Creating Space

Blosphere confessional: I rant here sometimes. More than that, some might say that I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder about a couple issues that come around regularly.

To the point: I can be downright confrontational about the fact that the Bible is not inerrant or that the world as we know it is the result of an evolutionary process.

Why poke the hornet’s nest? (And, it is a hornet’s nest!)

Here’s the reason: one of the most important messages we communicate when we talk about our faith is what the borders are, outside of which one cannot be part of “us.” The ways people speak about inerrancy and creationism in some quarters communicates this: that if there is an error in the Bible or if we are here as a result of an evolutionary process then Christianity is not true.

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Why do I rant about “what the Bible is”? Mostly, because I want as many of us as possible to be creating more space within the world of faithful, Jesus-following Christianity for people to continue following Jesus whether or not they’ve found a mistake in the Bible.

Or, to put it another way: there is no reason that someone should feel as though their whole faith is called into question by Bart Ehrman’s NT Intro course.

I have a parallel agenda with evolution: I have read some about evolution. I’m no expert.

But what I do know is that by treating evolution as a scandal to the Christian faith we are creating choices for our college students that not only lead them to being unduly scandalized by their education, but also to fleeing from fields where they might be most useful to the world.

On the latter point: while we get our knickers in a wad about why evolution is demonic, I have an agnostic/atheistic friend who spends all day as an evolutionary biologist studying the evolution of cancer cells so as to help lay the groundwork for future more effective treatments.

He is making the world a better place (something I think God actually cares about) by helping push back the hold that a nefarious disease can take on our bodies (overcoming sickness–I think God cares about) by working in a field that we close off to our young people by raising all sorts of doubts about whether such activity is an active denial of the existence of God.


Here’s the deal: even if the most nuanced articulations of creationism over against evolution, or of what sorts of “creativity” we might find in the Bible could cohere with inerrancy, allow for the very things I’m talking about, most people will not hear the breadth of what is allowed in the nuance, and will hear, instead, the black and white either/or.

Part of my job as a biblical scholar who cares about the church is not simply to engaged in the finely nuanced positions of my colleagues, but the effects of what we say “on the ground.” And part of my calling as a seminary professor is to clear out the ground that people stand on from all the clutter that accumulates on any horizontal surface. In this case, it’s the clutter of what “chrisitanity” demands that Christianity does not, in fact, require.

So I rant about evolution. And I rave about inerrancy. In doing this, what I want to communicate is that you don’t have to make a choice between science and Christian faith or between history and Christian faith.

There are a lot of difficult choices you will have to make. I am not trying to make Christianity easy or conform it to the way of the world.

Instead, I am trying to clear out all this meaningless clutter so that we can hear, instead, that the real decision we have to make is this: “Will you lose your life for the sake of Jesus and the gospel? Will you take up your cross and follow?”

57 thoughts on “Creating Space”

  1. “What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)”

    You should check out “Jesus Christ: The Greatest Life – A Unique Blending of the Four Gospels” by Johnston M. Cheney and Stanley Ellisen. It does exactly that (along with all the rest of the Gospels), and demonstrates quite conclusively that there are no inconsistencies between them.

    1. Chuck, as someone who spends a great deal of time reading and teaching the Gospels, I would maintain that this is an indefensible conclusion, in the end. Some things can be massaged, but there are inconsistencies. Some minor, some significant, but many present. The question then becomes, what do I make of the fact that God has given me a Bible that is different from the one I would have chosen, a Bible different from the one I try to make it into with my tendencies to conflate and harmonize? That’s where things can open up, I think, for some interesting reimagination of what it means to hear this book as the Word of God written.

      1. I’ve looked and can’t find any. From my experience, the folks who find irreconcilable inconsistencies don’t want there to be reconciliation. I’d welcome any real examples though. :)

        1. I understand your call for “real examples” – this is the sort of conversation that requires concrete examples to provide sufficient nuance. However, I have a few problems with your assertions. First, Christians have been composing gospel harmonies for thousands years (Diatessaron), and the early church fathers routinely attempted to defend the coherence of the gospel accounts, often resorting to different explanations for the same phenomena than their predecessors provided. That tells us that (1) perceived inconsistencies present a genuine problem (or else well-meaning Christians wouldn’t have continued to struggle with these inconsistencies for thousands of years), and (2) none of the explanations have, to this point, been fully successful. Consequently, I doubt that somehow Cheney and Ellisen succeeded were all others failed.

          Moreover, such explanations for perceived inconsistencies rarely pay sufficient attention to the rhetorical strategies and interests of the particular gospel; the interests of the author are ignored in favor of reading his work in light of another’s. In the end, adherence to inerrancy entails the silencing of individual canonical voices.

          As an example, take Matthew 21 and Mark 11, which provide two very different accounts of the events following Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. This particular problem is especially noteworthy because there is no way to tell which or even if one of the accounts accurately preserves the sequence of events, especially the timing of Jesus’ entries into Jerusalem (three in Mark, two in Matthew) in relation to the cursing of the fig tree and its withering. Can these be harmonized? Not without stretching credulity to the breaking point. The differences are better explained by divergent theological emphases.

        2. “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none, though many false witnesses came forward. At last two came forward and said, ‘This fellow said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days”‘.” ~Mt 26: 59-61

          “Now the chief priests and the whole council sought testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many bore false witness against him, and their witness did not agree. And some stood up and bore false witness against him, saying, ‘We heard him say, “I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.”‘ Yet even so their testimony did not agree.” ~Mk 14:55-59

          Did they find two witnesses to agree on a charge against Jesus? Mt says yes, Mk says no. This is an inconsistency.

