The framers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) believed that inerrancy was a doctrine vital to the health of the Christian and therefore could not be set aside or ignored without serious consequence. Yet, even though they held that the doctrine was essential to individual and corporate spiritual well-being, they also believed that an affirmation of inerrancy was not required for salvation (see Article XIX). That is, people may embrace the fundamental components of the gospel and even uphold the truthfulness of most of the Bible while at the same time denying inerrancy.
Inerrancy and Evangelical Spiritual Health
Recently, however, evangelical non-inerrantist Carlos Bovell has challenged the conservative claim that maintaining inerrancy is vital for the church’s spiritual health. He argues that the doctrine of inerrancy, rather than aiding in the nurture of Christian spiritual formation, actually promotes the opposite effect by forcing younger evangelicals to frame their doctrines of Scripture within restrictive philosophical and theological categories that do not account for the critical data of Scripture. In his book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals, Bovell comments,
Theology and philosophy are geared toward generalizing and universalizing theories whereas historical and biblical scholarship tends to examine individual cases. A predilection for theory and system on the part of many evangelical leaders, it seems, is driving evangelical youths to “frequently fall into error” . . . . What’s more, inerrancy, time and again, has proven an unhelpful purview from which to attempt to systematically account for individual critical cases. The result is often to habitually turn a blind eye toward many of the critical cases in question (5).
Drawing from his own experience as he found himself woefully unprepared when confronted by the discoveries of critical scholarship while working from an inerrantist framework, Bovell sets out to “illustrate why the dogma of inerrancy is unhelpful to younger evangelicals and why evangelical leaders should either discontinue its dissemination or begin supplementing it with acceptable, alternate theories” (7).
Toward the end of the book, Bovell summarizes his intention in writing: “The purpose of the entire book is to inform those evangelical teachers and leaders who communicate, implicitly or otherwise, that inerrancy is a watershed issue that they may be inadvertently obstructing their pupils’ spiritual formation” (152). Throughout his work, then, he endeavors to demonstrate the weaknesses inherent in a brand of inerrancy upheld by the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) and the Evangelical Philosophical Society, whose respective doctrinal affirmations state, “We believe the Bible, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the autographs.”
Because it has been this particular variety of inerrancy that has, in many cases, stifled the spiritual growth of younger evangelicals (those who were born after 1975) and driven some to abandon the faith altogether, Bovell proposes that “conservative evangelical teachers and leaders set out to teach their dogmas of Scripture more responsibly, allowing their students some breathing room to approvingly spiritually furlough in the theological company of committed non-inerrantist Christians” (154).
Does the Doctrine of Inerrancy Harm Younger Evangelicals?
Bovell’s contention that inerrancy is to blame for the near shipwreck of his own faith and the spiritual injury endured by many younger evangelicals today, however, is not without its problems. First, of course, is the appeal to experience from the other end of the spectrum. What about those younger evangelicals who have encountered similar difficulties in their study of historical-critical scholarship but have grown stronger in their affirmation of inerrancy as a result? Might not their experience, taken by itself, support the doctrine of inerrancy?
Whether or not these contrasting experiences are relevant, however, depends upon a second point. Could it be that the spiritual troubles that some younger evangelicals are facing today are not a result of the doctrine of inerrancy, but the product of not rightly understanding the doctrine of inerrancy?
Given the last 60 years of controversy over this doctrine, one could make the case that the lack of a clear, consensual definition of inerrancy among Christian theologians is what precipitated the divide that occurred within evangelicalism in the 1950s through the 1970s. It is also interesting to note this current generation’s (the “younger” evangelicals) general lack of acquaintance with the CSBI—a lack of acquaintance demonstrated in the recent incorporation of the document into the ETS bylaws (see footnote #2 on Jason Sexton’s article on the CSBI here).
In light of these two observations, then, it appears just as reasonable to assume that inerrancy as such is not to blame for dampening or ruining the spiritual lives of some younger evangelicals, but inerrancy poorly articulated and subsequently misunderstood. Actually, I would argue that confusion about or lack of awareness of what the doctrine of inerrancy actually affirms and denies is at the root of many of its critiques.
What’s The Remedy?
Even so, while I do not agree that the answer lies in setting aside the doctrine of inerrancy for the sake of younger evangelicals, Bovell may have a point that placing undue pressure upon younger evangelicals to accept the doctrine of inerrancy will eventually damage them spiritually. The pressure they feel, however, may come from biblical and theological illiteracy rather than from the doctrine itself. That is, these young evangelicals’ inability to readily embrace the doctrine of inerrancy may have more to do with a lack of knowledge of Scripture and the evidence that supports its reliability than with whether or not the doctrine is logically tenable. Robert Yarborough, a long-standing advocate of inerrancy, insightfully comments,
Even people who want to believe all of the Bible to the fullest possible extent may be deficit in knowledge of what the Bible actually says. Add to this the fact, as many of us can attest, that even if we possess sound knowledge of the Bible, it is no easy thing to be able to defend the Bible’s truth at points where it is questioned. Informed advocacy of inerrancy typically requires years of study, often knowledge of ancient languages, and not seldom graduate degrees or the equivalent. Extensive pastoral or academic teaching experience is also helpful. All of these things take time, commitment, sacrifice, and the blessing of God [see Yarbrough’s fine article, “Inerrancy’s Complexities: Grounds for Grace in the Debate,” Presbyterion 37 (Fall 2011): 98].
The remedy, then, is not in dismissing inerrancy as a useless doctrine, but in taking care how we seek to persuade others about it. Yarbrough continues,
We go astray when we bind people’s consciences to convictions that they have not had sufficient opportunity to embrace personally in an informed way. We may actually damage people’s moral and emotional health by pressuring them to assent to a doctrine like inerrancy before they have an adequate grasp of what this means.
How one understands inerrancy will also depend upon one’s of worldview and epistemology. I suspect some younger evangelicals are struggling with the doctrine of inerrancy because they have imbibed—wittingly or unwittingly—postmodern views of truth and language, and assumed recent theories of knowledge that undermine the doctrine of inerrancy at a fundamental level. Thus, when I say that the spiritual struggles of younger evangelicals may be the product of not rightly understanding the doctrine of inerrancy, I am acknowledging that a right understanding of inerrancy also involves a right understanding of other doctrinal and philosophical truths.
Nevertheless, evangelicals who desire to see the doctrine of inerrancy upheld and promoted should gladly refute truncated versions of the doctrine, for they only lead to greater perplexity and difficulty for younger evangelicals. The answer is not to abandon inerrancy, but to labor to articulate it accurately and thoroughly.