I Kissed Conserving Goodbye

As I reflect on interactions that occur around issues such as creation, design, and evolution, or around the inerrancy of the Bible, or women in ministry, I am often as aware of the theological or hermeneutical commitments that drive the conclusions as I am about the data and conclusions themselves.

In particular, I am aware of how I have changed by becoming less interested in conserving than I once was. (Roger Olson coined the term “post-conservative Evangelical,” and I find that it fits me fairly well.)

I have a number of titles in mind of books or articles that will never sell because nobody would want to read them. One of these is, “How abandoning inerrancy saved my faith.” And I imagine that the theological postures it would depict would develop this image from the film Armageddon:

“Imagine a firecracker in the palm of your hand. You set it off, what happens? You burn your hand, right? You close your fist around the same firecracker, and set it off. Your wife’s gonna be opening your ketchup bottles the rest of your life.” –Roland Qunicey, “Armageddon”

In my own trek through various ways of expressing

Image: anankkml / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Christian faith, I’ve discovered that a conservative theological posture is like that hand clenched around the firecracker. Your only option is to deny the firecracker is lit, or else submerge your hand in water so that it looses all its power.

“If the Bible has errors, the Christian faith is based on a lie!” some might say. The hand is clenched. So what happens when we discover that Quirinius wasn’t the governor of Syria, that there wasn’t a census in Judea, until Judea was annexed to Syria after the deposition of Herod Agrippa?

Your hand is about to explode.

Opening the hand always feels like the route to losing what’s in your hand. It feels less secure.

But I found that kissing conservatism goodbye, that opening my hand to what “must be true” in order for Jesus to be the reconciler of God and humanity and inaugurator of new creation, has not only “saved my faith,” but given me a faith that is more capable of dealing with both the Bible we actually have and the world in which we actually live.

Or: I know that it seems like rock is stronger than paper, but when playing rock-paper-scissors, open hand beats it.

17 thoughts on “I Kissed Conserving Goodbye”

  1. I understand what you are saying, but our retrospective view of history is not complete, and therefore not definitive. For a long time people thought the Hittite people proved the Bible to be flawed since there was no historical or archaeological evidence of such a people group. Then, archaeology found record of such a people.

    I believe in the inerrancy of the scripture, but historical claims don’t shake me because our retrospective view of history is incomplete, and therefore not definitive

    1. Well said Mark. I almost gave up on inerrancy too, but I dug even deeper into the various issues and found that there are possible explanations for the alleged discrepancies, and for those we don’t know the answer too yet, we might one day, like the Hittites example you provided. So, the safest approach for me is to continue to believe in the plenary inspiration of the Bible.

  2. As a questioning, seeking “conservative” I’d buy the book, but in the meantime would you consider a lengthy article/blog post?

  3. Inspiration and Inerrancy go hand in hand, deny one and the other has to go as well. And this also applies for variations on that (e.g. Inspiration only extending to theology, not history or science.)

    From a strictly ‘fair’ standpoint, one thing that bugs me is when people actually give secular documents more credibility that the Scriptures, and proceed as if the Scriptures are inherently inferior to secular records.

    On another note: Daniel, I just wrote a blog Article showing how Calvin did not believe in Double-Imputation, and thus denied Active Obedience.

  4. I think it’s just because I’m listening to a dramatic Muse song right now, but this post struck me as quite poetic. :-)

    I have been thinking a lot lately about what it’s going to mean for the rest of my life that I’m in the same boat, and I don’t know yet. It certainly complicates things to be in such a narrow minority. But like for you, I think being about to give up inerrancy—not that I was ever as attached to it as some, but it was still scary to lose as an option—saved my faith. It is a curse in many ways because it so instantly makes you an outcast among your own, but the way a new perspective can sustain and enliven one’s faith is obviously a much greater blessing.

  5. I’ve often wished someone from this perspective might continue the conversation into Christology. Does what your saying here have any impact beyond the Word of God to God’s incarnation perhaps. In other words, let’s say I have an incarnational analogy approach to Scripture. If God’s incarnate word contains errors, what of The Incarnate Word? Is Christ allowed to have “errors”? Do we need a new understanding of “error” to accomodate incarnation?

    1. Asusek, I commend this statement from Origen to you:

      “But Christ, who is the light of the world, is the true light in contradistinction to that which is perceptible by the senses, since nothing perceptible by the senses is true. It does not follow, however, that because that which is perceptible is not true, it is false. For what is perceptible by the senses can have a resemblance to that which is apprehended by the intellect. Everything which is not true certainly cannot correctly be designated false.” (Comm. Jn. 1.167)

      In short, truth is sacramental. Origen applies this insight to the Four Gospels in connection with Paul’s apparent insistence that we must ultimately transcend the fleshly/historical Christ (2 Cor 5.16). The Gospels of Matthew and Luke present Christ in his condescension, as Logos-to/for-us. The Gospel of Mark presents Christ as the Prophetic Christ, as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and (salvation-)history, both of which point us upward to ultimate spiritual realities. And the Gospel of John presents Christ as the spirital Christ, as Logos-to/for-the-Father. And even beyond this there is Christ as “eternal Gospel” (Rev 14.6), as irreducible and infinite, like God’s essence.

      So, which one of these expressions of Christ is “true”? Well, all of them of course, though some are “more true” than others because they depend less and less on mediation/condescension, and thus move closer to the “thing-in-itself.”

      Moreover, this is exactly how Origen and the Church Fathers understood Scripture–as a multileveled, sacramental reality, which if the lower “literal/fleshly” level of meaning was treated as ultimate would make it thereby false.

