The problem with many Evangelicals is that we can come dangerously close to worshiping the Bible. As Evangelical theologian James Sawyer once said in jest, we worship the Trinity: the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.
Now, by this I do not mean we actually set the Bible up in a shrine in our house, throw it away if it ever touches the floor, or put our hand on it when swearing an oath. Of course we are above that, right? What I think people like James Sawyer are talking about is that we put our Bibliology (study of the Bible) ahead of Christology (study of Christ), Pneumentology (study of the Holy Spirit), and Paterology (study of the Father). We hold the Bible in such high esteem that firm adherence to an Evangelical Bibliology (verbal plenary inspiration, inerrancy, and authorial intent hermeneutics) becomes the unashamed anchor to the Gospel. But, eventually, it can (and often does) become the Gospel itself. One may be perfectly orthodox in every area about which the Bible speaks (deeply believing in the deity and Lordship of Christ, the sinfulness of man, and Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection), but if they are not perfectly orthodox about the Bible, to many of us evangelicals, they are not orthodox at all.
Now, let me cease with the self-deprecation for a moment. When straw men are not being built against us (and when we are acting our age!), a high view of Scripture is easy to justify. For example, for many years the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) had only one point in their doctrinal statement that members had to sign every year—inerrancy. And, in my estimation, this was not a bad thing. After all, where do we get our high Christology? The Bible. Where do we get our high view of God? The Bible. Where do we get the Gospel? The Bible. So, in our best moments, we will condemn anything that smells of idolatry concerning the Scriptures. We know that the Bible is not the fourth member of the Trinity. The Bible is not actually alive, but it does accurately reflect the movements of a living God.
How does this translate into our witness? When we are sharing Christ with someone, I have never heard anyone require that they invite the Bible into their heart (although, to be fair, asking Jesus into their heart might cause some problems too!). At baptismal confessions in the early church, there was a renouncing of Satan, but no renouncing of those who deny inerrancy. There was a confession of Christ as Lord, but no confession of Paul as the author of the Pastorals. There was a symbolic burial of our old life but no burial of old books you used to read besides the Bible. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that the early church had a low view of Scripture. Far from it. I even believe that they held to a seed form of inerrancy. What I am saying is that one’s bibliology was not an essential component of the Gospel.
I am really saying nothing new or extraordinary here. I am trying to get people to present the message of the Bible (Jesus Christ and him crucified for our sins and raised from the dead), not the message about the Bible (inspiration, inerrancy, etc). The Gospel message does not require anyone to believe in either inspiration or inerrancy before it can become effective in their lives. When those we are sharing Christ with object to the Scriptures based on supposed inconsistencies, we are to show them that these inconsistencies, even if true, do not change the message of the Bible. The historic message of the Bible needs to take precedence over the theological nature of the Bible. And here is where I feel we Evangelicals, in our zeal and love for the Bible, taint the Gospel with unnecessary additions. These additions, more often than not, drag us down rabbit trails where we can end up losing Jesus altogether as we defend against thousands of claims of Bible contradictions. Further, I believe that this defense needs to be exclusively concerned with the historicity of the resurrection of Christ (“Resurrection Apologetics”). If Christ is risen from the grave, Christianity is true, no matter how many contradictions one thinks they have found. And if Christ did not rise from the grave, Christianity is false, no matter how harmonious the Bible shows to be. In short, I don’t have to convince anyone of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture in order to introduce them to my Savior. I just have to make a case that the historicity of the story of Christ contained in the Bible is reliable enough to warrant their belief.
Deep breath . . . And here is where I am really trying to go with my argument.
Understandably, some people object to this line of reasoning, believing that I am shooting myself in the foot. Many would argue that the only way we can know about the person and work of Christ with certainty is through an inspired and inerrant Bible. Otherwise, according to these, we have no real assurance that what we believe is true. If there can be an error in the primary source for the Gospel, the Gospel itself loses its authority and power to convert. In short, as the objection goes, inspiration and inerrancy must be present or there is no Gospel.
My response is that it is the person and work of Christ that is the ultimate authority, not really the Scriptures. Christ did what he did not because Scripture was written and made it so, but because historically Christ did what he did. The Scriptures have no causal authority when it comes to the Gospel.
But if we don’t assume an inspired inerrant text of Scripture, how can we be certain that the Gospel in the Scriptures is correct? If you are willing to grant a historical error here and there in the Gospel accounts, then this is a slippery slope. Where do you draw the line? How can we be sure that the historical account of the resurrection is not in error?
