars have been noting inconsistencies and problems with literal readings of scripture since the late 1700s (historically, early church fathers such as Origen didn’t believe in a thoroughly literal reading of scripture, but I’m talking about more recent history, when literalism was the church’s dominant hermeneutic) – and rigorous scholarship has been calling authorship, timelines and uniformity of the texts into question for more than 150 years.

So it’s taken a long time for your basic study Bible to even acknowledge the existence of vigorous and convincing challenges to the traditional beliefs of inerrantists, and they’ve done so mostly because the nature of mass media over the past decade has made it so that these questions have become impossible to ignore, and the failure of the church to address them is leading to an erosion in the faith and spirituality of its younger generations.

The reason this has happened is, as Covell implies, fear. I think some of it also is ignorance. Were my Sunday school and high school teachers afraid of modern scholarship? I think more likely they simply didn’t know it existed. But the reason they didn’t know, and thus the reason I didn’t know, is still the same: These types of questions aren’t broached in conservative Christian circles because to do so is considered a sign of apostasy. There is a fear that to treat these concerns as legitimate is to sacrifice the faith – or that to do so is to encourage the abandonment of it by our children. As Covell says:

What is distressing is not so much the doctrine itself, but the collateral spiritual damage that comes in the wake of its uncompromising defense, even against those from within who voice concerns.

If questioning inerrancy is linked to questioning one’s faith, those with legitimate reasons for questioning inerrancy will either live with unspoken cognitive dissonance or speak up and risk losing much.

Silence is poison, however. It allows us to assume the worst about others and the best about ourselves. It stifles dialogue and cripples civility. Worse, it provides no base of support on which young men and women can lean when they leave home and confront the ideas and evidence from which they have, wittingly or not, been sheltered. In other words, our silence has led to the very outcomes we feared discussion would bring.

Every young Christian should be taught these two statements:

  • You don’t have to believe the Bible is a perfect document, accurate on all matters touched by the literal text, to be a follower of Jesus.
  • You don’t have to accept a single bit of scientific evidence or scholarly research to love God and be an active member of his kingdom.

But right now, with the exception of a few shining examples such as Peter Enns, the respective believers of these statements are not engaging the others. Fear largely is keeping conservatives from addressing the legitimate concerns and hypotheses of the vast majority of biblical scholars, while arrogance largely is preventing moderates and liberals from addressing the legitimate concerns and trepidation of those who worry about the sanctity of doctrine.

The church can and will survive that kind of insularity, but it will be an increasingly older, ineffective group, which will have ceded the kingdom work to which God has called it to younger, increasingly secular generations.

It’s time for a third way, one in which we can respect and affirm the faith of our brothers and sisters while acknowledging the different ways we approach the biblical text. That will not only lead to healthier conversation, but it will give our children a better foundation from which to build their own faith when they leave home.

3 thoughts on “When Fear and Arrogance Never Meet”

  1. I think there may be another side to this as well. Liberals have usually latched onto critical views and theories as a launch pad for their own theological and political views. Thus, the issues and problems (which should have been issues for all concerned) became part of a political struggle — in some cases a political struggle for control of denominations. In this struggle Liberals were no more liberal (in the true sense) than their conservative foes. It became a rigid view of what Scripture was, as well. The Jesus Seminar is a good fairly contemporary example — and I’m thinking here especially of the late Robert Funk. Here, scholarship is wedded to a particular social agenda. The apocalyptic Jesus does not seem to fit, so it’s important to arrive at another Jesus.

  2. Hi Craig, thanks for the feedback!

    I agree the conflation of politics and theology – and the further conflation of textual criticism with theological doctrine – are problems for liberals, but I would argue they are no less problems for conservatives (certainly we have seen conservative interpretations of scripture used to make political arguments often in this election year, and the basic argument against nonliteral interpretation is that theological doctrines will begin to fall when the Bible is read differently).

    So on both sides we have a pride element that overlays the fundamental divide I describe in my post. That’s a good point, and it’s a significant barrier I didn’t think to mention.

  3. >You don’t have to accept a single bit of scientific evidence or scholarly research to love God and be an active member of his kingdom.

    I’m not sure what’s included in “scientific evidence” and “scholarly research”. Does the evidence of our senses, and basic rational thought about causes and effects count? Because I think it would be really hard to love and serve with that sort of bizarre approach to the world. In other words, is empiricism a legitimate way of coming to knowledge about God and God’s kingdom, or is it not?

    I also think it’s strange that the second statement is so broadly eliminative, where the first is not. It seems like an even-handed approach would be something more like:

    1. you don’t have to believe any of the bible to be a follower of Jesus
    2. you don’t have to believe any sensory evidence to be a follower of Jesus


    1. you don’t have to believe the bible is perfect to be a follower of Jesus
    2. you don’t have to believe scientific evidence is perfect to be a follower of God

    Both of these statments are form of a more general statement: “there is no one true way to knowledge of Jesus and God”. Although the one about not believing any sensory evidence seems a bit problematic in its relation to the previous statement, since our experience of the Bible is mediated by our senses. Anyway.

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