Inerrancy or Inerrancies?

I’m sorry, but I meant for this post to appear Tuesday. It was accidentally sent Saturday but here it is again but with some revisions and additions.

The Meanings of Inerrancy

When in 1976 Harold Lindsell published The Battle for the Bible the evangelical world was rocked. Split would be a good word. Between inerrantists and non-inerrantists, between traditional evangelical institutions and Fuller Theological Seminary. In some ways he inspired the conservative resurgence among the Southern Baptists but perhaps what happened the most was that he gave inerrancy a meaning: it meant faithfulness. I read the book in my senior year in college and read voraciously on the topic for a decade.

It’s not that easy to define a theological construct term like this – the term is not used for the Bible in the Bible – and it is even more difficult to get a group together and reach some kind of consensus.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

Which is what the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy did, which I have added at the end of this Newsletter. Its preface opens with this:

The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian Church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God’s written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.

Followed by this paragraph asserting the importance of inerrancy:

The following Statement affirms this 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 which marks true Christian faith. We see it as our timely duty to make this affirmation in the face of current lapses from the truth of inerrancy among our fellow Christians and misunderstanding of this doctrine in the world at large.

Two words are now clearly operative: faithfulness and authority. These are the two major implications of the term today and, when the term “inerrancy” is used, the users are usually asserting faithfulness and authority — their own faithfulness, their tribe’s faithfulness, and the authority of the interpretation/idea they are promulgating.

Along with these two terms a few more important terms.

Inerrancy only applied to the original autographs, which we don’t have. I was taught in seminary by one of the framers of the CSBI that we are in better shape having a text proximate to a perfect text than a text that is not proximate. We still don’t have one so God must not have wanted us to have one. What we’ve got is what we deal with, not the original autographs. Appeal to original autographs removes every challenge to inerrancy from the text we have to the text we may have had.

The security of inerrancy is inspiration, which means God superintended the authors to say what God wanted said. If God inspired, the argument moves deductively, the next must be inerrant. If one connected inspiration to “intention” — God’s intention for the text — I’d feel more comfortable.

Because all Scripture in inspired it is also truthful. More on this later, as I wish “truth” were the operative word in this entire discussion.

Scripture’s inerrancy and message are perceived as true by the inward witness of the same Spirit.

Scripture is an all-or-nothing claim for inerrantists: if you embrace it all, you’ve got foundations; if not, you lose your footing (eventually). If you think there is one error the entire thing collapses. This notion, which is widespread, is theologically disastrous for many a young adult has walked from the faith when learning that science and the interpretation of Genesis 1-2 are at odds. Choose one, the inerrantists have said over and over. They do, and they walk away.

Again, its authority is “impaired” if this doctrine is surrendered. Again, the all-or-nothig claim.

They don’t use the term but plenary, or all of Scripture, is inspired and inerrant.

Finally, they agree that it must be interpreted. Plenary doesn’t work without “interpreted.” One can argue that Scripture is true and realize there’s no such thing as as uninterpreted text (Webster). But one could argue the text itself is inerrant apart from any appeal to interpretation. What is increasingly clear to many is that what many claim to be “inerrant” is a theological construct or an interpretation of the text itself, a text that could be interpreted in another way. At which point, the word interpreted gets put into the dock.

I remember one of my seminary professors often saying “when properly interpreted” Scripture is inerrant. The method affirmed in the CSBI is the “grammatico-historical” method. My teacher was Paul Feinberg and in his article in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology he says just that:

Inerrancy is the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all that it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences (125).

According to which interpretation?, that’s the question many ask.

The impact of the CSBI is a bold affirmation of the authority of Scripture and an announcement that it marks off those who are faithful. This is what inerrancy has come to “mean” – it is a construct that determined who is “in” and who was “out.” That’s the rhetorical edge of this term over and over.