          And what did Jesus say? Neither Mk nor Mt records Jesus saying either of these things prior to his trial, and the closest we come elsewhere is Jesus’ statement in John: “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’.” This is close to the Matthew version but has nothing about “hands” as in the Mark version, so someone is giving an inaccurate account of Jesus’ words, at least by historical standards.

          “Yet even so their testimony did not agree….” Well said, Mark.

  2. Chuck,

    (1) So, does Jesus tell his disciples to take a staff (Mk 6.7-9) or not (Lk 9.1-4; see also Matt 10.9-10, no staff or sandals)?

    (2) How about in the parable of the workers at the vineyard, who says what?

    Mk 12.9 “[Jesus speaking]…What will the owner of the vineyard do? He will come and destroy the tenants and give the vineyard to others…”

    Matt 21.40-41 “[Jesus speaking] ‘When the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? They said to him, ‘He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let our the vineyard to other tenants…’”

    (3) What did the dude and Jesus say to each other?

    Mk 10.17-18 “And as he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher?, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone…’”

    Matt 19.16-17 “And behold, a man came up to him, saying, ‘Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?’ And he said to him, ‘Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good…’”

    While these are admittedly examples of “minor” issues, you can find almost endless such instances by simply comparing the Synoptic gospels. Sometimes the changes (especially since we’re pretty confident that both Matthew and Luke used Mark) can give you insight into the particular theological and other interests of the authors. Harmonizing them irons out the differences that God himself put in his word and, as Daniel points out, is effectively a claim that we know better than God himself how his word should look. If you admit these kinds of differences, which, albeit “minor,” concern mutually exclusive representations between the gospels, what does inerrancy mean anymore when it comes to setting expectations about how the Bible can or cannot behave?

    Try some bigger examples.

    (4) On what day did Jesus die?

    Mark, Matthew, and Luke: Jesus eats the “last supper” with his disciples as a Passover meal, the day starting at evening after the “Day of Preparation” (when the lambs are slaughtered in the temple). Thus Jesus eats the Passover meal with his disciples on (traditionally) Thursday night (Matt 26.17-29; Mk 14.12-25; Lk 22.7-23). Jesus is arrested that night after the meal, tried, and crucified the following morning (Friday).

    John presents Jesus as eating his last supper before the Passover (13.1-11). After this Judas betrays Jesus, he goes before the Jewish leaders, and then spends the night in jail. In the morning Pilate sentences him to crucifixion and Jesus is crucified. John tells us exactly when, “Now it was the day of Preparation of the Passover. It was about the sixth hour” (19.14). This is when the priests are slaughtering the lambs for the Passover, thus most certainly before Jesus would even be eating the last Supper according to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As such, in John dies a full day earlier than in the other Gospels.

    BTW, some appeal to Mk 15.42 to claim that Mark also has Jesus dying on the “day of Preparation” since Mark records Jesus being buried that day. Problematically for such claims, however, Mark indicated that he means the day of preparation for the Sabbath, not the Passover, which took place earlier in Mark

    So again, on what day did Jesus die? Perhaps one could ingeniously harmonize these contradictory accounts. Some evangelicals have tried and produced incredibly complex (and contorted) solutions. Doing this, however, results in us missing the lengths the author of John went to in order to make sure that the reader really gets it. In John, Jesus is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (1:29). John goes out of his way to make this clear by depicting Jesus’ execution, as the Lamb of God, at the same time the Passover lambs are being slaughtered in the Temple. Conversely, perhaps Matthew, Mark, and Luke change the time of Jesus’ death so that the last supper can be a Passover meal, something else that could pack a major theological and edifying punch in their writings? Either way, reconciling these accounts appears to run roughshod over why God himself made them this way. These details highlight key messages God apparently wants us to get. Why uphold inerrancy when it flies in the face of a careful reading of the Bible itself and thus actually makes us worse readers of the Bible?

    1. Stephen, these all have easy solutions if you just do a little looking for them. Most are covered in the book I mentioned. I only have time to comment on one right now, but regarding the variations of words spoken by Jesus and others, we must remember several things. First, they were speaking in Aramaic, and the biblical authors translated it into Greek. Second, there were no quote marks in the Greek. What we view as a quote, the authors viewed as conveying the message. Third, they were not afraid to paraphrase in their translations. There is no reason to expect them to be word for word the same across the four Gospels, nor does that in any way affect inerrancy.

  3. Chuck,

    One more thing, why is it the case that those of us who find such “irreconcilable inconsistencies” do so because we just “don’t want there to be reconciliation”?

    Any chance that one could approach the biblical text without inclining toward harmonization or errors, and instead just try to look at what the text actually does?

  4. I used to be a vociferous, 6-day, young-earth creationist. I drank deeply (as it were) form Morris’s and Whitcomb’s Genesis Flood. I spent many years painstakingly shoe-horning passages of the Bible so as to make them fit a dogmatic scheme based on the proposition that all scripture is inspired by God. I assumed that inspiration is more or less identical to inerrancy. It never occurred to me to think otherwise. Any books I read had to be by authors I approved because they agreed with my theological system. Everyone else was a ‘modernist’. I built for myself an elaborate fortress — sheltered accommodation — to protect my beliefs against any intrusion. I would have argued that if one bit of the bible was proved untrue, then none of it could be relied on. Truth, as far as I was concerned, was the same as factuality. I suppose, though I don’t remember even thinking about the proposition, that if I had been challenged as to the truth of Jesus’s parables, I would have said the stories recounted in them were all factual, historical accounts. It was only when I slowly realised that the dogmatic system I espoused was engaged in falsehoods and distortions of the bible that I began to allow questions to enter my mind. It was James on justification that did it for me. Realising I had been hoodwinked I began to question more and more. I am still a Christian. In fact, I’m still a baptist.

