Seven Tactical Errors Inerrantists Commit

Michael Bauman Pilgrim Theology coverAs some see it, the theological foundation of evangelical unity is the fact that the Bible is an inspired book, inerrant in the autographs. Our commitment to the authority and accuracy of the Bible is a belief we value highly, one we desire to share with those outside our circle, and one concerning which we repeatedly endeavor to convince them. Yet, despite our long-term and massive commitment in that direction, despite our meticulous historical, theological and exegetical treatments of the data the yield in number of “converts” to our position remains abysmally meager. In fact, if personal impressions can be trusted, it seems that more defections occur in their direction than in ours. Some of these defections we knowingly and willingly support by official decision. Some we do not. Of the former I shall not speak. But why after we have expended so much effort getting them in the fold — and after getting them there, keeping them there — why do they reject us? “What’s wrong with those noninerrantists?” we ask ourselves. “Can’t they recognize truth? Don’t they know compelling arguments when they see them?”

Perhaps they do. Perhaps what they see and read from us is not as convincing as we think it is. Perhaps flaws in arguments are like headlights on a dark highway — everyone else’s seem brighter and more glaring than our own. That at least is the contention of this chapter. The evangelical view of the Bible’s veracity I believe to be sound. Our fortress theologians’ arguments for it occasionally are not. After a brief disclaimer, to those failings I presently will turn.

First, the disclaimer: if it is not already clear, I must reiterate that I am not challenging the accuracy or authority of Scripture, which is inviolable, but I am questioning our methods of defending and propagating it, which are not. If I find some aspects of our case for inerrancy less than convincing and can explain why, then we might possibly be able to identify and correct some of the tactical lapses in our dealings with noninerrantists. In the end we might also discover, if we had not already suspected it, that the reason the noninerrantists refuse to line up with us on this important issue is not because they are stupid, dishonest, narrow-minded, or reprobate. Perhaps we have not yet made the convincing case we think we have. I, for one, believe some of our more commonly repeated arguments are faulty. To date, I have identified what I believe are seven such tactical errors that we evangelicals frequently commit in defending inerrancy.1

I. The Slippery-Slope Argument

Because the issue of the Bible’s inerrancy appears to some of us to be a “watershed” issue, we frequently argue that if one takes a stand against full biblical authority one has stepped onto a “slippery slope” that very probably will lead to further theological concessions and perhaps even to spiritual shipwreck. Examples from the past of people or institutions and denominations that have slid down that slope are marshaled as evidence for our case. Once the anchor of inerrancy is rejected, we reason, ones theological and spiritual stability is jeopardized. We conclude, therefore, that one ought to hold to scriptural infallibility, for safety’s sake.

But for several reasons this argument will not do. First, it posits a highly suspect cause-and-effect relationship between one point of doctrine and a subsequent course of events. Every good historian realizes that the relationship between ideas and events is exceedingly difficult to identify and to analyze. The historical reconstruction this argument proposes could involve as many as three historiographical fallacies: (1) the fallacy of post hoc, propter hoc, which assumes that if event B occurred after event A, then event B was caused by event A; (2) the fallacy of cum hoc, propter hoc, which misidentifies repeated correlation with causation by assuming that if A and B occur in tandem with a great deal of regularity, then A caused B; and (3) the fallacy of mistaking logical sequence with historical causation by arguing that because B follows A in a logically causative sequence, when B follows A in a historical sequence a cause/effect relationship can reasonably be assumed. When we employ such faulty arguments, we leave ourselves open to harsh and justifiable criticism from the outside. Though it is obviously overstated, we ought to remember Wittgenstein’s caveat that belief in the causal nexus is sometimes a superstition.

Historiographical fallacies aside, the debatable cause-and-effect sequence we have reconstructed from our (arguably biased) selection of the historical and theological data before us, nevertheless, is advanced as confidently as if we actually knew the theological and spiritual dynamics at work in the mind or life of any given individual rather than were merely speculating about them. I question whether we even know ourselves2 so surely as we claim to know others, even vast numbers of others who are in some cases long dead and in other cases unknown to us even by name or by sight. We have cause to be far more modest in our generalizations about historical causation and the psychological factors operative in believing and in changing belief. When we evangelicals are treated so cavalierly and with such insensitive generalization by those who oppose us, we respond with horror and indignation. I think our response to such treatment is warranted. Yet, when we inflict such treatment on others, we are bewildered by the way they cling so tenaciously to their “obvious” error. Our tactical and procedural unfairness is perhaps one reason they do so.

