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Does the Reformed Doctrine of Inerrancy Threaten Christian Libertarians?

The Libertarian Christian Institute is an ecumenical Christian organization which brings together Christians from a variety of theological backgrounds. Though our theological differences don’t affect libertarianism, sometimes they intersect it. And when this happens, it’s prudent to share and grapple with our differing perspectives.


Peter Enns is a Westminster trained Biblical scholar, holds a Ph.D from Harvard, and he objects to the inerrancy of scripture.1 He objects because Christians can’t agree on everything the bible affirms and teaches. While Enns questions the historicity of much of Scripture, he says, “portions of Scripture that do rightly affirm/teach include the 10 Commandments, Jesus’s teachings on forgiveness, the Beatitudes, and many other things.” These things are true, Enns argues, because they’re related to faith and salvation. Enns illustrates his point using Romans 13; the thorn in the flesh of Christian libertarians.

Peter Enns and Romans 13

Enns agrees that Paul is teaching/affirming something, but whatever it is, the standard interpretation of Romans 13 runs counter to the founding of America, which is born from an act of violence and treason.2 So what gives? Enns has a valid complaint here. How do we interpret Romans 13?

Enns points out common concerns with the text given we believe it doesn’t apply to certain situations.3 Of course, this nuance isn’t explicit either; we must infer it by considering other passages like Acts 5:29, which incidentally, and perhaps ironically, is in the context of disobeying religious authorities.

So what exactly is Enns’ problem with inerrancy?
To answer that, I need to unravel it from Biblicism.

Enns’ isn’t ignorant of the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI). He’s penned several books, and one of them resulted in his suspension from Westminster Theological Seminary. Despite his Reformed education, I found myself confused by his stance. In fact, upon reading his contribution to the Five Views of Biblical Inerrancy, I realized that he’s conflating Biblicism with inerrancy.4

Why is this a confusion? Krisis and Praxis gives an excellent overview of the varying degrees of inerrancy. At the top, is Biblicism. But Biblicism doesn’t appear to be the position of A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, the writers from Old Princeton who drafted the doctrine of inspiration.

Enns believes Biblicists are “the better inerrantists” because those who don’t hold to a literal/biblicist view are simply being influenced by extra-biblical factors. This, however, doesn’t align with Hodge and Warfield. They acknowledged that what Scripture affirms/teaches is (relatively) narrow in scope and that extra-biblical sources may influence our interpretations. In fact, Warfield was known for cautiously agreeing with Darwin and evolution.

Even as Enns’ continues to ask how we can know what bible writers intended, it is a common practice in scholarship to seek clarification, either from explicit statements or inference. Here too we can infer that Warfield, in drafting the doctrine of inspiration, did not intend to have it defend a literal 6-day creation. Already, we have reason to believe the Biblicists hold a dogmatic view of inerrancy which extends beyond the original reformed view.

So, what is inerrancy?

Enns claims inerrancy is a theory; a rationalist theory based on self-evident assumptions. In Five Views, Michael F. Bird supports Enns’ assertion by arguing that Warfield and Hodge, were arguing with “René Descartes, Immanuel Kant, or F.C. Baur lurking in the background.” In other words, Bird argues, part of the motivation for defending inerrancy must have been some solidarity with René Descartes’ rationalism over and against Immanuel Kant’s criticism and Baur’s introduction of higher criticism. This could show that the premise of inerrancy is an extra-biblical theory, and would lend itself to Enns’ argument that inerrancy is itself dubious.

For the Christian libertarian, this may seem enticing especially given the difficulty of passages related to civil governance. To this end, it may seem that inerrancy is a threat to our very God-given rights and is interfering with our knowledge of God. Is Enns right? Is inerrancy just a theory we should throw out?

Written into the Presuppositions of the doctrine of inspiration:

“Inspiration can have no meaning if Christianity is not true, but Christianity would be true and divine, and, being so, would stand, even if God had not been pleased to give us, in addition to His revelation of saving truth, an infallible record of that revelation absolutely errorless, by means of Inspiration … our conception of revelation and its methods must be conditioned upon our general views of God’s relation to the world, and His methods of influencing the souls of men. The only really dangerous opposition to the Church doctrine of Inspiration comes either directly or indirectly, but always ultimately, from some false view of God’s relation to the world, of His methods of working, and of the possibility of a supernatural agency penetrating and altering the course of a natural process … In this case that design is a record without error of the facts and doctrines He had commissioned His servants to teach.” (emphasis added)

Against Enns claim, inerrancy is not theoretical at all. It’s pre-theoretical. Roy Clouser expounds on this in his book Myth of Religious Neutrality. I can summarize with his statement, “every theory either explicitly contains some divinity belief or presupposes one.” It means that not only is inerrancy a divinity belief that controls the doctrinal systems exegeted from Scripture, but the denial of inerrancy is also a divinity belief that controls how Peter Enns exegetes Scripture.

