Tag Archives: inerrancy

Thoughts on the Book, “Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International”

I finished reading a book a couple weeks ago called, “Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International.” It was published earlier this year and written by Charlene Edge. It is incredibly well written, a masterpiece of storytelling really. For me it was also very personal. It helped me better understand my own story even through the crosswinds of painful emotions and memories that stirred in my soul as I read. Undertow book

Like me, Charlene was a student at East Carolina University, who got involved with a religious group called The Way International (TWI). For Charlene this happened in the early 1970’s; for me in the mid 1990’s (I shared some of my experiences in the first few blog posts on this site). Yet our stories and experiences intersect, connect, and overlap in many places, although we never crossed paths. Charlene’s masterful memoir helped fill in a few gaps in my own understanding of the group that left such an indelible mark, some scars, on both of us. My experience helped me learn quite a few hard lessons about how what you believe and what you don’t know can hurt you. What was really interesting to me is through our experiences with TWI, Charlene and I came to very similar conclusions regarding one TWI doctrine in particular, their doctrine of inerrancy.

I say “their doctrine” because TWI had their own very tailor-made version. The problem that Charlene and I both discovered was TWI, against their own advice, started out with an idea of what inerrancy meant, primarily driven by the ideas E.W. Bullinger. Then they proceeded to force Scripture into that paradigm. According to their founder, Victor Paul Wierwille, inerrancy involved a “mathematical exactness and scientific precision,” one his favorite phrases. Charlene actually worked in the research department at TWI headquarters in New Knoxville, and worked on their Aramaic (really Syriac) translation of the New Testament. Her task was tedious to say the least. What she and I both discovered was that TWI beliefs about inerrancy actually led them to distort the Bible. They contorted it to fit many of the unassailable premises that Wierwille had set in place. They are also very quick to suppress any challenges to those premises, as Charlene’s book so aptly shows.

One simple example of how one of Wierwille’s underlying premises led to distortion is his idea that roughly 80% of the Bible can be interpreted accurately right in the verse where it is written. Although, he talked about the importance of context, he clearly gave the impression that most of the verses in the Bible could be understood without the aid of context. This idea leads to prooftexting and TWI has a long history of engaging in it.

Prooftexting is the practice of looking to isolated verses apart from context to prove an idea or belief. It has a long history in America, and I wrote an article not too long ago about how it played a part in the theological crisis surrounding the Civil War. Just about every teaching delivered in TWI is an example of prooftexting. Just look at one of their articles on their website or in their subscription magazine and you’ll see what I mean. Virtually all of them start off with a topic and then string together verses from all over the Bible to make the case for the thesis statement. The truth is no verse should ever be considered or used as a proof apart from its immediate and remote context, period.

It’s not that one should never provide a Scripture reference for an argument. After all Jesus did that himself. But Jesus referenced specific verses with the immediate context and tenor of the entire Bible in mind. So should we. TWI offers a lot of “keys to Biblical research” that are built on fallacious premises. Based on these “keys” they force fit Biblical texts into their approved paradigm and downplay and ignore texts they just can’t quite get to cooperate.

Nonetheless, after I got out of TWI and started reading and considering the Bible outside of their box of “keys” I was saved and set free by the one who holds the keys that matter most (Rev. 1:8). I also realized how the doctrine of “inerrancy” could be abused and misused, even if just innocently misunderstood. So I put it on the backburner so to speak. What I discovered is that there are a lot of orthodox biblical scholars who have done the same, but not because they don’t believe the Bible is inspired by God and therefore reliable and true. Instead they are wary of the doctrine of inerrancy because it is so difficult to define and so easy to misdefine and force the Bible into a foreign paradigm.

Although Charlene and I both came out of TWI wary of inerrancy, my experiences led me to an appreciation and love for orthodoxy, while Charlene took an agnostic turn toward a skeptical view of the Bible and Christianity in general. Charlene is understandably wary of fundamentalism because of her experience with TWI. But I think she put too much weight on inerrancy being the primary driver behind fundamentalism. Christianity, including it’s conservative orthodox expressions, are much more diverse and rich to be summed up by any one particular label. Christian fundamentalism itself doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant when it referred to the very serious, brilliant Princeton theologians who were attempting to respond to modernist challenges to the Christian faith from forces in the secular world and liberals swayed by those secular forces within the Church. Many would be surprised to know that some of the early fundamentalists did not see any conflict between the basic ideas of Charles Darwin concerning evolution and Genesis. They  were not wooden literalists. Even one of the most prominent conservative Christian voices in America today, Tim Keller, is a theistic evolutionist and a believer in inerrancy.

