Should We Blame Inerrancy for the Spiritual Troubles of Younger Evangelicals?

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 EvangelicalsBovell 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.

Photo: Robert Crouse-Baker

6 thoughts on “Should We Blame Inerrancy for the Spiritual Troubles of Younger Evangelicals?”

  1. This topic really gets to the idea of how one attains saving faith. If one believes faith is dependent upon how attractive and appealing the gospel presentation can be made to carnal individuals and how well it accords with their contemporary cultural mindset, then the doctrine of inerrancy might be an impediment to faith.

    However, if one thinks faith requires the Holy Spirit bringing conviction of sin (John 16:8), if one thinks faith requires repentance deriving from God leading to a knowledge of the truth (2 Tim. 2:25), if one thinks salvation requires new birth from an external source (John 3;3,5), if one thinks saving faith is gift of God deriving from His grace so that no one can boast (Eph. 2:8,9); in a nutshell, if one thinks faith is a matter of God’s effectual call to those chosen to be His before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4), then not only is the doctrine of inerrancy no impediment to faith, but it becomes one of the pillars of truth upholding the gospel.

    Thus, the doctrine of inerrancy is not the reason young evangelicals might reject saving faith, any more than it is the reason anyone rejects saving faith. Spiritual error, darkness, blindness, sinfulness, wickedness,etc. is the reason people of all ages reject saving faith. For all ages, “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Rom. 10:17) The word of God, simply sown in a faithful manner with full understanding that God is THE actor in calling His own to Himself, will bring its harvest as determined by God (Matt. 13:1-23; Mark 4:26-29).

  2. Inerrancy is to me not “sola scriptura” in and of itself as evidenced by Jesus himself clarifying “what scripture means” vs. what Pharisees proclaimed as “inerrant.” So JC himself clarified such things as divorce, work on the Sabbath, eating of unclean food against the backdrop of religious experts that pronounced “this is the way it is inerrant in scripture.” So leaders, particularly religious, tend to use these things as a means to their authority vs. truly HIS authority. I am not an expert and likely “experts” will point out to me my flaws. Blind “inerrancy” falls apart by simply reading the four gospel accounts of the resurrection. Each different on basic points. The amusement comes when the strict then go into a circle trying to explain why that which is inerrant is so inconsistent. If the God wanted us to be of such mindset, why would He inspire inconsistent accounts and why would His Son seem to call into question the “inerrant” beliefs of the religious leaders of the day? To me the breakthrough comes not from such views but when the Word is considered the ultimate wisdom of God to apply to our lives. If one focuses on “What is the wisdom the Lord is revealing to me to apply in my life.” it becomes that much more beautiful. It also leads to the same conclusions on contemporary issues (homosexual acts are not in keeping with His plan, killing the unborn is never His will, etc.). I believe those reaching on-Biblical conclusions on contemporary issues are not rescued via “inerrancy” but pushed away. The more basic question “What is His wisdom?” asked with the Word and the Spirit will not give a wrong answer – we will know the right answer even if we act and rationalize contrary to His will.

    Last point, the early church had only the Old Testament as the New did not yet exist. Instead there were many books / accounts etc. I think they had to have relied on more of a wisdom of Christ view than that any particular handed down story was “inerrant.” In fact, I don’t think the cannon was “agreed” until the 4th century. Again, if we have the Word and we truly have the Spirit we will not go astray.

  3. Pingback: Inerrancy
  4. Happy Easter, Mr. Brown, and thank you for mentioning my book, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals, in your post. I regret that you give no indication that I presented six examples of why younger evangelicals begin having trouble with inerrancy and explained how when some students encounter these problems, they come to doubt inerrancy and find themselves left without options. It is not because they do not understand inerrancy that they have problems. On the contrary, it’s because they understand it all to well that they are having problems in the first place.

    Why do you not let on in your post that I and other critics are fully aware of how inerrantists try to answer these phenomena? It’s just that, in our view, inerrantist answers oftentimes do not do as much justice to scripture as the critical responses do. Has your post not been unduly influenced by J. Sexton’s Themlios article, namely in how he repeatedly complained that inerrancy’s critics “show no real knowledge of the [CSBI] or its contemporary relevance”? I am astonished that you and other inerrantists are now deciding to say–with a serious face apparently–that we don’t know what we’re talking about. Honestly, it makes wanting to continue the discussion difficult.

    You may find it of interest that Craig Blomberg disagrees with the affirmation of the Chicago Statement that “inerrancy was a doctrine vital to the health of the Christian and therefore could not be set aside or ignored without serious consequence” (your words, first paragraph in the post above). Blomberg thinks that inerrancy’s significance is overstated in the Chicago Statement because in his experience he has seen believers set aside inerrancy WITHOUT “grave consequence.” (See Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible?, page 273, note 20.)

    Grace and peace,
    Carlos Bovell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s