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What about Inerrancy?

[The following is an appended transcript of a lecture given to the Encounter Ministry Development School, Footnote omitted, delivered 9 April 2024, by Stuart McEwing]

Having covered verbal plenary and confluent inspiration, we can now consider an additional property of Scripture. This is not something we found taught in the Bible, but an inference made from of other doctrines. It is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In a nutshell, inerrancy is the idea that there are no errors in the Bible. 

What would you do if you found an error in the Bible? Would your theology fall apart?

Lesson Intentions

  1. Understand the doctrine of inerrancy
  2. Discover the types of errors that may be in the Bible
  3. Review strategies for maintaining inerrancy

Inerrancy is bound up with convictions about Scripture’s inspiration, authority, and trustworthiness as well as convictions about the character of God, especially the attribute of his truthfulness. One strong argument for inerrancy goes like this;

1. The Bible is God’s Word. 

2. God cannot err. 

3. Therefore, the Bible cannot err. 

In order to escape the conclusion of an argument, one needs to either deny the truth of a premise, or show the conclusion does not flow logically from the premises. In this argument, both premises appear to be true, and the conclusion does seem to flow from the premises. So it looks like we’re stuck with the conclusion: that the doctrine of inerrancy is unavoidable given certain Christian convictions, even if it is uncomfortable.

On closer inspection however, I believe this argument is a little bit slippery. Between the first and second premise a subtle shift in definitions is happening. In the first premise we understand the Bible is God’s word because it is “God-breathed” or inspired (2 Tim 3:16), and that, as we have covered, this inspiration is verbal, plenary and confluent. In the second premise, however, we understand that the God who cannot err is, in the essence of his divine nature, entirely truthful. Hebrews 6:18 says it is impossible for God to lie. His promise and his oath is unchangeable.

He is therefore faithful, trustworthy in all his dealings with men, and authoritative, someone we can put our trust in. 

These are not the same two things. The truthful nature of God, and the verbal plenary confluent inspiration of Scripture are different. The argument therefore commits an informal fallacy known as equivocation. An example of equivocation is this: 

  1. Socrates is Greek. 
  2. Greek is a language.
  3. Therefore, Socrates is a language. 

You can see how the meaning of the word “Greek” shifts between the premises, so the conclusion no longer flows from the premises. So does the meaning of “God’s word” in this argument. One is a direct communique, and the other is mediated through human beings. A Christian can admit to both premises without the conclusion of inerrancy following necessarily. Be careful though—this is not to say the conclusion is false. Just to say that conclusion remains to be logically demonstrated. 

However, even though the definitions are different, they are related things. Thus, the question that arises concerns the extent of inspiration. How much error can one accommodate before the God of Truth is looking like an incompetent, or a liar, or both? The answer will depend very much on your model or theory of inspiration.

One of the difficulties of assessing the doctrine of inerrancy, is because people naturally have in their head the dictation theory of inspiration. Of course there can be no error if the authors were like secretaries, or if when the authors wrote they were puppets being moved about by the hand of God. 

Another difficulty is the fact that alleged errors needs to be proved with certainty, and not simply asserted with an inconclusive interpretation. As it has been emphasised, “It is not sufficient to show a difficulty, which may spring out of our defective knowledge of the circumstances. The true meaning must be definitely and certainly ascertained, and then shown to be irreconcilable with other known truth.” A truth from science or history or fro the bible itself, so long as it is known with sufficient certainty. It is easy to claim there is an error, but not so easy to prove an error beyond reasonable doubt.

Yet another difficulty is one’s theory of inerrancy needs to be attuned to what we find in the Scripture itself. For instance, clearly there are errors recorded in the Bible; Adam ate the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Noah got drunk, Job’s councillors issue false statements, Peter’s denied Jesus by saying “I never knew him.” These are what we might call (1) fallibility errors, after the fallible characters in the Bible who have fallen short, with their moral failings and prone to making mistakes. Certainly, there are those sort of errors in the Bible. This shows that the strength of your doctrine of inerrancy will need to be dialled down or up to the amount of the kind errors we find, such as the falsehoods told by, and moral failings made by, the flawed human characters in the Bible.

There are a number of other types of errors that may or may not be found in the Bible, each with their own consequence. We have already mentioned (1) Fallibility errors, which belong to the characters in the Bible who make mistakes. There are also (2) Copyist errors, such as the many textual variants which arise from the transmission of the text. 

EXAMPLE: For instance, one famous textual variant is in Revelation 13:18, with the so-called number of the beast. While most manuscripts have the number as 666, there is an old and reliable family of manuscripts that have the number 616. Irenaeus, the church father in the late second century, and earliest to comment on the verse, said that he has consulted with “all the most approved and ancient copies” to confirm that they did indeed have the number 666. 

