Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Inerrancy hits the fan. Again.

Ben Myers of Faith and Theology has run an amusing poll for the worst theological inventions. Last I looked, 'inerrancy' was the chosen leader of this poll ahead even of 'Double predestination', 'the rapture', 'Arianism', 'Christendom as an empire' and 'Just war theory'.

Now it is no secret that I don't like the doctrine of inerrancy, especially as it is formulated in the Chicago Statement. In fact, I wrote a series explaining why here, and I have seen no reason to change my basic view since then. I would hastily add that I have a very high view of scripture and have nuanced my views since I wrote that series, but I still stand by my posts. Especially helpful for me was Vanhoozer's article, "A Person of the Book? Barth on Biblical Authority and Interpretation" in Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich., Baker Academic: 2006)

However, I personally think it an outrage that inerrancy has thus far been voted a worse theological invention ahead of the likes of Arianism, the latter having been labelled as heresy by the church universal for centuries due to central issues such as soteriology and doxology!

But inerrancy is not heresy. While not encumbered with the latter nuances that emerged in light of the 'battle with liberalism', similar understandings of scripture have existed for centuries in the church, facilitating healthy respect for and expectancy on the God who speaks through the biblical texts. A slightly unbalanced (and essentially unbiblical) understanding of the nature of scripture, inerrancy is, yes. A factually and demonstratably wrong doctrine, yes. Wild-goose-chase red-herring-infested, yes. But heresy, in my books, it is not. Indeed, many thousands of Christians have found that inerrancy formulates their understanding of scripture such that their faith in God to speak to them through the bible is enhanced. Again: Inerrancy has for many facilitated a respectful and expectant attitude towards God as Christians read the bible – and not just among hardcore fundies, but for many intelligent modern Christians, not to mention the thousands in developing nations for whom some of our theological subtleties are nothing but farts in the wind. OK, it has also been destructive to others who are taught the bible is inerrant, who then turn to read a bible that manifestly isn't, but it is hardly the worst theological invention. Inerrancy may well be the worst of all in the hands of the militant variety, but then again almost everything is awful when handled by such folk. Alas, I suspect the popularity of negativity against inerrancy is a sign that things have gotten out of perspective.

I told you I had a conservative evangelical operating system! Though I tried to deinstall my 'liberal rationalist quickly demythologise it and deny its historicity to be accepted as critical' patch, my system never was quite the same. Slower, but it calculated more accurately.


At 5/01/2007 2:27 AM, Blogger Roberto said...

I was also surprised that some would regard some things as worse than denying the full deity of Christ. Surprising indeed.

At 5/01/2007 3:03 AM, Blogger WTM said...


I'm with you. While I'm no supporter of inerrancy, there are three or four things (if not more!) on that list that I would judge to be far more insidious.

At 5/01/2007 4:51 AM, Blogger byron said...

Ditto. Thanks for this post. Though I almost nominated Docetism too.

At 5/01/2007 5:16 AM, Blogger Brandon said...

Great post. Of course, Chris, whatever you write should be deemed inerrant.

At 5/01/2007 6:45 AM, Anonymous dan said...

I agree.

Arianism got my vote.

On another note, you may be interested to know that I've begun some interesting dialogue with Brant Pitre on his blog, re: his interpretation of "lead us not into peirasmos."

Grace and peace.

At 5/01/2007 9:20 AM, Blogger Jason Goroncy said...

Chris. I share your shock. Thanks for creating a post where all those (like me) who voted for Arianism can vent their protest without any shedding of blood. Theological debate is just so tame these days.

At 5/01/2007 10:35 AM, Blogger Jon said...

I hear you Chris!

I love how theologians go on about innerancy being a pile of poo but then treat someone like Barth as though he is innerant... Where is the logic in that? The more important things are the less innerant they are? Or maybe the other way round...

At 5/01/2007 12:19 PM, Blogger Exiled Preacher said...


You and I disagree on inerrancy and I've no wish to recreate our earlier debate. But I share your sense of shock over Ben's poll. Inerrancy wose than Arianism? Really?

At 5/01/2007 2:10 PM, Blogger Alastair said...

I suspect that inerrancy is such a big issue because it enables people to sharply distinguish themselves from the silly fundamentalists. One feels that for the neo-orthodox opposition to fundamentalists provides a measure of identity. If inerrancy were merely mistaken, but not heretical, life would be a lot less fun.

Whilst I have a number of concerns with the doctrine of inerrancy, inerrantists tend to take their Bibles a lot more seriously than their critics. When it comes down to it, I am on the side of those who take Scripture seriously, and have little patience for many of inerrancy's critics for this reason.

At 5/01/2007 4:17 PM, Blogger Bob MacDonald said...

