When the church abandons the belief that the New Testament is inerrant, it eventually runs out of anything to talk about. I expect this offends lots of good Christians, and so qualifiers and anti-strawmen exercises are in order.
First, I acknowledge there are lots of problems with the traditional discussions of inerrancy, mostly for the same reason the effort to define how Jesus is present in the Supper quickly becomes absurd. It is one thing to believe something is true; it is another to explain how it is true. We believers believe lots of things we can’t draw as an algorithm. (I’m not saying we believe because something strains credulity. I’ll let Tertullian explain that one to me someday, but in this incarnation I’ve found it useless.) Indeed, the impulse to need to explain how something works is often an inability to believe — or it is a desire to not look like a simpleton. We have to convince everyone around us that a piece of bread becoming God’s flesh for us makes perfect sense, you see, because we’re still just as smart as you are, even though we’ve bought this whole thing about a bearded guy in the sky.
Inerrancy has become a repulsive idea for lots of people who grew up conservative churches, because when they were kids they were taught all kinds of silly things, stemming from the confusion between “without error” and “physically true and without metaphor and subject to canons of materiality we only use here and no-where else in language”. When God says pi is equal to 3 He is not making a goof. He is talking like you do. He gets to apply the principle of materiality to His verbal precision just like you do.
So there are understandable reasons Christians have dropped inerrancy, if we allow that escaping baggage is acceptable.
Which wouldn’t be a problem if the text of the NT remained authoritative. But it seems to be — empirically — just fooling ourselves to think we can let the NT contain errors of some kind and still have an “inspired” revelatory document, over time. It seems — empirically — to be a predictable slippery slope down to a NT that is an embarrassing cultural document containing a canonical core, which core just happens to be harmonious with what we in our denomination want God to be like. You think Paul was wrong about women; others think he was wrong about gays. Still others think he was wrong about blood atonement. None of you have an authoritative text. You just differ in what you find charming.
Some Christians respond to this by demanding that we explain to them exactly how some text or other is without error, or true, or what do we “do with it”. Again, this is irrelevant to the first question: I believe that what Paul says about women is true about women — whatever he is saying. Anything else, and there is no revelation, there is just what we agree with, or can use.
I’m not saying that this slippery slope into silence is true for every individual. In fact, what makes slippery slopes so dangerous is that the slope is long and the incline slight. This process is multi-generational. You allow that Paul just might have been a child of his culture when he talked about women; your children, or their children, will not be able to grasp why redemption is exempt from that critique. The line you think you are drawing based on some obvious principle is just an accident of your own psychological history.
Over time, the church simply stops talking about what the NT says. What survives, for awhile, is what the NT means to that denomination’s tradition (with local color). But since that meaning has no anchor it soon becomes the church defending the gospel because it is useful. You can see this on a thousand evangelical blogs, now: particularly the Lutheran version of the gospel is defended because it is the only message the writer finds psychologically tolerable. You can declare James an epistle of straw because it is not useful to you personally. Your grandchildren will not find sanctification useful. Their grandchildren will not find Romans or Galatians useful.
The gospel is useful, of course, but that is not all it is; it also happens to be true and what God wants us to hear, whether we perceive it to be useful on any given day or not.
I’m not defending all of the talk in the past about what the NT says. There have been lots of arguments in the church’s history about this or that text — lots of blood shed, actually — and these preoccupations and atrocities have not been something to be proud of. But they happened because it mattered what the NT says. The ancient theological battles have not ceased because we solved them, nor because we got enlightened. They are ceasing because the text, as text, is gone.
At any rate, what I am saying is empirical, or not. I’m saying that the groups who have found inerrancy not useful are, or will, notice their conversations with their Christian friends becoming more about baseball and beer.
I hope I am wrong.