Editor’s note: This question and answer are taken, not from an actual question that came from a web site user, but from an exam question of a student in our ARS Apologetics Certificate Program (see the button for the apologetics certificate at the web site if you are interested in taking some of our classes or contact Jan at firstname.lastname@example.org) The student is Randy Hroziencik.
What would be your definition of inerrancy? Explain the basis for your definition, giving examples. Also, give an example of something in the Bible that an insufficiently nuanced definition of inerrancy might be used to claim a biblical error and explain, using your definition, why it is not an “error.”
Inerrancy is the claim that the Bible is without error in everything that it asserts. For me personally, that means everything that it asserts, be it theological-doctrinal truth claims and even “ancillary” statements related to history, geography, science, etc. However, inerrancy takes into account several major factors:
- The Bible that we have today is not the collection of autographs, but instead is a copy of a copy of a copy of the original writings, many times over. Regardless of that fact, however, the Bible has shown itself to be an accurate copy of the originals, at least as far back to the originals as we can get (which is incredibly close – only a few decades in some cases). However, in all fairness there are some verses and passages which seem to demonstrate scribal errors, especially regarding numbers (the number of Philistines that Samson slew with the jawbone of an ass seems to be one of those possible scribal errors).
- The Bible that we have today is a translation of the original languages: Hebrew, Aramaic (the minor player), and Greek. Some words and expressions do not easily translate from the original languages into today’s modern English (or other modern language) translations. The possible effect of that would be a misunderstanding of Scripture, or at least the loss of intended effect upon the reader.
- The Bible that we have today was originally written by people who held to an ancient Near Eastern, Semitic-Jewish worldview. Their mindset was, in many key ways, much, much different from ours in the West. For instance, holy writings with a basis in history may not have been written following strict historical chronologies, as we strive for today, but rather the ancient Near Eastern writer’s oftentimes arranged stories in the order of theological importance rather than strict chronological history, in order to stress a certain spiritual-doctrinal point. The modern Western reader typically finds that practice to be very disconcerting, however.
- The Bible uses various literary genres and other techniques of highlighting important matters, such as hyperbole, metaphor, and even myth (non-literal story). Many modern readers of the Bible, especially our fundamentalist friends, tend to read Scripture in a straightforward manner, in our modern English translation (and not-so-modern, in the case of the KJV which is very commonly used among fundamentalists), and hang onto every word quite literally. Needless to say, this is the basis for much doctrinal disagreement between believers.
- The Bible is, first and foremost, a theological statement about God, humanity, and the relationship between the two. The Bible (specifically Genesis 1-2) is not meant to be a scientific statement on origins, but rather a theological address of how everything began. Many Bible students, unfortunately, attempt to make Genesis 1-2 (and all verses related to creation) a scientific treatise. Big mistake.
Therefore, when I say that I believe that the Bible is inerrant in all that it asserts, I say that taking into account the above five statements. In other words, I’m not a fundamentalist and I’m not a neo-orthodox theologian (although I strongly consider myth in the Genesis prologue, as a neo-orthodox adherent would) but rather I am a neo-evangelical who tries to balance the ancient understanding of Scripture with the modern tools of biblical scholarship that allow us to properly read and interpret that ancient writing.
Many students of the Bible distinguish between full inerrancy and limited inerrancy. Full inerrancy is the claim that the Bible is without error regarding everything – be it spiritual matters (especially salvation-related issues) and even non-spiritual matters concerning history, geography, science, and so forth. On the other hand, limited inerrancy is the claim that the Bible is without error only in spiritual matters, particularly in matters related to salvation. For limited inerrantists, there may be “minor” errors related to history, geography, science – basically all non-salvific matters – but these do not detract from the truthfulness of the Bible. C.S. Lewis, perhaps the best-known apologist of the twentieth century and certainly the greatest of the literary apologists in modern times, held to varying degrees of inerrancy throughout Scripture. Although this fact alone does not make the case for limited inerrancy, it is fairly accurate to say that some verses or passages of Scripture do hold a greater practical value in terms of spiritual importance – and I can wholeheartedly accept that, regardless of the debate between complete and limited inerrancy. For me personally, I maintain that the Bible is inerrant, but I do not make a big distinction between complete and limited inerrancy; I have not yet come across any significant errors (other than some possible numeric errors and maybe a few possible scribal inclusions, etc.) which are “faith-shaking.” When one realizes that the autographs, which were the only truly inspired writings, would have been accurate, these possible insignificant errors seem pretty meaningless. None of the major, core doctrines of the faith are affected by the supposed inconsistencies in Scripture.
I have not yet found obvious, “in-your-face” scriptural contradictions – whether internal contradictions of paramount importance or external contradictions related to science, geography, history, etc. – when taking into account the above five factors. I have never had to perform “mental gymnastics” in order to hold to certain beliefs. I do struggle with a number of paradoxical issues such as divine predestination versus human free will and the goodness of God in the light of the overwhelming presence of evil in the world, but these are not contradictions but paradoxes.
If sound hermeneutics is not adhered to in the pursuit of biblical understanding – such as reading the text in the light of genre, paying attention to parable and metaphor, etc. – and instead one reads Scripture in a straightforward manner, through the worldview of a westernized modern person using an English translation and foregoes all of the key points of sound interpretation, a faulty understanding of the text is sure to follow. An example of a supposedly inerrant doctrine (when sound hermeneutics is avoided, that is) that is used against Christianity by skeptics is the insistence upon literal, 24-hour days in Genesis 1. The YEC crowd is quick to say that the only legitimate rendering of the Hebrew word for day (yom) is a solar, 24-hour day – which, in the overwhelming light of modern scientific discoveries, would put the Bible at odds with legitimate scientific discoveries. This is an example of “supposed” inerrancy that gets Christians into trouble. Although there are a few YEC scholars with a good grasp of Hebrew (i.e. Jonathan Sarfati, who is Jewish by ethnicity), the great number of Hebrew scholars tend toward an OEC or framework scenario for the days of creation. To insist that Genesis 1 is to be read literally (24-hour creation days) gets Bible-believers into trouble – both with skeptics and fellow believers (I’ve reluctantly had a few battles with YEC’s on this issue; in the words of the practical philosopher Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”) The days of Genesis do not have to be interpreted as 24-hour days (and should not be), but when a believer insists upon an OEC or theistic evolution scenario for creation he or she is chastised by literalists (YEC’s specifically and fundamentalists in general) for not being an inerrantist, and likewise is chastised by unbelieving skeptics for being foolish. The skeptics might be harsh toward the literalist, but most often they bundle all believers into the same camp; in fact, some skeptics will say that at least the literalist is being consistent in that he or she is reading the Bible as it is written, since they also do not understand the role of hermeneutics and assume a literal reading of Scripture themselves.