Unrecognizable woman holding a bible in her hands and praying

Libertarians, Inerrancy, and the Problem of Romans 13

Romans 13 and Inerrancy

Theology, liberty, and economics are my favorite topics to study, debate, or teach, especially when they happen to intersect with each other. When my former professor Peter Enns, who is on the front lines of a debate over the nature of Scripture, wrote about the relationship between inerrancy and Romans 13 (arguably the most disputed text about government among libertarians), naturally I wanted to talk about it. It would be best if I set some of my cards on the table before commenting.* I believe Enns has clearly articulated the problems with the evangelical doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. Not only has he demonstrated that a strict inerrantist position is highly problematic when reading the Bible, he has also examined the viability of revising or reformulating the doctrine to make it meaningful to contemporary society. In doing so, Enns is committed to a “high view” of Scripture because he approaches the biblical text by expecting no more or no less than what God intended to communicate.

The Doctrine of Inerrancy in a Nutshell

Those who believe in inerrancy usually state the doctrine as follows: “The Bible is without error in all that it affirms or teaches.” (See here for a more thorough statement.) The clause “in all that it affirms or teaches” is significant because it is one way to avoid having to believe such absurdities that the earth is flat or at the center of the universe. Inerrantists claim that the Bible doesn’t teach the earth is flat or that the earth is the center of the universe because those passages that seem to say so simply mean something else. Almost every Christian agrees with this. Not all Christians, however, believe that Genesis 1 teaches how the earth was created. Those who do not simply believe that Genesis 1 is in the Bible to serve a different purpose. This is why “in all that it affirms or teaches” is only helpful to a point. It merely pushes the debate into the question, “How do we know when the Bible affirms or teaches something?” Even this question is problematic, because the Bible is not the acting agent, but the tool through which God’s Spirit guides the people of God to embrace and participate in God’s mission in the world. In short, it is God who is speaking.

“The Bible Says”

Practically speaking, the phrase “the Bible says” is shorthand for “this is what God says.” It is not always abundantly clear what God affirms or teaches in the Bible. It is clear Jesus wants us to forgive our enemies. It is clear that Paul’s slur against Cretans is not to be mimicked. But does God enjoy smashing babies against rocks? Are we to be as pessimistic as Qohelet in Ecclesiastes? Are libertarians to read Romans 13 as a clear and unwavering affirmation of obeying governmental authorities?

Libertarians and Romans 13

It is not an easy task to figure out what God is teaching us when we read the Bible. This apparently self-evident teaching in Romans 13 is why many libertarians are minarchists. Any plain reading of Romans 13 leaves very little reason to believe that Paul wants Christians to obey the government. He ignores the opportunity to add an escape clause, expiration date, or exception to “corrupt powers.” God is clear because Paul is clear. There should be no debate, right? Yet the debate continues, with a plethora of articles (see a list below) about how Paul is not teaching in Romans 13 that God endorses all governments. A faithful interpretation of what Paul intended with Romans 13 means we must investigate the context in which it was written. It also means using extra-biblical sources to factor in all that a passage means. It is at this point that the doctrine of inerrancy relates to Romans 13. Inerrantists claim they do not bring to the text extra-biblical factors regarding its meaning because they believe in sola scriptura. Yet any honest interpreter must admit that all readers, of course, do this, even to a minimal degree. Here is Enns on the problem:

The truth is, I don’t know many Christians who take Paul at his word here. They may try to deftly extract themselves by saying that Paul is merely giving an ideal principle, or that only legitimate authorities are instituted by God. But again, that’s just “adding” something to God’s word, which clearly makes a pretty cut and dried case for human governmental authorities as instituted by God. But a proper understanding of these words of Paul’s, as with most other things in Scripture, requires some sensitivity to their historical/cultural or literary context (or both).

Romans 13 does not endorse authoritarianism

For libertarians who are wary of any semblance of authoritarianism or totalitarianism, Romans 13 is a problematic text, especially if one holds to a literalist and inerrant view of the Bible (after all, Paul wrote this while Rome had a tyrant for an emperor!). Inerrantists are only comfortable with so much “wiggle room” to use extra-biblical sources to discern that a passage does not really mean what a plain reading would yield. Enns’s solution? “There’s more to reading the Bible faithfully than just doing what it says, no matter of clearly it seems to be telling us what to do.” Norman Horn’s words are apt here: “A theology of the state does not begin and end with Romans 13.” Below are some articles that deal directly with Romans 13. Not all authors are libertarians, but all explore Romans 13 beyond a “plain reading.” As you explore them, evaluate whether or not the author’s approach could fit within the inerrancy position, or whether their bringing extra-biblical factors to the table goes too far. It is because all Christians recognize that none of us approach the Bible without knowledge from outside sources that leads Enns and me to conclude that “at the end of the day…definitions of inerrancy seem less and less convincing.”

* My own beliefs align similarly to his, but let me offer a word of caution to those who will explore what Enns believes. There is a plethora of interviews, articles, and books to which Enns has contributed. It is not possible to spend 10-20 minutes getting the “gist” of his beliefs on the Bible without misunderstanding his position. It is far too easy to infer too much from what is being said without really hearing an argument out to its full extent.