These errors seem of little consequence. Copyist errors are not errors to do with the Word of God itself, as it was written, but the transmission of the text as it was copied and distributed, leaving behind a vast manuscript tradition. So these types of errors are attributable to humans, and not God. To the Muslim textual variants in the Qur’an are devastating to their modern doctrine of perfect preservation, where it is said that Qur’an cannot be altered (Surah 6:115) or destroyed, down to the last word, letter and guide mark for pronunciation (Sarah 85:21). The quranic inscriptions on the El-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem bare textual variants from the Qur’an Muslims read today. For the Christian, textual variants occasion no such heart-palpitations. Since there is wealth of manuscripts for the New Testament, textual variants actually help to confirm the text we have, rather than undermine it. 

Of more consequence would be textual errors in the original manuscripts. Call these (3) Editorial errors. These would be when the authors misquote or edit source material. For instance, the New Testament authors often quote the Old Testament in ways that take liberties with the text we would today consider inaccurate or erroneous. 

EXAMPLE: An example would be the quotation of a prophesy from Zechariah 9 in Matthew 21 at Jesus’ triumphal entry. Comparing the quotation with the original it is easy to spot the differences, which include the deletion of the second and third line, and change the last from the ‘foal of a beast of burden,’ to ‘the foal of a donkey.’

However, when we view the gospels as examples of ancient biography, such as Plutarch’s Lives, we see clearly that the author is paraphrasing – a technique common to the genre. This involves adapting the original words, in order to bring out the meaning and theological significance. Paraphrasing is a perfectly acceptable practice that gives the essence of a statement without using precisely the same words. This example is a useful reminder that the Bible uses many other literary devises like this, including; figures of speech, metaphors and hyperboles. When we seek to understand the Bible on its own terms, rather than our own, many of these so-called errors melt away.

Another example of this would be (4) Grammatical errors. This would be when the author breaks the rules of grammar or misspells a word. For instance; the use of a plural verb where grammatical rules would require a singular verb, the use of a feminine adjective where a masculine one would be expected, different spelling for a word than the one commonly used, etc.

EXAMPLE: This is done by John in the the book of Revelation, who as the author, displays  either the rough-hewn language of the common man, or a mastery of the language that enables him to play around with words and break the rules much like Shakespeare did with the English language to enhance communication. As scholars have noted the irregular terms and syntax serve the function of pointing to theological truths in concord with the message of the author, these types of errors appear to be intentional, and thus not errors after all. 

Examples like these help us see that an error, properly speaking, is when there is a mistake which leads to a lack of truth.

The next type of error we can call (5) Canonical errors. These will be internal discrepancies with other details in the text.

EXAMPLE: One example could be between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9. Both texts describe Saul’s conversion. While the earlier says that Paul’s traveling companions on the Damascus Road “heard the voice but saw no one,” the latter text says that they “saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking.”

EXAMPLE: Judas’ death may also be an example. In Matthew 27:3-10 Judas hangs himself, but in Acts 1:18-19 it says Judas he fell headlong, his body bursting open, and all his intestines spilled out. These are allegedly internal inconsistencies in the canon. 

These canonical errors, or internal discrepancies in the narrative, can generally be reconciled with each other, being only apparent contradictions rather than true contradictions. 

Another type of error would be (6) Empirical Errors. These are the statements that seem to contradict known facts of history or science, and are the main tool for critics seeking to discredit the Bible, and the the primary stumbling block for Christians wanting to believe the Bible.

EXAMPLE: For instance, Leviticus 11:20-23 describes flying insects as having four legs, whereas we now know that insects have six legs. 

Finally, there are (7) Theological errors. These would be contradictions between teachings. 

EXAMPLE: One example might be Ezekiel 18:20, where it states: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.” On the other hand, in Exodus 20:5-6 (Numbers 14:18) we have statements suggesting the opposite—that God visits “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate [Him],” So which is it? It will be important to know whether the child inherits guilt from his father or does not.

EXAMPLE: Another difficult theological error, if it be an error, would be the supposed difference in teaching between Deuteronomy 20 in relation to Matthew 5. Deuteronomy 20 instructs Israel that the complete extermination of Yahweh’s enemies is a matter of Israel’s purity before and obedience to Yahweh, while Jesus subsequently says that faithfulness to God requires non-retaliation and sacrificial love towards one’s enemies (Matt. 5:38–48)? On the surface level, it appears that these reveal two different theologies, two contradictory moral codes, and two irreconcilable renderings of God.

