The doctrine of inerrancy was once one of the key ideas that defined evangelicalism from various other theological camps. That is, to be an evangelical you had to accept that the Bible is inerrant. Today, however, this is no longer the case. There are a growing number of Christians that no longer feel the need to believe that the Bible is inerrant, even though these Christians still consider themselves to be evangelicals. Why is the doctrine of inerrancy losing favor? In his book, The Erosion of Inerrancy in Evangelicalism, G. K. Beale traces this attack on inerrancy to two sources. First, “the onset of postmodernism in evangelicalism has caused less confidence in the propositional claims of the Bible.” Second, many evangelical scholars teaching in universities today did their doctoral work in secular graduate schools that had no prior commitment to inerrancy. Many of these graduates “have assimilated to one degree or another non-evangelical perspectives, especially with regard to higher critical views of the authorship, dating, and historical claims of the Bible, which have contributed to their discomfort with the traditional evangelical perspective of the Bible” (The Erosion of Inerrancy, 20-21).
While there may be some truth to Beale’s explanation I wonder if there isn’t something else going on. Many of the conversations I’ve had about inerrancy quickly showed fundamental misunderstandings about the doctrine itself. Discomfort with the doctrine is to be expected if strawman versions of it are being examined. Unfortunately, many people that do believe in inerrancy have similar misunderstandings of the doctrine so it may be helpful to get a bit of clarity about what the doctrine is and why evangelicals have believed it to be true.
The simplest way to understand the doctrine of inerrancy is to note that all ‘inerrant’ means is “free from error.” So, when evangelicals say that the Bible is inerrant they mean the Bible is free from error. Now, that’s not all that needs to be said about the evangelical understanding of inerrancy because such an understanding almost always comes with two qualifications. The Bible is said to be inerrant in 1) all that it claims is true and 2) in the original autographs. Just as many objectors to Aristotle’s law of non-contradiction typically forget his two very important qualifications, “at the same time” and “in the same way”, many objections to inerrancy either ignore, or don’t take seriously, these qualifiers.
For example, some have claimed that when the Bible speaks about the sun rising and setting (e.g., Psalm 113:3 “From the rising of the sun to its setting, let the name of the Lord be praised.”) it is clearly in error. How can the sun rise and set if it doesn’t move at all? Well here the Psalmist is not claiming that it is true that the sun rises and sets but instead is claiming that it is true that the Lord is always worthy of praise, all day and every day. A definitive example of second qualifier is more difficult to come by since we don’t have the original autographs, but the point is easy enough to grasp. What the authors were inspired to write was free from error, but inerrancy does not extend to the scribes that later copied and spread those original autographs. One example that might illustrate this is 2 Chronicles 36:9 and 2 Kings 24:8. In the King James Version there appears to be an out and out error. In 2 Chronicles it says that “Jehoiachin was eight years old when he began to reign” but in 2 Kings it says “Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he began to reign.” Now if inerrancy is supposed to also apply to every copy of the autographs then there is a clear problem, but inerrancy was never to be taken in that way. It turns out that, in this case, there is a very easy way to resolve the problem. Better manuscripts have been found that record Jehoaichin as starting to reign when he was eighteen years old, which is why it is recorded as such in the ESV, NIV, and HCSB (though, interestingly, the NASB does keep the two different ages).
It’s important to note that these two qualifiers were not added to the doctrine of inerrancy because evangelicals were backed into a corner and needed some way to keep the doctrine and save face. Both of these qualifications are present in the definitive “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” of 1978 (see Articles X and XI), which is what the Evangelical Theological Socieity now uses to explain its commitment (since 1949) to inerrancy.
How We Come to Accept Inerrancy
In various settings (sometimes in the classroom at Tyndale University College) I’ve heard people object that the second of the above qualifiers is somehow a “cheat” since it would be next to impossible to prove that the alleged error is present in the original autograph. While I understand the motivation for giving such an objection, I think it actually shows a lack of understanding of why we believe in inerrancy. The reason evangelicals beleive in inerrancy is because they believe God cannot err and that the Bible is the Word of God. These two ideas give us a very basic, but very powerful, argument for inerrancy. (I’ve seen this argument in various places, but I’ll attribute it to Norman Geisler since I first found it in his writings.)
