Biblical inerrancy revisted

In the first part of this look at biblical inerrancy, we examined the answers to two questions: “What is the Bible?” and “What is ‘inerrancy’ when it is applied to the Bible?”. We determined that the Bible is God’s words—which have at their heart God’s promises and what flows from them—and that inerrancy makes a statement about God’s trustworthy and truthful character and our faith in him.

We now move on to our second two questions—“Can the doctrine of biblical inerrancy be misused or misunderstood?” and “What is the use of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy?”—thinking particularly about how this impacts our understanding of Christian leadership.

1. Can the doctrine of biblical inerrancy be misused or misunderstood?

Of course it can. Any biblical teaching can be misunderstood and misused. Let me mention three areas where this seems to happen with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

a. When the Bible is reduced to information

Debates about biblical inerrancy often focus on two areas. The first is the apparent discrepancies of one kind or another in the historical narratives of the Bible (the length of a king’s reign in the books of Kings and Chronicles, for example). The second is the cosmology of the Bible’s writers, which we think we now know to be incorrect—such as “the heaven above… the earth beneath, [and] …the water under the earth” (Exod 20:4); or “the earth… founded upon the seas” (Ps 24:1, 2); or “the waters above the heavens” (Ps 148:4).

I don’t mind examining and considering carefully such issues—so long as we do not lose sight of the fact that the purpose of the Bible’s details is to testify to God’s promise. This is not a way of pushing inconvenient facts under the carpet; quite the contrary. What is at stake in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is huge. It is not a matter of whether we know the number of years a king reigned, or even whether the Bible teaches a three-tiered universe. What is at stake is the trustworthiness of God’s promise.

“What is at stake [in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy] is the trustworthiness of God’s promise.”

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy does not guarantee that we know how long any particular king reigned, or why one record puts it at x years, and another at y years. It just guarantees that neither record is an error. As God inspired the historical accounts, he did not make mistakes, nor did he deceive. What the Bible says is what God intends it to say as he testifies to his promise. And he does not lie or err.

Did the Bible’s writers believe in a three-tiered universe? Possibly. Did God correct that understanding? Possibly not—if his purpose was unaffected by it. Does the Bible teach a three-tiered universe? I don’t think so. But the language of the writers that may suggest they had a cosmology different from ours is not an error. It is what God intended to say as he testified to his promise. And his testimony is completely true.

My point is that if the doctrine of biblical inerrancy becomes a distraction from the purpose of the Scriptures, it has been misunderstood and misused.

b. When the Bible is read literalistically

I think that it is generally only opponents of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy who misuse the doctrine in this way. Of course literary genre and figures of speech must be recognized. If a figure of speech is misunderstood as a literal statement, the error is in the reader, not the Scripture. I do not know of any proponent of biblical inerrancy who denies this.

The problem is that sometimes we have to admit we are uncertain of genre, figures of speech and literary conventions in places in the Bible.

The debates about the Genesis accounts of creation are like that. Some want to say that the inerrancy of Scripture is denied if you do not believe in a literal six-day creation and a young earth. Others are less sure that the genre of Genesis 1-3 is literal historical narrative. This is not as straightforward as some on both sides often suggest. But the debate about the literary genre is not solved by arguments about the fossil record.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy does not tell us in advance the nature of the biblical literature. Is the story of Jonah—or of Job—history, parable, or something else? It may be completely consistent to conclude that Jonah is something other than a historical narrative, while holding firmly to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

In other words this doctrine is not a substitute for learning to read and understand the Bible according to its intention.

c. When the Bible is confused with our understanding of the Bible

Some people think that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a conservative doctrine. I have found it to be the opposite. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy—in itself—does not commit me to any particular historic Christian views, teachings or beliefs. In my experience, believers committed to biblical inerrancy are likely to challenge the status quo and question traditions, precisely because it is the Bible that is inerrant, not what I think or have been taught the Bible teaches.

