ReThink everything you thought you Knew

A Dialogue with Derek Flood: Is the Bible Infallible?

I’m happy to see that Derek Flood has responded to my four part review of his book, Disarming Scripture. His response—and, I trust, this reply to his response—models how kingdom people can strongly disagree on issues without becoming acrimonious. And I am in full agreement with Derek that our shared conviction regarding the centrality of enemy-loving non-violence in Jesus’ revelation of God and our shared kingdom ethic is far more significant than any of our disagreements.

At the same time, while I don’t want my critique to overshadow the many insights I find in Derek’s book, I must be forthright in acknowledging certain fundamental disagreements, especially over the doctrine of biblical infallibility. While Derek thinks our disagreement is merely verbal—viz. whether we should or should not try to “redefine and redeem the word ‘infallible,’” I believe we are debating a matter on which a great deal hangs, which is why I’m rather passionate about this topic.[1] It is this disagreement that I would like to address, and I’ll do this by raising four points, the first two of which I will address today and tomorrow’s post will address the final two.

Jesus’ High View of Scripture

First, as I noted in my review of Disarming Scripture, the primary reason I feel compelled to affirm biblical infallibility is because I’m convinced this was the view of Jesus, and I have good reason to believe he is the Son of God. Yes, Jesus placed his authority over Scripture and thus declared some Scripture to be rendered obsolete with his coming (e.g. Mt 5:38-9, 43-5). And yes, Jesus rejected the legalistic and harmful way some of his contemporaries interpreted and applied Scripture. But while Derek often says Jesus and/or Paul rejected harmful interpretations of Scripture, he also often claims that Jesus and/or Paul rejected passages of Scripture that they deemed harmful (e.g. 42-4, 69) and that we should do the same.[2] I grant the former, but cannot grant the latter.

As I argued in my review, by their explicit statements about Scripture as well as by the manner in which they refer to Scripture, Jesus and Paul (as well as other NT authors) make it clear that they shared the general view of their Jewish contemporaries that every word of Scripture was “breathed by God.” And, perhaps most significantly, Jesus references passages that contain divine violence with the same confidence he references other Scripture (e.g. Mt 10:15; 11:23-4; 24:37-8).   Surprisingly, neither in his book nor in his response to my review did Flood interact with this material. From my perspective, a consistently Christocentric theological and hermeneutical orientation mandates that our understanding of biblical authority and inspiration be grounded in Christ.

It is primarily because of the perspective of Jesus and the NT authors regarding Scripture that theologians within the historic-orthodox church have always confessed that Scripture is “infallible” or “inerrant.” While the distinction between “infallibility” and “inerrancy” only arose in the wake of the modernist/fundamentalist debates, as Derek notes, I’m afraid he is mistaken when he argues that this word originated in these debates. The fact of the matter is that the word and/or the concept of “infallibility” has been applied to Scripture throughout church history.[3] And it is precisely because this doctrine is so firmly rooted in the authority of Jesus as well as the church tradition that I believe we should be exceedingly cautious about abandoning it. Indeed, a primary impetus behind my review of Derek’s book as well as behind the writing of my forthcoming book The Crucifixion of the Warrior God is that I’m concerned that many who are currently waking up to the centrality of enemy-loving non-violence in Jesus’ revelation of God are assuming that this revelation requires them to abandon this doctrine if they are going to renounce the surface meaning of the OT’s unChrist-like portraits of God.

The Doctrine of Biblical Infallibility

A central part of the problem, as I see it, is that Derek mistakenly assumes that “[a]ffirming infallibility means you can therefore take what Scripture says as authoritative and apply it to your life.” “That sounds good,” he says, “but what do we do with texts that promote things like slavery?” And he continues;

… today some conservatives maintain that if the Bible says that women should submit under men, then that is the final word on the matter. This is how the doctrine of infallibility … is understood and applied by conservative Evangelicals, both from the past as well as today.

And in this light, Derek declares: “I am rejecting the fundamentalist doctrine of infallibility …”

In my opinion, this conclusion is unfortunate and unnecessary. It strikes me as being based on two closely related confusions. Derek first seems to confuse the doctrine of infallibility with the way the doctrine is interpreted and applied. He then seems to define the doctrine by the unfortunate way it has been applied by certain Fundamentalists and Evangelicals in the 19th and 20th century. This leads to him to conclude that the doctrine of biblical infallibility “is directly connected to a stance of unquestioningly embracing the violent surface meaning of biblical texts, which leads to justifying and perpetuating violence in God’s name.”

From my vantage point, Derek is throwing out the good doctrinal baby with the unfortunate application bathwater! Consider that, if the doctrine of infallibility is “directly connected to a stance of unquestioningly embracing the violent surface meaning of biblical texts,” how is it that Origen and others in the early church adamantly affirmed the infallibility of Scripture while rejecting the surface meaning of violent texts? They instead found the divinely inspired revelatory content “behind,” “beneath” or “in the depth” of these texts, as Origen stated the matter? So too, how is it that classical theologians, all of whom affirmed infallibility, could deny the surface meaning of a great swath of Scripture to reconcile Scripture with their classical conception of God as immutable, impassible and atemporal?

Along the same lines, if infallibility is directly connected to slavery and the submission of females, as Derek contends, how is it that 19th century Christians like Charles Finney who strongly affirmed biblical infallibility opposed these things and did so on the basis of Scripture? And if biblical infallibility is directly connected to “perpetuating violence in God’s name,” how is it that Anabaptists and others who affirmed infallibility have opposed all violence?

Derek claims that I am trying to “redeem” the word “infallible” by “redefining” it, but so far as I can see, he only thinks this because he has assumed a very narrow definition of the term—a definition that is rooted in a recent, and unfortunate, application of this doctrine. In reality, if there is anything unique about my own concept of infallibility, it is only that I place the crucified Christ at the center of its definition – though even this has clear precedent in the church tradition (esp. Luther), as I demonstrate in The Crucifixion of the Warrior God. And this crucicentric definition affects the way I apply the doctrine of biblical infallibility to the OT’s violent depictions of God—though this too has clear precedent in the pre-Constantinian church.

[1] All quotes of Derek that are not referenced are to the above mentioned response to my review. When page numbers are given, they are referencing Disarming Scripture.

[2] E.g. “[W]e must start with an unambiguous rejection of these [violent] texts” (104). As will become clear below, I agree we must unambiguously reject the surface meaning of violent texts of Scripture but argue we must not reject the biblical texts themselves.

[3] See e.g. J. D. Woodbridge, Biblical Authority: A Critique of the Rogers/McKim Proposal (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982).  For example, in his sermon “Means of Grace,” John Wesley taught that “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God; consequently, all Scripture is infallibly true”.

A Dialogue with Derek Flood: Is the Bible Infallible?