Biblical Inerrancy Debate: Albert Mohler and Peter Enns

This is the second in a series of five posts on inerrancy. For the historical background on the doctrine of inerrancy see my first post, “Biblical Inerrancy?”

In recent years, discussion among evangelicals has heated up around biblical inerrancy. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) was primarily a response to Protestant liberalism and neo-orthodoxy. However, now defenders of CSBI find themselves in dispute with other evangelical “insiders.” Should the term “inerrancy” still be used? How should it be understood? Since the 1970s, CSBI has been fleshed out in different ways. Last year, Zondervan published a debate between five theologians and biblical scholars entitled Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. The participants include R. Albert Mohler Jr., Peter Enns, Michael F. Bird, Kevin J. Vanhoozer, and John R. Franke. Below I have summarized the views and rebuttals of Mohler and Enns. These two scholars represent the most polarized positions in the book. I will cover the remaining three in the next post. All summaries are my perception of their arguments. To read their view in their own words, check out the book.

Meet the Contestants

R. Albert Mohler Jr. grew up in the Baptist tradition, received his Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and now serves as president of this institution (he first became a staff member in 1983). He is also Professor of Christian Theology and has served on the boards of Focus on the Family and Council on Biblical Manhood Womanhood. He is author of several books, including Culture Shift: Engaging Current Issues with Timeless Truth and Desire and Deceit: The Real Cost of the New Sexual Tolerance. Mohler is known for his public commentary and blogs at: http://www.albertmohler.com/He is married and has two children.

Peter Enns hails from an evangelical background. He attended Messiah College and Westminster Theological Seminary before obtaining his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University. He returned to his alma mater, Westminster, as faculty in 1994 where he was Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics. In 2005, he published Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament. The book caused controversy at his institution, culminating in his termination in 2008. Enns is currently faculty at Eastern University and blogs at: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/. He is married and has three adult children.

Albert Mohler’s Argument

Mohler affirms the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). He believes the doctrine of inerrancy has been normative for the Church since the Apostles (34). When the Bible speaks, God speaks. Inerrancy means God inspired every single word of Scripture (verbal plenary inspiration), and Scripture shares God’s perfection and truthfulness (30). If we do not affirm the perfection of Scripture then we are left with only human judgment to determine which biblical texts have any authority and which ones do not. Quoting Carl F.H. Henry, he agrees the “search for a biblical authority that accommodates errancy has tragically eroded theological energies” (33). Mohler finds evidence for the inerrancy view in the Bible, tradition of the Church, and the function of the Bible within the Church. For the first he cites 2 Peter 1:21, 2 Timothy 3:16, Hebrews 3:7, Acts 4:25, Romans 9:15, 1 Thessalonians 2:13, John 10:34-35, and Matthew 5:17-20. He interprets Peter as saying Scripture should be trusted at “every point” (37).

Mohler states the tradition of the Church affirms inerrancy, even though he acknowledges the patristic fathers often employed allegorical exegesis (40). He bases his conclusion on the work of John D. Woodbridge in Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal. He denies “inerrancy” is a modern development. Finally, Mohler asserts that if inerrancy is not upheld as doctrine that we are left with a “debilitating epistemological crisis” and the Word of God cannot be preached with confidence (43). The Bible is “God’s written and verbal self-revelation, which finds fulfillment in Christ” and without it we are left with “nothing more than an oral tradition concerning Christ” (45). Mohler denies Scripture is the result of divine dictation, but that God made use of the human authors’ faculties and personalities. “God wrote a book” through human authors by means of the Holy Spirit who protected the human authors “from all error” (45). Inspiration cannot be reduced to human insight or heightened states of consciousness (47).

Mohler does not feel “true” or “infallible” are terms sufficient for describing a doctrine on Scripture because he believes theologians are inclined to “distort the word truth” into constructs that have nothing to do with “simple propositional correctness” (46). Without the term, he maintains that errancy is implied, and therefore the Bible is not fully trustworthy and authoritative. Picking and choosing which texts are authoritative would result in “disastrous” confusion for the church and individual Christians. Scripture provides progressive revelation, and later revelation never contradicts or corrects previous revelation. Grammatical-historical interpretation is the correct form of biblical interpretation (47). This takes into consideration literary forms and devices. Scripture is interpreted by Scripture.

Test Case: Deuteronomy 20:16-17 vs. Matthew 5:43-48 (Israelite destruction of the Canaanites vs. Jesus’ mandate to love our enemies).

Mohler rejects opinions of other thinkers (e.g. Kenton Sparks, Brian McLaren, Eric Seibert) who suggest that Scripture does not contain a single coherent theology, but numerous ones, as well as sometimes promotes objectionable values (55-56). Mohler, quoting Christopher Wright, suggests that even if we cannot understand why it had to be this way, we have to stand back from our questions, criticism, and complaints to accept the Bible’s word on the matter (57). The ordering of the Canaanite deaths is “a reminder of the divine verdict of death upon all humanity, apart from Christ.” The New Covenant on the other hand mandates the Church to witness to the gospel and not conquer territory. However, he also points to the book of Revelation as an example that God’s righteous judgment (leading to destruction) is not isolated to the Old Testament.