Inerrancy was part of the early classical fundamentalist defense of the faith, but they were just evoking a belief that was expressed by the early church fathers when they said Scripture is “without error or excess.” This language is echoed by John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, long before the fundamentalist-modernist controversy. In his introduction to his notes on the New Testament he said Scripture is “without defect or excess.” Inerrancy was a term coined during more recent times but it captures a belief about Scripture that can easily be traced back to the church fathers, the apostles, and Jesus himself.

Nevertheless, inerrancy is in may respects a shorthand way of saying the Bible reliably and truthfully conveys the message about God and salvation history that God intended to convey through it’s human writers. I remember R.C. Sproul saying inerrancy is a shibboleth of sorts to indicate that one takes the Bible seriously as the sole rule and criterion for genuine Christian faith and practice. This in no way should deter anyone from learning as much as possible about what the Bible actually says and what it means in its literary and historical context.

Any understanding of the Bible’s reliability and trustworthiness should emerge from a deep and honest encounter with the Bible itself. Coming up with a rigid definition of what inerrancy must mean beforehand is a recipe for … well …, a cult.

I think biblical scholar, Peter Enns, is right in many ways to say “defending Scripture has made us unable to read it” (part of the title of one of his books). I’ve also realized that attacking Scripture doesn’t help either. The attacks are the reason for the defense in the first place. Some attacks are not considered to be such by some who attempt to make the Bible more relevant to their present culture. As Alister McGrath says in his book “A History of Defending The Truth: Heresy” sometimes attacks on the truth come with the best of intentions to make the gospel more winsome. Sometimes the defense itself goes overboard, albeit still with the best of intentions. But in some cases the attacks are intentional in order to subvert the authority of the Bible in favor of a competing ideology, which often captures the hearts and minds of some within the visible church.

Attacks on the authority and credibility of the Bible can come in just as much of a wooden, literal form, sometimes more so, than the simplistic defenses offered by “fundamentalists.” What I have discovered is that those who seek to undermine the Bible’s authority in order to bolster the authority of a competing ideology or even their own personal authority, use wooden, literal interpretations to make the Bible look silly while overzealous defenders of the Bible sometimes resort to a wooden literalism to bolster its authority. It’s not just an ideology of inerrancy that can lead to distortion of the Bible; any ideology foreign to the Bible itself can. It is becoming more widely recognized for instance that Enlightenment ideologies led to distortion in the realms of higher criticism, for example. There are many postmodern ideologues who have no qualms about forcing the Bible into supporting a wide array of particular political agendas, as I showed with regards to immigration in that same post about prooftexting during the Civil War mentioned above.

As someone pointed out, sometimes ideas possess people more than people possess ideas. When the former is the case, the ideologue will force all of reality “to fit like a hand in a glove” (another one of Wierwille’s favorite sayings), to fit their ideas which often spring from sheer desire: greed, lust, and/or pride. This can happen with the Bible, but also with history and science (i.e. “scientism” is to science what “fundamentalism” is to religion). A rigid ideology that insists upon an errant Biblical text can be just as abusive, perhaps more so, as one that insists upon an inerrant text.

At any rate, I have re-embraced the traditional Christian belief that the Bible is without error or excess, but I do so in a more cautious, open, and nuanced way. This shouldn’t be equated with a simplistic literalism. The language of literalism and non-literalism is misleading anyway, a false dichotomy. As N.T. Wright says, the Bible really doesn’t mean what it says; it means what it means. I just sent a note to a friend about our families getting together this Friday. The last sentence I sent was “I look forward to it.” A flat “literal” reading wouldn’t really do justice to the intended meaning, which is to convey a sense of excitement and joy in anticipation of our future gathering. The statement means more than it says; it means what it means. A simplistic wooden literalism or an absolute “non-literalist” approach will never reveal the Bible’s meaning. Neither of those approaches are really possible anyway. Things are a little more complicated than that. I’m still learning myself as a man of faith seeking understanding.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Charlene’s memoir. I highly recommend it. It is a fantastic read and very informative about the tactics of cult groups and the mindsets and emotional states that make one susceptible to them. I sent a note to Charlene on her blog to express my appreciation for her book. I am thankful for her gracious response and the private communications we have shared. I wish her the best on the rest of her journey through life. You can find a link to her book on Amazon here.

