Theology

definitions and a history lesson, part four

definition

I left off my breakdown of Christian fundamentalism with a brief explanation of the Protestant orthodox views regarding inspiration and inerrancy. Hopefully I was clear, because what we’re about to get into is complicated territory. If anything I say seems unclear, unfair, or misleading, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

After the introduction of anti-supernaturalism into critiques of the Bible in the form of German higher criticism (as well as other issues), fundamentalists reacted by proclaiming the teaching of inerrancy to be a basic, fundamental doctrine of Christianity. On its face, I don’t disagree. A proper, balanced, and nuanced view of inerrancy is one of the essentials of faith that I hold to. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary in order for someone to believe in Jesus, but I think it does become more important in a Christian faith journey. Important, but not necessary. That, I think, is a crucial distinction.

However, that is where fundamentalism and I part ways– and depending on the particular brand of fundamentalism, some might not even consider me to be a true believer after a statement like that one. If they’re being nice, they might refer to me as a “liberal” (a label I would bear with pride). For me, inerrancy is intellectually consistent. I can generally hold with most of the statements regarding inerrancy made in the Chicago Statement of 1979, especially this one:

“We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, reporting of falsehoods, or the use of hyperbole and round numbers . . . “

What the Chicago Statement does in this section is recognize the human component of Scripture. They talk about “observational descriptions” and they also recognize that keeping in mind the context of usage and purpose is extremely important to a proper understanding of inerrancy (and, more practically, hermeneutics). However, if this is not what you think inerrancy means, that’s not a bar to orthodox Protestant beliefs. There’s a range inside of Protestant orthodoxy, and it’s healthy and productive to be willing to engage with different points of view, even on this issue. I don’t personally identify with the Progressive movement theologically, but I can appreciate what they bring to the table, and how listening to their point of view enriches my own.

However, fundamentalists . . . don’t agree. There’s no “acceptable range.” There’s no productive discussion, there’s no other permissible view. There’s the fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy, which they consider as absolutely foundational to every other element of Christianity. They believe that without inerrancy, Christianity falls. Fundamentalists like Charles Ryrie complained that the Chicago Statement was not rigorous enough. He called for an understanding of inerrancy that included “unlimited inspiration,” and he goes one step forward:

“Some are willing to acknowledge that the concepts of the Bible are inspired but not the words. Supposedly this allows for an authoritative conceptual message to have been given, but using words that can in some instances be erroneous. The obvious fallacy in this view is this: how are concepts expressed? Through words. Change the words and you have changed the concepts. You cannot separate the two. In order for concepts to be inspired, it is imperative that the words that express them be also.”

To be fair, Ryrie goes on to describe mechanical dictation (the view of inerrancy where God gave the actual words to the writers) as a “caricature” of inerrancy, but he somehow fails to see that he just made an argument for mechanical dictation. He doesn’t seem to believe that the writers of the Bible were little more than stenographers, but he also believes that the words themselves cannot be changed, or inerrancy falls.

I have a Master’s degree in English, and I’m an editor– the study of words, communication, understanding, clarity, etc., are my business. And if there’s one thing I can tell you after grading hundreds of English 101 papers, is that our language is quite capable of expressing the same exact idea through different words. This actually has a name– it’s called “redundancy,” at least when a writer says the same exact thing a dozen different ways.

However, Ryrie’s idea is a visceral reaction against post-modernism. Jacques Derrida used the word différance to describe the “space between words.” As Derrida explained it, this “space” removes the ability of language to communicate any idea accurately– there is always a breakdown between the idea as it exists in the writer and how the reader ultimately understands the words the writer used to express that idea.

So, just like the first fundamentalists reacted against German higher criticism, fundamentalists like Charles Ryrie are reacting against post-modernism. Just like fundamentalists had to defend the Bible from anti-supernaturalism, now they have to defend the Bible from a post-modern understanding of différance. This reaction, as far as I can tell, always leads to a philosophical defense of mechanical dictation, whether or not the defender is aware of such a defense. Mechanical dictation, as an approach to inerrancy, is not a view typically accepted inside Protestant orthodoxy. But, it results from a fear that a post-modernist understanding of language will interfere in the ability of a reader to understand the “truths of the Bible.”

This is a problem for fundamentalists, because, by definition, fundamentalists believe that understanding and applying a universal understanding of Scripture is not just possible, but necessary. They adhere to what they believe are universal, essential, foundational truths regarding the Bible.