When we advance the slippery-slope argument against our opponents, we fail to appreciate how really weak it is unless and until we aim it at ourselves and feel its actual impact. Imagine, if you will that a noninerrantist argued in true slippery-slope from that inerrancy is a dangerous belief that could, and has led to tragic consequences. “Jim Jones, Bob Jones and Jehovah’s Witnesses believe in inerrancy,” he says. ” Once you believe that doctrine, you could end up a madman, an obscurantist, or a cultist. By all means, then, avoid it. The lesson of history is clear. Once you give in on this point and become and inerrantist, the camel’s nose is in the tent. Who knows where it will lead?” No competent evangelical theologian would be convinced that inerrancy was dangerous, much less would he abandon it, on that basis. That theologian would see immediately how repulsive and unfair such a case is. But, of course, when we argue that way we think the case is different. Used in favor of inerrancy, we deceive ourselves into thinking this argument is more compelling than it really is.

The third reason noninerrantist reject this “slippery-slope” argument is because it is based upon expediency and not truth. It says, when used alone, that one should believe inerrancy because it works rather than because it is true. By using this argument it appears as if we assume that noninerrantists build their theologies on a utilitarian basis rather then on what they perceive to be a factual one. Our assumption that they are, in effect theologically dishonest is highly insulting. Like us, they believe what they believe because they think it true, not because they think it “convenient,” “useful,” or “safe” (concepts that admit of considerable debate themselves). Noninerrantists, like inerrantists, are interested in truth, not merely pragmatic preference. Moreover, if we argue according to the slippery-slope paradigm, we do so probably because we find it convincing. That may imply some very uncomplimentary things about us, our epistemology, and our methods.

The fourth weakness of the slippery-slope paradigm is the debatable value judgment inherent in our analysis of the relative desirability of past and present theological conditions. This argument can have force only to those who think the present state of things is worse than an earlier one. Leaving aside the vexed question concerning what constitutes a better or worse theological condition, I know of few noninerrantist theologians who believe Princeton Seminary was a better place 150 years ago than it is today. The slippery-slope argument is absurd to those who think recent trends constitute an advance and not a fall.

In short, the sooner we abandon this approach to the problem of defending inerrancy, the better. This argument is inconclusive, uncharitable, and historiographically and philosophically faulty.3

II. The Theological-Deduction Argument

In our zeal to defend the reliability of the Bible, we often implement arguments based on the theological deductions we draw from certain scriptural texts. This method of argument can entail not only certain exegetical fallacies,4 it seems to depend upon certain discredited medieval methods of theological formulation. For example, we argue that (1) God inspired the Bible; (2) God does not lie; and (3) therefore, the Bible is without error. But this is a faulty argument in at least two ways. First, it is an apples-and-oranges affair. That is, it falsely identities errors with lies. Mistakes in Scripture, if they existed, would not necessarily be lies. Inaccuracy and moral culpability are not the same. When we detect an error on a student’s test or research paper, we do not think that student is evil or despicable: A students are not necessarily more moral than B students When a student tells me something about Zwingli that he thinks is true but is not, he is not lying to me. Nor are we to think that either the human or the Divine Author is lying to us if we find an error in the Bible.

The reason we must not draw such blasphemous conclusions is my second point. Such a false identification of scriptural result with the being and character of God is insupportable. Our method fails to distinguish between the intentions of God (which do reflect his nature) and the resultant phenomena in space and time, which might not. We cannot label (or libel) God by means of our perception of the state of the biblical data. For example, we would consider as ridiculous any conclusion that God had but a pedestrian command of Hebrew and Greek because of the occasional grammatical lapses in Scripture. The state of the text is not necessarily a reflection of God. Nor could we conclude that God was poor at math because the biblical text contains some strange and confusing numerical data. That he permits such things to occur, even employs them for his own ends, is no bad reflection on his character or his abilities. God is not to be thought of as ambiguous, deceitful, or duplicitous simply because Paul’s works occasionally are infuriatingly vague or unclear. Other beings than God have had their way in the matter. Their actions do not necessarily reflect on him. The Bible is both human and divine. In other words — whether in the original autographs or in subsequent copies — if errors of fact ever surfaced in the bible they would not necessarily be lies from God. Furthermore, it does no good to argue that mathematical errors or grammatical infelicities are inconsequential or else not as important as errors of substance. God’s idea of “substance” might possibly equate with those entertained by twentieth-century American evangelicals. But it might not. We have no sure word that grammatical infelicities bother God any less (or any more) than infelicities of number or sequence, for example. We cannot dogmatically assert that Paul’s shipwreck of grammar in portions of Galatians is any more or less appealing or appalling to God than the unusual numbers in Kings or Chronicles. It’s all guesswork, and the noninerrantists are not likely to resign their beliefs over that.

