Norman Geisler and His Inerrancy War

(As a Disclaimer: I really don’t like writing articles about specific individuals…like, I really don’t like it. I prefer to usually put things in more generic and abstract terms and treat the ideas themselves, without names attached except perhaps by mere citation. Unfortunately, there comes a point though where the idea and the person become almost indistinguishable and must, therefore, be addressed singularly. Though I don’t know Geisler personally, I have met him a number of times and even used to work for his former institution. I had him once even speak at an event I co-directed. However, in recent years (as in years past) Geisler’s actions have turned incredibly personal, resulting in job loss and reputation damage, and, as I see it, trying to create division within the evangelical Church. His targets have been individuals and, along with it, communities of individuals which are judged to be compromisers, cowards, and enemies. This post is, in my opinion, a necessary one.)

You know that feeling you get when you step outside sometimes and you can tell that a storm’s coming? You don’t need a weatherman or scientific instruments to tell you that something’s on the horizon; you just feel it on your skin as the air pressure oh so slightly drops.

Over the past several years, I’ve been convinced that we’re in for another Battle for the Bible. If you’re not familiar with the phrase, in the late 1970s Harold Lindsell wrote a book by that exact title and, quite correctly, foresaw (and, probably more likely initiated) a massive theological dispute in the following years on the issue of biblical inerrancy. This Battle for the Bible ultimately culminated in the formulation of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) which attempted to define and defend the nature of an inerrant Bible against what the signers saw as un-Biblical and even heretical doctrines of Scripture’s nature and function. The effect of the matter, however, was not simply the formulation of a particular theological conviction. It started a massive theological battle in which many institutions, schools, churches, and Christians were caught in the cross fire. People lost jobs, were removed from theological societies and academic appointments, and it ultimately helped drastically increase the demarcation of Conservative vs. Liberal while, at the same time, narrowing the actual depth and progress of any legitimate conversation. The CSBI drew a line in the sand and defined “evangelical”, if not Bible-believe Christian, on the single issue of biblical inerrancy.inerrancy

Things died down for awhile, but in recent years the tides have started to get a tad higher. The storm was brewing. More books started to be written on the topic, both for and against. In the past few years, I’ve watched as friends of mine and scholars I’ve respected lost their jobs over the issue. John MacArthur has called for a national biblical inerrancy summit to defend what he considers “spiritual AIDS.” ETS recently made it their topic for the 65th annual meeting, with Zondervan putting out a 5-point book on the topic; and, as expected, Norman Geisler has been on somewhat of a witch hunt on this issue, going around with a petition asking, or imploring, people to sign the document.

So, I wasn’t surprised to log on to my FB feed today and see a promoted new website devoted to the issue: www.defendinginerrancy.com. And, as I anticipated, Geisler was the spearhead on the project.

Why the need to defend inerrancy? Well, according to the website (created by Geisler and a few other people that used to be his students or work for him):

It’s been said that a table must have at least three legs to stand. Take away any of the three legs and it will surely topple. In much the same way, the Christian faith stands on three legs. These three legs are the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. Take away one, and like the table, the divine authority of the Christian faith will surely topple.

But of course, here’s where Geisler (et al) gets it wrong. The Christian faith does not stand on three legs. It stands on one: Jesus Christ, alone. This is not a subtle point and misunderstanding it has serious consequences. If Geisler believes that the authority of Christian faith hinges on the inerrancy of Scripture, he holds a position which puts The Bible in Jesus’ place. Is it possible to make the Bible an idol? Absolutely. And I believe that Geisler and those that have jumped onto the bandwagon of “inerrancy or die” have done just that. For them, it is more than a theological distinctive; by the overuse of such militaristic terminology, it is a war.

So, when their website tagline says “Defending Inerrancy, Before it’s Too Late”, Geisler and his crew believe that we are on the verge of the collapse of orthodoxy. This puts the CSBI in a sort of creedal status that the historic creeds (Apostles, Nicene, etc) exist and, along those same lines, Geisler likely sees himself as the divinely appointed arbiter on the issue. Indeed, his personal website offers him the narcissistic sounding self-endorsement, “I am put here for the defense of the Gospel.”

I don’t like to say that, of course, for in one breath I feel like I’m passing a judgment. But Geisler’s recent attempts to define orthodoxy by the standards of the CSBI, to kick out of the evangelical fold (which he considers to be in line with the earliest church) those that disagree with him, and his insistence that there is a war going on that will collapse the foundations of Christian authority (which, according to him is not Jesus but the Bible)–well, as far as I can see it, it looks like Geisler sees himself as the prophetic voice standing between true Christian faith and the collapse of Christianity.

This is already longer than I wanted it to be, but let me say three things to end off on: First, I don’t really care if you believe in inerrancy or not (I’ll post on why I don’t in coming weeks), but to exalt it to the supreme docetic status that Geisler and his kin have is itself the real heresy. Secondly, to see yourself in such an important light, as if you are the arbiter of true scriptural justice, is itself extremely dangerous. If you want to let history decide that, then fine; but claiming it for yourself, explicitly by tag-lines or implicitly by your actions is just wrong-headed. Third, it is not “the enemies within” that are creating dysfunction and casualties within the Christian community; the fact that so many evangelical scholars went to support Mike Licona in the midst of Geisler’s launch to get him fired and publicly attack him shows where the real attempt at Christian unity was. The Battle for the Bible is heating up because Geisler realizes his CSBI ship is sinking in both the scholarly world and in personal conviction. Geisler’s war is not so much a war to defend inerrancy; if I might be so bold, at least from every appearance on the matter, it’s a war to defend himself.

