Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals.

  • Carlos Bovell
  • Jan 7, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010
Book: Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals

Carlos R. Bovell, Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2007.  $21.00 Pap.  xi + 173 pp.  ISBN 10: 1-59752-861-7; 13: 978-1-59752-861-0.

This is a book written out of passion and deep hurt.  The author, a graduate of Westminster Seminary and graduate student in the history of philosophy, had in his educational experience exposure only to that brand of evangelical who both accepts inerrancy and sees it as so crucial a doctrine that its abandonment seems almost akin to apostasy or at least is believed to set one on a slippery slope to such unbelief.  Bovell, however, came to several convictions that he calls “recognitions” that made it impossible for him to accept a statement of faith based on inerrancy, like those of the Evangelical Theological Society and Evangelical Philosophy Society.  This created in him (and others he knows) such a crisis of faith that he now pleads for older evangelicals, particularly in positions of leadership in the church and the academy, to give their students more leeway in coming to their personal beliefs because their very spiritual formation is at stake.

Bovell’s first “recognition” is that “evangelical worldview philosophy is ‘corrupting’ our youths” (p. 15).  By this he appears to refer to the thoroughgoing presuppositionalism that he was probably taught at Westminster, whereby Christianity is commended as superior to other worldviews because it is the most coherent philosophical position, rather than by any evidentialism that allows one to start from common ground with those who do not share our worldviews.  Presuppositionalism does not adequately acknowledge the areas of incoherence (often masked with the label “mystery”) that remain at the heart of Christian faith (as in debates over the Trinity or the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility).

The second point involves the equivocation Bovell believes is inherent in the ETS/EPS statement that “the Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written and therefore inerrant in the autographs. “ He believes too little attention is paid to the interpretive traditions, ancient and modern, of both testaments, which make sola Scriptura a deceptive claim, not to mention the many questions surrounding the identification of an original text.  If the point of the doctrine is to help solve exegetical cruxes, it fails, as a detailed “discursus” on the debate over the ordination of women and the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 demonstrates.

Bovell’s third lament involves how tightly explanations of Scripture’s divine and human natures are based on analogies with Christ’s divine and human natures.  Errors, especially minor ones, are far different from sins, so Jesus’ sinlessness should not be used as an argument for why the Bible must be inerrant (or how it can be and still be human at the same time).

The fourth complaint, however, does argue from a doctrinal analogy, namely, Luther’s approach to the Eucharist.  Bovell’s principle is that “younger evangelicals can learn from an old controversy” (p. 83).  After discussing Luther’s understanding of consubstantiation as an alternative to both Roman Catholics’ transubstantiation and Zwingli’s more symbolic view, Bovell concludes that “the same anxiety that overtakes Luther at the thought of an Incarnate Christ not being present to him in the sacrament is very similar to that anxiety that seems to overwhelm evangelicals when they consider the thoughts of an inerrant Bible not being available to them” (p. 91). But if the anxiety was unnecessary for Luther, then it is unnecessary for evangelicals, too.

Fifth, “younger evangelicals need to see the openness of the canon” (p. 103).  Jews had not yet settled the canonical question in the first century with respect to what we call the Old Testament.  Christian use of the Septuagint, a translation of the more original Hebrew Scriptures, ascribes to it as much authority as it does to the MT, even when the LXX materially differs from the MT.  Jesus’ own approach is not to teach his disciples to memorize Scripture verbatim but to interpret it very creatively, just like the midrashic hermeneutics that the apostles themselves later use.

Finally, the dialectic between the canon of Scripture and the early church tradition during the Patristic period must not be underestimated.  Here Bovell focuses particularly on Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, with respect to the roles of apostolic tradition and the rule of faith (regula fidei).  Again, he insists we have to acknowledge there is no “ultimate” authority attributed (or attributable) to the Bible alone, only the Bible interpreted within traditions deemed acceptable by the Christian power brokers of one’s time and place.

Bovell has written an important book that deserves a wider and more sympathetic hearing than it has thus far received.  I am grateful that my seminary education at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the late 1970s, while strongly inerrantist, was also sufficiently nuanced in its definitions to allow for most of the valid observations Bovell makes about the nature of the text of Scripture and its interpretive contexts.  When I studied for my Ph.D. in the U.K., I experienced first-hand a significant segment of evangelicalism that typically does not use the term or concept of “inerrancy” and finds the debates surrounding it rather uniquely American.  In both contexts, I learned to tie my understanding of inerrancy and inspiration very closely to genre, a concept Bovell scarcely discusses at all.  For example, it means something quite different to call a proverb inerrant, when by definition a proverb is a pithy generalization about what is usually (but often not always) true, than it does to label a historical narrative without error.   Even in the latter instance, one has to ask what would have counted as an error by the historiographical standards of the day, not by out typically more precise modern conventions.  I learned in Scotland, in particular, to appreciate the contribution of Karl Barth and his followers, many of them Scottish Calvinists, who moved from classic continental liberalism to neo-orthodoxy—climbing up the slippery slope as it were—even if stopping just short of full-fledged evangelicalism.  Back in the U.S., I remember Don Carson commenting once about Harold Lindsell’s influential Battle for the Bible that argued for the inevitability of increasing doctrinal compromise once inerrancy was abandoned:  “Lindsell’s on the side of the angels, but it’s a bad, bad book!”