Inerrancy, besides being one of three instances of lust for power in the poll, is idolatrous - that is what really makes it bad theology. Chris-t-endom as empire is the supertype of inerrancy and Papal infallibility. Empire makes the state into an idol; infallibility gives the role to a human; inerrancy to a book. To write in support of inerrancy: Letters of fire can be used for postmodern comment. They consume the sacrifice of a broken spirit.

At 5/01/2007 4:57 PM, Blogger Exiled Preacher said...

That's what I love about some opponents of inerrancy (ie Bob Macdonald. Dismiss your theological opponents as little better than pagan idolaters and you're done.

Can't stop, I'm just off to sacrifice a goat to my Bible (AV).

At 5/01/2007 7:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Considering Arianism disruptive effect and the duration of it's influence. It probably should have topped the list. I voted for Double Predestination because - IMO - it turns God into a sadistic monster. To me, the Rapture is a joke. And because it's confined to such a small segment of Christianity, not really worth mentioning. Biblical Inerrancy, is all a matter of degrees. Taken too far, it makes Christians look like fools. Rightly understood, it's no problem. As I have said before; this works for me:

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.
Dei Verbum Ch. 3

John McBryde

Ps. Personally, I find Just War Theory to be a useful -- if imperfect -- tool. Especially in a world filled with despots, madmen and mass murderers. As for Papal Infallibility ... what's the big deal? It's hardly ever invoked and when it is, you guys just ignore it. :-)

At 5/01/2007 10:43 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Brandon, you are a wise man!

Alastair, you put so well into words something I wanted to express.

Guy, I hope that's a 1611 AV.

John, this is tangental, but something I want to look into at some stage involves the Catholic canon. Could you perhaps e-mail me?

At 5/02/2007 9:58 AM, Blogger Exiled Preacher said...


I wouldn't sacrifice my goat to one of those poxy modern versions.

At 5/02/2007 10:07 AM, Anonymous Terry said...

Just to defend those who voted for inerrancy over at Faith & Theology, the poll is meant to be for fun - unless Ben's labelling it as 'humour' is to be ignored. Besides, it's a poll for 'worst theological invention'; and such an elastic term surely covers positions like inerrancy and those ideas that have been classified as 'heresy'.

Vent, but don't read too much into the poll's findings. When the chips are down, I'm sure anti-inerrantists and non-inerrantists alike will find more important things to deride.

(To respond to Jon's comment: someone told me a week or two ago that whilst Calvin was not infallible or inerrant, he just didn't make any mistakes!)

At 5/02/2007 11:50 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

"Vent, but don't read too much into the poll's findings"

Thank you, Terry, point taken!

At 5/10/2007 6:05 PM, Blogger Prup (aka Jim Benton) said...

I see that 'inerrancy' won the poll -- well it was tied with "Christendom" but that just shows that some of the responders were bad spellers.

My own pet bit of Biblical errancy -- as an unbeliever has to be Matthew's claim in 27:52-53 that "52The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people."

It seems to me that if this had happened, somebody would have noticed and mentioned it. It would have been part of the conversation in Jerusalem for years, and you'd think Josephus might have said something. (For that matter, the other evangelists might have included it in their accounts. I mean, if one ressurection was so important, a whole group of them should at least get a parenthesis.)

At 6/14/2007 6:18 AM, Blogger Edward T. Babinski said...

Chris, Is it really an "outrage that inerrancy has thus far been voted a worse theological invention ahead of the likes of Arianism, the latter having been labelled as heresy by the church universal for centuries?"

Both Arius and Athanasius thought the Scriptures could settle their disagreement. The Arians quoted a text from Proverbs to support their view:

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.
- Proverbs 8:22

To the modern scholar, the “me” refers to a pre-Christian notion of God’s Wisdom, but to the Arians and Athanasians alike, many Old Testament’s verses were interpreted as being about Jesus, and this passage, they agreed, referred to Jesus. The difference came in their interpretation of its meaning. The Arians claimed that the passage proved Jesus was created by God. But the Athanasians argued that the word “create” did not mean “coming into being.” To them the passage referred to the creation of all mankind through the resurrection of Jesus.

Another passage the Arians quoted was from the gospel of Luke, which referred to the growth of Jesus:

And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man
- Luke 2:52

The Arians argued, God obviously could not have “increased in wisdom and stature” for he is a perfect being. Jesus, because he could increase in wisdom and stature, could not be God. The Athanasians countered by saying that the Scriptures contain a “double account” of Jesus Christ. Some passages refer to Jesus as man, and others refer to him as God. The passage from Luke refers to the part of Jesus that is a man; so said the Athanasians.

Wilken, The Myth of Christian Beginnings, p. 90-93

As is now widely recognized, the Scriptures and their interpretations… were the source of the “Arian controversy.”

