Biblical Inerrancy: Al Mohler and the Classical View of Inerrancy

{This is the second post in a series on the book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. ed. J. Merrick, S. Garrett, and S. Gundry. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013. See the first post here.}

{Disclaimer: I’m using the Kindle Edition of Five Views, which uses “locations” rather than page numbers, so my citations will be noted accordingly.}

null.jpg_174Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, opened the discussion on inerrancy with his essay, “When the Bible Speaks, God Speaks: The Classic Doctrine on Inerrancy.”

The thrust of his argument is that The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) must be accepted in its entirety for one to be faithful to Scripture and to Evangelicalism. Mohler vehemently rejects any nuanced definition of “inerrancy.” Paraphrasing the CSBI he states, “The CSBI makes the claim that the authority of Scripture is ‘inescapably impaired’ if the total truthfulness of the Bible is ‘in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own’” (Loc 508).

Consequently, any scientific or historical discoveries that bring biblical statements into question must be firmly rejected.

In congruence with the CSBI (Article XII), Mohler states,

“…I do not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness of any text in all that the text asserts and claims. That statement may appear radical to some readers, but it is the only position that is fully compatible with the claim that every word of Scripture is fully inspired and thus fully true and trustworthy” (Bold mine) (Loc 766).

In the following statement we see Mohler’s passion and fear for the collapse of evangelicalism, should it reject his view of inerrancy:

“This is not an issue of homiletical theory but a life-and-death question of whether the preacher has a distinctive and authoritative Word to preach to people desperately in need of direction and guidance” (Loc 424).

According to Mohler, if the Bible contains any statement that does not correspond to reality, then it holds absolutely no authority and must be entirely rejected as God’s Word. The logic runs thusly: God cannot lie; he only speaks truth. The Bible is God’s Word. Therefore, the Bible contains only truth. Mohler Quotes J. M. Boice, saying, “If the Bible contains errors it is not God’s Word itself, however reliable it may be. And if it is not God’s Word, it cannot be preached with authority” (Loc 618).

Dealing with the Problem Texts

Mohler’s unashamed a priori approach to the “problem texts” (see previous post) is that, “Any problem with our understanding…lies in our interpretation and not in the texts themselves” (Loc 795).

The first text in question is the historicity of the conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6. Mohler acknowledges that many archeologists agree that the land of Jericho was unoccupied, or at least sparsely occupied, and it was certainly not walled during the time of Joshua. Though, Peter Enns responds that Mohler either understates or is not aware of his own dilemma: “There is, in fact, no serious dispute among archeologists about whether Joshua 6 gives what we would call an ‘accurate’ account of Jericho (let alone inerrant)” (Loc 923).

However, Mohler cites John M. Monson in a fairly reasonable critique that archeology is a young field of science—even older fields are subject to massive shifts in conclusions as new evidence is brought to light. Pair this with his a priori posture that no history or science can contradict Scripture, and Mohler is perfectly comfortable rejecting any sort of claims, no matter how conclusive the “facts” or vast the consensus.

Unfortunately, in regard to the conflicting accounts of Saul’s conversion, Mohler fails to address the issue presented by the editors. In Acts 9 the text states that those around Saul heard the voice. In Acts 22 it states that the others did not hear the voice. (Modern translations hide this discrepancy by changing “they did not hear” to “they did not understand.”) Mohler merely addresses the question of who did or did not see, which is not a point of conflict for anyone in this debate.

Next, Mohler deals with the difference between Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5 in which Christ appears to set himself against the Law by declaring the immorality of violence and war, in spite of the fact that God incited the genocide of the Canaanites. Mohler begins by listing a handful of theologians who understand the Old Testament to be either an incomplete picture of God which Jesus completes or an ill-informed view of God that Jesus ultimately corrects. With a brush the size of Texas he implicates them all as Marcionitic heretics.

Mohler rejects any idea that the OT portraits of God are difficult to reconcile with the person and work of Jesus. In his view, the Canaanite genocide merely serves as a reminder that we all deserve to die anyway. He then appeals to the fact that Revelation reveals Christ as one who will judge, “in a comprehensive display that goes far beyond anything found in Deuteronomy 6, or any other Old Testament passage for that matter” (Loc 868).

A Response

Mohler’s essay clearly revealed his desire for all evangelicals to acknowledge the authority of Scripture. He is passionate about preserving a strong, unapologetic faith in God’s word. However, good intentions and noble passion do not make up for the way in which he handled the issue. Rather than extend a hand of fellowship to those who disagree, Mohler condescends and makes bold assumptions concerning his brothers and sisters who hold a different view. He is unable to recognize that, while he may disagree with their conclusions, those with different conclusions on inerrancy can still hold a strong faith in Scripture and in the work of Christ.

Mohler receives consistent criticism from the other four contributors in the series that his view of inerrancy is not at all the “classical” view, as he calls it. While some of them admit that some form of inerrancy has been accepted (though, without that label) since the apostles, all deny that it functioned as Mohler asserts. Michael Bird, who brings an international perspective on “inerrancy,” points out that our forefathers—from Origen to Calvin—would not (and did not) frame their view of Scripture as Mohler did. His argument begins to fall apart from the title.

