Why I Am Not an Inerrantist—Even though I Am (or Vice Versa)

Last night I was honored to discuss the topic of “Biblical Inerrancy and Biblical Authority” at the First Baptist Church of Forsyth, Georgia as part of their “Great Debates” series of evening services. Below the fold is a somewhat edited and link-enhanced version of what I had to say.

In the Preface to the American edition of The Last Word, New Testament scholar and Anglican bishop N. T. Wright says,

Writing a book about the Bible is like building a sandcastle in front of the Matterhorn. The best you can hope to do is to catch the eye of those who are looking down instead of up, or those who are so familiar with the skyline that they have stopped noticing its peculiar beauty. (ix)

If one of the most esteemed biblical scholars alive today questions the advisability of writing a book about the Bible, then what in the world am I doing giving a forty-five minute lecture on the Bible? At best, I can only tell you what you already know, that God reveals himself to us in unexpected ways. At worst, I fear I may distract you from Scripture itself and get you mired in secondary issues that don’t really matter. Even so, here I am, and here you are.

In the Beginning

We need to begin with the question of what Christians have said about the Bible in the past. For the first 1,500 years or so of church history, something like a belief in biblical inerrancy was simply a given. The doctrine of inerrancy was meant to safeguard the centrality of Scripture as the one unmovable anchor point on the theological landscape.

That is what Christians from the early and medieval periods taught. They believed that the Bible is free from error and completely truthful. It is “the utterly reliable source and norm of Christian theology” in the words of theologian Thomas Oden (The Living God, 335). It is important to note, however, that they didn’t use the precise language of inerrancy. That’s why I said they believed in “something like” biblical inerrancy.

Early Christians described Scripture in the language of praise. In gratitude to God for the good and perfect gift of inspired Scripture, early Christians and Jews sought to worship God and extol his truthfulness through the ways they talked about the Bible.

So, for example, Psalm 19:7-8 proclaims,

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the decrees of the LORD are sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is clear,
enlightening the eyes.

Ancient believers understood that you could trust what Scripture said. In the fifth century, Saint Augustine said, “If we are perplexed by an apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, ‘The author of this book is mistaken’; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood” (Against Faustus 11) In other words, the Bible is true; any perceived errors are errors in the transmission of the text, the translation of the words, or the understanding of the interpreter.

Over 1,000 years later, the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli said,

The word of God is to be held by us in the highest honor—by word of God is alone meant, what comes from God’s Spirit—and no word should be accorded the same faith as this one. For it is certain, it cannot err, it is clear, it does not let us go errant in the darkness.

All of these statements describe the Bible not in the language of theological precision but the language of love and commitment. We know and confess that Scripture is truthful because we believe that God is truthful. Therefore, we sing,

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say that to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus hath fled?

And therefore, as children, we would place our hands over our hearts at Vacation Bible School and recite the words that many of you remember today:

I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God’s Holy Word, I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path and will hide its words in my heart that I might not sin against God.

The Bible has always been central to the life of the church. Jesus was shaped by the Hebrew Scriptures, and the earliest Christians searched those same Scriptures in order to understand what God had accomplished among them through Jesus Christ.

The details of what this means, however, or what we are to understand by it in a precise, technical sense, is left unsaid. For throughout all the early centuries, as convinced as believers were of the truthfulness of Scripture, there developed no universally accepted theory of biblical inspiration (Thomas Oden, Life in the Spirit, 70).

That is to say, neither the early church fathers, the medieval theologians, nor the Protestant Reformers consistently said the same things about the inspiration of Scripture. In Thomas Oden’s three-volume work of systematic theology, in which he endeavored to say nothing new or creative but merely synthesize the agreed-upon wisdom of 2,000 years of Christian history, he never sees fit to use the term “inerrancy” at all. It doesn’t even appear in the subject index.

The truth is, although all early Christians agreed that Scripture is truthful in all it teaches, formal doctrines of “biblical inerrancy” have only been around for the past 200 years or so. And as we shall see, not all inerrancies are created equal.

We should note before we go any further that the early church was not naïve in its doctrine of inspiration. The church fathers were well aware of certain anomalies in the text that called for serious theological reflection.

The church fathers were perfectly aware that not all the manuscripts of the Bible said exactly the same thing. For example, some ancient manuscripts cut off the Gospel of Mark after the eighth verse of the sixteenth chapter, while others included verses 9-20—and still others appended a completely different ending! Some texts of the Gospel of John omitted the story of the woman taken in adultery, some had it as an appendix at the very end, and others placed it in the Gospel of Luke.

As early as the third century, Origen of Alexandria was comparing the various Scripture texts, both Hebrew and Greek. He wanted to establish the most authentic form of the biblical text, and thus became a pioneer in what today we call textual criticism. This was only necessary because different Bible manuscripts said different things.

