In the last couple weeks there have been a few posts about the inerrancy of the Bible. The posts were largely negative towards the term and they’ve made me think about inerrancy more than I usually do (which isn’t that hard to do). It made me wonder what is exactly meant by inerrancy when people talk about it.
Inerrancy is one of those things that if you pushed me on it, I’d agree to it. I’d agree to it because it seems like the right thing to agree to and because I believe that the Bible is true and inspired by God. If I’m honest though, I’m uncertain what you mean by inerrancy and if what I’m agreeing to is the same as what you think.
Since I don’t think about inerrancy all that often, I don’t have a ready made definition for it. This lack of a solid definition to work with led me to look at my copy of Christian Scripture by David S. Dockery. I flipped to the glossary and found inerrancy, and honestly I liked the definition I found. Here’s what Dockery gave as the definition for inerrancy, “The idea that when all the facts are known, the Bible (in its autographs, that is, the original writings), properly interpreted in light of the culture and the means of communication that had developed by the time of its composition, is completely true in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author’s purpose, in all matters relating to God and His creation.”
Now this is a definition of inerrancy that I don’t mind. Let me break down why.
- “When all the facts are known” is a pretty interesting way to start this out right? It seems to be assuming that we may not have all the facts right now, maybe even that we may not even have all the facts before the end. I think I can get on board with that.
- “the Bible (in its autographs, that is, original writings)” is also important, but not one I really lose much sleep over. This means we’re dealing with texts that were not originally in English, Spanish, Latin, French, or any other modern language and that we don’t even have the original copies in their original language. It has been translated and copied and therefore we may lose some of the weight in the copying and translation. Personally I don’t know if we really lose that much, but it is an important thing to realize that the KJV isn’t what David, Jesus or the early church used.
- “properly interpreted in light of the culture and the means of communication that had developed by the time of its composition.” This point and the next one are the huge ones for me. How are we interpreting the passage? Are we only trying to come at a passage from our cultural lens? Inerrancy, at least according to this definition, means understanding the culture and means of communication of a particular section or book of Scripture. It isn’t simply prooftexting so we can stamp “Christian” or “Biblical” to current trends or preferred ways of living. It’s about understanding the context of the time and the way such a truth is passed on (is it poetry, narrative, apocalyptic literature?). To put it simply we need to understand historical context and genres.
- “is completely true in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author’s purpose.” This is another big one. What was the purpose of a certain passage? Is the author’s purpose to give exact number or dates for every event? If not then does the purpose of the passage stay true even if numbers may be generalized or certain scenes are told with certain emphasis? These are questions we need to ask, we can so often hijack the purpose of a passage with little consideration for what the author’s or God’s purpose for including such a thing was.
- “in all matters relating to God and His creation.” This is the only section I have a complaint with. I know why he added “His creation,” to this definition because the Bible is about God and about his interactions with His creation. This phrasing could make it seem like we could know all things about our creation simply by reading the Bible. I don’t think that is the intent of this statement, but I could see how it would be misused. Perhaps putting it as all matters relating to God in relationship to His creation might make it a bit better.
However, doing a quick search it would seem that most people do not take this view of inerrancy. This leads me to the questions I have about inerrancy, they are aimed both at those who affirm inerrancy or those who dislike inerrnacy. So here we go.
1. Does inerrancy equal infallible?
It doesn’t seem that Dockery’s definition equates the two. Infallible means that there are no errors in scripture at all. Everything is one hundred percent true down to the tiniest detail. If every date, census number, geographical reference isn’t one hundred percent accurate than to the critic the Bible falls faster than a house of cards.
To others it seems like if you don’t believe in infallibility than you are throwing away the authority of the Bible. If anything I see infallible purpose behind the Bible, but that’s as far as I’d probably go. Since I like Dockery’s definition it doesn’t seem to me that the two are the same, but from what I’ve seen some, and maybe even most, do equate the two. Anyone have any thoughts to add?