As Robert C Gregg and Dennis E. Groh have observed, “It has been easy to overlook the degree to which appeal to the Scriptures was fundamental for Arius,” and, it might be added, the later Arians. R. P. C. Hanson in particular has said in The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God, “When arguing about the career and character of Jesus Christ himself depicted in the Gospels,” the Arians “are usually on much firmer footing than their [‘orthodox’] opponents,” in fact, “both Athanasius and Hilary are driven to take refuge in the most unconvincing arguments.” Ambrose’s [‘orthodox’] interpretations are also, in general, “fantastic nonsense woven into purely delusive harmony.” The Arian exegesis of the first three Gospels is “confident” and “embarrassing” to their [Athanasian] opponents who treat the crucial verses in those Gospels in “uncertain” and “strained” ways. Maximinus even told the church father, Augustine, “The divine Scripture does not fare badly in our [Arian] teaching, such that it has to receive correction [Latin, ‘emendationem’] from us.”

Kevin Madigan, “Christus Nesciens? Was Christ Ignorant of the Day of Judgment? Arian and Orthodox Interpretation of Mark 13:32 in the Ancient Latin West,” Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 96, no. 3 (2003)

Arianism, which orthodox Christians now consider the archetypal heresy, was once at least as popular as the doctrine that Jesus is God… Ordinary trades people and workers felt perfectly competent--perhaps even driven--to debate abstract theological issues and to arrive at their own conclusions… Disputes among Christians, specifically arguments about the relationship of Jesus Christ the Son to God the Father, had become… intense. [p.7]

[Throughout the city everything is taken up by theological discussion: the alleyways, the marketplaces, the broad avenues and city streets; the hawkers of clothing, the moneychangers, foodsellers. If you ask for change, they philosophize about the Begotten and the Unbegotten. If you ask the price of bread, you are told, “The Father is greater and the Son inferior” If you ask, is the bath ready yet? They say “The Son was created from nothing.”--Gregory of Nyssa, Constantinople, 381 C.E.]

The anti-Arians… demanded that Christianity be “updated” by blurring or even obliterating the long-accepted distinction between the Father and the Son. From the perspective of our time it may seem strange to think of Arian “heretics” as conservatives, but emphasizing Jesus’s humanity and God’s transcendent otherness had never seemed heretical in the [eastern half of the Roman Empire]. [p.74]

The Great Council of Nicaea… was the largest gathering of Christian leaders, up to that time with 250+ bishops in attendance, almost all of them from the Eastern Empire…

[The controversy over Arianism was most virulent in Greek-speaking areas, where the language lent itself to fine distinctions, and the involvement of the emperors, whose aims were usually social unity rather than theological truth, complicated matters. Often the churchmen who prevailed were those who had the emperor’s ear. It is only with hindsight that bishops can be readily assigned to one or the other camp in the controversy: there were many gradations within the “Arianizing” outlook.--Desmond O’Grady, Beyond the Empire: Rome and the Church from Constantine to Charlemagne (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2001), p.16]

The Council of Nicaea, then, was not universal. [There were in fact over 1800 bishops in the Christian church and only 250-300 of them attended the Council of Nicea]…Several later gatherings would be more representative of the entire Church; one of them, the joint council of Rumini-Seluicie (359), was attended by more than five hundred bishops from both the East and West. If any meeting deserves the title “ecumenical,” that one seems to qualify, but its results--the adoption of an Arian creed--was later repudiated by the Church. Councils whose products were later deemed unorthodox not only lost the “ecumenical” label but virtually disappeared from official Church history. [p.74]

[After the Council of Nicaea, Constantine exiled Arian theologians.] But within three years, Arius, Eusebius, and their fellow exiles would be forgiven by Constantine and welcomed back to the Church. Eusebius would become Constantine’s closest advisor, and would insist that Athanasius, now bishop of Alexandria, readmit Arius to communion in that city as well. A decade after that, Bishop Athanasius himself was exiled, and Arianism was well on its way to becoming the dominant theology of the Eastern Empire. [p.84]

The Council of Nicaea was the last point at which Christians with strongly opposed theological views acted civilly toward each other. When the controversy began, Arius and his opponents were inclined to treat each other as fellow Christians with mistaken ideas. Constantine hoped that his Great and Holy Council would bring the opposing sides together on the basis of a mutual recognition and correction of erroneous ideas. When these hopes were shattered and the conflict continued to spread, the adversaries were drawn to attack each other not as colleagues in error but as unrepentant sinners: corrupt, malicious, even satanic individuals. [p.84-85]

[More and more Christians started disavowing the “Nicene creed,” and Arianism experienced a resurgence. By the year 329 Arianism had such widespread support that Constantine became persuaded that his earlier decision was a mistaken one. In 336, the former exile, Arius, on the eve of being readmitted to membership in the church at Alexandria, was found dead on the floor beside a toilet. Poisoning is one possibility to account for the timing and manner of his passing.] However, Athanasius used Arius’s death as a public relations opportunity. He announced that the city’s prayers had been answered and “the Arian heresy was unworthy of communion with the Church.”

