When's the last time you heard--or used--the word "inerrant" in any sort of context?
The fact is this: the very word “inerrant” is not one that is used by really anybody today--except by those within conservative, evangelical churches. In the final two MindShift podcasts for 2017, this is a topic that Ray Gilford and I explored, and I wanted to expand a bit further on the topic in this post.
Maybe you've never even heard of the term! So, what does it mean?
The basic definition of inerrancy involves "ascribing a quality to something that is believed to be 'error-free.'” In the case of the Bible, inerrancy refers to the belief that the Scripture is 100% without error in everything that it affirms. In other words, it is held that Scripture tells the truth about, well...everything.
Most evangelicals today would hold to some form of the following position on this teaching of inerrancy: there are no mistakes, contradictions, errors or false teachings of any kind to be found within the pages of Scripture, from Genesis right through to Revelation. This notion is largely based upon the following logical chain: God can only tell the truth --> this truth-telling God originated his communication to humanity ("God's Word") --> the authors wrote exactly what this truthful God wanted them to say, without error as guided by the Spirit (inspiration) --> therefore the Bible is 100% error-free.
But where did this doctrine arise, and how can anybody claim that an ancient book is completely without error, if it is—at some level at least—the product of fallible human authors and editors?
The Modernists and the Fundamentalists
The very word “inerrancy,” as applied to the Bible, arises out of the late 19th century. Framed by the debates between the modernists and the fundamentalists, these two groups began to do battle over such issues as the trustworthiness, veracity and historical accuracy of the Scriptures.
(For more information on this subject, please read my article on the origins of the two sides on this hotly-contested debate).
On one side of the divide were the modernists: liberal-leaning Christians who sought to synthesize their faith with the findings of modern science and biblical criticism, much of which arose from German scholarship in the late 18th through the 19th centuries. These liberal Christians were trying to find a way forward that would allow them to remain Christians, yet at the same time be "modern" in their thinking (hence the name). Liberals ended up questioning, for example, such things as the virgin birth of Jesus; the historical veracity of the Gospel record; the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and the miracles attributed to Jesus in the Gospels.
The fundamentalists, on the other hand, not only completely disagreed with the aims of liberal scholarship, they believed furthermore that the liberals were leading an all-out assault on the Bible. They accused the liberals of attacking not only the Bible’s veracity, but also of seeking to destroy the very heart of what they considered to be orthodox, historic Christianity. The name "fundamentalist" arose from a series of "fundamental" core beliefs that they believed represented the very essence of historic Christianity. The fundamentalists affirmed them, and the liberals denied them; thus in the view of the fundamentalists, liberal Christianity was "no gospel at all."
Thus, over a century ago, the stage was set for a clash of epic proportions between the liberals and the fundamentalists; the echoes of this publicly-fought culture war still resonate down through the corridors of time to this very day.
The Doctrine of Inerrancy
The doctrine of inerrancy itself arises out of the context of the heresy trial of Professor Charles Briggs of Union Seminary in 1891-1983, on the charge that he had abandoned the classic Presbyterian doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture. His accusers, conservative scholars BB Warfield and Archibald Hodge, led the offensive against Briggs.
Within the context of this debate over the inspiration of Scripture, “conservatives developed the doctrine of inerrancy to guard the Bible against attack. They also used the doctrine as a diagnostic tool, to quickly discern whether an individual’s doctrine of Scripture was ‘liberal.’ Fundamentalists thus used the doctrine as both a shield and a weapon.”
As mentioned earlier, the echoes of this clash between the liberals and the fundamentalists echo down through the decades, and still resonate today in many conservative evangelical churches, Bible colleges and seminaries. Many evangelicals even today are still concerned that the Bible is under assault, and with it, Christianity as a religion also.
Mangum comments on this phenomenon:
“Conservatives have never forgotten what happened to them in the early twentieth century; whole separatist denominations exist to this day as a result of these events. When conservatives tell what happened, it is a story of wolves coming into the church unawares in sheep’s clothing, using sheep’s language, and masquerading under sheep’s pseudo-piety. Therefore, of utmost importance to conservatives was the formulation of litmus tests and effective shibboleths by which subversive forces within the churches (and particularly within the churches’ academic institutions) could be rooted out. The doctrine of inerrancy served effectively as just such a litmus test and shibboleth.”