    1. I suppose, though I don’t remember even thinking about the proposition, that if I had been challenged as to the truth of Jesus’s parables, I would have said the stories recounted in them were all factual, historical accounts.

      Far out. And here I’ve been going around for years saying “no-one believes that Jesus’s parables are literal truths”.

      Looks like I might have to insert a ‘virtually’ in there… hopefully I don’t need to weaken it to ‘few’ or worse…

      Still, good news on you getting out of such a rigid and uncompromising straightjacket. Who is James?

      1. dammit, my ‘blockquote’ wasn’t respected. The first paragraph above is quoting John Shakespeare, obviously.

  5. Daniel,

    For the record, I appreciate your “rants” about the doctrine of inerrancy very much. I know many evangelicals who continue to use the word “inerrancy” in order to affirm the Bible’s truth “in all that scripture intends to affirm” (in other words: we need to take into account the cultural background of the writers, etc., in order to determine what the Bible actually affirms – and this, of course, makes room for evolution, etc.). I have respect for those who affirm this kind of “inerrancy,” but I confess it troubles my conscience to use “inerrancy” language when talking about scripture because, for many people, the term implies that if there is any kind of historical inconsistency or multiple (perhaps conflicting) opinions expressed in the Bible, then it means the Bible is deeply flawed – suddenly we’ve been given the wrong sort of book. I grew up in a conservative home with this sort of understanding of the Bible. When I majored in biblical studies (at a conservative school, mind you), that particular formulation of inerrancy which I had been raised to believe was torn apart. I was forced to ask (and still do ask) what role did the cultural/situational background of a biblical writer play in the composing of scripture? What role did human communal memory play in the shaping of scripture? The question was not *how much* of the Bible can we believe (which is the question inerrancy asks – to which you can only reply: “all”, “bits” or “none”). The question was: *in what way* is scripture true? The latter question indicates a stance of trust, not suspicion, on the part of the believer. My problem with teaching that the Bible is “inerrant” is that it puts the reader/interpreter of the Bible in an unresolvable position by asking the wrong question. If we are taught that the Bible can only be true and good and God’s word in this particular way (in a way that cannot make room for any real human involvement in the writing of scripture), then of course when we hear the human voices speaking from within a divinely inspired text we are bound to either distrust it or deny that the voices are truly human.


  6. Mr. Kirk-

    Haven’t read your stuff before, but got pointed to your blog through another forum. Anywho, just wanted to say that it’s nice to hear someone else articulating some of the things bouncing around in my mind as of late.

    Christianity has a huge issue before it, in that for a long time our church was a proponent of scientific inquiry and advancement; founding schools and universities, supporting and encouraging innovation, etc; whereas now the “church” finds itself being an opponent to scientific advancement (especially when said advancement seems to conflict w/ the “Christian” worldview), and then as a result to much of what we call “secular society”. I think this conflict has arisen out of the “coming of intellectual age” crisis that you are pointing to.

    At someone point in our lives (those of us raised in some sort of Christian setting), we have to either affirm or reject the world view presented to us in the way the Bible was taught to us. Did Jonah live in a whale’s (fish’s if you are really strict) belly for 3 days? Was there a tower of Babel? Is the Earth 5,000 years old? Our “secular, scientific” education would challenge those ideas. And yet, if we’re to “believe” the Bible and therefore “believe in God” then we automatically put God’s existence in conflict with most of recent scientific observation and discovery.

    I think this is stupid. I mean, we’re basically saying to our youth: “In order for you to be a Christian (and a lot of times by default: not go to hell),” you have to reject and ignore a major portion of human (and by default, divine) experience. We are ostriches, and this “inerrant” reading of the Bible is our sand.

    Furthermore, I would make the argument that, not only is this reading of the Bible hurting participation in our communities, it is straight up wrong. I would argue that this reading of the Bible is wrong by default. The author(s) (both human and divine) did not intend their work to be read this way and we, through doing so, are cheapening and diluting the powerful witness of Word and Gospel. What is more important: that Jonah spent 72 hours swimming in whale bile or that the story of Jonah and his encounter w/ God and the Ninevites makes us take a hard look at how we relate to and view communities (local, national, international) that we see as being outside God’s grace? I mean, the early church fathers didn’t read the Bible this way. Why do we? Read Origen, Augustine, and Ambrose. They mocked those who couldn’t understand metaphor, hyperbole and allegory.

    Well dang, this got away from me. Long-story-short, thanks for your witness to the Word, and I’ll be checking in here from time to time from now on.


  7. Hey I love your thoughts. Jesus’s message was one of simplicity and power yet often the religious weren’t able to fathom, the very ones who should of. Thanks for making complicated things simple, we don’t need our brains stretched nearly as much as we need our hearts rendered. I agree take up your cross and follow.

  8. Great post, Professor Kirk!

    I think this false dichotomy on the issue of inerrancy has driven a substantial number of seminary and religious studies students (including myself) from evangelicalism to pantheism or even atheism. Had we had thoughtful Christian pastors or professors like you when we were younger instead of fervent, uncompromising inerrantists, some of us may well have remained evangelicals–or at least broadly theistic, progressive Chritians.

  9. Dr. Kirk, I was always under the impression that passages such as John 20:30, Luke 24:27 and 2 Tim 3:16 defined what inerrant meant. Namely the bible is inerrant when it is read Christocentrically (all things point to Christ) or for training in righteousness. As a pastor, if I was questioning a traditional reformation doctrine I’d much rather question the perspicuity (easy of understanding) than inerrancy. Of course it is easy to find situations where the timeline seems different. Just read Mark then John. But the intent is to communicate Christ, to witness to Jesus. How much of your trouble with the word inerrant is just definitional?

