Misunderstanding Inerrancy 

A key Christian doctrine, right next to the doctrine of inspiration, is the doctrine of inerrancy. 

The tie between the two is so great and interdependent that it is almost impossible to speak of one without speaking of the other. Inerrancy, as a term, is used almost interchangeably with the term “infallibility”. We could almost say that they are two sides of the same coin because something could be inerrant, that is it has no errors of spelling or grammar or logic, and not be infallible; however that which is infallible, that is it not be wrong about a fact or reasoning, and still be inerrant. 

For the Christian, because the Bible is inspired by that which is infallible it is, by such nature, inerrant. However, simply because I believe that about the Bible, it does not mean that my interpretation (how I understand the text) is either infallible or inerrant, nor is my application (how I apply that understanding) such. Let me see if I can briefly explain the difference between the two by briefly articulating my hermeneutical philosophy.

Hermeneutics is simply a big word for the scientific methodology for understanding texts. As such, it has rules. And if those rules are applied consistently to a text, then one will have a consistent and coherent understanding  of what the text is communicating, and because of this it gives results which are reproducible, hence scientific. Not to go over ground that I have already plowed, but it comes down to asking simple some simple questions:

  • What kind of text is it? (genre)
  • What is it saying? (content)
  • What is its background? (context)

Those 3 simple categories of genre, content, and context, sort out many of the interpretational and accompanying applicational issues that go with handling almost any text, even a biblical text. One of the biggest problems when people approach the biblical text—and this has been noted by any number of scholars, both believing and unbelieving—is that people, both believers and unbelievers, treat the biblical text in a completely different manner than they do any other written text. 

Now, if we have that out of the way, be can come back to the question of inerrancy. Specifically, how people misunderstand it, and in misunderstanding it create strawmen that they proceed to beat to death.

The Doctrine of Inerrancy

Probably one of the most accessible sources for most people is the late R.C. Sproul’s little book, Can I Trust the Bible?, in which he unpacks what is one of the best presentations of what is often referred to as “The Chicago Statement”. In the book, Sproul gives us a short history lesson on the history of the Statement, writing,

“It was this same desire to stand against the persistent questioning of the Bible’s integrity that brought together more than 250 evangelical leaders in Chicago, Illinois, in October 1978. That summit meeting, convened by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, sought to draw a line in the sand, affirming the historic Protestant position on the Scriptures. The result was the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. (1)

The Chicago Statement makes it clear, in its purpose statement, that it,

“… affirms [the] inerrancy of Scripture afresh, making clear our understanding of it and warning against its denial. We are persuaded that to deny it is to set aside the witness of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit and to refuse that submission to the claims of God’s own Word that marks true Christian faith. (2)

That means that inerrancy, and its associated concept of infallibility, are directly linked to its authority. The logic being: if the Bible is not inerrant, then the Bible, and all its associated concepts, lose their authority. As such, the doctrine of inerrancy, as Article 13 of the statement asserts, is dependent upon “the complete truthfulness of Scripture”.(3) That is to say, as a theological term, Christians believe, “that the Bible is completely true, that all its affirmations and denials correspond with reality.”(4) Now, this doesn’t mean that there are those who don’t attempt to assert that there are, in fact, “errors” in the Bible, as we will see shortly, but these assertions essentially come down to two: alleged “obvious” errors, and “purpose” errors.(5)

Where can we find an example of these? Oh, I know…someone that I haven’t interacted with in some time: Neil Carter over at Godless in Dixie.

Demonstrating the Obvious

 Now, to be fair, this post to which I am responding was written in 2015. I was just coming into my “thing” here on this blog and I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with it. But I found this one, “The Absurdity of Inerrancy”, almost by accident by reading a recent post on his blog and I thought that it would be interesting to interact with. So let’s look at it.

Neil begins in his usual, provocative manner, writing,

“Even on its own terms, an inerrant Bible is an absurdity.

Well, that’s an interesting assertion, which he promises to demonstrate. He admits that, “not everyone feels obligated to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt.” Well that’s charitable, but is it honest? We’ll see.

He continues,

“They will first look at the external evidence, and when they do they will find that major elements of the biblical narrative go astray from the facts as we know them. For them that’s enough to warn them away from believing that in the Bible we have a book that can’t go wrong. 

