Thoughts on Biblical Inerrancy

oldromanianbibleI believe in biblical inerrancy. I never read the Bible wondering which parts are true and which parts are false. Doing so would seem to me inconsistent with accepting the Bible as the Word of God. I bow before every word of Scripture as authoritative over my life and faith, binding for my conscience, and worthy of my trust. What I mean by inerrancy is the idea that the Bible never misfires. Its intended meaning never deviates from reality. It is truth.

I’m also grateful for the legacy of inerrancy. The rise of higher-biblical criticism impugned the integrity of Scripture, and it was appropriate and godly for Christians to systematize their defense of the Bible. The history of biblical inerrancy, as I read it, is a noble struggle against a real enemy.

Nevertheless, there are some aspects of the culture surrounding inerrancy (especially in the contemporary United States) that don’t sit well with me. I’ve been puzzling over them for a while, and thinking about them lately, and so I thought I’d chart out my thoughts, even though they are still somewhat tentative in a few places.

1) First, it seems to me that some of those who seek to defend biblical inerrancy overextend what it requires. I remember, for instance, reading one scholarly defense of inerrancy in relation to alleged discrepancies in the four gospels. The author sought to harmonize all of the discrepancies, often by positing multiple occurrences of parallel events in the different gospels. In order to maintain consistency, the effort became quite elaborate, and to me it ultimately felt forced and inauthentic (though I am sure well-intentioned). I remember thinking, “is this what the biblical authors themselves would have wanted us to do?” After all, the gospel writers seem comfortable with historical dischronology when it suits their purpose (for example, Matthew and Luke place the temptations of Christ in different order). When biblical inerrancy is used to encourage treatments of the Bible that the Bible itself does not encourage (such as the elimination of dischronology), I think it is ultimately doing a disservice. Just as we should be on our guard against loosening in our doctrine of Scripture, we should also be on our guard against overly tightening our doctrine of Scripture. Both are errors. Both have consequences.

2) Second, perhaps more important, I am uncomfortable with the way inerrancy is often used as a kind of litmus test by which to distinguish between the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” I think its important to have doctrinal boundary markers. But sometimes the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is elevated to the level of an first-rank doctrinal boundary marker, such that where one stands on inerrancy determines whether one is fundamentally a friend or a foe. Related to this, affirmations of inerrancy are often amalgamated with a generically high view of the Bible, and denials of inerrancy are often amalgamated with a generically low view of the Bible. In addition, inerrancy sometimes seems to be valued more for its sociological role of discrimination than its actual meaning. For example, sometimes you hear people say, “so-and-so denies inerrancy,” as if that fact alone settled how to place them, without any discussion as to what else they believe, why they reject inerrancy, or what nuances may be present in their treatment of the issue.

I think we need to be more careful to avoid anything resembling dismissiveness in the way we use inerrancy to place people. Someone might, for instance, deny inerrancy per se and yet have, overall, a high view of the Bible, and a personally robust practice of submitting to the authority of Scripture in their life (in my view, C.S. Lewis would be an example of this). Denying inerrancy and rejecting biblical authority are not necessarily identical movements, nor is biblical inerrancy, in my view, a first-tier gospel issue.

I wonder if these tendencies are related to the historical backdrop of inerrancy. Inerrancy has been a battlefront issue in the struggle of liberalism vs. fundamentalism/evangelicalism, and so it makes sense that it would take on connotations related to this battle. But precisely because it has been such a battlefront issue, we must be all the more sensitive to the temptation to treat it in an all-or-nothing, black and white, “you’re with us or against us” way. As a parallel, consider premillennialism. There was a time (and in some circles there still is a time) when to abandon premillennialism was thought by many to be tantamount to embracing liberalism. In my opinion, this mindset had less to do with the importance of the exegesis of Revelation 20 than the historical context. Premillennialism was associated with movement away from other conservative positions, and thus it became for many people an identity issue, a battlefront in a larger theological war. But the association of premillennialism with “holding the line,” though understandable, was also unfair to thoughtful, conservative amillennialists and postmillennialists.

Obviously inerrancy and premillennialism are separate issues, and should each be treated on their own terms. (Inerrancy seems to me to be a more important issue, and a more naturally “conservative” issue.) My point is that I think we need to be sensitive to the historical baggage that comes with doctrines, especially those that have been identity issues in theological battle. Given the historical backdrop of inerrancy, I would say that its use as a guard against liberalism is an understandable impulse. But I wonder if it might be fairer to individuals to simply be guarded against liberalism itself (with a rejection of inerrancy of inerrancy as its frequent, but not necessary, corollary). That would enable us to detect patterns without requiring us to assume that there are no deviations from the pattern. In other words, it would create space for C.S. Lewis (and others like him) to be treated on their own terms, rather than getting lumped together with “the enemy.”