    1. Mark, I would say that you are reading those passages well, and that your approach does not qualify as “inerrancy” in the sense that the word is typically used.

      From the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy:

      4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

  10. You are talking about people raised as Evangelicals; there are some of us not so raised, who over a life have formed some apparently-useful ideas about how the world works, who see (in broad outline) historical criticism and darwinian evolution as completely natural ideas. Who would like to get past spiritual-but-not-religious. Who see Evangelical Christian thought/language/dogmatics as working on talking about actual Truth in the actual world and an actual useable road to an actual better future. Looking for something that speaks into “the spirit of the age” as well as an age beyond.

    Not many, maybe, but some.

    Insisting on inerrancy, insisting on agreement prior to discussion, kills the process; there’s no way to get from outside to inside except by holding your nose. It makes conversion into “let’s pretend”. Whereas I’m uncertain or ignorant about a lot of things, but I’m not going to buy into “doubt” the way I hear it always comes up for “believers”.

  11. Dr. K,

    I will be taking your NT2 class the coming quarter, so this discussion is doubly interesting.

    Regarding inerrancy, I must agree with you (mostly). I think many thinking people abandon the faith when they hit the illogical wall of plenary inspiration. As I wrote in a recent post about why I chose Fuller for seminary:

    I was especially won over by the nuanced yet Orthodox discussion of inerrancy on the ‘What we believe and teach’ page – an important perspective which I agree with, and that needs to be openly discussed and affirmed – and a conclusion to which I myself had to wrestle my way to with some difficulty. I am often dismayed that this doctrine, among a handful of others, has driven away some of the most devoted thinkers due to its overreach regarding the nature and plenary accuracy of Scripture.

    I do think there is a place for gospel harmonies without immediately or fully resorting to abandoning the ideas of inspiration or infallibility (whose nuances may be important, or perhaps mere obfuscation).

    I do appreciate those who carefully approach the historic narrative scriptures as phenomenological rather than exacting historical documentation, and I certainly appreciate the idea that each writer had a limited perspective and theological bent. However, I’m not comfortable with saying that such allowances make the scriptures fallible or merely human.

    I also think that we need to acknowledge the role of illumination with regards to the scripture and all truth – even if the scriptures are merely well attested historical documents, it is the Spirit which quickens us to believe the gospel.

    That’s my two cents, until we meet in class!

  12. Dr. K,

    So, I found out in my last post that blockquote tags don’t work in the comments here. Darn. That means quotes will have to be set off in, um, quotes :D.

    Regarding the teaching of evolution, I think there is a counter weight to your position – at least, in my experience.

    I entirely agree that making secondary doctrines part of what are ‘essential’ is a grave error, and I am all for reducing the number of essentials to a minimum set.

    However, I do think that, while demanding a creationist view has some dangers, so does *allowing* an evolutionary view. To assume that such a view has no theological or ethical implications is short sighted.

    Here’s an outline from my post on this issue entitled Is Creationism a Barrier to Faith?

    1. We must be careful not to make creationism, or any other non-essential doctrine a barrier to faith.
    2. We must teach and show Christians that faith is about all of life, not just one’s “personal relationship w/ God.” (i.e. includes history, science and philosophy of science)
    3. Teaching a simplistic view of Christian thought causes many to leave or easily dismiss Christianity.
    4. Evolution is not a harmless idea, but a philosophy with grave implications for individuals and society.

    I feel a little defensive of creationism, and YECs (I usually describe myself as a “Christian with YEC sympathies.”)

    In addition, as a former scientist (I have a B.S. in Biochemistry), I well understand the many blind assumptions, contradictory and missing data, and great logical stretches required to support common descent.

    We should probably be wary of trumpeting any strong allegiance to a cosmology that is scientifically controversial, be it an earth-centered solar system, evolution/creation, or global climate change. When we read contemporary, and often temporary cosmologies back into our theology, then turn around and teach that the theology supports it, woe to us when the cosmology is disproved!

    1. “4. Evolution is not a harmless idea, but a philosophy with grave implications for individuals and society.”

      Evolution definitely presents some really tough questions for Christianity. But I don’t believe we should say “These questions pose serious theological problems, so we should squelch evolution to avoid having to answer them.” If we should find that evolution is a fact (agh! don’t come at me with your pitchforks!) then we will still have these questions to deal with. We shouldn’t shrug from them, we should meet them head on.

    2. “In addition, as a former scientist (I have a B.S. in Biochemistry), I well understand the many blind assumptions, contradictory and missing data, and great logical stretches required to support common descent.”

      Please go over to ‘The Panda’s Thumb’, and enlighten them, please.

  13. BTW, as an interesting side note, I had a discussion with a conservative (female) pastor friend of mine regarding the “Evangelical Left” – she replied that they simply weren’t Evangelical at all if they have abandoned inerrancy. I replied that even the NAE, which has moved to the center, no longer includes the word “inerrant” in their statement of faith. She was surprised to find that I was correct.

  14. Dear Professor Kirk,
    I understand your article about inerrancy, and I definitely appreciate the sentiment. I just want to clarify, I feel like you are talking about inerrancy in terms of literal versus non-literal interpretations. Am I correct?

    Also, I read a book by N.T. Wright that gave a pretty strong defense for why each of the gospels are different. In the gospels up to the point of Jesus on the cross there were constant and meticulous references to the OT. After the cross, there aren’t any. Wright posits that the gospels were presented that way because whenever something that incredible happens, no two witnesses will see the same thing. Thus, each one would remember slight differences in the story. I am certain I didn’t do the interpretation justice, but how does the idea, the best I could present it, hold up?
    Thank you for your time!

