Righting America

A forum for scholarly conversation about Christianity, culture, and politics in the US
When Inerrancy Isn’t Enough | Righting America

by Jason Hentschel

Jason A. Hentschel has a Ph.D. in theology from the University of Dayton. His research focuses on the intersection of evangelicalism and modern American culture. He has contributed chapters to The Bible in American Life and The Handbook of the Bible in America, both forthcoming from Oxford University Press (2016-17).

In his 2014 debate with Bill Nye the Science Guy, Ken Ham’s defense of creationism rested on his appeal to the Bible’s perspicuity, or clarity. The biblical account of creation and the flood, he insisted, should be read as literal history – indeed, all of Genesis, not to mention 21 other biblical books and countless passages in others, should be read this way, too. As Ham put it to Nye that night, this is simply the “natural” way to read it. The meaning of Genesis, including its historicity, is obvious – so obvious, in fact, that there can be only one reason why we would interpret the book otherwise: we just don’t like it.

As the Trollingers explain, what Ham offers us here is a moral, if not a saving, choice:

People willfully reject what they know in their hearts to be true, that is, the literal accounts of Creation and the Flood. More specifically, sin is manifested in the desire to modify our understanding of God’s Word in order to accommodate human reason and the reigning views of science. (Righting America 114)

Thankfully, it appears there might be some cause to take Ken Ham’s emphasis on the Bible’s perspicuity as one widely misunderstood attempt at hyperbole. A common textbook used to teach biblical interpretation at evangelical colleges – including official “Creation College” Cedarville University – readily concedes that the Bible’s meaning might not be as clear as Ham has made it out to be. We are warned – curiously, much like we are in the Starting Points room at the Creation Museum – that “all of us read a text on the basis of our own background and proclivities,” and that this fact thereby forces us to discover and confront these presuppositions if we are to understand the Bible’s true meaning. (See Grant Osborne, The Hermeneutical Spiral, 367).

Even Answers magazine takes a more cautious line than its founder. For instance, Tim Chaffey admits that “while the Bible is generally plain in its meaning, proper interpretation requires careful study and is not always an easy task.” He then goes on to lay out what he calls a “historical-grammatical” approach to interpreting the Bible, the goal of which is to discover the author’s intended meaning, or AIM. While the perspicuity of scripture is maintained as a principle of faithful interpretation, it’s offset by an insistence that we read each text extremely carefully and in light of its grammatical and historical contexts, as well as its place in the Bible as a whole.

What’s more, Chaffey concedes that we should listen hard to scripture’s past interpreters:

It is important to know how those who have gone before us have interpreted a passage in question. Although our doctrine must be based squarely on the Word of God and not on tradition or what some great leader believed, we should allow ourselves to be informed by the work of others who have spent long hours studying God’s Word. (“How Should We Interpret the Bible, Part 1”)

Indeed, Chaffey warns that we must “battle against our pride, which tempts us to think that our own views are always right or that the beliefs of a particular teacher are necessarily right.”

Such generosity and sober introspection is a welcome sight in young Earth creationist literature, but how this translates into action at the museum and other sites is a mystery. It’s a story quite common in the history of evangelical biblical interpretation, where the difficulty of actually interpreting scripture has been duly noted and the diversity of interpretations admitted, if uncomfortably. Two remarkably different visions of the nature of God, salvation, and the moral life have existed in evangelicalism for centuries in the form of Calvinism and Arminianism, and evangelicals who differ on these lines have figured out a way to live in the same religious house together. (Suffice it to say, Calvinists believe that God determines or controls our actions, whereas Arminians believe that we have free will.)

But, occasionally a particular interpretation of scripture does arise, one that stands so far beyond the pale it is considered an outright assault upon biblical inerrancy and authority. In the early 1980s, it was the reasoned claim that Matthew employed myth and creative fiction in his construction of the first Gospel. In the ‘90s, it surfaced in a segment of evangelicals who wondered if the gospel’s gender neutrality, along with various biblical accounts of early female leaders, might not open the door for women pastors today. A decade later, it came in the form of a complex question concerning whether or not God had knowledge of every future event, and led to an all-out civil war within evangelicalism’s leading academic society.

At each of these moments, outright assertions of the Bible’s inerrancy failed to fix the problem of interpretive disagreement, and so evangelical powerbrokers reached for the only weapon that could do the trick: declamations of character couched as commitment to biblical authority. Suggestions that the Evangelists used fiction and myth evidenced an historical skepticism characteristic of liberal antisupernaturalists. The push for women’s all-access pass to the ministry was an obvious capitulation to modern feminism. Doubts about God’s omniscience smelled suspiciously of Hegelian panentheism, which held that even God evolved over time, rather than biblical theism.

And today questions about Genesis’s historicity betray the incursion of atheistic evolutionary theory. Evangelicals characteristically encounter these moments right where the rubber meets the road, where their only solution to the failure of biblical inerrancy is to write off differences of opinion as products of intellectual dishonesty and biblical infidelity. Sadly, though less and less unexpectedly, lost in all of this is that warm generosity said to be characteristic of evangelical interpretation, that which takes seriously others’ “long hours of study” and the humility that maybe – just maybe – we might be wrong about something.