This article is based on the fifth chapter of my book Fed Up with Fundamentalism (2007), which I am currently updating (and slightly revising) for re-publication at the end of the year. Beliefs about the Bible were central to the rise of fundamentalism 100 years ago and its “resurgence” that began 40 years ago.
The Basic Problem: Inerrancy
Fundamentalists, now generally known as conservative evangelicals, have strongly emphasized the necessity of an inerrant Bible. Perhaps more than anything else, belief in Biblical inerrancy is the defining doctrine for fundamentalists.
Writing in The Fundamentalist Phenomenon (1981), Jerry Falwell declared: “A Fundamentalist is one who believes the Bible to be verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit and therefore inerrant and absolutely infallible” (pp. 119-120).
In the ninth chapter of Inerrancy (1980), Paul D. Feinberg presents this definition:
Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences (p. 294).
There are several problems with this definition, though. Is it possible to know all the facts? And how do we know when the Bible as a whole, or when any individual passage, is “properly interpreted”? And do we really expect the Bible to be infallible about specific matters in the social, physical, and life sciences?
Three Related Problems
1) The Problem of Interpretation
Here, especially, is the problem of conservative evangelicals’ insistence on interpreting the Bible literally.
W.A. Criswell was one of the most prominent Southern Baptist pastors in the 20th century. He has been called “the patriarch of the ‘conservative resurgence’ among Southern Baptists.” Perhaps his best-known book is Why I Preach That the Bible is Literally True (1969).
In the third chapter of that book, Criswell (1909~2002) emphasizes that the Bible “is the Word of God, not merely contains it.” Then on the basis of 2 Timothy 3:16, Criswell asserts: “On the original parchment every sentence, word, line, mark, point, pen stroke, jot, and tittle were put there by inspiration of God.”
What does it mean, though, to say that the Bible is literally true? And how can one determine what is literally true and what is not? For example, what about the snake talking to Eve in the Garden of Eden? Did that literally happen? If so, how was it that a snake could talk? And what language was used?
2) The Problem of Selective Reading
To give just one example here, these days we hear a lot, especially from conservative evangelicals, about maintaining traditional marriage. But the biggest names of the Old Testament were polygamists—Abraham, Jacob, and David. Moreover, adultery was punishable by death.
The point, of course, is that “following the Bible” in maintaining “traditional marriage,” means following only selected parts of the Bible. There is no question but that even the staunchest fundamentalists are selective in the Bible passages they interpret as literally binding on Christians today.
3) The Problem of Changing Beliefs
If the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and Christians are supposed to believe in a literal interpretation of that Word, how can there be changes in what Christians say the Bible teaches?
In issue after issue, though, there have been changes, some of them quite dramatic. In the final part of Chapter Five, I write about changes in beliefs about the physical sciences, slavery, and even the proper dress for women.
So, while maintaining a high opinion of the Bible’s significance, I am fed up with fundamentalism’s view of the Bible for the reasons given above, among others.