What is your position on biblical inerrancy?


We had a class on this topic in September in San Diego. There is a power point and outline at the web site you can look at. 

My view on inerrancy starts with my view on inspiration. I believe the Bible is inspired by God. The inspiration of the Bible is an unquestioned biblical doctrine. 2 Tim 3:16 and several other passages give very clear statements. Besides, the overwhelming evidence is that the Bible is inspired by God. I believe in verbal inspiration. In other words, the Bible is inspired down to the very words (tense, singlular vs plural, etc.) used. I believe this because it is apparent that Jesus did as well. He made arguments based on the tense of a verb. For example, Jesus used the Old Testament statement about Jehovah being the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob. Because the verb is in the present tense, Jesus reasoned from scripture that Jehovah is the God of the living not the dead. He said, "Before Abraham was born, I AM." Paul arugued in Galatians on the fact that Abraham’s seed is singular, not plural. The key issue is inspiration, and I believe the biblical doctrine of inspiration is on rock solid ground.

One’s definition of inerrancy depends on the solid doctrine of inspiration. I also believe in the Bible being inerrant. However, the definition of inerrancy will inevitably be a difficult one to tie down. First of all, there are the errors in copying and translating. Therefore, even if the autograph is completely error-free, what we read is not. This sort of error is not completely avoidable, no matter what we do.

In addition there are many kinds of "errors" (which are, in fact, not errors) in the Bible which can challenge our definition of inerrancy if we are not very nuanced in our definition. For example, the man born blind in John 9 says that "we know that God does not hear the prayers of sinners." That is not true. God does listen to them. This is an "error," depending on one’s definition. In the context, we have an uninspired person speaking. Also, I believe that the dialogue in the gospels and the Old Testament books are almost certainly not always word-for-word transcripts of actual conversations. We can assume that when Matthew put together the Sermon on the Mount, he took material from various discourses by Jesus. We can assume, because the Bible is inspired by God, that this is a faithful rendering of what Jesus taught. They are not word-for-word. I doubt that a particular conversation of Jehosaphat in 2 Kings is a word-for-word transcript. I say that as long as what is written is an inspired and faithful rendering of the sense of what happened, then, according to Jewish norms, this would be inerrant. However, someone might require an unnatural kind of inerrancy, so that every single quote of every single character in the Bible is an exact word-for-word transcript. I feel this is not a reasonable expectation.

Another example which some might call "error" but which I believe is not an error (at least by my definition of inerrancy) is lack of perfect chronology. In other words, John may not be, in every case, strictly chronological in describing the events of the life of Jesus. He may have moved events around for thematic purposes. According to Jewish conventions of literature, this would not be thought an "error" but a modern, Western mindset may say this is an error. Another possible source of "error" would be if a biblical writer estimated or rounded off. For example, if a writer said that there were 8000 soldiers killed in a battle, but the actual number was 7954, would that be an error? By an overly and unnecessarily strict definition of inerrancy, some might say that this would be an error. I say that if God chooses to have his author estimate or round off, this is not an error. If the Bible says that Moses was in the desert for 40 years, what if it was, in fact, 39.2 years. Is that an error? I say no. The forty is an approximation.

Another kind of "error" which is, in fact, not an error according to a wise and careful definition of inerrancy is when a biblical writer or a person being quoted uses a figure of speech or symbolic language. For example, when Jesus says that "out of the heart a man speaks," this is not an error. Technically, we speak out of our lungs, through our vocal cords. Besides the "heart" he is talking about–our emotional center– is not located in the physical organ known as the heart. Biblical writers use hyperbole, especially in poetic writings like the psalms. David said, "against you, you only, have I sinned" in Psalm 51. Technically, this is an "error." David sinned against Uriah and Bathsheeba. We need to understand the context and the type of literature before deciding a matter. Here, David is speaking from his heart, not giving a doctrinal statement.

These examples show that coming up with a hard-and-fast definition of biblical inerrancy is very difficult. It seems that I have offered so many exceptions that the definition of biblical inerrancy is not even a real doctrine. I do not believe that this is the case. For example, the Bible says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. If he was not, in fact, born in Bethlehem, that would constitute an error for sure!! There are no theological or doctrinal errors in the Bible, when properly understood and interpreted. Clear points of fact in the Bible cannot be untrue by my definition of inerrancy. If Jesus actually chose fourteen apostles, that would be an error. If David did not live or if he was not king or if he did not have a son named Absolom, that would be a biblical error. If Jesus did not raise Jarius’ daughter from the dead (for example she only appeared to be dead), then that would be an error. If Jesus does not come back at the end of time, that would be an error as well (although a hard one to prove right now!). In fact, a wise and careful definition of biblical inerrancy is a very strong standard. To summarize, I believe that the autographs (the original biblical writings) are absolutely and fully inspired and inerrant. The definition of the former is straightforward, but the definition of the latter requires very careful consideration. The Bible cannot sustain a sledge-hammer, unnuanced kind of definition of inerrancy. Nor ought it to do so. Otherwise it would lose much of its power and usefulness (with its beautiful imagery, parables, symbolism and so forth.)

John Oakes

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