Yet Again on the Meaning of Inerrancy

Yet Again on the Meaning of Inerrancy

John Hobbins is again correcting the rest of us regarding the meaning of the word inerrancy. The interesting thing here is that I can affirm everything he says about inspiration in his post.

He writes in opposition to the approach taken by by Michael Heiser and C. Michael Patton, each of whom have written posts regarding how to deal with errors in the Bible.

Now I’m going to be brief (don’t laugh!). Michael Heiser and C. Michael Patton aren’t idiots. I don’t mean here to imply that John Hobbins says they are. But a point I have made previously about inerrancy in response to John is that the common usage of the word “inerrancy” does not agree with the way John uses it.

That doesn’t make Heiser and Patton more right about the inerrancy of scripture, but my observation is that their view accords with the more common understanding of what inerrancy means. Maybe people ought to mean something different, but they don’t. But I’m of the school of thought that suggests the meaning of words is to be determined by their usage, and by that standard, calling Hobbins’ view “inerrancy” is misleading. Most readers, at least non-academic readers, will understanding him to believe something different than he does.

People in the pews tend to believe someone who claims to accept biblical inerrancy would be concerned with discussing whether Jacob bought or conquered Shechem (as Heiser does), or the details of gospel stories (as Patton does).

But Hobbins says:

Now, if you believe that it is part of the Holy Spirit’s teaching office to reveal to us that Jesus (say) healed two blind men at Jericho, not one; that Jacob (say) bought Shechem and then conquered it at a later time, you are claiming that the Holy Spirit speaks, not through Scripture, but through harmonizing exegetes. I oppose such outlandish claims.

But if I ignore the vocabulary, I find I can affirm, indeed that I really like many of the phrases that Hobbins uses in regard to scripture and inspiration. I like to say that when we discover the message God has for us in scripture (always through the power of the Spirit), it is always true. Recently I have had to add the affirmation that we can discover that message. We have no need to walk in darkness.

So why not use another term, such as simply stating that one has a high view of scripture?

11 thoughts on “Yet Again on the Meaning of Inerrancy

  1. Maybe the vocabulary should reflect not inerrancy (which is the starting point of Scripture) but who Scripture is made what it is (through the Spirit)

  2. “ … I’m of the school of thought that suggests the meaning of words is to be determined by their usage …”

    Love to see some data on the operational differences (concrete applications) between the whole camp of fundamentalist/evangelical (innerantist to quasi-innerantist) readings compared to old school Quaker and quasi-Quaker old-Barclay school bible readings which demote the bible (rather ipse dixit) to second place authority vis the Spirit which is First (Spirit first as authority, bible second as authority) (an aside,

    If “determined by their usage” includes praxis in real life and not just readerly-hermeneutics, then wouldn’t it be fascinating to learn whether any difference in practical, applied, daily approaches between these two schools really exists? Beats me why hard data so far in this direction are unpromising?

    Just think if no operational differences in concrete applications of the scriptures exist in our doings (“determined by their usage”), then what does this say of our word-wars? Is language idling?

    What is real “usage”? What is “participatory”?

    Not that I know.



    1. “Determined by usage” simply means that words mean what people generally understand them to mean. This is researched by lexicographers on a regular basis. I don’t know the proportion of written text vs oral usage.

      In the case of the word inerrancy, my own understanding is informal, considering responses from classes I have taught, from people in the pew, and also from texts, including the Chicago Statement. In my experience, remarkably few–but still some–would hear the word as John Hobbins uses it.

      As for including praxis, that’s an interesting question, though separate. One could have considerable differences in how inerrancy is “practiced” even amongst those with the same definition. I can find such differences amongst colleagues with whom I personally work, not to mention in written materials.

      Similar differences in how “non-inerrancy” is practiced might mean that you could find people who differ on use of the term but have similar practice, and again I can name such in my own circle of colleagues. In fact, I read John Hobbins’ blog regularly because, amongst other reasons, he does some exceptional exegesis and I like to learn from him. While we probably differ in some details, our view of inspiration and of exegesis is not that dissimilar. Our major point of disagreement is in what is the best term to use to describe this.

      That’s my impression. . . . His mileage may vary!

  3. Thanks. Especially for your notes on orality/literacy, the authors cited (will read more), the asymmetries you noted, pretty much the tough ones, and your own objectives in defining usages. Clean style. Easy to read (envious: I need to work on that one!). Whetted my appetite. A worthwhile exchange.



