Mon 20 Aug
Radical Christians and the Word of God (Part 2 of 3): Inerrancy
We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.
Welcome back! In this second part of our series on Scripture we’re talking about the idea of biblical inerrancy, why many Anabaptists like myself don’t use the term to describe what we think about the Bible, why that makes some Evangelicals uncomfortable, and why this should be an issue for rich discussion and debate, not division. (If you haven’t read part 1 yet, please start here.)
Radical Reformers (or Anabaptists) tend to talk about Jesus the way Protestant Reformers tend to talk about the Bible: Jesus is our perfect, inerrant, infallible, authority. What Christian would want to argue with that? (Quite a few, apparently, but let’s move on.) Now we’re asking, what do Anabaptists believe about the actual text of Scripture? Here’s the quick answer, and then we’ll slow down and unpack it: Anabaptists believe similar things to many Evangelicals about the Bible, we just tend to use different words and concepts to describe it. You will often hear (or read) me saying things like “Anabaptists tend to say it this way or that way” because our differences are often exactly that – a matter of tendency, of where we put the emphasis in our theology rather than trying to create a different theology. Our default? Jesus is always our emphasis.
But wait! Before you read further, two warnings:
- Please know that this post is primarily for theological eggheads and committed Bible nerds. The next post will be more practical, honest.
- This post is way too long. Sorry!
So, if you’re a Bible nerd with too much time on your hands, you’ve just struck gold. Enjoy!
Otherwise – see you next time!
In the first post of this series I talked a bit about my experience as a Baptist pastor investigating the Anabaptist tradition. I was asked to consider pastoring a Brethren In Christ church (now called Be In Christ in Canada). Even though part of me was thrilled with what might become my new denominational home, as a transitioning Evangelical I remember being suspicious when I couldn’t find the word “inerrant” in the BIC’s statement of faith. I was beginning to fall in love with this simple family of joyful Jesus followers and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh no! I knew they were too good to be true!” Inerrancy, I had been taught, was the litmus test of orthodoxy. Look for a clear and bold proclamation of the inerrancy of Scripture in any denomination’s statement of faith and you could be more certain that they were a Bible-believing, Gospel-preaching orthodox group of Christians – or so I thought. Today I’m so glad I didn’t run away from the issue or suppress my questions, and instead leaned into Scripture and the ongoing conversation around Scripture with my new Radically Reformed friends.
I remember meeting with the Bishop of the Canadian BIC at that time, Darrell Winger, to ask him about this potentially dangerous omission from the BIC statement of faith. “I’m wondering what to make of the absence of inerrancy in your doctrinal statement. Does this mean you believe the Bible is errant?” Darrell’s response was simple: “It just means we don’t think in those terms. Nothing more and nothing less.” Then he added, “But if you hang out with us for any length of time, you’ll see that we believe the Bible is breathed out by God, and as we read it together, God uses the Bible to thoroughly equip us to follow Jesus.” And that has been precisely my experience with Anabaptism.
"Some Anabaptists (like the Brethren in Christ / Be In Christ) have no doctrine of the “inerrancy” of Scripture. We are not anti-inerrancy; we simply emphasize the perfection of Christ more than we highlight the perfection of Scripture. Rather, we stick to biblical language like saying all Scripture is “inspired” and “useful” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
~ From sermon notes in our teaching series “Radical Reformation” (You can listen to that series here.)
THE LIMITATIONS OF INERRANCY
Many (though not all) Evangelicals do hold to a doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, and by that they mean that the original copies of the Old Testament and New Testament texts were so inspired by the Holy Spirit that they are without error in everything they affirm. (Note: we don’t have the originals any more, but we do have enough early copies that we can get very close to what the original manuscripts said.) These Christians believe that the Holy Spirit did not allow any human error to creep into the process of recording the original handwritten biblical texts (what are called “the original autographs”). So technically, the idea of inerrancy does not apply directly to any existing Bibles today. All Christians agree (perhaps with the exception of the KJV only tribe, but that’s another issue), the Bible you hold in your hand or read online is not inerrant. It was not copied from the original manuscripts inerrantly, it was not translated inerrantly, and while we’re at it, you the reader are not understanding it inerranty. Yet God still speaks. His gospel is still proclaimed and the Holy Spirit still illuminates our understanding and application as we study it together. The process is imperfect, but it is a process God works through powerfully. We, the recipients of Scripture, do not live the teachings of Jesus out inerrantly, but we are introduced to Jesus who lived inerrantly and died sacrificially and rose triumphantly and is still passionately involved in our lives today by the Holy Spirit.
