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.
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.