the practical inerrantist


Gibson and Caviezel discuss the practical problem of filming a crucifixion.

Rich Davis’ recent blog post “How Not to Align with Inerrancy” demonstrates that an affirmation of inerrancy cannot be much of an affirmation if it also insists that there are mistakes in the Bible.

How is that possible, affirming inerrancy and errancy? According to Bruxy Cavey,  it comes from an Anabaptist view of what might be described as a form of practical inerrancy: “We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.” The Bible functions “…especially as a guide to see Jesus most clearly…Anabaptists are exceedingly practical, and our approach to Scripture is a perfect example of this” (link).

The approach is practical, a pragmatic form of inerrancy, the practical inerrantist.

For example, Mark 1:2-3 features a citation mistake, mislabeling a quotation from Malachi as originating in Isaiah: “…Mark makes a simple and understandable mistake. Mark knew he was going to eventually quote Isaiah and forgot to credit Malachi along the way. Big deal. Happens to all of us.”. (link)

The deal is actually that it “happened” to Jesus, who makes the same “mistake” in the passages parallel to Mark 1:2-3 , i.e. Mt. 11:7-10 and Luke 7:24-27, which are direct quotations of Jesus introducing John the Baptist.  A practical inerrantist should examine gospel texts that harmonize with Mark 1:2-3,  an obvious first step. Jesus quotes the same Malachi 3:1 in Mt. 11:7-10 and Luke 7:24-27, as the writer Mark does in 1:2-3; and similarly to Mark, Jesus “forgets” to identify Malachi. Jesus also paraphrases Isaiah 40:3, does not bother to name Isaiah.

If Jesus is the authoritative, infallible Word of God and the Bible functions as a practical guide, how could Mark make a mistake if he is following what Jesus himself did? Alternatively, perhaps Jesus made the mistake; is Jesus the origin of Mark’s error? Perhaps students, following Jesus, will argue that it is unbiblical to lower grades because of citation errors.

In contrast, biblical theologian Millard Erickson considers many different definitions of the term “inerrancy” and settles on this one: “… the Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.” Erickson. Christian Theology (pp. 201-202).

Erikson’s definition is quite practical, as it considers obvious historical factors that existed at that time. Issuing a citation to Mark for a purported citation error ignores a common sense acknowledgement of the citation situation in the ancient world, e.g., there wasn’t any.

Regardless,  other errors are claimed: Paul’s forgetfulness in 1 Corinthians 1:15-16 or Paul’s “slander”in Titus 1:12-13.  Yet, it would seem if “mistakes” raise issues about an over-emphasis on inerrancy, there are better examples. Why not something more beefy, such as medical impossibilities: the virgin birth of Jesus or the raising of Lazarus, i.e. miracles. If mislabeling or forgetfulness is an error, then what about the ethical demands made by the Bible, especially the ones which our society rejects with the full force of legal and cultural opprobrium?

We the jury are mindful of a common law principle: falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus – false testimony on one matter can raise doubt about the whole testimony, as easily as trust can be broken. A domino theory if you will: can we be sure about anything the Bible teaches? It is not as if other biblical statements have been proved false, but that we cannot be certain they are true.

To be certain, the claim of practical inerrancy would require that the Spirit exercise interpretive intercessory helps to bypass bible errors and discern Jesus’s infallible message amidst the noise, but in practical terms this seems an appeal to the horizons of miraculous inspiration, in contrast to the inspiration of Scripture i.e., that the supernatural influence of the Spirit on the Bible writers provided an accurate record of the revelation, that what they wrote is actually the Word of God.

So inspired, we get past an errant Bible and find certainty, like a form of miraculous discernment. But, as Jesus wryly observes in his parable on Lazarus and the Rich Man, “‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead’” (Luke 16:31). Our faith requires more than the miraculous – e.g., in the Book of Judges, God repeatedly intervenes into history on behalf of Israel, yet within a generation, apostasy ruled.  The Bible often demonstrates that miracles have only a short-term effect on the faith of believers, insufficient for establishing tenets of faith that are enduring.