But I am also well aware of how some evangelicals, both in churches and seminaries, wield the doctrine of inerrancy in a heavy-handed way, sometimes entirely unintentionally but often less innocently.  In the early 1980s, Robert Gundry resigned from the ETS after severe criticism of his commentary on Matthew as a midrashic, sometimes unhistorical modification of Mark, even though he explicitly published a discussion of how his genre-based treatment did not conflict with inerrancy.  Much more recently, John Sanders was almost voted out of the society for his views on open theism, on the grounds that his views conflicted with inerrancy, even though he referred to passages all over Scripture in support of his view with even more conventional hermeneutical approaches.  Still, in both cases, a little over a third of the voting members, including most all of the society’s biblical scholars I most respect, dissented from these perspectives.  For a variety of reasons, systematic theologians and philosophers tend to get more “bent out of shape” on such issues than scholars who specialize in the original historical contexts of the different books of Scripture.  Would that Bovell had had the chance to experience their much more nuanced understandings of inerrancy and/or their willingness to grant colleagues the freedom to opt out of the ETS in favor of, say, the Institute of Biblical Research, without in any way challenging their otherwise impeccable evangelical credentials.  Would that there were considerably fewer ETS or EPS members who felt they had to behave otherwise.

My other major disappointment is not with Bovell’s unfortunate experiences but with his misleading dichotomy that pits older evangelicals against younger ones, as if younger ones have learned things they need to teach their teachers that we didn’t know.  There is not a point in Bovell’s book anywhere that I can see that I did not learn about in my formal theological studies that spanned 1973-82.  Conversely, I know a discouragingly large number of “fifty- and sixty-somethings” who are having crises of faith of various degrees precisely because they are now discovering some of what Bovell has learned at a younger age, in contexts that have not prepared them to deal with their discoveries any better than Bovell’s education apparently prepared him.  The issue involved here is not one of a generation gap but of when and how one is taught about the Bible.

There are more specific points I could contest here and there in Bovell’s book in terms of his representation of this or that issue, but that would be to distract unnecessarily from the important points he is making.  Instead, I encourage readers to take up his work, forgive a few overstatements and polemical comments here and there, and recognize the main points and pleas that he makes, which are crucial for our pedagogical and formational activity, in Christian schools, colleges, seminaries, churches, and parachurch organizations.

Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary
December 2009



Anna Fallohi


William Farris

I am very happy to see such a valid review of Bovell's position. Inerrancy is a reactionary concept to 18th century enlightenment thinking and 19th century liberalism that still inhibits clear-headed biblical studies. I think it stems from a lack of knowledge in literary theory and analysis which I have found to be phenomenally helpful in understanding the hermeneutic task. The hard, brittle approach of those professing the ETS definitions can crack with unexpected "stresses" that come from certain quarters of textual study, case in point being Bart Ehrman. Every time I see some History Channel presentation of some element of the Bible (last week it was gnostic gospels) I take comfort that there is so much on offer to counter or deflect many of their claims from knowing the nature of, say, orality, patristics, and Hebrew archaeology. I have found a new hero in the late Jaroslav Pelikan especially in his work "Whose Bible is it?" after having read Timothy George's eulogistic decree that he was the greatest church historian of the 20th century.

The main point is that the doctrine is beginning to outlive its usefulness given the many risks of equivocations and misunderstandings that it has engendered. I really appreciate the genre aspect that Dr. Blomberg brings out - again something derived from an understanding of simple literary device and categories. Is Job anymore an inerrant work than Hamlet? We must distinguish more on the basis of source and purpose and not necessarily on form, content, jots, and tittles. I guess that there is no other clear criteria for distinguishing liberals from conservatives other than by one's view of Scripture, something Bovell sees as having been formed in some by a bit of a misguided process. I agree.

Amory Ewerdt

I know this is an old review and I have not read the book. I just saw a post on Peter Enns blog by Carlos Bovell and from what he says there he seems to me to have a point. I have both an A.A and a B.A. in Biblical Studies from conservative schools and I think that while the actual doctrine of inerrancy is defined quite broadly in professional circles, the term itself, and the way it is understood by laypeople is rather unhelpful. I think that inerrancy is too strong of a word to use for this doctrine. I think the term can be misleading. Wouldn't it be more helpful to just talk about scripture's authority? There is much more room for nuance when we speak of it this way.