  4. Henry, again thanks. Especially for your clear style. I’ve been studying Hobbins, Heiser, Patton, alongside your own posts. These others feel strained. Strained. More strained. The whole discussion feels as strained as I felt in my first reading of the Chicago Statement years ago and in reading several authors associated with it. I feels to me like the discussion is now getting even more strained. I noticed at some place on your bio link that you are a former Seventh-day Adventist. I’ve a few dear friends who became even dearer and quite enlighenting to me too in their long and weary hours of the night, many nights, grueling and laboring with no few tears regarding their felt-need to exit the church during a controversy over justification by faith (Des Ford) and E.G. White (White Lie), and how, in this upside down process to move forward. And what new hermeneutic they should hold. I can’t judge whether they made the right choice. Both seem better off and happier now. I felt a bit confused about your own position (you don’t use the term inerrancy – okay, so what?) until I re-read your posts here a few times. I don’t want to push this, but I’m feeling that your own sensibility is really close to mine (again, not to belabor this). What I’m curious to learn is whether you’ve ever read and evaluated the short and simple huertisc approach to the bible sketched by Robert Barclay (Quaker), and, what you think of it if you have?



    1. I’ve taken too long getting to these comments.

      I really haven’t defined my own position all that well here, though I have in numerous blog posts and also on my Threads from Henry’s Web blog, not to mention writing a book on it. My big argument here was that certain uses of the term inerrancy are likely to confuse the people in the pews, and not a few of the rest of us.

      I have not read Robert Barclay, but after a little looking around, I’ve added him to my reading list. I’ll check it out. I found an article mentioning his influence on John Wesley. Perhaps he influenced me in a secondary way!

  5. Sorry, Henry. I didn’t know you had picked up on this until now.

    I realize that inerrancy language as used by the Reformers and by the Catholic magisterium is one thing, the same language as used by B. B. Warfield (who was a theistic evolutionist, after all) another thing, and the same language as used at Moody Bible Institute still another.

    But isn’t that the way it is for almost all the vocabulary items that have been and still are (I would argue) of great importance to Christians? Heaven and hell, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, law and gospel, predestination, being born again, vicarious atonement, and sanctification.: all of these terms are central to the Christian faith; all of them are routinely used in ways that I am not in agreement with. I am not going to cede any of them to those who misuse them.

    The inerrancy of Scripture is taught by the Catholic Church. Here is Sandra Schneiders on it – as I do, she distinguishes between inerrancy wrongly and rightly affirmed:

    Inerrancy and infallibility are correlative terms. Those who hold that Scripture is verbally inerrant attribute this trait to the infallibility of the divine author who, despite the limitations of the human authors and human language through which God communicates in Scripture, guarantees that there is not and cannot be error of any kind in the biblical text. To admit any error in the text, which implies the possibility of error (fallibility) in the author, would be to admit, at least in principle, that all of Scripture could be erroneous, thus subverting its claim to authority. …

    This position bristles with difficulties. Human discourse cannot, in principle or in fact, adequately comprehend its subject matter. And all human language changes in meaning and reference over time. It is virtually impossible to say what might constitute a perpetually inerrant statement, much less how such things as poems, parables, or myths might be wholly inerrant since they are not propositional to begin with. The problem of how divine inerrancy could characterize essentially limited, perspectival, and linguistically constrained human discourse seems rationally insurmountable.

    However, if by inerrancy one means to affirm that the text cannot fail to be salvific, cannot finally lead the believing community astray, one would seem to be closer to the position affirmed in 2 Tim 3:16 : “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful for…training in righteousness,” and reiterated by Vatican II in Dei Verbum III:11 that Scripture teaches the truth of God without error. In other words, the trustworthiness of Scripture lies in its divinely intended relationship to God’s salvific will in our regard that cannot be frustrated by the limitations of human discourse, including error of various kinds.

    1. John – Glad to see you. I hadn’t been blogging for some time, so I’m not surprised you missed the one post in about two months!

      As I said, I can affirm what you say about the inspiration of scripture, but another meaning has pretty much taken the field. I think that for me to say I believe in inerrancy, meaning very much what you have said and what you quote from Sandra Schneiders, would be deceptive as I know it would be misunderstood by any of the groups I have spoken to over the last decade.

      I would probably argue for attempting to rescue some of the other terms you use. I think the “inerrancy” ship has sailed.

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