Perhaps you’ve seen the conversation among Tim Keller, Alister McGrath, Brian McLaren, and Dempsey Rosales-Acosta on biblical authority from the Q conference a few months ago. I’m not sure it’s worth 38 minutes of your time, but I found Tim Keller’s remarks around the 5-minute mark to be especially helpful.

The first topic discussed by the panel was inerrancy–What does it mean?, Is it a helpful term?, Where did it come from?, etc.

McGrath’s response was disappointing. He explained that he doesn’t like the term because it sounds too self-assured, like we have everything figured out and our interpretations are all correct. He prefers to speak of the Bible as “reliable and trustworthy.”

McLaren’s remarks were frustratingly predictable and predictably frustrating. After asserting that many people in the room will get fired if they don’t affirm inerrancy, McLaren went on to talk about the atrocities Christians have committed by using an “inerrant” Bible (e.g., slavery, killing Native Americans).

When it came time for Keller to talk (around 5:20) the discussion had already moved passed inerrancy, but he deliberately brought the conversation back to the term.

Just for the record: I have no problem at all talking about inerrancy. As a pastor if I actually say to someone, any layperson–if I believe in the authority of the Bible but not the inerrancy of the Bible, they’re going to say, “what’s the difference?” And as soon as I begin to explain it, their eyes glaze over. And they’re going to think of it as a distinction without a difference. If I say it’s not authoritative in all its parts and it’s not inerrant, they understand that. And if I say it’s authoritative and inerrant, they understand that. But to say it’s authoritative and not inerrant, I’ve never in 35 years of working with people been able to get that.

Keller is absolutely right. Most people in the pew assume that when we say the Bible is trustworthy and authoritative we don’t also mean it makes some mistakes. For them, inerrancy, whether they know the term or now, goes hand in hand with a reliable, authoritative Bible.

I remember several years ago having a conversation with a deacon at another church. He was asking me why I chose one seminary over another. I tried to explain that the seminary he was asking about (the one I didn’t attend) did not believe in inerrancy. This was a smart man, a lawyer in fact, but he had never heard of the term. So I explained that inerrancy simply means the Bible, in the original manuscripts, doesn’t make any mistakes in anything it affirms. I’ll never forget his response: “Isn’t that what all Christians believe?” He grew up in the church and heard his whole life that the Bible was true, reliable, and authoritative. He was not familiar with the term inerrancy and yet he assumed that’s exactly what all those other words implied.

Here’s the bottom line: if we try to parse some fine distinction between infallibility and inerrancy or between reliability and inerrancy, the average churchgoer will think we’re just trying to avoid a label for some reason or just trying to hide something. And very often they’ll be right on both accounts.

*****

Bonus Coverage

I also like Keller’s discussion on the difference between epistemological humility and spiritual humility (lightly edited transcript below):

I’ve heard people talk about epistemological humility saying that you have to admit that it’s hard to judge what the Bible says because there are so many interpretations. It’s hard in a postmodern situation to get people to take your seriously. [So] I think you need spiritual humility. As a sinner, I know I have prejudices. And I know you do too. And there are things you want the text to say and you don’t want the text to say. So we have to be really careful about being too quick to say this is what it says.

Basically, being spiritually humble [does not mean] talking about how difficult it is to figure out and judge all the various interpretations and figure out the culture distance; instead if they see me just being spiritual humble about it and asking them to do it, then they’ll follow. I don’t think it’s an epistemological humility [we need], saying the text is indeterminate and I really don’t know what it means. I think a spiritual humility along with a clear interpretation of the scripture is what has taken me through. And it’s New York. It’s not a backwater place.

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67 thoughts on “Who’s Afraid of Inerrancy?”

  1. Paul says:

    I believe that the review of Enns by Carson that Kevin was trying to link to is here:

    http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/three-books-on-the-bible-a-critical-review.php

    You have to scroll down to find the section on Enns.

