>[Yes, I changed the title of this post. The original title was too severe and could be misleading. It was not very pastoral in that this topic is a little more subtle than the average theological discussion and I do not think that I fully developed the necessary qualifiers and background material required to make this post be understood in the way I intended.]
I raised a few eyebrows with a comment I made in my review of Putting Jesus in His Place last week. As I was lamenting the amount of attention American evangelicals devote to secondary matters to the neglect of core doctrines such as the person and work of Christ, I mentioned biblical inerrancy as an example of a secondary issue. I’ll use this post to briefly clarify what I mean.
First of all, let me state that I am indebted to the work of Dan Wallace for helping me to think through this issue from a different angle. Our classroom discussions on the importance of maintaining a doctrinal taxonomy, the danger of a domino view of theology, and the inductive approach to biblical inerrancy were of great assistance to my thinking on this issue. Dr. Wallace outlined his views regarding these matters in response to a popular blog’s mischaracterization of his position last summer (in the comments section, not the post itself). His article can be found here. I highly recommend reading Dr. Wallace’s article in connection with this discussion.
I want to clarify what I mean by core doctrines and secondary doctrines. What did I have in mind when I spoke of core doctrines? Core doctrines are doctrines that are essential for salvation. I do not believe that this is the only way to identify and describe core doctrines but this is the framework I had in mind when I stated that inerrancy is a secondary doctrine rather than a core doctrine. Again, I believe this is a way to define “core” issues. It is not necessarily the only way.
In his article, Dr. Wallace divides doctrine into four useful categories:
1. What doctrines are essential for the life of the church?
2. What doctrines are important for the health of the church?
3. What doctrines are distinctives that are necessary for the practice of the local church?
4. What doctrines belong to the speculative realm or should never divide the church?
Dividing doctrines among these four categories is much more helpful than simply attempting to distinguish between “core” and “secondary” as I did in my review. Elaborating beyond “core” and “secondary” would have distracted from the review of the book.
Doctrines such as the incarnation, deity and bodily resurrection of Christ are doctrines essential for the life of the church. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy would be a doctrine that is important for the health of the church but not essential for the life of the church. Why? Because acceptance of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not essential for salvation.
When I say that inerrancy is not essential, I do not mean to imply that inerrancy is unimportant or falls under the same level of importance as the two other secondary matters I mentioned, end-times matters and church growth strategies. I hold to biblical inerrancy and think that it is a very important issue. I do not mean to say that the research, writing, debates and discussions that have been devoted to biblical inerrancy in the past few decades were a waste of time because I do not believe that. I do believe, however, that we have not been giving core, Christological doctrines the attention they deserve. This was the primary point of that section of the review. Surely some of the attention we have devoted to end-times issues, church growth strategies and, yes, biblical inerrancy could have been devoted to issues such as the deity of Christ, the historical Jesus, the doctrine of God, or the Trinity. That being said, I understand that it is perfectly possible to devote resources to all of the above without the one taking anything away from the other.
While I do not believe that inerrancy is a core doctrine in the way I have described “core doctrines” above, I do believe that a high view of Scripture is vital. It is true that what we know today of Christ and the Gospel we know because of Scripture. Even if a person were converted upon hearing the Gospel apart from ever reading Scripture, the content of the Gospel message proclaimed to them was derived from Scripture (unless the evangelist is among a long line of Christians who have perserved an oral tradition apart from Scripture!). It is significant to note that early Christians did not possess a completed canon and the Gospel spread far and wide.
This does not mean that inerrancy is essential to salvation, however. It is not necessary to presuppose an inerrant Scripture in order for the biblical author’s writing to be considered trustworthy. We can approach the issue of inerrancy inductively by viewing the Bible as a historically reliable document rather than presupposing its inspiration. I’ll stop there for now.
To be continued…
I highly recommend giving particular attention to two sections of Dan Wallace’s aforementioned article, My Take on Inerrancy. Those two sections are “Inductive vs. Deductive Approaches to Inerrancy” and the section that follows immediately after it, “Christological Grounds for a High Bibliology.”