The Human Faces of God: why criticize inerrancy?

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 3: “Inerrancy Stunts Your Growth”

Now, this is one chapter I thoroughly enjoyed. Stark spends the greater part exposing and surgically excising the internal logic used to defend inerrancy. Yet although this can be much like shooting fish in a barrel, and many of his points have been made elsewhere many times before (including on this blog), his accessible prose and razor sharp reasoning makes quick and elegant work of it. But I do have one beef, on which, keep reading.

The first claim usually offered by inerrantists is suitably the first to fall: the Bible claims inerrancy for itself. “The inerrantists talk about the Bible as if it were some self-aware being, like an artificial intelligence that, once assembled, achieves a sort of quasi-consciousness” (p. 47). But the simple fact is that these people who are the quickest to demand scriptural support can point to no scriptural basis for this belief. No passage speaks of the entire canon in which it has become enclosed, much less claiming inspiration or inerrancy for it. Instead, their belief comes down to “logic”, falsely so-called: if the Bible is inspired from start to finish — as surely it ought to be — than it will be inerrant — for surely, it ought to be. This is Stark’s next target, for even if we extrapolate from claims of authority given to certain segments of the text to the entirety of the canonized scriptures, by no means does there result an unavoidable trajectory from inspiration toward inerrancy. As I have pointed out before, 2 Timothy 3.16’s “God-breathed” does not specify that this means the Bible was essentially “exhaled” through God’s lungs, with a practically incidental detour through human authors’ hearts and pens, as inerrantists suppose; Stark notes that it was more in line with first century thinking to rather understand divine inspiration as the animation and empowerment of the texts themselves. “To say that scripture is ‘God-breathed’,” Stark suggests, “could very well mean that God breathes new life and new meaning into even obscure texts that are outdated, irrelevant, and perhaps even wrong” (pp. 47-48, emphasis original).

Showing that he’s no stranger to arguments with inerrantists, Stark accurately predicts the inerrantists’ next line of defense, what he refers to as “the dominical trump card”: the belief that Jesus believed the Old Testament was inerrant. Ably, and I sincerely believe convincingly, he addresses and problematizes a fairly exhaustive list of proof texts for that claim, a list put forward by Norman Geisler in defense of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy substantiating his belief that “one cannot reject the divine authority of Scripture without thereby impugning the authority of Christ…” (p. 48): Matt. 5.17-18; Luke 24.44; John 10.34-45; 14.16; 16.13.

But what about those times in which Jesus cited Old Testament stories as evidence for a point? It’s quite possible that Jesus was more aware than most of his peers about the deeper truths of the universe, but merely adapted his teaching to them in condescension. The CSBI crowd anticipates that possibility and rejects it outright, because they feel that Jesus should not have lent his considerable credibility to unhistorical stories. Stark has little to do but gesture at the gaping hole in that logic: there is a chasmic difference between alluding to a point from a well-known story and committing oneself to the entire spectrum of truth claims possible for or about that story, including its historicity. But even if Jesus did hold inaccurate conceptions about the Old Testament, history, science, etc., not questioning the common understanding of those things handed down to him just like his contemporaries, Stark suggests that it approaches a violation of the unadulterated humanity of Jesus as affirmed at Chalcedon:

…[D]enying Jesus the right to have faulty assumptions is just another form of Docetism. It is a denial of Jesus’ humanity, because an indispensable part of being human is being a product of one’s own time and place…[I]f Jesus believed the world was flat, and that Daniel wrote Daniel, it is not because he was an inferior or imperfect being; it’s because he was fully a human being, which is precisely what the Council of Chalcedon affirms about him. [p. 55]

Stark spends the next several pages exposing a few more faulty and inconsistently applied presuppositions needed to maintain inerrancy. The highly selective appeal to the authority of church history is highlighted and critiqued as example after example of wildly inappropriate judgments by different presumably authoritative ecclesiastical magisteria is presented (Calvinists, beware: Servetus comes up). He also takes aim at the notion that we must believe the Bible’s authority and ostensible inerrancy just because it (supposedly) claims it for itself all the while denying such claims in other holy books like the Qur’an.

