I recently picked up the latest in the Zondervan “Counterpoints” series: “Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy.” One of the essays, by Michael F. Bird, is entitled “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA.” I flipped through it and I thought the author certainly had some good things to say. But, I admit that I find the apparent thrust of Bird’s argument is quite mistaken.
The notion that certain theological issues are essentially uninteresting to folks on the other side of either ocean is one I have read (and heard in person) on more than one occasion related to various Christian doctrines. Bird’s own presentation, regarding inerrancy, argues that the CSBI (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document he is critiquing) demonstrates “An Unfortunate Trend toward Theological Colonialism” (the capitalization is due to this being a section heading). This trend might be discerned thus: “there are thousands of churches around the world that are both evangelical and orthodox and get on with their ministry without ever having heard of the CSBI and without ever using the word inerrancy in their statement of faith” (153-154, cited below).
Very well. Suppose we grant Bird this fact. I’m sure it actually is a fact. But so what? What possible relevance does this have for the truth and claims of inerrancy? Bird’s own conclusion is that, basically, we should not expect evangelicals across the world to saddle themselves with a view that is essentially unfamiliar to them. I think this may be a fair point, but it raises a couple concerns: first, the actual truth value of whatever doctrine is in question; second, concern for continuing to grow in knowledge and faith.
Suppose that you believe a doctrine is of great importance to how one might view other doctrines. Now, someone comes along and informs you that there are people in some area of the world who don’t know about that doctrine or that that area of the world is generally unconcerned with it. Should this somehow lead you to think that the doctrine is unimportant because people outside of your own cultural milieu do not view it as such? Certainly not! It may cause you to reflect upon its alleged importance and perhaps even come to a new view, but the notion that a specific doctrine is largely unimportant to certain groups of people does nothing, in itself, to downplay the actual importance of that doctrine. Nor does it impact the truth value of that doctrine in any way.
Now, at risk of being accused of “theological colonialism,” I am going to also suggest that the apparent disinterest in an important doctrine is less reason to think the doctrine is unimportant than it is reason to perhaps try to inform others of the doctrine’s actual importance. Returning to the example above, suppose the disinterest caused you to reflect upon the doctrine and you concluded that yes, it is actually deeply important. Would you not be concerned that others do not share your conviction, such that perhaps you may feel obligated to inform others about the centrality of said doctrine?
I’m not trying to suggest anyone without concern for inerrancy is ignorant or foolish. But I do think there is something to be said for the notion that a doctrine like inerrancy (or eschatology, or a view of creation, etc., etc.) is something worth exploring and learning about. We are called to expand our knowledge, not be content to sit in the knowledge of the faith we already have. I have become aware of entire realms of theological debates which I didn’t even know existed by reading authors–both international and, yes, American. I have found topics I was disinterested in to be deep, engaging, and edifying. I was subsisting on milk, but I have pursued solid food, and continue to do so [Hebrews 5:12ff]. I hope to continue to be enlightened by international theologians. But I would also hope that international theologians would not dismiss a doctrine because it comes from America.
Finally, is not the very notion that ‘if a doctrine is only of concern to American Evangelicals, then it should be moderated or reigned in’ itself a form of theological colonialism?
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Michael Bird, “Inerrancy is Not Necessary for Evangelicalism Outside the USA” in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 145-173.
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As someone the ‘other side of the pond’ this has just made me want to read the book even more!! Thanks.
No problem! I’m interested in your thoughts on this specific line of reasoning.
Unfortunately I have about 30 books to get through before I get to it. But I have it on my Amazon wish list at least. Thanks J.W.
I know about that problem! Believe me! I just meant I was curious on your thoughts on this specific post and the reasoning therein. As someone “across the pond,” do you think that some issues ‘only popular in America’ are somehow discredited? Why/not?
Well I’ve not read Bird on this yet so everything here is tentative.
From what you have said I think Bird is partly right and partly wrong. He’s partly wrong in the sense you raise in that just because something is not a concern in another country does not mean it does not matter (on that basis most of Asia could completely disregard the entire Western philosophical tradition and most of, in the West, would be horrified by this!).
However (and this is not to accuse you or any other American of ‘theological colonialism’) if any culture is consumed with a certain doctrinal question and many others are not (and they are reading the same Bible) then I think there are serious questions that culture ought to ask itself about whether the question is being dictated by the Bible or by the culture / philosophy / metanarrative etc. they find themselves in. I think evolution is one such example. The question of the veracity of evolution is simply not an issue in Britain the way it is in America and we do not see it as related so closely to being faithful to Scripture, politics and questions of freedom of education.
This leads into huge questions about cultural theology and contextualization. But I think it’s also a great opportunity to listen to what other cultures are asking of the Bible. No-one I know would disregard all liberation theology on the basis that it had a socio-political context it grew out of. To end on a contentious note then… will American Christians will listen to other cultures who don’t think the an overly-systematized (if indeed it is!) doctrine of the authority of Scripture is necessary?
Anyway, as an American would say (I think) – that’s my two cents!
Point well taken. American evangelicalism is simply viewed with suspicion from a postcolonial theoretic framework. My critique would be to undercut the colonialist claim. What makes a recommendation colonizing rather than not? The virtue that by historical and geographical accident, it is only taken seriously in America? This would seem to be a genetic fallacy.
Of course, if you are familiar with my musings, I myself am skeptical toward, but not dismissive of, the postcolonial framework. Good for understanding one perspective and movement, but not in and of itself commensurable in all instances.
I like your response as well. I think you have a very solid point regarding the genetic fallacy in these instances.
Well, then on Bird’s view Athanasius probably would have spent his time more wisely if he hadn’t gotten so fired up about the eternal existence of the Son. After all, all the Arians in Antioch and Eurasia were getting along just swimmingly without such a doctrine, and they were just as evangelistic as anyone in Alexandria, no?