I highly recommend Kristen Skedgell’s book, “Losing the Way: A Memoir of Spiritual Longing, Manipulation, Abuse, and Escape”, about her experience in TWI as well. In it Kristen details her experiences of sexual seduction and abuse at the hands of Wierwille, the founding president, himself. It serves as a poignant and personal example of what Charlene says she was shocked to discover as being a more widespread practice for Wierwille and other leaders in TWI. During my involvement with TWI the second president, Craig Martindale, resigned after lawsuits were filed against him for abusing his position of power to have adulterous relationships with other women. As one of my church history professors at Duke said, sadly sexual licentiousness and heterodoxy seem to occur together frequently throughout history.


Faith and Scripture

Jesus calls for others to believe in him, to trust him. In John 14:1 he says, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” You see this, as well, throughout each of the four Gospels, whether it be calming a storm on the sea, healing the blind, the sick, and the demonically oppressed, or in his warnings to his disciples about coming persecution. Would be disciples of Jesus are called to trust in him personally. Matthew 28:17 shows that after his resurrection this call to faith culminated in his disciples worshiping him, though some initially lingered in doubt, Thomas the most famous among them (John 20:24-29). John makes it clear that this was the very reason he wrote his Gospel. John 20:31 “but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (ESV).

The life of which John speaks is the abundant life, the eternal life, which, for the one who believes, begins in the present. It is a real foretaste of the glory of the life to come in the fullness of the kingdom of God with its corresponding joy in the here and now. Hallelujah! Faith in Jesus allows us to receive and enter into God’s kingdom even now, but it is a faith in Jesus as he is revealed to us in the Bible. Faith in Jesus will also require trust in scripture as it describes and points to Jesus, the Word of God made flesh who reveals the Father and His will (John 1).

Inevitably, therefore, the question of whether we should trust Jesus will bring us to the question of whether we can trust the canonical written accounts of his life, ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and promised second coming. This especially includes the Bible’s claims about his significance “for us and our salvation,” to quote the Nicene Creed. Can we trust the Bible? A question that is really at the crux of much controversy and conflict in the world, even in the Church, today.

One of the central claims of Islam found in the Quran, for example, is that the Bible has been corrupted by Jews and Christians and can no longer be fully trusted to reveal the truth about who Jesus really is or what God is really like. Initially, it seems, this may have been understood to mean that Jews and Christians had just misinterpreted the original meaning of the Old and New Testaments. Eventually Muslim scribes and scholars would argue that the biblical texts themselves had been altered from their original message and therefore have been corrupted. Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, many centuries later, would make similar claims regarding the relationship of the Book of Mormon to the Bible. The founder of The Way International, the group I was once involved with, also made similar claims, that the Bible had been misinterpreted by orthodoxy and that many passages in English translations had been intentionally corrupted by conspiratorial Trinitarian translators. He penned a little booklet called, “Forgers of the Word” where he leveled these charges. He also gave his own “translations according to biblical usage,” as he called them, that drastically altered the traditional understanding of passages like the one found in John 1 in other publications.

Many others in various forms and for a variety of reasons have made similar claims, questioning either the mainstream orthodox interpretation of the Bible, or the reliability and truthfulness of the biblical texts themselves. Some don’t doubt that the Bible says what it’s original writers intended to convey as much as they just doubt the Bible accurately reflects who Jesus really was and what God is really like, if they believe God exists at all. In some cases the doubt is only centered around certain parts of the Bible, in others the entirety of the Bible’s depiction of Jesus and God generally is suspect.

Saint Irenaeus in the second century contended with those who, apparently, initially tried to argue from scripture that Jesus was a being quite different from the one that the universal church had come to believe in, and that the God revealed in him, according to the writings that would come to be included in the New Testament, was different from the God revealed in the pages of the Old Testament. In other words, they at first, it seems, claimed that the Jesus described in the New Testament revealed a God of compassion and mercy that was different from the God of wrath and vengeance found in the Old Testament. They also denied, according to their Gnostic worldview, which discounts the value of the physical world as an illusion from which we need to be set free, that Jesus was really human. Traces of some of these ideas can be found being opposed by the apostle John in 1 John, where he warns the church to be discerning, to “test the spirits” because of the false prophets who claim that Jesus did not come in the flesh (1 John 4:1-3). From what Irenaeus says they at first try to make their case from scripture, but when they cannot sustain their arguments from the scriptures they resort to attacking them  to justify holding to their unbiblical beliefs.