In brief, then, it would be more accurate for those Christians who embrace biblical inerrancy to adjust their grammar to say that Scripture was, not is, inerrant in the original copies. Or maybe there is a better way of talking about the Bible altogether. (Hint: that’s where we’re going here folks.)
Many Protestants – from C.S. Lewis to Ben Witherington III to N.T. Wright (to name a few) – align with Anabaptists in pointing out the inadequacies of inerrancy as a Christian doctrine, for a variety of reasons.
"I don’t call myself an “inerrantist” because
(a) that word means what it means within a modernist rationalism, which I reject and
(b) because it seems to me to have failed in delivering a full-blooded reading and living of what the Bible actually says."
~ N.T. Wright, Anglican Scholar
As a segment of Anabaptist and Evangelical scholars have always pointed out, inerrancy also puts our focus on the negative, by emphasizing what what Bible is not – errant.
"The terms inerrant and infallible are modern ways of attempting to make clear that the Bible tells the truth about whatever it intends to teach us about. I much prefer the positive terms truthful and trustworthy. When you start defining something negatively (saying what it is not) then you often die the death of a thousand qualifications, not to mention you have to define what constitutes an error. I am happy to say that the Bible has three main subjects– history, theology, and ethics, and that it tells us the truth about all three."
~ Ben Witherington III, Interview with Michael F. Bird
The late Luke Keefer, an influential BIC scholar, reminds us that committed Christ-followers should not need the added assurance.
"Terms like “inerrant” and “infallible” are negative terms. They declare what the Bible is not – that it contains no errors and is not capable of being at fault. There is an assumption that the Bible must be defended against certain attacks upon it. But certainly it needs no such defense against people who believe that it is the only complete, reliable, true, and authoritative Word of God."
~ Luke Keefer, Jr., “Inerrancy” and the Brethren In Christ View of Scripture
And if inerrancy is an unnecessary assurance for committed Christ-followers, it can become a distracting claim for non-Christians. When I am sharing the gospel with someone and I claim to know about Jesus because the Bible is inerrant, I end up shifting the weight of the conversation from a Person to a book. I have, in a sense, dared my conversation partner to find fault with the Bible, as though my faith stands or falls on the perfection of the text. (When in reality, even this claim of inerrancy is about a version of the text that doesn’t exist any more.) The whole enterprise of evangelism – gospel sharing – can be thrown “off centre” (which is Jesus!) and, as Ben Witherington III points out, the claim itself can die the death of a thousand qualifications. “No error? At all? Then what about…?” and off we go, talking about something interesting, but not central.
Ironically, our Buddhist friends get this better than many Christians. When Buddhists talk about their beliefs, they focus on sharing the teachings of the Buddha rather than arguing for the perfection of the Pali Canon, their earliest Scriptures. As someone who cares about evangelism, I want to do my best to keep the conversation moving toward the good news about Jesus even more than the good news about the Bible. Arguments about inerrancy do not help me help others focus on Jesus.
Another inadequacy with an emphasis on inerrancy is that it can tend to lead to word legalism. After all, if every word of Scripture is individually important, should we not honour God by staring into each word on its own? Word studies can be very helpful, but if we lean too far in that direction, our Bible study can miss the forest for the trees.
Sometimes we do see cases of the New Testament writers emphasizing a single word of Scripture to make their point. In Galatians 3:16, for example, the apostle Paul highlights the word “seed” in Genesis 22:18 as part of his argument. Inerrantists might argue, if Paul based an entire argument on the numerical value of the noun (seed vs seeds), then every word of the Bible must be personally and perfectly picked by God. Perhaps. But I would argue that here Paul is not building his theology around a single word (his approach to Scripture is much more robust), but is using this single word to illustrate the point he is already making. Elsewhere we see that the New Testament writers tend to quote the Old Testament more thought-for-thought than word-for-word, often following closer to the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible) rather than the original Hebrew words of Scripture. These New Testament writers chose not to quote the actual words of the Hebrew text, yet they show no signs that they fear they might be watering down the power of the message itself.
