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The blight of infallibility

By Ray Barraclough - posted Wednesday, 27 July 2022

First, just to unpack the two nouns in the title of this piece.

When one reflects on the basic plank of conservative evangelical ideology, namely that their Bible is infallible and inerrant, one can see how easy it is to slide into the de-facto belief that one's own theology is infallible and inerrant if it claims to be "biblical". It is infallibility by religious osmosis.

Blight – 'to nip in the bud, to wither' – Any fresh buds of insights into understanding or interpreting the scriptures, if they do not fit the evangelical hegemony (or the entrenched theology of the male power-brokers in the church) then the fresh buds are deprived of life. They wither and die.


This is not to say that evangelical theology is changeless. An evangelical acquaintance of mine recently declaimed to me that the Bible was full of timeless truth. I think he was unaware that he was thus a devotee of Plato. In the evangelical circles in which I once moved, that was not their evangelical belief. Rather, they argued that the Bible's truths were anchored in human history. So which of those two quite different (one could even say opposite) evangelical beliefs is infallible?

A study of the history of evangelical beliefs indicates that such a theological stream can be as influenced by the 'spirit of the age' as any other group. In practice, conservative evangelicals are usually influenced by the conservative ' spirit of the age'. That seems to be the common case in Australia.

An example. The Principal of the evangelical theological college in which I did my first theological study was a committed supporter of Apartheid in South Africa. (At the time, many conservative Australians shared that orientation.) To put it in religious terms, he saw such support as 'biblical'. And one of the key biblical texts he appealed to was Genesis 9:18, 25-26, 10:6. It was a text, alongside Exodus, Judges andJoshua – with their theologies of dispossession – that was appealed to by religious colonists in Australia to justify the killing and dispossession of the land's Indigenous owners.The Bible thus became a handbook for imperial expansion. And empires expand by dispossessing the original owners of the land.

Given established Protestant traditions of interpretation, these biblical writings served as handy texts if one wanted to defend not only Apartheid and imperial expansion, but slavery. Bible-believing Christians avidly used scripture for well over a century in the slave-owning southern United States to defend slavery. And the legacy of that racist biblicism still bedevils modern America.

A question nearer home. Do Australian evangelicals still regard the practice of Apartheid as being biblical? Or has that infallible doctrine slipped into fallibility in contemporary times? And can that fact be publicly admitted by conservative evangelical Christians?

I believe all theologies are contextual – even those in the Bible. Contrary to the view of my Platonic acquaintance, all the biblical writings have a historical, human context. That is so obvious. When they were first written, they were written within the parameters of two human languages – Hebrew and Greek. [Hebrew's first cousin Aramaic can also get a mention.] Surely no one would dispute that these languages are historical human phenomena.


And their social context was human. No language exists in a human-less vacuum. Social engagement produces language. And the very fact that there are such numerous different languages spoken in our world indicates that there are numerous different social contexts that have created, and shaped, both oral and written communication. And contexts and their beliefs change over time.

This point seems to be so obvious. But it is worth remembering in the current context, where there is such energy and activity in 'Bible-believing' ranks to entrench as infallible the contextual understandings of relationships in society held in the first century Graeco-Roman world. Of course the entrenching is quite arbitrary. While the current focus is on gender relationships, we need to recall that slavery [of both women and men] was also a social construct operative in that same first century. Indeed, some scripture writings give various advice to slave owners on how slaves were to be treated. No writer explicitly questioned slavery.

It was in the period of the Enlightenment, in the eighteenth century, that saw the first decided questioning of the practice of slavery. In Britain, this inspired both secular and religious critiques of slavery. I mention 'secular' because their writings and activity often gets overlooked in the re-writing of that history by religionists.

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About the Author

Dr Ray Barraclough is a theologian who has lectured at St Francis College in Brisbane and St George's college in Jerusalem.

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