2. Does inerrancy equal literalism?
This is related to the first, but I think that it is a little different. Do we think that to view the Bible as inerrant means that we have to take the Bible as completely literal? It seems like the answer is yes when we talk about the creation narrative or Revalation, but when we talk about Jesus’ sayings the answer is no. We know there really isn’t a plank sticking out of my eye, or that Jesus is calling us to cut off our hand, or that by hating someone we literally murder them. So it is easy for me to say that they aren’t equal it is about intent yet again. Some of these things may be meant literally, but I’m also open to the fact that they may not be. It seems to me that the important factor is more the purpose of the passage rather than taking everything completely literal. Again thoughts does inerrancy have to mean literalism?
3. Is the way we use inerrancy about loving God and learning about Him or about loving our traditions and interpretations?
This one may be a bit harder to answer. Sometimes it seems that people want to use inerrancy as a way of saying our interpretations are true and therefore directly from God. If you disagree with us then you’re disagreeing with God. Now I do think that in some cases that is valid, but in too many cases this is about secondary issues that have more than one way to view things. So is it truly about loving God or simply being comfortable with the “way we’ve always done it?”
On the other side I wonder if we sometimes reject inerrancy because we want to be able reject the portions that we don’t like? We get comfortable with modern society and look at the Biblical culture and content with suspicion, so we say the Bible can’t be right on that. I don’t know if this happens, but it’s something I’m tempted to do at times, so I figure others probably are too, and that some of those probably act on it too.
I mean honestly it’s hard to not let our culture and traditions influence how we read the Bible regardless of if we believe in inerrancy or not. I wouldn’t mind thoughts here as well. Have you used inerrancy to protect traditions and interpretations, have you shunned it for the same purposes? Get worried about doing it?
4. Do we use inerrancy to paint people unfairly?
Is inerrancy the key word to enter our “who’s in and who’s out” club? Do we consider anyone who doubts, questions, or rejects inerrancy as hating the Bible and not wanting to follow God? I’m sure there are people that this fits, but I also know that a lot of other have questions and doubts about inerrancy but still believe the Bible, look to the Bible for their knowledge of God, and want to follow God.
Inerrancy can also be used against those who believe it too. It can be used as a word that dismisses the validity of the position right from the gate too. It can be used as a brush to paint people as making an idol out of the Bible or being fundamentalists or judgmental. Again, yes some will be like that, but does that mean belief in inerrancy automatically makes you that way? I’m not so sure.
So feel free to answer any of these questions. You can answer all of them or just one. Comment on what you think of the questions. Anything you want to. As for my answers. Well it’s probably clear that I think the answer for the first two questions are no.
I’m not sure about the third one. I don’t really use inerrancy as a weapon and if anything I’d probably have more of a chance getting it used against me than using it. I’d probably say one area that I’m rethinking what I thought was the clear Biblical view is women in ministry leadership. Even then I’d never really thought that people who believed women could be pastors didn’t care about the Bible or believed that the Bible wasn’t true, I just disagreed with them, but that could very well be changing.
As for my fourth question. I’ve never really required anyone to show me their inerrancy card, but do get interested when people say they don’t believe in it. I probably have unfairly painted people who say they don’t believe it as just trying to get around certain troublesome parts at least in my mind. Granted, I think I’ve painted some people who would claim to believe in inerrancy as taking things a little too literal, or being a bit inconsistent in their literalness (if that’s even a word).
So this is where my thoughts on inerrancy landed me. To the glossary of Christian Scriptures and to these questions. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted Dockery’s definition, maybe his definition to some wouldn’t be inerrancy, but it’s what I’ve got for now. Any more thoughts are up to you at this point.
Posts that got me thinking about this in the first place:
The Bible Isn’t Perfect and It Says So Itself by Zack Hunt
In All Things Necessary To Our Salvation by Zack Hunt (It’s a follow up post)
Why I Hate the Word “Inerrancy” by Ed Cyzewski