These are great questions. In fact, being an inerrantist myself, in a different context I would say that they are valid questions that need answers. However, I don’t think the possibility of an error needs to issue forth into the probability of an error. In other words, just because we may grant, for the sake of argument, that there might be errors of history in the Bible, this does not mean that everything is in error. We don’t treat other works of history this way, do we? Just think if we discounted all histories that did not pass the infallibility test. What would we know about history? That’s right. . . Nothing. We understand that even the best histories are only basically reliable, not perfectly reliable. When it comes to the Bible, just because one Gospel writer says that there were two angels at the tomb and another records only one angel, this does not mean that the tomb was not really empty. Remember, concerning the main events, all the writers agree. They all have Jesus living a perfect life, teaching about God, dying on a cross, and rising from the dead. What exactly were his last words from the cross? Was Matthew right, or Luke? Who cares (at least right now)? I just want to talk about the things about which they agree.
Yes, but you are presenting an uncertain Gospel. One can never really be completely sure that they have the right story.
Yes, uncertainty may be a fact of life. But this is true even if you make inerrancy a prerequisite to the Gospel. Think about it. Here are four things concerning Bibliology that are not make-or-break issues for the Gospel and about which we are not completely certain:
1. The canon of Scripture: If you are a Protestant, you may believe that the very words of the Bible are inspired and inerrant, but here is the problem: you don’t have an inspired and inerrant Bible. In other words, whatever the Bible is, you believe the text is inspired and inerrant. But you don’t know with infallible assurance what the Bible is. How so? Because we have a fallible cannon. There is no inspired and inerrant table of contents in the Bible. Therefore, you have to live without the luxury of inerrancy when it comes to the canon. And last time I checked, the canon of the Bible is somewhat foundational to what the Bible is! But I don’t think this is a make or break issue for the Gospel . . . do you? I hope not. If you do, you will have to become Roman Catholic to get the certainty that you think is necessary.
However, like with the inerrancy of the text, I don’t think we have to go there. I trust that a study of the history of the canon can give us not only assurance, but warranted obligation to believe that we have the right books in our Bible.
2. The text of Scripture: Again, we don’t have any infallible manuscripts of the Bible. Of the six thousand plus New Testament manuscripts and fragments of manuscripts that we have catalogued, not one of them is without error. There is no place that you can go to in order to have absolute certainty about the text of the Scripture, Old or New Testament. But this need not cause us despair as we can look into this issue, study it deeply, and come away with a firm conviction that we have the essential message, even if there are going to be some passages that may be forever lost in obscurity.
3. The translation of Scripture: Unless you are a King James Only advocate, you do not have a perfect, infallible, inerrant, or inspired translation of the Scriptures. Neither the NAS, NIV, ESV, KJV, nor NKJV are perfect. They all have mistakes. We don’t know where they are or we would fix them, but all messages have lost something in translation. Does this mean we are left only to uncertain despair? Well, only if indubitability (the belief that knowledge is only justified when we have absolute certainty) is your goal. Only if you cannot live with a bit of uncertainty. But all one has to do to regain confidence is to get involved in the translation process yourself. Once you do, you will see that it is not doom and gloom. We have every reason to believe that even the worst translations out there get across the general message of the Gospel.
4. Interpretation of Scripture: No one I know is an infallible interpreter of Scripture. Even the King James Only advocate has to admit uncertainty here. We have to live with the fact that we might have, and teach, wrong interpretations of the Scripture. But this does not mean that we cannot have a good degree of relative certainty about our interpretation. For the most part the Scriptures are not that difficult to understand. We often call this the perspicuity of Scripture. This does not mean that all of Scripture is easy to understand, only that the main teachings are clear enough that even a child can understand them.
In all four of these, we have to live with uncertainty. We need to get used to it. Even with an inerrant text of the Scripture we still have to live with our limits. If you cling to a modernistic, Cartesian ideal of absolute certainty, you are in trouble. But we can have sufficient warrant for our beliefs even when we are not mathematically certain that we are correct.
Why all of this? And I trying to slowly phase inerrancy out? Absolutely not. I am an inerrantist by theological deduction. I believe that the Scriptures are from God. I believe that God is perfect. Therefore, I believe the Scriptures, if we are going to have any meaning to inspiration, are inerrant. But I am not an inerrantist because I believe the Gospel is lost without it. In a world where just about every evangelistic atheist has on their resume, “Can bring to light 1001 Bible contradictions,” I want you to be able to get past this issue. It only ties the Gospel up in endless legislation.
As well, I want to reorient your perspective, if need be. The Bible is not the Gospel. We often accuse Roman Catholics of worshiping Mary and Eastern Orthodox of worshiping the Saints. Unfortunately, against their higher ideals, many times the accusation fits the bill. But while our highest ideals abhor the notion of worshiping the Bible, unfortunately, this charge sometimes fits the bill as well. We don’t worship the Bible. We can hold to a high view of Scripture (and we should) without having to deify it. God has revealed himself to us in Scripture, but he is not Scripture. We worship the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, not the Father, Son, and Holy Bible. Stick to the resurrection of Christ and you should be fine. But this assumes you are a student of the resurrection. Are you?
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]