What do Christian theologies look like without an inerrant Bible?

Recent publication of a book by Thom Stark has got my attention because it looks like it treats of the issue of scripture inerrancy by a method that is much more constructive than the kind of anti-Christian rantings we expect from Bart Ehrman or Sam Harris, or John Loftus.

I’m not sure – but short reviews of The Human Faces of God and a revealing interview of Stark give me reason to hope.

It was a recent two-part review by Kevin at Diglotting which got my attention in the first place.  Meanwhile Steve at Undeception has been busy in the same vein, and both writers have me thinking a little more systematically about the question: ‘What would we expect to see in a good Christian theology that explicitly rejects the dogma of Bible inerrancy?’ 

It’s no secret that many theologies have been written without support of the dogma of Bible inerrancy.  And I think all of the good ones have argued for a concept of Bible authority in which scripture remains normative for theology in a foundational sense.  Martin Kahler, C.S. Lewis, Karl Barth, Dorothy Sayers, H.R. Neibuhr,  Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – I believe all these thinkers and more have stressed the authority of the Bible without defending its inerrancy.  We see here a ‘Doctrine of Scripture’ or there a ‘Doctrine of Revelation’ or a ‘Doctrine of the Word of God’ which give greater breadth to a more mature and more promising theological approach to the Bible than the irrational restraints of inerrancy allow.

I notice that these kinds of theologies all tend to show greater development of the role of Christ himself  as Word of God – rather than alleging that the letter is identical with ‘the Word.’  And I think the question of the Holy Spirit’s testimony to Christ will see much-needed development any time the Bible is purged from the fetishism of inerrancy.  Because a theology’s rejection of the dogma of inerrancy should not change its need to treat constructively of inspiration.  The Spirit’s role in inspiring our fallible reading of the Bible becomes just as important and just as interesting as its role in inspiring the original (fallible) writer.

Evangelicals need quickly to see this as the new world of honest religion – it doesn’t signify the end of the world for faith.  Faith remains the key to our salvation by the grace of God.  The current drama – what looks to be the fast-approaching end of the dogma of Bible inerrancy – would not even be necessary if it hadn’t been for the proliferation of so much fundamentalism among Evangelicals in North America during the 19th and 20th centuries – while the issues of working with a fallible text were being treated by responsible thinkers in the religious mainstream.


6 thoughts on “What do Christian theologies look like without an inerrant Bible?

  1. Thanks for letting me know about this John. I think I might have read something, but it hadn’t really registered. I agree, there have been others who have certainly looked at theology without the lens of inerrancy.

    I’ll take a look at this one. While I don’t agree with your blub that places Ehrman in the same category as Loftus, I agree that often the voices against inerrancy are strident, mine included.

    • Sherry, it’s probably a good thing that you put in a good word for prof. Ehrman. I just have not seen anything by him that was positive or constructive.

      In my most charitable moods I see him as a great scourge sent by God to scatter the fundamentalists (or at least to de-authorize them as much as possible).

      God’s plan in all this? To prevent fundamentalism from ruining our democratic institutions, under which alone the religion of Jesus may thrive in freedom from state control.

      I don’t want to see large numbers of ex-fundamentalists foolishly throw up their hands and march over to atheism – they need to stop and think about real Christian alternatives to their authoritarian religion. So I am over-reactive when it comes to a debunker’s sheer negativity toward revealed religion.

  2. When I first read of Thom Stark’s book a while ago, I found myself thinking, for something like the hundred-thousandth time, This still needs to be said? This is controversial? I actually disagree with the tenor of some of his arguments and with a good chunk of what is said by some of his compatriots on Religion at the Margins, but my commitment is to a stream of tradition of which the scripture is one piece; the more I remember what a bugbear Fundamentalism is, the more I realize I don’t really live in the same world with these folks. Which doubtless is my problem. I can take inerrancy etc. seriously as a sociological phenomenon, but as theology it doesn’t even catch my imagination, let alone my intellect, or my soul.

    • Thanks for commenting, Skholiast,

      I too am critical of Stark in some of what I can gather in the reviews.

      My main complaint may not be the same as yours – I take issue with Stark’s very commonplace view of a basically Jewish Jesus who was a brilliant fanatic ‘fooled’ by the weird eschatology of his time period. To me that is nothing less than giving Caiaphas and Annas the last word on the Incarnation.

      The problem with a destabilized fundamentalism is that I believe too much nascent faith will crash and burn with the collapse of their monolithic Bible. But can it be saved? So many ex-fundies are either going ‘rogue atheist’ or they are entering mainstream denominations and ruining them with their absurdly black-and-white mindsets.

  3. Hi John,

    As an ex fundamentalist whos styles himself an evangelical neo-Anabaptist, I found this article stimulating and the links very interesting.

    One way ex fundamentalists can go is to utilise Barth’s theology which sees an indirect identity between the words of the bible and the Word of God. The bible is not infallible. In Barth’s view it is a witness to Jesus Christ, as you point out.

    I have not read Stark’s book but hope my nearest theological library has a copy.

    Many thanks to you John


    John Arthur

    • John, I’m becoming more and more attracted to anabaptist thinking on certain doctrines (especially Grace and Pacificism).

      On the topic of Barth, I’m reading Gary Dorrien’s book, “The Barthian Revolt in Modern Theology” (2000) and seeing how closely Barth linked the collapse of Theological Liberalism with their failure to withstand the German War propaganda in 1914. Harnack was actually a counselor to the Kaiser! Barth, as a Swiss, was able to keep his perspective.

      Thanks for writing, I like your blog

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