Jesus himself follows this same pattern of interacting with the Hebrew Bible. In Mark 12, Jesus is asked what is the greatest commandment in the Law. This is a question about Scripture itself, so you would think accuracy would be a priority in answering. Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 6:5 when he answers:
"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength."
~ Jesus (Mark 12:30)
Only here’s the thing: there is no “and with all your mind” in Deuteronomy 6:5. Jesus has inserted it because it helps to emphasize the point of this passage. He is focusing more on the message of Scripture than the individual words of Scripture. And his earliest disciples followed his example.
The four canonical gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – were written in Greek, probably because Greek was the lingua franca of their day – the common language that would help their message spread furthest and fastest. Many people in the first century were bi-lingual, speaking their original tongue plus Greek, which is similar to how English is spoken around the world today. Jews spoke Aramaic (a language related to Hebrew), and Romans spoke Latin, but they could both communicate with each other through Greek. Now, did you catch that – Jews spoke Aramaic. Jesus spoke Aramaic. His teachings, among his fellow Jews, were in Aramaic. But the gospel writers wrote them down in Greek. Apparently, the writers of the four gospels who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to preserve the very teaching of Jesus didn’t feel the need to capture his exact words. Instead, the first written record of Jesus’ teaching is already a translation. The New Testament writers felt the radical freedom to make a practical, pragmatic, strategic decision – promote the word (or message) of Jesus rather than preserve the precise words of Jesus. There are so many missional lessons in this for us today, but I’ll have to save that for another time. For now we need to move on.
WHY INERRANCY BECAME IMPORTANT FOR SOME CHRISTIANS
So, if the idea of inerrancy only applies to the original manuscripts which we no longer have, and if Church history gives us ample evidence of error (minor, but present) in the transmission process throughout the past two thousand years, and if the process of translation is imperfect, not to mention our imperfect understanding as receivers of the message, and if Jesus and his disciples do not seem to prioritize the precise words of Scripture over the message and meaning of Scripture, then why are many Evangelicals so very much concerned that all committed Christians use the word “inerrant” to describe our contemporary Bibles? Why has “inerrancy” become the litmus test of orthodoxy for many contemporary Christians?
In the early twentieth century, conservative Christians became increasingly concerned about the slow creep of liberal Christianity, which they believed didn’t take the truth of the Bible seriously enough. Increasing numbers of liberal leaning Christians were tending to dismiss the parts they didn’t like in favour of the bits they did like, rather than see every bit of the Bible as “inspired and useful”. In 1978 a group of Christian leaders gathered together in Chicago to form a statement about biblical inerrancy. They called it “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” (creative bunch!). They wanted to plant a flag, a clear statement of what Evangelicals believed (or at least should believe) about the Bible. Now “inerrancy” would increasingly become a clear identity marker, a code word for Christians who wanted to distinguish themselves from religious liberalism. Inerrancy became short-form for saying, “I take my Christian faith seriously!”
Two things worth noting:
- This was more of a North American rather than global phenomenon. British Christians, for instance, tend not to make as big a deal over inerrancy.
- More importantly for this article, note that most Anabaptists were not invited to this table. For the most part, we were not aware nor involved in this debate. We were not the liberals being reacted against, nor were we the conservatives fighting back against liberalism. The result is that Anabaptists have maintained a different language surrounding how we talk about the Bible which parallels neither liberal nor conservative Protestant Christianity.
THE ANABAPTIST APPROACH
Let me point out that Anabaptism, like Protestantism. is not a monolith. There are various strains of Anabaptists who have been influence by various other Christian groups since the birth of the Radical Reformation in the 16th century. This includes some Anabaptists who have been and continue to be influenced by Calvinism and are more classically Reformed in their approach to theology and church polity. But for the most part, Radical Reformation Christians practice a relentlessly Jesus-centred approach to everything they do, including how they read Scripture.
"Anabaptists were already convinced that the Bible was trustworthy and reliable, so did not feel a doctrine of inerrancy was needed to undergird it."
~ Darrell Winger, former BIC Bishop
Anabaptists tend to stick to more biblical language to describe our understanding of the Bible. The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)
The entire Bible is breathed out by God, or “inspired”, and because of this it is also “useful” to equip God’s people “thoroughly” for living like Jesus. These are the three points Anabaptists rally around regarding the Bible:
- The Bible comes from God.