If these early Bible authors, translators and copyists are not inspired to inerrancy, we should either have doubt about our own discernment of Jesus’s message or worse, believe we possess a level of inspiration that these ancient writers, copyists and translators lacked. This would be to take a stance of arrogant presentism. More epistemological humility is required in light of the centuries of careful, collaborative interpretation preceding us.

CS Lewis puts it another way: “The idea that any writer should be opaque to those who lived in the same culture, spoke the same language, shared the same habitual imagery and unconscious assumptions, and yet be transparent to those who have none of these advantages, is in my opinion preposterous. There is an a priori improbability in it which almost no argument and no evidence could counterbalance” (Lewis, Christian Reflections, pp. 194-195).

Erickson points out that an omniscient God knows all things: neither ignorant of, or in error on, anything. Further, if omnipotent, he is able to affect the writers of Scripture so as to filter out error and distorted content in the final product. Being ethical, God desires that we not be misled by the Scriptures. Hence, inspiration logically entails the inerrancy of the Bible. “If, then, it should be shown that the Bible is not fully truthful, our view of inspiration would also be in jeopardy.”Erickson,Christian Theology (p. 194).

Further, diminished biblical inerrancy would perhaps affect our view on special revelation. Is discerning Jesus’s infallible word via common sense (with the Bible as a guide)  a form of special revelation? It would instead seem to reduce all of our spiritual resources to the status of general revelation, as practical inerrancy is applied rationality and thus general revelation. If the Bible is a merely a guide, it too is just general revelation.  As Calvin argues, we cannot derive a natural theology from general revelation; we require the lens of special revelation found in the gospels to mitigate our blindness. Christian tenets, such as the virgin-birth of Jesus or the Trinity, cannot be grounded in general revelation.

Inerrant scripture functions similarly to the authority of the constitution in a legal framework, which validates proposed and current laws, what legal philosopher H.L.A. Hart described as a “rule of recognition” a fixed set of “secondary rules” that validates the dynamic process of “primary rules” such as traffic and criminal laws (Hart, Concept of Law). Hart’s theory is modeled on Thomas Aquinas’ concept of Natural Law which like Hart’s primary rules requires Divine Law to serve like a constitution, a corrective both to fallible human reason and the influence evil habits or persuasions have on the human capacity of reason to discern the Natural Law (e.g., Summa, Q91, Article 4).

Most nations have a supreme court to decide issues of interpretation and application of their constitution, for Aquinas’ Divine Law it is the Catholic Church’s claim to possess the Magisterium, the teaching authority of the Church.”In order to preserve the Church in the purity of the faith handed on by the apostles, Christ who is the Truth willed to confer on her a share in his own infallibility. By a “supernatural sense of faith” the People of God, under the guidance of the Church’s living Magisterium, “unfailingly adheres to this faith.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 889).

No matter your position on Catholic theology generally, the point is that a functioning system of signification features a rule of recognition or a grammar of validation, and a supreme court to judge difficulties or hard cases. For Protestants generally, it is inerrant scripture and its supreme court being biblical scholarship.

A practical inerrantist appeals to common sense and pragmatic choices with hints of the miraculous, a supreme court without a constitution.  Their response may be that the “constitution” is Jesus, but this confuses a unique system of validation (e.g., Hart’s rule of recognition, a constitution, inerrant scripture, Divine Law) with our daily expression of faith, the practical innovation of Christ’s message into our daily walk with Christ.

Here we get to a problem inherent to diminished views of inerrancy, namely a historical pattern of theological drift which correlates most strongly with the successive generations who inherit the teaching. The historical evidence reveals a pattern of theological degradation which arises from diminished views on inerrancy, especially in later generations.

Of course, as this is the Tyndale Philosophy Blog, we should be mindful of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that a diminished view of inerrancy causes theological decay; it is rather more of a correlation than a cause. Further, inerrancy is not necessarily a measure of spiritual health, being tone-deaf to the work of the Spirit applies equally to those with a very high or low view of scripture.

