One hundred and one years ago, on May 21, 1922, the prominent liberal pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?” He addressed three issues that fundamentalists insist are essentials — or “fundamentals” — of the Christian faith: the virgin birth of Jesus, the inerrancy of Scripture and the second coming of Christ. Fosdick didn’t so much argue against these ideas as against the idea of excluding from the Christian faith those who don’t adhere to them.
I first read this sermon in a church history course at the evangelical seminary I was attending. “According to Fosdick,” the professor exclaimed, “all of us are fundamentalists!” We laughed at the notion. We were evangelicals, not fundamentalists.
In his new book, Godbreathed, Zack Hunt goes on the offensive against the fundamentalist approach to biblical inerrancy. According to Hunt, fundamentalists commit the sin of bibliolatry — worshiping the Bible alongside the God revealed in it. They approach the Bible as a divine answer book instead of as the grand narrative of God’s liberation of humanity and all creation.
In rejecting the inerrancy of Scripture, Hunt is not rejecting the inspiration of Scripture. Rather, he is charting a different understanding of inspiration than that of the fundamentalists. In place of “verbal plenary inspiration” — in which God directly communicated the exact words of Scripture to its human authors — Hunt proposes a view of inspiration in which “the writers of the Bible were inspired to write their stories because those stories had inspired them.” For Hunt, “true inspiration — biblical inspiration — is the Spirit of God coming to dwell within us and within our world.” Rather than viewing inspiration as a way to defend doctrine, Hunt proposes viewing it as a way of entering into a story that stretches back to the earliest biblical authors.
Hunt recounts the rise of fundamentalism in the United States (including a nod to Fosdick’s sermon) and tells of his own upbringing as a fundamentalist and how he was led out of it. This story involves Hunt coming to grips with the fact that there are errors in the Bible — not just scientific and historical errors but even errors in moral judgment. (For instance, Hunt discusses the Old Testament command to carry out genocide, the New Testament prohibition of women speaking in church and the endorsement of slavery that appears in both testaments.)
Since the point of reading Scripture, for Hunt, isn’t to get all the answers right, errors are not to be explained away. Instead, following the third-century African theologian Origen, Hunt argues that biblical imperfections can drive us to seek a deeper meaning underlying the literal meaning. He suggests we follow the lead of the fourth-century African theologian Augustine, who argued that a faithful reading of Scripture must be guided by love of God and neighbor. Hunt proposes this “Origen/Augustine framework” as an alternative to a fundamentalist reading that leads to damning anyone who disagrees with one’s doctrines.
hunt’s recovery of these approaches to biblical interpretation as an alternative to fundamentalism is to be commended. At the same time, his book raises several questions that remain unanswered. First, how is it that the exemplars of Hunt’s approach, Origen and Augustine, were led to such radically different understandings of the faith? Origen’s reading of Scripture led him to embrace Christian pacifism and the hope of universal reconciliation. Augustine’s reading led him to justify killing in war and to develop a doctrine of hell that many fundamentalists would happily claim.
Second, does inerrancy entail fundamentalism? Fosdick didn’t believe so. “We should not identify the Fundamentalists with the conservatives,” Fosdick stated in his sermon. “All Fundamentalists are conservatives, but not all conservatives are Fundamentalists.” Hunt repeatedly suggests that those who hold to inerrancy believe that those who disagree with them will burn in hell for eternity. This may be true of the fundamentalists he encountered, but it is not what I have experienced among many nonfundamentalist evangelicals, even as I have moved away from adhering to inerrancy myself.
Finally, in Hunt’s approach, what makes biblical inspiration unique? Hunt proposes that we are all “godbreathed,” or inspired, to live out the story of God’s people, just as the biblical authors were. While this view is inspiring, one need not be a fundamentalist to believe the Spirit had a role in inspiring Scripture beyond breathing life into its human authors.
David C. Cramer is pastor of Keller Park Church, a Mennonite Church USA congregation in South Bend, Ind., and managing editor at the Institute of Mennonite Studies at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.