The cocoon of Christian inerrancy

I have recently been reading a book which is an attack on Peter Wagner and his ideas about Satanic warfare. These ideas, popular in the so-called New Apostolic Reformation, suppose that Christians need prayerfully to resist Satan’s attack on institutions and places. Although I agreed with the book’s basic distaste for what is technically known as Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare, I found most of the approach in the book completely alien to my thinking. The reason for my failure to engage with the way the book is argued, is that the author declares that his whole thesis is built on an initial assumption that the Bible is the inerrant word of God.

This assumption that all truth is subservient to that found in Scripture is common and widely shared across the Protestant world. Thus, if the Bible appears to make a factual or historical claim, this statement will always trump any other version of truth put forward by mainstream scholars or scientists. Those who do not use the Bible in this conservative way will be written off by those who do as being faithless or having surrendered to the demon of secular liberalism. This is a given approach for virtually all those who write the popular literature within the non-denominational Protestant orbit. Tens of thousands of books appear each year to satisfy this vast market. I began to consider the implications of this assumption and whether it is even possible to write adequate theology when strapped into this straight-jacket. I was realising how much it would distort my writing and thinking if I assumed that there was always somewhere a correct biblical approach for every topic that I might wish to reflect upon. In the case of the book I was reading the constant tedious trawling for suitable Bible quotes to forward his particular thesis made it extremely dull. No doubt within his own mind the author had proved to his satisfaction (and the doctoral examiners of the Oral Roberts University!) that demons do not take over people and places. To summarise, the way the arguments were presented was neither convincing nor scholarly. Nevertheless, a review of a vast swathe of obscure American literature in the work on the topic had some value.

We have noted in previous blogs the popularity of ideas which circulate in the conservative Christian world about the need for people of faith to stand up to satanic opposition. Much of this thinking is set in the context of a belief in an imminent Second Coming of Christ. These ideas have been successfully popularised in the novels by Tim LaHaye and are collectively known as the Left Behind series. These fictional accounts set out the events of the End Times when born-again Christians are snatched up from a suffering world. The rest of humanity is left to suffer from many afflictions which are set out in the Book of Revelation. Even though the novels are fiction they have become part of the belief system for many conservative Christians. Fiction has effectively turned into fact as far as many of them are concerned.

The book on spiritual warfare, with which I began this post, does not tolerate the wild vagaries of apocalyptic fantasy. But the author nevertheless uses similar methods of argument to those he is opposing. It is assumed by both parties that Scripture, if interpreted ‘correctly’ will provide the right answers to the questions under discussion. The author seeks a kind of objectivity through his grounding his arguments in suitable biblical quotations. This method is of course flawed, as we know that, from the countless methods of interpreting Scripture, there are almost as many ways of reading the Bible as there are readers. Within the vast swathes of popular conservative Christian literature, there is never an attempt to appeal to alternative source of truth, such as philosophy, science or logic. Conservative theology is a thus tied into a closed and circular system of discussion. It will never usually admit the relevance of the contemporary insights of such topics as post-modernism or Darwinism. All such have been judged and found wanting measured against the truths that are believed to be found in Holy Scripture.

It is in fact very hard to read most of this conservative Christian literature. It is not just that these Christian writers normally fail to engage with the wider corpus of Western knowledge, science, history, psychology and all the humanities. It is, to repeat, that their version of truth is defined incredibly narrowly. While the conservative Christian scholar may recognise the value of modern technology, a topic like the philosophy of science will be a closed book. Science itself is normally a highly self-critical discipline. It is much more about testing hypotheses than about establishing eternal truths. It will always be difficult or impossible for practitioners of these other disciplines to establish enough common ground for a productive discussion with a conservative Christian. Having rejected all forms of truth when they appear to contradict the text of Scripture, the Christian has created a cocoon where dialogue with the outside is neither sought nor welcomed.

A further problem that I have is that I believe that there are many moral issues where no perfect black/white position exists. Moral decision-making is for me an inexact science. Not only are there contextual factors which affect our judgements about each moral situation, but I also shrink from believing that moral teaching can ever fit into a propositional straitjacket. Like everyone else I would love it if there were simple clear answers being given us for the task for living but the reality is quite different. One of my tasks as a clergyman was to help people to engage with something I call moral reasoning. This is not the same as moral teaching. Such reasoning may help the individual find the answer for him/herself in facing a moral dilemma. This approach would not of course make a conservative Christian happy. For him/her all moral issues are clearly laid out unambiguously in the words of Scripture. I happen to believe that any assumption that the Bible is always clear in its moral teaching is in fact doing violence to the text of Scripture. Very often I also detect a political motivation when certain forms of behaviour are declared to be always wrong. The task of developing an active reliable conscience/moral reasoning will require various skills. It will demand the exercise of reason, the guidance of others and a dialogue with our inner self. A conscience which operates merely by obeying another person in authority is hardly conscience at all.

The discovery of truth is never going to be an easy one. Truth certainly does not fall out of heaven in a few carefully selected passages of Scripture. Such an assumption does not do justice to the nature of Scripture nor does it engage with the modern world in which we live. I cannot believe that we are called to choose between Scripture and the exercise of our education and our cultural reasoning. Closing down this reasoning as well as our participation in our 21st century world is not an option for my understanding of Christianity. My Bible may contain truth but to find it I needed all the resources of my culture and my education. God can be found and is found in and through the world in which we live. The fact that he is not always constantly in focus does not make our search for him any the less valuable.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

2 thoughts on “The cocoon of Christian inerrancy

  1. It is clear that certain churches impress on their congregations the importance of finding all their answers to problems in the Bible. I found what you wrote in your blog today very reassuring. It’s tricky as sometimes doing what we think is the ‘right’ thing is sometimes the easier way.

  2. Such fun! No seriously, you do make a good point Stephen. Truth is hard to come by in any situation, to my mind. Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty at one end of the spectrum, and evidence given in the law court spring to mind at the other. (“The first witness is believed until the second witness stands up to speak.” It’s in the book of Proverbs somewhere, but I don’t have time to look just now.)
    One related point is the use of the phrase “Christian book.” I think this phrase should be reserved for any and every book written by Jesus of Nazareth, which as far as I know numbers nil. The same goes for Christian song. There is no such thing to my mind, unless you are going to appeal to the phrase “when they had sung a hymn” (they went out to the mount of Olives. This phrase is a single word in the Greek, and so constitutes perhaps one ten thousandth part of the gospel record, but to hear people talk, you would think that the main thine Jesus came to do was to get people singing! And so called Christian books are nothing of the sort, and any implicit claim to truth should be treated with caution.

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