III. The Christological Argument

In our effort to convince others of the Bible’s infallibility, we frequently make appeal to Christ himself. We appeal on the one hand to his recorded words and on the other to our understanding of the Incarnation. Jesus, we say, held to the supreme accuracy of Scripture. Furthermore, in the same way that Christ was without sin, the bible is without error. But these are not telling arguments. First, they repeat the error of labeling mistakes as sins, about which we have previously spoken. Second, even if we demonstrate beyond any possibility of dissent that the words recorded in the Bible are actually the words of Jesus himself and not those of the evangelists, and that Jesus, when he so spoke, was not accommodating himself to his audience — even if we demonstrate that those words reflect a bibliological view identical to that which we espouse — we have not yet got a case against the noninerrantists. To those who, like me, maintain a high view of Christ, such an argument is a conclusive one. But judging from those I studied under in seminary and graduate school, I dare say that most theologians outside our circle do not hold such a view of the Christ. Unless someone already holds an exalted view of the authority of Christ (which, in most instances, is to say that unless someone already holds a high view of the Bible), such an appeal is unconvincing and circular. Apart from an exalted view of Christ, appeal to his words does not constitute proof. Normally, one cannot establish an exalted view of Christ without appeal to the reliability of scripture, and that, in this case, is begging the question. An appeal to Jesus is conclusive only if Jesus is an authoritative teacher of doctrine and only if the Bible gives reliable data about his teachings. Because a number of noninerrantists believe both these premises are faulty, they reject our conclusion. We do the same to theirs. In other words, unless our opponents already share certain of our theological presuppositions, a mere appeal to Jesus will not settle the issue. Our deft alteration of a bibliolgical issue into a Christological one (“Don’t argue with me, argue with Jesus”) is flatly ineffective.

Much less will an appeal to our understanding of the Incarnation resolve the question. We sometimes attempt to justify our belied in the inerrancy of Scripture by drawing an analogy between inspiration and incarnations. We trot out all the comparisons we see between the Word becoming flesh and the Word of God coming to us in the words of men. From those comparisons we argue that a sinless Jesus analogous to an errorless Bible. My point is not that analogy exists — it might. But I deny that we have any sure idea of what exactly it is. The process of incarnation and its multiform consequences and implications remain a profound mystery to us. How God became a man we do not know. In the same light, the incarnational consciousness is not readily open to investigation by us: nor can it be used as a convincing basis for argumentation. We do not know much about it was like to be both God and man in ancient Judea. Across this great distance in time, and over this great gap in culture, such a retrieval of knowledge is no longer possible, if ever it was. To combine this vast incarnational mystery with our equally sketchy notions of how we imagine God inspired written words long ago any far away, and then to make from this double guess an argument by analogy for the inerrancy of the Bible is, at least as it concerns its evidential value , an exercise in futility. The inherent tenuousness of argument by analogy aside, such speculations have little, if any real conclusive force. They arise not from demonstrable fact, but from mere educated guesswork, perhaps even ignorance. This is only dead reckoning. We know not whereof we speak, and the noninerrantists know that about us on this point. The functional procedures of God on the frontier between the human and divine silence, noninerrantists will remain said . I light of that divine silence, noninerrantists will remain unconvinced by our vociferous declamations. And they should. Silence is much to be preferred over arguments drawn form it.

IV. The Definition of Error Argument

Most of us probably have endured the frustration of arguing theological epistemology with our Roman Catholic and Easter Orthodox friends. Their assertions of papal or ecclesiastical and conciliar infallibility seem to us to be protected by the wall of a thousand qualifications. They seem to us to be what Erasmus seemed to Luther: a slippery eel only Christ could grab. Their answers sometimes appear to be evasions. We think we have struck a telling blow only to find that they maintain their views merely by what seems verbal nuance, not argument.

Noninerrantists find our definitions of error equally exasperating. To them we seem to employ one sense of the word error in reference to the Bible and another the rest of the day. To them, what we quickly would count wrong on a student’s test, we offer reverential adherence to simply because it occurs in the bible. To noninerrantists we appear to cheat. We expend prodigious effort justifying a scriptural writer’s statement or harmonizing one biblical text with another, but when it comes to a student’s paper (or a liberal’s monograph) negative judgment is hastily rendered. We seldom hesitate to correct sophomores, liberals, or writers in journals. But when it comes to the Bible, our opponents believe we are unwilling to call a spade a spade. Until we can establish, and consistently apply, a definition for error that holds both inside the Bible and out, we will not convince dissenters to join us.

