Inerrancy, Infallibility and Canadian Mennonites

Much of contemporary Evangelicalism shares similar sentiments to the Mennonite Brethren, who profess a general belief in the infallibility of Scripture without belief in its inerrancy.

Now the quick thinkers will point out that simply abandoning the term inerrancy does not lead automatically down some sort of “slippery slope,” and that is true.  The problem is not theterm, but rather the concept.  Once the “inspired” message of the Bible is allowed to override the actual “inspired” text, the scripture simply becomes a slave to whatever consensus dominates the culture in which the Bible finds itself.  The testimony of history in Canada is incredibly consistent.

 

Seeing that the Inerrancy Summit is coming up in just over a week, I’m tossing something up along those lines and will help get your fires stoked for Shepherd’s Conference 2015!

Growing up in the (hypothetically) conservative Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference, I didn’t learn about the concept of inerrancy until I was in Bible College. I was taught the standard Mennonite Brethren position that the Bible is infallible but not inerrant. In practice this was a way of pointing out that the Bible is meant to teach about salvation rather thanscience, which had the conspicuous side-benefit of giving Mennonites an easy escape from the need to…well…know anything outside of some sort of basic gospel presentation.

The denomination that I grew up in used language taken from people like Harold Loewen, who addressed 2 Tim. 3:14-17 and wrote:

“Scripture here tells us to look for the knowledge of salvation in its message, that and nothing more. Biblical authority, therefore, pertains only to salvation matters. Thus the apostle speaks here of the functional authority of Scripture as it relates to salvation alone…”[1]

When I was young, the reality of the truth of the individual propositional statements of the Bible was of little consequence because Mennonites (as do many other confused believers) judge the veracity of the word of God on the basis of its product, not its propositions. Mennonite theologian John B. Toews wrote,

“Now that the orthodoxy of a believer is tested on the issue of an inerrant Bible, we may well examine our stance. The acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God for the Mennonite Brethren is ‘not the end of a chain of logic.’ ‘It is much more the discovery of Christ through the witness of the Scriptures that God has spoken first through the prophets and later by His Son.’ For our forefathers, the reality of the supernatural defied all efforts of proof. To accept the Bible as the Word of God was for them an exercise of faith that found its verification of genuineness in a life of obedience to the teaching and life of Jesus.”[2]

In practice, we were theological pragmatists.  Defending the meticulous truth of the scripture on various points was not needed.  All that needed concern my fellow Mennonites was whether the Bible produced a life of external piety, or at least something somewhat close.

Those ideas are part of the theological context for understanding why the contemporary MB Confession of Faith reads “We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit” as well as “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice” without mentioning inerrancy or even expanding on the terminology or concepts previously mentioned.

That sort of language and rhetoric isn’t isolated to Mennonites. Much of contemporary Evangelicalism shares similar sentiments to the Mennonite Brethren, who profess a general belief in the infallibility of Scripture without belief in its inerrancy. Over the years, I’ve come to reject the sub-biblical understanding of the Bible that I was taught for five reasons:

1. The infallible but not inerrant idea is historically unfounded and a recent invention.

It is true that there are theologians who limit the scope of Biblical infallibility.  Theologians like I. Howard Marshall limit the scope of infallibility to the Bible’srevelation of Christ.  Still, Evangelicals generally use the term in its historic sense of “unable to err.”

Justin Taylor rightly states,

“The word inerrant means that something, usually a text, is ‘without error.’ The word infallible—in its lexical meaning, though not necessarily in theological discussions due to Rogers and McKim—is technically a stronger word, meaning that the text is not only ‘without error’ but ‘incapable of error.’ The historic Christian teaching is that the Bible is both inerrant and infallible. It is without error (inerrant) because it is impossible for it to have errors (infallible).”[3]

Roland McCune writes,

“Infallibility and inerrancy are correlative to inspiration.  In other words, if Scripture is God-authored, then what is authored is naturally and necessarily free from error (inerrant) and incapable of fail in its divinely-ordained purpose (infallible).  Admittedly, theologians use these two terms somewhat interchangeably, though, technically the terms are distinct.  The distinction is a matter of degree, however, since one could argue that inerrancy itself is a necessary inference from infallibility, if the latter comprises the idea of purposing to reveal truth.”[4]

Carl Henry writes,

“In recent decades, mediating theologians have frequently used infallibility to imply a claim less comprehensive than inerrancy, particularly where they limit infallibility to ‘salvific infallibility,’ that is, to the notion that Scripture unfailingly leads us to salvation, while they abandon the cognitive inerrancy of the Bible. I reject, as does (Roger) Nicole, this unjustifiable narrowing of the sense of infallibility.”[5]

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