What is more troubling is that he seems to create an unnecessary tension between the intellect and faith, as if one must choose which side to follow. It is commendable in Mohler’s view to commit logical suicide in favor of accepting his version of inerrancy. God tells us we must have faith, so we must abandon logic. Of course, it appears spiritual to say, “I believe God over men!” But, this attitude implies that anyone who does not agree with his view has rejected God himself. Why must we believe that there is always a contradiction between what man has discovered and what Scripture reveals? Why can we not—as believers have done for literally thousands of years—believe that God spoke to ancient people in ancient ways and that (as Origen, Chrysostom, Calvin, and others admitted) the Bible isn’t concerned with providing consistent facts about history or science, but about the character of God and redemption of man. Sure, it means that we must do a little more work to catch what God was doing in some cases, but then again, we do have the indwelling Holy Spirit to teach us and they didn’t.

Peter Enns’ response exposes some of the emotional appeals and rhetorical devices Mohler uses in his essay. There is no more apt way to describe the essay than Enns’ statement: “He does not actually deal with the nature of Scripture on anything beyond a simplistic level, and he wields his view as a sword against those who disagree” (bold mine) (Loc (887).

Indeed, Mohler views any attempt to redefine “inerrancy” as an attack on the authority of Scripture. Any denomination or institution that would prefer not to use the word in a statement of faith is capitulating to culture and contributing to the imminent destruction of evangelicalism. “Inerrancy” (as defined by his interpretation of the CSBI) is the DNA of evangelicalism. (Though, Bird’s response proves that argument false: most evangelicals outside of the USA do not speak of Scripture in this way.)

Therein lies the weak link in Mohler’s armor: more than a desire to discuss what Scripture is and how it functions, Mohler seems to be more concerned with preserving a certain identity of evangelicalism.

He uses the CSBI as a way to determine who is “in” and who is “out” of what he considers faithful, evangelical Christianity. He is quick to shut out any conversation with others, flaunting the idea that—despite the millions of faithful believers who can prove otherwise—his “is the only position that is fully compatible with the claim that every word of Scripture is fully inspired and thus fully true and trustworthy” (766).

Perhaps Mohler is right that evangelicalism is on its last leg, but it isn’t because of some conspiracy to use the word “infallible” rather than “inerrant” so that we can deny the authority of Scripture. It is because the circle around “evangelicalism” is getting smaller and smaller until there will be room for no one.


8 responses to “Biblical Inerrancy: Al Mohler and the Classical View of Inerrancy

  1. Two comments:
    a) I think, Joshua Johnson, that saying that Paul (the one who was part of the whole ordeal) made the mistake and not Luke (the second hand writer) is rather unlikely. But, of course, if you assume a strict inerrantist view of the Bible, you have to go with what could have happened rather than what is most likely.

    b) One question that hasn’t been addressed by Mohler (and the others, I assume) is the pluriformity of the Old Testament (and even New Testament texts). The question is not just “which books should be in the Bible” which I don’t think that Protestants can adequately answer authoritatively, but “which text”. Even during Jesus’ day, the various books of the Old Testament had different text forms. How can anyone even begin to talk about inerrancy when the texts used by Jesus and his successors didn’t all use the same text? Is the Hebrew text authoritative? Or the Greek? And how can someone like Mohler talk about inerrancy the way he does if he doesn’t have access to the original text? But as others have pointed out, people throughout the history of the church have not really been too bothered by all this. A book you may find interesting in this vein is Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period by Richard Longenecker.

  2. Almost all Christian doctrines are based on the New Testament of the Bible. But, how do Christians know that these 27 books are the inerrant, inspired words of God, as Christians tell us?

    Answer: A bunch of fallible, scientifically illiterate Churchmen in the second, third, and fourth centuries said so! That’s it!

    When and where did God say that a bunch of old Churchmen have the authority to determine what is and what is not his Word? When and where did God say that Saul/Paul of Tarsus was speaking on his behalf? Or the writers of the Gospels? Or James? Or Peter? Or any other writer of the New Testament? Even if the apostles themselves had voted unanimously for the 27 books of the current New Testament to be designated as the “Word of God”, that still would not prove that God had authorized them to do so. We have no evidence that the Eleven achieved a state of perfection and omniscience on Pentecost. They, like every other human being, were fallible. So where is the evidence that God left a list of what should and what should not be considered his Word in a new testament?

    Answer: No where!

    We have no evidence from the Bible or anywhere else that God gave Christians a list of what is and what is not his Word! Christians have created an “inerrant, inspired, you-are-damned-to-Hell-if-you-don’t-believe-it” Holy Book based solely on the opinions of men living almost 2,000 years ago.

    Bombshell: Christians have zero evidence that proves the New Testament of the Bible to be the Word of God; the inerrant message of the Creator of the Universe to mankind. Zero!

  3. I read all six posts and I believe that, in reference to the Acts discrepancy, all five theologians miss the point.

    The point is that Acts 9 and Acts 22 record Paul’s words. Who ever said that Paul had to be correct one hundred percent of the time? Paul contradicted himself. Who cares? The fact that Paul spoke a contradiction does not discredit Scripture in any way.

    These Scripture passages, in this case written by Luke, are still true because they simply record what Paul said. If Luke had been narrating the events and then contradicted himself (that is, if the Scripture itself made a contradiction), then that would be a problem for us to solve. But as it is, Luke simply records what Paul said. No discrepancy.

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