V. The Bursting-Balloon Argument5

The fifth tactical failure I recognize is that argument which implies that the authority of the bible is very much like a balloon. If you put a pinprick anywhere it collapses. Except for its power as a scare tactic, this argument is without merit and will not serve to establish the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I reject it for two reasons. First, while it springs from, and is intended to uphold, our profound reverence for Scripture, it accomplishes the opposite result. It treats the Bible with and almost unparalleled procedural disdain. If the Bible is wrong on this point, we say, it cannot be trusted anywhere. If the Bible is not fully reliable, it cannot be trusted at all. But no book in the world, much less the Bible should be handled with such extremism or rejected on such radical grounds. None of us would throw out telephone book away if we discovered an error (or even several errors) within it. The phone book has proven its reliability in many instances. Telephone numbers shown to be correct are still correct whether or not the last one you dialed got through to the person you needed. The same holds true for the Bible. Those places in the Bible that truly have been verified by external evidence still remain verified whether or not some portions of Zephaniah is contravened in the future. One error does not undo that fact. When the stakes are so high, as they surely are in terms of our spiritual destiny, premature rejection of any volume that has upheld its credibility as admirably as has the Bible is patently foolish. No noninerrantist will return to inerrancy (and not inerrantist should continue to maintain it) solely on the strength of that advice.

The second weakness of this argument is, if anything, more dangerous than the first. To reject the Bible so utterly and so contemptuously on the basis of some irreconcilable error (or errors) is not a counsel of wisdom; it is a counsel of despair. Rather than teaching students to commit spiritual suicide, we ought to be teaching them that even if errors did surface , all is not lost — including their souls. no clear-thinking theologian would teach that if the sequence of the succession of kings is flawed in some Old Testament narrative, or if Luke’s political details cannot be make to harmonize with extra biblical sources, then Christ is still in his grave, the Bible is junk, and everyone will live and die without hope. Such conclusions are simply detestable. They encourage people to build houses of cards for their souls. They engender misplaced faith by focusing it upon our doctrines about the bible rather than on the living God behind the Scripture, and on Jesus Christ, his only Son. Do not wonder that noninerrantists find this dangerous and wrongheaded advice less than compelling evidence for biblical inerrancy.6

VI. The Expectation Argument

This tactical error is committed when we argue that because scholarly investigations have established the reliability of the Bible in so many previous instances, we nay reasonably expect they will continue to do so in every case. In that light, we nay confidently expect (indeed publicly assert) that all the cards will fall our way.

Despite these assured results and our confident predictions, noninerrantists remain noninerrantists. They do so because they understand quite clearly that expectation does not constitute proof. The fact that archaeological investigations seem to support some statement in Joshua does not mean that all the Bible’s integrity has been upheld repeatedly by previous investigation, I can neither conclude nor argue it always will be. It might. It might not. The verdict is still out on that count, and it is that verdict which is at issue. We cannot assume the point to join our side. All we can conclude from post investigations of particular phenomena is what those past investigations actually have concluded. Such poor analyses are conclusive (if at all) only about previous issues, not those yet to be addressed.

Not only does this argument beg the question by assuming inerrancy for that portion of Scripture where verification is still lacking, not only is it unfairly disguising expectation as proof or argument, but it fails to note sufficiently the ambiguity of previous investigations. The yield from earlier analyses is not so overwhelmingly compelling as this argument makes it appear. Despite our claims that not a single spadeful of Middle Eastern dirt stands against the Bible, no noninerrantist shares out opinion that our win-loss record in argument and in investigative analysis is absolutely unblemished. We argue as if it were obvious to all noninerrantists that we are 36–0. They would say, in a generous mood, that perhaps we are 16–20, and perhaps not even that good. In many cases, the verdict concerning the outcome of the investigation depends in large part upon the person passing judgment. Such verdicts often are far from incontestable. The fact that we continue to evaluate each new case in our favor does not persuade noninerrantist to become inerrantists. Their expectations from the track record is not that the Bible is error free, but that we probably will continue to claim it is. Perhaps they see better than we do that our verdicts on past arguments and investigations, and the expectations we derive from those verdicts, often say as much about us as they do about the Bible.

Theirs do the same.

