1. Is “inerrancy” biblical?
The term inerrancy is not found in Scripture, nor is it remotely clear that what has often in the past been defined as the doctrine of inerrancy is anywhere indicated in the Bible itself. Of course, perhaps the doctrine of inerrancy is like the doctrine of the Trinity: we do not find it in the Bible, but the doctrine is itself soteriologically necessary in order to protect what the Bible does affirm throughout—viz. that Jesus Christ achieved salvation for humanity. The question then presents itself: is the doctrine of inerrancy actually necessary? Do we need this doctrine in order to protect the other affirmations in the Bible? This, it seems to me, is the crucial question. Defenders of the doctrine must show that inerrancy—whatever they mean by this term—is a necessary doctrine. Critics of the doctrine believe it to be unnecessary for a variety of possible reasons. I, for one, think it is unnecessary simply because there are other ways of articulating the trustworthiness of Scripture. Moreover, the history of the doctrine demonstrates the shaky foundations upon which it rests.
2. Is “inerrancy” superfluous?
The term inerrancy is generally distinguished from infallibility in a way that makes the former term either superfluous or deeply problematic. For those who are trying to redeem the word, what exactly is being redeemed? Why is “infallibility” not sufficient? What is captured by “inerrancy” that is not captured by any other word? Furthermore, while most recognize the inherent problems with a negative term (not-errant vs. trustworthy), the recent attempts to redeem and maintain the doctrine of biblical inerrancy presuppose that we need to hold on to this antiquated, negative term rather than seek something more theologically appropriate.
To get a sense for what the term “inerrant” means in more traditional doctrines of Scripture, see the doctrinal statement for Multnomah Bible College in Portland, Ore. I’ve emphasized the most relevant statements:
We believe that God is revealed in creation, in the Holy Scriptures, and in Jesus Christ, the apex of revelation. The Scriptures, all sixty-six Old and New Testament books, are divinely authoritative in all they affirm. (Ps. 19:1-6; Heb. 1:1-2; John 17:17)The doctrinal statement for MBC demonstrates exactly why some think inerrancy is necessary while others think it is superfluous. The statement speaks of infallibility in relation to the Bible’s trustworthiness and truthfulness (with which I definitely agree) and of inerrancy in relation to the Bible’s factual character. No indication is given as to why the factual inerrancy of the Bible is of any importance whatsoever. If the Bible is truth and trustworthy, why does it need to be factually inerrant? The two are not mutually dependent upon each other; the creation story can be true without being factually correct in terms of how the universe historically and scientifically came into existence.
We believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture. This means the Holy Spirit dynamically superintended the verbal expressions of the human authors of Scripture so that the very thoughts God intended were accurately penned in the wording of the original manuscripts. (2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:20-21; 1 Cor. 2:13)
We believe the Scripture is inerrant as to fact and infallibly trustworthy as to truth, and should be interpreted in context to ascertain each author’s intended meaning. Our present Bible continues to bear the final authoritative instruction of God for the church and the world. (John 10:35b; Ps. 19:7; Matt. 5:17-18)
It seems that inerrancy is only necessary as a way of “protecting” (which is no protection at all) the Bible (1) from historical-critical methods and (2) from modern science. The first is the more important of the two and looms largest in the history of biblical interpretation. The formation of the doctrine of inerrancy can be traced directly back to the origin of modern historical-critical methods of interpretation. The second is connected with the former, in that modern interpretation is indebted to a greatly enlarged view of science and history. The assumption of many scholars is that what we know about the world today the authors of the Bible certainly did not know, and we cannot simply assume that they know better than we simply because they are “inspired” and writing a document that is both true and trustworthy. Modern science thus provides us with information about our world that we need not jettison in order to uphold the centrality of Scripture, but we also need not jettison the Bible in order to appropriately recognize the insights of science. In the end, where one comes down on the doctrine of inerrancy will depend upon your position vis-à-vis (1) and (2). If you think historical-critical interpretation and modern science both have importance and value for biblical scholarship (or scholarship in general), then the doctrine of inerrancy loses its importance. If, on the other hand, these are things to be feared and avoided, then a doctrine of inerrancy is certainly the historically favored way to “protect” the Bible.
There is quite a bit more in the MBC statement that deserves mention. In particular, I remain perplexed regarding the statement’s attempt to uphold dual authorship. I affirm the notion of God’s superintention of Scripture; with John Webster, I would locate this in a doctrine of providence. But things become dicey when the statement goes on to say that “the very thoughts God intended were accurately penned in the wording of the original manuscripts.” If this is all the statement said, things would be simpler; MBC would be advocating a kind of dictation theory of Scripture. But the statement goes on in the next paragraph to say that Scripture “should be interpreted in context to ascertain each author’s intended meaning.” Something doesn’t quite fit. The statement does not affirm merely dual authorship but dual intentionality: divine intention (which was accurately penned by the author’s) and human intention (which must be interpreted in context). Any attempt to escape the dilemma by saying that this doctrine only truly applies to the “original manuscripts” will find no sympathy from me. Nobody exegetes the original manuscripts; we exegete the Bible that we have in our hands today. MBC must be aware of this, since they speak of “our present Bible.” It seems to me that, on the face of things, we have a conflict between a divine intention that (apparently) determines even the “verbal expressions of the human authors” and human intentions that must be interpreted in context. Must we assume then that the human authors’ intentions are perfectly aligned with God’s intentions? Is this what was superintended by the Spirit? Or are the human intentions responsible for the aberrations and changes within the text’s history, and thus the point of biblical scholarship is to reach God’s intentions behind the human author’s intentions?