3) Third, related to this, I wonder if the centralizing emphasis in many quarters on the English words “inerrant” and “inerrancy” is helpful. Perhaps it is in some contexts. But it seems to me that these words have become something like buzz words, and buzz words can often have the tendency to generate more heat than light. At the very least, we need to keep returning to careful definitions of these terms, and sensitive interaction with the objections to them.

In some settings, I prefer the word “infallible” to “inerrant,” for two reasons. First, lexically, it seems to me a stronger term. In my dictionary, inerrant means without error; infallible means incapable of error. Second, it seems to me to better capture the kind of truth that the Scripture itself is concerned with bearing. For example, when Jesus says, “your Word cannot be broken” (John 10:35), was He referring to the verbal plenary inerrancy? In context, it seems to me that He had in mind the binding nature of biblical pronouncement (specifically that of Psalm 82:6). Personally, I see the former as an implication of the latter. But when the former gets all the emphasis, I think we are in danger of pushing our own context and categories onto the Bible a bit too much. The word infallible puts the accent a bit differently, and a bit more where I see the Bible itself putting it.

My main hope is that those of us who want to defend the integrity and trustworthiness of the Bible would be more sensitive to distinguish between two different kinds of non-inerrancy: (1) those which do indeed entail rejections of biblical authority and its function in the life of church (classical liberalism); (2) those which result from the questions/thoughts/doubts/struggles/strictures of regenerate, Bible-believing Christians (C.S. Lewis, Leslie Newbiggin, a lot of people in our church pews). The first of these two categories does indeed call for a more rigorous, denunciatory response. But the appropriate response to the second seems to me to involve more listening, openness to nuance, and caution in judgement.

22 Comments

  1. I too, prefer the word infallible.

    The Word is without error and is true and can be trusted in all situations.

    The texts, on the other hand, may be subject, on man’s side, to err. But those inconsistencies are not a problem for God for He has chosen to use earthen vessels to accomplish His perfect will. Even our Lord Himself was fully man…and yet fully God.

    The finite contains the infinite.

    This is how God works.

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    1. Why do we use the phrase fully man and fully God? Is it simply because if we used the phrase half man and half God it would make Jesus appear like one of the gods in Greek or Roman mythology?

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  2. Sean Carlson

    very well put. A great word that in some hands is a loose cannon on deck

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  3. Gavin, thank you for your thoughts. I have a couple of follow up questions based on my own reflections on this issue. Contextually, I have been SBC all of my life and affirm the BFM 2000.
    1. I see the lingering battle scars from the Conservative Resurgence of the SBC, but I was a child when it was happening. I still hear the echoes of the “inerrancy” vs. “infallibility” of the two camps. I appreciate your concern for placing people into groups based on terms they use. I also appreciate your preference of terminology based on the negative connotation that the other provides. But, in light of 2 Timothy 3:16 I wonder how it is that you don’t see the infallibility as a “first-tier gospel issue.” Without verbal plenary inspiration how does anyone believe anything in the Bible. If one thought can be understood as “human error” how can we believe any of the other thoughts, including the gospel?
    -For instance, when Ephesians 5 can be changed due to cultural norms where can man stop in the changes they want to make?
    (homosexuality is a similar issue)
    2. “(2) those which result from the questions/thoughts/doubts/struggles/strictures of regenerate, Bible-believing Christians.” When you write this what exactly do you mean? Even one who would call themselves an in-errantist would have questions about Scripture. One can question and trust at the same time. I agree with you there, but are you opening the door of compromise too wide here? There is a slippery slope is there not?

    Thank you again for your thoughts. I look forward to your reply if you are able.

    -Josh

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    1. Josh, thanks for your thoughtful questions.

      On your first question, I’m not sure I completely understand what you’re asking, but to the extent that I do my answer is three-fold:
      1) From the way you have interwoven them in your question, I think you might be conflating a couple of different terms (inerrancy, infallibility, and inspiration) that are actually quite distinct;
      2) its not clear to me that all of those who deny inerrancy are in the kind of complete hermeneutical vacuum you describe;
      3) even if they were, I’m still not sure that would make inerrancy a first-tier gospel issue (otherwise people like C.S. Lewis are not Christians).

