Friday, January 22, 2010

An interview on the doctrine of Scripture with Greg Beale (3)

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.


Unknown said...

I'm posting as one of those seminary students who attended a conservative Reformed seminary and ended up dumping inerrancy (while retaining evangelical faith).

Nice that Beale gets to limit the reasons this is happening to many in my situation to "postmodern thought" and "sociological pressures." Because that both insults our intelligence (we are morons who just succumb to peer pressure) and sidesteps the real issue that turned me and others I know from Chicago Statement-style inerrancy: it just doesn't work with the Bible we actually have.

Are there thought trends and sociological moves that affect anyone's shift from one paradigm to another? Of course. I could just as easily make a case that those who cling to inerrancy like Beale do so because they are captives of "modernity" and the sociological pressures of the communities and institutions to which they are committed. But to do so would insult their intelligence just as much as mine has been by this interview.

You may think we are ex-inerrantist for reasons that are in error, but at least respect that we have reasons (beyond peer pressure or wanting to be "cool").

Martin Downes said...

Public lens,

Please use your real name. Please feel free to post the review on your own blog not mine.


Stephen said...


Why do you not want a link to Enns' side of the story posted on your blog? You provide plenty from Beale. Don't you want your readers to be able to exercise their discernment while reading someone with whom you actually disagree, such as Enns?

For what it is worth, Greg Beale did not attend a doctoral program in the US. I often hear about how US doctoral programs are from American Evangelical NT scholars who (rarely) have their PhDs from US programs. They construct and perpetuate this mythic idea of overt intellectual and social persecution of evangelicals within “secular-liberal” US programs.

As both an Evangelical (from WTS!) and a doctoral student in a top-tier US program I want to register my disagreement with how Beale represents the situation. In my experience most US programs (i.e., the professors and students) do not care if you are a conservative Evangelical who believes in inerrancy or not. They care if you do honest, self-conscious, and solid scholarship with a willingness to engage others dialogically and willingness to take criticism seriously.

To the extent they have a problem with inerrantists it has nothing to do with some overt disdain for evangelicals and assumptions of our intellectual inadequacy. It stems from inerrantists, who rarely are willing to darken the door of a US program and engage seriously, proclaiming their positions but remaining unwilling to argue for them using historical methods without “special rules.” It also stems from their experience that conservative evangelicals tend to think they know what everyone who disagrees with them thinks without usually bothering to understand why others think the way they do. For example, numerous evangelical specialists persist in explaining why most of the academy holds to some form of “the Documentary Hypothesis” for reasons that do not eve come close to approximating why scholars think the way they do or even the actual state of the field – but rather paint them as generally naïve and unthinking people captive to long-outdated theories.

No doubt some professors and graduate students in US programs harbor overt disdain and conscious bias against conservative evangelicals, but they remain the exception. The near ubiquitous idea among conservative American Evangelicals of such widespread characteristic “persecution” in US programs is an Evangelical in-house myth. It owes more to sociological and ideological concerns within American Evangelical social formations than to any reality in US programs.

Also, similarly to PublicLens, I fail to see how “sociological pressures” constitute more of an explanation for Evangelicals ditching inerrancy in US doctoral programs than an explanation for Evangelicals holding to inerrancy strongly while within some form of American Evangelical social orbit.

Stephen Young, Providence, RI.
WTS Grad 2006, 2008; Under Care PCA
(This non-anonymous enough?)

Martin Downes said...


Thanks for being upfront. This has obviously touched a nerve, and yet I struggle to see this as entirely myth-making on Professor Beale's part.

There will always be exceptions to generalisations and anecdotes on these matters. However, the advice given to have and to hold onto a clear evangelical doctrine of Scripture and a Reformed epistemology seems sound nonetheless.

I have previously linked to the exchanges between Beale and Enns, and am not averse to doing so again. Perhaps I went beyond what was written in that comment but I'm not too keen on the leaving of links and the, perhaps, intended service it offered to my readers to balance what is offered in this post.

Anonymous said...


In regards to inerrancy, what would you say to someone who said, "It doesn't matter if Matthew 27:3-10 (in which the Pharisees purchase the potter's field with the money that Judas returned) and Acts 1:15-20 (which says that Judas himself bought the field with the money) actually conflict historically; the story is essentially the same."

If you read both you get the same thing: Judas betrayed Jesus for money, a field was purchased for this money, Judas committed suicide (probably by hanging), the field was eventually called the field of blood.

So couldn't you say that the accounts conflict, but there is no real inerrancy? Could you maintain the view of inerrancy that Beale proposes and make a statement like the one above?

Trying to understand the inerrancy debate,


Augustinian Successor said...

In whose NAME was the field bought? Remember it's BLOOD money in the first place.

Contradiction? Not by a long short.

Augustinian Successor said...

'The Word of the Lord endureth forever.'

For the Word of the Lord to endure forever, inspiration and preservation go together.

Greg said...


Well said... I do affirm inerrancy as the Chicago Statement does. I am, however, concerned with all the oversimplifying so many on "my side" do.

I would like to say...

Beale said that one reason that students "fall away" from inerrancy is because of sociological pressures to do so. That is true.
However, I would argue that if one did not swallow "modernism" hook, line, and sinker one would not care or feel pressure to change their position based upon the elitists positions of the day.

AND, I do have a question. A real one, not a stump one:

When Beale says that we should not interpret the Bible the way the ancients did and we should interpret it from a modern perspective (implied?) are we not being "postmodern" by his definition? Truth is relative. How they wrote the Bible was great and all for their time but now we're going to re-interpret it for ours?

I know Beale would not word it this way and I am exaggerating it a bit to draw out the hidden implications I see. Can someone explain this one to me?

Unknown said...


I don't know if Martin will allow me a further comment under my moniker of "PublicLens." The reason I post here anonymously is that my wife's work necessitates maintaining many connections in the conservative evangelical world. I don't want my opinions to hurt her work by association. However, I respect Martin's right to set rules for his blog, so if he deletes this I will understand.

Greg, I'm not sure if I understand you entirely, but I will say this: of course "sociological pressure" may be one (of many) contributing factors in any given person's coming to reject Chicago-style inerrancy, but it is just as possible and likely that some who remain in the inerrancy camp do so because (in part) of their own sociological pressures. I can testify how hard it was to go public that I was leaving inerrancy; it meant many breaks with a community I'd grown up in and where most of my relationships were. In some cases, it meant a literal breaking of those relationships, which was sad and painful. For others it might even mean loss of job or career prospects. So there are sociological pressures both ways. My protest was Beale's implication that this in itself is sufficiently explanatory, implying that people like myself did not come to our positions with a lot of careful thought, debate, and soul-searching.

To your final question, I don't think Beale was saying that we shouldn't interpret the Bible "as the ancients did." Rather his assertion is that his modern inerrantist reading is the way the ancients read these scriptures. So his beef with Enns is that Enns asserts that our modern inerrant reading is at odds with the way the ancients wrote and read these things, and that therefore we are missing what the Bible is really about by insisting it fit a mold for which it was never intended.