- Therefore we should use it.
- The result will be that we are thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Our emphasis is less on the details of doctrines about the Bible and more on using the Bible as a gift from God for our guidance – especially as a guide to see Jesus most clearly. Our emphasis is more on transformation than information. Anabaptists are exceedingly practical, and our approach to Scripture is a perfect example of this.
The reason for this practical approach to the Bible is born out of both theological conviction and historical circumstance. For centuries, while Protestants were establishing seminaries and other schools of higher learning to debate theological details, Anabaptists were on the run, trying to avoid the persecution coming from their Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters. While the Protestant Reformers were writing systematic theology text books, the Radical Reformers were meeting in secret, hiding in caves or barns, trying to evade arrest. Early Anabaptist leaders who were theologically educated in Protestant seminaries were killed for arriving at “heresies” like believers’ baptism and their conviction regarding the separation of Church and State, which led to their refusal to fight against any State on behalf of any State. Subsequent generations of Anabaptists just didn’t have the freedom or ability to spend time involved in heady theological discussions which had become common place for Protestants. Also, Anabaptists observed that those Christians who did invest a lot of time, money, and energy in advanced theological education were also habitually missing the simple peace teaching of Jesus. Often the most educated and theologically precise Christian leaders still advocated for brutal violence against anyone who disagreed with them in significant ways.
All of this served to reinforce the Anabaptist idea that Scripture should be primarily used to lead us to Jesus our Lord, otherwise the Bible could be used to justify horrific acts of violence. Even when Anabaptists made it to North America and found relief from generations of persecution, they were never inclined to use the Bible as an academic textbook, but as a gift from God to help them keep their eyes fixed on Jesus. Today, when it comes to Christian higher education and systematic theology, Radical Reformers have a lot of catching up to do with our Protestant Reformation brothers and sisters.
As we covered in the previous post, today when many Evangelicals find out that Anabaptists don’t tend to use the word “inerrant” to refer to Scripture, they may assume we must be theological liberals (where “liberal” is one of the worst things you can say about a fellow Christian). In their minds, there are only two camps: 1) theological conservatives who uphold the inerrancy of Scripture, and 2) theological liberals who demean Christian Scripture in order to import progressive (i.e., worldly) ideas into the Christian faith apart from biblical support. For many Protestants, it never occurs to them that there might be a third option: a group of deeply committed Christians who hold the Bible in very high regard as God’s inspired gift to the Church, but who also hold Jesus in even higher regard than Scripture and who use their language intentionally to reflects this.
Notice: in religious debates like this one, the majority usually sets the rules of engagement. So when it comes to discussions about the Bible, if Anabaptists want to be understood by other Christians, we have to become theologically bi-lingual. We don’t talk about biblical “inerrancy”, positively or negatively. It isn’t our language. But this IS the language of the Evangelical world around us that we want to have healthy fellowship with. So let me try to unpack my best attempt to describe what is an Anabaptist approach to the doctrine of inerrancy.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states that the Bible is “to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms” and adds that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching.” Radical Christians can say “amen” to this. What the Bible affirms, what it means to teach, it does so perfectly. As the Statement of Faith for Tyndale Seminary, a local Evangelical seminary where I sometimes teach, says, the Bible is “the authoritative written Word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, inerrant in all that it teaches” – a statement I have been happy to align with. It isn’t my primary language as an Anabaptist, but neither do I object to the idea. For Anabaptists, we are less concerned about the language of inerrancy as we are about using the Bible, Old and New Testaments, to help us see Jesus clearly and follow him faithfully.
"I believe God meticulously compiled scripture as an inspired, authoritative guide to conform us to the image of Christ when read prayerfully in community."
~ Randal Rauser (randalrauser.com)
Alright, enough theory. Let’s look at some examples to better understand the differences between how Evangelicals and Anabaptists might approach this topic.
EXAMPLE #1: PAUL FORGETTING
"I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)"
(1 Corinthians 1:15-16)
Evangelical Commentary: Here God sovereignly inspires his inerrant Word so as to show us how God uses imperfect people to carry out his perfect plan.
