I appreciate Adam Greenway’s call for integrity, commitment and cooperation among Southern Baptists. His call for belief in inerrancy, not so much.
I am his sister in Baptist faith, but not Southern Baptist faith. I was part of the Southern Baptist Convention and was a student at the Southern Baptist seminary in Louisville, Ky., when the conservatives “surged” against it—and against me as a woman student in the Master of Divinity program.
I left the SBC when the “conservative resurgence” was complete, because I had seen conservatives use inerrancy as a club against faithful scholarship, generally, and against women answering God’s call to ministry, especially.
Inerrancy supplanted a traditional high view of Scripture in service of a denominational power grab that all but destroyed the extensive, varied and cooperative system of education generations of Southern Baptists worked hard and sacrificed to create and maintain.
The resurgence damaged the careers of my teachers, my colleagues, my friends. It has left a lasting scar on the SBC, whose reputation has been diminished ever since. More importantly, it hindered God’s work through the SBC, both within its member churches and in its outreach to the world.
Apart from the effects of the resurgence, though, what are the problems with the inerrancy doctrine itself?
Problems with inerrancy
A “high view” of Scripture uses Scripture’s own self-description: inspired, and useful for teaching and correction (2 Timothy 3:16). The original Baptist Faith and Message described it as authoritative in matters of faith and practice.
The Bible is not a science book, or a history book, or an ethics text, or a “biography” of Jesus of Nazareth. None of those genres of writing existed then. It is an inspired testament of faith in God—in the New Testament, faith in Jesus Christ the Lord. Christian Scripture bears witness to the Incarnate Word of God and does not claim its own perfection.
The 1980s version of “inerrancy” claimed perfect inspiration—God-breathed dictation—for the original manuscripts, which no one has seen in centuries and presumably no longer exist. It is meaningless for faith and practice today, when we cannot have any direct knowledge of those texts. All we have are less-than-perfect translations of less-than-perfect copies of copies of copies. The central tenet of inerrancy is an implicit lie, which renders the doctrine false.
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The doctrine of inerrancy ignores the practical truth that no translation is ever a perfect one-to-one correspondence with its original.
We are taught the biblical Greek word “agape” means love, but it doesn’t. It means “agape.” “Agape” is a word with its own history, connotations and shades of meaning that speakers of English never will understand fully. We translate it, with reasonable accuracy, to the word “love,” which also has history, connotations and shades of meaning.
In every language, readers bring their own experience to the concept, whatever word-equivalent is used; it has as many histories as there are grains of sand by the sea. God understands and speaks through each one of those words to those who are willing to hear.
Inerrancy further ignores how context matters for the way we understand words, events and stories. We cannot fully grasp Scripture’s original meaning, because we do not live in a first century world—and we should not try to.
We are called to live and be faithful here and now, with whatever light we are given. We must acknowledge human beings do not know everything there is to know about God’s message to us. Much less will human words ever express perfectly the mind of God.
Inerrancy and Baptist principles
Inerrancy violates the foundational Baptist principles of soul competency and freedom of conscience, turning the book into a rigid intermediary standing between God and the believer, rather than a means of grace through which the Holy Spirit speaks.
Every soul must be free to hear God’s voice without the constraint of a predetermined one-size-fits-all concept of what God is allowed to say. Sometimes God is speaking a new word. In our time God has been saying, “Daughter, I am calling you to preach and pastor.”
Each soul must be free to hear and respond as God speaks to each, even though all our responses always are imperfect. We all stand in, and in need of, grace.
Jesus asks obedience, not to every jot and title, but to the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faithfulness. God writes on our hearts, not on the pages of our books.
Rachel Tedards Keeney is a retired church secretary and a 1984 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree in Christian education. The views expressed are those solely of the author.