In case you don’t know already, the Bible is a big deal to Christians. It’s the sourcebook of all their beliefs and doctrines, consisting of different books, letters and poems from different literary genres such a history, wisdom literature, ancient autobiographies (the Gospels) and apocalypses (Revelation). Historically, Christians have argued over how to interpret Scripture ever since there was Scripture to argue over. Today, however, there is a tendency to divide Christians between two camps when it comes to understanding the Bible, with fundamentalists and evangelicals on the one side, and the mainline denominations on the other. Both camps view Scripture as inspired and authoritative, but the extent to which they take that view is what becomes so divisive.
If you spend enough time around evangelicals, fundamentalists, and a few other Christian groups, you’ll eventually hear a term thrown about known as biblical inerrancy, which is the predominant understanding of the Bible in most of these churches. What this means is that the Bible is viewed as without error as a result of divine inspiration. This means that the Bible is the ultimate authority not only on matters of theology and doctrine, but also history and science. This is why evangelicals and fundamentalists have a tendency to reject evolutionary biology; they’ll point to Genesis and it’s laying out of the world’s origins having taken place over six days and say that it couldn’t possibly have been millions of years. Human evolution in particular tends to cause a lot of issues for Christian doctrine, because it means there’s no historical Adam for the human race to originate from, no original sin to throw humanity into a fallen state, and therefore no reason for Jesus Christ to come as God incarnate, die for their sins, and rise from the dead.
The other camp comes as a result of the Enlightenment. Advances in archaeology and historical research led to new ways to read, interpret and research ancient texts. During this time, theologians and historians began to apply these methods to the Bible just like other ancient texts, rather than as a text that superseded the findings of science. In addition, where historial investigation was unavailable, theologians began to interpret scripture in light of Enlightenment philosophy that reason determined truth (see Baruch Spinoza’s writings). This led to conflict between conservative and liberal Christians over interpretations deemed heretical, culminating the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy in the 1920s. Today, most Mainline denominations read the bible through the lens of historical criticism, tending to view the Bible like any other ancient text.
Both camps tend to have different levels at which they adhere either inerrancy or historical criticism, so it really depends on a case by case basis as to how any one denomination views Scripture. Either way, this argument has divided Christians for nearly 200 years and running, with neither side really backing down. This is where Peter Enns comes in. His book Inspiration and Incarnation focuses exactly on this issue in relation to the Old Testament, aiming to answer the findings of historical research while maintaining a still high view of Scripture, sort of a middle ground between the two camps. His work would be the reason he resigned from his position at Westminster Theological Seminary (one of the institutions formed in the aforementioned controversy), but it’s started a new conversation on how Protestants understand Scripture.
Anyway, that’s some of the history on how Christians look at Scripture. Wednesday, I’ll talk more about my own views on the subject. See you then.