    It would be nice to see a response from Enns to this but I don’t know of one. The page on Trevin Wax’s blog that Kevin links to has a response from Enns to a negative review of his book by Greg Beale (and a link to the original review by Beale) so one can get a feel for how Enns responds to his critics.

  2. You are correct about McLaren’s comments being “frustratingly predictable and predictably frustrating.” Let me see if I get his logic straight:

    1. Christians are supposed to believe that the Scriptures are inerrant;
    2. People have engaged in atrocities in the name of Christ;
    3. Therefore, the Doctrine of Inerrancy is responsible for atrocities.

    Now, in logic, this is known as a non sequitur, but I think that McLaren is too smug and too sure of himself even to admit to using bad logic. (I guess he would think it heroic to use bad logic, since it would be yet another blow against the “Doctrine of Theos,” which he claims that evangelicals have embraced.)

    Yes, those of us who embrace inerrancy are going to face hostility for our beliefs. Our “Progressive” culture in this country long has held that Biblical Christianity is a dangerous fraud, and it seems that many of our churches have embraced this view as well. Thanks for standing for the truth, Kevin.

  3. Buster Siren says:

    Some people have started to pick up on this. But Dr. Keller in that video was not saying that IF HE TRIED to say “authoritative” and “inerrant” weren’t the same things that people would have a hard time understanding it.

    What he was saying was that – WHEN HE HAS TRIED TO TELL PEOPLE THAT that they don’t get it. Their eyes glaze over. So I think we have to take him at his word here that that is what he believes and he has tried to explain it to people — but since no one is capable of getting it (except apparently him), he’s stopped trying and he’s willing to just go along with saying the Bible is inerrant. It doesn’t sound like to me he’s really all that convinced.

    Also, even if he does believe it’s inerrant if you listen to him closely in other settings you might discover that he has a different interpretation on things.

    For instance, in this talk: http://www.faithandwork.org/uploads/photos/462-2%20Principles%20for%20Action.mp3

    he says “the primary purpose of salvation is – CULTURAL RENEWAL.” It’s not about saving souls he says… although he adds – that that’s good too! But it’s about “cultural renewal, making this world a better place.”

    I find this very disturbing and I don’t see how one can claim the Bible is inerrant and yet think salvation is all about making this earth a better place.

  4. Bob Peterson says:

    You do raise a very interesting point. I have also found places where Keller says that “the whole purpose of everything God is doing in redemption is to create a material world that’s clean,
    that’s right, that’s pure.” In other places, he says that the earth and universe in which we now live is what will be redeemed and restored as the first priority. He denies the New Testament teaching that the existing world and universe will be burned and a new heaven and earth put in its place.

    This does fit well with the sense that Keller does not really believe in inerrancy, but does affirm inerrancy based on pragmatic considerations. That he has not been able to explain to folks how the Bible can be authoritative if it contains errors.

  5. John Bouwers says:

    OK, I am jumping back in. This discusion on inerrancy has exposed a clear fundamental divergence among fellow, conservative, and bible-believing Christians in their understanding of what the bible means when it speaks of the gospel. On the one hand, there are those who rightly believe that the core of the gospel message is individual salvation by grace through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    The divergence is not where the center of this message lies. The divergence – that has some claiming that Kellar’s belief lies somewhere between pragmatism and heresy – is the scope of this good news, a good news that bible says is the good news of the kingdom that points towards the redemption – not the destruction – of all of reality.

    God’s creation – in every part – will be made ‘new’- the Greek term meaning a renewing not a totally different thing. When Christians give expression to the gospel in their whole lives and all of reality (ie. being good news to the poor as Jesus promised) we are announcing/proclaiming (not causing) the kingdom that is coming.
    This is NOT a 19th century-liberal-sliding-off the gospel; it is the gospel in its fullness with Christ and his redemption at the cross-shaped/empty-tombed center.

