Monday, June 25, 2012

Why I Am An Inerrantist - And What That Really Means

In a post the other day, I mentioned being a Biblical inerrantist. Interestingly, I happened to stumble across several things since writing that post which have led me to writing this one: first, a series over at Out of Ur arguing that Biblical inerrantists elevate Scripture to being their king instead of Jesus, second from a site (which I will not name) warning against the use of C.S. Lewis because he wasn’t an inerrantist, and third from having been involved in another discussion on a somewhat similar topic.

What is most surprising to me, when you have these discussions or read these writings, is how loosely the terms “inspired” and “inerrant” are used; often we are using them to mean different things, and end up talking around each other.

So as I approach this topic, let us do so using the following methodology:
• First, we will study the historical and Scriptural claims about the inspiration of the Scripture;
• Second, we shall define the different Christian views (using my own terminology;
• Third, I shall share my view; and
• Fourth, what does it all mean?

A. The Historical and Scriptural Evidence

In his work, Jewish Theology, Kaufmann Kohler tells us that the view of inspiration among the ancient Jews was that God inspired a prophet and this inspiration burst forth as the ultimate truth of the world; however, it was left to the humans to write in their own voice, their own form, their own context, etc.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul says as much, stating:

[F]rom childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim 3:15-17)

In this passage Paul (referring to the Old Testament) says that God inspired the sacred writings for two primary purposes: first, to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus and second, so that the man of God may be equipped for every good work (through teaching, correction, training, and reproof). Though Paul referred exclusively to the canon of the Old Testament here, Christians almost without exception have applied the same standard to those works written by the Apostles as well.

But despite the fact that God’s inspiration was recorded by human writers, make no mistake that it was taken insanely seriously. Every accent mark was considered important (see also: Jesus in Matt 5:18); incorrect writings were burned; even the shape of letters were analyzed to determine hidden meaning (more to come on this later). So although God’s Word was set down by humans, the Jews felt that the very letters and accents used to do so were still under the inspired authority of God.

This passage is the key statement given in the Bible about the inspiration of the text. The text is breathed out by God, and it is in order to bring us to salvation and to equip us to do good works.

The early Christian creeds give us barely any more information; reading everything from the Council of Jerusalem up to the Chalcedonian Creed, all we are told about inspiration of the Scriptures is that the Holy Ghost inspired the Scriptures through the prophets (see more here).

So from an evidentiary standpoint, both from the creeds and the Scriptures, we can conclude that the absolute evidence states:

• God inspired the Old Testament Scriptures
• The Jews took every letter and accent mark of this inspired text seriously
• Christians applied the same authority level to the writings of the Christian apostles
• The purpose of inspiration is to (1) lead us to salvation and (2) equip us to do good works.

B. The Christian Positions

So, based upon the evidence, Christians have come down on how to approach the Scriptures in a number of ways.

For clarity, I am going to use three terms in my words to describe the various Christian views of Scriptural inspiration: Infallibility; Inerrancy; and Immutability. Let’s discuss each individually.

Infallibility is the view that God inspired the Bible to tell His Story as defined by Paul (for our salvation and to teach us how to live righteously), and that it is without error in this area. So regarding matters of doctrine and the Church, the Bible is without error. Other errors were possible, such as the human writer passing along a scientific error or historical error, etc.

Inerrancy is the view that God inspired the Bible to tell His Story as defined by Paul, and it is without error in any area. However, this comes with four key conditions to inerrancy:

The Bible is without any error in:

Its original manuscripts: While it is inerrant in its original manuscripts, later copies and translations can introduce errors due to the translator or the copyist, but that which was originally written was without error. God does not protect us from our own ignorance, misquoting, etc. For example, Thomas Jefferson was allowed to cut up the Bible with razor blades; this does not reduce the inerrancy of the original manuscript at all.