Please do not think I am saying there are these errors in the Bible. The point is, if after a diligent study we become convinced the Bible does contain one or more of these types of errors, our view of inerrancy will have to morph, and our model of inspiration may require stretching to accommodate these. That is all. It is not so disastrous as critics make it out to be. There’s no need to abandon the faith like a totalled car in a ditch on the side of the road. Discovering an error would not be a write-off. It would be a panel-beating job at best, and a minor one at that. None of them undermine even the reliability of the Bible, let alone the crucifixion and resurrection on which our faith is founded.

This is why Warfield says,

“The Doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is not a preconceived dogma which is brought to the consideration of the Bible, and which is then to be forced upon the Bible if possible. It is itself a conclusion from an examination of the Scriptures; it is the last, as it is the most fundamental, conclusion drawn from that examination; and it is drawn from that examination because it is seen to be involved in the entire trustworthiness of the Bible as the Word of God.”

Here Warfield warns that inerrancy isn’t an idea we bring to the Scripture and impose upon it. Rather, it is a conclusion that is drawn after examination of it. When a Royal Personage is being dressed, they first put on their theological underwear, the foundational doctrines of God, Christ and Salvation. Then they are dressed with outer garments; Miracles and Revelation. Then their robe. The last thing they would do is adorn their head with a crown. That’s what the doctrine of inerrancy is like. It is the final garment after every other doctrine has been established and fitted correctly—not to mention the first you would take off at night. The King or Queen doesn’t need the crown to establish their authority. They already possess it in their own person. But the crown is a recognition of what’s already there: a signal that points everyone to their inherent authority. 

Unfortunately, the doctrine of inerrancy has become something more than a crown. Inerrancy has become an a priori and prescriptive doctrine. People have sought to safeguard the authority and trustworthiness of scripture by asserting the Bible’s inerrancy. This puts the cart before the horse. The authority of Scripture comes from the doctrine of inspiration, which comes from Jesus Christ Himself. We don’t believe in Jesus on the authority of the Bible, we believe in the Bible on the authority of Jesus. We can get the authority and trustworthiness of scripture without the doctrine of inerrancy. We can get it through encountering the living Lord in the Scriptures. We get the authority of Scripture because it is the dynamic, living word of God that makes a difference in our lives. 

Instead, the horse should lead the cart. The size and shape of our doctrine of inerrancy should be tailored to the monarchs head, not resize the head for the crown. As R. C. Sproul has said, “That the case for the infallibility of Scripture rests on a premise that can only be established on the inductive basis of historical-empirical evidence should not be a problem to the Christian. It is on the historical-empirical plane that our redemption has been accomplished.” Just as we first investigate the incarnate Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection to show us the shape and form of our redemption, we need to first investigate what the Scriptures show to shape and form our doctrine of inerrancy.

Still, the idea of inerrancy has been present throughout the history of the Christian church. It came to its highest expression in 1978 with the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. This statement has become the standard for evangelicals. It says,

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit [confluence], is of infallible [which means not misleading, sure, safe, reliable] divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms: obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”

Then in the fourth paragraph, the statement goes on to say:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, [that the verbal plenary inspiration] 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.”

Here we have a number of expressions defining inerrancy. The part that says “All matters upon which Scripture touches,” isn’t very clear, but then it clarifies what it means for Scripture to touch upon something. It says, “in all that it affirms.” Likewise, in the fourth paragraph it says, “in all its teaching.” 

Catholic theology has likewise expressed the same view in Vatican II. It states, “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”. In other words, the Bible is inerrant in everything it teaches pertaining to salvation.

As James Orr observes, the author of II Timothy 3.16 does not say that divine inspiration of Scripture “secured verbal inerrancy in ordinary historical, geographical, chronological, or scientific matters. But it seems at least clearly implied that there was no error which could interfere with or nullify the utility of Scripture for the ends specified.”

This leads one to ask the important question, “What is the Scripture teaching?” The answer is going to require some responsible interpretation, which will include the historical context, the meaning of words, and the genre and type of literary conventions. 

The Chicago Statement goes on to say,

So history 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. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. 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.”

So the Bible must be read according to the purposes of its original authors. Responsible interpretation is needed to capture what is the inerrant teaching in Scripture, meaning it is true in all that it teaches.

EXAMPLE: For example, Joshua 10:12-13 describes a miracle that happened during a battle between Israel and the Amorites. Joshua commands the sun and the moon to stand still, and it says that it was so. Now modern readers could easily dismiss this as scientifically impossible. However, this is not a lesson in astronomy. The author is using the conventions of the genre and literary expressions typical of his historical setting to speak about an extended period of light, or just as easily, an extended period of darkness. This was to describe God’s miraculous power and intervention on behalf of His people. One scenario it could be describing is thick cloud cover, to make it appear just as dark as night. This would still be a miraculous event, but not one on the scale that is imagined by modern readers hearing the phrase ‘the sun and moon stood still.’

