A RECONSIDERATION OF INERRANCY
That to which theologians normally refer when using the term inerrancy is the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake.1 But as of late, I have found that describing the Bible this way has become quite polarizing. I realized that depending on where I stood in the debate, I would either be seen as a liberal supporting an irreverent view of Holy Writ, or a conservative spouting off a petty dogma. But why does this theory matter? Why would someone attack it? Why would someone defend it? I think we ought to investigate this, for since in the life of a Christian the role and function of the Bible is no trivial concern.
To say that every word of Scripture is true might seem understandable, but it has been criticized for simply being an acquiescence to modernist rationalism; a nervous need for everything to be precisely correct. Inerrancy, it seems, usually sprouts from what is considered to be a naively optimistic assumption that there is some common foundation of knowledge which is universally reliable and immediately accessible. But in rendering themselves to this view, supporters of inerrancy have allegedly imposed a category upon the Bible into which is was never supposed to fit. By asking “are all of its propositions absolutely true?” those in favor of inerrancy are accused of ignoring the Bible’s rich literary diversity and forcing it to answer their rationalistic demands, even if the answer happens to be “yes.” Critics say this is like asking if the orchestral suites of Bach follow the modern song structure of verse, bridge, and chorus. Sure, some of his works might fit into this category, but that is not the right question to ask.
Yet I am not convinced that inerrancy is mistaken, but rather misconstrued and misunderstood. To begin rectifying this, I believe we need to follow two lines of thought. First, we need to understand inerrancy as cast within Biblical terms instead of modern rationalist terms. Second, we need to focus on the basic purpose of inerrancy rather than some highly technical version of it; one could argue all day about the nature of internal combustion engines while forgetting that a car is just supposed to get you somewhere. These, I think, will help one discover that inerrancy conveys trustworthiness and assurance more than philosophically exact precision, and that rather than being the authentication of a valid set of propositions, inerrancy is the confidence that when you read the Bible, you are able to know God.2
I find it quite reasonable that we ought to consider the Bible in this manner, for it is the very way in which it was written. Let me bring to mind those famous opening lines of the book of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth.”3 John of course composed these statements within the realm of Jewish thought, indicated not least by his retelling of the opening of Genesis, for “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”4 But John begins to share some profound ideas, for in the Jewish realm, God not only created the heavens and earth, but he spoke them into existence by His Word, for “God said, ‘Let there be light,’” so as to imply that the Word was with God and was God in the beginning. This is echoed throughout the book of Proverbs, in which the personified Wisdom speaks of itself by saying, “The Lord possessed me at the beginning of His way…From everlasting I was established, from the beginning…When He marked out the foundations of the earth; Then I was beside Him, as a master workman; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him.”5 So when John reveals that the word is Jesus, he is creating a picture in which the moment of creation features God declaring and Jesus creating.
One might soon begin to see, as John is explaining, that the word is more than simply a sign or mark of a concept or idea. The word was considered to be that creative power through which the world was brought forth into existence; it is that principle by which God instilled purpose into the components of the world. In the minds of those who composed the Bible, the word was that by which God communicated with his people, established covenants between them and himself, and informed the way in which they ought to live so as to establish his word as something deeply reasonable, even something deeply personal. In Jewish history the word of God was considered not only to be a source of information, of course, but also a source of trust. The Psalmist speaks of this conviction when he writes, “The sum of Your word is truth, and every one of Your righteous ordinances is everlasting” and “The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart…the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether.”6 The words of God, then, are something far more intricate, relational, and nuanced than simple propositions, yet all the while they are considered to be free from error.
God’s communication with the people of Israel was also always personal and direct, from “Thus saith the Lord” introducing his message hundreds of time, to the unbroken transitions from Humanity’s voice to God’s voice in the prophetic monologues. God not only communicated with his people, but he made his voice their own, so that the Scriptures were a record of the narrative within which God brought about his purpose through his people in the world rather than just some set of true propositional statements. Thus the author of Hebrews can draw upon this historical framework in order to present the narrative he expounds in Jesus by writing, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”7
Hence just as “Thus saith the Lord” is the echoed and adored authority of the Old Testament which breathes life into the narrative, so in Jesus we find “it is written” as the authorization of his statements and a means by which he enriches and continues the narrative. And just as the Scriptures were considered to be the record of the story into which Jesus would come and the body of promises which in Jesus would find their accomplishment, so he describes some of these very Scriptures by saying “it is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter of the Law to fail,” and “the Scripture cannot be broken.”8 The apostles hold a similar attitude, both in regards to the Old Testament and to their very own words. Paul reassures and advises Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching,”9 and Peter considers the Divine origin of Scripture a main priority when he writes, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”10 To the Thessalonians Paul writes, “we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God,”11 and to the Corinthians, “my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”12 All of these collective statements sustain the idea that the Scriptures themselves were considered to be inspired by God: trustworthy and true.
Essentially, I am attempting to show us how the writers of the Bible themselves considered the nature of divine communication. There is an obvious nuance between their construction and that of the rationalists or foundationalists; between a confidence and trust in the speech of a personal God and just cogent textual precision. It is through this that one might rediscover the purpose for which inerrancy exists, which is that one might be able to confidently approach the Bible and know God in a way in which he has revealed himself to be known. When we speak of inerrancy then, we should not allow it to reduce Scripture to just a collection of true theological doctrines and ethical postulations,13 but rather allow it to express Scripture as the story of God within which we are supposed to follow his will and take part in his plan.