Despite finding the content of this chapter to be on the whole compelling and useful, I was nonetheless a bit disappointed that the purported theme of the chapter as suggested by the title was not really addressed until over halfway through. The shortcomings of inerrancy described above needed to be pointed out in this book somewhere, but if Stark thinks that these particular ways of being wrong-headed and inconsistent contribute to growth stunting, he never made it clear how or why. Yes, being wrong is something to avoid, but we’re all wrong in some way: why, my friends ask me, must I harp specifically on inerrancy? “Yeah, great, you’re not convinced of inerrancy, but why waste so much energy just to prove that you know better than us? How exactly is this supposed to help Christians out?”

Stark really begins to answer these questions with his discussion in the penultimate section of this chapter. Elucidating unwelcome side effects of inerrancy that he cleverly terms “the inerrancy tax”, he argues that accepting the inerrantist view of how the inspiration process worked leads to some compromises in a couple highly prized beliefs: the taxing of both free will and divine sovereignty. His point about the sacrifice of free will required in the CSBI’s conception of inspiration was valid, but not quite as compelling as his fair, careful, but deep-cutting critique of the problems associated with maintaining both inerrancy and a Reformed view of God as sovereign. This is particularly hard-hitting considering that the most hardcore advocates of inerrancy, including many of the most important framers and defenders of the CSBI, consider inerrancy to be the very foundation of the Reformed tradition. His tactic in this section is to show inerrantists that they, upon close examination, will themselves find inerrancy unsatisfactory for theological reasons. This contributes to an answer to the question, “Why should I care about this debate?”

The final section is (finally) devoted to the promised subject, “Inerrancy Stunts Your Growth”. This was the most original and interesting portion of the chapter by far, but I found it painfully short. I do not really mean that I found it underdeveloped or lacking in explanation, because it’s a relatively simple concept; I mean, rather, that I would have enjoyed continuing to hear his approach explained, for reasons akin to the exhilarating feeling one gets when one finds oneself staring at a waterfall and not wanting to continue hiking down the trail just yet. I hesitate to summarize it in detail here for fear of “spoiling” the book, as it’s one of the gems of his view of the Bible and alone worth reading the book for. The essence is that inerrancy “taxes your development as a moral agent” (p. 67): much as Christians have tended to view the Law contra the Spirit for salvation (“the letter kills,” etc.”), we can never mature in our growth as human beings so long as we insist on affirming every misconception, politically motivated mandate, and cultural prejudice recorded in Scripture as though each and every one of them is God’s very word to us. This is one of the most compelling defenses for assaulting inerrancy.

A word about the tone of the book so far: it’s excellent. His attempt at conversational style is, in my opinion, dramatically successful because he does not give the impression either of speaking too harshly or talking down to those Christians whose beliefs a reader will, based upon Stark’s thoughtful discussion, nonetheless infer are benighted and naive. For this reason, as of the end of chapter three this book is drifting to the top of my “recommended for conservative Christians” books list even though I am aware of some pretty perilous waters beginning in the next chapter.

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  • Steve, your review thus far makes me want to buy the book. If only I weren’t a poor college student. Anyway, thanks for the review!

    • Oh, how many times I’ve uttered these same words! I waited for a 30% discount before I bought the book myself. 😉 I’m glad you’re enjoying the review!

  • Jun

    Inerrancy creates a fear of reading the Bible as it is, and more particularly a fear of seeing the argument with itself. The inerrantist must above all make himself a liar: he must contrive any lie he can to harmonize the unharmonizable. He must make the argument with itself cease to exist. He must declare genocide to be OK. Etc. Inerrancy is bred of and breeds tyrannical fear of superstition.