    1. @Matthew: ‘In the gospels up to the point of Jesus on the cross there were constant and meticulous references to the OT. After the cross, there aren’t any.’

      Have I misunderstood you? What about Luke 24:25-26, 44?

  15. Chuck,

    Several things.

    (1) I used to be an ardent defender of inerrancy and thus spent much time looking for (harmonizing) “solutions” to these issues. Eventually I realized that the solutions showed less respect for the biblical text than the acknowledgment of errors in it: the “solutions” require [A] constant contorting of the text to make it something it isn’t and, related, [B] selective use of the kinds of defense strategies you list (more below). It began seeming more trusting of God to read the Bible as carefully and accurately as possible and to allow the Bible itself to challenge certain cherished ideas about it I had long held, such as inerrancy.

    (2) About such selective use, do you read all passages of the Bible with these methods (e.g., all the considerations you brought up to protect the Bible from error) in mind, or do you only go to them when you need to stretch “inerrancy” enough to defend it? When you’re reading Matt 28.18-20 do you focus on such translation issues, indeterminate marking in Greek, and paraphrasing – and conclude that we really can’t know what Jesus actually said about making discipline all nations and baptizing them in the name of the father and the son and the holy spirit? Do you emphasize how we really just can’t know what Jesus said here or even if he talked in terms of the father, son, and holy spirit?

    (3) FWIW, the “solution” you do comment on amounts to you adducing several erudite sounding generalizations that have the rhetorical effect of making your position seem quite learned: e.g., showing knowledge of technical linguistic issues (Aramaic and Greek), how Greek works, and comments about the gospel writers’ quoting/paraphrasing practices. However, when one presses these learned sounding claims with the specifics of the problem they supposedly “solve,” they come up quite short 

    The issue of lack of quotation marks is irrelevant here. Matthew 21.41 explicitly marks the speakers of the words in question as people other than Jesus speaking back to Jesus (λέγουσιν αὐτῷ). Your other comments also don’t address the nature of the mutually exclusive textual representations of who said what between Mark and Matthew, but instead concern the issue of whether or not each text could still somehow be viewed as referring to some single historical reality of “what really happened.” I.e., you bring up the issue of Jesus likely having spoken these things in Aramaic versus the gospels being in Greek and also how the gospel writers paraphrased. But again, this still doesn’t address the issue of the biblical texts of Mark and Matthew presenting mutually exclusive accounts of who said the words in question. Doesn’t inerrancy have to do with the texts also? My broader point here: your “solution” only constitutes a “solution” if what matters is making a seemingly learned show about the text and related issues to defend inerrancy to an audience that either already agrees and/or lacks the training or knowledge of issues to realize that the seemingly learned claims don’t actually address the issues or “solve” anything.

    Please don’t hear me as questioning your sincerity with my analysis of how the inerrancy defense you reproduced operates. I don’t question your motives or Christian sincerity (just as I hope you don’t question mine).

    (4) Out of curiosity, and related to my second point above, what would it take for you to admit an error or contradiction in the Bible? Do you always prefer “possible” harmonizing readings and/or opt to “suspend judgment” if no one can come up with a possible “solution”?


  16. Gah!!!! If you’re going to talk about evolution at least be careful and clear. Cancer cells that evolve are still cancer cells, no one disagrees that this happens. Darwin, however, was talking about the origin of species. A completely different thing. Bart Erhman has an agenda as his books clearly show. His students are not going to get a fair and balanced view of the NT, as I did not in my own seriously slanted NT Intro course at USC.

  17. Of course, the inability of some to reconcile this or that particular account in the Gospels does not logically necessitate that there is error in the text. All it may mean is that we continue to have a gap in our understanding of what has been written.

    The academic study of the text of Scripture since the Enlightenment has been so replete with change, contradiction, near incestuous reinforcement of ideas, and varying assumptions about the text itself and the field of inquiry that basing one’s opinion of the text and whether it contains errors on the basis of what a scholar might say in his classroom is a fool’s errand. If a man loses his faith over what some NT prof says about the text, can we really blame his previous understanding of the text or is it possible that the bias of the Academy today churns out material diametrically opposed to any view that reinforces the traditions of our fathers? If Dr. Kirk were truly making room for Christians to be Christian, he and other scholars would make room for the traditional viewpoint in the classroom as well as their own. Given that the Academy overwhelmingly laughs people out of its halls once they’re found to believe the Bible for what it actually says and claims for itself, it’s no surprise then that we find a scholar like Dr. Kirk doing nothing really but defending the status quo–not exactly serving the cause of freedom or creating the kind of space we need.

    1. Kevin,

      I agree with you that, as a “Professor,” Dr. Kirk is in the position of having to be a little careful about what he professes publicly. As a pastor, I have that same problem – I can’t put a Romney/Ryan bumper sticker on my car without seeming to compromise my position as a pastor who wants to give no offense regarding the gospel.

      However, he did admit to this being a bit of a rant, not a theological treatise. But I agree, while ‘creating space’ for evolutionary sympathizers in our midst, he may also be ‘removing space’ for us Creationists. Same with the inerrancy folks – he’s making room for those who want to take a softer view on inerrancy, which may feel like marginalizing those who hold the inerrancy position.

      As one who has had to move back from plenary inerrancy, I am glad that some like Dr. K are making room in Christendom for a less stringent, but still high view of scripture. Not only do I find that position logically compelling, but the fact that so many people leave over this narrow, secondary doctrine makes the need for making this room more urgent.

      BTW, one of my favorite articles on inerrancy is Daniel Wallace’s My Take on Inerrancy. Wallace is a bright guy, and good debater. Check him out taking on Bart Erman in a formal debate.