  6. Bob Peterson says:

    I did not realize that there is a disagreement among Christians regarding the future of the present earth and universe. That’s what surprised when I read Keller’s views on this subject. I always thought that Peter was describing future events when he wrote;

    2 Peter 3:10-13
    But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up.

    11 Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12 looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13 But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which ighteousness dwells. NASV

    2 Peter 3 certainly doesn’t sound like the language of a dream or poetry. It sounds, to me, like straight forward language which instructs us in how we should live, and what we can expect tp happen in the future. It also certainly sounds to me like the present physical universe will be destroyed, and that it will be replaced by a new physical universe.

    However, I think we are all here to learn, so I look forward to an explanation of what Peter meant by these words if he did not mean what I think he meant.

  7. John Bouwers says:

    Let me note I do not speak for Rev. Kellar. But let me respond to the 2 Peter referenced by Mr. Peterson with a couple of main points.

    Firstly, the end times. I do agree that Peter speaks not of dreams or poetry but that his call is that we need to know and believe that a Last Day will come, slow is it may seem. What wonderful words are here, “He is patient with you, not manting anyone to perish but everyone to come to repentance.”

    The questions is whether these words describe God destroying creation (like it was an error that needs to be rubbed out) or is it God redeeming creation. My reading of John 3:16, “For God so loved the ‘kosmos’ is that God is intending to re-new creation. And – I humbly suggest – the text supports this. As noted in my previous post, the Greek word used for a ‘new’ creation ‘kainos’ implies a renewing versus a whole new thing. Now the words about destruction seem pretty strong until you notice an even stronger term for destruction is used in verse 6 in describing the flood. The flood of course did not wipe out the world; it renewed the world. Then there is the ‘elements’ reference. Here too we see a Greek term used elsewhere by Paul in many places (Gal. 4:3, 9, Col. 2:8) to describe the basic spiritual forces from the fall. Yes, they will be destroyed too!

    Of course, one could go back and forth on these texts, recognizing that in the end, God’s judgment and this new heaven and earth will will be wonderous and beyond our ability to say anything but, “WOW!”

    And yet, a second point remains. My point in the earlier post was to challenge the understanding that a focus on justice, care for the poor and even reforming culture is a liberalized distraction from the gospel. (It can be if we believe we – in our own power – are bring the kingdom of divine grace.) The center of the gospel is the cross and the empty tomb but the breadth of the gospel is all of life, a life that Jesus himself call us into a ‘kingdom-lean’ towards those in need, a lean that matches the rule of God in the Old Testament (ie. The Prophets, “I hate your worship because you ignore the poor”). Jesus first words in the sermon on the mount was, “Blessed are the poor for to them is the kingdom of God” and the first words in his hometown was, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news…to the poor” and his whole ministry – even his healings – had a liberating effect on those in need.

    When our lives announce what Jesus called his disciples to announce “The Kingdom of God is at hand” we are not only obedient but we draw people to center – Christ – as it was in Jesus day.

    Ok. Too long. Now I will listen. :)

  8. Bob Peterson says:

    I’m sorry, but I’m confused. I asked for a cogent explanation of what Peter wrote about the future. My impression is that there was a waving of the wand, and vague comments about other passages and verses. Let me put it plainly. Do you have an alternative explanation for what Peter wrote in 2 Peter 3: 10-13? If not, then I must conclude that my understanding of the passage is correct. Perhaps I should post my source of Keller’s views on this subject? This issue looks to me like an excellent example of the debate about Biblical inerrancy. Is the scripture in error on this point? Can we wave a wand of obscurity and make it go away?

  9. John Bouwers says:

    I guess I thought I was trying to wave words closer to the original autographs rather than a wand of obscurity.

    I do not suggest scripture is in error at all but rather what you and I – apologizing for any weakness in my cogency – are discussing is whether there is an error in either or both of our understanding of what this text and broad sweep of scripture means about the renewal or destruction of creation.

