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Are we liberalising the Bible? (Scripture Series)

I’m yet to write on Witherington in our Scripture series, but I thought I’d take a brief look at a new article from the 9Marks e-journal.  In it, Gregory Wills asks, What lessons can we learn from the history of liberalism?

Wills emphasises that the old school liberal scholars were not heretics but rather evangelicals with a keen sense of mission and a deep concern to present Christianity as credible in a hostile society.  Faced with sharp criticisms of Christianity, the liberals’ response was to redefine inspiration and inerrancy: the Bible may well contain historical and scientific errors, but this is ultimately no problem because the Bible still contains religious truth.  Wills writes,

Liberals held that the scientific discoveries [of Darwin] did not falsify the Bible, they merely corrected false views of inspiration.  Their confidence that they were merely following the dictates of rational science prevented most liberals from recognizing that their approach involved cultural accommodation of vast proportions. … The old liberalism sought to rescue Christianity by making it credible to persons who had adopted a naturalistic worldview, which meant redefining Christianity in largely naturalistic terms.

Wills then warns us that we face the same temptation today: confronted with harsh criticism of Christianity, some evangelical scholars are trying to play the critics on the critics’ terms, which will only result in a compromised faith.

As some of you have noticed, Tamie and I have already been leaning towards an emphasis on Scripture’s spiritual infallibility rather than the kind of wholesale inerrancy found in the Chicago Statement.  Are we in fact facing the same temptation that Wills warns against?  Here are a few thoughts.

It’s worth noting that modern evangelical articulations of inerrancy may be just that: modern positions developed in response to modern preoccupations.  Of course, Christians across the centuries have always believed in the divine truth and inspiration of the Bible, but only in recent generations has this belief developed various qualifications about the kinds of truth that modern people care about, such as history and science.  I’m not endorsing liberalism, nor am I discounting inerrancy at this point.  I’m saying that we need to recognise the points of continuity and discontinuity between our modern faith commitments and those of Christian history.

Just as Wills notes that liberal scholars began marching to a modern tune, could it not be that ‘inerrantists’ have been doing the same?  A concern for inerrancy may certainly spring from the Bible and Christian tradition, but it may just as well spring from the desire to shore up faith against modern attacks.  If we assert that the Bible answers modern charges in modern terms, that may not be the high ground we might hope for!

The liberal tradition of scholarship and the historical-critical approach has certainly been riddled with modern hang ups.  I find myself, however, seeing similar modern hang ups in evangelical concerns for inerrancy.  I am adamant that ‘the gospel must be accepted on its own terms’, as Wills says — but what if those terms were simply not modern terms at all?  What if the Bible’s answers to modern charges revolve around ancient concerns rather than modern ones?

The Bible is a collection of ancient texts written by and to ancient people, so we should expect it to reflect its various ancient settings.  The next question is how such texts are understandable today.  How do we get at truth in biblical texts?  The question of truth in Scripture is entirely inseparable from the question of reading Scripture.  The question is not whether or not the Bible is true and inspired, but in what sense it is true and inspired.  What, you might say, are ‘history’ and ‘science’ as Scripture would have it? These are the questions we need to answer.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

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