      On your second question, the fact that those who affirm inerrancy can have questions and doubts does not mean that people outside the inerrancy camp cannot also have sincere questions and doubts. So I’m not sure your comment invalidates or makes unimportant the distinction I draw here. Feel free to respond if you think I’m missing you.

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      1. You are correct in my poor phrasing. I’ll try to clarify:
        1. Let’s stick with your definition: “infallible means incapable of error.” You also say “Denying inerrancy and rejecting biblical authority are not necessarily identical movements, nor is biblical inerrancy, in my view, a first-tier gospel issue.” (do you mean infallibility is first-tier, but not infallibility? If so then I would have other questions.) To deny inerrancy, or infallibility, would mean to not accept the definition of both. So for infallibility, to deny it would mean to believe that the Bible was in fact capable of error. My question is who gets to decide what error it is capable of? In other words, if man believes that they can label part of Scripture “error” then where is the boundary of which they must not cross? This seems to be a slippery slope. First they call one thing “error” and then other things are labeled “error.” My question was asked in the context of 2 Tim. 3:16 that says “all Scripture is God-breathed…” So if all Scripture is breathed out by God AND it is capable of error, then what are we saying about God? (ironically this can be answered by saying that Paul was in error in this letter…) Also, if one part of Scripture is capable of error, then even the gospel is, thus making this a first-tier gospel issue.

        With regards to your example of C.S. Lewis:
        1. It is never the position of man to judge the eternal condition of another man. So I cannot make a determination on Lewis.
        2. I would hesitate justifying a doctrinal position on whether it would include or exclude someone that I admire. The Bible must be our standard, not a beloved author.

        Thanks again for the thought provoking post and for taking the time to respond. I wholeheartedly agree with your sense of caution in becoming so zealous about a certain doctrine that you divide unnecessarily.

        Josh

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    2. Rich Kennedy

      You are concerned of the fudging of Ephesians 5 (I presume submission issues). But how does one then read the continuation of the passage in ch. 6? Is the master slave relationship really the same as employer and employee, or can we set that portion of the passage aside for present application as an anachronism? Forcing a contemporary application is indeed a modern nod to cultural norms.

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  4. Stimulating thoughts Gavin. I’m not sure I agree but I need to listen and think about it more. Can you let me know what doctrines you thin are first-tier gospel issues (besides the Trinity and humanity/deity of the Lord Jesus, assuming you’re affirming the Apostles’, Nicene, and Chalecdonian Creeds)? Would you put the absolute authority of Scripture or justification by faith alone there?

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  5. I’ve thought about it a bit more. The reason for my question is that you might be able to put another first-tier gospel issue here and still assert what you’ve asserted: “My main hope is that those of us who want to defend the [Trinity] would be more sensitive to distinguish between two different kinds of [non-Trinitariaisms]: (1) those which do indeed entail rejections of [orthodox Trinitarianism] (classic [heresy]); (2) those which result from the questions/thoughts/doubts/struggles/strictures of regenerate, Bible-believing Christians (a lot of people in our church pews). The first of these two categories does indeed call for a more rigorous, denunciatory response. But the appropriate response to the second seems to me to involve more listening, openness to nuance, and caution in judgement.

    So what are first-tier issues in your view and is my substituting them here unfair or missing the point? As a church planter in LA, we baptize new (regenerate, Bible-believing) Christians who may not confess the Trinity with conviction as we preach the gospel as long as they don’t deny it with full conviction that they understand and reject it. If they are struggling with questions and doubts yet are willing to study the Bible with us and continue to follow Jesus, we’re ok with that unless they deny a first-tier gospel issue.

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    1. Hi PJ. I don’t think its possible to substitute the Trinity into my final paragraph because I do see the Trinity as a first-tier gospel issue. In my view, if someone denies the Trinity they are outside the boundaries of historic, orthodox Christianity. If someone denies biblical inerrancy, however, I would not conclude that they are necessarily outside the boundaries of Christianity. Hope that helps clarify.

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  6. Thank you for this thoughtful post. As one who holds a very high view of scripture but has recently begun to come under fire for questioning the common evangelical stance that ‘literal truth is the only truth’, I appreciate the way you have articulated the issue.

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  7. simplesage

    Thanks Gavin this is helpful (and thanks again for the emails regarding Fullers program).

    I have often heard the qualifier that “the text is inerrant and infalliable when interpreted correctly.”

    The intent behind this, I assume, is to alleviate supposed/perceived contradictions or errors in the text and move it toward the idea, “we don’t really understand this now but God will make it clear later.”

    However this seems to open up another set of problems related to our ability to interpret Scripture and almost nullify concept of inerrancy/infallability practically speaking (I.e. The text is without error but we can’t “really” understand it).

