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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.


In a 2014 blog post entitled “The Apostle Paul’s Clear Inerrant Teaching On Government And Why We Don’t Need To Follow It” Peter Enns[1] explains, at least in part, why he rejects the inerrancy of God’s Word, and why he believes there are some things taught in the Bible that we aren’t obligated to believe or do. Enns discusses Romans 13:1-7 to illustrate his point. He suggests that a view of the Bible as inerrant necessarily involves insensitivity to its historical and literary contexts, and that when such contexts are appreciated, we need not view Romans 13 as binding, nor the Bible as inerrant.

However, he views biblical inerrancy in terms of an erroneous biblicism, and fundamentally misinterprets the teaching of Romans 13. A better view of the passage and of biblical inerrancy shows that the teaching of Romans 13 is indeed binding, and that Christians, even Christian libertarians, should embrace both the inerrancy of Scripture and what it teaches in Romans 13.

Enns summarizes what he takes Romans 13:1-7 to be teaching in this way:
“The governing authorities have been instituted by God and to resist these authorities is to resist God. If you conduct yourself well, you have nothing to fear. If you do what is wrong, you will feel the brunt of their authority, since they do not bear the sword in vain, do they?  Of course not. The authorities are God’s servants.”

Enns goes on to say that he thinks “no one who is an American citizen thinks Paul’s words are binding, given how our country was founded in rebellion to the governing authorities.” That’s simply false. There are indeed American citizens who believe Paul’s words here are binding. Some who take what the Bible teaches in this passage to be binding believe that rebellion against the English government was wrong. Others, such as many who rebelled at the time, and many Christian libertarians today (Reformed libertarians among them), take a different view than Enns on what the passage is actually teaching.

Enns continues, saying, some “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.” The view of “governmental authorities” and “instituted” that Enns is so certain the passage clearly teaches seems to be any power that by God’s providence in fact wields state power.

How, then, does Enns arrive at his belief that Romans 13 illustrates an erroneous Bible? “In the post-Enlightenment world” of today, he explains, “governments rule by the consent of the people.”[2] So, whereas “Paul’s claim about God and government,” expressed in Romans 13, “was completely unexceptional for his day –part of his cultural environment and utterly natural to him and his readers,” we post-Enlightenment people know better. The world has changed. No one believes what Paul was teaching anymore. Therefore, ever so conveniently, it just doesn’t apply to us. As you’ve probably noticed, Enns’ article title was partly sarcastic. He doesn’t believe Paul’s teaching in Romans 13 is inerrant at all.

Enns also raises the question of the account in Genesis of God’s creating the world. He believes that those who hold to a six 24-hour day view (although he disagrees with that interpretation) must hold the more consistent inerrantist position because some other interpretations of the passage show sensitivity to its historical and literary context. This tells us that Enns has confused biblical inerrancy with what is sometimes called fundamentalism or “biblicism.”

One error of biblicism (although not unique to it) is confusing the question of error in interpretation with the question of error in Scripture. A biblicist might insist one cannot really or consistently hold to the Bible’s inerrancy, if one doesn’t hold to a given interpretation. Enns seems to miss the irony of his sharing this confusion with biblicists.[3]

Among its other errors, part of what biblicism means may indeed involve insensitivity to the Bible’s various historical and literary contexts. But such biblicism or insensitivity is not at all necessary for holding to the inerrancy of Scripture[4]. It’s worth mentioning that late-1800’s Princeton seminary professors A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, who significantly contributed to an understanding of Scripture as inerrant, were not biblicists[5]. Neither is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy biblicist. The Chicago Statement and Princetonians alike were explicit about the crucial importance of appreciating the historical and literary context of the biblical text.

More recently, both Kevin Vanhoozer, professor of Systematic Theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Greg Beale, professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, among others, also defend a better (non-biblicist) view of the Bible’s inerrancy[6].

What, then, would be a better understanding of Romans 13:1-7? With a due sensitivity to the historical and literary context, Paul is not teaching that, although by God’s providence as everything is, the thugs who happen to be in power must be submitted to on that account as some sort of mafia godfather, or paterfamilias writ large, as Enns asserts[7]. Rather, quite contrary to the spirit of the surrounding pagan culture of the time in which “might” was considered “right” (just as it is by states today), God’s Word teaches in this passage that it is God who has prescriptively instituted an office of service, of administering civil justice according to His normative standard. And it is to such legitimate, just governance as Paul describes that God requires all to submit.

This interpretation of Romans 13 is explained further in this article by Gregory Baus. We introduce and discuss that article in episode 2 of the Reformed Libertarians Podcast. Baus and Jacob Winograd also answer various objections to that view in episode 42 of the Biblical Anarchy Podcast.

There is something of an element of truth, however, to Enns’ saying that not everything the Bible teaches is (always) binding in the same way. Perceiving that truth requires sensitivity to what we might call the redemptive-historical or covenantal context of Scripture. The command to Israel to conquer Canaan was a special symbolic and temporary provision within the old Mosaic covenant, and has now been made obsolete in the new covenant era. Baus and Winograd discuss the old covenant Conquest of Canaan, and explain this view further, in episode 14 of the Biblical Anarchy Podcast. The old covenant, revealed in Scripture, certainly teaches new covenant believers important things (for example, about Christ’s accomplished saving work and the coming final judgment and consummation) we are obliged to believe.

In any case, Romans 13 is given in the present new covenant era and remains binding for us in the same way it was given to its original hearers. Contrary to Enns’ misinterpretation of that passage, his repudiation of it as erroneous and non-obligatory for us today, and contrary to his misconstrual of biblical inerrancy in biblicist terms as necessarily insensitive to historical and literary context, Christians can and should embrace a proper interpretation of Romans 13 as part of God’s inerrant Word. On Enns’ view, Christian libertarians would dismiss Romans 13 as an antilibertarian bit of quaint historical folly. But, thank God, there is a better, more spiritually robust and satisfying understanding and faith that is ours in Christ Jesus.

Notes:

  1. Peter Enns is a professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University.
  2. As libertarians should be aware, those who exercise a monopoly on coercion, as contemporary governments do, certainly don’t rule by “the people’s” actual consent. More about that here.
  3. Adding to his confusion, Enns believes the diversity of interpretations (somehow, he fails to say) makes the Bible’s meaning uncertain and its inerrancy “nonsensical”, and yet, simultaneously, he himself is able to discern the clear meaning of numerous texts and judge them to be erroneous.
  4. Some differing views of biblical inerrancy are highlighted here.
  5. Warfield and Charles Hodge (A.A.’s father) were also known for cautiously holding to an evolutionary view.
  6. For example, see Vanhoozer’s essay on “well-versed” inerrancy here, and this video address. See Beale’s review of one of Enns’ books here, and a further reply here, also listen to his audio lecture here on the Bible’s inerrancy, or read it as an article here. Also see Beale’s book The Erosion Of Inerrancy here, largely responding to Enns’s views.
  7. Enns appeals to the opinions of Luke Timothy Johnson, a professor emeritus of New Testament and Christian Origins at Emory University.

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