Why I Believe in Inerrancy

inerrancyThe 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.

Defining ‘Inerrancy’

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.)

  1. God cannot err.
  2. The Bible is the Word of God.
  3. 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.)

Conclusion

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.

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4 comments on “Why I Believe in Inerrancy

  1. Morgan Guyton says:

    The Bible is not the second member of the Trinity. That’s idolatry. Furthermore, the following two passages are tremendous problems for your view of scripture.

    I. Garden of Eden

    “Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever”—” Genesis 3:22

    According to the plain meaning of the text, the reason God kicked Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden was because he was threatened by their immortality not as a punishment for their sin. What Genesis 3:22 suggests is that the serpent was telling the truth to Adam and Eve; it even echoes the exact wording that the serpent uses. If you’re going to let this verse be inerrant, then you have to completely torpedo everything we have developed about our doctrine of original sin, including the claim that Adam and Eve were immortal before they disobeyed God because if they were, they wouldn’t need to eat from the tree of life to live forever.

    II. Tower of Babel

    “And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”
    Genesis 11:6-7

    The second passage is particularly troubling because there is no way that you can make the text into a moralistic argument for confounding the peoples’ languages who have built the tower of Babel. Nothing in the text says that what they were doing was morally wrong. We have to superimpose that dishonestly on top of the text.

    God is clearly worried that “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” That is the plainly stated motive of his action. So if this passage is inerrant, then God is not omnipotent and self-sufficiently sovereign. You have to choose between divine sovereignty and inerrancy. Checkmate.

    • Rich Davis says:

      Morgan:

      So is this your first argument? (1) If you think the original manuscripts of the bible were without error, then you will worship your NIV study bible (i.e., the translated copy in your hand). However, (2) worship belongs to God alone. Hence (3) you should think the original biblical manuscripts contained errors.

      I’m very happy to accept (2). I think you’re going to have a hard time proving (1) though. Perhaps if I stumbled upon the original (error free) manuscripts, I’d succumb to the temptation to put them under glass, talk in hushed tones in their presence, and generally treat them like the Ark. As it is, however, I highlight my NIV and write in the margins. I’d *never* do that with the originals!

      I think the idolatry charge is probably just *ad hominem* in this connection.

    • Paul Franks says:

      Hi Morgan,

      Thanks for stopping by the blog and for taking the time to respond to my post. It’s not clear to me, however, that you’ve said much that calls into question the above argument for inerrancy. Because neither the Garden of Eden nor the Tower of Babel concerns you raise calls into question God’s inability to error (my premise [1] above) or the Bible’s being the Word of God (my premise [2]), they don’t do anything to question the soundness of the argument. Because the argument is valid, the only way we can avoid the truth of the conclusion is if one of the premises is false, but these passages don’t suggest that. (Here’s another way of putting this point: you attempted to cite passages that would suggest the argument’s conclusion is false. But because the argument is logically valid, the only way you can logically avoid the conclusion is by showing (a) that one of the premises is false or (b) that the conclusion doesn’t follow from those premises. Your passages do neither (a) nor (b).)

      So, while it is important to get into the various hermeneutics of difficult passages (like the ones you cite—though your concern regarding God’s sovereignty and the Tower of Babel seems really misguided), in the context of discussing this argument for inerrancy it’s actually a red herring. In other contexts (say, discussions of original sin or sovereignty) such interpretive issues will be extremely important, they’re just not for this one.

      Now, your initial point regarding idolatry would be the route to take if you want to reject the conclusion of the argument. The idea would be that [2] above somehow commits one to idolatry. If so, then that’d be a good reason to think [2] is false (and of course, though the argument would still be valid it’d no longer be sound and so the argument wouldn’t give us any reason to accept the conclusion). However, I don’t see any reason at all to think that idolatry must follow from [2] (for more on this, see the comment above by my colleague Rich).

      • Morgan Guyton says:

        Just because you’ve created an airtight logical system that you’re operating in doesn’t mean that you’re using the Bible appropriately. “God-breathed and useful” is different than inerrant. Pay attention to the wording of 2 Timothy 3:16. What is the Bible *useful for*? That determines what it should and shouldn’t be used for. I don’t claim that God makes mistakes or anything like that. But when you talk in terms of whether the text has errors or not, you’re making the Bible into a collection of data points rather than a living text with multiple genres. I would say that inerrrancy isn’t wrong so much as it is misguided.

        Regarding the question of idolatry, God is infinite and His Word (capital W) aka Jesus Christ is infinite. The Bible is a finite set of words. They are the words God has given us to measure and evaluate all other words so they are uniquely holy but if we’re using them appropriately, then they have infinite interpretive depth. If you think there’s only one possible meaning for every verse in the Bible, then you’re treating it as an idol.

        My worry with inerrancy is that it leads to a static reductionist interpretation. God wants to speak a new word to you every time you open the Bible. If you’ve already decided you know what something means, then God can’t use it to tell you something that confronts your sin or speaks a new hope to you or whatever He wants to say in any particular moment in time.

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