“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many time and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe.” Hebrews 1:1-2
What does inerrancy really mean?
Christians who have studied doctrine (or even just taken a pre-membership class at their local church) will be familiar with the authority-claim that the Bible is inerrant, i.e., without error. For us Christians who have bet our very lives on the testimony of Scripture about God and Jesus, this claim seems justified on the face of it. But I have to ask, “What does inerrancy really mean, and is that even the right kind of word to describe our basis for confidence in Scripture?”
It may sound heretical to question the doctrine of inerrancy. Who among Christians would want to admit (and much less argue) that Scripture has errors? Thus, when faced with the choice between errancy vs. inerrancy, believers naturally choose inerrancy. As a result, we accept a way of thinking about the subject that weakens the case for Christ and the power of the gospel.
Doesn’t the Bible speak for itself on this subject (see verses above)? Isn’t it enough to affirm that Scripture is a reliable witness of God’s personal relationship and revelatory interaction with humankind throughout history? Christians believe that the essential message of Scripture is understandable and applicable to every generation; it is a reliable guide to faith and practice. Do we need to define it more precisely, as if that would eliminate the messy task of interpretation?
I suppose it’s helpful to have a word to describe this belief, and “inerrant” is the one we’ve been dealt in modern evangelical circles. Unfortunately, it just begs additional questions and always requires clarification (and so does not provide a more concise belief statement than 2 Timothy 3:16 or Hebrews 1:1-2). As Denis Lamoureux explains in one recent article:
Biblical inerrancy is a notion that is often seen as a distinguishing characteristic of evangelical Christianity. During this generation, it has been a hotly debated issue, resulting in a variety of conceptions. Three examples outlined in Erickson’s monumental Christian Theology (1998) include: (1) “absolute inerrancy” asserts that all scientific and historical statements in Scripture are completely precise and true; (2) “full inerrancy” also claims that the Bible is entirely true, but qualifies that assertions about nature and the past are phenomenological; and (3) “limited inerrancy” focuses on the messages of faith in the Word of God since references to science and history reflect ancient understandings.(Lamoureux, D.O. 2008. Lessons from the Heavens: On Scripture, Science and Inerrancy. PSCF 60.1:4-15.)
Obviously, the doctrine of inerrancy was developed and articulated as such to reinforce and defend the reliability of Scripture (read the Lamoureux article for a summary of its origin), but I think it actually makes the foundation more brittle and feeble. It’s like hardening your arteries in an attempt to strengthen your circulatory system; it restricts the flow of blood and leads to a stroke or heart-attack. As a doctrine about Scripture, inerrancy hardens arteries in the body of believers, restricting the flow of living communication with God.
I think the whole idea of inerrancy is misplaced with regard to Scripture. It’s just not appropriate to apply that sort of “test” to Scripture, except with regard to its basic principles and gospel claims. So the ancient writers thought that the earth was a flat, circular disc and delivered God’s message with that background assumption about the physical structure of the cosmos. Does it make any sense to call that an error or a mistake? I don’t think so.
If incomplete and inaccurate knowledge qualifies as “error”, then everything we think we know (even about God) is an error because our knowledge is never complete. We could not handle the whole truth (or knowledge) if God revealed it completely every time he communicated with us in our given contexts. God always accommodates his message to the culture and intellectual understanding of his hearers.
Inerrancy = Concordism. Both are Wrong
Inerrancy in Christian belief is closely associated with all forms of concordism in young-earth, old-earth and progressive creationist views about the relationship of modern science and biblical truth. Concordism is the notion that the Bible is scientifically accurate wherever it references the structure and behavior of the physical world. It may sound reasonable to assume that the propositions (i.e., claims) of God’s word should correspond (have concordance) with ultimate reality. Unfortunately, this concept is flawed in the same way as inerrancy; it fails to respect the times and places in which the message was given.
As I’ve explained before, we might wish that the Bible were fully concordant and absolutely inerrant, as this would make it a cinch to “prove” that the Bible is inspired. But it just ain’t so; if we insist on using the “concordism” or “inerrancy” litmus test to diagnose the reliability of Scripture, then the Bible (and the basis of Christianity) fails the test. And if we concede to using a softer form of concordism or inerrancy, then we’re back to deciding for ourselves what is true and not true. Concordism has produced the same sort of hardened arteries in the body of believers as inerrancy has. I’ll have more to say about the problems of concordism in future posts, but I think it is sufficient here to say that God’s word came to us “through the prophets at many times and in various ways”, which includes the fact each person received God’s message and wrote within his cultural and pre-scientific context.
Infallibility of Scripture
If inerrancy is a misplaced concept, what about the term “infallibility” to describe the intended doctrine about the Bible’s reliability? Here’s what Margaret Gray Towne wrote in her book Honest to Genesis:
Some Christians claim inerrancy for the Bible. They acknowledge that some parts of the Bible are more important and more valuable than others, however they cannot concede that it contains any errors. They assert that whatever God does is flawless and inerrant. God would not put revelation into something that was imperfect, they claim.
Other Christians cannot subscribe to the assertion of inerrancy. While the Bible is alive, sharper than a two-edged sword, relevant throughout the ages, speaks truth, is a dependable guide in faith and life, and has inspired individuals and nations to justice, charity and freedom, none of these qualities requires inerrancy. It is the word of God to humankind through humans who are by nature errant. These Christians hold the Bible to be infallible, a term defined in the dictionary as without error, yet their inference is that infallible means that it is a reliable guide in faith and life and holds dependable doctrine. They do not claim that the Bible is always literally accurate in geography, numbers, history, or science or that it has not been impacted by the frailty of its human oral preservers, writers, copiers, and translators. (2003, p. 109-110)
I appreciate Towne’s perspective, and I am becoming more comfortable with the term infallible as a better word and concept than inerrancy. However, I must admit that my initial impression of “infallible” was that it is a stronger (i.e., more restrictive) term than inerrant; it also seemed to personify and idolize Scripture (what some people have called bibliolatry). Upon reflection, though, I think infallible is stronger in a good way: it affirms that God continues to ensure that his core gospel message communicates effectively to those who have ears to hear. Infallible is less restrictive than inerrant because it upholds the core doctrine without presuming to claim that this is dependent on one particular form of actualization. In other words, Scripture is infallible (i.e., doesn’t fail to accomplish its purpose) because it comes from God, not because it was actualized by one particular process of inspiration (i.e., without “errors”).
Inerrancy, taken to its logical end, results in the impression that we can learn all we need about life and doctrine from Scripture apart from God. Infallibility requires that we trust in God (the living author) to speak through the text (indeed, even in spite of its pre-scientific notions). We don’t trust Scripture because it is without “error” (i.e., without cultural limitations); we trust its message because it is from God.
In Good Company
I had written most of this post before I happened to see Alister McGrath’s recent editorial in Christianity Today. His article focuses on St. Augustine and what the evangelical church could learn from this early church father’s approach to bible interpretation in light of human knowledge about nature (i.e., science). There are several worthwhile things to consider in the article, but one thing caught my attention: Did you notice what word McGrath uses to describe the reliability of Scripture? That’s right, he used the word “infallible”, not the word “inerrant”.
So maybe some of my readers (all two or three of you!) may not agree with me about inerrancy, but at least I’m in good company.