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An ‘inerrant’ Bible?

Most Christians regard the Bible as trustworthy in that it is able to lead us to God and guide us into his will. But ‘inerrant’ is a fairly recent term to describe it. Chiefly used in Evangelical circles—and chiefly in America—it finds its anchor-point in the Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI, 1978).

Unfortunately, in the minds of some the notion of inerrancy has become loaded with unhelpful connotations such as over-literalism and Young Earth Creationism, making them wary of using the term. Others feel it goes too far in pinning down a concept which is better left a little fuzzy at the edges. Five biblical scholars offer their viewpoints on the subject in Five Views On Biblical Inerrancy by J. Merrick & S.M. Garrett, eds. (Zondervan, Counterpoints series, 2013. Kindle ISBN: 978-0-310-33136-0).   

The offerings range from, ‘Yes, the CSBI is spot on and, if you undermine its definition, the whole structure of Christian faith is liable to collapse’ (Mohler), to ‘The term “inerrancy” has outlived its usefulness and needs ditching altogether’ (Enns)—with variations in between. You could, I warn you, end up more confused than when you started, as it gets very technical in places.

The issue becomes more grounded when the authors are asked their views on three test questions. (1) The account of the conquest of Jericho in Joshua 6 and the fact that all the archaeological evidence suggests there was no walled city there at the period in question—and therefore no walls to fall down. (2) The discrepancy between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9 in describing Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road. And (3) How the account of God’s command in Deuteronomy 20 to exterminate the Canaanites can be squared with Jesus’ command in the Sermon on the Mount to love our enemies. All very interesting!

As is policy in the Counterpoints series, all the authors are given a chance to respond to each other’s main essay, and these responses, being fairly brief, are often the most helpful.

For myself, I’ve long believed that teacher-types are prone to try and make crystal clear what God, in his wisdom, may have deliberately left more open-ended. Inerrancy, I think, is a case in point. Read the book and judge for yourself.

[The numbers are Kindle location numbers, not page numbers]

It is not at all uncommon to find the confession of inerrancy at the head of the doctrinal statements of evangelical churches, ministries, and organizations. (113)

The sufficiency of Scripture means that Scripture is self-interpreting. In the Reformation context, this meant that Scripture was so coherent and plain that the commoner could read it in the local vernacular and gain the knowledge necessary for salvation. Does this mean that on things not pertaining to salvation, Scripture is insufficient? (171)

As the Word of God, Scripture bears God’s own authority and shares in his perfection. God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18), and he establishes the perfect character of his own truthfulness (Num. 23:19). If the Scriptures are the very breath of God, their perfect inspiration implies and requires that they are without error. (556)

I do not allow any line of evidence from outside the Bible to nullify to the slightest degree the truthfulness of any text in all that the text asserts and claims. (773)

The archaeology of Jericho is now more than one hundred years old, and there is an overwhelming consensus that, whatever history there may be behind the biblical story, Joshua 6 does not represent “history” in a way amenable to inerrantist expectations. (934)

The doctrine of inerrancy now enshrined in the Chicago statement is not quite the same proposition that the early church affirmed—and I can prove it. (1090)

Augustine of Hippo, prior to his conversion, was persuaded by the arguments against Christianity because of a literal reading of the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. As with many who shared his Platonist mind-set, he found much that he believed to be unworthy of God. It was not until he discovered the spiritual, allegorical, and figurative interpretation of Scripture in the preaching of Ambrose that he was able to affirm Christian teaching and the truth of Scripture. (1173)

I do not think inerrancy can capture the Bible’s varied character and complex dynamics. Though intended to protect the Bible, inerrancy actually sells it short by placing on it expectations it is not designed to bear. (1361)

The logic seems to be that if the teaching of Scripture on creation, history, and authorship is wrong, then we have no reason to trust what Scripture says about salvation. Hence, to give ground on any of the first three points removes any reason for not giving ground on the fourth. This familiar slippery slope argument should be rejected by thoughtful evangelicals. (1454)

“Mythologized history” is potentially a fruitful line of discussion for understanding a number of biblical episodes, including the exodus and fall of Jericho. (1581)

We owe it to ourselves, the church, and Scripture’s integrity to allow these differences to have their way in helping us shape a view of Scripture that closes the distance between how Scripture behaves and how we presume it to behave—thus honoring God in the process. (1647)

The fact that Luke describes Paul’s Damascus road experience in different ways already alerts us to the likelihood that recording “what happened” is not his primary focus, whereas interpreting Paul for his audience is. (1673)

An inerrantist model of Scripture “needs” the Canaanite genocide to be in some meaningful sense literally true, despite the resulting theological and moral problems. For inerrantists, an “errant” Bible is a greater theological threat than a God who orders the extermination of an entire people, since an entire theological system rests on the former. (1717)

Simply put, inerrancy, however defined and nuanced, has great difficulty in addressing adequately and convincingly Scripture as a historical phenomenon. (1848)