The early church fathers—and the rabbis before them—were also well aware that there were other kinds of anomalies, for example, incidents of dubious morality in the Bible, and especially in the Old Testament: polygamy, violence, and so forth.

It is not true that liberal college and seminary professors suddenly discovered these passages in the last hundred years or so. In fact, John L. Thompson’s book, Reading the Bible with the Dead, catalogues rabbinic, patristic, medieval, and Reformation strategies for handling such things as passages depicting the mistreatment of women, divine commands to commit acts of genocide, or psalms calling down curses on one’s enemies. Despite what some moderns want you to believe, Christians and Jews have a 2,000-year history of wrestling with these texts and attempting to clarify that they were not to be taken as examples for believers to follow. Not every verse of Scripture ends with “Go thou and do likewise.”

The Enlightenment

Beginning in the 1700’s we enter a new phase in our thinking about the nature of Scripture. This was the era of the Enlightenment, and it posed two particular challenges with respect to the church and its Bible. The first challenge was the rise of historical, “scientific” methods of analysis of the biblical text. The second challenge was a growing skepticism about all traditional sources of authority, including the authority of the Bible and of the church that read it.

Because of the Enlightenment, new avenues of knowledge burst on the scene, both exposing people to new ways of handling the ancient texts and insisting that blanket appeals to divine authority were no longer sufficient for resolving biblical puzzles. If the Bible is true, then it was assumed that it must conform to what human reason can tell us about the way the universe works.

Faced with these challenges to traditional faith, Christians began in the 1800’s to work overtime to clarify in very precise language what they meant when they said that the Bible does not err. To that end, they developed new theological terminology. They developed the terminology of “biblical inerrancy.”

Now remember, the new thing that happened in the 1800’s was not that somebody invented the idea that the Bible is “free from error” or “utterly reliable.” What was new was the way this affirmation came to be defined and defended. In particular, “inerrancy” came to serve as a theological shorthand for the idea that the Bible was error-free not merely in terms of what it taught about the life of faith, but what it taught in any area in inquiry: not merely theology but history, geography, science, psychology, and so forth.

But these were precisely the areas in which the Enlightenment was increasing human knowledge by leaps and bounds. Through new discoveries, either of previously unknown ancient texts or through the application of the scientific method to physical phenomena—physics, biology, geology—Christians were handed a mountain of new data to compare against what they found when they opened their Bibles.

In short, before the Enlightenment, careful Bible readers knew that there were passages of Scripture that could not be read according to simplistic, face-value interpretations of the text. After the Enlightenment, face-value readings got even more difficult. In Inspiration and Incarnation, Old Testament scholar Peter Enns summarizes some of the reasons this is so. In particular, he identifies three features of the Old Testament that create problems for traditional, evangelical believers.

First, there are problems related to the Bible’s uniqueness. Since the 1800’s, scholars have had access to an abundance of ancient literature that has a bearing on how we read the Bible. For example, the Epic of Gilgamesh (and other ancient texts) relate a story of a universal flood. The Gilgamesh flood story is comparable to that found in Genesis 6–9, and it is centuries older.

Likewise, the Law Code of Hammurabi has many points in common with the law of Moses as found in various portions of the books of Exodus and Numbers. It’s not that Moses copied from Hammurabi, but rather that the laws we find in the Bible do not look out of place when set beside other law codes from the ancient Near East.

Discoveries like these prompt believers to ask, Why does the Bible in places look a lot like the literature of Israel’s ancient neighbors? Is the Old Testament really that unique? Does it not just reflect the ancient world in which it was produced? If the Bible is the word of God, why does it fit so nicely in the ancient world?

Second, there are problems related to the Bible’s integrity. Here, the issue is the theological diversity that can be found in the Bible. To suggest a New Testament example, in Galatians 3 and Romans 4, Paul appeals to the example of Abraham from Genesis 15 to prove his point that we are justified by faith apart from works. But in James 2, James appeals to the example of Abraham in Genesis 15 to prove his point that “faith without works is dead.” So here we have two New Testament writers appealing to the same biblical passage as support for seemingly diametrically opposed theological positions.

Of course, we could think of many other examples, and we may be justified in asking questions like, Why do different parts of the Bible say different things about the same things? It really seems as if there are contradictions, or at least large differences of opinion, among the various biblical writers.

