The "All or Nothing" Syndrome with Biblical Imprecision
May 06, 2009 by Craig Blomberg | 14 Comments
In the late seventies' "battle for the Bible," pitting inerrantists against others with a high view of Scripture but who stopped just short of belief in inerrancy, a common argument featured "the slippery slope." Give up inerrancy, it was alleged, and at first you may rest content with just minor historical or scientific errors in Scripture, but soon you'll be questioning the theology and ethics of the Bible as well. Next you'll doubt some of the fundamentals of the faith, and finally you'll chuck Christianity altogether.
There were, of course, numerous examples of people and institutions doing precisely this, which made the case persuasive to many. What was ignored was the long-standing rejection of inerrancy in the former British commonwealth, combined with a robust affirmation of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and the fundamentals of the faith in evangelical circles in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, Canada, etc. Ignored also were those who had "climbed back up" part or all of the slippery slope, most notably Karl Barth and neo-orthodoxy, moving from thoroughgoing liberalism to something much closer to though not quite full-fledged evangelical thought.
I remember once talking to D. A. Carson when I was his student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School about the consummate published version of this slippery slope argument, by Harold Lindsell, in his book The Battle for the Bible. I think I can still quote him verbatim. Carson replied, "Lindsell is on the side of the angels, but it's a bad, bad book." Human responses are just too diverse to package them into a "one-size-fits-all" model with respect to the apparent contradictions in and harder-to-accept parts of Scripture.
Ironically, Bart Ehrman's account of his pilgrimage from evangelicalism to agnosticism, in his introduction to Misquoting Jesus, offers support for Lindsell and his followers. On one occasion a professor at Princeton, responding to a paper Ehrman wrote trying to harmonize Mark's reference to Abiathar in Mark 2:26 with the OT character in question (Ahimelech), inquired of Ehrman why he didn't just accept that Mark made a mistake. Already well aware of the fact that we do not have the original autographs of any of the books of the Bible, and that minor (and once in a great while, larger) changes were introduced by scribes in the copying process, Ehrman now felt free to apply the same language of "mistakes" to what the writers of those autographs themselves may have done. Oversimplifying the rest of his autobiography, but remaining true to its gist, we may then summarize what he says happened after that as one domino of his faith after another being knocked down until he came to call himself an agnostic.
Why do I call this ironic? Because when I was an undergraduate in a liberal college department of religion, it was all the liberals who consistently pooh-poohed this all-or-nothing mentality. The professors at that institution hold the same view today. Plenty of professors at Princeton when Ehrman was a student there, and again still today, would have agreed. It was always those rigid, inflexible fundamentalists who couldn't see the many viable options for genuine Christian belief apart from the inerrancy of Scripture. But then Ehrman went to a fairly rigid, inflexible fundamentalist school for his undergraduate studies, so perhaps he had not previously heard those claims; I don't know.
What I do know is that in the blogworld, among the so-called new atheists (by which is usually meant newly aggressive, unusually scornful of and discourteous toward believers), and in their small but influential collection of published works (particularly from Prometheus books), I keep running into this same all-or-nothing mentality. I get e-mails from unbelievers who can't accept this idea that ancient writers were satisfied with reporting accurately the "gist" of someone's words, in a world before the invention of the quotation mark or any felt-need for it, and it reminds me of Christian fundamentalists' responses. I have non-Christian friends tell me they've read some strange uses of the Old Testament in the New (who hasn't?) and before they even start looking to see if there is some legitimate explanation for this, they say they are almost ready to give up on considering that the Bible as reliable anywhere. As many observers in other realms have pointed out, truly there is a fundamentalism of the left as well as of the right!
If trends continue, thoughtful inerrantists may discover they have greater allies in non-inerrantist wings of Christianity than they thought, and that they have far more in common with them than they do with those who hold the "all-or-nothing" mentality outside or inside the church!