This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is a problem. I don’t think it always was– historically speaking, I agree with many of the elements found in The Fundamentals or concepts that were discussed in early 20th century conferences. However, because fundamentalism has continued reacting against new philosophies that they perceive as a “threat” to Christianity, they have become progressively more unyielding. Inerrancy can’t just mean “that Scripture is true in all that it teaches.”

Unfortunately, fundamentalism didn’t really stop at “unlimited inspiration”– today, they also adhere to biblical literalism. Because God didn’t just inspire the concepts, he also inspired the very words themselves, exactly how they appear, the only way to read and understand the Bible is by reading it literally. This is also coupled with the fundamentalist teaching regarding preservation.

Preservation, simply put, is the idea that God, in his sovereignty, kept the Bible intact and unaltered (with the exceptions of things like scribal error, misspellings, inaccurate renderings of numbers, etc). I tend to agree with this view, mostly because of things like the Dead Sea Scrolls– which weren’t discovered until 1946-56, and with Isaiah being dated at sometime at around 135-200 B.C. The Dead Sea Scrolls present compelling evidence for the integrity of the transmission, since the modern copy of the Old Testament (based on the Masoretic texts) barely differed at all.

However, fundamentalists take an extreme stance regarding preservation that affects their teachings in two major ways: first, they believe that everything that existed in the text as of 1611 also existed in the autographa, and that because God preserved His Word for us today, it is a living document that can be applied, literally, to modern practice.

The first teaching results in either a complete dismissal of the science of textual criticism or a fear and distrust of it. This is why many fundamentalists (but not all) are KJV-only, or Textus Receptus-only supporters. Many fundamentalists point to statements like “some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20” concerning the finish to the Gospel of Mark, and decry that statement as heresy. The honest study of textual critics and historians have, for the majority, concluded that Mark 16:9-20 were added later. There are some scholars who disagree, but, I’ve read most of that research back in my KJV-only days, and I would describe it as “shabby research.” However, the teaching of preservation according to fundamentalists means that additions and deletions are not possible. Because, according to this teaching, if you can begin to suspect that anything in the Bible was not completely preserved, then the entire Bible falls into shadow. This is a result of the kind of false dichotomies and binaries that fundamentalists set up in their faith system. Many of these binaries are a result of over-simplification; having a faith system that integrates doubt, nuance, and complexity, is foreign to most of them.

The second result of preservation is a heresy known as biblical docetism. In a nut shell, they believe that God Preserved His Word for Us Today, and this results in frequently ignoring the intent of the human author, the historical context in which it was written, or how the original audience would have perceived it. These elements of hermeneutics don’t seem to matter, because the Bible is a divine book, divinely inspired, and divinely preserved. Along with biblical docetism, this frequently results, in more extreme fringes of fundamentalism, in a harsh patriocentric understanding of complementarian and hetero-normative gendered behavior, Dominionism (that God’s promises to the Israelites applies to modern America), and has been used to defend chattel slavery, sexism, classism, and racism.

This is why I moved away from fundamentalism and accepted Protestant orthodoxy and non-denominationalism. Fundamentalism started as something I could agree with, but it has morphed into a collection of beliefs that are rigid and unbending, and that demand total adherence and complete intellectual “certainty.”

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  • Thanks for diving into the history of these movements. It’s great to see how all these things actually came about; helps to recognize the way they’ve developed and continue to develop since.

    I think the 1611 KJVers are a little smaller of a subset of Biblical Literalists than you’d think by reading this here….

    • I’m not really a fair judge of that, I suppose. I just know that everyone I knew was (in three different states, a good dozen churches) and then my undergrad college was HUGE on KJV only.

  • I love that you talk about Derrida in your posts, lol.

  • There are so many good things about this post, I don’t even know where to begin.

    I love the history. I love the clear explanation of the different viewpoints on inerrancy.

    And I LOVE the mention of the false dichotomy. This is one of the most apparent lies that I experienced in my journey through fundamentalism – and one that haunts my own relationships with family and friends ever since.

    The alternative presented is either adhere to a particular interpretation, or you cannot POSSIBLY be taking the Bible seriously. If you do not believe that THIS is how it applies to YOUR life, than you do not believe in inerrancy at all. And, as you well know, it becomes, “if you do not dress this way, and listen to this music, and rally for this political cause, and pearl clutch about this movie or this book, and if your wife works outside the home, etc.; then you are NOT REALLY A CHRISTIAN.” (I apologize for using caps, but that is exactly how it feels when you are browbeaten about these issues.)

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