Well, that’s often the first misstep that people make because of several—well—false assumptions about “external evidence”. What most people assume is that all narratives are equal and, simply put, they’re not. If you don’t understand things like “bias” or how a particular culture referred to those outside of the particular group, you can miss key evidence. Understanding how narratives work in ancient cultures is key to knowing any facts. Neil continues,

“If the facts appear to contradict the Bible, we must simply have our facts wrong, or God is testing our faith, or whatever.

Um…yeah. That’s usually how things work. If there’s a contradiction, or an appearance of contradiction, it’s usually because you’re the one misunderstanding the facts.

 Now, what Neil is doing here is preparing to assert a false dichotomy, so it’s a clever argument, if you haven’t spent any time thinking about this, because his next paragraph demonstrates this,

“Because of this, it doesn’t matter to some people that the Bible gets the origins of the species wrong; they just keep reworking their reading of the text and tweaking their interpretation until it fits what modern science tells us is true.

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Notice that his first assumption is that if there’s a disjunction between something that a one perceived authority asserts and the authoritative word of God in Scripture, then Scripture is the one that’s wrong, not the interpretation of Scripture. For those who aren’t quick on their feet: Neil is engaging in circular reasoning.

See: Atheists and Their False Dilemmas

Now, I have come to the conclusion that many modern believers ask entirely too much of the Bible, and that they feel that for Scripture to be true that it has to be exhaustive in its applicability. I’m an inclusivist: I am of the opinion that Scripture doesn’t have to agree with every conclusion drawn by scientists because the writers of Scripture had no reasonable expectation that what they wrote we’d be reading today what they wrote so long ago; rather that there is nothing, there is no stray or rebellious fact out in the world that is not under the authority of the God revealed in Scripture. 

My response to such a claim is that the inspired authors didn’t care about the origin of the species, and any scientific theories about it ultimately have no net effect on my life. So, whether its the flood (addressed here) or the exodus from Egypt and subsequent conquest of Canaan (see Michael Heiser’s study here), if our assumptions about the facts begin in the wrong place, we will—not might—come to the wrong conclusion.

The question we have to ask is why does Neil feel the need to attack the doctrine of inerrancy? Well, he graciously informs us of this by writing,

“This spurious idea is responsible for so many formidable social injustices that is has got to go. Living in the midst of a people who see this book as above reproach and then mistreat others based on its prejudices, this has become a priority for me. (emphasis original)

Well, first, we have to say that he has to provide a coherent justification upon which to call anything an “injustice”, and that such was derived from a coherent, informed reading of the text, but that’s another argument. Remember, his argument is supposed to be against inerrancy, which is a theological term and a doctrine that asserts that the Bible is completely true in all that it affirms. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at Neil’s supposed six reasons why the Bible cannot be inerrant.

My Presentation on the Doctrines of Inspiration and Inerrancy

https://youtu.be/y-0bGGyzW84

The Objections to Inerrancy

His first reason is that evangelicals must concede that, “Even your own theology should tell you that imperfect people can’t produce a perfect text.To support that claim, Neil writes,

“One of the key doctrines of the Christian faith is that all people are “fallen,” messed up, broken, and needing salvation. 

The Reformed doctrine in particular states things in the strongest of terms, saying that every aspect of human nature has been warped and marred by sin so that everything we set our hand to is going to be tainted by that fact.

Now, I’ve written on the doctrine of original sin earlier, and when it comes to man, the biblical doctrine of sin involves the realization that human beings are corrupted by their sin in every aspect of their being. The biblical authors relate this reality to us through the prohibition of one entering the sanctuary because of a physical defect or disfiguring injury. These external realities were meant to represent the spiritual reality of mankind, the fact of how we are seen by God: crippled, injured, imperfect. Paul extends the reality of this crippling corruption to our very minds in the suppression of the truth of God. However, what the Scripture also teaches is that God equips those whom he calls for his tasks, and that would include the writing of Scripture. Even Neil would most certainly concede that he is imperfect, but even in that imperfection he has to assume that certain things are true—like the claim that he’s imperfect. As such, he must also assume that humans can achieve a certain level of inerrancy, that the finite nature and corruption of our faculties is not as bad as it can be, or else he has no meaningful objection. However, the response from those who hold to biblical inerrancy is that,

“Finitude implies a necessary limitation of knowledge but not necessarily a distortion of knowledge. The trustworthy character of the biblical text should not be denied on the ground of man’s finitude.(6)

Neil’s second objection to inerrancy is that, “Sola Scriptura is a logical impossibility.”

