Optional page text here. The Beast's Lair: When Conservatism Is Not Enough

Thursday, February 07, 2008

When Conservatism Is Not Enough

I am a conservative. If you have been a regular reader of The Beast's Lair, this should not be a jaw-dropping statement. (Incidentally, my conservatism is at time masked for those who do not know me as well because I have long hair.) I have many friends who would consider themselves "moderates" and even some who would call themselves "liberal" in their theology and approach to Scripture. (I recognize that the terms conservative, moderate, and liberal can mean many things to different people, but for the purposes of this post, these labels will suffice.)

Historically, one of the pivotal issues to determine where a person falls along this spectrum of conservative to liberal is in the area of Scripture. For the most part, and again I am speaking in generalities so I can quickly get to my ultimate point, if you are talking with a moderate, you will hear words like "infallible" crop up in the conversation. If you are talking to a conservative, the more likely word will be "inerrant" coupled with "infallible." Scripture doesn't really ever come up in conversations with liberals.

That last line was supposed to be funny.

When someone uses the word "infallible," they typically lean on an "at the end of the day" argument. At the end of the day, the bible will accomplish all it was designed for in faith and practice and we can have complete confidence in its overall message. When someone uses the word "inerrant," they typically mean that the bible is without error or contradiction in every way, perfectly inspired by the Holy Spirit and penned with the personalities of the biblical writers. That is a ridiculously simple explanation of those terms and much more should be said to do justice to those positions. But, here is what I am getting at:

This year will mark a decade of having the privilege to serve in the local church. God has blessed me in tremendous ways and I have learned a great deal about many things. Here is one that concerns me. Conservatives like me in the church are real quick to jump on the "inerrant" bandwagon. (And we are right to do so). We don't take kindly to those blasted moderates telling us that the bible is trustworthy for faith but not necessarily without error on some issues. We will stand our ground and hold forth the banner of inerrancy.

But then comes time to live it.

When is conservatism not enough? When we as conservatives proudly proclaim the inerrancy of Scripture but pay little attention to its sufficiency. In other words, we hold tight to the absence of error in the bible, but then brush to the side its teachings that interfere with our own worldview. The topics are endless. Divorce, church discipline, evangelism, worship, personal growth and on and on. Many are not even convinced of the sufficiency of Scripture to accurately portray God's self-revelation of Himself! But hey, it's inerrant! Something is wrong here. I have had a couple, and will continue to have more, conversations with a dear lady in my church concerning the nature of God. Among many issues, her biggest roadblock, and there are many right along with her even among evangelicals, is that God would never send anyone to hell. This is not the place to defend the judgment of God, but she will say to me in every conversation, "I know the bible is without error, but I just don't think God would do that."

Listen friends, the bible is tough. And we are inconsistent. My dear sister in the faith does not believe God would judge a person to hell, but yet has no problem believing God would joyfully crush His son to save a wretched sinner. The former is deserved, the latter is undeserved. Which is more difficult, the doctrine of God's judgment or the doctrine of God's love? His love.

So, we can and should hold fast to the inerrancy of the bible. But we Christians need to grasp the power of its sufficiency and seek it out in all matters of life and faith. For the glory of God.


Blogger Mike Ruffin said...


A good post.

We all have to live with the fact the Bible itself, to which conservatives and moderates all look for ultimate guidance, uses neither the words "inerrant" nor "infallible" to describe itself. Of course, the Bible also does not use the word "Trinity" to describe God, but we come up with such terms to name what we think the Bible teaches about itself or about God.

I am one of those who is more comfortable with the word "infallible" than the word "inerrant," mainly because of the other option that each word implies. If the Bible is not infallible, then the implication is that it can in the end fail us in accomplishing what God intends for it to accomplish, namely, to point us to Jesus Christ, the living Word, in whom we find salvation. But if we insist on saying that the Bible is inerrant, then the other option is that it is errant. Such a discussion leads us nowhere. I have no desire to discuss "errors" in the Bible. There are differences in manuscripts and there are differences in the presentations of the same event in the Bible, but I don't think of those in terms of errors. I think of them as being besides the point when it comes to the actual purpose of the Bible.

I see two real problems.

First, as a scientist friend of mine is fond of asking, "When did 'inerrant' become equivalent to 'literal'?" That seems to be the rub with many of my conservative brethren. Can I affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and yet conclude that some parts of the Bible do not intend to communicate scientific truth, for example? I know that I can affirm infallibility and conclude that, but can I affirm inerrancy and conclude that? It seems to me that I could. It seems to me that I could say, "I believe the Bible is inerrant in its original autographs (which is after all what the doctrine of inerrancy actually says) and I believe that in Genesis the Bible inerrantly presents the theological significance of creation." But, I suspect that most inerrantists would be uncomfortable with that. Why? Not because I am not an inerrantist but because I am not a literalist.

The second problem is the one that lies at the heart of your post. I have long said that I would prefer a non-inerrantist and even a liberal (one of the ones who does read the Bible, I mean) who believes in Jesus and tries to follow the teachings of the Bible to an inerrantist who runs roughshod over the ethical teachings of the Bible. Jesus did not say, after all, that the world would know we are Christians by our affirmation of accurate dogmatic statements; he said they would know we are Christians by our love.