[Even after Arius’s death, Arianism remained, for there remained other more influential Christian leaders who dominated the movement.] Moreover, another death was of greater consequence than Arius’s. The death in question was Emperor Constantine’s…Eusebius [an Arian Bishop] heard the Emperor’s confession, and administered the last rites…and a decree was made that permitted all exiled bishops to return to their sees…

Athanasius [who was in exile at that time] returned to Alexandria after making a political tour of several provinces. Everywhere he rallied the anti-Arian forces and helped return exiles to power, organized opposition to “heretical” bishops, and intervened actively in local disputes. Violence dogged his steps, since both sides had organized popular support and were quite ready to use angry mobs to expel churchmen they despised or defend friendly incumbents. The result in a number of key cities was something close to civil war…Finally, Athanasius returned to Alexandria where, according to his enemies, ‘he seized the churches…by force, by murder, by war.’” [p.141-142]

But what caused this deep division?…The split between Nicene and Arian Christians seems to reflect a rough division between those more in need of a powerful, just ruler and those more in need of a loving advocate and friend. Neither side in the controversy could afford to turn its back entirely on either image: the Athanasians therefore called Jesus “God from God.” And the Arians called him “a paradigm and an example.” Each side put its primary emphasis on one image while paying lip service to the other, and each side was prey to fears that the other side was aiming to obliterate “its” Jesus. While Athanasians denounced the Arians for lowering Christ to the point that his majesty and saving power would be lost, the Arians accused Athanasius and Marcellus of raising him to the point that his love (and God’s majesty) would be lost…

[The Arians split into three factions: the Anomeans, the extreme party which stressed the difference between Father and Son; the Homoeans, which simply affirms that the Son is similar to the Father “in accordance with the scriptures”; and the Semi-Arians which favored the term homoiousion (Greek for “of like substance”) as expressing both the similarities and the differences between Father and Son. In 359 two simultaneous councils were held; one for the eastern bishops (in Seleucia) and one for the western bishops (in Ariminum). Both councils adopted the Homoean formula. However, this victory for Arianism frightened the Semi-Arians back into the ranks of the Athanasian fold. The death of Constantius in 361 also deprived the Arians of political support and they began to lose ground to the Athanasians.--Livingstone, Dictionary of the Christian Church, p.33.]

Was the Arian controversy resolved?…Unresolved issues, appearing in changed form, continued to produce serious religious conflicts…that ended in the Great Schism separating the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. [p.226-227]

In the Greek-speaking lands, the end of the Arian controversy triggered more than two centuries of intense conflict [over the question of the relationship between Jesus’s human and divine natures]. Once again, bishops met in councils to proclaim the orthodoxy of their views and to excommunicate their opponents. Once more the East knew depositions and exiles, riots and assassinations. Each side accused the other of Arianism. The Second Council of Ephesus (449) condemned the school of Antioch; the Great Council of Chalcedon (541) condemned the Alexandrians; numerous emperors intervened on one side or the other; and the controversy did not end until the one-nature “Monophysites” were driven from their own churches, many of which exist to this day.

Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God: The Epic Fight over Christ’s Divinity in the Last Days of Rome

It was only later agreed, by the victorious “Nicene” party, that Athanasius had been the hero of a Christian orthodoxy laid down once and for all at Nicea. But the story of Athanasius and of his defense of the “Nicene Creed” gained in the telling. It did so especially in the Latin West. By the end of the fourth century, the “Arian Controversy” was narrated in studiously confrontational terms: it was asserted that “orthodox” bishops had defeated “heretics;” and, in so doing they had offered heroic resistance to the cajolery and, at times, to the threats, of “heretical” emperors. This view of the “Arian Controversy” was constructed after the event. It contains little truth.

Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd Ed., (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), p.80


Both sides of the Arian-Athanasian controversy apparently made changes to Scripture to help cement their view of the truth. See The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament by Bart D. Ehrman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

For more on the development of Christian doctrine see, The Making of Christian Doctrine, (Cambridge, 1967); The Remaking of Christian Doctrine (London, 1974); Working Papers in Doctrine (London 1976) by Maurice Wiles.


LASTLY, speaking of what may be the "WORST" THEOLOGICAL INVENTION, what about simply the claim that one particular book or collection of books is inherently more "inspired" than all other books or collections of books on earth, ever?

Edward T. Babinski


Post a Comment

<< Home