Inerrancy is not a popular term in the world of biblical studies today. For many, it is viewed as an anti-intellectual, fear-motivated invention of nineteenth-and twentieth-century American fundamentalists who were trying to protect the Bible’s authority from the rising tide of Enlightenment rationalism. A.E. Harvey, in his recent book Is Scripture Still Holy? captures the modern academic sentiment quite well: “Inerrancy…is both theologically and philosophically indefensible and rightly rejected by the majority voice of a generation which has, in this respect, genuinely ‘come of age.’ ”
Unfortunately, these sorts of criticisms are all too common. Inerrancy is portrayed as out of date, academically naive, intellectually dishonest, and (perhaps most surprisingly) even unbiblical. In the midst of such a climate, more and more evangelicals are shying away from the doctrine of inerrancy for fear that they will be the unfortunate recipients of such labels.
Definition of Inerrancy
So what is it about inerrancy that engenders such reactions even from some professing evangelicals? One might think that inerrancy must be one of the most ridiculous doctrines ever conceived. Surely it must be the equivalent of belief in a geocentric universe (actually, such comparisons have been made). But, in fact, the doctrine of inerrancy is simple and, in the scope of church history, uncontroversial.
Put simply, the doctrine of inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is true.
Of course, there is much more to say about the definition than this. Countless books have been written explaining, defining, and defending this doctrine, not to mention the affirmations and denials of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But the gist of inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is God’s Word and that when God speaks, He speaks truth. Thus, belief in inerrancy is the conviction that whatever the Bible affirms is accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
The belief that the Bible is true is hardly a scandalous and unprecedented idea. Indeed, the belief in inerrancy is rather tame when compared to other language that Christians have used regarding the Bible. Christians have historically claimed that the Bible is infallible, an even stronger claim than inerrancy. Whereas inerrancy simply means that the Bible is free from error, infallibility means the Bible is incapable of erring—a much more rigorous property. Inerrancy does not require infallibility, but infallibility requires inerrancy. Put differently, inerrancy flows naturally from other Christian truths we already believe (and that have been believed throughout church history).
Objections to Inerrancy
Given these considerations, one might wonder what the fuss is all about regarding inerrancy. In order to answer that question, let us examine some of the main objections that have been made.
1. Inerrancy is a new (and American) idea within the history of Christianity. Some have insisted that inerrancy is an invention of American fundamentalism and is thus an idea without precedent in the history of Christianity. Such a misconception may be due to semantics—some are hung up on the history of the word inerrancy itself. But the concept of inerrancy, the idea that the Bible is true in all that it affirms, is by no means an American invention. It has been the standard view throughout the history of the church. In the fifth century, Augustine said, “Only to those books which are called canonical have I learned to give honor so that I believe most firmly that no author in these books made any error in writing.”
Of course, scholars are free to suggest that we use a word other than inerrancy to communicate this fundamental truth about the Bible (and some have done so). But we must remember the term inerrancy is not designed to say everything about the Bible; on the contrary, it is designed to speak to one particular aspect of the Bible’s authority, namely, that it contains no false affirmations. And if that is the purpose, then the term inerrancy seems to capture that idea quite nicely.
2. Inerrancy is too literalistic and lacks sophistication. Due to the perceived connections between inerrancy and fundamentalism, others have objected to the idea on the grounds that inerrancy lacks nuance and sophistication. To believe in inerrancy, it is argued, is to overlook the diverse genres and modes of communication in the Bible, and to demand an unrealistic and scientific precision from the text. In other words, inerrancy is rationalistic, demanding the Bible speak in ways that an ancient book just would not speak.
Now, to be sure, these sorts of concerns are legitimate, and (unfortunately) some versions of inerrancy fall prey to such mistakes. However, this objection should not overlook the fact that generations of scholars (as well as the Chicago Statement) have offered significant nuance, qualification, and explanation regarding exactly what does (and does not) constitute an “error” for ancient documents. Inerrancy, properly understood, takes into account issues such as genre, symbolism, inexact quotations, lack of precision, variations in chronological order, observational language, and more. These considerations remind us that inerrancy only pertains to the Bible’s own claims, not the claims we might think (or wish) it is making.
3. Inerrancy is not taught by the Bible itself. Some have suggested that there is no exegetical argument for inerrancy, but only a theological one based on the fact that God is a God of truth and cannot lie. Who are we (so the argument goes) to determine what kind of book God could or could not inspire? But again, this argument proves to be a straw man.
First, there is nothing inappropriate about theological arguments—some doctrines flow naturally from other doctrines that we already believe. For instance, many of our beliefs about the Trinity are not based on simple proof-texting, but are pieced together from a variety of theological considerations (for example, God is one, yet Jesus is God). If we believe the Bible is the very Word of God—that is, when Scripture speaks, God speaks—then it follows that the contents of the Bible are truthful. One need only consider Jesus’ own view of the Old Testament. Time and again, Jesus appeals to Old Testament passages and always receives it as truth, never correcting it, criticizing it, or pointing out inconsistencies. Indeed, He not only refrained from correcting the Scriptures, but He also affirmed the Scriptures “cannot be broken” (John 10:35), and that “[God’s] Word is truth” (John 17:17). It is unthinkable that Jesus would ever have read an Old Testament passage and declared, “Well, this passage is simply wrong.”
4. Inerrancy is contrary to the phenomenon of the Bible. Here is where we come to the most common (and the most weighty) argument against inerrancy, namely, that it is contrary not so much to what the Bible says but to what the Bible does. Put differently, most scholars reject inerrancy because they believe that portions of the Bible are simply in error. Such alleged errors come in a lot of different packages. Some errors are just the Bible’s disagreeing with itself (for example, a supposed contradiction between the Gospels); other errors involve the Bible’s disagreeing with some other supposedly “well-established” fact (for example, some scholars claim that Moses is not the author of the Pentateuch); or it could be the biblical authors just got a historical detail wrong (for example, the date of Quirinius’ census in Luke 2:2). Ironically, however, such arguments against inerrancy are often presented as biblical arguments; that is, they are purportedly derived from how the Bible presents itself.
Needless to say, this is not the place to resolve all such Bible difficulties. But it is important to recognize that these are serious and complex issues that should not be dismissed lightly. For this reason, evangelical scholars have labored diligently to demonstrate that there are reasonable and plausible solutions to these problems. Of course, such solutions will not prove convincing to all. Inevitably, evangelicals are (and will be) charged with ignoring the “clear” evidence in favor of a priori theological commitments. But such charges miss the mark. There is nothing inappropriate about analyzing problematic passages in light of a belief in the truth of Scripture—indeed, that is how God wants us to approach all the problems of life.
Importance of Inerrancy
When it comes to the importance of belief in the truthfulness of the Bible, it is hard to overstate one’s case. If the Bible really makes false claims, then at least its mistaken portions cannot be the voice of our Lord. And if the Bible is a mix of truth and error, how do we identify which is which? Our only recourse is to rely on our own opinion about such matters, allowing us to edit the Bible according to some other standard (whatever that might be). In the end, we are left not with God’s Word, but our word—a Bible of our own making.
If we are to proclaim with confidence the message of the Bible to a needy world—a message that is often met with scorn and ridicule—we can only do so if we are convinced that this message is, in fact, true. Therefore, in the end, inerrancy proves to be a practical issue for every believer. All complexities and debates aside, it gives the foundation for why we can trust and obey God’s Word. It is a sure rock on which Christians can build their houses in the midst of a hostile world (Matt. 7:25).