    My question is: What do you do personally when you encounter something that you feel legitimately questions the notion of inerrancy/infallability but you do not have a satisfying response or answer to it after seriously looking into it?

    Thanks.

    Josh

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    1. Good to hear from you again Josh. When I come across something in the Bible I don’t understand, I study, pray, think, dialogue, etc.—but if the issue persists, I ultimately conclude that there must be something I’m not seeing. In other words, the fault is mine, not the Bible’s! In his letter On The Incarnation of the Word, Anselm said that the believer should seek understanding, but when he or she cannot arrive at understanding, “let him bow his head in reverent submission.” That sounds like godly advice to me.

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  8. […] Gavin Ortlund – Thoughts on Biblical Inerrancy: […]

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  9. The doctrine of inerrancy always makes me think of Bart Ehrman, a former Bible believing evangelical Christian. He studied at Moody Bible, Wheaton, and then at Princeton under Bruce Metzger (who did not hold to inerrancy btw). He was studying Greek textual criticism in his graduate studies and apparently it shattered his faith when he discovered their were errors in the biblical text.

    I think what should warn us about his experience is that he had rested his whole faith on this issue of inerrancy, so that when he felt it didn’t hold, the whole thing came crashing down.

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  10. A good article. I appreciated your humility. 2 questions.
    1. What groups exhibit classic liberalism? Do they not follow the Bible, have a different interpretation, or combine Biblical and other knowledge?
    2. “Bible believing” Christian is a loaded phrase. I’ve never heard someone claim to be a non-Bible believing Christian. I see many people use it instead of saying inerrant or infallible. It presupposes our Biblical interpretation is the correct one and any other one is wrong.

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    1. Hi Eric.
      1. Many. I think the first of your three alternatives is closest, but I would see the core of classic liberalism as the reinterpretation of Christianity within a non-supernatural framework.
      2. Hmmm, maybe you’re right.

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  11. It seems like there are two problems. One is that we don’t know what defines orthodox Christianity. Many people use a definition. that references the bible. So it seems disagreeing about even what it means to believe in the scriptures has to be pretty important. Still there is more than one reasonable opinion so how do we decide?

    It is really related to the cannon question. That is what books should be in the bible and on what basis can we answer that question? If the bible is the foundation for all of what we believe then how can questions about the bible be answered? Don’t we automatically violate Sola Scriptura? We need something outside of scripture to define scripture.

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  12. Hi Gavin,

    Interesting discussion. After considering the topic of inerrancy, my rough conclusion is that the term “inerrancy” is fine, but its foundation needs to be rebuilt on the basis of God’s sovereignty and providence.

    The concept of “original autograph” falls apart when applied to texts such as Pslams, Proverbs, etc. It ends up looking like what you describe in point number 1, biases one point in time, and does not consider God’s full role in inspiring, transmitting, preserving, translating, and canonizing Biblical texts.

    The concepts of inerrancy and Scriptural authority needs to show that God works in the whole history of the text: The Bible is inerrant because we have the Bible that God wants us to have. And previous (and future) generations had the Bible that God wanted them to have.

    Let me recommend a couple of books on biblical authority (some I’d agree with more than others):

    Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, Vincent E. Bacote, Laura C. Miguélez, Dennis L. Okholm (eds), InterVarsity Press, 2004.

    Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture, Carlos R. Bovell, Wipf & Stock, 2011.

    The Bible Made Impossible, Christian Smith, Brazos Press, 2012.

    ***
    I agree completely with your statements that inerrancy sometimes gets tied to beliefs about other matters that really should be separate. I’d list authorship, genre identification, particular interpretation (e.g., premillennialism), etc.

    The other thing that needs to be done is to better demarcate what beliefs and practices are able to be based on Scripture. E.g., the canon cannot be established based on Scripture, nor choice of hermeneutical method (perhaps partially?), etc.

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  13. Madame George

    Matthew 16: 27,28

    Clearly a failed prophecy. Not to even mention the absurd punishments in the old testament. Hardly infallible.

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  14. Inerrant? So the universe is really only some 6000 years old. Adam started out as a mud doll and Eve started out as a spare rib. All human troubles began with a fast talking snake. The world was covered in a flood some 4000 years ago. Dead people crawled out of their graves and strolled into downtown Jerusalem. Inerrant. All these things really happened. They’re true. You don’t have to think about it. Just believe it. Yeah.

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  15. […] Thoughts on BIblical Inerrancy.  Gavin Ortlund […]

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