A third problem has to do with the Bible’s interpretation, namely, the ways in which the New Testament writers handle the Old Testament. Here I’ll simply mention the quotation in Matthew 2:15 of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” In Matthew’s Gospel, this passage is read as a messianic prophecy applied to Jesus about the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt to escape from King Herod. But read the passage in context: in Hosea 11 the “son” being referred to is the nation of Israel itself:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. (Hos 11:1-12)

Was Hosea talking about the Messiah rejecting God and worshiping Baal? If not, then what’s going on? Did Matthew just not care about the original context? He certainly can’t be accused of taking the Hosea passage literally! Why do the New Testament writers handle the Old Testament like that? It looks like they take the Old Testament passages out of context.

Challenges to Faith

These phenomena are really there in the text. No liberal scholar is making them up. But since they’re there, what are we to do with them? They’ve been there all along, but with the coming of the Enlightenment and its emphasis on reason and its inherent skepticism about traditional authority, the problem has become more and more acute.

These phenomena have challenged the faith of some, perhaps many. I think, for example, of Bart Ehrman, the New Testament scholar. Ehrman was raised an evangelical Christian, but he couldn’t reconcile what he was taught about biblical inspiration with what he was learning at college (and at a Christian college, at that). Ehrman’s particular sticking point was the great diversity of the New Testament manuscripts, which seemed to make it all but impossible to achieve 100% certainty about what the words of the Bible really are. Ehrman insisted that, unless the Bible lived up to his expectations about the perfection of its text and the clarity of its message, it was no good at all. Ehrman eventually concluded that the Bible was not what he had been led to believe it was, and he became an agnostic.

In “converting” from evangelical Christianity to agnostic skepticism, however, it is worth noting that Ehrman didn’t change his definition of biblical inspiration one bit. Both skeptics and fundamentalists approach Scripture with an all-or-nothing mentality—either it lives up to standards of perfection determined by modern, rationalistic thinkers, or it is worthless.

If you can be talked out of your faith, you probably should be. But that doesn’t keep some believers from thinking it is their Christian duty to “shield” themselves or others from the difficulties in the biblical text. Peter Enns tells the story that, after his book came out it was the topic of a faculty discussion in an unnamed evangelical seminary. One faculty member, an Old Testament scholar, remarked at one point that “Enns really isn’t saying anything new here”—referring to the kind of things I summarized earlier.

Another faculty member, a systematic theologian, remarked, “Nothing new? Then why haven’t I heard of any of this before?”

The Old Testament scholar responded, “It is our job to protect you from this sort of thing.”

In my capacity as an adjunct professor at Mercer University, every semester I encounter young people who grew up in church but are absolutely clueless about textual variants, theological diversity in the Bible, the questionable morality of their favorite Sunday school characters, and similar matters. Perhaps their churches and pastors also thought it was their job to protect their members from this sort of thing!

It may be psychologically gratifying to say that you don’t need to fine-tune your view of the Bible, that what we have always believed is right and there is no point in discussing other opinions. What we may not realize, however, is that not discussing these matters poses a challenge to the faith of some. The next Bart Ehrman may be sitting in your Sunday school class.

Some believers’ faith is already being shaken because they’re discovering these things—either in a college classroom, or through personal study—and the best the church seems to be able to do is tell them that none of it matters and they should just have faith.

For the believer, this sends the message that their sincere concerns and questions are out of bounds. For the unbeliever, it sends the message that one must accept what is logically and intellectually unacceptable as a precondition to following Christ.

A Way Forward

In this light, what can we say about the nature of Scripture and its authority in the church and in the lives of believers? And in that context, what can we say about that difficult word, “inerrancy”?

Some Christians want to keep the word, but strive to define it in ways that conform more closely to the phenomena we actually find in the text. And I would hasten to add that this is not something new. Remember, Christians accepted the reality of textual anomalies and moral sticking points from the earliest centuries.

To Christians who hold this view, the problem is not with “inerrancy” but with indefensible definitions of the term. They would argue that the issue isn’t the term as such but what it is intended to mean.

Theological jargon is just like any other kind of technical language; it requires explanation. In The Last Word, N. T. Wright suggests that the slogans or clichés we use can sometimes serve as useful shorthand ways of pointing to more complex statements. He says they are like “portable stories” that help us say what we’re getting at. Wright compares these words or slogans to suitcases in which we can carry around a lot of complicated things.

The thing we have to remember is that a suitcase isn’t the same thing as what it is carrying. Likewise, a theological term is not the same thing as what we mean when we use it. Whatever terminology we use—if we prefer to speak of “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” “authority,” or something else—the challenge is to use it thoughtfully. The temptation is to use it crudely or simplistically.

Wright says, “Too much debate about scriptural authority has had the form of people hitting one another with locked suitcases” (25). It would be far better for us to open up our suitcases and explore what is in them.

