Fighting modernity with modernity places limitations on the study of scripture.
by Timothy Troutner
Though Hillsdale students gladly consider differing perspectives on politics and theology, I have seldom seen tools of historical and literary analysis turned on the Bible itself. Outside Associate Professor of English Dr. Justin Jackson’s class on Reading Biblical Narrative, there seems to be a disconnect between our education and our reading of Scripture, founded on an unspoken conception of biblical inerrancy. At Hillsdale we pride ourselves in the liberal arts, in the close reading of texts, and in the living tradition of the West. Is it possible that we have isolated our sacred texts from the tools we spend years fine-tuning in class?
This reflection is not meant to be an attack on the Bible. On the contrary, reconsidering factual inerrancy will help post-Enlightenment readers understand and appreciate that most central text of western civilization. God does indeed speak through the Bible, but I will argue that appreciating genre, textual development, and internal contradictions in narrative should form a central part of that dialogue.
For many at Hillsdale, to defend biblical inerrancy is to fight the good fight against modern heresy and skepticism: to insist that the text never errs, even on scientific or historical fact. I believe that rather than valiantly defending the Bible against modernism, evangelicals have simply embraced modernism in another form.
The rise of modernism is closely connected to the Enlightenment project of individualist rationalism, which was accompanied by an age of scientific discovery. The successes of Newtonian science gave men confidence that the universe was understandable through a few simple and unchanging scientific laws which governed it. The modernists sought to reduce phenomena to bare, (usually) scientific fact―marketed as dependable truth. This reductionism led to the denial of free will, the existence of God, and anything else that could not be discovered through the scientific method. When historical criticism revealed that the Biblical text was redacted over generations and contained anachronisms and unhistorical events, modernists saw that the Christian faith was at odds with “the facts” and dismissed it. The Genesis accounts were mere myths, properly replaced by evolutionary theory. Richard Dawkins and the more outspoken atheists demonstrate the confidence, if not cockiness, which characterizes this way of viewing the world.
Conservative Christians responded by vociferously defending the historical truth of the Bible and the validity of the fundamentals of the faith. This backlash against the modernist challenge reached its fulfillment in the Chicago Statement of Inerrancy, which affirmed that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God.” The motivation for this statement was clear: biblical authority was “inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded.” Among others, the conservative intellectuals R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, and Francis Schaeffer signed this document, raising a bulwark against the tide of modernism. Or so they thought.
In fact, evangelicalism simply adopted the enlightenment ideology in another form. Instead of scientific fact, biblical revelation represented the infallible guide to the universe. Just as reductionists insisted that the scientific method was the key to all truth, evangelicals insisted that Scripture, read literally, unlocked the key to propositional knowledge of the world. While pre-moderns had seen the world through the lens of living tradition, modernists, Christian or otherwise, saw reality as a system which could be deciphered through the use of a timeless and perfect tool. C.S. Lewis described the temptation to see in Scripture “an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form—something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table”.
In the larger Christian tradition, however, the Bible has represented the narrative of God’s work among his people, and the recognition of the historical development of this relationship shielded Scripture from becoming a timeless, static, and homogenous guide to reality.
In exchange for this dynamic understanding of Scripture, evangelicals have substituted a reading which insists that everything in the Bible is perfectly consistent and holds up to scrutiny on the level of fact. While adopting the epistemology of the modernist “enemy” makes for a nice and neat debate with clearly defined sides, it has come at great cost.
The richness of various genres is silenced to maintain internal consistency and literal factual truth. The modernist believes that the validity of a narrative is defined by accuracy to the “facts”, as if such an objective third-party conveyance of reality were possible or even desirable. An education at Hillsdale attempts to demonstrate that the various liberal arts all provide us different angles and ways of encountering our complex reality. After all, poets may choose words that do not stand up to close examination for “accuracy”, yet remain as true as ever. Biblical inerrancy urges us to forget this appreciation for genre, and treat all texts like scientific or historical fact. Instead of realizing the surprising things the Genesis narrative does to use and subvert Mesopotamian creation myth, biblical inerrantists insist on verifying that this poetic account is backed up by science. Instead of appreciating the encouragement the book of Revelation would have provided early believers facing the threat of imperial Rome, inerrantists find in these texts a roadmap to future geopolitical events. English majors at Hillsdale would be horrified by such forced readings of any text but the Bible.
