I have just returned from the annual meeting of the venerable Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) in Baltimore. I have been active in ETS for about 20 years, since my time at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. This was the 65th Anniversary meeting, so I have been around for about 1/3 of the ETS history.
The theme this year was “Inerrancy and Evangelicalism and the Evangelical Theological Society: Retrospect and Prospect.” Many of the papers presented were looking at the state of the doctrine of inerrancy from historical, apologetic, scriptural, and other viewpoints. I enjoyed the plenary sessions this year with speakers John Frame, D.A. Carson (my mentor), and Ben Witherington III. I also attended several interesting sessions, including a morning focused on the “Historical Adam” and a historical retelling of the inerrancy controversies in the ETS by Craig Blaising of SW Baptist Theological Seminary.
In John Frame’s plenary address, he made a statement that I wish evangelicals would take more seriously. I’m paraphrasing, but Frame said, “After all, we must admit that inerrancy is a theological presupposition. I believe it is supported by the biblical texts, but I suppose that is circular reasoning, isn’t it?” Exactly! Why are we afraid to admit that belief in inerrancy is a theological presupposition, a faith position? The idea that we can conclusively and convincingly prove the Bible is without error from the texts of the Bible itself is asking too much. Those texts that are used for this purpose must be taken on faith. All areas of academic knowledge operate on presuppositions, even the supposedly “hard” sciences. Certainly the softer disciplines like psychology do this.
Repeatedly in the sessions of this ETS meeting, we were told that belief in an inerrant Scripture is the historic position of the church, and that the idea that there are errors or mistakes in the Bible is a recent innovation. Maybe so, but I would like to say these things about my understanding of the doctrine of inerrancy as I hold it. (Please remember I am blogging this at 6 am in Starbucks, so it will not be an inerrant blog. I may need to correct some things later.)
1. While the belief in the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture is indeed the historic position of the church, the inerrancy debate itself is of more recent vintage. It did not impact the USA much until the early 20th century, so serious debate is about 100 years old. As such, the debate is historically conditioned. The players have changed. Henry Emerson Fosdick hardly reads like the vile boogeyman he was thought to be in the 1930s. Some of Carl F.H. Henry’s arguments may seem quaint now, for Bultmann is long dead and his influence has waned. This is why this was an important topic for the ETS, because we need younger scholars to engage this topic in light of the current postmodern milieu.
2. I am more convinced than ever that inerrantists cannot defend an authorless, ahistorical approach to Scripture. What we must defend is the intended meaning of the authors, not our theological projections and interpretations (no matter how cherished they might be). We must stop plucking verses out of context and using inerrancy as a cover for this practice. I still see a lot of this at ETS, especially by the theologians.
For a different perspective, you might be interested in the impressions of this meeting from current evangelical bad-boy, Peter Enns, found on his blog here.
Nebraska Christian College