Therefore, people who use the language of “inerrancy” understand that this language requires qualification. It makes no sense, they would say, to set aside traditional confessions because they are subject to misunderstanding. In other spheres of Christian thought, we don’t seem to have a problem adding qualifications to traditional language such as “Trinity,” “justification,” or even the confession that “Jesus is Lord.”

We don’t throw away our Trinitarian language because someone could misunderstand it to mean that Christians worship three Gods. Rather, we retain the language, but with appropriate qualifications to explain what we do or do not mean in using it. The same should be true of the language of “biblical inerrancy.” That is why many Christians continue to use the term, all the while paying close attention to what it means and does not mean.

The SBC Peace Committee

I want to tell you about some of the recent attempts Christians have made to qualify or nuance the term “inerrancy.” First, however, I need to give you one example that is not to my liking.

In 1987 the Peace Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention announced in its findings that most Southern Baptists believed in biblical inerrancy, namely

  1. They believe in direct creation of mankind and therefore they believe Adam and Eve were real persons.
  2. They believe the named authors did indeed write the biblical books attributed to them by those books.
  3. They believe the miracles described in Scripture did indeed occur as supernatural events in history.
  4. They believe that the historical narratives given by biblical authors are indeed accurate and reliable as given by those authors.

These are not necessarily bad things to believe, but presenting them in this context does nothing to advance the discussion of “biblical inerrancy.” That is because they have no bearing on what is actually going on in the biblical text, or the fact that others might interpret these matters differently. Rather, the Peace Committee reported what rank-and-file Southern Baptists already believed with no attempt to investigate how they got there.

Rather than provide a reasoned explanation of what biblical inerrancy is or isn’t, they simply told the SBC what conclusions people expected pastors and teachers to reach. When the convention’s seminaries were then directed to hire only faculty members who subscribed to these four beliefs, what they were doing was in effect trying to isolate the Bible from the Enlightenment. “We’re not interested in an objective, rational analysis of the text,” they seemed to say, “just keep telling us what we already believe the Bible says.”

Like N. T. Wright, “I think I know what the Reformers…would have said to that” (85).

A hundred years ago in his book Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton explained that “all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are.” But this is not true. Rather, Chesterton writes,

If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again…. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. (emphasis added)

If you’re serious about retaining the language of “inerrancy,” then my word to you is, Keep painting! If you want to retain the terminology of “inerrancy,” then you must constantly go back to the Bible, take seriously what is in it, and let what is in it determine what it means to say that the Bible is without error. It’s not enough simply to settle on a set of conclusions you expect to be able to affirm, no matter what.

In that sense, the Peace Committee report was not serious about biblical inerrancy at all. The committee members would rather leave the Bible to a torrent of change without even throwing a lifeline to people who have honest questions about what they see when they read their Bibles.

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

A somewhat better example of properly qualifying the term “inerrancy” comes from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, published in 1978. That statement says in part,

We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations. (Article XIII)

I think it’s worth noting that this statement has much to say about what does or does not count as an “error” in Scripture. That is a wise and necessary step. According to the Chicago Statement, the following phenomena do in fact appear in the Bible: lack of modern technical precision, spelling and grammar mistakes, observational descriptions of nature (the weatherman can talk about the sun rising and setting, so why not the Bible?), hyperbole (or exaggeration for rhetorical effect), and many others.

In another section there is an attempt to address the issue of genre in the Bible. The Statement says, “[H]istory must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth” (Exposition).

There is also acknowledgement that there were differences in literary conventions between biblical times and our own. For example, ancient writers commonly arranged their material out of chronological order and quoted sources very loosely. If those things were expected in biblical times, then we can’t say it’s an error if they in fact show up in the Bible. Again in the language of the Chicago Statement: “When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it” (Exposition).

Finally, “Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed” (Exposition).

These are some very important qualifications to make. But I wonder if the writers of the Chicago Statement thought through all the things they imply. First, these qualifications bring up the matter of literary genre. Genre simply means the kind of literature with which we’re dealing. No one doubts that the Bible contains examples of many different literary genres: history, poetry, sermons, liturgies, apocalypses, etc. Each genre follows certain rules and imposes certain expectations upon the reader. You don’t read a paperback novel the same way you read a doctoral dissertation; and you don’t read the Psalms the same way you read Romans.

But if we’re going to take genre seriously, then we need to at least entertain the possibility that some of those genres involve telling a fictitious story in order to convey a spiritual truth. In fact, we know that this happened because Jesus spoke in parables. Now, nobody thinks that Jesus’ parables constitute “errors” in the Bible. Why would they? Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code notwithstanding, we know not to expect historical truth when we read a fictional story. So the proper response to the parable of the Good Samaritan is not to ask, “Did this really happen?” but “Who is my neighbor?”