Its original language: The Bible is God’s divine truth, but it was recorded within certain languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, ancient Greek) and thus it must conform to the boundaries of those languages. For example, in Hebrew there was no Linnaean classification system and thus their language did not contain the same subtlety of animal names that English does. So they use the word ‘owph to refer to everything from birds to flying insects to bats. This is not an error by calling bats and birds by the same name; it is simply that God’s word though inspired by Him, had to be fit within the human language within which it was recorded—and every human language has limitations, since it came from humans.

Its original scope: The Bible’s inerrancy only protects that the events transpired as recorded, not that the events recorded or statements made were necessarily correct. For example, the Bible records Satan claiming the power to make Jesus a king on earth; that does not necessarily mean Satan had such power, only that it was accurate that he did, in fact, claim such power. So when the Bible says that a census was taken showing 10,000 of such-and-such people, this does not mean there were exactly 10,000 people; it means that the census results showed 10,000 people. Likewise, if a person A tells person B about an event and this is recorded in Scripture, just because person A is wrong in his telling would not make the Biblical inerrancy in doubt; the record of the conversation was inerrant, even if what person A said was wrong. The Bible does not “put the correct words” in someone’s mouth if they had said the incorrect ones.

Its original context: The Bible is inerrant only when properly understood within the context that it was meant to be understood. If the Biblical writer, under God’s inspiration, chose to write in poetry, then it is only inerrant within the bounds of being understood as poetry; if Jesus speaks in parable, then it is only inerrant within the bounds of understanding the parable’s context; etc. Likewise, the historical context and literary contexts must be taken into account, if one wishes to understand what God is inerrantly claiming in the Scripture.

Immutability is sort of like inerrancy on steroids: it is the view that the Bible is unchangeably inerrant. That is, the context is always clear and straightforward at all times; an honest translation will always render the appropriate interpretation as plain and straight-forward, and that God has protected His word from transcription errors or textual mistakes. In order to hold this position logically, you must of course limit scope somewhat: no one can hold to the immutability of two mutually-exclusive translations (like the Jefferson Bible and the NIV, which directly contradict). So generally people who hold the position of immutability will say something like, “any word-by-word translation”, or “the King James Version only”, or “any translation by a believer” or “any translation from the Masoretic text”, etc., is under God’s protection from error. Think of it as inerrancy without the four caveats that I noted: you no longer have to worry about the original manuscripts or the context or the scope or the language, because God is making sure that these things are always taken care of.

C. The Reboot View

Now as I stated earlier, neither the Bible itself nor ancient Christians required the inerrantist’s view in order to be a Christian. Of course, neither can you simply say that the Bible “contains some truth” or something like that; the historical evidence of Paul and the early Christians and the ancient Jewish rabbis simply makes this impossible to stand for. But it is possible to adhere to the Biblical infallibility view and still be a born-again, “Bible-believing” Christian.

Yet I am not an infallibilist, as my regular readers know; I am actually an unshakably firm inerrantist. And I am so for two key reasons.

First, because the ancient Jews did not approach the Torah with only a view of infallibility. When people say that the ancient Jews, or CS Lewis, or such-and-such person is not an inerrantist, generally they are actually saying, “The ancient Jews did not see the Bible as immutable.” In other words, they are ignoring the four conditions of inerrancy in their analysis.

But that the Jews saw it as inerrant—in the way I have described above—seems to be obvious. The Jews felt that every single letter revealed God’s truth. Every accent mark was critical (cf. Matt 5:18). Jewish rabbis read the Bible with an insane level of detail that would make many moderns uncomfortable—including reading into even the shape of the letters! (For example, some ancient rabbis argued that the word re’shiyth is the first word of the Hebrew Bible because the shape of the first letter indicates a closed door prior to creation, so we could not know anything before Genesis 1:1, no matter how hard we try). The Scriptural text was so important that if you messed up even a dot, they burned the entire copy so that the errors would not propagate through the ages.

So that is my first reason: as I look at the three options above (infallible, inerrant, and immutable), it seems to me that the ancient Jews and the early Christians whom I have read clearly fell into the “inerrancy” camp—and avoided either of the other two extremes.

