Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What The Bible Does

March 17, 2014 — Leave a comment

9780310331360The last installment of Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy was Al Mohler’s essay. Mohler represents the traditional view, and presents his case as a historical theologian.

Today, we have the complete antithesis to his view in Peter Enns. While the other views in this book more or less support inerrancy, Enns does not. His view is made pretty clear with his title, “Inerrancy, However Defined, Does Not Describe What The Bible Does.” Coming on the heels of Mohler’s view, the result is a contrast just as stark as Bill Nye and Ken Ham.

For Enns, the core issue “is how inerrancy functions in contemporary evangelical theological discourse” (83). He sees inerrnacy functioning as “a theological boundary marker against faulty exegetical conclusions or misguided hermeneutical approaches” (84-85). At the heart of this is the the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) is used, or Enns account, misused.

In explaining how the CSBI preempts dialogue, Enns comments:

The implied premise of the CSBI is that God as God would necessarily produce an inerrant Bible, and this premise is the very point coming under increasing scrutiny within evangelicalism. To the minds of many, maintaining inerrancy requires that perennially nagging counterevidence from inside and outside of the Bible must be adjusted to support that premise rather than allowing that evidence to call the premise into question. In my opinion, the distance between what the Bible is and the theological hedge place around the Bible by the CSBI has been and continues to be a source of considerable cognitive dissonance. (85)
He concludes that inerrancy cannot be adjusted in such a way that it can account for the Bible’s actual behavior. (91).

In contrast to Mohler’s essay, Enns spends the majority of his time on the three biblical test cases. Mohler devoted almost 20 pages to explaining his position on inerrancy and less than 10 dealing with the test cases. This is exactly reversed in Enns, with 25 pages on the test cases, and less than 10 sketching out why inerrancy is a problem.

Enns is the only Old Testament scholar in the bunch, and he spends more space on Jericho than Bird does on all three test cases combined. In short, the fall of Jericho, at least as described in Joshua 6, is not historical. As far as reconciling Acts 9 and 22, this is more of a problem for Enns than any other contributor. Likewise, the conflict between Deuteronomy 20:16-17 and Matthew 5:43-48 is much more acute in Enns’ portrayal. In the ends, Enns feels that “inerrancy” as a term/concept has run its course we ought to jettison it (115).

Mohler offers the first critique. As he sees it, “inerrancy is the single issue that truly distinguishes evangelicalism from liberal Protestantism” (118). He points out that Enns seems to see this as well by his admission that inerrancy is part of evangelicalism’s DNA. From here, Mohler responds to many of Enns’ criticisms, and challenges his interpretation of the problem texts.

Bird disputes the claim that inerrancy is part of evangelicalism’s DNA (124). Instead, he sees it as a recovery, but also a reaction to the “biblical criticism resourced in the philosophical framework of modernity” (125). Bird also rejects Enns’ incarnational model of Scripture because it threatens the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation. Further, Bird pushes back on Enns’ rejection of the Jericho account and his reduction of the Exodus story. As Bird puts it, “just because you have a theory about what was behind a certain biblical story does not therefore make that theory immediately more probable than the biblical account” (126). He adds, “A point of principle is that biblical criticism should be digested critically and its presuppositions, procedures, and finding made susceptible to the same scrutiny to which the biblical narratives are themselves made subject.”

Then along comes Vanhoozer. He gives Enns a charitable reading, but is also critical in a constructive manner. Like Enns, he too wants us to conform our doctrine of Scripture to the Bible we actually have (129). But, along with Bird, Vanhoozer wishes that Enns had been more constructive in his proposal rather than mainly deconstructive. And, in Vanhoozer’s account, Enns is primarily deconstructive of “perfect book theology,” which is basically a critique of “naive” inerrancy, rather than the critical inerrancy than most sophisticated evangelicals hold to. In the end, Vanhoozer sees Enns’ essay suffering from two confusions (130):

  1. A failure to distinguish the nature of inerrancy from its use
  2. A failure to distinguish inerrancy’s right use from various abuses

As a result, Enns primarily rejects not “a particular definition of inerrancy as much as a set of interpretive practices that have come to be associated with inerrancy” (131). This means that, “there is no room for literate, hemeneutically informed inerrantists in Enns’ inn” (132).

Finally, Franke adds his perspective. His concern is that Enns is still in reaction to his departure from Westminster (137). I’ve felt much the same way in reading his post WTS work. He acknowledges (and I would too) that in many ways we have mistreated Enns in his attempts to come to terms with how he sees the text of Scripture. We can certainly disagree sharply, but we shouldn’t treat Enns as a scapegoat or simply cast him aside as a betrayer of the tradition. That being said, Franke too picks up on the more deconstructive focus of Enns and wishes there was more constructive substance to his contribution (139). This makes for more or less unanimity among the other contributors on a short-coming of Enns work in this volume.

In the end, I am glad Enns is included here, even if he is primarily deconstructive. He offers by far the most attention to the biblical test cases. And although he sees far more issues there than I do (or for the most part the other contributors), his perspective is certainly a force to be reckoned with if you want to maintain a traditional account of inerrancy. Ultimately, I did not find his view very convincing, but it does help me to understand how to not formulate a doctrine of inerrancy. Likewise, Enns helps readers to see how inerrancy should not be misued in formulating interpretive principles. Though it might feel like straw men to some, Enns is certainly arguing based on how people actually use inerrancy, and we would do well to avoid the errors that he is reacting against.


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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!

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