According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics, framed at a 1978 international conference of concerned evangelical leaders, this is what the doctrine entails: as mentioned above, it begins with the notion (or presupposition) that God himself speaks only truth. Thus, by the agency and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the writers of Scripture wrote down exactly what this truth-speaking God wanted them to write, without error.
In its entirety, then, Scripture is God’s revelation of himself to humanity, and because of the Spirit’s guidance of human authors in the process of inspiration, it is therefore both true and accurate in everything that it affirms. The key statement is found in Article X:
“We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”
Where are the Original Manuscripts?
Within this affirmation, particularly noteworthy is the phrase “autographic text of Scripture,” which refers to the original manuscripts, or autographs, of Scripture. So, for example, the first and original epistle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth would be illustrative of an original autograph, or first manuscript. However, for conservative scholars who affirm this teaching, there are several problems, chief of which is this: we do not possess a single original manuscript. That is a significant potential flaw in their argument, it would appear.
How, then, are Christians to know for certain that their Bibles today—which are copies of copies of copies, and translations from dead languages to boot—are indeed both inspired and inerrant?
The common answer given by conservative evangelical scholars on this question is that God has preserved his Word throughout the centuries. They admit that we do not possess the originals; but this is not something about which the average Christian should be worried. Why not? Because the science of textual criticism virtually guarantees that the Bibles we possess today are a near-faithful rendering of those original manuscripts. In the words of conservative scholar Sexton, “The field of textual criticism is crucial for the life of the church, both for ascertaining the original text and for affirming the inerrancy of that text.”
Conservative scholar Dr John MacArthur concurs with Sexton’s position, and moreover states that “We believe in the Word of God. We believe that it is inspired. We believe that it is without error in the original autographs, and God has protected and preserved it to this day so that it substantially remains faithful to its original revelation. We believe that when the Word speaks, we are commanded to listen.”
This is not a new problem biblical scholars have suddenly uncovered. In the 17th century, Reformed scholar Francis Turretin stated: "By 'original texts' we do not mean the very autographs from the hands of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, which are known to be nonexistent. We mean copies (apographa), which have come in their name, because they record for us that word of God in the same words into which the sacred writers committed it under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit."
On a Theopedia.com article on bibilcal inerrancy, the authors comment that "one should not worry [about the missing original autographs], for when we understand the Reliability of the New Testament and the reliability of the Old Testament, we may have confidence that our current Bibles are 98% accurate, and no major doctrine is affected by the manuscript variants. Likewise, the Bible has proved itself reliable through prophecy, historical events, archaeology, and in many other areas.”
Once again, MacArthur would agree with this sentiment. He argues that only “the true text [of Scripture] must be used. We are indebted to those select scholars who labor tediously in the field of textual criticism. Their studies recover the original text of Scripture from the large volume of extant manuscript copies which are flawed by textual variants.”
The Chicago Statement goes even one step beyond MacArthur, and addresses this same issue of whether a Christian should be concerned about these missing manuscripts. The Statement says:
“We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.”
One can see clearly from the above statement that conservative evangelicals, like their fundamentalist forbearers a century ago, are perhaps just as desperately keen to preserve the biblical text, and thereby guard against the possibility of any errors creeping in.
However, the main problem with the position of inerrancy is that it essentially paints the holder of that teaching into a corner. For the inerrantist, unfortunately the stakes are too high; it’s all-or-nothing, with the implications of admitting to a mistake catastrophic to their entire faith as Christians. Although they vigorously deny that they hold to some sort of “dictation model” of inspiration, it would almost seem that in order to preserve a high view of inspiration and inerrancy, they are virtually committed to such a position.
But does this type of "dictation model of inspiration" override biblical authors' personality and freedom of expression? As I used to teach my students in first-year Bible classes, whichever choice one makes—either the Bible as a dictation model or a total human book with no divine involvement— leaves one foundering on a rock at some point. In other words, whichever choice one makes a) solves some problems, but b) creates others.
On the one hand, going with the “100% God/0% humans” model is nothing more than mechanical dictation or ghost writing, which completely overrides the human authors’ personalities. Scripture does give evidence that human personalities and freedom of expression are throughout, as in for example the very-real human laments encountered in the book of Psalms.
On the other hand, going with the “0% God/100% humans” model means that the Bible is not inspired, trustworthy, authoritative, and thus is not special as an ancient text. Any variation along that spectrum of models only solves certain problems, while creating others.
