I 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.