The statement seems to be attempting two things at once: (1) an affirmation that everything written in the Bible is “inerrant as to fact and infallibly trustworthy as to truth,” and (2) an affirmation that human authors were truly human and not simply puppets of God. Now according to my wife, who attended MBC, some professors went so far as to say that God wrote the Bible but used human writers in order to communicate; human authorship on this account borders on dictation. The Bible is thus a lot like Christ: a divine subject who assumes human flesh. Other professors, though, recognize that the Bible is indeed a human document, but are nevertheless compelled to affirm that the Bible is still inerrant as to fact. We are still faced with a conflict. How are God’s intentions verbally communicated in the Bible through human authors and yet the human author’s own intentions are also communicated—ones that are not simply equatable with God’s intentions? How do we avoid collapsing human intentions into divine intentions? How does God not end up overwhelming human agency, thus effectively erasing the human presence from Scripture altogether? In other words, I fail to see how a doctrine of inerrancy like this prevents the logical collapse of dual authorship into divine authorship. I do not see any feasible way for human intentionality to remain human without either being itself superintended by Scripture (in which case it is not human) or being in conflict with God’s intentions.
What all doctrines of Scripture depend upon, in the end, is a robust doctrine of the concursus dei—a doctrine of God’s accompaniment of human action. Karl Barth devotes considerable attention to this doctrine in Church Dogmatics III/3 (§49). Here he outlines how God accompanies humanity as the Lord who affirms the autonomous actions of the human person by opening up space within the covenant of grace for humans to act freely. God precedes, accompanies, and follows human action as the Lord who loves in freedom. God does not override human action but opens up the “stage” (to use Balthasar’s metaphor from Theo-Drama) upon which humanity may act. This is how I would understand the superintention of the Spirit: not as a lightning bolt from heaven but as part of the divine accompanying, and thus not within the doctrine of Scripture but within the doctrine of providence. Any attempt to articulate a doctrine of inerrancy—old or new—must attend to the doctrine of the concursus dei.
3. A practical inerrancy?
As Multnomah Biblical Seminary professor Paul Louis Metzger pointed out in his after-dinner talk at the Karl Barth Conference, Karl Barth may have rejected inerrancy, but he was a “practical inerrantist” in the way he faithfully exegeted Scripture. I think this is quite right. George Hunsinger pointed out in the Q&A session at the end of the conference that just because you have the highest doctrine of Scripture possible does not mean you are actually doing anything with Scripture. Barth at least proved that he held the Bible in the highest possible regard as the supremely authoritative witness to Jesus Christ.
Along similar lines, Chris Tilling has quite nicely replaced a propositional doctrine of Scripture’s truthfulness with a practical doctrine: “I seek to explain what I mean by inerrancy through my daily practices and inner and communal posture towards scripture.” Here we have stated in written form what I think Barth achieved in his own life: an orthopraxis of inerrancy, one that affirms the truthfulness of Scripture not by setting down strict propositions but through faithful obedience to the Word of God in life and practice. I take this to be a positive development, but it raises the obvious question: will any traditional proponent of inerrancy find this notion sufficient? I suspect not, because a practical inerrancy offers no “protection” against the historical-critical method or modern science.
4. Final thoughts
4.1. What is the relation between inerrancy and the other doctrines of the faith? The question of the Bible has generally been isolated from the other loci, at least in discussions of inerrancy. What is its relation to other doctrines? I have noted the importance of providence above, but this is just a start. If inerrancy is as essential as many Christians seem to think it is, then it must have some bearing on the gospel or be implicated by the gospel in some sense. Is this in fact the case? Or can we achieve all that we need from a doctrine of the Bible in another less contentious manner?
4.2. Why is the relation between Scripture and history? This is a pressing question that needs to be addressed. The single best account I know of is by Hans Frei in The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative. How many inerrantists have read this? How many have engaged Barth’s own wrestling with history and Scripture in his own exegesis (which Frei upholds as a model of the best kind of biblical interpretation)? Moreover, what is gained by insisting so strongly on the historicity of the OT narratives (“inerrant as to fact”)?
4.3. Dynamic infallibilism? Bruce McCormack has a magnificent essay entitled “The Being of Holy Scripture Is in Becoming: Karl Barth in Conversation with American Evangelical Criticism” that was given at a Wheaton Theology Conference several years ago and can be found in Evangelicals & Scripture: Tradition, Authority and Hermeneutics, ed. Vincent Bacote, Laura C. Miguelez, and Dennis L. Okholm (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 55-75. In terms of alternative proposals to inerrancy, I do not think there is a better option than McCormack’s “dynamic infallibilism,” which affirms Barth’s point that Holy Scripture “becomes” the Word of God through the dynamic agency of the Spirit in awakening us to the self-revelation of God in Jesus Christ witnessed to through the biblical text. McCormack’s position affirms a christological analogy, in which Scripture is fully human and fully divine, but in a dynamic rather than static sense. This proposal holds the most promise for evangelicals, in that it stresses the personal presence of the triune God working in, with, and under the text, but never confined to the text as a static object. The Bible thus has its being-in-becoming, just as God’s being is in becoming.
4.4. What is the future of inerrancy? Inerrancy was born in the heyday of modern biblical scholarship, Marxist rhetoric against religion, evolutionary biology, Freudian undermining of faith, and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversies. We live in a different age today. Is the doctrine of inerrancy worth redeeming? Is there still life left in this doctrine for future generations? Moreover, are we right to perpetuate a negative doctrine that simply defends against attacks? Should we not rather articulate a positive doctrine that explicates and conforms to the gospel of Jesus Christ? In the end, it seems to me that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is either unbiblical and theologically problematic or it is superfluous. So which is it? And is there a better way?
See also: “Literal or Liberal: Our only choices for interpreting the Bible?” at An Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution. This is an excellent post that seeks to get beyond the false dichotomies that often plague conversations about the Bible.