EXAMPLE: Another example, it is often said that Jesus made a mistake in Matthew 13:31-32, by saying the mustard seed is the smallest seed. However, Jesus is not teaching botany. Rather, he is teaching about the kingdom of God—of its small beginnings and its eventual significant benefit and impact. The mustard seed was well-known for its small size and rapid growth, making it a suitable metaphor in his overarching lesson about faith. 

We need to attend to what the Bible is teaching in its original context, and not hold everything the Bible says by a wooden reading or literal interpretation against it. 

The Chicago Statement leaves the door open to there being a certain sort of error in the Scripture, so long as the error is not what is being taught by it. 

Those who want to maintain the Bible has no errors have at least three strategies to employ. First, one can assert that the error was not in the original autograph of the text, which is no longer extant. This supposes that a copyist has inserted an error sometime along the line of transmission, and early enough to manifest itself in the majority of manuscripts. The criticism that this strategy makes the doctrine of inerrancy unfalsifiable is justified. 

A second strategy is to harmonise the error. This is done by seeking a better understanding of either history or science, or a better understanding of the text. 

EXAMPLE: For instance, the writer of Leviticus probably knew that insects have six legs. But the author didn’t have a word for insects, so used the general word for “fly” (עוף ooph), which can be applied to birds, bats, beetles, insects, and anything that flies. The phrase “on all fours” is an expression for those with legs that walk. The combination narrows down the category to what we know as “insects,” which is the English word inserted there by translators to make sense of the verse. These are all prohibited as food. Scientifically speaking, its notable that the exceptions listed—locust, katydid, cricket and grasshopper—crawl with their four front legs, and drag around their hind legs which they only use for hopping. 

A third strategy would be to reconsider the interpretation of the text. After all, inerrancy is applied to the text itself, and not the interpretation of the text we apply to it. 

EXAMPLE: Ezekiel 20 is speaking of the guilt of the father’s sin never being held against the sons, but Moses was referring to the consequences of the father’s sins being passed on to their children. Consequences are not the same as moral guilt. Unfortunately, if a father is a drunk, the children can suffer abuse and even poverty. Likewise, if a mother has contracted AIDS from drug use, then her baby may be born with AIDS. But, this does not mean that the innocent children are guilty of the sins of their parents.”

EXAMPLE: If God gives contrary instructions in Deuteronomy 20 and Matthew 5, it must be because these were two different situations. The Israelites were instructed to be instruments of judgement for a just and holy God on a wicked and depraved people. The Sermon on the Mount is addressed to the church as the people of God in the new covenant with Christ. The church is sent into the world to bear witness to the gospel, not to conquer territory. But both were instrumental in achieving God’s kingdom and his great plan of salvation for the world.

On the one hand, harmonisation can be very helpful in appreciating the coherence of the text. However, while harmonisation can help to iron out wrinkles in the narrative of biblical inerrancy, it can sometimes give the impression one is grasping at straws. Complex scenarios and un-evidenced assumptions are difficult to accept when a far simpler explanation—like a human being stuffed-up—is available. A staunch harmoniser of the biblical text, seeking to promote the Bible’s trustworthiness, can run the risk of leading people in the opposite direction to what they intend—to disregard the teaching of scripture—which is what is truely important.

EXAMPLE: The recent trend of Christian’s deconstructing [back-slidden Christians who justify their decisions with misinformed arguments] provides a good example. Typically, these are people raised in fundamentalists churches on the bread an butter of strong biblical inerrancy – where every detail must be truthful according to today’s standard of accuracy. When they run across verses in the Bible they cannot reconcile, the whole edifice of their theology begins to collapse. They build their house on a foundation other than the rock of Jesus Christ Himself. Perhaps that foundation was biblical inerrancy, when the Bible actually never makes the doctrine explicit. Perhaps the foundation was an interpretation of the Bible, and not what the Bible actually teaches. It is the teaching of scripture that should be of upmost concern to us. 

Summing up, the Bible is inerrant, being without error in all that it teaches (when taught rightly). Our view of biblical inerrancy needs to be calibrated to what we find in the Bible, especially to what errors we find there, but no less to what it teaches about verbal plenary confluent inspiration. The Bible is completely a product of the authoritative and trustworthy God, whose teachings are without error in the Bible when rightly interpreted. What do you do if there are errors in the Bible? You harmonise, you re-look at your interpretation, or you chalk it up to us not having the original autographs.


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