VII. The Perspectival Argument

The final tactical error arises from what C. S. Lewis identified as “chronological snobbery”: the tendency to identify truth with modernity. Because we naturally incline to measure all statements from the past against the yardstick of prevalent current consensus, we are, in effect, identifying truth with our own view, however culturally determined or culturally relative (and hence transitory) it might be. When a Fortress Theologian asserts the truthfulness of the Bible, he usually does so on the assumption that what the Bible teaches is congruent with the fundamentals of his own modern worldview, apparently forgetting that the modern mindset is but one in a series of successive worldviews and that it too will probably be slowly modified, if not abandoned, as were all its predecessors. Thus, insofar as a Fortress Theologian successfully ties the truth of the Bible to prevailing notions, and insofar as those notions will be slowly overturned, the fortress theologian has succeeded in falsifying Scripture for future generations.

To be specific, the way the fundamental structures of the universe have been perceived through the centuries has altered dramatically and repeatedly. But, because the wheels of time turn exceedingly slowly and imperceptibly in this regard, we tend to forget that the movement of the ages that brought our present view to the fore might well relegate it to the background in succeeding centuries, as it has those that came before, and as it seems to be doing even now. But our unconscious chronological snobbery tempts us to assume that viewpoints that prevail today are absolute truth and can never be superseded. Our ignorance of your historical conditionedness blinds us to the transitory nature of some of our most cherished beliefs and prevents us from holding them with appropriate humility and teachableness. We vainly imagine that what happened to the greatest thinkers of the past and to their revolutionary insights will never happen to us and to ours. Somehow — though we cannot say how — we presume that we shall escape the fate of the previous greats, upon whose very shoulders we stand.

That is, while the Copernican revolution rightly threw the church and its prevailing theology into great turmoil, Copernicanism itself has been corrected on some fundamental points. The same holds true for Darwinian evolutionism and Einsteinian relativity, both of which have undergone — and are undergoing — serious modification. We do not know what modifications yet await us and which, if any, of them will endure. Thus, to tie the Bible irretrievably to modern notions that themselves are subject to revision is to undermine for future generations the very text we so desperately seek to defend to ours.

Beware of the subtle arrogance that argues that because the bible agrees with you and your group, it therefore is without error. If you do not, you too might become the theological buffoon to succeeding generations that the church appears to us to have been in its dealing with Copernicus and others.

Our views are significantly perspectival, and our arguments ought to take that fact into account.


Those are, to me, the seven chief tactical errors we make in our dealings with noninerrantists. I am persuaded that none of them has merit enough to justify continued use, at least as they relate to our efforts to convince the unconvinced. Exaggerations, question beggings, faulty logic, uncharitable assumptions, and unsubstantiated conclusions can hardly be said to further our cause. Nor do I believe that our case is any more compelling when these arguments are seen together. Let us not delude ourselves into thinking that the juxtaposition of seven flawed arguments constitutes a conclusive case simply because the arguments are joined. The conjunction of inconclusive arguments constitutes case that can be questioned, perhaps even refuted, at every point. The noninerrantists, at least, think so. That is why most of them stopped reading our books long ago. They think them sometimes silly and sometimes offensive, both to reason and to good taste. I used to hold it as a point of pride that in my schooling in evangelical institutions I was required to read the texts written by the other side, while in my schooling at liberal institutions I was not. Being an inerrantist, I did not understand fully why this was so. I thought it was a clear case of liberal obscurantism. I never noticed how glaring my own headlights were. I kept staring only at theirs.

But where to go from here? My advice is twofold. First, we can believe in and argue for the Bible’s inerrancy only if the Bible is inerrant. Our focus must be, therefore, on the accuracy and reliability of the biblical data, not upon our theological deductions about them. All arguments must derive from a careful and honest evaluation of the factual accuracy of the scriptural phenomena. Arguments based upon our theology have been, and will continue to be determined by the assessment of the data that is as objective and evenhanded as possible. Even that may not win them over, as events have shown. It is, nevertheless, our best shot, the only one I’m told they’ll listen to patiently.

Second, if we counsel our opponents to be open-minded, teachable, objective, and patient scholars of goodwill, scholars who can feel the weight of the other side’s case, then I believe we ought to insist upon the same qualities in ourselves and our colleagues. We ought also to remember that these academic virtues, like spiritual humility, are exceedingly difficult to attain and, once acquired, are not self- conscious and cannot be flaunted. Any scholar who publicly proclaims his objectivity (or even cherishes it in his own private thoughts) probably lacks that very thing he praises. The best of us has ample reason for modesty and considerable room for improvement. A healthy skepticism (or even agnosticism) on many of the points at issue is not unjustified. This, at least, is what the best among us tell me. That is what helps make them the best. The rest of us have miles to go before we sleep.

Copyright © 2000 Michael Bauman. All rights reserved. Used by permission.