    2. Kevin,

      Why should the broader academy “make room for the traditional viewpoint in the classroom”? As we’ve discussed previously, you can’t uphold inerrancy (the “traditional view” in question here) apart from adopting a privileging approach to the Bible: i.e., deciding ahead of time that it’s inerrant and, as a methodological rule, preferring interpretive options that keep the text from error. When pressed to justify this decidedly in-accurate approach to the Bible (or anything, for that matter), inerrantists offer supernatural explanations: i.e., because it’s God’s word [and you presume that something that's God's word must be inerrant, etc.] it’s inerrant.

      Why should room be made for such an anti-academic/critical endeavor in the academy? That’s like saying that academic math societies should “make room for” equal participation by mathematicians who claim that the god Mathus has revealed to them that 2+2 = 5 and that they will teach and conduct their math research accordingly.

      Also, help us all out: what would it take for you to acknowledge that the Bible itself challenges inerrancy? You seem to have declared, at least functionally, that it’s not possible for any such evidence to exist…but that the semblance of such evidence just means we need to suspend judgment, trust that there’s a “gap in our understanding of what has been written,” and so on. Please explain to me how that’s a view of Scripture that is actually able to be criticized by Scripture itself.

      1. Kevin,

        I don’t think that most inerrantists start with an ASSUMPTION of inerrancy – rather, they read the Bible and deduce that theology FROM it, then need to justify it to keep the Bible internally consistent.

        The ‘academy’ may want to start from somewhere other than the Bible’s claims about itself, which is also fine. But intellectually, you can’t just dismiss inerrancy because the Bible’s claims about itself are not your starting place.

        And since this important doctrine is historically important to the church, of COURSE the academy must understand and study it, as well as the harmonies that go with it.

        Inerrancy is NOT the ideological equivalent of 2+2=5 because theology is not math. It may seem as ‘illogical’ to you as miracles and the existence of the soul, but that does not make it so.

        Further, some harmonies are warranted, in that we typically assess the facts in an event by comparing the eyewitness accounts. They may be describing the same event from different perspectives, and exploring this does not mean that we are motivated by a need for inerrancy – it could be that we are just responsible historians attempting to piece together history in a sensible manner.

        1. dgsinclair,

          Thanks for your comment. My name is Stephen, btw, not Kevin ;)

          You are confusing several matters. Sure, inerrantists claim that they hold inerrancy because the Bible “teaches” it, but even if 2 Tim 3 and various other passages claimed inerrancy for the Bible, that only establishes that several biblical writings claim that they and other biblical writings are inerrant — not that the other writings are, in fact, inerrant.

          While this distinction may not seem relevant or even theologically valid to inerrantists, it’s among the most important for historians — who distinguish between (A) what a person or source claims about itself and (B) the nature of that person’s claims or source as a whole. This is the difference between describing someone or something’s claims versus analyzing that person or a source’s claims. It’s a basic distinction that even inerrantists acknowledge as basic when studying almost anything outside of the Bible. For example, inerrantists can acknowledge that 4 Ezra claims to be a writing recording actual visions given to Ezra — and also analyze the book as, in fact, the product of some 1st or 2nd century CE Jewish author. This distinction doesn’t mean that historians, sociologists, etc., automatically reject a person or source’s self claims, but that such self-claims are themselves also things to be analyzed.

          Point is, when the academy refuses to “start with” or, put more helpfully, frame its analysis of the Bible with the self-claims of various biblical writings, that’s standard academic, historical, and investigatory methodology — indeed, methodology that inerrantists use in almost every other area of their lives besides the Bible. Thus, if inerrancy is a position predicated upon “starting with” the Bible’s self claims, which is exactly how you position the doctrine, then by definition it’s a non-academic position that should be “dismissed” by the academy.

          As to your point about inerrancy being a “doctrine [that] is historically important to the church” and thus something the academy must understand and study – that’s correct, but not (I think) in the way you mean it. You have given reasons for why inerrantists and inerrancy are data for people in the academy to study, not for why inerrantists who defend/propound inerrancy are properly colleagues of other academics in the study of Bible and inerrancy. You have articulated some of the reasons for why I have a side research project about inerrantist biblical scholarship that treats such scholars and scholarship as data for scholars of modern religion.

          Your claims about “theology is not math” miss my point; as does introducing the categories of logical/illogical. I never claimed that the inerrantist approach is “illogical,” but that it’s, from an academic standpoint, the same thing as someone in another field justifying a blatant violation of standard methods/approaches in that field with a religious claim. This is exactly what inerrantists do: they “start with” the Bible’s self-claims and, from there, justify their blatant distortion of historical methodology (i.e., always preferring interpretive options that keep the text “inerrant”). To justify “starting with” the Bible’s self-claims and taking them as always accurate about the nature of the rest of the Bible, inerrantists universally adduce the supernatural explanation of the Bible being God’s word. Again, how is this materially different, from the standpoint of academic methods, from an aeronautical engineer holding that the force of gravity is different over the AiG headquarters every 2nd Tuesday of the month because the god Fremengeloa revealed this in his sacred writings – and then that engineer always preferring and even looking for interpretations of data and experiments that support this religiously determined position? The issue isn’t logical versus illogical, but academic versus non-academic, open to empirical investigation or not, etc.

          BTW, why do you assume that miracles and the existence of the soul are “illogical” to me? I’m a Christian who believes in Christ, his resurrection, that he performed miracles, the afterlife, and so on.

          I’ve already written too much here – apply what I wrote above to your comment about harmonizing. I don’t disagree with you, except that I reject the inerrantist iteration of your claims. Inerrantists don’t just harmonize when the data seem to warrant it according to standard historical methods. Inerrantists harmonize as an interpretive axiom when faced with possible errors in the Bible; they methodologically prefer interpretive options that harmonize data. That’s fundamentally different than simply acknowledging the useful place of harmonizing when that seems to be the best way to handle the data, which implies that sometimes harmonizing isn’t the best way.

