Defining Inerrancy Yet Again

Defining Inerrancy Yet Again

Johnny Esposito, a KJV-Only advocate, states in a recent article (HT: King James Only?) that the basic premise of Harold Lindsell’s book Battle for the Bible can be summarized as:

  • When one questions the inerrancy of the Bible compromise is soon to follow
  • When one changes their position on the Bible compromise in other areas is soon to follow

That wasn’t where I intended to start this article, but I want to observe here that in general when one holds a position that cannot be questioned, silliness is sure to follow.  I do not mean that one cannot be sure of any positions.  In fact, for me, the more certain I am of a position, the more comfortable I am entertaining challenging questions.

“Entertaining challenging questions” is precisely what Darrell Pursiful did in a speech Why I Am Not an Inerrantist—Even Though I Am (or Vice Versa).  I found it easily the most helpful reasonably short article on the topic I’ve read.

Way back when I was studying Biblical languages at the undergraduate level I rejected the doctrine of inerrancy.  I’ve stuck with that position since, but then I started to encounter some weird things, such as people who claimed to believe in inerrancy and yet took more liberal positions on many Biblical issues than I do.  While I understand how the definitions work, I still find it difficult to consider positions such as a late dating of Daniel or a view that early Israelite history is largely legend to be consistent with inerrancy.

I’m not challenging the right of people to define terms and doctrinal statements as they find it necessary, and there is a certain value in letting experts define a term, but it seems to me that clinging to a term that has a much different meaning in popular circles, while denying that meaning is a bit linguistically perverse.  I can say that Daniel is apocalyptic and that pseudonymity is a characteristic of apocalyptic literature, and I can say that Joshua is some form of legend, and that legends are, well, not entirely historical, but what does it then mean to claim in turn that the Bible is inerrant?

My own statement of inspiration would be simply that there is nothing in the Bible by accident.  God intends it the way it is.  I discover the way in which God inspires by reading the Bible and looking at what it is.  As a Christian what other standard do I have by which to determine inspiration?  Now I see how that can be defined as inerrancy, but it is not what people in the pews hear when they hear that word—not even close.

Thus the following resonated with me from Dr. Pursiful’s article:

The truth is, although all early Christians agreed that Scripture is truthful in all it teaches, formal doctrines of “biblical inerrancy” have only been around for the past 200 years or so. And as we shall see, not all inerrancies are created equal.

We should note before we go any further that the early church was not naïve in its doctrine of inspiration. The church fathers were well aware of certain anomalies in the text that called for serious theological reflection.

Inerrancy is a bit difficult to pin down sometimes.  First there is the debate over whether it is a new doctrine or not.  The distinction between the long-held conviction of the church that the Bible is true and modern formal doctrines of inerrancy (and there are many) is important.  Secondly, I really like the phrase “anomalies in the text that called for serious theological reflection.”  That’s really good.  I often say that the contradictions are what I like most in the Bible.  After all, as a Christian I believe that Jesus was both totally divine and totally human; I should be able to handle anomalies in the text that call for serious theological reflection!

Later, Dr. Pursiful defines this change to more formal doctrines of inerrancy:

Now remember, the new thing that happened in the 1800’s was not that somebody invented the idea that the Bible is “free from error” or “utterly reliable.” What was new was the way this affirmation came to be defined and defended. In particular, “inerrancy” came to serve as a theological shorthand for the idea that the Bible was error-free not merely in terms of what it taught about the life of faith, but what it taught in any area in inquiry: not merely theology but history, geography, science, psychology, and so forth.

Again that is admirably clear and, I think, correct.  Our Christian congregations, marinated in the enlightenment, naturally think that Bible should give them accurate information on the stuff that is most important to them–history, geography, science, psychology, and so forth.  When the Bible writers actually try to tell them that those things are not the most important things in one’s life, they are not well equipped to hear it.

My own note here is that when we assure them that the Bible is factually accurate in those areas, we may often be simply reinforcing their belief that those human ways of looking at things are just as important as they thought, and making it harder for them to find the truths of eternal value.  After all,  all of our history, science, and psychology are but instant’s in time and drops in the ocean to what God has to say to us.

I am not going to comment point by point on the article.  I’d simply recommend reading the entire thing.  The title really reflects what is going on quite accurately.

There is an affirmation that must be made about biblical inspiration and authority.  The question in my mind is whether that statement is best made with the word “inerrancy” or whether we need to start again and shed the baggage that word carries.

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