If the inerrancy of the Bible is not the same thing as the inerrancy of my present understanding of that teaching, the same is true of the whole history of Christian thought, confessions of faith, and creeds. I am not suggesting some kind of arrogant individualism where we ignore the wisdom and faith of our brothers and sisters throughout history and think that we have nothing to learn from them. But they, like us, were all fallible human beings who make errors. We stand where they stood. We have the words of God, which alone we trust without reservation. God’s words teach and correct and rebuke both them and us.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy should not be used to give absolute authority to any human traditions or institutions, just because they claim to be biblical—or even because we think they are biblical.

2. What is the use of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy?

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy has led to many problems, difficulties and controversies. Some of the ways in which it has been advocated have led to many who love the Scriptures to be embarrassed by the doctrine. Some see it as anti-intellectual.

Perhaps a little of the heat might be taken out of the debate if the negative word ‘inerrancy’ were replaced with a positive word, like ‘truthfulness’. And I have some sympathy for that idea, so long as truthfulness is a synonym for inerrancy. My problem is with those who feel they can affirm truthfulness but can get away with denying inerrancy.

I want to mention three things that I believe the doctrine of biblical inerrancy should do for us.

a. Biblical inerrancy humbles us

As readers, hearers, and especially as teachers of the Bible, to understand and believe that the Bible is inerrant takes away from us the task of judging or assessing what this book says. Our task is to humbly listen, understand, believe, and teach.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy has become uncomfortable for some who want to urge us to take seriously the reality that the Bible is a human as well as a divine book. And of course it is true that the Bible is extraordinary for literature produced by human minds. Much of it is highly sophisticated writing, with wonderful beauty, exceptional creativity, and sheer cleverness—even when judged simply as the human work that it undoubtedly is. The more we understand the times, the cultures and the circumstances of the human writers, the more we can appreciate what they have written. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy, it is sometimes felt, bypasses all that and treats the Bible as though it is a book that has dropped from heaven.

Most of that is true. Nonetheless, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is, I believe, essential. For everything is lost if we forget that the Bible is a divine as well as a human book. The fact that God is speaking these words to me is in fact more important than the fact that Paul spoke these words to the Corinthians, or Moses to the Israelites. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is about the Bible being God’s words, and God never lying or making mistakes. To allow the undeniable humanity of Scripture to overshadow that is a mistake that reaps the havoc we now see in so much of western Christendom.

If you are a clever person, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a challenge—not because it is irrational, but because it makes your cleverness less important. If you are a creative person, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy might annoy you—not because the inerrant Bible is dull, but because your creativity is less significant. If you are a proud person, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy will certainly be a problem. This doctrine says that this book is not subject to your evaluation, it does not need your ingenuity, it does not bow to your superiority as a sophisticated 21st century intellectual. This ancient book is for you to hear, understand, and believe. Humbly.

If the doctrine of biblical inerrancy does that, it is doing its work.

b. Biblical inerrancy frees us

Contrary to the impression sometimes given, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is liberating and illuminating.

It follows from what I said above that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy frees us from bondage to human traditions—even worthy ones. It really is okay as we listen to the teaching of Scripture to question whether this or that church tradition or historic doctrine or confessional statement is true. That must be of course done humbly and carefully—even tentatively. But we expect human traditions to err—because we know that we all err.

“The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is liberating and illuminating.”

The same applies to the intellectual fads of our day—which can be intimidating. I am thinking particularly about so-called critical biblical scholarship that has produced most of the Bible commentaries of the last 150 years. To read the commentaries with a firm belief in the inerrancy of the Bible frees you to disagree with the clever commentators—not because you are more clever, but because the Bible is true.

c. Biblical inerrancy revolutionizes Christian leadership

Finally, what difference does believing in biblical inerrancy make to how we think about and how we exercise Christian leadership?

The first thing is that it must make a difference. Most of the thinking that gets people excited these days about leadership has come from studies and experiences in organizations, businesses and otherwise, which necessarily have a different dynamic to churches and Christian groups which have the Bible—the inerrant Bible.

We do not have to deny the value of the gifts God gives different people (abilities, personalities, intelligence, capacity, confidence, clarity of thought and expression, courage, originality, and so on). We do not have to pretend that some of these gifts are not useful in a Christian leader in certain situations. But the importance of such gifts is radically relativized if we have an inerrant Bible.