Yes, it has been weaponized as many have observed. This term came into play to denounce Fuller and to affirm TEDS. Over and over Lindsell declared who was in and who was out. The term then meant faithfulness. It was term around which to rally the claim that the whole Bible is wholly true. But it implied over and over interpretations of that text.

For nearly fifty years I have watched the use of this term: it is a tribal term far more often than a rational explanation of what Scripture is. My colleague David Fitch therefore calls it an “empty signifier.” Because Patheos has frozen their blogs I can only provide a picture of what I summarized about Fitch.

When we turn to some of evangelicalism’s major theologians we can ask what the term means all over again. You may notice in some theological works an affirmation of inerrancy or one’s view proceeds all theological categories, which is often said to be the epistemic foundation for theology.

I begin with Michael Bird (Evangelical Theology, 2d ed, 720-725), who doesn’t begin with prolegomena about Scripture. Bird, after observing inerrancy as an American (he means USA) issue — and he’s right — also observes that we can talk about “inerrancies”: Origenist, Augustinian, Protestant, Princetonian, and even postmodern! Inerrancy is not a new idea but an old idea; it is however a relatively new term. Many preferred the term “infallible,” and it is preferred almost everywhere outside the USA.

Bird says something I think is important: any word with in- fronting it is a negation: inerrancy and infallible mean “not wrong.” If you say your relationship to your spouse is “not bad” you are not helping us much. Bird likes “veracity” and “its veracity is safeguarded not by appeals to church authority or sophisticated arguments for inerrancy but by divine fidelity” (723). Which is close to the sense of the inner witness of the Spirit. What I most like is that Bird appeals to Psalm 119, something rarely done more than being quoted. I’m working with a friend on “The Bible’s View of the Bible.” He then moves into the Bible’s authority, which leads to our next consideration … but before that a reflection.

The best word is “true.” I find the term “inerrancy” unhelpful and most often a red flag.

So, as for meaning, Bird helps us see that inerrancy means faithful, authoritative, true, polemical, tribal, and American. In observing the polemical sense to the term inerrancy’s sense of faithfulness means as we interpret the Bible so that inerrant and our interpretation are equated.

In the recent dustup over Beth Allison Barr’s book there was a review by Wendy Alsup claiming inerrancy was being challenged, she was glad to say that many in her Inbox were affirming inerrancy with her, and Ted Olsen, using his platform at Christianity Today, chimed in by affirming Alsup’s criticisms of Barr. What was visible was the common observation of the polemical, tribal, and interpretive senses of the term: it means for many complementarian. (Olsen, though, is not a complementarian.) I know some who think inerrant means Moses wrote the Pentateuch, theistic evolution is wrong, Isaiah wrote Isaiah, Jesus was denied by Peter six times (Lindsell), and that Paul wrote all the letters ascribed to him – and while we’re at it, so did Peter.

Back to authority. NT Wright said often that he believes not in the authority of Scripture but in the authority of God who speaks to us in Scripture (Surprised by Scripture). Bird says the same: “Scripture is not authoritative in and of itself” but this is “from God” (724). Bird makes this authority Trinitarian: “The authority is God the Father revealing the Son for whom the Holy Spirit speaks in Scripture” (724).

An entire discussion revolves around defining inerrancy by divine intention in the text, but that’s for another day — and by someone else.

More now on this sense of authority. In the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible there is no entry on “inerrancy.” What is there is found under “Scripture, Authority of.” That is telling in itself. The essay is by John Webster who speaks too of divine authority mediated through scripture. “The authority of Scripture lies in its reference to the church’s God and his gospel” (Webster, 725). He anchors Scripture, as does Bird, in the doctrine of God, not in epistemology. It is a “function of the triune God’s self-manifestation” (725). It is a “commissioned witness or herald” (726).

So, to the words for the meaning of inerrancy we must also add God’s witness.

Over the years when people use the term “inerrancy” I have a habit of listening to see what they mean by its use rather than assume I know. Yes, it can mean without error or true but more often than not they are affirming some authority for a specific interpretation that is part of their tribe.