And once we understand that, we are bound to admit that other portions of Scripture may convey truth in the same manner as Jesus’ parables, rather than in the genre of historical narrative. If history must be treated as history and poetry as poetry—and of course they must be—then certainly parable must be treated as parable, allegory as allegory, and myth as myth. (I’m not saying the literary genres of “allegory” or “myth” do or do not appear in the Bible; only that we can’t decide the issue before we even open our Bibles to find out.)

The Chicago Statement also raises the issue of the expectations we bring to the biblical text. Once again, we should not be troubled if biblical writers quoted sources loosely rather than verbatim or if they arranged their material topically rather than chronologically. We can’t hold up the Bible to modern standards of historical reporting and then call it an “error” when it fails to measure up.

No one should have any problems with this. It just makes sense: although in the plan of God, the Bible is written for us, it was first written for people thousands of years ago who brought their own expectations to the text. Their expectations carry more weight than mine when it comes to deciding whether something in the Bible ought to count as an “error.”

But the matter of expectations goes beyond mere literary conventions, however. It also touches on the issue of worldview. As but one example, John H. Walton has recently written a book called The Lost World of Genesis One in which he argues that Genesis 1 makes perfect sense within the context of ancient worldviews.

In that light, Walton describes ancient Hebrew understandings of human psychology. The ancient Israelites, he says, thought that emotions and thinking were literally located in the heart, the bowels and so forth. What we need to grasp is that, for an ancient writer and his audience, this is not metaphor—this is physiology! When the biblical writers wrote this way, they were in perfect harmony with ancient medical knowledge, and anyone in the biblical world would have interpreted it as such.

So when God wanted to talk to the Israelites about their intellect, emotions, and will, he did not attempt to correct their limited knowledge of physiology. Nor did God feel obliged to reveal to the ancient writers how the brain functions or its role in producing various psychological states. But I don’t consider it an “error” for God not to have done so. If he had, those ancient Israelites would have never understood it—and it would most assuredly have distracted them from what God was really trying to tell them.

Finally, notice that the Chicago Statement brings up the purpose for which the Bible was written. Scripture, the Statement says, “makes good its claims” and “achieves the measure of truth its authors were aiming for.” Elsewhere, the Statement insists that we can’t evaluate Scripture “according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose.” If you don’t think we could drive a truck through that loophole, I’m sorry but you just haven’t been paying attention. Let me simply suggest that as soon as you try to turn the Bible into a science textbook, you’ve pretty much met the definition of applying a standard of truth and error that is alien to Scripture’s usage or purpose.

All of these matters of genre, expectations, and purpose are givens. And according to the logic of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, none of them should count as “errors.” But for most people who wear the label of “inerrantist,” they are problems. They challenge long-held beliefs, and I understand why talking about them would make some people uncomfortable.

But I don’t see why these things have to be thought of as problems for the doctrine of inerrancy. I would rather think we could look on these sorts of phenomena not as problems but as windows into the world of the Bible and into what it means to say that God revealed himself to us through Scripture.

With that in mind, there are a couple more recent statements about biblical inerrancy that we need to consider.

The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church

Another good statement comes from the Roman Catholic Church in their 2008 Synod of Catholic Bishops on the Bible. (By the way, the commitment of the Catholic bishops to retaining the language of inerrancy should put to rest the idea that this is exclusively a Protestant, much less a Fundamentalist, concern.) Catholic doctrine does not hesitate to use the language of inerrancy, but it qualifies its meaning. I would encourage you to find an online version of “The Word of God in the Life and Mission of the Church” and read it in its entirety, but for our purposes I’ll cut to the chase. According to the bishops, the bottom line is that Scripture is inerrant insofar as it teaches the “truth that God for our salvation wanted to consign in the sacred writings.”

This echoes earlier language that came out of the Second Vatican Council in 1965, that taught that the “books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation” (Dei Verbum §11).

By now I hope you realize that, if you’ll pardon the expression, the devil is in the details when it comes to “biblical inerrancy.” A serious, reflective, well-thought-out definition of the term may not be anything like an unserious preconception of what “inerrancy” ought to mean (based on rationalistic, Enlightenment assumptions). That’s why, when I was first contacted about bringing this presentation, I almost immediately thought of two possible titles for it. I was either going to call my talk “Why I Am Not an Inerrantist—Even Though I Am” or “Why I Am an Inerrantist—Even Though I’m Not.” I’m still not sure which would be the more accurate thing to say!

Peter Enns

Finally, I would commend to you Peter Enns’s approach to inerrancy, which emphasizes that the issues many of us wrestle with regarding the Bible might have less to do with the Bible itself and more to do with our own preconceptions about what the Bible ought to be like. In other words, do we expect the wrong things from Scripture?