  10. Buster Siren says:

    John, that’s pretty close to how Tim Keller and the people at Redeemer would defend their position. The problem many have, is not so much that particular defense, but what it ultimately leads them to. It ultimately leads them to a strong emphasis on social justice and cultural renewal. And less emphasis on sin, repentance, grace and forgiveness. (I say LESS emphasis… not “no” emphasis!). But then even when they do talk about grace it’s ultimately to make us more generous so we can help make the world a better place!

    A bigger problem is one on which I suspect we might agree. I believe the Bible teaches that the primary of salvation is – salvation. Is the saving of our souls from eternal punishment in hell – to eternal reward with God in heaven, thus bringing God the ultimate glory.

    The people at Redeemer seem to believe that if you’re the type of Christian who believes that, that you then cannot also believe that AS A RESULT of your salvation you may be led by God to work for the improvement of things here on earth.

    Keller indicates in the audio I provided a link to that it’s either or. If you believe the primary purpose of salvation is salvation, he suggests that you then almost definitionally can’t believe that you should also work for good things on earth.

    Thus the church ends up putting a huge emphasis on good works to the detriment of an emphasis on sharing the Good News of Salvation with others. I believe you can do both. In fact, Christians for centuries have done good works so that they could share the Good News of Salvation. Keller believes however, that people like that are focused too much on salvation and view this earth as a temporary saving ground — which he believes is the wrong emphasis.

  11. John Bouwers says:

    What an astute and gracious response, Buster. It is both,and (I think Hugh Halter has book out with the title ‘AND”). Theology is a profoundly helpful tool to disciple our reading of scripture, a check if you will, but the only theology that really matters is a lived “by their fruit you will know them” one. As James noted (paraphrasing, James 2:19), “Even the demons have good theology.” I am from the same theological tradition as Kellar but in constrast to his church my denomination has been weak on the evangelisitic side of AND… while others I read in these pages believe in grace but don’t always know how to live (or write) graciously. Better yet are those from any denomination who – may not have their theology systemitized – but just share and live the good news. Peace.

  12. Buster Siren says:

    John, I like that title — AND! That really sums up a lot! Thanks for your kind response.

  13. Buster Siren says:

    Oh, one other thing while I’m thinking about it. This whole thing on Tim Keller and inerrancy – you really have to look at the bigger picture of Redeemer church and all the things it’s doing. Redeemer for instance has a teacher named Ron Choong who teaches classes on Sundays. He has some rather disturbing beliefs. He doesn’t believe Adam and Eve were real people but rather a “composite hominid endowed with a moral sense”, he doesn’t believe Job was a real person. He doesn’t believe all of the books of Paul were really written by Paul and he of course doesn’t believe in the 6 days of creation. He believes there were many mistakes made in the copying of the original manuscripts because he says the people who copied them didn’t realize it was the Word of God – so they weren’t as careful as they should have been.

    And Redeemer promotes him and allows him to teach in the church. And the upshot of all of his teachings is that you walk away with a sense that if the Bible was at one time inerrant, you’d never know it now! Because it is now impossible for anyone to really know what the Bible really said.

  14. David says:

    Hmm, what is a simple illustration? Take the color blue-green, or turquoise, or sea-green. If you ask a group of people what color it is you will get many different responses, right? But, do any of these responses (words, thoughts, descriptions, convictions, etc.) change ‘what’ the color is? No. And then you can see the ridiculousness of an argument in defending one persons “it’s blue-green!” against a “no, it’s turquoise!”. It is what it is. And however we may like to load our presuppositions or however confident we may be in our assessment of scripture how can we, in light of Hebrews 1, pretend what we ‘know of scripture’ is where the power is? For did not the Word become…flesh? And did not God reveal himself finally…through the Christ? These transcend any understanding of classification of ‘text’. Practically speaking, I believe when one reconciles every nuance in the gospels, we must admit the are there, they lose the ‘story’ that each gospel theologian is telling. (comp. day of last supper, crucifixion, order of cleaning out temple and cursing fig tree, and many other ‘poetic’ nuances that are told in ways that enhance the claim that…”this is the ONE, the Messiah!”. The argument is indeed tragic in my opinion.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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