Not only does the depth of the biblical text suffer, but the breadth of the dialogue must be condensed to a single unified voice. The participants in the biblical dialogue are silenced by the need for an internally consistent propositional truth. Instead of appreciating the differing creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, inerrantists perform hermeneutical gymnastics, changing verb tenses to ensure the account makes a coherent scientific explanation of the world’s beginning. Scripture is not a coherent narrative, let alone a unified propositional truth. Major contradictions are evidence of multiple voices within the text, which is an ongoing conversation among God’s people about how to be God’s people. For example, in Ezra, marrying a foreigner got you killed. In Ruth, it got you enshrined in a sort of love story. The Mosaic law prescribed “an eye for an eye”, but Jesus went above and beyond, declaring that “you have heard but I say unto you”. Another example: the Pentateuch is fairly ethnically exclusive, but by the time of Jonah, God’s love is extended even to Israel’s enemies. A Hillsdale education demands that students not only critically examine parallel texts for contradictions, but to notice subtle differences in emphasis. Instead, inerrantists spend much of their time trying to reconcile these different emphases. To homogenize the Bible is to ignore the progressive development of the understanding of the people of God. These contradictions show that the works are products of human voices and not dropped from on high. To revise them is to remove the flavor. The beauty found in Scripture is destroyed by attempts to twist the stories into consistency so they can fit into an inerrant Bible—not only the integrity of the individual threads, but in the beauty of the tapestry itself.
By embracing inerrancy, especially along with its counterpart literalism, many Christians have cut themselves off from the heritage of Christian tradition. For one thing, many inerrantists would be threatened by the allegorical interpretations of Augustine, Origen, or the Greek Fathers. While few theologians would have gone so far as to say that the Bible contained error, they were not picking through the Bible with a modernist lens, insisting on historical or scientific accuracy. Instead, church fathers heavily utilized allegorical interpretation, creatively mining the text for new and fresh ways of listening to the voice of God. Biblical inerrancy renders consulting tradition more or less unnecessary. Why consult a living tradition of fallible men when you already have the perfect, self-explanatory guide to all of reality? Much of the intellectual and historical poverty of modern evangelicalism can be traced to the modernist view of scripture.
Biblical inerrancy causes conflict with modern scholarship as well as ancient tradition. The doctrine forces Christians into some awkward situations when faced with scientific and historical evidence. No matter what conclusion one might draw from the scientific evidence for evolution, biblical inerrantists cannot even consider the possible that the evidence might lean that direction. This environment is not a healthy one for “pursuing truth”. The entire Christian faith has been staked on the literal truth of every text. Your entire faith could be destroyed by the discovery that the existence of domesticated camels in Genesis is a historical anachronism. The great achievement and profound lessons of Shakespeare’s work are not lost because of inaccuracies in his historical dramas. One would never argue that Shakespeare failed because of these “errors”, yet this is the standard many apply to the biblical text. Thus all the attention placed on apologetics. The Bible can no longer speak for itself; it was intended for a role far different than the perfect propositional guide it has become.
All of these consequences mean that young Christians are being presented with a version of Christianity which is difficult to defend in the academic world. While it is one thing to be an inerrantist at Hillsdale, which is very friendly toward evangelical faith, Hillsdale students will face a totally different world in graduate school or the world at large. The biblical inerrantist worldview generally provokes one of two reactions when faced with this onslaught. Either the student doubles down and continues to refuse to use the tools of historical or literary analysis or the student is faced with a sudden and traumatic crisis in faith. Hillsdale should be a place where students are encouraged to challenge their faith and examine it critically, instead of setting them up to either retreat into their assumptions or flounder when faced by the challenges of modern scholarship.
Biblical inerrancy at Hillsdale seems to make the Bible the exception to everything we learn here. Inerrantists have raised the bar for truth so high that not even the greatest text in human history can reach it, placing Christians in the awkward position of constantly having to defend the faith against modernity on modernist turf. Even Hillsdale Protestant hero C.S. Lewis recognized that the Scripture could not bear the demands of “biblical inerrancy”:
The human qualities of the raw materials show through. Naïvety, error, contradiction, even (as in the cursing Psalms) wickedness are not removed. The total result is not “the Word of God” in the sense that every passage, in itself, gives impeccable science or history. It carries the Word of God.
While much of this piece is about how not to read the Bible and what the Bible is not, I believe that understanding problematic ways of reading of Bible opens up the door to greater engagement with the text. Lewis understood this, and argued that because Scripture is important and true, we must use every tool we have to study it:
We (under grace, with attention to tradition and to interpreters wiser than ourselves, and with the use of such intelligence and learning as we may have) receive that word from it not by using it as an encyclopedia or an encyclical but by steeping ourselves in its tone or temper and so learning its overall message.
That overall message emerges only through the contradictions, the dialogue, and the various genera which biblical inerrancy covers up.
As Hillsdale students, we spend four years learning how to read texts. We believe that as we encounter the dialogue we call the Great Tradition, we are entering a space where truth will happen. As we approach that vibrant and messy dialogue, it would be sad indeed if we allowed concepts like biblical inerrancy to deprive us of the literary and historical tools we have learned. So I encourage you to heed the words of Lewis and consider the possibility that the Bible is not the timeless, flawless guidebook to certainty about the universe that modern man seeks. No, it is something deeper and more meaningful than that. Scripture does not present us with a coherent set of propositions or facts which are infallible or inspired, but rather a dialogue containing competing narratives, and it is this dialogue which is inspired (God’s voice can be heard in it.) It is the record of men and women who wrestled with God and with each other, and through that dialogue the voice of God emerges, calling us forth to greater beauty and truth.
Timothy Troutner is a junior studying history and philosophy. He blogs at http://dkmz.net/.