In fact that is a major problem that has plagued the understanding of inerrancy for a while now. Individuals often assume that inerrancy somehow conveys a readily ascertainable status of precision, rather than simply truth. I actually wish with theologian John Frame that “we could be done with all the extrabiblical technical terms such as infallible and inerrant and simply say that the Bible is true.”14 But since such an alternative is not available, I hope a discussion like this will help generate a reconsideration. This is because precision and truth are not always so intimately linked as the rationalists might suggest, and this means we need a deeper understanding of how this relates to Scripture. For as Frame rightly teaches, if a student says 6 + 5 = 10, then their imprecision aligns with their not having told a truth.15 But if someone asks you how old you are, then providing the conventional response of how old you turned on your most recent birthday is by no means untrue, though it is certainly imprecise.16 Similarly, the statement “Seattle is about 1000 miles from Los Angeles” is necessarily imprecise, while yet being perfectly true. We should remember, therefore, that unlike what most modernists might claim, the Bible is written in ordinary language rather than technical language, so that inerrancy means “that the Bible is true, not that it is maximally precise.”17
So when reading the Bible, one ought to realize that the amount of precision needed to answer different questions relies upon the claims which the questions themselves require, so that we need “to know enough about the language and culture of the people to know what claims the original characters and writers were likely making.”18 This means that my inquiry as to the distance between Seattle and Los Angeles is different than a pilot’s. For in the case of the pilot, the answer “about 1000 miles” simply will not do, as the claim requires a great amount of precision. But in the former case of my simple curiosity, the approximation is appropriate, as the claim does not call for exactitude. Thus to understand inerrancy is to understand that the Bible makes good on its own claims,19 and not on the claims which those reading it might foist upon it. Inerrancy is therefore perfectly compatible with unrefined grammar, non-chronological narrative, round numbers, imprecise quotations and descriptions, the use of figures and symbols,20 differing parts and methods of speech, and a whole variety of speech acts. Thus it is an entirely inconclusive argument to say that since inerrancy posits exact propositional precision of the Bible, and the Bible does not contain such precision, that inerrancy is therefore mistaken.
But still one might wonder, “What if the Bible is not inerrant?” Clearly, if the Bible is not free from falsehood, then it must contain some falsehood. If it is not errant, then it would be inerrant. But simply enough, if inerrancy is not true then we risk the conclusion that either God does not exist like we think he does (since our account of him is flawed) or whoever he is, we cannot accurately know him (since our pathway to knowing him is obscured). New Testament scholar N.T. Wright explains the importance of this when he writes, “We are, in short, only able to know the mind of God through the revelation of Jesus Christ in the scriptures; there are no promises of successful theological enquiry, but rather the reverse, for those who appeal over the head of the incarnate Son.”21 So those who claim that the Bible is not or cannot be inerrant must be able to ascertain the errors which presently exist in Scripture, which given our above clarity concerning ordinary language will prove to be an entirely different issue. They will also have to demonstrate how Scripture’s ideas concerning the nature of God, for instance, are wrong in comparison to the true nature of God, the latter needing to be derived from some other source. But what is the source from which they will draw? Another part of Scripture? But what if that has errors as well? These questions clearly need another essay of their own in order to be properly addressed, but they remain important for understanding the significance of our reconsideration.
At the outset I claimed that it was too simple to say that inerrancy just meant “free from all falsehood or mistake.” But should we conclude that it no longer means this? I certainly think not, but rather insist that we clarify the accompanying implications. We ought to insist that God is incapable of error, not least because he knows all things and cannot lie, and therefore if Scripture is divine revelation, then it is certainly free from all falsehood or mistake. But as you can see, this ought to be rooted not in simple textual correctness but in the nature of personal, divine communication. Inerrancy therefore simply conveys the basic assumption that the Bible contains the ideas of God, not just the ideas of humanity. It claims that the Bible, on account of its divine origin, is true rather than utterly precise. Thus as such, the Bible can be read as more than just an existing historical record of some distant peoples’ past. Because of inerrancy, which is to say because the Bible is true, we can be confident that the family of God promised to Abraham is the one to which we belong, that the Jesus of history who died actually died for us, and that the restorative plan of God from thousands of years past is the same one we can take part in today.
1 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) under the section in Exposition entitled “Infallibility, Inerrancy, Interpretation.”
2 I of course do not mean to revive a flat rationalist foundationalism therein, but rather hold to a more intricate and refined process by which one might come to the truth through reading Scripture. Instead of instantaneously attaining direct access to the divine, a critical and discursive dialogue must ensue between the reader and the text as revelation. This, in turn, requires much more epistemological refinement, which I hope to include in later essays.
3 John 1:1, 14.
4 Genesis 1:1.
5 Proverbs 8:22-23, 29-30.
6 Psalm 119:160, Psalm 19:7-9.
7 Hebrews 1:1-2.
8 Luke 16:17, John 10:35.
9 II Timothy 3:16.
10 II Peter 1:20-21.
11 I Thessalonians 2:13.
12 I Corinthians 2:4.
13 Though, of course, it is filled with them all throughout.
14 John Frame. The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2010) 170-171.
15 Frame, 171.
17 Frame, 173.
18 Frame, 174.
21 N.T. Wright. Universalism and the World-Wide Community (The Churchman, Vol. 89, No. 3, 1975) 202.