Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy: Michael Bird Says, "Inerrancy Is Not Necessary For Evangelicalism Outside the USA"
At the 65th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society two weeks ago we introduced a new timely resource releasing next week (12/10/13), Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. It represents some of the finest, cogent work on evangelical reflection on inerrancy.
Bird contends that "while the American inerrancy tradition possessed a certain utility for the 'Battle for the Bible' in the twentieth century, it is not and should not be a universally prescribed article of faith for the global evangelical church." (145)
Why? Because the American inerrancy tradition is modernist in construct and American in context. (145) Instead, what Bird argues best represents the international evangelical view is a commitment to the infallibility and authority of Scripture.
While Bird contends he is "generally appreciative" of the CSBI's "robust and forthright statement of biblical authority," he does have four concerns and qualifications. He says the CSBI has:
- A defective view of the genre of the biblical creation account and its relationship to scientific models
- An assumption that biblical veracity rests on harmonization of discrepancies
- A revisionist view of the history of biblical interpretation and a lack of reflection on the contingent conditions behind inerrancy
- An unfortunate trend toward theological colonialism
One of the more interesting sections was his perspective on the historical record concerning the Church's affirmations of the Holy Scripture. Christians through history have affirmed the Scriptures come from God, are to be read and studied in churches, contain the rule of faith, are without falsehood, and are true and trustworthy. But it is a "stretch," Bird says, to suggest that "the CSBI understanding of inerrancy is and always has been normative in church." (149-150) For him this is an important reason why American evangelical inerrancy shouldn't be universally prescribed.
From the early church, for instance, while Augustine seems close to the CSBI affirmations, Chrysostom sounds closer to infallibility than inerrancy. For Origen, a doctrine similar to inerrancy only applied to the level of spiritual interpretations, not the historical record of Scripture. Bird contends church history is a bit more diverse regarding the understanding that Scripture is true and without grievous errors than defenders of CSBI care to admit. (150)
He also says that "inerrantists sometimes engage in some anachronistic history in order to defend their view." If inerrantists can prove a revered figure in church history held to inerrancy, then there would be another reason to believe. Often such attempts are "desperate and overcooked," however. (153)
As Bird says the logic goes: "Good and godly people believe what the CSBI says; John Calvin was a good and godly person; Therefore John Calvin believed what the CSBI says." (153) Bird's point isn't that Calvin didn't hold to inerrancy—he believes he'd be very close. It's that "the context for studying John Calvin is not late 1970's Chicago as a response to Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, but medieval Catholicism..." (154)
Bird maintains we need to "resist the temptation to turn our heroes of the faith into advocates of our own positions in light of our own contemporary debates." Furthermore, modern defenders of biblical inerrancy need to give more sufficient attention "to the philosophical, theological and hermeneutical paradigms that have accompanied inerrancy-like affirmations in church history." (154)
As a historical theologian I appreciate Bird's desire to get at how the Church has talked about Scripture through history. I also appreciate Bird's desire for evangelicals, particularly American ones, to become more self-conscious of the historical and philosophical factors that have contributed to our theological positions, such as the development of the CSBI.
Bird's essay is an important chapter in an important discussion on biblical truth and interpretation. Next week we will engage Kevin Vanhoozer and John Franke. In the meantime, pre-order this new resource in order to engage this conversation yourself.
Jeremy Bouma (Th.M.) is a pastor with the Evangelical Covenant Church in West Michigan. He is the founder of THEOKLESIA, a content curator dedicated to helping the 21st century church rediscover the historic Christian faith; holds a Master of Theology in historical theology; and writes about faith and life at www.jeremybouma.com.
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