Enns believes that “The Bible as it is is without error because the Bible as it is is God’s word.” He sees this as the heart of the matter: our view of Scripture should be rooted in our belief in God—and whatever God has deemed good and right to give us is where any discussion of biblical inerrancy ought to begin. So with Enns we’re back to using the language of love and commitment in talking about the Bible.

Rather than beginning with a preconceived idea of how Scripture is without error, Enns begins with the faith-affirmation that it is. In his own words, this view puts us in a state of

reverent expectancy to see what the Spirit will teach us from and about Scripture, to be self-reflective enough to allow the very categories about which we speak of Scripture to be driven by Scripture.

Enns’s view of “inerrancy” doesn’t sound much like that of the Chicago Statement—and even less like the SBC Peace Committee! Rather than beginning with a conclusion already in mind, Enns begins with an open Bible and a heart that is open to receive the Bible as it is rather than trying to shoehorn it into being something it is not. Anything less fails to revere the Bible as God’s Holy Word.

This, then, is Enns’s definition of biblical inerrancy:

I believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, existing as they do by God’s design and at his pleasure, are precisely what he intended for his people to have, and are therefore the only infallible rule of faith and practice.

If that’s what you mean by “inerrancy,” then sign me up!

Lingering Challenges

No matter how carefully you qualify the doctrine of inerrancy, there are some challenges you’re going to have to face. For example, one of the most common ways of qualifying the definition of “inerrancy” is to reserve it as a characteristic of the original autographs of Scripture only. This means that later manuscripts do not possess the quality of inerrancy—only the original parchments or papyri on which the biblical authors themselves penned their God-inspired words. The problem is that none of these autographs exist anymore. That means that, according to the strictest definition of the term, the Bible in your lap is not inerrant. Furthermore, no one alive today has ever seen, read, or touched an inerrant Bible, for none currently exist. For some Christians, that makes the whole concept of inerrancy sound like little more than a theological curiosity.

But beyond the textual problems, it must be said that the doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t deliver on the promise of safeguarding doctrinal orthodoxy. Inerrantist Baptists insist on the baptism of believers and say that the bread and cup of Communion are symbolic, but inerrantist Lutherans baptize babies and insist that the body and blood of Christ are literally present in the Holy Eucharist.  Meanwhile, inerrantist Pentecostals speak in tongues as the initial evidence that they have been baptized in the Holy Spirit, and inerrantist Catholics venerate saints and profess their allegiance to the Pope. Why the SBC thought they would arrive at doctrinal conformity by latching onto inerrancy, I’ll never understand! We are all reading the same Bible. We’re all handling it with the same profound reverence and the same deep commitment to its absolute truthfulness, and yet we continue see its message differently, and probably always will.

But for me, the main sticking point with the doctrine of inerrancy is that there are parts of the Bible to which the term simply doesn’t seem to apply. When we think about the term “biblical inerrancy,” we usually have in mind matters of propositional truth—Did Moses really part the Red Sea? Did Jesus really walk on the water? Did he literally rise from the dead and ascend into heaven?

Those are usually the contentious issues that get people’s blood pressure rising. For my part, I will happily confess that all these things happened in history and that the Bible faithfully reports that this is so.

But there are significant portions of Scripture that won’t submit to that kind of analysis. Not everything in Scripture can be boiled down to a proposition. Think of the Psalms: the Psalms rise above the level of mere proposition and touch us in our hearts. Take Psalm 70:1, “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me, O LORD, make haste to help me!” In describing this verse, the fourth-century theologian John Cassian said that it

…carries within it all the feelings of which human nature is capable. It can be adapted to every condition and can be usefully deployed against every temptation. It carries within it a cry of help to God in the face of every danger. It expresses the humility of a pious confession. It conveys watchfulness born of unending worry and fear. It conveys a sense of our frailty, the assurance of being heard, the confidence in help that is always and everywhere present. Someone forever calling out to his protector is indeed very sure of having him close by. This is the voice filled with the ardor of love and of charity. This is the terrified cry of someone who sees the snares of the enemy, the cry of someone besieged day and night and exclaiming that he cannot escape unless his protector comes to the rescue. (Conferences 10:10)

The genius of this verse according to Cassian is not that it “teaches truth” at all but that it “carries feeling.” But in what sense can we say that a feeling is “inerrant”?

While we’re on the subject, here is another passage from the Psalms that carries deep feeling. Psalm 137:8-9 says,

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

What does it even mean to claim that that portion of Scripture is “inerrant”?

Biblical Authority

These challenges have led some to suggest we do away with the term “inerrancy” completely. Instead, they say, we need to find ways to affirm the Bible’s authority in other language.