It means, for example, that Christians really must value humble faithfulness above cleverness in their leaders. I am not looking for a leader who has all the answers. I am looking for a leader who will walk with me under God’s word.

That is why character trumps giftedness in Christian leadership. The well-known list in 1 Timothy 3 is all about character. I wonder whether we really believe that?

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy means that it is always okay for any believer to approach any Christian leader, with Bible open, and question the ways of that leader. Of course, how that is done is important, and of course the person who does it must themselves be prepared to learn that they are wrong. But all of our leaders will err. Our confidence in them, and our expectations of them, must be qualified by the fact that it is the Bible that is inerrant.

For those of you in some position of Christian leadership: see if you can take this thinking further as you consider your position as both a leader and a follower of other believers. What difference does believing in biblical inerrancy make to how you respond to and exercise Christian leadership? What needs to change in your attitude or actions?

If our God is trustworthy, the perfect expression of faithfulness, then his word can be nothing other than inerrant. We may not comprehend or know how to comprehend it fully, but we are assured by his character that he has provided us with the truth, and with his help we can humbly live by his promises.

7 thoughts on “Biblical inerrancy revisted

  1. I found these articles very helpful, but I’m afraid there is still some doubt in my mind when it comes to insisting on the word “inerrant”, mainly because it is a bit tricky when it comes to definition. At present I will remain happy to stick to belief in verbal inspiration, the plenary inspiration of Scripture, the belief that it is God-breathed and that it is the only authority for theological belief.

  2. John Woodhouse is always such a careful and thoughtful communicator that I am loathe to raise a question about what he has written – especially on such an important subject.

    In Part 1 of his article he defines inerrancy to mean that “the Bible is without error” whereas as infalliility is that “which speaks of the unfailing effectiveness of the Bible to achieve it’s purpose.”

    However, then in Part II, section 1, subsection (a) he says that he believes that the Bible wrongly teaches a three-tiered universe but that this is not an “error” because “it is what God intended to say as he testified to his promise. And his testimony is completely true.” This seems to make his position on Scripture in the end more akin to “infallibility” than “inerrancy.”

    Note in particular John’s comment, “Did the Bible’s writers believe in a three-tiered universe? Possibly. Did God correct that understanding? Possibly not – if his PURPOSE was unaffected by it.”

    Then in the very next paragraph John concludes: “My point is that if the doctrine of biblical inerrancy becomes a distraction from the PURPOSE of the Scriptures, it has been misunderstood and misused.” So does the “purpose” (infallibility) triumph over the complete truthfulness (inerrancy) of Scripture?

    Debates regarding inerrancy, especially in North America with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, have been at pains to affirm the complete reliability of Scripture not just in conveying spiritual truth (purpose) but also in the scientific and historical details (inerrancy).

    I have the same issue and concern with what he says in section (b) regarding how we understand the accounts of creation as contained in Genesis. John states that “…the debate about the literary genre is not solved by arguments about the fossil record.” However, if the Bible is inerrant in not just it’s purpose but also it’s scientific and historical claims then surely it should be consistent with what we observe in the world? An even better way forward out of the hermeneutical condundrum of how to interpret Genesis 1-3 though would be to let Scripture interpret Scripture – and so be it’s own infallible and inerrant guide.

    This would also be pertinent for John’s assertion that it doesn’t matter whether the story of Jonah is “history, parable or something else.” The Lord Jesus definitely saw the prophet Jonah and his miraculous escape from death as not only historically accurate / real but also a paradigm for His own death and ressurrection (Matt 12:39-41).

    In short, John’s proposal – in keeping with his own definition of the terms – seems to allow one to say that they hold to inerrancy when in reality it is closer to the position of infallibility.

  3. Mark, two things.

    1. I don’t think you represented John Woodhouse fairly when you summarised him as saying, “that he believes that the Bible wrongly teaches a three-tiered universe…”.

    John expressly said that he does not think the Bible taught the three-tiered universe.

    Yes, he also added that if their language suggests they had a different cosmology from ours, it is not an error.