Responses to Mohler:

  • Peter Enns: Mohler does not deal with the nature of Scripture beyond a simplistic level. The inerrantist position is not self-evident or the only alterative (59). Mohler’s insistence that the issue is not open for dispute, scrutiny, or refinement is problematic (61). Mohler’s interpretation of the Canaanite conquest is insufficient because Deuteronomy does not give final judgment as the rationale for the extermination (64).
  • Michael Bird: Mohler’s assertion that CSBI is the “quintessential statement of biblical inerrancy” is untenable (66). There were evangelicals prior to CSBI (1978), before the Evangelical Theological Society (1949), and before Old Princeton (1812-1920), all who had a high view of Scripture. The inerrancy discussion is primarily American. The American Inerrancy Tradition (AIT) retrieved the confessional heritage of infallibility, but it was also a reaction to particular debates in the American church. Similarly, patristic understanding of infallibility was not the same as Mohler’s understanding of inerrancy. Many of the other major doctrinal statements outside the American context (Westminster Confession, London Baptist Confession etc) do not use the term “inerrancy.” Mohler has problematically turned the CSBI into that which Scripture’s own life depends (69). He does not distinguish between text and interpretation, practices fideism, and holds a faulty view of revelation (e.g. Mohler does not want to interpret Scripture in light of historical or scientific evidence).
  • Kevin Vanhoozer: Mohler’s essay primarily focuses on the mid-twentieth century and beyond (72). The CSBI statement presents a proposition that is not quite the same as the early church. Mohler’s discussion doesn’t acknowledge that doctrine on the Bible’s truthfulness has developed over time. The early church affirmed infallibility, but their understanding of an “error” was not the same as the modernist/rationalist criteria for scientific truth/error now being employed to analyze the Bible (73). Original inerrancy was about “God’s authorial intention” but “rationalist inerrancy is about the interpreter’s modern presuppositions” (74). Mohler does not adequately define what counts as an error. He also conflates truthfulness of Scripture with his own interpretation. Scripture is inerrant, not our interpretations.
  • John Franke: Mohler tries to make the CSBI statement on inerrancy universal (77). The problem is that the CSBI statement ties inerrancy to a historical-grammatical interpretation, which was not the primary form of interpretation in the early church. The early church used spiritual and allegorical interpretation to address difficult passages in order to uphold infallibility. The allegory of Origen and Augustine can tell us about the dangers of cultural accommodation, just as Mohler’s modern presuppositions tell us about how we too closely tie together Scripture and faith with socio-cultural perspectives of a particular time period (79). Mohler seems to treat the CSBI on the same level and authority of Scripture when it should be subordinate, and therefore, open to scrutiny and possible correction.

Peter Enns’ Argument

The primary concern is how “inerrancy functions in contemporary evangelical theological discourse” (83). Enns does not believe inerrancy does justice to the complexity of the Bible. It puts expectations on Scripture that it’s not meant to bear. For example, it expects the Bible to be historically accurate (84). The CSBI does not leave room for healthy self-criticism (85). It assumes God must produce an inerrant Bible. The CSBI leaves too much unexplained, including the content of the word inerrancy. In CSBI, biblical authority, Christ’s authority, and inerrancy are all linked, if not equated, but such linkage needs to be demonstrated, not assumed (86). It links inerrancy to the very nature of God (i.e. God only speaks truth so Scripture must have the same exact quality). CSBI does not acknowledge hermeneutical complexities. We should explicate the “manner in which God speaks truth, namely, through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors” (87). The word truth must be defined. Enns proposes an incarnational model that remedies our need to see the historically conditioned nature of Scripture as a problem to resolve (87). Just as Jesus took on 1st century “skin” so also Scripture reflects cultural traits of the time periods it was written.

One primary problem with CSBI is that it suggests “literalism” is the proper hermeneutic (88). And it prohibits historical and scientific evidence to overturn anything in Scripture (e.g. the historical reality of the flood). While inerrantists don’t blatantly deny the Bible’s historical rootedness, they often treat Scripture as though it is divorced from history. Some forms of inerrancy seem gnostic in its focus on God “up there” distant from our finite, mundane world (90). The concept of inerrancy thwarts rigorous inquiry, including historical and scientific inquiry. Inerrancy cannot be “effectively nuanced to account for the Bible’s own behavior as a text produced in ancient cultures” (91). It also obscures the finitude of the text. All the statements in the Bible are not by default timeless and therefore applicable to us. If any language of inerrancy can be retained it should be as “descriptive observation rather than prescriptive declaration” (114). A descriptive approach would not start with a non-negotiable philosophical starting point with predetermined conclusions, but rather a “statement of faith on the part of the reader that no matter what is encountered, the reader is in the presence of the wisdom and mystery of our God.” However, Enns believes the term “inerrancy” is not useful and different language should be employed to talk about the Bible, such as his incarnational metaphor (115).