When protecting doctrine requires that we dismiss, mishandle, or vilify compelling information unfriendly to our doctrine, we are demonstrating not faithfulness to God’s Word but a failure to trust God more than our theology. (1869)

I feel that the term inerrancy has run its course and that evangelicals need to adopt other language with which to talk about the Bible. (1881)

The CSBI demands a consistently literalistic hermeneutic and requires adopting a conflict model of science and religion, neither of which I support. (2086)

The American inerrancy tradition, though largely a positive concept, is essentially modernist in construct, parochially American in context, and occasionally creates more exegetical problems than it solves. (2454)

The CSBI is freighted with huge and unacknowledged hermeneutical assumptions. (2478)

…the futility of some efforts at harmonization (Matt. 20:29–34; Mark 10:46–52; Luke 18:35–43). In Luke, Jesus heals a blind man on the way to Jericho, while in Matthew and Mark he does this on the way out of Jericho. Luke and Mark have one blind man, while Matthew has two blind men. The setting, the plea of the blind man, the rebuff of the crowd, and Jesus’ response in all three versions make it clear that it is the same story. (2503)

To maintain that divine inspiration is confined to the initial autographs is a position that is textually problematic, as it is theologically indefensible. (3554)

In many cases, conservative American evangelical biblical interpretation is not only parochial but also weird and whacky. Only American evangelicals use Scripture to argue against gun control, against environmental care, and against universal healthcare. (2629)

Why do Americans presume to teach us a proper doctrine of biblical authority and biblical interpretation when they live in the same country as Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, and the Left Behind series! (2634)

When it comes to the Bible’s claims about itself, an initial problem is that even inerrantists cannot agree as to whether the Bible explicitly teaches its own inerrancy. (2655)

It is often unclear exactly how infallibility and inerrancy materially differ from each other, since both deny that God’s revelation is encased in falsehood. Sometimes it is said that inerrancy entails freedom from error in all that is mentioned in Scripture—regardless of whether it pertains to historical, scientific, or theological claims—while infallibility is more modest in scope and pertains only to matters of faith and doctrine. That is of course the root of the inerrantist objection, that infallibility is too soft and not assertive enough. I want to say that infallibility is not a retreatist position; rather it focuses on the perfection of God’s revelation, with a view to the purpose for which God has revealed himself. (2741)

Ancient historians were more concerned with reporting the gist of events than with describing the minutiae with pinpoint precision. Ancient historians were storytellers, not modern journalists, so naturally they were given to creativity in their narratives and filled in the gaps on details where necessary. (2833)

Free citations of the Old Testament by the New Testament writers indicate no pressing concern to preserve original wording. (3042)

Evangelicals have come to understand biblical authority in two contrasting ways, with some emphasizing Scripture’s authority for faith and practice alone (“infallibilists”), others its authority over all domains it addresses, including history and science (“inerrantists”). (3454)

Some maps highlight topography, others points of scenic interest, and still others buried treasure. A road map need not contradict one that points out historical landmarks or topography. Each type of map reflects a certain interest and highlights what it wants its readers to know. There is no such thing as a universal, all-purpose map. The metaphor of the map reminds us that there is more than one kind of fit. I worry that some theories of inerrancy imply that there is only one way to map the world correctly. (3617)

Proponents of inerrancy must take great care to distinguish the notion of literal truth from a literalism that runs roughshod over the intent of the author and the literary form of the text. Was Jesus affirming botanic truth when he called the mustard seed “the smallest of all the seeds” (Mark 4:31 ESV), or was he drawing an analogy that his hearers would have understood, in order to communicate a nonbotanical truth? (3758)

“If Jericho was not razed, is our faith in vain?” (3875)

This literary repetition with a difference is Luke’s way of ensuring that Paul’s companions decrease so that Paul’s stature as a witness to the Lord will increase. In sum: the companions’ hearing in Acts 9 confirms the reality of the christophany; their not hearing in Acts 22 shows that the divine commissioning is intended for Paul alone. (3954)

Missional theology takes into account the plurality that is contained in the biblical canon and does not proceed on the assumption that various genres and strands of the canon can be arranged into a uniform system of teaching. (4393)

A single, normative, systematic interpretation of the whole Bible is neither attainable nor desirable. (4944)

We have two creation accounts, multiple law codes, alternative genealogies, competing histories, and four gospels. The various attempts at harmonization are rooted in the apologetic concern to demonstrate the inerrancy of Scripture as the basis on which to defend the truthfulness of Christian faith. The result of this process has been increasing cultural skepticism about the Bible as well as an artificial approach to interpretation that often disables readers from seeing what the texts actually say. (5055)

The Old Testament is a contextual accommodation to the militaristic culture of the ancient Near East. This accounts for the regular depictions of God that use the terminology of a warrior fighting on behalf of his people. This is exactly what we should expect, given the setting of the Hebrew Bible. (5089)

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