The following interview with Professor Greg Beale is taken from Risking the Truth: Handling Error in the Church
In February 2011 Greg Beale will be one of the speakers at the Affinity Theological Study Conference on the doctrine of Scripture. Other speakers include Carl Trueman, Daniel Strange, Martin Downes and Hywel Jones.
Part 1: The exegetical foundations of inerrancy
Part2: Dealing with denials and criticisms of the doctrine of inerrancy
Part 3: The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism
What have been some of the contributing factors to what you have called the 'erosion' of inerrancy in evangelicalism?
There are a number of factors. One has to do with the well-known term ‘postmodernism’. What I mean by that term is the essential notion that truth is relative, and as that has come to be baptized within evangelicalism, especially in the United States, there is a focus away from the notion that the Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God and a focus on the Spirit coming to give every person a particular message through the Scriptures that may not have been originally intended. Hence, original inspiration is not that necessary or, at least, it comes to be seen as not so important.
Indeed, for the evangelical postmodernist, we no longer live in the former apologetic age. We live now in an age of experience where we want to meet the living God. We must not be so concerned about the inerrant propositions of Scripture. ‘Propositions’ almost has become a naughty hermeneutical word. We are told we should be concerned only with the God we meet who reveals His presence in Scripture. That is the kind of ethos that I think has worn away at the idea of inerrancy in evangelicalism.
Together with that there is another angle of the postmodern influence, and that is the notion that we moderns should not judge ancient peoples, i.e. the peoples who wrote the Bible, by our standards of what we believe is true and what is false. They may have had different standards. We should not impose our modern standards on these ancient peoples. For example, it is claimed that the synoptic gospels may indeed contain historical contradictions. That does not mean that the synoptic writers, and their readers, would have thought that they were contradictions and that they were false.
It is this kind of argument that you hear again and again, and this begins to touch even closer to the notion that truth is relative, especially from one age to another. That is one factor in the erosion of inerrancy in evangelicalism, even at some of our traditional evangelical institutions.
Secondly, there is a sociological phenomenon. Beginning at least thirty years ago, and increasingly today, evangelicals have been doing doctoral work in Old and New Testament and theology. One reason for that in Biblical Studies is that evangelical seminaries are rigorous in requiring Greek and Hebrew, whereas the other seminaries typically are not. There are more competent students potentially qualified to do doctoral work coming out of our seminaries (who know Greek and Hebrew well), and they are going on to do doctorates at non-evangelical institutions.
In the United States when one enters into a doctoral program that is not evangelical it is like entering a new world, a world that does not have the values that the student had back at their Christian college. When you go into that world as an evangelical you are made to feel like an ignorant fundamentalist if you really believe in the inspiration, indeed the inerrancy of Scripture. And if that were made known, you are then made to feel odd. No one wants to be made to feel odd by their professors and scholarly student peers. So it is very easy to downplay one’s view, and it becomes very easy to want to fit in. In other words a student wants to be considered normal; no one wants to be seen as abnormal, and so there is tremendous pressure not to reveal one’s belief in inerrancy, when particular occasions may call for it.
There is this huge sociological pressure placed on students, and if they are not tremendously founded on the Word of God and in a strong Reformed epistemology, then I have seen that it is easy for them to become conformed to that environment in which they are around. So students come out and maybe they are still evangelical, they believe in the gospel, but some of their other beliefs have been eroded, such as the full inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, which they also begin to think is the fundamentalist view.
Those are two reasons for the erosion of inerrancy in evangelical: postmodern theological reasons and the sociological factors. I must say there are some students who go through these programs, and they do fine, but there is a significant percentage who come out still considering themselves as evangelical but not with the same set of beliefs on Scripture.
How do you assess the status of inerrancy today among evangelical theologians and biblical scholars? Is the doctrine in good health?
Part of my answer goes back to the rise of postmodernism and its baptism into evangelicalism. You see this with some of our theologians at evangelical schools that do not want to be called systematic theologians. Systematic theology of some of these theologians is a matter of the past, a matter of Church history. Some contemporary theologians do not consider systematic theology to be a viable approach for the doing of theology today. These theologians sometimes like to refer to themselves as constructive theologians.
For them systematic theology focuses too much on reason, and the notion that you can organize Scripture into categories. They would also say that it focuses too much on propositions. So there is a de-emphasis on the inspiration of the propositions and an emphasis on the presence of God in Scripture. Of course that is a wonderful emphasis. Karl Barth had that emphasis. But you do not downplay one for the other. The propositions are true because they are living oracles of God and God is there speaking through them. The way He speaks to us existentially through the Scriptures is going to be consistent with the way they were originally penned under inspiration. There are not going to be different or contradictory meanings given by the Spirit.
I published a book in the mid 1990s called The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? There is a debate still among evangelicals that the New Testament writers used the Old Testament but gave it completely new meanings, and yet what they wrote was inspired. I have to say ‘no’ to that. I have argued against that in a number of my writings and I think that is the opening of the door toward a dilution of inerrancy. Peter Enns, most recently of course, argued for this position in his book Incarnation and Inspiration.
Another symptom of the dilution of the authority of Scripture among evangelicals is the popularity of the Barthian view of Scripture. Of course, I don’t want to paint everyone with this brush; there are some fine evangelicals upholding the doctrine of inerrancy, (and I’m not going to go school by school!), but some schools are mixed in this regard. I do think that the theology of Karl Barth’s view of Scripture continues to live on, and in fact is becoming very, very much more influential, even more than it has been in the past, much more influential among evangelicals.
What that means is that the key issue is the presence of God confronting one in Scripture, and not so much the focus on propositions. Barth himself believed that there were actual errors in the inscripturated form of the Bible, but that God can reveal Himself even through those errors. This is a kind of strange hyper-Calvinist view. Some of these theologians would think that it is antiquated to try to defend inerrancy as an apologetic because of what they consider to be an appropriate lack of stress on propositions.