Test Case: Deuteronomy 20:16-17 vs. Matthew 5:43-48

We must come to terms with the seriousness of God’s command to exterminate the Canaanites, Jesus’s teaching on how to treat enemies, and discrepancies between archaeology and the biblical record of conquest (105). In order to uphold inerrancy, the inerrantist has to argue that 1) such order of extermination was morally just on God’s part; 2) it does not conflict with Jesus’ teaching; and 3) the historical record is accurate. Regarding the last point, the archaeological record does not show evidence of a conquest in the proportion that the biblical narrative suggests. The Canaanite extermination may not have literally happened. On the first point, Deuteronomy 20 does not describe a one time outburst of wrath; it is “part of a larger picture of Yahweh as a tribal warrior god” (107). Inerrantists are forced to justify the killing of women and children, enslavement of women and children, and prizing of virgin women as plunder. Moreover, the Canaanites are said to be killed for their sinfulness, yet their sin was not more of a moral offense than that of other nations (108). Deuteronomy 20 should not be understood as reporting accurate history, but consists of tribal rhetoric in a tribal culture. The Israelites “were an ancient people and portrayed God and their relationship to him in that way.” On the other hand, Jesus’ teaching to love enemies is a statement of inclusion and directly contrasts the conquest (110-111). Jesus’ teaching is a reversal of the Old Testament’s exclusivism.

Responses to Enns

  • Albert Mohler: Enns does not believe inerrancy is true. Mohler believes it is. Enns says inerrancy is a conversation stopper, yet evangelical institutions have the right and responsibility to uphold what they believe. Any doctrinal statement creates certain boundaries and distinguishes those who hold to it and those who don’t (119). That is what defines a group. Enns’ incarnational model is helpful but does not lend itself to the conclusion Enns draws (120). Jesus was fully human and yet without sin. Just as theologians argue whether Jesus could have sinned and argue whether the Bible errs, the result is the same: “Jesus did not sin and the Bible is without error.” Enns does not affirm the historical veracity of central events in the biblical narrative; thus “what kind of truth does the Bible convey in Enns’s view?” (121). According to Enns many parts of the Bible are not historically true and also present a false presentation of God’s character (122). What Enns proposes is the death of evangelicalism. However, the Bible “does not need to be rescued from itself and its own very clear claims of truthfulness” (123).
  • Michael Bird: Enns is right that we cannot rely on a priori ideas of God to formulate a doctrine of Scripture, and that the doctrine of inerrancy has been used for political purposes (124). However, his incarnational model is flawed. Its disastrous “because it threatens the uniqueness of the Christ event, since it assumes that hypostatic union is a general characteristic of divine self-disclosure in, through, or by a creaturely agent” (125). It divinizes the Bible by suggesting equality with God’s being. Enns is also overly confident in asserting that biblical events did not occur. We lack verification either way in some cases. He still needs to prove it. If certain events in the Old Testament are only partially historical, how can he make truth claims about events like the crucifixion and resurrection (126)? We should believe the testimony of the biblical authors. Enns also creates a false dichotomy between the Old Testament and the New Testament. God’s love and anger occur in both (127). Finally, he needs to engage in a more constructive proposal regarding inerrancy rather than primarily deconstructing.
  • Kevin Vanhoozer: Enns spends most of his essay reacting to a caricature of inerrancy (130). There are diverse ways of thinking about inerrancy than the model he attacks. Enns does not distinguish between the nature of inerrancy and its use, choosing to focus primarily on how it has been used in abusive ways. He believes inerrancy does not account enough for the Bible’s literary and historical context, but CSBI does not have to be interpreted that way (131). It does not require adherence to six day creation etc. Article 13 provides breathing room since it affirms we are not to read Scripture in a way that is alien to its usage and purpose. This means we can attend to the ancient Near Eastern context behind Genesis. Inerrancy does not require the strict literalism that Enns presumes (132). Inerrancy pertains to the truthfulness of the text, not to the manner of interpretation. Enns capitulates too quickly to the prevailing scholarly trends (133). He also risks sounding like a Marcionite; it’s not clear how he sees the Old Testament speaking to the people of God. He does not do justice to Deuteronomy 20, failing to answer whether he thinks it’s true or false and instead jumping to Jesus (134). Enns also does not propose any constructive doctrine of Scripture for us to consider. He does not explain what he thinks makes the Bible the Word of God.
  • John Franke: Franke agrees with Enns that inerrancy is not a particularly helpful term since it “so easily conjures up false notions about the Bible” (137). Enns sees himself as a reformer and those who see him as a betrayer of tradition too quickly dismiss from what they might learn from Enns. However, Enns has overstated his case. He does not do justice to the in-depth biblical scholarship that many evangelicals who hold to inerrancy are engaged in (138). Article 13 of CSBI is an embrace of interpreting in light of the ancient setting, not a rejection of it. Enns was more deconstructive than constructive. What might he propose about how Scripture should function in the church? Enns also would benefit from recognizing that the meaning of the texts is not exhausted by the intent of the authors (140). The Spirit works through the text. His incarnational model can be expanded to understand that God “speaks truth to people where they are” beyond the ancient world to all societies.

In my next post, I will summarize the arguments of Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke.

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