Theology

Why Biblical Inerrancy Doesn’t Work

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A couple of years ago, I entered into an interview process to become an adjunct professor at an extension campus of a growing Christian university. Towards the end of this process, the powers that be shut down the campus, ending my potential employment there. Even though I was disappointed, the interview process helped me to reflect on some of my core convictions.

When I was filling out the employment application, I was asked if I could affirm the university’s statement of faith which included the following statement about the Bible:

We believe in the plenary verbal inspiration of the Bible—the completed canon of the Old and New Testaments, inerrant in the original manuscripts and infallible in its truth for faith and life.

I remarked that I take exception to the word “inerrant,” preferring to speak of the Bible as inspired, sacred, and authoritative. The campus director who had recruited me saw this exception as a potential red flag regarding my possible employment.

This red flag motivated me to review the history of inerrancy. I revisited the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a document I hadn’t read since I was in seminary, and I was struck by the language it used in the short statement:

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms … Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching… [1]

Setting aside the use of the word “infallible” in how the statement describes inerrancy, I followed up my application with an email expressing my affirmation of the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible, if by “inerrant” we mean the Bible is without error in all that the Bible touches, affirms, and teaches. Such an affirmation set well with me at that time even though I knew full well that Christians throughout the body of Christ, and in that particular university, did not agree on what the Bible affirms or teaches.

The Problem of the Quest for Objectivity

The language of inerrancy grows out of an evangelical anxiety of elevating a human critique of Scripture over the intended divine revelation within the text. Advocates for biblical inerrancy often label this anxiety as the fear of going down the “slippery slope” of liberalism. Their overreaction to protestant liberalism of the 19th and 20th centuries have caused them to cling to a word that doesn’t mean what they think it means.

This loss of meaning is the primary problem.

Underneath the arguments for biblical inerrancy is the desire for pure objectivity. Those who hold this doctrine want the Bible to be objectively free of error, but the way evangelical scholars describe their doctrine has within the very definition all sorts of subjectivity.

Consider the following definition from Millard Erickson:

Our doctrine of inerrancy maintains merely that whatever statements the Bible affirms are fully truthful when they are correctly interpreted in terms of their meaning in their cultural setting and the purpose for which they were written. [2]

Erickson falls short of reaching the goal of objectivity because the definition he offers is full of subjectivity. Consider these phrases:

  • “statements the Bible affirms”: Who determines the difference between what the Bible is recording and what it is affirming?
  • “when they are correctly interpreted”: Who determines the criteria by which we judge the correctness of our interpretation?
  • “in terms of their meaning in their cultural setting”: Who determines the meaning of each biblical text?
  • “and the purpose for which they were written”: Who determines the purpose behind the writing of each book of the Bible?

Those who hold to biblical inerrancy want a Bible without human errors (because we human beings are known for getting things wrong), but their very definition betrays them. Fallible people have to decide what the Bible is affirming. Mistaken-prone human beings must do the hard work of interpretation. Imperfect people have to determine the meaning and purpose of Scripture.

The Death of A Thousand Qualifications

The term “inerrancy” doesn’t work because, in the words of Roger Olson, the very definition of the word succumbs to “the death of a thousand qualifications.” [3] When Erickson and others use the word “inerrant,” they don’t mean “without errors” but “without errors when rightly interpreted.” We’d like to assume that all Christians at all times in various cultural backgrounds would all interpret the Bible in the exact same way, but we know such an assumption is false. From the early days of the birth of the church, and exponentially since the Protestant Reformation, Christians haven’t agreed on how to interpret the Bible rightly, a phenomena Christian Smith calls “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” [4]

The quest for inerrancy puts too much pressure on the Bible. It asks the Bible to be more than it was ever designed to be. The questions regarding the possibility of errors in the Bible comes from modernity. The Bible itself is an ancient collection of books. It is simply unfair to force this ancient collection of books to answer modern questions. To read a book from antiquity through the constricted lens of hyper-rationalism is to obscure the reader’s eyes from the full meaning of the text.

Moreover the Bible never uses the word “inerrant” to describe itself. While it is true that “trinity” is not a biblical word either, we can at least find the word “trinity” in the vocabulary of premodern Christians who wrestled with the holy Scripture to understand the God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The ancients didn’t use the word “inerrant.”

The quest for inerrancy puts too much pressure on the Bible. It asks the Bible to be more than it was ever designed to be. Click To Tweet

A Better Reading of Scripture

The solution to take the pressure off the Bible is to relocate all talk of inerrancy from Holy Scripture to the Holy Son. After all, Jesus is the perfect representation of God (Hebrews 1:1-3). Jesus as the Son sent from the Father is the inerrant Word of God. The Bible is the word of God insofar as it leads us to Jesus. In this regard, the Bible is authoritative, inspired, useful, profitable, and sacred. We can trust the Church’s witness to the Bible as a faithful witness to Jesus.

The written word leads us to the living Word.

The word made text leads us to the Word made flesh.

The Spirit-inspired word leads us to the Spirit-conceived Word.

The written word leads us to the living Word. The word made text leads us to the Word made flesh. The Spirit-inspired word leads us to the Spirit-conceived Word. Click To Tweet

When we read, study, teach, and preach the Bible, we don’t look for errors, but we look for Jesus. In reading the Bible with Jesus at the center, we come to understand all of Scripture in and through Jesus.

As I write in my forthcoming book By the Way: Getting Serious about Following Jesus:

We read the Bible, all of it, as a way to point us to Jesus and the Jesus way. Jesus himself said, “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is  they that bear witness about me” (John 5:39). Reading, studying, and even memorizing parts of Scripture is an indispensable habit for followers of Jesus. Ancient Christians have given us sacred Scripture as our story, the storied people of God. We read these God-breathed words with great attention, allowing them to guide us in the Jesus way.

Rejecting inerrancy as an untenable view of the Bible isn’t the same as rejecting the Bible itself. On the contrary, we can (and should!) embrace the Bible as an inspired faithful witness to the God revealed in Jesus Christ. Healthy Christian spirituality and worship is nurtured and nourished by a devotion to Scripture in both its public and private readings. For me, my love for Bible reading has grown over the years as I have learned to read the Bible intentionally in a Jesus-centered way.

Towards the end of ordinary time, before the Christian calendar picks back up with Advent, we pray the following prayer. May this prayer guide us in all our Bible reading.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

_______________________________

[1] “The Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy: A Short Statement” (https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf)
[2] Millard Erickson, Christian Theology Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998), 263.
[3] Roger Olson, “Why inerrancy doesn’t matter” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/rogereolson/2010/08/why-inerrancy-doesnt-matter/
[4] Christian Smith, The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism Is Not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2011), 17.


Check out Derek’s upcoming book, By the Way: Getting Serious About Following Jesus, releasing June 18, 2019 from Herald Press.

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