Pick your poison.
There’s a second problem with inerrancy, mentioned earlier: we do not possess those original manuscripts. Furthermore, there’s an additional major issue: higher biblical criticism has demonstrated that the “original” manuscripts were, in fact, edited and redacted over time. Texts were also compiled from a variety of sources, both oral and written.
We must therefore pose a series of questions: when was a biblical text “stabilized” as it were, in its final form? Do we limit that final form to the canon of Scripture, or should we search for another, more elusive, “original”? If we even possessed an original text, exactly how would we be able to verify beyond all doubt that it was in fact an original manuscript? It might end up being dismissed as nothing more than a variant reading, when in fact it was an original.
The questions continue to mount. For example: are the "extra-biblical sources" that biblical authors used to compile a text to be considered inspired also? When Paul quoted from secular Greek philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17), should we consider them to be inspired? Perhaps Paul's sermon was inspired only when it was preached in time and space in Athens. Or should it be considered inspired only when it was included into the book of Acts in its final form? And finally, where does the inspiration process end--with the finally-edited book itself, or with the completed canon of Scripture?
Malley attempts to shed some light on this entire issue when he affirms that
“…the Bible’s inerrancy is limited to the original manuscripts. By original manuscripts is meant the parchments and papyri upon which the biblical authors (or their secretaries) first wrote the biblical texts—documents that are usually referred to as the autographs. This declaration allows that all manner of errors may have crept into the Bible in the process of copying. By itself this is completely irrelevant: the attribution of inerrancy to the original manuscripts is of little interest if that inerrancy has not been preserved. The doctrinal statement leaves out the assumption—necessary for confidence in actual Bibles—that the transmission process was largely faithful. If we are to understand what people actually think about biblical authority, we cannot trust the formal statement of doctrine but must look to more direct evidence.”
In the end, unfortunately, the whole enterprise of inerrancy becomes little more than an exercise of searching for an elusive text down many rabbit holes. No wonder that conservative evangelicals, as were the fundamentalists a generation beforehand, so resistant to historical biblical criticism; form, source and redaction criticism, for example, obviously pose a huge existential problem for the inerrantist’s faith. Any chink in the armor of inerrancy becomes a fatal flaw destined to take down the entire system--and potentially, the personal faith of the inerrantist to boot.
One can see why conservatives have historically rejected, and tried to battle against, higher biblical criticism (at least from the variety of sources and editing point of view). If they were to admit that the findings of historical criticism were correct on any level, then the implications to their fairly simplistic view of inspiration and inerrancy would fall apart quickly, I suspect. But since their overcommitment to an inspired an inerrant Bible is intrinsically tied both to their identities and Christian faith, it is perhaps too emotionally threatening even to question or possibly deconstruct.
What happens when a conservative biblical scholar, committed to the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy, is confronted with potential evidence that disrupts their position? Bovell comments that “When an evangelical carries on his or her work in a context of paradigmatic crisis, that work can take on a special character with regard to its allegiance to the dominant paradigm. In the case of evangelicals reflecting upon the doctrine of inerrancy, it is ironic that it is precisely their single-minded faith commitment to Scripture that makes the crisis and all subsequent phases of extraordinary science so acute in the first place.”
This overcommitment to biblical inerrancy has birthed a wide variety of distortions: biblicism (biblical literalism), bibliolatry (worship of the Bible as somehow a “magic book”), biblical absolutism (the idea that the Bible alone contains everything we need to know, including science, history, geography, and human psychology); and finally, biblical foundationalism (the expectations that all Christian beliefs are to be found in the Bible).
Clues that evangelical Christians have adopted such stances can be witnessed in often-made, high-sounding and pious statements, such as: "our church has a high view of the Bible"; "making biblical choices," "biblical values" or "living biblically"; "biblical preaching" or “holding to biblical standards.” But surely this is narrowly circular reasoning; their belief that the Bible is authoritative and inspired is in turn derived from…statements made by the Bible itself that it is inspired, and thus authoritative.
But such circularity, although perhaps noticed by some, does not disturb most evangelical Christians; from their point of view, the reality that they are holding to such circular logic may be deemed a valid point, but ultimately it is not a relevant one—because the stakes are simply too high to admit that there might, in fact, be some major problems with their position. The implications are, quite simply, potentially too overwhelming, too emotionally threatening.