Frankly, there are many moderate Baptists for whom the term “biblical inerrancy” will always leave a sour taste in the mouth. To use N. T. Wright’s analogy, that term was the suitcase with which they were being flogged during the denominational upheaval that began in 1979. They’ve seen reputations ruined and livelihoods taken away, to all appearances over the use or non-use of that term. When they hear it today, all they can think of are the people who only use it as weapon.

Therefore, some of you may not like the word “inerrancy.” If you don’t, the challenge is, How do you intend to preserve the centrality and authority of Scripture? By whatever language we may use, Christians believe that the Bible is of greater importance than the creeds, psychological insights, archeological discoveries, sociological models, or liturgical traditions—which is another way of saying that the Bible is more important to the church than the history of its own interpretation. Whatever language we use or refrain from using, let’s at least be clear about that.

N. T. Wright is helpful here. He uses the language of “biblical authority,” which he describes by saying that “The ‘authority of scripture’ can make Christian sense only if it is a shorthand for ‘the authority of the triune God, exercised somehow through scripture” (23).

In other words, Scripture’s authority is rooted in how God uses the Bible to advance his kingdom upon the earth. Scripture is thus a means of God’s activity in and through us. It is a living and active instrument in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and sharper than any two-edged sword. To be sure, this activity of God mediated through Scripture includes the imparting of information, but it also goes far beyond this.

The real question for Wright is, What would our lives look like if we really believed in the authority of Scripture? Surely we can agree that getting the language right is not as crucial as living like people who hold the Bible in highest honor. Therefore Wright concludes his book by describing a life that is immersed in Scripture, both privately and congregationally. Wright advocates a reading of the Scripture that is

  • totally contextual
  • liturgically grounded
  • privately studied
  • refreshed by appropriate scholarship, and
  • taught by the church’s accredited teachers

If we really believe in the authority of Scripture, that’s the way we’ll handle it. If we really believe in the authority of Scripture, that’s how others will know it—not by our words but by our lives. And that is how the Bible becomes free to do what God intended: to take up residence in our hearts and transform us into the image of God’s Son.

When that happens, we’ll quit standing on the word of God and place ourselves underneath its authority where we belong.

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12 Responses to Why I Am Not an Inerrantist—Even though I Am (or Vice Versa)

  1. Thank you for this very good summary of the topic.

  2. Brian Small says:

    Can the word “inerrancy” be qualified so much that the term loses it meaning? I suggest this is what the Chicago Statement does.

  3. mikelioso says:

    I would say the Bibles authority rest on this; you have no idea what Jesus thought or was like, or Moses, David, Joseph, or any other figure from the Bible apart from the Bible. It’s my position that if you had one of these folks with you, that they would be better to get information concerning them than from the Bible. People that put the Bible on the highest pedestal forget that while Paul was alive, no one would turn him away because they had a letter from him and so wouldn’t need to here his inferior testimony. The Bible counts second in authority to the people it describes, be it Jesus, Moses, or God.

    Now it seems that a lot of the discussion on the inerrancy of the Bible rest on its being “the Words of God”. If a statement is the word of God then it’s true. I think if a statement is true then it is the word of God. I say this because we have no way of knowing if a person presents us with a statement that God inspired them. We have to test if the words are true first, then we know they are God’s. We can’t first test that they are God’s then know they are true. If we accept the words as true and of God without testing them then it must be because an authority as good as truth has spoken for them. Who is that?

    Our Bible collection was selected by a number of people and committees. Did these people have special powers to speak on behalf of God? How did that happen? Is only on selecting works for the faithful community that they spoke with the authority of God or on their other practices as well?

    Ignorance is no great sin. Knowledge must be sought and is not all laying out in plain site. I’m sure Jesus believed that the world was around 4,000 years old and tress proceeded animals in the ocean, and birds came before animals on the land. Why would he believe differently? it would, I suppose, take an intelligence far out side the human to make all the discoveries of 2000 years of science in a couple of decades. And there is no reason to believe God would let him know any more than he let the author of Genesis know. But when the truth is known, to hold on to ignorance transforms it into a lie. Bart Ehrman lost his faith because his faith was based on lies. That is why I feel it is so important for the Christian community to reject the foolishness of those like the Peace Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. If this is allowed to define Christianity then no Christlike person could ever consent to being Christian.

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  5. Wow. That’s an excellent and balanced look at the issues of inerrancy. You’ve really hit the nail on the head here. In particular, I loved the quote from G.K. Chesterton about the fact that a fence post can only stay the same through continual change. It reminded me of Jude 3 — “. . .earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” And why do we need to earnestly contend for it? Because it was not “once delivered” in a static way. We’ve got to keep repainting it; and that’s the only way to keep it the same. As someone who identifies very strongly with the inerrancy of scripture, it was great to see someone point out its difficulties in a form that is not a pro- or anti- polemic.