          1. Thanks for this interesting discursus, Stephen. Your thoughts blended with something else I’ve been studying – the nature of trust. There seems, imho, to be a thread of distrust among inerrantists – distrust of other humans’ inquiries & understanding, and even deeper, a distrust of the Holy Spirit’s ability to make the Word living and empower those who follow Christ. Rather, they take away the spiritual mystery of the Holy Spirit by nailing down the Word. huh.

            1. You might say that they TRUST the Bible in a way that is absolute – so in comparison, man’s reason is to be less trusted. And there are many passages in scripture warning us in trusting in our reason over revelation – not that we abandon reason, but it takes second place – as Augustine said “Faith seeking understanding” – and not the other way around.

              There are good spiritual and intellectual reasons for taking this approach. Even the great Martin Luther (perhaps you would call him an inerrantist) wrote screeds against human reason. See my relevant posts:
              ‘Reason is the Devil’s whore’

              “Luther’s position was not that reason was not to be used, but it was to be used within a biblical framework, that is, in subservience to revelation. As I love to say:

              ,Before faith comes, reason is king. After faith comes, reason is servant.,”

              The Weslyan Quadrangle III – Scripture and Reason

              Reason’s unreliability based on man’s corruption

              “All that being said, the WQ admits reason as one of the tools we MUST use to arrive at good theology, but not in supremacy over Scripture, lest we allow our corrupted self-interest and reliance on limited human philosophy and understanding to cause us to misunderstand the clear teachings of Christianity. Paul the Apostle warns us against relying merely on human reason and philosophy because of its orientation – this world, and with self-interest lurking in the back of men’s hearts:

              Colossians 2:8
              Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ”

          2. Stephen,

            Sorry, I realized i got your name wrong right after I posed, but alas, no chance to edit comments here. While I agree with many of your points regarding inerrantists, I certainly disagree with your demeaning tone.

            And while I agree that academics do not start with the self-claims of the literature, eventually, they have to get to those claims and make something of them. That’s what inerrantists have done – they choose to understand them in a certain way and apply them. I don’t find their search for internal consistency, or their allowance for inerrant, inspired, or infallible documents counter-logical, per se.

            I think your 2+2=5 example was ineffective because it played into your negative value judgement of inerrantists, and appears to be a complaint about their ‘illogic’ in general, not merely an illustration of how academics is done.

            I do agree with your last paragraph, which is what I was aiming at with my comment – not all harmonies are a bad method, and perhaps even excusable as a first method, as long as you are open to admitting that some harmonies strain credulity.

            1. Unclear on how I had a demeaning tone. I disagreed with you and proceeded to analyze your positions; but I don’t see how that was necessarily demeaning.

              Academics do “get to [the self claims of scripture] and make something of them.” They analyze them in relation to their best attempts at detailed historical study of the writings as a whole. The claims can yield much for historical analysis. The point isn’t that, by not “starting with” biblical writings’ self claims, academics necessarily reject them — again, it’s just that historians consider all aspects of a source (for example) as requiring analysis, self-claims included.

              It’s true that inerrantists “choose to understand them in a certain way and apply them,” but that’s not simply some equal and opposite decision from broader academics. What inerrantists do with these self-claims, as I laid out above, is privilege them and orient the rest of their study of biblical writings around upholding them. That’s exactly what historians do not do. While it’s fine to privilege such claims in, for example, certain theological and apologetics fields of discourse, I cannot stress enough that such privileging removes one from the field of academic-historical work.

              Let’s be fair, it’s not that inerrantists simply “search for internal consistency.” The issue isn’t whether we “[allow] for inerrant, inspired, or infallible documents.” Inerrantists are committed to treating biblical writings as internally consistent and inerrant. If inerrantists wanted to explore whether or not the Bible is inerrant, then by all means. But this, of course, means using standard historical methods without stacking the deck ahead of time (i.e., always preferring interpretations that keep the Bible inerrant); it means that the possibility is on the table that one finds errors in the biblical writings, just as the possibility is theoretically on the table to find them inerrant.

              As I point out above, I shy away from talking in terms of logical and illogical. That’s ambiguous terminology in this context. Depends what one means by logical and, by many definitions, something can be “logical” as long as it fits within the logics (if you will) of its own discourse. I find it more accurate to spell out exactly what’s going on and then ask how that squares with relatively standard academic inquiry practices. So again, inerrantists methodologically commit to privileging the self-claims of biblical writings and to reinscribing their understandings of those claims in their historical description and analysis of those writings. This violates any semblance of academic investigatory methods.

              That’s why the 2+2 = 5 example helps. Methodologically committing oneself ahead of time to an inerrant Bible because one privileges its self claims (ultimately because one considers the Bible to be God’s word) is formally the same as certain mathematicians committing themselves ahead of time to 2+2 = 5 because a deity revealed that them. I tried to explain this above with the additional example of an aeronautical engineer. The issues revolve around privileging in ways that remove one’s research from the realm of empirical, testable, falsifiable, communally-critical, etc. investigation…not logical vs. illogical.

              If inerrantists were content to leave matters at the fact that they privilege certain biblical claims (and ideas about the Bible) for religious/theological reasons, acknowledging the fundamental differences between their fields of discourse production and consumption and those of academic-historians, then things would be fine. But a hallmark of inerrantist discourse is its insistence that it’s the most sophisticated academic-historical work.