He writes,

“The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been preaching this for centuries, but the Protestants have never listened. It sounds lovely to say that you will base your theology on “nothing but the Bible,” meaning that any and all church tradition must be subject to the scrutiny of the biblical text itself, but how would you even know which books of the Bible should be in that canon if it weren’t for church tradition? (emphasis original)

Well, first, we have to ask, what exactly does inerrancy have to do with the doctrine of Sola Scriptura? 

Well, since Neil dragged the Roman Catholic Church into this, what do Catholics say about that? 

“The Catholic [Church]…holds that the immediate or direct rule of faith is the teaching of the Church; the Church in turn takes her teaching from the divine Revelation…”

Now, the Catholic Church includes and equates what it calls “the…unwritten Word” with what it calls “divine revelation”. The problem is that the written word of Scripture records with contempt the potential for abuse that tradition possesses. Further, it begs the question of how do we know that such tradition is, in fact, authoritative? Sola Scriptura is a doctrine built on the sufficiency of Scripture for it’s only in them that we have the all the words of God that are needed for life and morals.(7)

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Now, when it comes to the question of canon, we do have to look at tradition and history, because we recognize that the contents of the canon are an outworking of God’s work in history through the inspiration of Scripture. As such we see the canon being recognized in history, and what was considered Scripture being conveyed through time.(8) Further, such an objection is really a red herring because the argument is not that the canon is inerrant, rather that the Scriptures are inerrant. 

The third objection that Neil makes is that, “Jesus himself modeled disagreeing with the scriptures.”

Neil writes,

“Jesus got into a lot of hot water for saying things like “You have heard it was said…but I say to you.” He made a habit of quoting the Bible and then disagreeing with it.(emphasis original)

The question is, was Jesus disagreeing with Scripture? Let’s just look at one such example from the Sermon on the Mount:

“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.(Matthew 5:21-22, ESV)

Now, where’s the supposed “disagreement”? I’m not seeing it. What I am seeing is Jesus drawing an equal sign between the act of murder and the unreasonable anger that could lead to death. Well, maybe he meant something else. Further, almost every commentator that I can find argues—and this appears evident—that Jesus was arguing against specific interpretations of the text of Scripture and not Scripture itself. (9) Further, this claim is clearly refuted by the numerous instances where Jesus cite’s scripture for clear, authoritative reasons, such as regarding divorce (Matthew 19, Mark 10), the resurrection (Matthew 22:23-33), his identity (Matthew 21:42-46), even to the bounds of the Jewish canon (Luke 11:51). 

Neil’s fourth objection is that, “Paul disagreed with Jesus. To support this claim, he writes, 

“Paul almost never quoted Jesus at all, which in itself is a fascinating fact….he hardly ever relays anything Jesus actually taught…”

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Okay. Could that have something to do with the fact that both Jesus and Paul taught from the Jewish Scriptures? But then he accuses Paul of contradicting Jesus, twice, writing,

“In one place, he argues that in spite of the fact that Jesus said ministers should be able to make a living from their ministry, it is better for them to have non-ministry jobs so that they themselves can supply their own financial needs and not be dependent on their congregations. 

Since Neil doesn’t deem us worthy of a citation, I have to put on my thinking cap and look into Neil’s head and see if I can divine what he’s referring to, and the best idea that I can suss out is either 1 Corinthians 9:3-18 or 2 Thessalonians 3:6-12 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18. And what we find in those passages is the distinction between what Paul see’s as a right, expressed in the citation of Deuteronomy 25:4 (in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy), and an example to new believers (in 2 Thessalonians). That means that what we find is not a contradiction, but a choice on Paul and his team’s part and how the church is supposed to act in support of those it sets apart for ministry. Moreover, Paul and company received and accepted gifts of support in ministry from any number of churches and individuals while ministering in other areas (see Philippians 4:10-20). 