For this reason the term is not that helpful. Like the word “evangelical,” it has had its day in the sun.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

PREFACE

The authority of Scripture is a key issue for the Christian Church in this and every age. Those who profess faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior are called to show the reality of their discipleship by humbly and faithfully obeying God’s written Word. To stray from Scripture in faith or conduct is disloyalty to our Master. Recognition of the total truth and trustworthiness of Holy Scripture is essential to a full grasp and adequate confession of its authority.

The following Statement affirms this 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 which marks true Christian faith. We see it as our timely duty to make this affirmation in the face of current lapses from the truth of inerrancy among our fellow Christians and misunderstanding of this doctrine in the world at large.

This Statement consists of three parts: a Summary Statement, Articles of Affirmation and Denial, and an accompanying Exposition, which is not included here. It has been prepared in the course of a three-day consultation in Chicago. Those who signed the Summary Statement and the Articles wish to affirm their own conviction as to the inerrancy of Scripture and to encourage and challenge one another and all Christians to growing appreciation and understanding of this doctrine. We acknowledge the limitations of a document prepared in a brief, intensive conference and do not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight. Yet we rejoice in the deepening of our own convictions through our discussions together, and we pray that the Statement we signed may be used to the glory of our God toward a new reformation of the Church in its faith, life, and mission.

We offer this Statement in a spirit, not of contention, but of humility and love, which we purpose by God’s grace to maintain in any future dialogue arising out of what we have said. We gladly acknowledge that many who deny the inerrancy of Scripture do not display the consequences of this denial in the rest of their belief and behavior, and we are conscious that we who confess this doctrine often deny it in life by failing to bring our thoughts and deeds, our traditions and habits, into true subjection to the divine Word.

We invite response to this Statement from any who see reason to amend its affirmations about Scripture by the light of Scripture itself, under whose infallible authority we stand as we speak. We claim no personal infallibility for the witness we bear, and for any help which enables us to strengthen this testimony to God’s Word we shall be grateful.

A SHORT STATEMENT

1      God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.

2      Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

3      The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.

4      Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

5      The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

Articles of Affirmation and Denial

Article I
We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God.

We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.

Article II
We affirm that the Scriptures are the supreme written norm by which God binds the conscience, and that the authority of the Church is subordinate to that of Scripture.

We deny that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.

Article III
We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is Revelation given by God the Father, through the Holy Spirit.

We deny that the Bible is merely a witness to Revelation, or only becomes revelation in encounter, or depends on the responses of men for its validity.

Article IV
We affirm that God who made mankind, male and female, in His image has used language as a means of revelation.

We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for Divine Revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.

Article V
We affirm that God’s Revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.

We deny that later revelation, which may fulfil earlier Revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it. We further deny that any normative Revelation has been given since the completion of the New Testament writings.

Article VI
We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by Divine inspiration.

We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole.

Article VII
We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is Divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.

We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.

Article VIII
We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared.

We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

Article IX
We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word.

Article X
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian Faith is affected by the absence of the original autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

Article XI
We affirm that Scripture, having been given by Divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

Article XII
We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from falsehood, fraud, error, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or Redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on Creation and the Flood.

Article XIII
We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a Theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Article XIV
We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.

We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved undermine the truth claims of the Bible.

Article XV
We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration.

We deny that Jesus’ teaching about Scripture may be dismissed by appeals to accommodation or to any natural limitation of His humanity.

Article XVI
We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s Faith throughout its history, from the Apostles and Church Fathers through the Reformers to the present day.

We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by Scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.

Article XVII
We affirm that the Holy Spirit bears witness to the Scriptures, assuring believers of the truthfulness of God written Word.

We deny that this witness of the Holy Spirit operates in isolation from or against Scripture.

Article XVIII
We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking into account its literary forms and devices and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.

We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, de-historicising, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship.

Article XIX
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian Faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ.

We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.