  18. I needed to read this. I’ve lately felt like there isn’t much ‘space’ for me in the church because of these two very issues. It’s disheartening to feel excluded from the body, in a sense, over rigidly ‘essential’ dogma. So thank you for the encouragement.

    1. Speaking as someone who was “one of those high school kids,” it really does get better. You’ll find that there are communities who will make space for you with regard to these issues and others…who will accept you as a Christian even if you (gasp) believe in Evolution. But it may take some looking.

  19. It’s very nice to come hear to read this, Daniel, after a Liberty U person had just informed me I was “twisting scripture” when I said that we, as Christians, shouldn’t spread falsehood and divisiveness, and referred to 2 Corinthians 5.

    The response was: “Do not twist your scripture. 2 Corinthians 5 (as you quote) verse 18 – All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation (reconciliation to HIM, not a kuum-bah-yah with each other, my friend)”.


    I gotta wonder what “bible” (little b) folks are reading, sometimes. There are “Christians” advocating divisiveness “in the name of” no-god-I-know, that’s fer sher.

  20. Daniel,

    I’ve been a long time reader on your blog and i really appreciate how what you’ve written has spoken to me over the years. I’m working through Bible College right now, and your blog has really helped me see things from other points of view, and also deal with some of the tough concepts being presented in my schooling (and I go to a relatively conservative school!)

    I really appreciate you saying what you do about evolution. I feel like the secular community says “I believe in evolution and therefore I don’t believe in God.” and we do the worst thing imaginable and let that argument derail us. We try to explain why evolution is wrong, instead of saying what we should, “Ok, so you believe in evolution, why does that stop you from believing in God?” We have, unwittingly, fallen into the trap laid out for us. Atheists and Christians end up arguing on the same side of the debate: that you cannot believe in both God and evolution. And that is damaging.

    1. Aaron,

      I think there is merit in the creationist arguments, not least of which is that evolution has theological, philosophic, and ethical implications which are at odds with Christianity.

      I’m not saying that a Christian can’t believe in evolution regarding origins, but it’s not a simple case of “evolution doesn’t disagree with scripture, so it could work.”

      While we should not demand that people follow a creationist origins story, neither should we pretend that evolution is without significant problems, not just scientifically, but theologically. If you want to hold Christian ideas and evolution simultaneously, you have some hard work to do reconciling them. Or you can pretend that they don’t conflict at all.

      1. And that’s fine. I don’t want to pretend that coupling evolution and Christianity doesn’t present some serious issues, but I won’t write off evolution because the theological questions it brings up are hard.

  21. Daniel,

    Foul, foul! Your twitter feed drew me to your blog post with false advertising! You said you would talk about the Bible you loved & its mistakes. This is about your frustration with the sub-culture surrounding the Bible. I want to know how to love & live with my messy Bible, but mostly the living part. However, it might help if I loved it, too, rather than piling up qualifications on that love.


  22. “When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.”

    I want to kiss you for saying this. Please, rant on. We need cautions against such moves that set up students for failure.

  23. I came to your blog via another site that posted a recent blog post of mine and referenced this post. In my post I wrote “Once I found out the Bible was not an inspired, inerrant text, my Evangelical house of cards came tumbling to the ground.”

    Many people make a false assumption from this statement, i.e. I became an atheist because I no longer believed the Bible was inerrant or inspired.

    The path to atheism is more complex than that. (I participate in the Clergy Project and correspond with numerous pastors turned atheist,agnostic, deist)

    Losing the belief in inspiration and inerrancy allowed me to then go back to the Bible and investigate the claims made in the Bible. It is from this study, I concluded that I could no longer believe the claims made about God, Jesus, and Christianity in general. Such claims require faith, a faith I did not have.

    I just want to make sure you and your readers understand that the move from Evangelicalism to atheism was not a knee-jerk response to the doctrines of inerrancy and inspiration. My deconversion was a long , arduous journey that took from Baptist fundamentalism to Evangelicalism to liberal Christianity to agnosticism to atheism.

    It is a slippery slope many have traveled. Some are able to find a stopping point and find some form Christianity to hold on to. I found found no stopping point I could live with. Liberal Christianity seemed to me to be atheists, agnostics, and deists who like church music and like to go to church on Sunday. Their belief systems are emptied of most meaning but “Jesus Saves” We attended an Episcopal church where one of the leaders told us, “it doesn’t matter what you believe.” I find such thinking scandalous. Beliefs do matter and that is why I am atheist and no longer a Christian.

    I just wanted to add a bit of nuance to your discussion here.

    1. Bruce,

      Welcome. I appreciate your idea of stopping along a slippery slope. I left the faith, but returned, so I guess I did catch myself, or get caught, as the case may be.

      I left because of a few things, but could not abandon all I had come to believe, so instead, found accommodations or explanations that I found more palatable than the alternative views of atheism or Buddhism (my main two competing world views).

      I do believe that your journey, and that of many former people of faith, is not merely knee jerk, or a one-item deconversion. However, as John Loftus has well remarked, no one makes decisions for or against faith for purely logical reasons – there are always emotional components. The trick is, like bias in an experiment, to admit and control for them if you can.

      One of my own personal convictions has developed, and that is, though reason can eliminate many faith systems and pretenders, it can not eliminate all (chiefly, I find that both Buddhism and Christianity are left standing after others have failed historical and logical analysis).

      As atheist Graham Oppy has well remarked (esp. in Arguing About Gods), if there were overwhelming evidence and reason to conclude one way or the other, we wouldn’t still be having this argument except with some fringe extremists. The fact is, evidence and reason can only take you so far, and then from there, you choose to either (a) remain agnostic, (b) choose faith (if it has been granted ;), or (c) choose unbelief. The last two, in my mind, are not entirely justified by reason alone.

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