Second, I believe in inerrancy because it has not failed yet, frankly. Every alleged Biblical contradiction or error that I have run across is explainable using the four conditions I noted above (manuscript, language, context, scope). In other words, the only errors I have ever run across are easily explainable as either a language difficulty, an attempt to make the Bible say something it wasn’t trying to say, or a contextual misunderstanding by the person making the allegation.

Why is this significant? Because the odds of this being true by chance is ludicrous. It is impossible for dozens of authors spread over thousands of years, often not having read the others’ works, to have written something so coherent. And even more so: handing down this text over two thousand years and translated into our modern language, while the coherence still holds. Frankly, I just don’t buy that happening without God’s inerrancy in the original text. There should have been something—actually, many things—which were clearly not explainable by inerrancy if the original text was not inerrant.

This is one of the reasons why I am an inerrantist – I just haven’t seen an argument that works against it so far. I really haven’t. Immutability I find impossible to logically defend, and so I reject it; but inerrancy seems rock-solid. And so while we are not a priori told by the Bible that it is inerrant, the circumstantial evidence seems significant in this case.

D. What does it all mean?

What it means is that I am an inerrantist, and while I do not say that you must be one in order to be a Christian (though you must believe in at least the infallibility statement), I see no real substantive argument to convince me that it is not true—and indeed, significant argument to say that it is true.

But with all due respect to my Orthodox brethren and the Out of Ur blogger cited at the beginning of this post, believing in inerrancy—or even sola scriptura, which is an entirely separate issue—has nothing whatsoever to do with “worshipping Scripture instead of God”, as they claim.

I do agree that there are some inerrantists who completely shut down the reality of the Holy Spirit in their lives, instead using only their mind to interpret the sacred works—and thus, they worship “Father, Son, and Scripture” instead of “Father, Son, and Spirit”. That is wrong, clearly.

But just because some people who are inerrantists misuse the Bible, this does not mean that inerrancy is wrong, for the same reason that Christians behaving badly does not make Christianity wrong.

Inerrancy must be evaluated upon its actual merits. But instead what people tend to do is ignore what inerrancy actually claims and the four conditions that most inerrantists operate within, and instead they push you into a false dichotomy of choosing between infallibility (which they call “not inerrancy”) or immutability (which they call “inerrancy”, when it is in reality a special case of innerancy).

And thus I still stay with the firm position of inerrancy. Nor, frankly, can I even forsee an argument which could change my mind on this (though of course I have been wrong before!). It does not seem to me that inerrancy is actually what they are rejecting at all; rather, just their misunderstanding of inerrancy.

But we can all, of course, agree that the Scripture is not our King. We worship the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Those who elevate the Scripture to an equivalence with Godhead are of course wrong and heretically so. But that is a rare and extreme situation. Most inerrantists I know have the proper understanding: the Triune God alone is our King; but the declarations of that King (to save us and train us in righteous living) are the Bible. It is logically fallacious to say, “Since the Bible is not God, then it cannot be without error”—which is ultimately what the Out of Ur blogger is arguing.

King Jesus can (and, I believe, did) deliver us a set of commandments which were without error, by divinely inspiring prophets and apostles. Now it is true that later heralds might mess up that inerrant Word, or that we might misunderstand it due to our lack of cultural or linguistic understanding. But that does not mean that the Word itself contained error.


  1. Jesus told us to worship the Father 'in spirit and in truth'. Paul told us that 'if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His', and Jesus prayed 'Father, sanctify them by Your truth; Your word is truth'. The Spirit inspired the word, and the word never contradicts the Spirit. We need both to come to Christ ('Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the rhema of God'). If the Bible is not inerrant, we are left to discern under our own power what it is the God requires of us. Cannot the God Who spoke the universe into existence give us a Book that instructs us in the way in which we should go?

  2. Excellent article. I'm going to keep this bookmarked for future reference when anybody asks me how I can possible be so benighted and ignorant as to hold to Inerrancy.