apologetics, Christian Doctrines, The Bible

Inerrancy, Scripture, and the “Easy Way Out”

Inerrancy, defined as simply as possible, is the Christian doctrine that the Bible is divinely inspired and without error.

But it is important to move beyond this simple definition, because people often come away with misconceptions about the doctrine. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy explicates what evangelicals mean when they speak of inerrancy. I highly recommend that anyone interested in Inerrancy read this statement. It clears up a number of misconceptions.

A rejection of inerrancy is frequently due to a misunderstanding of what the doctrine means. Here are some common misreadings of the doctrine:

1) Inerrancy does not mean that there will be no discrepancies between Gospel accounts. These discrepancies, based upon an interpretation given by one who affirms inerrancy, are not seen as errors but as the different authors expressing their biographical accounts in different ways. Unlike modern conceptions that a quoted phrases must be exact, historians in the first century felt at their liberty to rearrange temporal events to better illustrate a common theme. The Gospels can be seen to utilize several methods of ancient biographies as they emphasize certain aspects of Christ’s life.

2) Inerrancy does not mean that there are no cultural or personal aspects to Scripture. An example of this can be seen in the geocentrism in the Bible. That there is geocentrism in the Bible does not undermine inerrancy. Inerrancy is the belief that what the Bible teaches is without error. The Bible does not teach geocentrism, but features it as part of the background beliefs of the cultural context of the authors. The authors have imported their culture into expressing God’s word, but that does not undermine the teachings.

3) Inerrancy does not mean God dictated the Bible word-for-word. This point ties into 2: God used human authors and gave them the leeway to write within their cultural background.

Those who reject inerrancy have taken an easy way out. Rather than investigating the issue of historical grammatical interpretation of Scripture or looking into what inerrancy means, they find what is perceived as an “error” in Scripture and reject the doctrine. The misconceptions outlined above are just a few of the errors made by people who do not investigate the issue seriously enough. Rather than coming upon a difficulty in the text and rejecting inerrancy, I urge readers to explore the difficulty, see what people have to say about it. I’ve found on more than one occasion that something I thought could be an error was explained by a cultural tradition or misreading of the text.

Finally, I’d like to address something that might come up to those reading through this. Often atheists object to the doctrine of inerrancy. I’ve run into this in my own personal discussions with those outside of the faith. They say things like “Do you really think a book written by a bunch of humans is without error?”

Well, if the Christian God exists, then the Bible is not just a book written by a bunch of humans. If God exists, there is no reason to think that God would be incapable of guiding His people to write a book to reveal Himself in a way that allows them to use their historical and cultural contexts without transmitting error in teaching. It would take a very powerful argument to convince me that an omnipotent deity would be unable to do this.

Image credit: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bibbia_con_rosa.jpg



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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


17 thoughts on “Inerrancy, Scripture, and the “Easy Way Out”

  1. Well, if FSM exists, then the FSM Scripture is not just a book written by a bunch of humans. If FSM exists, there is no reason to think that FSM would be incapable of guiding Its people to write a book to reveal Itself in a way that allows them to use their historical and cultural contexts without transmitting error in teaching. It would take a very powerful argument to convince me that an omnipotent deity would be unable to do this.

    Posted by donsevers | July 25, 2011, 3:59 PM
    • As has been the case of late, Don, your comment misses the thrust of the argument. The argument could be paralleled by the FSM argument, but that doesn’t undermine it. The argument is designed to defeat the charge: “An inerrant Scripture is impossible.” This charge is made against Christians, and often put in the form I wrote above–“how can you think that the Bible is inerrant?” What the atheist/skeptic misses here is the prior probability. If God exists, the prior probability of an inerrant Scripture is much higher than if God doesn’t exist. As such, instead of debating inerrancy with atheists, I prefer to debate the existence of God. If God exists, a revelation from God is not terribly unlikely. And the idea that this revelation would be without error is definitely much more probable.

      So Don, while I always appreciate your comments, I must say that recently you haven’t put as much effort. The last one you wrote on here was a comment-and-run where you said you didn’t deny evil existed. When I pointed you towards a specific quote in which you did deny the existence of evil, you didn’t respond. And here you parallel my argument without taking into account that it is meant to be useful in just that way–it is merely pointing out the prior probabilities involved in the question of innerrancy.

      Posted by J.W. Wartick | July 26, 2011, 12:13 AM
  2. I don’t know whether you agree with the Chicago Statement in whole or use it only as a starting-point, but there are multiple statements in it which contradict each one of your three points.

    To wit re: discrepancies —
    “We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.” (Article XIV)
    “We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to revelation…” (Article III)
    “We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts…” (Article VI)

    To wit re: geocentrism —
    “…Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives” (A Short Statement #4)
    “We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.
    “We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word.” (Article IX)
    “We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.” (Article XI)
    “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” (Article XII)

    To wit re: plenary verbal inspiration —
    “Being wholly and verbally God-given…” (A Short Statement, #4)
    “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.” (Article VI)
    “We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.” (Article VIII)

    To be sure, none of these are absolute death-knells to the three points you outlined, but each constitutes a serious challenge to your assertions that 1) the Bible may contain factual discrepancies across accounts of the same event, 2) the Bible is only to be considered infallible in the areas on which it is directly teaching, and 3) that the Bible is not dictated word-for-word by God. Far from clearing up misconceptions, I feel that the Chicago Statement creates more of them.

    (And yes, I am aware of their “backdoor exits” in Articles 7 and 10 which, respectively, invoke mystery as to the exact mode of inspiration and claim inspiration only for the original autographs. This seems disingenuous to me, since all their other assertions lead to definite conclusions which they seem unwilling at the end to stand and defend.)