Anabaptist Commentary: Here God’s inspired text shows us Paul’s faulty memory. This helps us know that God uses imperfect people to carry out his perfect plan.
EXAMPLE #2: MATTHEW & MARK MISLABELING
"Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled:
“They took the thirty pieces of silver, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
"As it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
[Note: Matthew claims to quote Jeremiah, but this quote doesn’t appear anywhere in Jeremiah. Rather it seems to be a combination of a passage in Jeremiah and one in Zachariah. Mark claims to quote Isaiah, but actually quotes Malachi, then goes on to quote Isaiah after Malachi.]
Evangelical Commentary: God’s inerrant Word is revealed through the social convention of its day, and in that day it was common practice to combine quotations and label the combined quote with only the primary prophet’s name. So this is an example of inerrancy, yet within a first-century standard. (That, or a number of other explanations as to why these are not examples of mistakes.)
Anabaptist Commentary: Here Matthew combines Scriptures because he felt the freedom to promote the meaning and message of God’s Word rather than be bound by the precise words of one passage. And Mark makes a simple and understandable mistake. Mark knew he was going to eventually quote Isaiah and forgot to credit Malachi along the way. Big deal. Happens to all of us. We can again see how God’s inspired written revelation bears the evidence of God working precisely through the imprecise styles of human authors in such a way that the main point of the text remains clear and intact.
EXAMPLE #3: PAUL’S SLANDER
"One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith."
Evangelical Commentary: Paul is teaching Titus a general truth about people who are lazy and how to respond to them by using a popular quote of his day. And in one theological sense, this quote is true. Apart from Christ, all people are unregenerate and totally depraved, bound over to sin and unable to please God. We are all, in this sense, liars, evil brutes, and lazy gluttons. The fact Paul points this out in one nationality of people without mentioning how it is also true of all other people is inconsequential.
Anabaptist Commentary: God is teaching us all something perfect through Paul’s far from perfect advice. As Paul says elsewhere, all Scripture is useful for “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16), and this passage is no exception. Paul’s morally problematic slip has been providentially included as part of the process by which God teaches, rebukes, corrects, and trains us. (In his book What’s So Confusing About Grace?, Randal Rauser makes this same point with respect to what are known as “the imprecatory psalms” – those psalms that vent anger and pray for calamity and pronounce curses on enemies.) God is showing us a picture of his own strength and the writer’s weakness in the same verses. So, while we should rebuke laziness and lying, we should not get caught up in culturally popular racist judgments about particular groups of people being lazy liars without exception. Paul is also caught up in a logical paradox: he quotes and affirms the truth a Cretan poet (Epimenides) who say that Cretans are ALWAYS liars. If Cretans are ALWAYS liars, then the Cretan statement that Cretans are always liars is itself a lie. But Paul not only quotes this Cretan, he says this statement is true. Perhaps Paul is being intentionally cheeky. Perhaps he is having a bad day. Either way, God is showing us through this inspired text that God uses imperfect leaders to point to his perfect gospel: a gospel that opens the doors to a new world where, as Paul tells us elsewhere:
"There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
As an Anabaptist, I care less about converting a fellow Christian away from the doctrine of inerrancy than I care about all Christians holding up Christ as the centre of Scripture and Lord of our lives. If that’s where you’re at – Catholic or Protestant or Orthodox or Anabaptist – then Jesus makes us family. Whether you end up sounding more like an Evangelical or an Anabaptist, either way, neither approach is officially “orthodox” and the other “heretical”. They are different ways that different groups of God-honouring, Bible-loving, Jesus-following Christians talk about the Bible.
It’s true, the Protestants used to burn the Radicals for being heretics and false teachers, and the Radicals assumed Protestants must be wolves in sheep’s clothing for departing so far from the nonviolent, enemy-loving, peace-making way of Jesus. Today I hope that both groups have matured, in faith, in love, and in a wholehearted willingness to fight for unity, despite our disagreements. In the end, if the cross of Christ is powerful enough to bring Jews and Gentiles together into one new body of believers (Ephesians 2:14-16), surely it can bring together Evangelicals and Anabaptists as family on mission together.
Anabaptists and Evangelicals (and other Christians) may disagree about how we talk about the Bible, but if we listen closely to each other, look past the rhetoric, and try not to kill each other, we’ll see brothers and sisters with a similar heart to honour God’s Word.