Is "inerrancy" unhelpful?

(Jay Nelsestuen) #1

Perhaps some of you have already decided on this issue (cough George Brooks cough), but I’m beginning to see that CSBI-style inerrancy has way too many caveats. The Bible’s inerrant, but it can contain round numbers. The Bible’s inerrant, but God can use ancient science and accommodate. The Bible’s inerrant but…etc. Is this the reason why many see “inerrancy” as an unhelpful term? There are too many qualifications and caveats for it to work in real life?

On the other hand, if inerrancy does not describe what the Bible is/does (to quote Peter Enns), then what is it? Simply authoritative? How is it authoritative if we know that it can be wrong? Infallible? How can it be completely trustworthy/infallible if it contains errors?



(Jon Garvey) #2


The problems of “inerrancy” must revolve round the Chicago document that used it, because the word itself has as many caveats as the Bible is said to have, like all English words (you must understand that I’m English, so am more sympathetic to the Lausanne Covenant than the US standard!).

But I don’t see why using round numbers is an error in the first place - I would be extremely annoyed if, when I said I’ve been married for 40 years, some pedant said, “You’ve made a mistake, it’s 41, actually.”

Likewise, “accommodation” of any kind is not error but … accommodation. I’d actually say that to speak of the Bible “accommodating to ancient science” is anachronistic. “Science” is not at ANE concept, and in any case I’d argue that in most of the cited cases the Bible is describing colloquially what the ancients saw to be the case phenomenologically, not what they believed to be the case theoretically. But that’s another discussion.

So likewise, I would take it ill if I said the moon was shining brightly last night, and the aforementioned pedant asked me whether my error was because I was simply operating on outmoded science or whether I was accommodating to the ignorance of my hearers. No, dammit, I was using language colloquially, and truthfully. There was no error.

Likewise if the genre of historical reports of battles follows the conventions of the time in bigging up the numbers, the error would have been for the Holy Spirit to impose some western 21st literary standard (which one? Journalists bias, sociologists estimate, aggressors suppress - and mathematicians don’t write historical accounts anyway).

And so on for many other kinds of example (not to mention the many that are claimed, but not established because, to be frank, the critics have often been shown not to know as much as they think they do).

There therefore rests a responsibility on the faithful reader to seek to understand the meaning of the Bible, and necessarily to get it wrong sometimes, since we are not of those times, even with our academics and even with the gift of the Spirit. That’s only really bad news for Fundamentalists whose claim is not so much that God should be truthful, as that we should be incapable of error. It’s not a problem not for Conservative Evangelicals.

For even at the start of the Reformation, William Tyndale said that the literal meaning of Scripture was infallibly true, but that the literal meaning could include allegory, poetry, metaphor, parable … and so on for the biblical era genres of which he had no knowledge.

My answer to your question, then, is to evade any one word descriptor, because the process always seems to lead to one being bamboozled into denying the divine authorship it claims for itself, along with its human authorship (with the emphasis being on the divine speaking through the human, not the human accessing the divine).

So if one decided one’s description was to be that Scripture is “awesomely fabulous” (to be quite arbitrary), some radical would say that since Ezekiel 23 or 1 Chronicles 1 aren’t awesomely fabulous in polite academic society today, Your BioLogos Statement on Awesome Fabulousness is very problematic. And since we now know the Bible is in error on Ezekiel 23, what else do we have to call into question?

Defending “awesome fabulousness” would seem to me a waste of effort - my reply would be “But didn’t not the prophets speak from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit? That’s what the same Spirit confirms to my heart.”

(Jay Johnson) #3

In short, yes. “Inerrancy” is unhelpful. I came to this conclusion only recently, but it followed on the heels of long study of the gospels. It seemed clear to me, after careful research, that a few problems could not be resolved satisfactorily, but at a certain point I realized, “So what?” None of the issues that I found had any impact at all on doctrine, faith, or practice, so what is the point of drawing a line in the sand?

I also realized that the attitudes of some evangelical scholars toward inerrancy have evolved greatly over the last 30 years. For instance, D.A. Carson, in his excellent commentary on Matthew written in 1984, spends a great deal of time resolving “errors” and “contradictions” between the gospels. Yet, James R. Edwards, in his Pillar commentary on Luke published in 2015, spends virtually no time discussing the problem passages that Carson defended ad nauseum, despite the fact that Carson himself is the editor of the Pillar commentary series. What changed?

Part of the problem is that the Chicago Statement is a product of its time, the 1970s. Conservative scholars were reacting to what they saw as a drift toward subjectivity in all areas, primarily moral and philosophical, and they wanted to state in no uncertain terms that they regarded the Bible as an absolute standard. In my view, the document they produced was an overreaction and far too strident. It was as much of a political as a theological statement, and the result is what one would expect – a litmus test for orthodoxy, who’s “in” and who’s “out.”

(Christy Hemphill) #4


The Bible reveals God. Depending on the limitations of the person reading it (their lack of necessary background knowledge, mistaken theological commitments, interference from their differing cultural worldview and the inadequacies of translation), the Bible may frequently fail to reveal God perfectly. That’s reality.

We aren’t supposed to be putting our faith in the Bible or insisting the Bible is ultimate truth or ultimate authority. The Bible reveals the Person we put our faith in, and the Bible points us to the source of ultimate truth and authority so we can enter a relationship. Inerrancy is unhelpful because a focus on the perfection of the Bible makes people more likely to idolize the Bible. I think it also wars against the attitude of reverence and submission and humility we should rightly have in approaching God. Inerrancy makes the Bible into an object that can (must?) be mastered and “handled” and explained and systematized and defended and in doing so we lose sight of the fact that the whole point of the Bible is not our mastery of truth, but our entering into relationship with God. And we are never going to master or explain or systematize the God of the universe. We are the objects, not God.

(GJDS) #5

The Bible contains things that we should understand about ourselves as human beings, things on the actions and responses of people called by God, and also meaning that imparts understanding to us of God (revelation). Whenever we discuss ourselves, we human beings inevitably indulge in error, wrong acts, falsehoods and so on. I find it amazing that when the Bible shows us these aspects of the human condition, one of many responses is to criticise the Bible, or seek to change the message, or seek to find some fault with God and His servants.

Christ Himself stated, for example, that Moses wrote some things because he realised Israel could be perverse and stubbornly resist the message from God. The comments by Christy, Jon and Jay313 are also relevant to this topic.

(system) #6

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