Editor’s note: This is the second part of a five-part series in which Bruce Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, reviews the steps that led him away from fundamentalism.
My second step away from fundamentalism was set in slow motion before we even left youth camp. My pastor pointed the way quickly and decisively.
On the same night that I responded to the call to ministry, just before the lights went out in our bunk house, he appointed me to be the Sunday School teacher for the fifth-grade boys at his church.
“What will I teach them?” I asked.
“The Bible.” he said. He handed me my Bible. “Sunday’s lesson is Romans, chapter one. We read a chapter at a time, week by week. Just teach them the ‘literal’ truth of the Bible.”
That was all the preparation I had for the teaching ministry. It was sink or swim on your own. At that time, independent Baptists didn’t believe in Sunday School lesson “quarterlies” or any kind of Bible study aids. In their eyes, those were ways devised by liberals to infect the minds of believers and steer them away from the “literal” truth of the Bible.
And so, for the next two and a half years – until the preacher and I fell out over whether I could attend a school dance on Friday night and still be worthy to teach on Sunday mornings – I taught the Bible, book by book, week by week, to fifth-grade boys. In the process, I discovered that the Bible makes sense and that I could help 10- and 11-year-old boys make sense of the Bible.
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I also discovered that I found things in the Bible that my fundamentalist mentors seemed to miss. When you believe that through centuries of time God was carefully dictating the Bible – word for word – to ensure its accuracy, it seems natural to suppose that those interpreting it would be careful to observe the word order and time sequences recorded there.
That’s why it came as a shock for me, then a senior in high school, to observe a discrepancy within the Bible itself over the sequence of events surrounding Peter’s denial of Christ.
In Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells Peter, “before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.” (Mark 14:30) He records that Peter denied Christ three times, he heard the cock crow a second time, and then he remembers Jesus telling him, “Before the cock crow twice, thou shalt deny me thrice.” (Mark 14:66-72)
In Luke’s gospel, Jesus speaks emphatically, “I tell thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day before that thou shalt thrice deny that thou knowest me.” (Luke 22:33) He records that Peter denied Christ three times, Peter heard the cock crow, and then he remembered Jesus telling him, “Before the cock crow, thou shalt deny me thrice.” (Luke 22:54-62)
Obviously, if the Bible has been dictated word for word by God, or if God inspired the writers and they wrote with precision in their own words (the verbal plenary view of inspiration), something is wrong here.
I thought about this discrepancy long and hard when I was in high school and decided that it didn’t really make much difference whether Peter denied Christ three times before the cock first crowed or if his denials were actually before the second crowing. What was important was that Jesus knew Peter’s faith and courage were going to fail him at this moment.
I concluded then that the notion that the Bible is perfect was in error. If the Bible had to be worded perfectly for us to believe it, God would have made sure that all of the gospel writers got their stories straight.
I was still an inerrantist at that time, but, in my mind, inerrancy was already being attached less and less to the individual words of Scripture. Instead, it was being connected more and more with the overarching ideas and world view that I believed God inspired the writers to convey.
This step is described as being in slow motion because I was reluctant to make it and, in many ways, I’m still in the process of traversing all the implications of having done so.