Rob Bell and Inerrancy

December 16, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments


Rob Bell 2The other day, a friend sent me an article by pastor and provocateur Rob Bell on the subject of inerrancy.  Traditionally, the term “inerrancy” has been defined as the belief that the biblical authors, guided and inspired by God’s Spirit, “are absolutely truthful according to their intended purposes.”[1]  In other words, the biblical authors, under divine inspiration, produced writings that are “without error.”  It is important to clarify that to say the Bible is “without error” does note preclude “a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”[2]  In other words, part of claiming biblical inerrancy is recognizing what does and does not constitute an actual “error.”

Regardless of the specifics concerning what does and does not constitute error, it is clear that “inerrancy” asserts an extraordinarily high view of the nature and reliability of Holy Writ.  Some, however, including Rob Bell, are troubled by such an assertion.

Rob Bell teases out his beef with inerrancy thusly:

My 13 year old son is currently doing an education program that requires him to listen to a certain amount of classical music every day. So on the way to school each morning instead of listening to our usual Blink 182 and rap, he listens to…Mozart. Not his first choice, but just lately he admitted that classical music has grown on him. (How does a parent not smile at that?)

A few questions, then, about Mozart:Did Mozart’s music win?
Would you say that the work of Mozart is on top?
Is Mozart the MVP?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?

Odd questions, right?
They’re odd because that’s not how you think of Mozart’s music. They’re the wrong categories.

Why?
Because what you do with Mozart’s music is you listen to it and you enjoy it.

Which brings us to inerrancy: it’s not a helpful category. And if you had only ever heard about Mozart as the one who wins, those arguments would probably get in the way of you actually listening to and enjoying Mozart.[3]

So Rob Bell’s problem with inerrancy is that for him it’s not a helpful category.

Though Rob may question the usefulness of the inerrancy “category,” countless followers of Christ have, do, and will continue to find this designation extraordinarily helpful.  Yes, the word “inerrancy” is of fairly recent origin.  But what it denotes – the trustworthiness of Scripture because of divine origin of Scripture – is as old as Christianity itself.  Nichols and Brandt, in their book Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, helpfully sample some patristic evidence that indicates how the early Church saw the divine origin and inspiration of Scripture:

Clement of Rome, writing in 96, exhorted, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”  Another Clement, Bishop of Alexandria, declared similarly, “I could produce then thousand Scriptures of which not ‘one tittle will pass away,’ without being fulfilled.  For the mouth of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, has spoken these things.”  As for a statement about the whole Bible, Origen once observed, “For the proof of our statements, we take testimonies from that which is called the Old Testament and that which is called the New – which we believe to be divine writings.”[4]

Jumping ahead to the sixteenth century, Nichols and Brandt note that John Calvin referred to Scripture as “the sure and infallible record,” “the inerring standard,” “the pure Word of God,” “the infallible rule of His Holy Truth,” “free from every stain or defect,” “the inerring certainty,” “the certain and unerring rule,” “unerring light,” “infallible Word of God,” “has nothing belonging to man mixed with it,” “inviolable,” “infallible oracles.”[5]  Whoa.  Calvin leaves no question as to where he stands on inerrancy.

Rob does offer some reasons as to why he believes inerrancy is not a helpful category, the first of which is, “This isn’t a word the Bible uses about itself.”  But this is like saying “Trinity” is not a helpful term to describe God because it is not a term God uses to describe Himself.  Terms can be helpful even when they’re not used in the Bible if these terms describe what the Bible itself teaches.  And the Bible does indeed claim inerrancy for itself.  One need to look no farther than the Word of God’s magnum opus on the Word of God, Psalm 19:  “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).  If the word “perfect” doesn’t include being “without error,” what does it include?

Rob finally plays his hand as to why he is uncomfortable with inerrancy:  “The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is but embracing what it is. Books written by actual, finite, limited, flawed people.”  Rob Bell takes issue with inerrancy because he takes issue with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  He takes issue with what Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Calvin, and, for that matter, the Bible itself claim about the Bible.  Rather than being a book a written by God using men (cf. 1 Peter 1:21), the Bible for Rob is a book written by men who recount their experiences with God, which, by the way, could be mistaken and wrongheaded.[6]  How do we know if their experiences with God are mistaken and wrongheaded?  Rob answers:  “Central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like.”  In other words, it’s up to us to figure out what in the Bible is wrong and what in the Bible is right.  But if our world’s genocides, sexual promiscuity, oppression, economic injustice, and refusal to stand for truth because we’re not even sure of what truth is serve as any indication of our powers of discernment, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, we “have some splainin’ to do.”

Perhaps we’re not as discerning as we think we are.  Perhaps, rather than tooting the horns of our own discernment faculties, we should ask the question of the Psalmist:  “But who can discern their own errors” (Psalm 19:12)?  Our blind spots are bigger and darker than most of us recognize.

I will grant that inerrancy has sometimes all too gleefully been used as a bully club against supposed – and, in some instances, presupposed – heretics.  But I will not give up the word or the doctrine.  For when inerrancy is properly understood, it is not meant as a club, but as a promise.  It is a promise that we can trust this book – even more than we can trust ourselves.  For this book is God’s book.  And I, for one, delight in that promise because I delight in the Lord.


[1] James Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 239.

[2]Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article XIII (October 1978).

[3] Rob Bell, “What is the Bible? Part 21: In Air, In Sea,” robbellcom.tumblr.com (12.10.2013)

[4] Stephen Nichols and Eric Brandt, Ancient Word, Changing Worlds (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2009), 78.

[5] Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, 78-79.

[6] Bell writes of the biblical authors in another post, “They had experiences. They told stories.  They did their best to share those stories and put language to those experiences” (“What is the Bible? Part 17: Assumptions and AA Meetings”).

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. irene  |  December 16, 2013 at 9:46 am

    This is so well written, interesting and as they say in the movies: what a happy ending.

    Reply
  • 2. brandonweldy  |  December 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Loved the way you went about wrapping this up. “For when inerrancy is properly understood, it is not meant as a club, but as a promise. It is a promise that we can trust this book – even more than we can trust ourselves.” That line was spot on!

    Reply

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