“But when they are refuted from the Scriptures they turn around and attack the Scriptures themselves, saying that they are not correct or authoritative, that they are mutually inconsistent and that the truth cannot be found from them by those who are not acquainted with the tradition.” (Saint Irenaeus, Against Heresies III, 2.1)

This is a common pattern that comes up again and again throughout history. You see it with the rise of Islam and the claims of its prophet Muhammad; you see it in the claims of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith and various other movements, religious and political, that have sprung up over the centuries to challenge the longstanding interpretations of the Bible, and/or to challenge the authenticity or the truthfulness of the claims of the Bible itself. You see it in the scholarly movement called “The Jesus Seminar,” which paints a portrait of the so-called historical Jesus that bears barely even a faint resemblance to Jesus as he is actually described in the New Testament. While the Gnostic Jesus only appeared to be human, the phantom of “The Jesus Seminar” was entirely and utterly human, but none too prophetic, at least not in the Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic sort of a sense. The same pattern can be found in contemporary “progressive Christian” movements that inevitably end up progressing beyond the Bible, at least those portions they deem distasteful.

Nevertheless, the Bible as we have it must be the measure and standard for any claims to faith in Jesus. If we are going to trust Jesus and faithfully follow him we must trust the documents in and through which he is revealed. Thus, you will find throughout the history of the Church, statements about scripture which indicate its function as a guide and rule for what is genuine Christian faith and practice.

Referring to the writings handed down from the apostles or their close associates, Irenaeus said:

“All of these handed down to us that there is one God, maker of heaven and earth, proclaimed by the law and the prophets, and one Christ the Son of God. If anyone does not agree with them he despises the companions of the Lord, he despises the Lord himself, refusing his own salvation, as all the heretics do.” (Against the Heresies 1.2)

Here Irenaeus not only holds up what would become New Testament scriptures, but, importantly, also those writings with which they were in harmony as they unveil their fulfillment in Jesus Christ, namely the law and the prophets (i.e. The Old Testament). In the conclusion of his work, “On the Incarnation,” Athanasius, the fourth century defender of the full divinity of Jesus against Arius and his associates who declared that prior to his incarnation Jesus as the Word of the Father was the first created being who then created all other things, invites his readers to prove the truth of what he had written “by the study of the scriptures”, which he declared were inspired by God. The same must still be done today by orthodox believers in the face of the claims of Arius’s modern heirs like the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The articles of religion (Articles 5 & 6) and confession of faith (Article 4) for my own denomination, the United Methodist Church, express this same idea, that the scriptures of both the Old and New Testaments, which are explicitly declared to be in harmony, are to be the ultimate standard and guide for faith and practice.

Church fathers like Irenaeus and Athanasius didn’t develop this idea of testing claims by scripture on their own. They rightly discerned this rule from the Bible itself, even from Jesus himself, that is as he is revealed in the pages of the four canonical Gospels. Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus birth and events surrounding it fulfilled scripture. Jesus fended off the attacks of the devil himself, who confidently, albeit wrongly, referenced scripture as one of his tactics to deceive, by quoting scripture as it was meant to be understood in its proper context (Matthew 4 & Luke 4). He also chastised religious leaders not for adhering to the law, which he himself knew to be the word of God, but for rejecting the word of God in favor of their traditions, which Jesus judged to be contrary to the original intent of the law (See Mark 7 & Matthew 15). In one confrontation with religious leaders who were judging him by their traditions, Jesus said, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honor me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain they do worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men” (Mark 7:6-8 ESV).

Unquestionably, Jesus, as he is revealed in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had the highest regard for scripture, the law and the prophets. He knew them to be the very word Jesus pointing to scrollof God and he believed himself to be the one in whom they find their ultimate meaning and fulfillment. He courageously allowed his own arrest and went to the cross that the scriptures might be fulfilled (Mark 14:48-49). After his resurrection he lovingly reproved his disciples for being “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (Luke 24:25). Then he took them on a journey through the law, the psalms and the prophets, the whole Old Testament. This helped them to understand the scriptures so they could know him and understand who he really is and what his life, death, and resurrection mean for their salvation and for the salvation of those to whom they would be witnesses (see Luke 24 and Acts 1).