Clouser goes on, “…the exercise of theoretical reason is always regulated and directed by some per se divinity belief so that reason is not autonomous nor is theorizing religiously neutral … the essential core of [a divinity belief] is to [be] unconditionally non-dependent on reality.” Hodge and Warfield claim that divine inspiration is meaningless if it is not true. So inerrancy isn’t dependent on human writers, but on how God relates to mankind. Does God relate to us through truth or error?

Both Enns’ view and the Reformed view of Inspiration entail a presupposition concerning error. In the former, inspiration may entail error; in the latter view, inspiration may not entail error. And though Enns may believe he’s disproven inerrancy by appealing to certain portions of Scripture as being prima facie incongruous, the belief that error is or is not entailed in divine inspiration, is presupposed. Why? Because we can’t subject the divine inspiration of God to human truth tests. And that’s the point. We must pre-suppose!

Why does this matter?

Well, that depends (at least in part) on Romans 13. Enns wants to argue that only teachings related to faith and salvation are truthful passages. But Romans 13 does indeed teach something concerning salvation. That is, a warning, “whoever resists the authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves.” But how does this square with Acts 5:29 or with Romans 8:1?

What’s being asked of libertarians when we’re confronted with the question, “what about Romans 13?” is not simply a question about our position on obeying civil magistrates; it goes deeper. It’s a question about what we believe about authority itself.

If Enns is correct, then we can essentially ignore Romans 13 as not being relevant in today’s context. But to what end can we take this especially with a passage which has a blatant warning concerning faith and salvation? It seems, according to Enns’ own standard, that this text can’t be written off as erroneous. On the other hand, if inerrancy is correct, then in light of the warning Paul gives, it’s imperative that we be sober-minded. Certainly, it could be said, that the myriad explanations for Romans 13 is evidence enough that it’s both a difficult passage and quite relevant.

Defending what’s authoritative

The controversy over inerrancy is a question of authority. Does God hold authority in how he relates to us, or does man hold authority in discerning what ought to be authoritative from Scripture?

Inerrancy isn’t a statement about man’s capacity to err; it’s a statement about God’s incapacity to err. Denying inerrancy isn’t a statement about man’s being convicted by the Spirit; it’s a statement about the potential for the Spirit to speak erroneously to you.

Is Romans 13 authoritative?

If it is, then ongoing study for understanding and defense is paramount. If it is not, then what else in Scripture that comes from warnings of condemnation is also unauthoritative? Dare we tread here? But Enns’ choice of using Romans 13 to illustrate his conundrum may be providential as it directly relates to faith and salvation and therefore holds to Enns’ requirements for passages that are true.

And if we truly believe libertarianism is the most consistent expression of Christian political thought,5 then Romans 13 shouldn’t be a thorn in our flesh. After all, couched in our rejection of the state’s authority, is our defense of the legitimate use of force, or legitimate authority. Romans 13 should be our clarion call to authorities in all spheres of life, including that of civil governance, to their submission of explicitly delineated duties and limitations that those in authority are called, and our faithful submission to proper God-ordained authority so far as our Christian liberty allows.

In the final analysis, Biblicist dogmatism certainly can threaten Christian libertarians, particularly anarchists. However, the reformed view of inerrancy doesn’t threaten or weaken the Christian libertarian perspective, instead it strengthens it.

Footnotes

  1. Inerrancy is an aspect of the doctrine of inspiration.
  2. And was pejoratively labeled the “Presbyterian Rebellion” by King George
  3. The standard response is that we are to obey the state so long as it doesn’t command what God forbids nor forbids what God commands.
  4. Under one of Reformed’s Five Solas, Sola Scriptura.
  5. Admittedly, my LCI colleagues may cringe at my assertion that this is entirely about authority. While I will agree with Dr. Norman Horn that a biblical view of government doesn’t begin and end with Romans 13, it plays a pivotal role.

LCI posts articles representing a broad range of views from authors who identify as both Christian and libertarian. Of course, not everyone will agree with every article, and not every article represents an official position from LCI. Please direct any inquiries regarding the specifics of the article to the author. 

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