Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Still Fed Up with Fundamentalism's View of the Bible

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.


  1. There are so many problems with believing the Bible is literally true, it's hard to know where to begin. I have had occasion to point out to students that -- as finite human beings -- it doesn't matter what we believe about the Bible's infallibility, we cannot avoid interpretation, and unless you want to claim your interpretation is also infallible, it is conditioned by cultural and historical circumstances of a fallen world. Feinberg's inclusion of the phrase "properly interpreted" is telling and gives away the game. "Properly interpreted" can only mean according to some extra-biblical set of hermeneutic principles and viewpoint (doctrine) that are, again, conditioned by historical and cultural developments. "Bibliolatry" is an appropriate label for the fundamentalist approach to the Bible, although, I suppose, that term could cover others as well.

  2. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Anton.

    Yes, "bibliolatry" is an appropriate term, and one that has long been used in this regard. As I wrote on page 8 of "Fed Up with Fundamentalism" (2007): Charles A. Briggs (1841~1913) "charged traditionalism with bibliolatry, that is, idolatrous worship of the Bible, and he attacked 'the dogma of verbal inspiration.' Further, Briggs maintained that the idea of the Bible being inerrant is false, declaring that the Bible itself 'nowhere makes the claim that it is inerrant.'"

  3. The traditional Church handles the topic much more easily. "The Word of God" - nothing else needed to modify or describe it. They point to the Apostle Peter as he said "Holy men of old, moved by the Holy Spirit, spoke from God." The tradtional Church ascribes much the same to the writers of the New Testament canon.

    Selective reading has been a problem for a very long time, across the spectrum, and changing beliefs - especially in the west - but heresies date back to the early days (Arianism, Marcionism, Gnosticism, and several others, even in New Testament times). But since about 800, the -isms have only increased, especially in the west, and multiplied with the Reformation, and gone exponential in the US (across the spectrum). The cultic "inspired" writings being the new additions - not the least was "The Divine Principle" accepted only by the Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity as given by Rev Sun Myung Moon. (I have misplaced my copy.)

    Looking at it now, I go back to the traditional Church (Orthodox- Eastern and Oriental). But even they have variant canons of the Word of God - the Ethiopians being the most inclusive. (The Marcionites were the most exclusive.) It's and interesting topic to study - including the Jewish canon.

    1. This blog article is primarily about belief in the inerrancy of the Bible, which was not talked about in those terms until after the declaration of papal infallibility at Vatican I in 1870. Thus, some have referred to Protestants having a "paper Pope." And for the Fundamentalists of the 20th century (and most conservative evangelicals today) the inerrant Bible refers only to the 66 books recognized by Protestants as the "Holy Bible."

    2. Just an outside-the-western-Christian-box perspective. I have also met those who state of the KJV, "If it was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for me" - they really do exist; and those who do actually worship the Holy Bible (the Logos), which is just as much Deity as Jesus Christ (the Logos). But then I have also met those "Christians" who give no veneration to the Bible since it is just a fabled history written by gullible and fallible men, of myths which could not possibly have happened - including the Jesus Christ myths. Both sides have serious issues. I'll stick with the traditional Church's historic view of the Word of God. The orthodox and Hasidic Jews I know believe similarly to St Peter's proclamation.

      Many evangelical churches list the holy scriptures first in their "creed" of beliefs. Sadly our local church recently moved the Scriptures to the first position in their "creed" before God Himself - but the new leadership has changed dramatically toward a more Reformed theology. Interestingly, their newest "elder" is more traditional in belief. I wonder if he will last. The west just has issues across the board with novel doctrines - not just "Protestants", but they have certainly perfected the art.

    3. The Bible may correctly be seen as the "logos," but only Jesus Christ is the "Logos." That difference is quite important, I think--and is that which keeps us from bibliolatry, as mentioned above.

      Also, with reference to the last part of your first paragraph, the fifth chapter of my book "The Limits of Liberalism" is titled "The Limits of Liberalism's Understanding of the Bible."

  4. Yesterday, local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet sent me the following comment by email:

    "Is the Bible literally true? But what Fundamentalist thinks, when Jesus is called 'the lamb of God,' Agnus Dei, that Jesus bleats or looks like 'Ovis aries.' O, Leroy, the contortions the Fundamentalists go through!"

  5. And then yesterday, Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shared these pertinent comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for sharing parts of chapter five.

    "It is sad that the Christian faith of so many people depends on the idea that the Bible is literally free of errors. The Bible is a complex collection of writings with different perspectives, some internal contradictions, various literary genres, and historical errors, but none of those problems is ultimately critical to the basic or traditional beliefs underlying Christian faith.

    "Does the fact that the Gospel John dates the crucifixion of Jesus on the Day of Preparation (Nisan 14) whereas the Synoptic Gospels date Jesus' crucifixion on the next day (Nisan 15) mean that Jesus was never crucified at all? Of course not. Regardless of the disagreement, the crucifixion of Jesus can be accepted as an historical fact.

    "The Bible is a witness to the events underlying Christian faith, something with its own dynamic. One should remember that it was the faith of Church that ultimately defined the Bible, not the other way around."

    1. Thanks for your pertinent comments, Eric.

      Your final sentence is important for all to realize: the great growth of Christianity in the first two centuries after Christ was before there was a New Testament Bible as such. As you intimated, it was the Church that produced the Bible, not the Bible which produced the Church.

  6. John R. King posted lengthy comments on Facebook (after I posted a link to this blog article there) regarding the matter of inerrancy. He began,

    "Is the Bible inerrant? Why would one even ask that question? The reason the question is raised is because many Christians in the United States make the claim that the Bible is inerrant. Some of these Christians are repeating what they have been taught without much thought or investigation. Others have very sophisticated reasoning behind their claim that the Bible is inerrant. One example is 'The Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy.' Many support the idea of inerrancy because they feel that to deny inerrancy or describe the Bible as having errors is an attack on or repudiation of the Bible. Since they revere, respect, and value the Bible, they affirm 'inerrancy' possibly for a lack of an alternate description. However, the answer is 'No, the Bible is not inerrant.' There are three good reasons why it is not."

    John then wrote three long paragraphs about those three reasons: the view of inerrancy is misleading, irrelevant, and inappropriate.

    And then he concludes: "'Inerrant' [is] a very misleading, irrelevant, and inappropriate description that seems to imply a pedestrian and low view of Scripture.

  7. I wonder if we lose something by focusing too narrowly on recent fundamentalism. Ever since Constantine embraced Christianity as official Roman religion, there has been a tension between a flat, literal orthodox reading of the Bible and the more nuanced readings of other Christians. Orthodox bishops such as St. Augustine found themselves frequently trying to enforce orthodoxy in communities where the vast majority of Christians were viewed as heretics. Imperial Christianity has never been comfortable with thinking Christians.