Neil then writes,

“In another place he ventures well beyond what Jesus said about divorce and offers his own opinion about the matter, offering an additional reason for divorce beyond what Jesus allowed. That took a lot of nerve…”

Now, I’ve touched on the complex societal issues for believers in the first century in regard to marriage here, but when we look at 1 Corinthians 7, we find Paul negotiating a specific question and the situation that Neil is speaking of. In one Paul cites Jesus’ words from Matthew 19 (or Mark 10 for the Markan priority folks) in regard to divorce by specifically addressing the believing wife who deciding to leave her husband—perhaps for reasons of personal safety. However, in contradiction to Neil’s claim, when Paul asserts his apostolic authority he isn’t contradicting Jesus, rather he’s addressing something that wasn’t addressed by Jesus directly because the onus is upon the spouse who leaves. The unbelieving spouse has no obligation to stay, and the believing spouse is bound to their oaths. But let me just point this out: this objection assumes the inerrancy of Scripture because it’s assuming that Matthew and 1 Corinthians is truly representing the autographs.

Neil asserts that, “Paul admitted some of what he wrote was just his opinion,” for his fifth reason that inerrancy is absurd. To support this Neil writes,

“This presents a fascinating problem. How can you hold as sacrosanct and infallible the words of a man who even admits himself that some of what he is telling you is just his opinion?

Well, first, let me just note that it’s Neil’s opinion that this is a problem. So where else is it that an “opinion” is considered authoritative? Oh, right…the United States Supreme Court, because they have the authority to do so, like Paul…who’s an apostle of Jesus Christ, and authorized to speak for him.

He  provides a link to the passage (finally!) that he has in mind, 1 Corinthians 7:32-35.

Now, we should just note that this particular passage in question comes in the middle of a section where Paul is answering a question regarding those who are “betrothed”. Paul has to admit that he has no clear, specific command that he can cite for what he’s about to say, so he has to admit that he’s giving his decision, “…as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy.” Further, he points out that the Corinthians are facing a specific situation that is influencing what he’s about say regarding the question that has been put to him. Remember, the first epistle to the Corinthians was written to the members of a church who were living in a unique situation, and Paul is writing in order to assure them and so that they would be “free from anxieties”, namely how believers were to coexist with non-believers. 

Now, what Christians hold as being “infallible” is that Paul’s words were not meant to be deceptive, that what we have is true and reliable, and because we believe that Paul was writing under the influence of the Holy Spirit. As such even Paul’s opinion can be, because of its recording and recognition as authoritative Scripture by other apostles, and as such being both inerrant and infallible. 

Neil’s sixth alleged proof that the scriptures aren’t inerrant is the fact that, “The apostles disagreed with each other.” He writes,

“It always baffled me that we would ascribe inerrancy to the writings of men who vehemently disagreed with each other on multiple occasions. If you go back and reconstruct the story, James and Paul bitterly argued over how to handle the inclusion of Gentiles into the church.

Well, did they?

Now, let’s just state the glaringly obvious fact that Neil is, again, assuming the inerrancy of Scripture, because it’s in Scripture that we find that this fact out. In fact, Paul uses a specific instance of disagreement with Peter to make a point to the Galatian church. Luke covers the instance in more general terms in his recounting of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and Peter’s own experience in Acts 11. It is interesting that when it came down to the decision, it was decided on the basis of the inerrant Scripture, and the proclamation that came out of it was as well. Remember: Scripture not only records the disagreement, it also records its resolution.

Answering the Objection

Now almost every objection has been shown to have the same problem: ignoring the larger context. This is done through zooming in on a particular passage or issue and ignoring the bigger picture or the overall narrative, either biblically—as in the instances demonstrated above—, or historically (with matters of canon), or just logically (with what is assumed). Remember, the burden is on the person making the claim. Neil merely asserts that there’s a problem, but makes no effort to prove that the problem actually exists.

Even one of the stiffest alleged proofs of disagreement between the apostles regarding faith and works, hinges on matters of context: in the context of Paul’s epistle to Romans one is saved by faith (in Ephesians Paul even makes the point that one is saved in order to do works) and in the context of James’ epistle one proves their salvation by their works. Different contexts, different purposes, no disagreement. Further, saying that there’s  many other problems,” that he could name doesn’t mean that they’re actually problems.