      In other words, the whole discussion of “inerrancy” is a modern construct, playing within the rules of a modernist game (epistemology, ontology, etc.).

      Hope that’s helpful …

  6. Is it that “they would never sell because nobody would want to read them” or that “they would never sell because nobody would dare to publish them with those titles?” I’d would absolutely read one with that title, and please – do share others that you have thought of but you doubt would ever see the light of day.

    The firecracker and hand is an apt analogy.

  7. I hear you. As I’ve found out from living the UK, inerrancy is largely an American concern. If you were to write a book on it, I think it would be helpful to have a section on the historical development of inerrancy as American Evangelicals conceive of it today (an attitude which, I would argue, is a fairly recent development which corresponds to the rise of higher criticism in the 19th century). You could also study ancient conceptions of historiography which differ considerably from today’s conceptions. I believe it was Tacitus (considered today to be one of the most reliable historians of the ancient world) who even wrote at one point that what he was relating was impossible to remember exactly so he, at times, provided dialogue which may not have been precisely what was said, but kept to the spirit of things.

  8. Thanks for this, Daniel! I resonate with so much of what you said. As I began my own theological journey, many people tried their best to deter me with fear. I had one theology professor who told me that if you opened your mind too much, your brain would fall out… I think the most prolific theological lie is that when you get to the “other side” you will find yourself without a coherent theological construct from which to operate. I have found the exact opposite to be true; not only is there a coherent framework, but that framework has a high integrity that allows truth and beauty to be added from all directions (science, history, etc.) with appreciation rather than a dread that it another thing to rebuff for the sake of faith. Thanks for this blog!

  9. Kissing inerrancy goodbye helps with some problems, but doesn’t work for others. Even someone who loosens his grip on inerrancy must still keep his hand closed around other things such as the atonement and the divinity of Christ if he wants to continue meaningful participation in Christian worship. So when those ticking time bombs go off– especially the atonement– he still loses his hand.

  10. I’m playing here. Partly seriously. I’m feeling similar problems in other areas. I’m not above it all.

    But, conserving or not-conserving is better left to stuff like angular momentum, color, mass-energy, probability density and all that kind of jazz. The half-serious side is this: that in moving-flowing-dynamical systems like changes of mind and changes of heart in the dynamic arena of human thought and feelings, it’s tricky to say you’ve given up conserving one value, when the truth is that you’re still conserving some other functional equivalent value, letting go of a firecracker, only to grab a cherry bomb.

    Without getting too fancy here, conserving or non-conserving a belief may have nothing to do with a linear idea like, “gee, yesterday I believed in the inerrancy of Zeus, but today, I believe in the sane idea that Zeus is just pretty cool.” What’s really conserved or not conserved is not a mere linear yesterday/today swap of convictions, but conservation in a dynamical system like the human heart depends on all the other variables (hidden and express) that you’re willing or not willing to conserve, all the other variables conserved together, the whole pack of firecrackers conserved on reserve for that special 4th of July occasion, all boxed and conserved together, working – dynamically – to conserve your stability. That’s why theological debates over all kinds of stuff – from inerrancy, to penal substitution, to creation/evolution – really reinforce and amplify the conservation of the poles. Which is also one reason why tests like the implicit attitude test have been developed to put to lie our claims about what we say we’ve given up, but which we’ve really conserved after all.

    Not that learning cannot happen and break our cycles of conserving.

    I liked your firecracker analogy. It reminded me of John Dewey’s classic little article on the “reflex arc,” where an infant gets fascinated by a flickering flame and then reaches out to play with it, only to get burned and pull back in pain (the reflex), and in infant-language in the learning-moment asks the learning-question, “ouch! what kind of flame this is?”

    For adults, it’s harder. We’re too rationalized. Too right in our theology. Our theological justifications amplified by the head-rush of being in a camp of others who love and cheer all the same theological firecrackers we set to flame. No matter the whole house is on fire. We’re too smart. Less reflexive than a little child. For smart adults, it’s a matter of how many times it takes to admit getting burned by our adoring fascination for the flickering firecracker-light of any theological value, and then, in abandoning the conservation of that one, how to justify and rationalize our conservation of the next. And how long the next one stays “cool” enough to hold. Cool with us. And cool with our camp. The reflex arc is still in smart adults. Just dumber under the tests of fire and spark.



  11. So many great thoughts here, pro and con. I’m thinking Jesus might say that it is better to cut off the hand that holds the doctrine of innerancy too tightly than to go into hell with your conception of this altogether modernist doctrine intact. Really guys, are you betting the farm on the “original autographs” exactly matching what God has providentially preserved for us, or perhap on some reconstruction of the NT texts? Do you really think your faith is dependent on the ability of NT theologians to precisely harmonize the “historical accuracy” of all the four Gospels. Come on. So, does anyone have the final eschatological rubric for parsing the scalar dynamic on which “faithful belief and practice” versus “truthful belief and argument” can be balanced? I’m not holding my breath.

    asusek: there is no necessary connection between the analogous constructs you propose.

    Catholic Nick: I don’t think that it is true that “Inspiration and Inerrancy go hand in hand.” The “God breathedness” of scripture is biblical, whereas the specifics of the recently developed and exceptionally complex doctrine of “Inerrancy” are not.

    Christopher Smith: the “atonement and divinity of Christ” are not necessarily recent, even modernist, theological constructs that “blow up” along with inerrancy.

    J.R.: you go guy!
    All the best to all in Christ

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