  • David Hull

    Great post… I think that how I might challenge Geisler’s point about the Christian faith standing on three legs might be by saying, “Indeed it does… Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” :)

  • Yes! Right on Randy. You nailed it on the proverbial head. Don’t feel bad about calling him out; he’s done it to himself. And David, nice. :) #trinitarianorthodoxy

  • “The Christian faith does not stand on three legs. It stands on one: Jesus Christ, alone.”

    Amen. Thanks so much for this. The ‘inerrancy or die bandwagon’ has troubled me too.

  • I completely encourage you in this, Randy. When it gets down to it, to be completely honest, I’m not sure what “heresy” is, but there’s times I know it when I see it, and making the primary revelation of God something other than that how he has revealed himself throughout history in and through humans–and especially and particularly the quintessential human–is the most serious heresy I can think of.

  • I am evidently pretty late to the table for this discussion, however the first item which popped in my head with the initial remark (3 legs of inspiration, infallibility, inerrancy -vs- Jesus Christ) is “how do we determine who Jesus Christ is without a reliable witness?”. I can see the “3 legs” almost revered as an idol above Christ, but how do we determine who Christ is without the “3 legs”? How would we not allow false doctrine a slow creep within our Faith without the “3 legs”? I am not here to argue, I would like to see an answer to my obvious question (or a link to an answer)… ~ Blessings

    • Daniel,

      That is a good question.

      Geisler (et al) really spout the whole “If it’s not inerrant, you can’t trust anything”, but since how does that follow? First of all, our salvation is through a person and our faith is built on the relationship with that person, not with a set of documents. The Bible stands above reason, tradition and experience but only as the primary canon (the rule of faith and life) and not as the criteria. The Criteria is Jesus: He is THE revelation while the Bible is still A revelation. He is the one who gives it authority; it is not the Bible that gives authority to Jesus. He is the author of our faith; our faith does not rest on anything else. If we approach the Bible with the notion that it is only there that we can know who Jesus is, well, it’s only there that we’ll ever actually know him…And yet, he should be meeting us in other ways as well: in prayer, in worship, in experience, in reason, in tradition, etc. Scripture is the most lucid and primary canon of faith (rule of faith, guide) but it is not what our faith is authored from and built upon. It’s there that I think Karl Barth was quite correct in noting that there is a certain “becoming” of Scripture, where its revelation lies in the fact that it’s there that we meet Jesus like a bridge brings two people together.

      Second, the majority of the scholars that he spends his time attacking actually have a great deal of confidence in the Bible as historically reliable and all of us affirm Scripture’s infallibility: it’s ability to speak to the truths necessary for faith. This poses the question: what is the purpose of Scripture? If it is to know things factually, then its primary purpose is epistemology: to teach us things. If it is to bring us and Christ together for the purpose of salvation, however, than its primary purpose is soteriology (salvation). Indeed, supposing that the latter rests on the former is a form of Gnosticism. Correct thinking, concrete facts, correct theology doesn’t save. Repentance and forgiveness do. So, along with these scholars, I certainly think the ancient world was a lot more historically accurate than we give them credit for (and, in fact, that is the mainstream position). But does it matter to me whether Jesus died on a Thursday or a Friday? No. Does it matter to me that John puts the cleansing of the temple in a completely different place? No. Does it matter to me that the story of Noah was the Jewish retelling of much older stories? No, for my faith hangs on Christ alone. Indeed, I think that there’s a great deal of beauty realizing that God chose not to send his words down on golden tablets or dictate them through the prophet Muhammad (both, plenary verbal inspiration). Rather, like his own coming, he chose to reveal himself through his creation and with the hands of his creatures. As messed up, prideful, sinful, pedantic (and sometimes historically inaccurate) as we are, he still chose the incarnation for the incarnation and, in the process, incarnated all the other means of revelation: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience.

  • Jason

    As always, nicely done, Randy. I don’t know much about this Geisler fellow, but he sounds like a bummer to be around at a church function. Like he would constantly be trying to divide the room into the true believers and the heretics. Calm down, Norman. Have some alcohol-free punch.

    To make a rather broad statement, I think the inerrancy position is intrinsically polarizing, or militaristic, or just plain mean-spirited. If you plant your feet so firmly on such an absolutist position, which allows no room for variation in interpretation, opinion, perspective, or experience, then you are obligated to shoot down anyone who espouses a nuanced view, or basically anything that doesn’t totally conform to your standard. There are no moderate, easygoing legalists, in other words.

    Checking out Geisler’s website, the REALLY interesting thing is trying to follow the logic of the scriptural substantiation for the incredibly bold statements made about inerrancy. For example, the justification for the statement “[The Bible] is not only accurate in matters related to faith and practice, but it is accurate and without error regarding any statement, period” is John 3:12 (Jesus’ question to Nicodemus “I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?”). Am I the only one who fails to grasp the relationship behind this incredibly hard-lined assertion of Biblical one-dimensionality and the scripture used to back it up? Maybe I just haven’t read my Bible well enough, or with the proper degree of myopia.

    • That unfortunately is where it gets a tad complicated I think…The notion of hard lined inerrancy is read into the text and then back out of it, making verses like Jn 3.12 and even 2 Tim 3.16 out to say a great deal more than they can say. I am routinely baffled by the claims that “Scripture says x” when there is much more interpretive room available…I guess part of the problem stems from the sola Scriptura tradition (to be ironic).

      And I can testify concerning the polarizing consequences of this approach, having both been a polarizer on this issue in the past and, more recently, being spiritually castrated by that group.