Neil writes,

“Whole libraries could be filled with pointing out the disagreements between the Old and New Testaments, but most Christians have a justification for that so they won’t hear any of it even if I were to try to spell out why these can’t just be explained away by “progressive revelation.”

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That assumes that he, and other Christians, understand the concept such as it is presented in the Chicago Statement, which can be explained thus,

“The … progress and expansion of revelation does not deny or contradict what was given earlier. Though certain precepts that were obligatory to people in the Old Testament period are no longer so in the New Testament, this does not mean that they were discontinued because they were wicked in the past and God corrected what He formerly endorsed, but rather that certain practices were superseded by newer practices that were consistent with fulfillment of Old Testament activities. This in no way suggests that the Old Testament is irrelevant to the New Testament believer or that earlier revelation may be dismissed out of hand in light of newer revelation. The Bible is to be regarded as a holistic book in which the Old Testament helps us understand the New Testament and the New Testament sheds significant light on the Old Testament….The Bible’s coherency and consistency is not vitiated by progressive revelation within it.(10)

Further, objections about inerrancy do not apply to matters of authorship, since the vast majority of ancient documents are titled or their authorship is known through attribution. 

See also Dating the Gospels: A Presuppositional Problem

Why does this matter?

Why does this issue matter to Neil? Well, he’s kind enough to tell us,

“…far too many churches still hold to this, and they are still supplying senators and congressmen and governors and judges and district attorneys who shape national policy in my country. This is a problem. (emphasis original)

I would consider that not holding to inerrancy would be the problem since doing so essentially erodes any coherent grounds for making moral claims (see my lengthy response to philosopher Stephen Maitzen for justifying that claim).

What’s clear is that Neil doesn’t have any meaningful understanding of what the doctrine of inerrancy means, and how those who claim to be Christians, when they deny inerrancy, undermine themselves and any claims that they make regarding Scripture. You simply cannot deny that the Scriptures are, in fact, inerrant and then assume that they are in order to cite them and then attempt to make application of them as though they are authoritative to do so. You cannot assume that a text is authoritative—especially divinely inspired Scripture—then deny that authority in the next breath, that is simply incoherent, and an act of self-refutation.

This is demonstrated by the fact that Neil—because he’s embraced the incoherence of atheism—says that it doesn’t make sense to him. I would argue that it makes perfect sense to him. He demonstrated it in the above quote: the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture assumes the authority of the God he knows exists, and its through Scripture that God speaks to men about what He desires and what man is responsible to Him for.

Neil has to suppress his knowledge of that God, and he does this through his rebellion and denial of the authority of Scripture, reinforced through the doctrine of inerrancy.

The Takeaway 

One of the greatest mistakes that people often associate with the doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture, is that particular interpretations of Scripture or particular views of the authors of Scripture are what is inerrant.

For example, the authors of Scripture might have operated on the assumption that the earth was a flat disk and that the sky was held up by the mountains. That doesn’t mean that that’s how we’re supposed to think. This is why I consider myself an inclusivist when it comes to what is found in Scripture because,

“…the biblical writings are inspired, [but] this does not imply that the writers knew everything there was to know or that they were infallible of themselves. The knowledge they communicated is not comprehensive, but it is true and trustworthy as far as it goes.(11)

Inerrancy is tied to the inherent authority of Scripture in regard to what the text addresses, that is what God expects and demands of his creatures. This means that if one takes the Bible seriously, they are taking the text of Scripture for what it is: the revelation of God. When one misunderstands the doctrine, when they abuse it, when they make Scripture into a club, rather than a rule, they create chaos. And chaos… well the result of that is people like Neil, and all of the straw that they consume. 

Notes

  1. R.C. Sproul. Can I Trust the Bible?. Reformation Trust Publishing. Lake Mary, FL. 2009. p.xi
  2. Ibid. p.xiii
  3. Ibid. p.xix
  4. Ibid. p.43
  5. John M. Frame. Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology. P&R Publishing. Phillipsburg, NJ. 2006. p.68
  6. Sproul. p.31
  7. Frame. p. 70-1
  8. For a fuller discussion of this, I recommend Michael Kruger’s book The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate.
  9. See John Stott’s The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture for such discussion.
  10. Sproul. p.16-7, emphasis added
  11. Ibid. p.29, emphasis added

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