His apostles and those who would come to believe because of their testimony and preaching would continue to state the importance of testing all things by scripture. In Acts the Bereans are held up as a model for all believers in that they eagerly received the word, and also examined the scriptures daily to authenticate the preaching and teaching of Paul and Silas (Acts 17:10-11). In 1 Corinthians Paul, in defense of bodily resurrection, reminds them, with what was apparently a confessional statement handed down from the first apostles, that Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection happened “in accordance with the Scriptures” (15:3-4). Moreover, in his second letter to Timothy, in the context of warnings about false teaching and false teachers (2 Timothy 3:1-9), Paul encourages Timothy to continue in the scriptures (here the OT), “which,” he says, “are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 15). Timothy can trust scripture as a reliable and trustworthy guide and standard by which not only to test the claims of false teachers but also by which to live a godly life and to help others do likewise. Why? For “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (v. 16-17).

papyrus p66 JohnCan we trust the Bible? Jesus thought so, and so did the apostles; and they were referring to the still much maligned Old Testament! As mentioned above some will wonder whether we can trust the Bibles we have today to say what was in the original manuscripts, which are no longer in existence. With only a few significant exceptions that don’t affect any major Christian doctrines, which are usually noted and explained in newer English translations, experts who study and compare the thousands of manuscript copies assure us that we can be confident that what we have now reliably and accurately reflects the original manuscripts.

But can we be confident that the Bible accurately conveys the truth about who God is and the life and significance of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah and Son of God. In more personal terms should we trust the Bible with regards to Jesus’ significance “for us and our salvation,” what we should believe and how we should live. Jesus and his earliest apostles believed that to be true for the Old Testament, the law, psalms, and prophets. The early church fathers after the apostles believed that to be true of the Old Testament as well, and also for the testimony of the apostles of Jesus handed down in the documents that would eventually comprise the New Testament. Again, they believed the New Testament to be in harmony with the old, a harmony that Augustine tried to express in the dictum, “In the Old Testament the New is concealed, in the New the Old is revealed.” This is like the relationship between a seed and its mature fruit.

Because they believed the Bible was inspired by God, church fathers like Augustine believed the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments, to be completely truthful and trustworthy, even without error or superfluity, the later meaning the Bible doesn’t contain anything that it shouldn’t. In a letter to Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, Augustine said referring to the canonical books of scripture that he believed the authors “were completely free of error” and that of these book alone he was bound to submit to their teaching without suspicion of the slightest mistake or intent to mislead. If he found something therein that seemed to be at odds with the truth, what he would call the analogy of faith, the entirety of the harmonious teaching of all of Scripture, he would assume either a copyist’s error in the manuscripts, an unclear translation, or an error in his own understanding. Thus he trusted that the original manuscripts would have been without error. It was a matter of faith based on the best available evidence.

Church historian, J.N.D Kelly (Early Christian Doctrines, 1978) says, “it goes without saying that the fathers envisaged the whole of the Bible as inspired,” which led to the view that it was also without error and that not even a “jot or title” according to Origen or a “syllable, accent, or point” according to Jerome is superfluous. In the 18th century, the founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, echoed these convictions in a sermon warning about the dangers of downplaying or ignoring passages that speak against “fashionable sins” by saying the Bible is “unquestionably true” and that there is nothing superfluous in it, relating either to faith or practice” (“On Corrupting the Word of God” Sermon 136). In his preface to his explanatory notes on the Bible Wesley said:

“The Scripture therefore of the Old and New Testament, is a most solid and precious system of Divine truth. Every part thereof is worthy of God; and all together are one entire body, wherein is no defect, no excess.”

Its unerring truthfulness cannot be judged by any outside criteria, neither can it be perfectly explained or comprehended without running into paradoxes, which are also inescapable with other major Christian doctrines like the Trinity and the incarnation and predestination and free will. The reliability and truthfulness of the Bible can only be experienced as we seek to master it and in the process find ourselves mastered by it as it leads us to daily surrender at the foot of the cross. All of it is inspired, and therefore without defect; thus, all of it is profitable for us and our salvation; none of it is to be disregarded, certainly not discarded.

As Augustine said, “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe but yourself.” Without the whole thing, you won’t have the real thing, and it’s only the real thing that is “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). In light of John 5:39, I don’t think John would mind me saying, these, all of the scriptures, were written “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31).