(As a sidenote, that is why the "Conservative Resurgence" was in some ways a sinful movement. Folks trumpeted inerrancy while feeling free to slander and vilify and probably even hate, despite what their Savior and their Bibles taught them about such attitudes--see the Sermon on the Mount--and actions.)

In a chapel address at SBTS when I was a student there, Glenn Hinson, a genuine and gentle Christian whose name is probably anathema around there now, said something like this: "I wonder, when I stand before Christ in the judgment, if he is going to be more interested in the accuracy of my theology or in whether or not I stopped to help the lady stranded beside the road with the flat tire." So do I. So do I. All I know is, he said all that "I was hungry and you fed me" stuff.

Blessings, my brother, and thank you for making even your old teachers think.

February 08, 2008 10:48 AM  
Blogger The Beast said...


As always, thanks for your comments. Since you make mention of your more moderate position in your reply, it is a great thing that we can come from different perspectives on part of this issue and still “contend for the faith” together. Your response has prompted some more thoughts on my end, so this reply is primarily to allow myself the opportunity to write and clarify my own positions, and to help with the overall discussion for other Lair readers.

1. So far as I am reading it correctly, I completely agree with your first “problem” concerning the scientific/literal argument. Those who equate inerrancy with strict literalism do not understand the inerrant position.

2. Your second problem raises some additional questions for me. I think we are in agreement that those who preach inerrancy while failing to follow those inerrant words in practice are missing the point. But, you go on to make a distinction that I think moves beyond my position. My point is that we must maintain both the positions of inerrancy and practice. You move on to make a distinction between one who is a dogmatic inerrantist and one who lives by the Bible. You say that “Jesus did not say, after all, that the world would know we are Christians by our affirmation of accurate dogmatic statements; he said they would know we are Christians by our love.” The problem here is that “they will know we are Christians by our love” is an affirmation of an accurate dogmatic statement. The same problem is in Hinson’s statement. He asks if God “is going to be more interested in the accuracy of my theology or in whether or not I stopped to help the lady stranded beside the road with the flat tire." That is a fallacious argument. God, in fact, will not care if we helped the lady with her flat tire unless it is grounded in accurate theology, viz., that we are saved by Christ and are therefore bound to the accuracy of his teaching, one of which is to love our neighbor as ourselves. The reason Hinson knows God will be pleased at his act of kindness to the lady on the side of the road is because he has properly interpreted and maintained the accuracy of Christ’s teaching. I have little patience for preaching that implies God is not as interested in accurate theology as He is in us being nice. For the Christian, the two must be continually woven together. The position of maintaining inerrancy while failing to live by the bible’s words, as I have argued in my post, is not acceptable. But neither is failing to hold and develop accurate theology while still loving and caring. Both options fail. This is why I think Peter calls for us to contend for the faith with gentleness and humbleness. We can’t sacrifice one for the other.

Lastly, being zealous in our defense of orthodoxy is crucial for the believer today and has a historical testimony that we are all grateful for. We can quote the “love each other” passages today because men and woman from the 1st century through the 21st century understood what was at stake, and put their lives on the line to defend those dogmatic statements of the faith. Most of the NT is comprised of apostles boldly telling others what is right and what is wrong. We should, of course, stay truthful to the teaching of Scripture as we rigorously defend it. As you say, if are in the process of hating and hurting in our defense, then that is against the very thing we are defending. Yet, people’s feelings might get hurt. I am sure than John Mark was not feeling great when Paul sent him home. I am sure that the young ruler was not feeling too good when Christ laid down the requirements and watched as the young man walked away. I am sure that Peter was a bit hurt when Paul openly reprimanded him for his error in doctrine. I’m sure that the Corinthian family was hurting when Paul instructed the church to dis-fellowship with them. My ultimate point here, I think, is proper balance. So, yes we need to boldly hold forth the accuracy of the statements of doctrine and Scripture while at the same time, practicing those statements in our defense. Doing one without the other is certainly not inerrant.

Many blessings to you my friend! Are you going to discuss more your visit to the NBC?

February 08, 2008 8:42 PM  
Blogger Mike Ruffin said...


My most recent post is about the NBC, although it is more about my visceral response than about any kind of critical analysis. Other folks are doing that.

I'll think more about what you have said in response to my comments.

I do have one quick thought, though: I wonder, throughout history, who has done the most harm--those who "just try to love other folks" or those who have been committed to defending their very strongly held convictions based on their own interpretations of the faith?

As you say, though, the quest is for balance. We do err when we swing too far in either direction.

One more thing about what Hinson said (and similar things that others have said): he was not talking about what made him a Christian but what showed that he was a Christian. Of course salvation is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Oh, and one more thing (and I know you must get tired of me going back to this and I readily grant that your generation is past this and my generation needs to get over it)--as one who lived through it, I have to say that much, if not most of what happened to good, Bible-believing, sound people during the "Conservative Resurgence" was done neither to preserve the faith once for all delivered to us nor out of love. It was done with the motive of gaining power and of imposing a very narrow orthodoxy.

As I said, more later.

I hope you're having a great semester.

I'm looking for great things from you. But hey--no pressure!

February 08, 2008 9:49 PM  
Blogger The Beast said...

Thanks brother, I am having a good start to the semester. Coincidentally, I am heavy on theology this semester and reading more than humanly possible. But, that is why I'm here I guess!

February 09, 2008 12:25 AM  

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