The End of Evangelicalism? Inerrancy as a master signifier

Dr. David Fitch has just released a new book entitled The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission: Towards an Evangelical Political Theology from Wipf and Stock publishers. David is a bi-vocational pastor atLife on the Vine and the B.R. Lindner Chair of Evangelical Theology at Northern Seminary and blogs at Reclaiming the Mission. In a series of posts, I want to explore Fitch’s argument and discuss his conclusions.

Chapter 2 of Fitch’s book is a discussion of the Žižekian philosophical framework upon which Fitch develops his thought. It is rather intense and unless you have a yearning for philosophy, it can be quite a difficult read. As a result, I will skip this chapter – which he suggests to do if you are not interested in the philosophy – and go to Fitch’s discussion of the inerrant Bible as a master signifier in a Žižekian framework. The next post will also focus on the inerrant Bible; however, it will focus on it as a sign of an empty ideology.

Evangelicals have always defined themselves by their commitment to a high view of scripture. Church historian David Bebbington even calls “the supreme value of the Bible” as one of the four “enduring priorities of the evangelical movement.” Fitch traces much of the history of the idea of inerrancy as it emerged out of the fundamentalist-modernist controversies in the 1920’s and 1930’s, through the Princeton school, Billy Graham and the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

Fitch states, however, that the inerrant Bible functions in evangelicalism as a Master-Signifier. It serves as an “object” to rally around as opposed to actually having meaning in daily life. Evangelicals confess their belief in an inerrant Bible yet few really know what it might mean, a clue that it is a Master-Signifier in the Žižekian framework.

For instance, inerrancy is qualified often by the phrase “according to the original autographs,” a phrase that was part of the original articulation of the doctrine by B.B. Warfield. The meaning, however, is difficult to pin down because no one has actually seen the original artifacts and no one expects to. As a result, there is no actual meaning to the phrase. It makes the inerrant Bible into a “sublime object” that forever lies beyond our reach. In this way, the inerrant Bible exposes itself as an “empty signifier,” a signifier with no referent.

Žižek says that when we make the Master-Signifier invisible, it strengthens its hold on the believers. The Master-Signifier becomes an object “that can never be nailed down specifically enough to topple it from its commanding position. It can mean many things to many people. Its invisibility therefore makes for a more powerful spectral domination.” This is what makes the “inerrant Bible according to the original autographs” such a powerful “sublime object.” No one can really nail down what it might mean to find an error in the original autographs which makes it all the more invincible. In fact, Fitch says, “the worst thing that could happen would be the actual discovery of the original autographs.”

Another way that the inerrant Bible functions as a Master-Signifier is that it does little work in actually directing biblical interpretation. It allows us to interpret the Bible to mean anything we want it to because after all, we believe it to be “inerrant.” We can say just about anything based on the Bible and as long as we declare we believe the Bible to be inerrant, no one can question our orthodoxy. Inerrancy simply becomes a badge to self-identify as an evangelical.

Additionally, the inerrant Bible allows us to believe we have the truth while at the same time remaining distant from actually engaging in it as a way of life. We assert the Bible as a perfect book without it truly meaning anything. It then acts as an “ideological fantasy.” In this, we live in a projected world where we can believe we have the truth, but in real life have to make little or no changes to the way we live. For instance, we can believe an inerrant Bible yet reject its directions to treat people with love and mutual respect, instead tearing down others we disagree with down and labeling them.

It must be asked whether the “inerrant Bible” as a Master-Signifier keeps people from embodying the truth, living into the Story and the mission that God is working in the world. The “perfect book” becomes a distraction leaving the evangelical unable to see the living reality of the mission of God recounted and extending to us through the Scriptures as handed down through the church. “Instead,” Fitch notes, “through the way we speak and the way we practice Scripture as evangelicals, we are held fixated by the sublime object of ‘the inerrant Bible.’ We parse it, exegete it, defend it, uphold it, inductively study it, take notes on it, all the while distracted from ever fully participating in the story it tells of the mission of God.” We are more interested in studying it than living it.

Now the question falls to us. Ponder these questions and interact with others in the comments:

1. How do you define inerrancy?
2. What does inerrancy mean to how you are shaped and formed into the image of Christ?
3. Does inerrancy have any practical meaning to the average Christian? If so, what?
4. Does inerrancy have any practical meaning to the average church or denominational leader? If so, what?
5. If inerrancy is as Fitch states, and if it doesn’t have meaning for how we practice our faith or are shaped into Christ’s image, what is the value of it?

David has been a systems thinker most of his life. He has started three businesses as well as designed and developed systems and processes in existing organizations. He has a Doctorate in Leadership and has also done additional post-graduate work in communications.

He has also pastored 3 churches and loves to think about, write about and podcast about scripture, theology, and leadership.

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  • I like the thought that because inerrancy “in the origional” is invisible..”…It can mean many things to many people. Its invisibility therefore makes for a more powerful spectral domination.”

    So true… and the result then is for many Christians the belief is that the key to a real, deep, lasting, powerful, etc…. relationship with God is based on the “RIGHT” theology and interpretation of a certain scripture. So we become a people running after the fresh ideas, best marketed theology, cultural relevance, or whatever….. Rather than being focused on living out the basic clear truths of scripture, we seek the “holy grail” of right-theology over right-practice.

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