    Posted by Spencer | July 26, 2011, 12:06 PM
  3. If God exists, there is no reason to think that God would be incapable of guiding His people to write a book to reveal Himself in a way that allows them to use their historical and cultural contexts while being factually correct. He could, for instance, have given them accurate astronomical data and merciful medical and sanitation information. He could even have condemned slavery while he was at it.

    It would take a very powerful argument to convince me that an omnipotent deity would be unable to do this.

    Posted by donsevers | July 26, 2011, 3:28 PM
    • This strikes me as the most poignant counter to your post, is there a response forthcoming? I am interested in what the theist would say to this.

      Posted by Lee | July 30, 2011, 6:37 PM
    • JW is travelling and getting married, so he will not be responding for a while. I’m not his representative, but I might take a stab at it, although I would point the interested reader to my post earlier where I (hopefully) make it clear that I have some serious issues with the concept of inerrancy.

      I would wonder why the theist is compelled to present a refutation-style response to this at all. In fact, there is excellent reason to believe that such speculation is futile, given the epistemic distance between her and God. Of course, this will not be compelling to the anti-theist (to borrow Hitchens’ use of the term), since it amounts to “Just trust Him”. That is precisely what is at issue, after all. However, it is important to note that since the theist is the one being questioned about the quality of her beliefs, and her beliefs include that God is omniscient whereas she is not, then she is eminently warranted in her refusal to speculate.

      But I would not leave it at that, though. Even if speculation about alternatives is futile ex hypothesi, the theist would be intellectually dishonest to merely plead ignorance. I agree with Don and you that there is at least a prima facie case to be made here which must be addressed apart from invoking fideism. The theist might then look closer at the minutae of the individual points. For example, she might note that the issue of astrophysical data about the universe seems quite irrelevant to an ancient Semitic desert culture. Or she might observe that the Levirite purity laws in several instances can be quite appropriately called “merciful medical and sanitation” information. Or she could point out that since the abolitionist movement in both England and America was largely begun, led, and sustained by men and women of the Christian faith — who frequently quoted the Bible — that perhaps God did in fact condemn slavery (albeit indirectly).

      These may not satisfy the person for whom the hypothesis of a maximally perfect deity is merely an academic speculation. The theist, however, is not compelled to do so. She is merely compelled to develop (or, if you prefer, discover) an internally consistent narrative which accounts for the facts. I think that the above goes a very long way toward that goal.

      Posted by Spencer | August 2, 2011, 9:09 PM
      • I feel as though Spencer’s comment sums up perfectly what I would like to say. The third paragraph in particular would sum up my view. Don skillfully presents only the negatives, while ignoring those things which explicitly contradict his case.

        Posted by J.W. Wartick | August 24, 2011, 10:43 PM
  4. I prefer the idea that God inspired with thoughts and ideas, but allowed the specific words to come from the individual, but supervised this is such a way that it was without error.

    Posted by Jim | July 27, 2011, 1:06 AM
  5. Ponder; Bible’s Ps 117 the shortest & exact middle chap “praise the Lord”; Jn 3:16 lives in 1000th chap; Mt 24:42 “DAY” OF THE LORD verse in Day of Lord chapter (24 hours) is exact 24,000th Bible verse; Rev 14:4 describes the 144,000 — should make us wonder about inerrancy of scripture. AMAZINGWORD…In KJV/NIV/NASB… Too much evidence to be dismissed.

    Posted by Norm | July 27, 2011, 2:19 AM
  6. Very interesting article. Thanks for posting. It’s good to clarify what inerracy really means in order to defend it against false charges.

    Posted by Stephen McAndrew | July 28, 2011, 12:35 PM
    • Here’s my problem. Why would you affirm of the Bible what you can’t affirm of Jesus without denying the Bible and falling into heresy? Jesus misnamed the High Priest at the time David ate the sacred bread.
      Now you can take either of two responses. Perhaps you will tell me that either Jesus or Mark could have erred on this and still be inerrant? The author rebukes those who are too lazy to discover that inerrancy doesnt mean what it seems to say (like total depravity), but maybe some of us don’t want to use a term which doesnt mean what it seems to say.
      Alternatively you can take one of several far fetched options eg that Jesus meant in the lifetime of Abiathar and his listeners would have understood this, though Mathew and Luke clearly didn’t as they cut out the mistake. But why would you want to do this? Because Jesus didn’t have human limitations? That’s the heresy of Docetism.
      Then there is the question “why affirm that there used to be an inerrant book that no longer exists?” inerrancy allows errors in copying and translation. That leaves them in the same boat as non inerrantist “infallibilists” who admit minor scientific and historical errors in the Bible. The only difference is the inerrantists must say the error is in the copy not the original. But if it’s enough for God to prevent significant error in the copies why must the original be inerrant? It’s only necessary on a dictation theory. I just don’t see the point.

      Posted by Giles | June 4, 2014, 7:38 PM
  7. What is it with Evangelicals anyway? Why do you have so many doctrines with misleading names? Total depravity, inerrancy, perspicuity of scripture. All these are obviously false if taken in the kind of plain sense understanding you say we should apply to scripture. But all are redefined to mean something much much weaker. Why not just say what you mean? If you think man can’t reach perfection, say that, not that he is totally depraved. If you think scripture is true in all it truly teaches then say that. And if you mean that it’s possible for the obscurities of scripture to be clarified by the Holy spirit say that. Don’t affirm misleading definitions then shout “straw man!” when people think you mean what you say.

    Posted by Giles | June 4, 2014, 9:23 PM


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