- God cannot err.
- The Bible is the Word of God.
- Therefore, the Bible cannot err.
The first question to ask is whether the argument is valid (i.e. if it’s premises are true, must it’s conclusion also be true). It seems clear that the argument is valid. If God cannot err, then how could something he says be wrong? The only way one could avoid accepting the conclusion is by denying one of the premises. So, are these premises true? First, if someone thinks God is capable of error then I’m fairly confident that nothing I say here will convince that person that the Bible is inerrant. Because the vast majority of Christians, even those that reject inerrancy, would accept the first premise I won’t spend time dealing with the problems in thinking a being like God could err. So the real question is whether or not we ought to think the Bible is the Word of God. That is, is premise (2) true?
Why should we think the Bible is the word of God? One main reason is that the Biblical text itself refers to the Bible as the Word of God. For example, John records Jesus as referring to Scripture as “the word of God” (John 10:35) and 2 Peter 1:20-21 states that “no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation…, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” When one takes these ideas and builds on to them the idea that Scripture is inspired, or God-breathed, (2 Timothy 3:16) then it looks like there is, at the very least, a strong prima facie case for the believing that the Bible is the Word of God. If it is, and if God is incapable of error, then the Bible too must be incapable of error.
Here one might object that there is a bit of question-begging going on here. How can I build a case for inerrancy using the document in question? Well, if the truthfulness of the passages above are themselves up for dispute then that would be a problem. However, I’m not aware of anyone that thinks these passages teach something false, so there is no problem in appealing to them. One should also note that I’m not claiming these passages teach that the Bible is inerrant. All I’m claiming is that they teach that the Bible is the Word of God. It is that belief, coupled with the belief that God is infallible, that leads to the belief in inerrancy.
Correcting a Common Misconception
Many people object to the doctrine of inerrancy because they believe they found something the Bible teaches that is false. The idea is that if we find even one false teaching then inerrancy must be false. Well, it’s not that easy. First, we must be sure that the alleged error would also be found in the original manuscripts. Second, showing that some particular passsage is false does nothing to disprove the argument above. So what if, for example, you think 2 Chronicles and 2 Kings are in direct contradiction? Does that mean either premise (1) or (2) are false? No, Chronicles and Kings have nothing to do with believing God cannot err nor believing that the Bible is the Word of God. All it would show us is that there is an apparent discrepancy that has yet to be resolved. But given the argument above, we can be confident that it can be resolved.
Many people think this approach can disprove inerrancy because they mistakenly believe we come to accept the doctrine by going through each verse of the Bible, reading it, and then concluding it was without error. Then after a sufficiently large number of verses were concluded to be without error, we inferred that the Bible as a whole must be without error. But we didn’t come to believe in inerrancy through a process of enumerative induction. Instead we came to believe it because we saw it followed, necessarily, from other things we took to be true about God and the Bible. The only way one can disprove the doctrine of inerrancy is by showinng that either premise (1) or (2) is false, or that the conclusion does not actually follow from them. (To their credit, this would be the approach followers of Karl Barth are likely to take. Barth would deny premise (2) because he denies that the Word of God and the Bible are identical. Instead, the Bible is simply a witness to the Word of God. The main problem with such an approach is that it results in complete skepticism about what God actually wanted to communicate to us. We can never know that what we take God to be communicating to us through the Bible is what he actually intended to communicate. See also yesterday’s post, “A (Failed) Argument Against Biblical Inerrancy” by my colleague, Rich Davis, for an insightful, and thorough, critique of Barth’s attempted refutation of inerrancy.)
I believe that if more evangelicals understood what the doctrine of inerrancy actually is and why so many have accepted it, then we would see fewer people turning against it. I truly find it strange that some Christians are willing to believe that God created the entire universe out of nothing, that the second-person of the Trinity was able to walk this earth after being born of a virgin, that after a horrific death on a cross and three days in the grave Jesus was raised from the dead, and that the apostles were able to regularly perform miracles, but find inerrancy to be intellectually out of bounds. Surely a God capable of performing such wondrous feats would find ensuring the Bible remains free from error to be mere childsplay.
This is a repost of an article that originally appeared on The Bayview Review on January 6, 2012.