    Nevertheless I cannot see how your summary represents John fairly. Here is his relevant paragraph, again, in full…

    Did the Bible’s writers believe in a three-tiered universe? Possibly. Did God correct that understanding? Possibly not—if his purpose was unaffected by it. Does the Bible teach a three-tiered universe? I don’t think so. But the language of the writers that may suggest they had a cosmology different from ours is not an error. It is what God intended to say as he testified to his promise. And his testimony is completely true.

    2. The question about the complete reliability of the Bible regarding scientific and historical details still requires judgments to be made about exactly what truth claims are being made directly or incidentally (and with how much precision and accuracy intended) re. history and science, in various statements, in varying places and genres in Scripture. Genre, literary form and style are relevant matters in assessing these questions. And it seems that this is what John was emphasising.

    Nowhere did I see John admitting any error in Scripture in regards to what it truly says about any matter properly understood.

    • I think the position John takes is more definite than you suggest Sandy. He is choosing his words carefully but I think from what he has written that he is saying that the Bible teaches a three-tiered universe as a now obsolete understanding for conveying a timeless theological truth.

      It’s a bit like when Richard Dawkins and friends put together the slogan, “There probably is no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” That doesn’t mean that they were agnostics rather than atheists. The wording made the idea they were trying to get across more palatable. I still think a similar strategy is being employed in this regard. Just because you use the word “possibly” doesn’t mean that one’s own view on a matter cannot be clearly discerned.

      In regards to point two, I completely agree. However, I don’t think John is arguing about the literary genre of Genesis 1 in the quote you mention but an inaccurate view of the material universe.

      • Hi Mark,

        I think John is being very careful to NOT say the Bible “teaches” a three-tiered universe. He’s suggesting that the writers appear to have this view, and that apparently the Bible’s purpose doesn’t include correcting that view. That’s quite different to “teaching” it.

        Now of course I accept that from our western perspective a straightforward reading might make it appear that the Bible is teaching this, and this is the whole crux of the disagreement between Young Earth Creationists and pretty much everybody else. I can see this, and indeed many of my close friends are YECs and I really appreciate their desire to uphold the Bible, even if I struggle to agree with them on this precise point.

        I remember Broughton Knox used the illustration of a street directory. Its purpose is to show you how to get from A to B, and you have a right to expect it to be fully accurate for that purpose. But you don’t expect actual roads to be yellow or have writing down them, for example. To expect that would be to misuse the street directory. Those details are part of the way the directory presents the information, not the information itself. So is the three-tiered universe part of the presentation method, or part of the information? There’s plenty of room for disagreement here. The YECs might be right, or old-universe believers might be right, or we could all be wrong. We’re fallible.

  4. Respectfully, there is only a ‘problem’ with Genesis because so many in the Christian church feel the need to compromise with the secular world. Experts in ancient Hebrew seem to think it means what it says so there you go.

  5. To preface my comment, I have to say that agree with John that the issue of Biblical infallibility/inerrancy lies with the trustworthiness of God’s promises, and not with the historical accuracy per se, although the historical accuracy is very important because it is indicative of the reliability of the promises.

    So, I’m wondering, what about the promise made in Genesis 3: The Proto-Evangelium? Is the Bible not also – if not more so – ultimately about the fulfilment of *that* promise? The curse upon the serpent is a promise that the seed of a woman would crush the serpent.
    What did Jesus actually come into the world to do? Merely bless the world through Abraham? Or to take away sin and defeat death, once and for all? “[John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!'” (John 1:29).
    “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is, the devil – and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-5).

    Yes, Jesus came to bless all the world, as promised to Abraham, but He did this by fulfilling the even greater promise to us/curse on the serpent in Genesis 3:15 “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Which is finally fulfilled in Revelation 20:1-10 “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him… And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.”

    And the ultimate fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, in which Jesus is a blessing to the nations – in Revelation 21:23-6 – only comes about through the ultimate fulfilment of the curse upon the serpent in Rev 20:10 and the reversal of the curse on man in 21:4.

    So… in light of the Bible being not only God’s word, but his promise, I think denying the historicity of Genesis 1-3 results in the same problems we face (as John highlighted) in denying the inerrancy of any other part of scripture.

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