The correlation can be examined via case studies:

Case Study #1: the Book of Judges – Judges provides evidence of a pattern of theological drift. Israel repeatedly lapses into apostasy, typically within a generation of supernatural intervention by God (via a judge) into history to preserve Israel:“…the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” (Judges 2:11, 3:7, 3:12, 4:1, 6:1, 8:33, 10:6, 13:1). The culprit is generally ignorance of “the Lord or the works He had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). As Judges unfolds, we find that each iteration of apostasy is worse than the one preceding it, despite God’s miraculous interventions (re: Luke 16:31), until the utterly appalling events of Judges 19 (recalling Genesis 19). Judges ends with “In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit” (Judges 21:25).

Aside from demonstrating a desire for a king and the need for a federal government, the confederation of Israel’s tribes in Judges was straying from Torah; raising ad hoc judges had a successively diminishing effect on revival, from the heights of Joshua’s rule to a failed state and sectarian violence, civil war. Hence, the desire for a centralized government mirrors the need for biblical authority and teaching, e.g.,  a rule of recognition or constitution. Reliance on an individual, a judge, is as insufficient as reliance on miracles. Their effect remained only while the judge was alive (Judges 2:18-19). Further with each successive judge, their character flaws became progressively worse.

This case is not directly connected to inerrancy but rather is evidence of the influence unorthodox cultural forces (apostasy) can have on a people. Othniel, the first judge, is claimed by Rabbinic midrashes to be a Torah scholar. Thus, we have an authoritative teacher, yet within a generation “…the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” Something else was needed.

Case Study #2: Orthodox teacher, unorthodox students. Theologian Karl Barth held that the Bible has the capacity for error and those errors apply to theological content as well: “But the vulnerability of the Bible, i.e., its capacity for error, also extends to its religious and theological content”(Barth, Church Dogmatics, p. 510). However, importantly, he nevertheless affirmed apostolic teaching in the direct personal presence of God. The problem was the later “Barthians” who, toiling in his wake and trained in his approach, often found themselves rejecting theism altogether (Lovelace, “Inerrancy: Some Historical Perspectives”Inerrancy and Common Sense, p 31).

The case here involves a rejection of inerrancy but with an affirmation of Christian tenets via a direct personal connection to God. What practical effect does that have on our tenets of faith, does everyone have the revelation of the Trinity or the Virgin Birth of Jesus via a personal connection with God?

Case Study #3: Inerrancy, Institution, Dissolution.  Harold Lindsall argues in the Battle for the Bible that once an institution abandons inerrancy and the infallibility of scripture, it experiences dissolution. Once abandoned, it cannot recover the historical doctrines that defined its worldview and identity. The problem again is doctrinal and inter-generational, Lindsell observes that many mainline churches are suffering decline and theological drift.

As an example, biblical inerrancy and infallibility are not accepted by the Episcopal Church, and its attendance has been in steady decline since the early 2000s, as the church embraced modernization efforts that began in the late 70s. The Anglican Church generally has been struggling with a north-south rift between liberals and conservatives. If Lindell’s view has merit, we can expect further dissolution as institutionally, one cannot go back to the traditional view once it is surrendered, and efforts to compromise do not last. A decline in numbers follows. For Christian institutions, this is a considerable hazard for future growth. Does this apply to non-institutional churches, smaller, local and more independent ones?

These 3 case studies function to correlate a pattern of dissolution with an absence or rejection of inerrancy. The causes are complex, but the results are predictable. Abandoning a traditional source of authority undermines the capacity of its replacement to claim authority or to affirm doctrine in the long run.

For the practical inerrantist, the problem is long-term – what message will emerge and what prospects for evangelism are expected if the pattern of theological drift entails decline? If doctrine is disconnected from inerrancy, the church can become a mirror of its culture rather than distinct from it.

Many have observed that inerrancy becomes a stumbling block with a “negative” tone and is easily conflated with our cultural obsession with scientific precision. As a counter example, however, the “Alpha” series featuring Nicky Gumbel introduces the basics of faith through a series of videos and discussions. Alpha takes great care to emphasize the reliability of the Bible through textual criticism that the copies we now have can be relied upon as the Word of God. This is a masterful way to establish the authority and uniqueness of the Bible without getting bogged down in debating complex hermeneutical issues that arise with inerrancy.


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