  6. Thanks, Mitchell, and welcome!

  7. Aquinas says:

    Thanks for your article here—it is well thought-out. I guess your position would be closer to espousing the infallibility of scripture, no? The Catholic position you describe is not strictly inerrantist but infalliblist. I totally agree with you that the doctrine of inerrancy does little to a priori to defend the bible since the doctrine’s own validity would depend in a question-begging way on the bible’s inerrancy! How would you ever know the bible was entirely free from any error except by proving it on a case by case basis? But that in turn would require every claim within it be demonstrable when many are beyond our testing. One approach is, I suppose, to suggest Jesus was an inerrantist and therefore since he can’t be wrong (assuming authentic saying etc) then scripture must be inerrant in the sense of having no error.
    The Chicago Statement really seems to be an attempt to define a “top-down” doctrine from what we’ve discovered “bottom-up”—I just think we could not worry about the top-down and use Wright’s and the Catholic approach—and that which Enn’s suggests—we take Scripture as we find it–noting its authority and power rather than seeking to “protect the bible” but in the process bring it into derision.

  8. This is a wise and balanced treatment. I think there was more variety in the ancient and Medieval church than you imply. Some (many?) spoke in terms of dictation–the human authors being mere pens in God’s hands. Others, including Origen, Augustine, Luther, & Calvin, were far more nuanced.

    I’d say that the first “Bible crisis” in the U.S. came not from Darwin (though that became a huge crisis for many–and apparently still is for Mohler) nor from Europeans practicing early forms of “higher criticism” (as it was then called), but the slavery crisis. Because the pro-slavery folks seemed to have the better biblical case (with the hermeneutical approaches then available), and the anti-slavery party “only” had the Spirit of the Scriptures, many were shaken in their view of Scripture.
    Whatever we mean by our terminology for biblical inspiration, “inerrancy,” and authority, our approach cannot sanction slavery.

    I like Wright’s approach (except that I would emphasize shared Bible study in church groups more than private study–and even the private study is to be tested in the church which is a hermeneutical community reading Word and world together), but I guess I don’t feel the need for finding a way to “preserve the centrality and authority of Scripture” because I expect it to preserve and defend itself. Have groups strayed from Scripture? Sure. Have they neglected it? Sure.

    But the Power of the Holy Spirit speaking in and through these very human words always challenges and renews new generations.

    To me the proof is in the pudding. I have believed so since college days. I remember a conversation back then in which I was trying to show a friend that although Carl Henry had words defending the authority of Scripture (8 volumes!) that someone like Joachim Jeremias, who’d never use a term like “inerrancy” was a much better exegete and showed greater respect for Scripture by being more careful with the actual text. My friend replied, “Well, who do you think has the higher view of Scripture, then?” Without thinking, I replied, “Mother Theresa or Desmond Tutu.” I think I was right–they PERFORMED the Scriptures.

  9. Readers here might want also to compare this statement by Roger Olsen of Truett Theological Seminary (Baylor University), a noted “postconservative” evangelical theologian.
    http://www.rogereolson.com/2010/08/19/why-inerrancy-doesnt-matter/

  10. Mike Gantt says:

    “Inerrancy” is the wrong word for in invites the Bible’s skeptics to focus on the gnats in order to find an unclean one. The Bible’s defenders then take on those arguments, one gnat at a time. In the process, everyone is swallowing camels.

    The Bible testifies to Jesus Christ. If its critics want to debate some other aspect of the Scriptures, let them debate themselves. Jesus is Lord!

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  12. Dan Bruce says:

    Over the past hundred years or so, one of the chief areas of attack by those who reject inerrancy has been centered on the chronology of the Hebrew kings, those who reigned in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. For centuries, that chronology was considered undecipherable because of assumed corruption of the biblical text describing the reigns.

    In 1951, Edwin Thiele published his groundbreaking book, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, which brought some order out of the chaos. However, even Thiele had to accept that some of the biblical text was corrupted in order to make his harmonization of the reigns of the kings of Israel and Judah fit together, and, unfortunately, even conservative Bible scholars bought into his sytem. You will see Thiele’s chronology for the Hebrew kings reflected in most Bible commentaries and study bibles on the market today.

    However, Thiele’s compromises were not necessary. In my new book, Sacred Chronology of the Hebrew Kings (available for reading online at my website http://www.prophecysociety.org ), I show that the biblical text about the Hebrew kings is totally accurate as transmitted down to us today, and I believe that demonstration goes a long way toward sustaining the concept of inerrancy.

    After more than forty years of study and research, I have yet to find anything in the Bible that is in error, although I have found many traditional interpretations of the Bible to be suspect.

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