Biblical inerrancy faces a new angle of moral objections, SBTS panel says

Communications Staff — September 27, 2012

On the surface, biblical inerrancy seems to be merely an intellectual issue. But, like most things, the surface can be misleading. Beneath the inerrancy debates — even the vitriolic controversy within the Southern Baptist Convention during the 1980s — lies a moral battle: the authority of Scripture itself versus the authority of its reader.

At a panel discussion concerned with “Revisiting Inerrancy,” held Sept. 27 at Southern Seminary, Bruce Ware, a professor at Southern who attended Fuller Seminary — a key institution in the mid-20th century debate — explained this conflict of authority:

“An inerrantist really has two fundamental questions when he or she reads and interprets the Bible: First is, ‘What does the Bible mean by what is says?’ and second, ‘What does it mean to my life?’,” he said. “But if you deny inerrancy, you’ve got a middle question between those two: ‘Is it true?’ So you become, essentially, the authority over the Bible. You become the authority over what you find acceptable in the Bible and what you find unacceptable and reject.”

Biblical inerrancy is a perspective of the Christian Bible that views it as both accurate and true in all that it affirms. Southern Seminary’s Gregg R. Allison, one of four panelists along with fellow professors Denny Burk, Russell D. Moore and Ware, said that both the Bible and Christian tradition support this view of Scripture:

“A strong case can be made for the Scriptural affirmation of its own truthfulness,” Allison said. “And then there’s the theological argument: If God, whose Word we have, cannot tell a lie — he always tells the truth — it follows that his inspired Word is true as well. This has been the historical position of the church.”

While the issue of authority remains central to current debates, newer objections to biblical inerrancy propose that an inerrant Bible must be an immoral Bible. If the Scriptures present truth in all that they affirm, then readers face a God who commands wars, judges others and promotes patriarchy.

Seminary president, R. Albert Mohler Jr., who moderated the panel, juxtaposed the old and new attacks against inerrancy, one attack with an intellectual focus and the other focused on these moral implications:

“Put two books side by side: Peter Enns’ [Inspiration and Incarnation] and the other Kenton Sparks’ [God’s Word in Human Words]. Enns talks about the arrival of such things as Darwinism, the documentary hypothesis in biblical criticism and the discovery of Ancient Near Eastern literature. These are intellectual catalysts for the necessary reformation of inspiration and understanding [of the Bible]. I think those things factor in. But I think Kenton Sparks is on the leading edge of the argument, which is moral.

“It is evil and abhorrent to affirm biblical inerrancy, because it then obligates us to biblical texts that we need to have the moral courage to say are not only wrong but evil,” Mohler said, summarizing Sparks’ position.

According to Moore, this imposing of external moral standards on God’s Word is as old as the first humans, who tried to determine morality apart from God’s revealed instruction.

“[The idea that inerrancy is immoral] leads right back to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,” Moore said. “[The reader] becomes an independent arbiter of what is good and evil. So whenever we start becoming apologetic about the Bible, we start ignoring parts of the Bible because we believe they are somehow bad PR for us. You need to come in and show the way in which God is holy and God is just in the terms that he sets for himself, not some independent arbitration board.”

Despite this new angle, Burk claimed that the issue looks familiar to its 20th-century predecessor, with meaning and message divorced from texts and words.

“As I’ve looked at it, it looks like the same discussion in different clothes,” he said. “I’m reading a new book that claims that  the speech acts of Scripture are inspired, whereas, perhaps, the words themselves aren’t inspired. And that sounds to me a lot like, ‘the main ideas are inspired, but the words aren’t.’ So at the theoretical level, you end up where Wolfhart Pannenberg was, looking for a canon within a canon. We’re having the same conversation all over again, but it’s dressed in new clothes.”

Mohler said that, like many challenges to God and his Word, this more-moral-than-thou approach to the Bible can seem intellectually appealing. But the church of Jesus Christ must pay careful attention to its teaching, not fashionable ideas.

“[These challenges] take us right back to Genesis 3,” he said. “And it takes us back to every single point in the history of the church where the church has had to look at error in the face and say, ‘We see the attraction of it, but what it amounts to is a denial of the faith.’”

Drawing from Canadian theologian J.I. Packer, Mohler concluded saying that the church must submit to God’s authority, and thus his Word: “When the Scripture speaks, God speaks.”

Video from the panel discussion, including the full discussion covering a variety of issues not discussed above, is available at sbts.edu/resources (here).

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